One With the Oceans: Sailing Across the Pacific by Dugout Canoe

Excerpt from the book The Next Distant Sea by James Baldwin

Open Boat Adventure

Argentine adventurer Alberto Torroba crosses the Pacific by dugout sailing canoe

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Ave Marina, the 15-foot dugout sailing canoe which crossed the Pacific

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Alberto Torroba, The Elemental Man

While spending the sultry summer typhoon season of 1992 in Hong Kong, I stood on Atom’s deck one afternoon as an unusual homemade catamaran slowly tacked its way upwind into the anchorage. Intrigued, the next morning I rowed over in my dinghy to meet 41-year-old Alberto Torroba and his new wife, Rebecca Benocilla. They had just sailed their engineless and unnamed 26-foot plywood and bamboo boat here from the then Portuguese colony of Macau after an incredible passage of over 1,000 miles from the southern Philippines and across the South China Sea. I was awed to discover they had no navigational instruments aboard, not even a compass.

In fact, their boat was free from just about all the modern equipment and comforts considered essential to long-distance passage making. They had no life raft, no transmitting radio, not even a receiver. The boat had no electronic instruments or electricity whatsoever. Installed forward between the hulls was a remarkable peddle/paddle system that could be lowered between the hulls to serve as auxiliary “power” for moving about in calm harbors. The tall, lean, long-haired Alberto demonstrated the considerable thrust of this device by pedaling us through the anchorage. It certainly wasn’t fast, but it did make good use of human anatomy by utilizing the greater power of his legs than what he could generate with arms on a sculling oar.

Before the catamaran voyage, Alberto had sailed alone across the Pacific from Panama to the Philippines. That’s remarkable enough. However, what made his voyage truly amazing is that his vessel was a 15-foot open dugout canoe carved from a single tree. Two years after beginning that epic voyage, he found himself on a remote island of the Philippines, married to Rebecca, the daughter of a local fisherman. Alberto built his catamaran there on the beach, utilizing local lumber, plywood, and bamboo. Together in the new catamaran they completed his voyage to China.

There I was admiring how minimalist a sailor I thought myself to be and then I met Alberto who is about as elemental as a man can be. During the next few months in Hong Kong, I became close friends with Alberto and Rebecca as we shared our stories over dinners aboard Atom. They were an impressing couple. Alberto is one of the truly free spirits in this world, embodying the essence of the minimalist mindset. The ego is naturally filled with fear. It stops most of us from taking that step into the unknown. Alberto, it was obvious, had been constructed differently. He was not one to follow trends or seek advice. He retained the eyes-wide-open wonder of a child combined with an adult’s understanding and a fearless spirit of discovery. To capture his story, I knew I must interview him on his terms and open myself to his unique faith and spirit.

I learned from Alberto that he had grown up working on his family’s ranch in Argentina. In his early twenties, he turned his back on the confining rancher’s life to explore the world in small boats. He described himself as “vagabond and adventurer by profession.” Over a period of several years he nearly circumnavigated South America in a variety of open-decked, purely sail-powered local fishing boats. He became highly skilled in handling the vulnerable little vessels in all sea conditions. Next, he went on to cross the South Pacific in a 24-foot engineless sloop. After that, he rounded New Guinea, the largest tropical island in the world, in a 19-foot outrigger canoe.

His quest to again cross the world’s widest ocean began when he walked into Panama’s Darien jungle to select a tree for his boat. With the help of native canoe-maker Esteban Chavez, he chose a single aspave tree, felled it, and shaped the five-foot diameter trunk into a hull with a slight keel carved into the bottom. He carved a rudder to hang on the stern and fitted a raked bamboo mast with a large mainsail and a smaller jib. Next he fit a deck to the bow under which he stored his few provisions and gear. Finally, he carved a set of oars to propel the canoe in a calm and a backup set of smaller paddles that he lashed into place to double as poles for a sun awning. He christened the boat Ave Marina (Spanish for “Sea Bird”).

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Track of Ave Marina across the Pacific

Alberto had been forced to abandon his first attempt at a Pacific crossing in a similar boat a year before, when extended calms and contrary currents in the Gulf of Panama bedeviled him for 24 days. He managed to paddle back to shore just as he ran out of food and water. That experience would have dispirited a less determined man. Undaunted, he built another boat of improved design while waiting for the steadier winds of January, and then set off again on the 900-mile passage to the Galapagos Islands.

