Atom's Second Circumnavigation - Part One

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Between the sky and the water I am not alone because I live with the sea and the gale. - Jean Gau

Atom's Second Circumnavigation 1987-1999

Condensed from the book Bound for Distant Seas by James Baldwin

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First circumnavigation in black
Second circumnavigation in red

Within months of returning to Florida after my solo voyage around the world, I was itching to get back to sea and a new adventure. By sailing mainly in the southern hemisphere I had bypassed Asia on my first trip and was intrigued by the idea of a voyage alone to China. In China I hoped to take Atom on a river journey and see where fate would lead me.

To prepare for the voyage, while in Ft. Lauderdale in the spring 1987, I began a major overhaul of Atoms vital components. On my first circumnavigation, during nights rushing blindly through the darkness, I had often worried about collisions with floating objects, particularly after I had narrowly escaped with minor damage after running over an uprooted drifting tree in the Gulf of Panama. It can be unnerving to be alone in mid-ocean and consider that all that stands between you and the bottom of the sea is a half-inch single skin of fiberglass. To reduce this risk, I installed a watertight collision bulkhead in the bow section under the v-berth.

Atoms original worm-eaten mahogany rudder was replaced with a piece of 1 1/2-inch tapered plywood sheathed in fiberglass. Then after several months drying out on her trailer in a Ft. Lauderdale boatyard while I traveled inland, I returned and sealed the hull below the waterline with two coats of epoxy barrier coat. The hull had showed no signs of osmosis and this might help keep it that way.

For years I had been continuously repairing Atom's cranky antique four-cylinder gasoline inboard motor, using it only when entering ports and in some coastal motorsailing. It had been such a uncooperative beast that I decided to remove it entirely and sail engine-free. My main motivation, however, was that I now felt ready to tackle this sport on a more fundamental level. I imagined an experience aboard Atom alone at sea in some ways not unlike Thoreau's elemental sojourn at his cottage on Waldon Pond. With this in mind, I stripped Atom of all her electrics as well. I was ruthless. Out went the electric lights and radios, even the batteries. I used a single burner kerosene stove for cooking and kerosene lamps for lighting. I did have a video camera to document the first part of the trip, but its batteries needed to be charged ashore.

The leaky marine toilet went overboard to be replaced by a bucket in a wooden box. Stripped to the essentials, sailing alone and without an engine or electric gadgets, I hoped would teach me whatever I hadn't learned about sailing and myself during my first circumnavigation. I've found trying to articulate or justify this kind of thing to the average person is usually unproductive. You either have an understanding of this brand of adventure spirit or you sit back and scoff at the impracticalities of it. Those who need to ask "why" are unlikely to be satisfied with any explanation. I also remind myself that my dream is not anyone else's dream, so I won't waste time trying to convince others to follow my path. Whatever I'm doing at any moment is not necessarily a lifetime philosophy commitment. People and ideas evolve - one path leads to another.

In early March I set out from Ft. Lauderdale intending to sail nonstop through the Bahamas and Windward Passage to Panama. But on my third day out, strong easterly winds caused me to take shelter for two days in a protected cove at Bahamas uninhabited Royal Island. Once underway again, we tacked east of the Bahamas and then turned south.

Entering the Windward Passage near the coast of Cuba at night, a line of squalls had me running under bare poles. Just then a freighter crossed in front of me, and either seeing me on radar or noticing my kerosene lantern, he stopped and shined a searchlight at us, apparently to see if I was in distress. If I hadn't been in distress before, I surely was now. I rushed forward to try hoisting the storm trysail and turn Atom back into the wind, but there was no time. Moments before the wind drove us into the black steel side of the ship, her skipper finally realized his mistake and put his engines full ahead. We slid by close under her stern and I knew then, if I hadn't fully realized before, this was not going to be an easy voyage.

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Passing through squalls near Panama

To transit the Panama Canal you must have an engine, of course. The best I could come up with on short notice was to borrow an outboard motor from another sailboat which I hung on Atom's transom. Unfortunately, I found it wouldn't start and hastily arranged to pay another sailboat to tow us if necessary. When the pilot arrived and said "Let's start the engine and get going" I told him the outboard would be slow and with this fair wind we could go faster under sail. "Whatever's faster is fine with me," he said, so we sailed up to the entrance of the first lock, dropped sails, and rafted along our buddy boat who pulled us into and out of each lock. We got lucky with a steady following breeze and were able to sail the entire way including crossing the twenty-two mile long Gatun Lake under spinnaker at 6 knots, even passing some of the motoring sailboats. The pilot was on the boat for 13 hours and didn't even realize our motor didn't work! I don't think I'd have the nerve to try and pull that one off again, particularly with the heavy fines imposed for not having a functioning motor at your scheduled transit time.

