1 First Steps to a Voyage
The radiant goddess Circe sent a sail filling wind behind us, a good companion for a voyage. We made all shipshape aboard and sat tight: wind and helmsman kept her on her course. All day long we ran before the wind, with never a quiver on the sail; then the sun set, and all the ways grew dark.
- Homer, The Odyssey
A sailor's worst fear arrived before dawn. Under gray twilight I knelt on a shore of coarse pebbles and scattered black boulders and faced a crazed sea. Surf crashed on rocks, filling the air with wind-driven spray that streamed down my face and soaked me through. Numb with fear and cold, I watched my sailboat, my home, now half-submerged, breaking up on the sharp talons of an inshore reef. Waves hammered the boat, grinding away years of work. The mast collapsed with a shudder. I felt sick with fatigue and helplessness.
It seemed my solitary voyage around the world had come to an abrupt end on this uninhabited coast. If my course had been another mile to the south I would have sailed clear of this ship-killing island. Curling up behind a rock, I closed my eyes and gave way to overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion. The ceaseless thundering of waves breaking on the reef filled my semi-consciousness.
When I opened my eyes again I was somehow back aboard my boat, wedged face down into the thin vinyl-covered cushion of the leeward bunk. I turned over to focus on the scene around me while the sound of surf shook the cobwebs from my mind. Was the shipwreck real and this now a dream or the other way around? “Idiot!” I cried as I bolted up the companionway steps....
The series of events leading me to that fearsome island encounter likely began with childhood days watching sailboats gliding across the flat waters of Michigan's Lake St. Clair. I used to imagine they were all bound for distant adventures. Our little lake, deep within the Midwest watershed was, after all, connected by hundreds of miles of rivers, greater and lesser lakes, canals and locks, to the roiling waters of Niagara Falls and on to the sea. Ocean-going ships plowed up and down our lake's deep-water channel daily – proof of our connection to the larger world.
A family trip in our single-engine airplane to the Out Islands of the Bahamas in my early teens gave me a taste for travel among tropical islands. On that trip my father had me sit in the back seat next to the life raft with an open knife in hand with instructions to puncture the raft if it should accidentally inflate inside the cabin. My father taught me to fly small planes by the time I was sixteen, but I gave up the sport soon after, when an electrical fire filled our cockpit with smoke and we made a terrifying emergency landing. Suddenly, sea-level travel seemed more appealing.
Looking back, I can't recall a time I hadn't dreamt of running down the trades on a sailboat to the fabled islands of the South Pacific. I held these yearnings in check, finishing high school and vocational courses, before moving into an apartment shared with friends and scratching about to “earn a living” while searching to discover my purpose in life. I was nearly sidetracked into marriage until my girlfriend concluded I was of the wrong temperament to have children underfoot and a mortgage over my head.
Though motor boating was occasionally involved in a few of our early family vacations, we never had a sailboat of our own. The first boat I almost launched was a 12-foot rowboat, more rot than wood, that a neighbor gave me in exchange for hauling it away. It took six of us kids to carry it down the street to my backyard. We worked for a month on the boat during our summer vacation, rigging a crude rudder and patchwork sail, dreaming of the day we would launch her. My parents thought it unsalvageable and tried everything to discourage me from drowning myself in it. Still, we patched her up.
The day before our proposed launch I found someone had knocked new holes in the bottom. My buddies and I were crushed as it was now beyond saving. At the time we blamed the older bully down the street but in retrospect, my father was not bothered at all about the tragedy and rather too soon appeared with a can of gas and said, “Burn it.” The case of the sabotaged boat remains open.
Looking back now I see that, in time, we become more learned and less wise. So it was at the wise young age of eighteen I chanced to read the recently published biography To Challenge a Distant Sea about the life of French sailor Jean Gau. Beginning in the 1950s, he twice sailed alone around the world in his 29-foot Tahiti Ketch, named Atom. Gau lived great adventures – encounters with hurricanes and cannibals, shipwrecks, a love affair with a beautiful Tahitian vahine. Each time he returned to sea was, for him, a coming home. Did Gau's world still exist out there? I was determined to find out.