 

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Zenith Star

To navigate, he used methods similar to those employed by the ancient Polynesians when they explored and settled the islands of the Pacific. With his accumulated knowledge of the stars, winds and currents, and the habits of sea birds, he found his way from island to island unaided (or impeded, as Alberto would say) by modern technology. The hand-held compass he carried at the beginning of the trip was lost along with his sole chart of the Pacific and most of his supplies during a capsize just four days out from the Galapagos Islands. Being forced to navigate without a compass, he said, “opened a new dimension in my mind.” He never bothered to replace it. His sole navigational tools were a bob line (a string with a small lead weight on one end), used to sight stars at their zenith, and a keen sense of observation that few other sailors possess.

Although longitude was as unavailable to Alberto as it had been to ancient Polynesian navigators, he did have a method to determine his latitude. “The way I calculate latitude,” he explained, “is to find a star whose zenith passes directly over the island I’m heading for. All you need to know is the latitude of your destination and the declination of the star, and I had memorized all the prominent navigational stars’ declinations from a celestial navigation book. To measure the angle of that star, I lie on my back on the floor of the boat, looking at the sky with one eye just below the lead of the bob line. The string will point to the zenith. The bob line moves like a pendulum as the boat rolls, but after some practice the error is usually less than half a degree, or 30 nautical miles.”

On his passage from Panama to the Galapagos he used the three stars in the belt of the constellation Orion because their declinations equaled the latitudes along his route. As he described it: “For example, when the star Alnilam, which has a declination of 1 degree 12 minutes south, was directly overhead, I knew that I had crossed the equator. If I pointed the bow of my canoe west and kept going on this latitude, sooner or later I would hit the Galapagos.” That is exactly what happened 20 days after he had left Panama.

When at sea, Alberto existed mostly on his homemade granola, coconuts, lemons, and dried fruit, supplemented by fish that he caught and ate raw or sun-dried. He also carried a small butane camping stove at the beginning of the trip but used it rarely because of his limited fuel supply. Several times, though, the food ran out, and a gnawing hunger drove him to eat the gooseneck barnacles he pulled off the bottom of the canoe. His water supply at the beginning of each passage consisted of 20 gallons in jugs. Once that was gone his life depended entirely on the uncertain amount of rain water he might collect. When possible, he rigged a plastic sheet for protection from the sun, which he describes as the major enemy of the man in an open boat. That same sheet collected rainwater whenever possible. His body and willpower were as hard as the bare six-foot board laid in the bottom of the canoe that served as his working, living, and sleeping space.


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Point of No Return; Moonlight Capsize

The Galapagos Islands were a point of no return as he noted in the journal that he loaned me: “A very old dream of mine is expected to be fulfilled. Nothing matters now but to cross this ocean. There is no other way out of here. Neither the Peru Current nor the trade winds will permit me to turn back. Next stop is French Polynesia, 3,000 miles away.”

In moderate winds he could sometimes balance the canoe’s sails to steer itself by running the jib sheet through tackle blocks to the tiller. At other times he hand-steered for long hours or simply let the boat drift downwind while he rested. Once he entered the region of the southeast trade winds as he left the Galapagos, he improved his speed by lashing the center of the boom to the mast and using it to attach his mainsail almost like running downwind under spinnaker. Without any fixed ballast he constantly had to use his body weight to balance the canoe to prevent capsizing. Nevertheless, disaster occurred four days after leaving the Galapagos when a jammed halyard in a rising wind caught him off balance.

His journal recounts the ordeal: “Ave Marina heeled until she was full of water and then slowly rolled over until she was upside down. I was desperate to do something but didn’t know what to do. A couple of attempts to upright the boat ended with the boat capsizing on the other side. All my dreams and possessions floated away under the feeble light of a waning moon. Everything was gone. What remained were two cans of water, some granola, and a fishing line.

“When I pulled out the mast and lashed it alongside, the canoe would sit upright, but because the dense wood of the canoe was still wet and green it lay with the gunwales nearly awash. I did not even have a bucket to bail with. The sea was not rough—it had the usual swell—so to wait for the sea to get calmer was useless. For hours I scooped water with a plank of wood, and always a breaking sea would fill it full again. I bailed even faster. When I was exhausted I knew that my task was impossible. A cold and silent sensation pervaded my body and soul. I lay in the flooded canoe as if in a full bathtub, to take my weight off her. Everything seemed hopeless. So, I just waited and calmed myself.