Now in the Pacific again, my next destination was Hawaii which was situated square in the trades that would carry me west to the coast of China. To reach Hawaii in a boat without a motor at this time of year requires avoiding a zone of calms off the central American coast by first sailing southwest to the Galapagos. Unlike my first trip across the Pacific, when my visit to the Galapagos consisted of heaving-to behind Wreck Bay and tossing a packet of letters to another yacht for posting before carrying on to Polynesia, this time I stopped and went ashore at two islands.

In the main port of Academy Bay I visited the old German beachcomber/philosopher Gus Angermeyer. Several times we shared tea in his cave-like home sitting on chairs of whale vertebrae while Gus, with gentle prodding, reeled off stories of his island life and quoted his favorite ancient philosophical writers from the small library he kept. Above us hung mummified iguanas, baby sharks preserved in bottles of alcohol, and a human skull staring down empty-eyed from a shelf - a shipwreck victim Gus found along the rocky shore. Nodding at our sightless companion, Gus advised, "Let him be a warning to you to mind your navigation in these waters."

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Seals crowd the beach at Post Office bay, Floreana Is.

At the neighboring island of Floreana, I met Margaret Wittmer, who now in her eighties, was the last surviving original settler on the island after a string of bizarre murders and disappearances. "You remind me of another young fellow who stopped here not long ago while sailing alone around the world in his small boat," the elderly and spirited German woman told me. It turned out she was speaking about Robin Lee Graham who began a circumnavigation in Dove at age 16 and had been there over 20 years previously. When I asked about the murders in as delicate way as I could, she claimed she didn't know who was responsible for the poisoning, shooting and disappearances. If she had any secrets, she kept them to herself. To read more about this remarkable drama, get a copy of The Galapagos Affair by John Treherne.

From Floreana, Atom and I sailed west for a thousand miles, following a line one to two degrees south of the equator, riding a favorable current along the northern edge of the southeast trades. At that point I turned directly north across the equator into the Doldrums, or ITCZ, where I sat for three days drifting this way and that with the equatorial counter-current upon the flattest calm sea I'd ever seen in mid-ocean. Trusting that the wind always returns if you are patient, I got on with my daily routines and communion with the sea. I was at that time utterly incapable of understanding the complaints of frustration you nowadays hear from sailors who are becalmed for more than a few hours when they're short of fuel or their engine quits on a long passage. There are few things in our environment that focus and state of mind cannot overcome. Rather than feeling frustrated at expectations unrealized, I thrived on the age-old sailor's game of hunting the next zephyr that might propel me a few more yards on my way. When the northeast trades filled in, we romped along and made landfall at Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, 43 memorable days out from the Galapagos.

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Crossing the Doldrums in mid-Pacific

In Hawaii, I stayed with local relatives and worked for a few months as a house painter to finance the next leg of my voyage. It was here that the miracles of modern technology began to creep back aboard Atom when I added a single solar panel, battery, and masthead navigation light to increase my visibility in the congested waters of Asia.

I departed Hawaii in early January on a day of fair winds and high surf pounding the north shore of Oahu, bound for Saipan Island in the Marianas. On that thirty day passage, I dipped south passing not far from the infamous nuclear testing site of Bikini Atoll. If I ever pass that way again I will definitely stop there since it has cooled down considerably in the last forty-some years. This poisoned necklace of little islands is perfectly situated as a stop-over port on a run across the Pacific and is unusual in that among the hundreds of narrow-channeled atolls in Micronesia it has an easy mile-wide entrance into a fine anchorage in the lagoon off a palm-lined sandy island. Just please don't eat the radioactive fish and coconuts!

From Saipan I passed south of Taiwan into the South China Sea where a cold northeast gale, total cloud cover, and seemingly endless fleets of Chinese fishing craft appearing out of the fog, made an exhausting final few days as I closed the coast of China. To avoid being blown south of Hong Kong by the northeast monsoon, I made landfall on the coast of China some thirty miles northeast of Hong Kong, which is standard celestial and dead reckoning navigation tactics. That way, when I came upon the fog-shrouded coast, there was no question which way to turn to reach my destination. Even nowadays with a GPS, it makes sense to stay to windward of your destination to prevent other mishaps, such as a storm or equipment breakdowns from sweeping you away from your desired port. In a small boat it may be impossible to beat back against strong winds and current.

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The 3-masted 75-foot junk Cocachin in Hong Kong

Soon after I arrived in Hong Kong I found I was unable to get a permit to make a river journey into mainland China as I had originally planned. The Hong Kong territories comprise a compact, yet surprisingly varied cruising area among several islands and a many-harbored stretch of the mainland known as the "New Territories" which I explored fully. I did manage to navigate through the shoals of Chinese bureaucracy and cruise the mainland coast, however, by leaving Atom nestled between sampans on a mooring in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter and signing on as first mate on the three-masted 75-foot Chinese junk Cocachin for the British-organized Marco Polo Expedition.

Continue to Part Two