At the time I didn't know the course I would ultimately take, nor did I dare imagine I would travel across oceans alone. I was no Jean Gau and had no reason to believe I ever would be. Yet, from that time on, dreams of tropical seas and exotic landfalls never ceased. Through his book's pages, I saw myself rediscovering the world from the deck of my own sailboat.
Why I was so permanently affected by this book I couldn't say. It certainly awoke the nagging notion that the promise of a full life was not to be found in my hometown or even on any single continent. What better siren song to capture an innocent youth than romantic visions of being aboard a stout boat anchored snugly in a palm-fringed lagoon, then putting out to sea and running before the warm trade winds to a new landfall where perhaps some vahine awaited.
Like all aspiring sailors of my generation, I had also read the book Dove, about Robin Lee Graham, who sailed alone around the world between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. His story, too, inspired me to undertake a voyage, but an inward one, an entirely different type of journey. It seems his father and publishers pushed him to continue a voyage he grew to hate, filled with perpetual loneliness and lovesick self-pity. Too much anguish and loathing made Graham's story, in many ways, the antithesis to the path I sought. By the time I got underway, I had the advantage over Graham of a few more years maturity – yet I was still young enough to believe in my own invincibility.
My faraway dreams took on a glimmer of life on one of those frigid Detroit winter evenings when my equally bored, broke and quietly desperate teenage friends gathered around the kitchen table for yet another Saturday night poker game. We'd all had a few beers when I started daydreaming aloud about islands in the South Pacific. I told them condensed and not strictly factual accounts of what I had read; that in those warm tropic seas far to the south were countless volcanic islands and coral atolls peopled by gentle brown-skinned natives who never worked a day in their lives because ripe fruit practically dropped into their hands. And that this paradise lay within easy reach of even a small sailing yacht.
Carried away by my own enthusiasm, I went on to tell them of the unequaled charms of the Tahitian women. “Pure goddesses!” I claimed, adding how they were not too pure to literally throw themselves at visiting sailors. To make up for lack of first-hand experience and make my vision more compelling, I recited descriptions of island girls from romantic stories of the South Pacific by Herman Melville, James Michener, Paul Gauguin and others. Fact or fiction, we believed what we wanted, and needed, to believe.
Staring at me over empty bottles of Detroit-brewed Stroh's beer, my friends appeared spellbound, or possibly just in their normal stupor – it was hard to recognize the difference. “Tell us more about these native girls,” someone said when I paused long enough to drain another bottle. After a few more of these Saturday night sermons, they claimed to be as convinced as I that we must go to sea and go quickly. Dying of boredom was the only apparent alternative. Their passions proved shorter-lived than my naivety. Life interfered, as it commonly does.
There were real obstacles to overcome before my shanghaied crew and I set sail. We had no boat, no money and we knew nothing about sailing or the sea. We didn't even know any sailors. And these, I admit, were not our weakest points. Like typical American teen-aged boys, we were impulsive and erratic and lacked the degree of forethought the sea demands.
As a first step we laid out a plan, agreeing to work at our various jobs for one to two years with the goal of saving at least $10,000 each. We would then pool our money and buy the largest, old wooden sailing boat we could afford. Sixty feet long, not counting the bowsprit, sounded about right. To learn about boat building and to save money, we would refit it ourselves, teach ourselves to sail and then set out to voyage around the world together. Knowing the outcomes of teenage schemes better than I, my parents warned me it was another doomed venture, but it seemed doable at the time.
For my part, after finishing metalworking vocational school, I labored almost three years at factory jobs, moving on several times whenever a new position offered better pay. For months I assembled and welded metal cabinets on a production line until my mind went numb. The next job paid better as I made heavy braze repairs on cracked punch press frames. This job required I operate a propane torch the size of a mini flame-thrower while standing on a scaffold atop a half-ton of flaming charcoal – stoking the fires of hell. Through productive labors and self-denial, each week I put away at least one dollar for every two earned. In later years I had the luxury to discover that the only worthwhile work is the kind you would choose as charity work, if circumstances permitted, which has become my goal now and forever.