“Later I noticed that by placing the backs of my shoulders against the stern and balancing my weight carefully I could retard the interval of when a wave would wash over the boat. The canoe rolled less as it turned to face the wind, with my head sticking out to watch for coming waves. I felt that by concentrating more on balance than on bailing speed it might be possible. To make a bucket I was forced to sacrifice one of the two remaining water jugs. After drinking as much water from the jug as possible, I poured the rest into the sea. I bailed more slowly, concentrating more on balance and direction of the boat than on bailing speed. I passed the bailer over my head and over the stern to avoid the sideways motions that scooped in more water. All through the morning I bailed, and over and over again the boat refilled. Eventually a moment came when the canoe was half empty. I stood up and finished the bailing with an enthusiasm I had never experienced before. Finally, when the boat was dried out and sailing again my spirits soared. I promised myself never again to fly the mainsail like a spinnaker.

“I remembered that my original idea had been to cross the Pacific in an open canoe, but I was afraid to do so. Now I had my empty canoe and had been abruptly brought to the state of a primitive man. I laughed and shouted nonsense to the wind. I was happy, and I realized that happiness is a feeling that depends on neither success nor failure. It is a movable thing that depends on whether you are going uphill or downhill, regardless of where you are on the hill.”

While rationing his last five gallons of water (supplemented with sips of salt water) and nibbling at his last bag of granola, he kept sailing west. Eight days later, a welcome rain shower arrived, permitting him to top up his two jugs with ten gallons of rain water. His physical sufferings continued, though. In this area of infrequent rain, the water rationing continued. He only caught an occasional fish to supplement his bag of granola. He slept poorly because the lighter boat rolled more now that most of his water and gear, which had acted as ballast, had floated away. Lying on the uneven floor that was missing several planks caused his back to become more and more wracked with pain. He found that his bag of acupuncture needles had survived the capsize and used them in an attempt to displace energy from the lungs to the kidneys. As his journal stated: “Air was available and first class (for the lungs); water was the challenge (for the kidneys). I also did yoga postures every morning to keep myself physically fit.”

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Days Become Waves

“I decided not to count the days anymore. The solar calendar, having been calculated, is not something we can feel. I started with the sun in Aquarius and the moon a day after full; if I was going to find the Marquesas it was going to be by feeling, not by thinking. The Marquesas were at my sunset, between Alphard and Spica, about one moon away. This is what I call real sailing.”

Ave Marina lumbered along westward at her best speed of about 3-4 knots with steady easterly winds. Alberto recounted, “My granola was already gone, but because the shock of the capsizing had been so powerful and because I had overcome it, I felt invulnerable to all negative events. I was optimistic that I was going to make it, and beyond this thought nothing else counted. My problems were little ones now.

“The days passed one after the other in the normal trade wind pattern. I felt the universe as a constantly moving thing: waves, wind, sun, moon, stars, and my own motion. We were all going to the Marquesas, to the west. I felt myself as a part of the universe more strongly than I had ever felt before. When I thought of my distant past, sometimes it felt as though it had happened a minute ago—sometimes an eternity of lifetimes ago.

“I was thirsty and hungry. Fish refused to bite my hooks. Now and again I jumped into the water and collected a handful of gooseneck barnacles from the bottom of my canoe, frying them in the coconut oil I used to protect my skin. I had caught only one small dorado and a flying fish on this passage. One day of many—they were no longer separated by date—I caught a bonito. The first day I ate much of it raw, drying the rest of it in the sun. The next day I ate a lot of it dried, and as I was on very low water rations its digestion dehydrated me. I had a horrible headache, and then I vomited, trembling helplessly at the bottom of my boat until I lost consciousness. At midnight I woke up as if nothing had happened. I threw the rest of the fish overboard.

“After the first month at sea I was exhausted; hunger and thirst had me looking far on the horizon for signs of land. I kept sailing on, with Spica—the latitude of Fatu Hiva—nearly over my head.”

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Samaritan Salvation; The Hero of Fatu Hiva

One day he saw a sail in the east and altered course to meet it. When he got alongside he saw it was the yacht Shibumi, with an American couple and their daughter aboard that Alberto had known in the Galapagos. They reefed their sails to allow Ave Marina to keep up while they prepared a bag of food and water to give to the starving sailor. They informed Alberto that the island he was aiming for lay 100 miles ahead. Alberto drank large amounts of water and voraciously ate the entire bag of food that same day.

A day and a half later, 44 days out of the Galapagos, he made landfall at the fabled tropical volcanic island of Fatu Hiva in French Polynesia. During the two weeks Alberto was on the island he was feted by the local people who made every effort to help him gather the things he needed to repair his boat and provision for the next leg of his trip. In a quest to simplify his life with even fewer possessions, much of the lost equipment, such as the compass, was never replaced.

As he continued his journey across the Pacific, he stopped at numerous islands, to the general astonishment of the native people. To see a white man appear from over the horizon in a canoe was an almost unbelievable sight. Since the islanders had lost their ancestor’s traditional navigation skills, Alberto was their hero for showing them that the art had not been entirely lost. In every case, at each island and village, the local people befriended him, taking him into their homes for a meal and a few nights of undisturbed sleep.