Back in my apartment I'd lose myself each night in nautical books borrowed from the library; reading whatever I could find, from Elementary Dinghy Sailing to Two Years Before the Mast. Yet there is only so much a book can do. As the Chinese proverb says: “To walk one thousand miles is better than to read ten thousand books.”
My first real step to getting under sail was when a friend and I bought an old 12-foot sailing dinghy. Together we sailed most Sundays and holidays on Lake St. Clair, paddling about in the calms and capsizing in any wind strong enough to fully stretch the sails. Because our little boat's overly tall rig carried a mainsail that couldn't be reefed or lowered once underway, we spent windy days clinging to the bottom of the upturned hull.
Eventually, through books alone, I became familiar with the rudiments of boat design, navigation and ocean weather patterns – at least the bookish version, which is far from the real thing. After nights dreaming of narrowly escaped shipwrecks and exotic landfalls, I awoke to the rude buzz of my alarm clock. On autopilot mode I plunged into another winter day's toil in a depressing smoke-filled factory. In my beat-up 1961 Volkswagen Beetle, I slid along ice-covered streets on bald tires in pre-dawn rush hour traffic.
The morning commute brings out the savage in those of us actually awake at the wheel as we drive bumper to bumper, 70 miles-an-hour in all weather – icy streets traveled by ice-encrusted souls. It was not lost on me that most of the people on the roads at that hour were on the way to build even more motorized metal boxes for already-crowded American roads. We were a society of movers. We moved frantically, if not purposefully.
In the factory's smoky welding pit, the days dragged on. I moved like a misshapen gear in a machine determined to ultimately mash my rough edges into a kind of tortured conformity – if I stayed long enough. I recognized it on the faces of the men around me: with each passing year their own hopes and plans faded slightly more into the barely remembered dreams of their youth. Physically, I was here working alongside them, but I was not one of them.
I had confided to a co-worker that I would soon quit this job, buy a boat and head for distant lands. “Sure you will,” he told me and passed my secret to the rest of the shop which earned me the ridicule, pity and suspicion usually reserved for the mad. The day my bank account reached the $15,000 goal I had set for myself, I broke free, walking out of that soul-crushing hellhole for the last time. I knew that was as close to rich as I'd ever be in Detroit. It couldn't have felt better if the whole shop had walked alongside me cheering, instead of just following me with quiet stares, the kind that said, “You'll find nothing better out there, fella.”
It should have been no surprise that, one by one, my friends lost their enthusiasm for our joint venture. Their lives had moved on in other directions. One of them was said to have dropped out in the drug-cult of California, a lost soul to us and himself. The others had made safer, more practical plans for their futures. One longtime friend, whom I hadn't seen in a year, was engaged to be married and had already signed a mortgage on a new house in the suburbs. He turned his head away when I stood before him as a resurrected ghost of a dream he had quietly buried long ago.
I was now twenty-one years old. I had never owned a real boat and had never even stepped foot on a sailboat larger than a dinghy. Though little problems and discouragements came at me from all quarters, they were nowhere near enough to dissuade me. I decided to buy the best second-hand boat I could afford. If necessary, I'd travel alone, as long and as far as my meager talents could take me.
Through the coldest months of that winter I searched through lifeless boatyards and poked my head under countless snow-laden tarps. Finally, a boat caught my eye as it lay despondently under a blanket of snow, gripped in the ice of a frozen canal. I had no patience to wait for the ice to break up so the boat could be lifted out of the water and properly inspected. In spite of my haste, the marine surveyor reported that this 28-foot Pearson Triton, built of fiberglass in 1963, was solidly constructed, although somewhat neglected and minimally equipped. Though I had some initial doubts due to its small size, I was reassured by its long keel and admired the low sleek profile and handsome lines of the hull.
“You can sail this boat anywhere in the Great Lakes,” the broker assured me. Yet these Great Lakes were still only lakes: fine for cruising or beginning a voyage but too familiar to satisfy my growing lust to explore.
“And beyond, I hope,” I added.