Having regained his strength, he departed the Marquesas for the Tuamotus Archipelago. These low coral atolls 400 miles away were notorious for being difficult to distinguish from sea, and for the strong currents running out the narrow passes into their lagoons. This passage was marked by constant strong winds he judged to be blowing at 30 knots. Breaking waves kept him awake balancing the canoe to prevent another capsize. The spray soaked him through with a chill that was only partly relieved by the warming, nearly nonstop work of bailing water out of the bottom of the canoe. On his fifth day of misery he spotted a smudge of coconut trees on the horizon. From his chart he concluded that the island was likely Makemo Atoll. His body yearned for a quiet anchorage to rest, but he was unable to enter the channel in the boiling waves. He did find a buoy outside the reef on the atoll’s lee side where he tied off Ave Marina and fell into an uneasy sleep as the canoe pitched and rolled in the ocean swell.

The next day, the wind lessened. Partly rested but still exhausted, he sailed overnight to Tahanea Atoll where he managed to enter the lagoon after a struggle to paddle and then wade along the sharp edge of the reef pass, dragging the canoe with a rope. Inside the lagoon he beached Ave Marina off an abandoned village on the uninhabited island. He spent a glorious week there, resting and eating giant coconut crabs roasted over a driftwood fire on the beach. He swam in the lagoon and took fresh-water showers from the spout of a cistern tank. Feeling completely recovered, he moved on to other atolls and finally to Tahiti.

In Tahiti’s busy capital city Papeete, Alberto was hounded by visitors and journalists eager to hear his stories of navigating an open boat across the Pacific. He soon felt overwhelmed and moved on to the quieter islands of Moorea and then Raiatea. On Raiatea he removed the boom to make the mainsail loose-footed after it had wacked him so hard he nearly ended up in the hospital. On the next passage his mast broke in strong winds and he had to return to the island to make repairs. Then he stopped in Bora Bora just to check his mail, but there was none.

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The Body Magnetic

Remarkably, Alberto always made landfall at the islands he was aiming for. When his guiding star brought him to within 30 miles of an island he would then locate it by observing clouds, the movements of sea birds, and the subtle motion of reflected waves bouncing back off the island. The average sailor is blind to these hidden waves. There is no class you can take or anything anyone can say to help you master it. Our navigational equipment and the numerous comforts on our big modern yachts preclude us from crossing this barrier. These things are only learned and understood after long hours of concentration by a person in an open boat whose very survival depends on correctly interpreting nature’s signs. Those who never enter nature’s harsh school will never learn; those who fail the course die.

In the open sea without a compass or landmark, Alberto relied foremost on the sun and stars to guide the way, but sometimes overcast skies and shifting winds caused disorientation. “I remembered that animals and migratory birds can sense magnetic poles,” he said. “In one instance, when I had no other means for finding direction, I closed my eyes and rotated my body slowly through 360 degrees again and again. Somehow I found that when facing a certain direction I had a different feeling, a sort of calmness. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, I took it as being south. I kept sailing to what I assumed was west and when the sky finally cleared one night I found that I had been sailing exactly west. Several times I tried this and it always worked. But it takes very strong concentration.”

Perhaps Alberto had found a vestigial internal compass similar to what salmon and certain migratory birds use to find direction. The rest of us may scoff at the idea, but we are too divorced from nature ever to come close to this level of sensory awareness. Today’s navigators know only what is displayed on their chart plotter or in a pinch might be capable of matching the swinging compass dial to the numbers printed on the chart.

The decisive test for Albertos’ navigation technique occurred when he left Bora Bora for Suwarrow Atoll, 500 miles away. Suwarrow is small and remote, a mere speck among specks in the 63 million square miles of Pacific Ocean. If only a few miles off course, he would miss it. After seven day’s sailing, during which he had troublesome shifting winds and occasional calms, a star in the constellation of Capricorn sighted at the end of his bob line indicated he might be near the island.

His journal recounts: “The next evening some frigate birds passed close by, and I was sure they were on their way home to Suwarrow. Frigate birds are the most reliable birds for land finding. Very seldom will they venture more than 50 miles from land, and if they do you will only see one, not a group. Terns and boobies have a good reputation for leading lost fishermen back to land, but I do not trust them entirely. I have seen them hundreds of miles from land and in groups.

“The main message from birds lies in the way they fly. When a bird is fishing he flies erratically. You will understand very soon that he is not going anywhere. The best time to watch bird patterns is early in the morning or late in the evening. In the morning a booby will be flying from one side to another, but always progressing in a certain direction. If after that you see another one doing the same thing, you can be virtually sure that land is in the opposite direction. A frigate bird flying high and straight in the evening is going home.

“As I was following these frigate birds, three terns flew by in a different direction, and I became doubtful. But it was about 20 frigates against three terns, so I disregarded the terns. When I didn’t sight land when I expected to I also noticed that the waves still had their regular shape, indicating that I was already passing the island some distance away. If I had been to windward of the island I would have felt the interference of the waves bouncing back off the island. I altered course to the southwest, unable to explain why, just that I sensed the island was in that direction. And a few hours later Suwarrow appeared directly off the bow.”

Alberto was dismayed to find Suwarrow was no longer an uninhabited island paradise. He wrote: “Aside from seven sailboats in the lagoon, there was a family living ashore as “caretakers” of the island for some country [the Cook Islands under association with New Zealand] claiming possession of it. Every morning a flag is hoisted and every evening everybody is watching videos. You are not allowed to visit any other islands in the atoll or to sail around in the lagoon. I will never understand human beings.”

On other more hospitable islands ahead, Alberto would find the adventures and personal connections ashore that he sought. After a week in Suwarrow he sailed west several days until one boobie after another flying in a straight line showed him the way to Samoa. He daysailed among the islands of Western Samoa, made famous by travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson who had found a home there. One hundred years after Stevenson’s visit, Alberto also found “the islands are beautiful, the people friendly, and the life good.”

He arrived next at Wallis Island after an exhausting passage. He had been unable to sleep because he needed to bail the boat constantly. A leak had formed around a loose knot in the timber hull as it continued to dry and shrink from its green state. The cyclone season was upon him, so he decided to stay several months with his new island friends at Wallis. Here he dried out and repaired the leaking hull, replaced the old sails with new ones sewn from donated plastic tarps, repaired other damage, and rested for the next leg of his journey. In early May, he reached Fiji after a three-day passage. He island-hopped through Fiji, enjoying the “easy sailing and incredibly friendly Fijians.”

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Coming ashore in the Philippines

In Vanuatu, he moored his boat along a riverbank and walked off alone into the volcanic mountains to live among the secluded tribes. He thrived on immersing himself in the dense jungle in contrast to weeks of open sea horizons. As he lived among the primitive tribes he “learned from them what I could before progress puts them to work for a dollar an hour, and the white man’s alcohol erases their human dignity. Yes, they are still naked, pure, and untouched.”

From Vanuatu he altered course to the northwest towards the Philippines via the Solomon Islands. A fair and easy wind carried him to Malaita Island in the Solomons where he went ashore for provisions. “I bought a big tin of crackers here,” Alberto wrote. “I had thrown away my stove way back in Tahiti while looking for useless things to get rid of. The more empty Ave Marina gets, the more I love her. So now I eat granola, crackers, coconuts, and raw fish with lemon and soya sauce. No more cooking.”

“From the Solomon Islands, I had to cross the length of Papua New Guinea without being noticed, because five years ago I was deported from this country as an illegal immigrant. I had been sailing around in Poini, my 20-foot outrigger canoe, and I had settled down with a girl on the small island of Aglingui, off the north coast of New Guinea.”

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Another Midnight Swim

He set his course through Vitiaz Strait, already well-known to him from his previous outrigger canoe voyage as a dangerous stretch of water between the islands of New Guinea and New Britain. As before, the wind and current funneled between the islands, creating short, steep waves. He had been sailing in strong winds for a few days before entering the strait so he was already low on sleep and badly in need of rest. “At daybreak,” he wrote, “winds were still behind me as I entered the southern part of the strait. Breaking waves pushed Ave Marina through a violent surf, sometimes at a terrific speed. With the mainsail deeply reefed, I stood up on the canoe, with my legs opened to control the balance of the boat, my hands at the tiller, my body facing backward to watch the coming waves. I enjoyed and feared the beautiful and dangerous game of surfing. One wave, 10 waves, 100 waves, 1,000 waves—surfing was a nonstop game. When night came I was still within the strait at its northern end. I was exhausted, but because the sea was not, I had to continue. By midnight I had left the strait, and as the sea became calmer I decided to sleep with just a small riding jib set to keep the bow pointed downwind.”

“I awoke with the world upside down and me swimming. I wasn’t afraid this time, just angry with myself. Again everything broke free from its storage space under the bow and was gone or floating around the boat. This time Ave Marina’s timber was dry and she floated high.” Again he worked to right the canoe and laboriously bailed it out and reset the rig to get underway. Besides the sails, lines, the plastic canvas, and his passport and money, which he kept well secured in a special hiding place, he had nothing left. The food and most of his water were gone, so he sailed immediately for the nearest safe port.

Three days later he entered the Port of Madang, in Papua New Guinea. “I prayed that customs would not recognize me. They gave me 24 hours to fix everything and reprovision, which I did. In precarious conditions, I set sail the next day. I had only one small photocopy of a chart for all of New Guinea and one for the Philippines. The charts had no details at all, but never mind. I said to myself: everything is going to be all right.”

“I didn’t count days, and I didn’t dead reckon; I simply went where my feelings were telling me. I easily arrived at Irian Jaya, and after I passed Biak Island, a super typhoon developed in the North Pacific, producing a storm that pushed me downwind to the northeast. When the storm ended three days later I was some 200 miles north of Irian Jaya, well north of the equator. Now there was only a soft breeze from the southwest. I was in an area that was off my charts, and there was nowhere to drift but north, to the middle of the ocean, in a very empty part of the Pacific, without knowing where land could be—with just three gallons of drinking water remaining. And the days passed, one after the other, in the same uncertain conditions, as I drifted slowly to the north, with nearly no wind. And then I remembered that I’d seen on a chart that at, maybe, eight degrees north there was a place called Palau. I wasn’t certain, but decided that if I couldn’t find anything at my current longitude, I would sail eastward. Palua could be there.

Palau didn’t appear for many days. Never count the days in this kind of situation; by doing so you only fractionate uncertain information, and when you add one bit of information to the others according to the days you spend, the result will be more removed from the reality than what your intuition will tell you. Watch the elements and the events; they have the true answer—learn their language.”

Since he was nearly out of food and water, he knew he must reach land soon or perish. One night he saw a fishing boat, but the crew didn’t see his signal (a candle in a coconut) and passed him by. The next day he saw what turned out to be an Okinawan fishing boat and signaled them by reflecting the sun off a piece of tin. Answering to his signal, the fishermen gave him some food and water, and pointed him in the direction of Palau, 50 miles away. The meeting confirmed he was on the correct course and would have arrived a day later even without their help. We can only imagine the incredulous looks of the fishermen’s faces as man and canoe sailed confidently on their way.

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Ave Marina Nearly Lost; Finding Rebecca

While he was at Bablomegong Island in Palau, Typhoon Ross hit the island. “By the time I knew about it,” he said, “it was too late to move the canoe. As I didn’t have a proper anchor and the canoe was too heavy to get out of the water, I sunk a block of cement I’d found and I used all my ropes to tie her to it. I put mast, sail, and rudder, and everything else removable into a friend’s house.”

“The anchorage was partly protected from the waves but not to the wind. During the worst night I swam out every hour to check on her. After midnight, I couldn’t find her anymore. When day came the anchorage was empty. Through my sadness I understood how much I liked her. When I dived that day I saw that the ropes had chafed. Chances that she had survived were remote. All the islands there have rocky shores, with maybe ten yards of beach every couple of miles of rocks.

“I went to the town of Koror and told my story to a friend, who offered his boat to search for Ave Marina. Next day we found her on one of the few beaches, intact, full of sand and leaves, as she was under a tree. She hadn’t even capsized. If I believed in miracles, this was one.”

Once he had refloated and repaired Ave Marina, he loaded her with water and fresh provisions and resumed his journey. Steady trade winds brought him next to northern Mindanao in the Philippines. This marked the end of the canoe voyage. He had crossed 10,000 miles of ocean in his canoe and now wanted to try sailing something different—a boat that would not require constantly shifting his body weight to keep from capsizing.

On the island of Masapelid, near the northeast coast of Mindanao, the solo sailor met and soon married Rebecca, an adventurous woman who was willing to join Alberto on his continuing travels. He now needed a larger boat to continue on to China with his wife. Alberto gave away his beloved Ave Marina to a local Catholic missionary who used the canoe to carry mission supplies to a nearby island. I cannot imagine a more courageous and blessed vessel on the sea than Ave Marina.

For his planned passage through the islands of the Philippines and across the South China Sea, Alberto built a 26-foot catamaran of his own design. The greater stability and carrying capacity of two hulls would be a sharp contrast to the tipsy canoe and just what he needed to bring his wife and extra provisions along.

There were no boat builders on Masapelid Island. Yet, with the help of a local carpenter, he built the catamaran on the beach in six months. This was quite an achievement considering the two men worked without electricity, using only hand tools. They did almost all the work using a hand saw, a six-inch block plane and a brace drill. By the time they had finished, they’d worn the blade on the plane down to a sliver from countless sharpenings on a stone. The catamaran was constructed of Philippine red luan, ironwood, plywood, and bamboo, with bronze nails and epoxy glue for fastenings. Total cost was just under $1,500 US.

The biggest problem in the construction process had been cutting the ironwood for the keelsons. Once he located the ironwood on another island, it took 10 men to lift the 24-foot logs onto an outrigger boat, called a banca, for transportation. During the first attempt the weight of the logs overturned the banca and snapped off the outrigger. Then, the sheer weight of the logs caused the boat to sink to the bottom, which took some time and effort to raise. And that was just the beginning of the ordeal.

The men then found that their saws could not cut the aptly named ironwood. Two tree-cutters were recruited from Mindanao. Called gavaceros, these men specialize in working the laborious two-man saws used for cutting logs into planks. For hours they sawed and sawed, and still made little progress with the tough ironwood. “Babalik kami bukas,” they said (“We’ll be back tomorrow”). They were never heard from again. Another man was called in. He had a brand-new high-powered chain saw and proceeded to attack the logs with vigor. However, the sharp, ragged teeth of his saw made little impression, and he too disappeared.

For weeks the entire village closely followed the lack of progress as men stood around drinking tuba (local coconut wine) and offered advice. Finally, one day a man arrived with a worn out, old chain saw slung over his shoulder. He asked if he could give the logs a try and, to the amazement of Alberto and the crowd of onlookers, he slowly but surely cut the logs into shape. His method was to use an old blade with cutting edges worn down and thinned by years of sharpening. It remained a mystery why the old blade worked. Perhaps the thinner bite of a worn blade was better suited to cutting the dense logs. The rest of the construction went more or less according to plan despite the inevitable difficulties in finding boatbuilding materials on the small undeveloped island group.

For a mainsail, a piece of canvas that in earlier days had seen service as a rice drying mat was cut and sewn to shape and hoisted loose-footed onto the bamboo mast. Two jibs cut out of plastic tarps completed the sail inventory. In calm waters Alberto would lower the unique paddle-wheel system he built partly out of bicycle parts and propels the boat by pedaling it as if it were an old-time paddle steamer.

Because of Alberto’s concern about deforestation, particularly in the Philippines, one of his projects was to plant trees on the island. This was as much a gesture of goodwill to the people of Masapelid who had welcomed him into their community. A small income from his share of leased family land in Argentina helped pay for this project and finance his ongoing low-budget travels.

When the catamaran was completed, Alberto and Rebecca left Masapelid to sail northwest over 500 miles through the Philippine Archipelago, stopping at several islands along the way. Rebecca had little sailing experience, but she was brave in her own right and she trusted Alberto’s skills and judgment. She soon became a helpful crewmate. One of the benefits of marrying an island girl was that Alberto got a welcome change in his austere diet. A single-burner kerosene stove allowed them to prepare meals, mostly of fish and rice, supplemented by fresh fruit and vegetables from the village markets found on nearly every inhabited island in the group. Alberto found this quite extravagant compared with the raw fish, coconuts, and homemade granola that he had survived on during his solo canoe voyage.

From the port of Vigan in northwest Luzon the couple sailed north until nearing the Bashi channel south of Taiwan, which he identified by the east-west flow of the shipping traffic. The next day, shifting winds and a low overcast sky caused him temporarily to lose his sense of direction. For another day they drifted through continuous thunderstorms and lightning.

*     *     *

Alberto Lives his Dreams

After the storms had abated, still without a compass, he again had to rely on his acute sense of observation and a large dose of intuition to find his way. The next day it was the seabirds that put them back on course: “Boobies flying from west to east in the morning showed me the general direction of Pratas Reef. In the evening I sighted the birds flying to the southwest, which told me I was passing north of the reefs. Once I sighted the coast of China, it was just a matter of sailing southwest along the coast until we reached Macau.” It sounds simple enough; however, in practice, sailing along the coast of China is exhausting work. Visibility is often poor in rain and fog at that time of year, there are numerous off-lying islands and rocks around which to navigate, and there is always the added danger of being run down by ships and fishing boats.

Alberto’s navigation tactic of aiming many miles to windward of his destination was exactly what I had done when finding my way to Hong Kong a few years previously. Once you sight land or come into shallow soundings, you know you need only turn downwind to arrive eventually at your destination. Many hapless navigators have tried to shortcut this method and ended up not hitting their target as well as having no clear idea whether it lay to windward or leeward. Even in today’s world of pinpoint accuracy with satellite navigation, it is still wise to stay to windward of your destination in case severe weather or broken gear sets you drifting downwind.

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Alberto and Rebecca aboard their 26-foot cat in Hong Kong

After leaving their boat safely tied up in Macau’s marine police basin, the Torrobas left for a tour of China by train, bus, and foot. Along the way, Alberto studied the Mandarin language and searched for a place to learn the ancient forms of Chinese healing. In Canton he found a school that was willing to accept foreigners. He enrolled in a three-month intensive course that included acupuncture. Before going off to the school, the Torrobas sailed to Hong Kong, where I first met them. Rebecca returned to the Philippines on another boat to await Alberto’s return.

Alberto told me that he could relate easily to the lifestyle in mainland China. In comparison with the frantic pace in Hong Kong, he found the people “relaxed and more human.” With his studies complete, he returned to Hong Kong with a Chinese diploma from the school of traditional healing, a new box of acupuncture needles, and an enthusiasm to put his healing skills into practice. He was soon treating people from other boats in the anchorage with some success on various minor ailments, including easing the pain of one young English woman suffering from migraines. Regardless of what some people may think of the efficacy of acupuncture, a man who believes in his ability to heal exudes an aura of confidence that in itself may cure many ills.

Although the catamaran had served him well, he was not completely satisfied with its performance and wanted to try something different. His next project was to sail the cat back to the Philippines, where he later wrote to tell me he had built an unballasted 23-foot wooden monohull sailboat, somewhat resembling a scaled-down version of the larger traditional Chinese fishing craft.

In preparation for the expected cold and wet early-spring passage across the South China Sea, he bought a used loose-fitting diver’s wet suit to wear over woolen underwear. For navigation he would use a photocopy of a single chart of Southeast Asia—nothing more. A compass he still considered superfluous.

His greatest danger on this trip was Pratas Reef, which lies directly on the route to Luzon. Gale-force winds are always possible, and currents in the area are unpredictable and can be strong. Even in daylight, with good weather, the reefs cannot be seen until you are nearly upon them. “If you watch and pay attention you will never hit a reef,” Alberto told me. “Sailors who get shipwrecked do so because of overconfidence in their navigation equipment, not because of a lack of it.” I knew exactly what he meant, having also spent many a dark hour searching for signs of Pratas Reef on several passages I’d made across the South China Sea.

As an analogy he recalled an earlier time in the Panamanian jungle. He and a dozen men were carrying a massive log that was destined to be his canoe. All but one of the bearers were wearing rubber boots. The procession came to an abrupt halt when someone warned of a poisonous snake in the path ahead. The man who had seen the snake was not in front, but he was the lone bootless hiker. His life had depended on seeing the snake. Vigilance is a lesson Alberto had never forgotten.

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Alberto Torroba pedaling his catamaran in Hong Kong.

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Alberto demonstrating the pedaling gear at a mooring in Hong Kong.

Once he was safely past Pratas Reef, he continued on for 650 miles, making good progress in strong beam winds that required extra caution to prevent capsize, until reaching the island of Palawan in the Philippines. He lived there for a year with Rebecca while building his new boat. Then he sailed off alone and Rebecca returned to her home island to await her sailor to come home from the sea.

I next heard from Alberto when he arrived alone on his new unballasted sampan in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. The boat seemed to be working out well for him, and he continued to sail on through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand before friends of ours reported seeing him and his sampan in Sri Lanka some time later. In 1998 Alberto reported that he had given up boats and the sea. He and Rebecca and their two-year-old daughter, were living on the family’s ranch in the grassy pampas of Argentina. He was disgusted with all the “money-grubbing bureaucrats” he had encountered in the various ports of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and disillusioned that navigating his small boats had become so easy it was no longer a challenge. “It was time to move on,” he said. “But I still keep my surroundings free of modern technology in order not to get distracted from everyday life. We live in a two-room house without electricity, toilet, or running water. I don’t even have a watch, so I am never too late. I love the pampas as much as I love the sea. The sky is big down here.”

An adventure without reflection is a shallow experience—a holiday spiced with danger. Alberto on his land-locked ranch must often think of the sea that nurtured his soul as it tortured his body. I wonder if, like me, he pauses now and again with the thought of another sailing adventure. For Alberto, his boats were an extension of himself, embodiments of his spirit and vehicles for exploring the world without and the world within. His life, as reckless as it seems to many of us, is perhaps not unlike some of our own dreams in our unguarded moments. The difference is that he acts on his dreams, lives up to his potential, and never lets the naysayers define his abilities nor his destiny. Alberto has that rare combination of heightened sensitivity coupled with a physical and mental force as tough as a railway spike. In all my travels, I never met his equal and doubt that one exists.