My parents thought it reckless to spend my limited savings to buy a boat, but they didn't mind at all my plan to sail around the world – because I simply didn't tell them until I was halfway across the Pacific. You can talk about doing a thing until everyone finally talks you out of it or you can actually do the thing.
The Triton had a good reputation among sailors in the U.S. She was designed in 1959 by the skilled Swedish marine architect, Carl Alberg, who was known for his seaworthy designs based on earlier proven sailing craft of northern Europe. Equally important, she was beautiful to my eyes and I could imagine us bound together for exotic places. It was as if the boat spoke to me: “I've been waiting for you. Take me somewhere far away from here and we'll look after each other just fine.”
At some point during a boat search you have to put away the formulas of sail area/displacement ratios and the like and follow your gut. A boat, like a woman, has to excite and incite you to dream. If it doesn't, just walk away. Even the name, DOCTOR'S ORDERS, ridiculously taped onto both sides of the white hull in four-inch high black letters did not dissuade me. A name change was the first job I'd see to, regardless of popular nautical superstition. You don't sail into Tahiti and moor alongside world cruising yachts in a boat with a name like that.
After some offers and counteroffers, we agreed on a price of $12,000. This was a fantastic fortune to me since it represented four-fifths of my savings and three years of hard work. The owner later told me he was reluctant to sell but his wife had ordered it. A fair deal some might say; he temporarily saved his marriage and I had my boat.
That first winter I tried living aboard my nameless new boat as she lay trapped in the frozen canal. Soon the constant rain of condensation from the underside of the non-insulated fiberglass deck, caused by using the boat's alcohol stove for heat, forced me back to my apartment. The heady daydreams continued however: with nose pressed against the frosty apartment window, watching snow blow into drifts around my car, I envisioned my little VW as a ship fighting her way around Cape Horn in a mid-winter storm.
The spring thaw brought relief and I recall taking Maria with me on our first sail. By the way, never take your girlfriend with you on your first sail – unless, that is, you want to terrify her so much with your stupidity that she never wants to go sailing again. Since no sailing book had told me this, we went blindly ahead as I helped her fit a raincoat over her jacket and sweater in an attempt to ward off the effects of below freezing temperatures.
A light snow fell from that Michigan-gray sky as we chopped away at the ice in the slip with an ice-fishing spud, then used the inboard gasoline engine to motor out the canal. Once clear of the breakwater, I silenced the rumbling beast then raised the full mainsail and the largest jib. Trimming the full sails to take us close to the wind caused a slight heel and the boat began to glide along effortlessly. Clusters of snowflakes swirled in the air currents around the sails. Now and then I made a sharp turn to avoid the scattered ice floes. It felt good to be the only boat on the water. We were probably the first boat sailing that year, even attracting the attention of a Coast Guard helicopter that buzzed past us. Everything felt fine, yet Maria did not trust my untested sailing skills and looked at me apprehensively as I tacked upwind. Within a few minutes the wind picked up, causing the boat to heel over sharply until waves were spilling over the leeward side of the cockpit and splashing around our feet. Maria demanded to know what the hell was going on as I tied a life jacket around her and told her to go below and close the hatch. I let the boat round up into the wind, pulled down the flogging sails and motored back into the marina, thoroughly chastened.
Safely back at the dock, I wondered why the boat had seemed so unstable. When the wind came up she felt almost as tender as my old sailing dinghy. This was my home: a four-ton boat to carry me across the oceans and here it was, about to roll over and sink in Lake St. Clair! Either this boat had been robbed of the three thousand pounds of lead in her keel or I had not paid attention to the sailing books I'd read.
Later, sitting at a bar next to the marina, a couple of relative old hands at sailing assured me it's the nature of sailboats to “put the rail under” while carrying full sail in a fresh breeze, particularly a boat like mine of a low freeboard design. We were in no danger of rolling the boat over in anything short of hurricane conditions – something unlikely on our 20-mile-wide lake. Once the boat is heeled to about 45 degrees the wind is spilled from the sails and the lead ballast in the keel forces the boat upright. All we needed to do that morning was reef the mainsail and set a smaller jib to maintain balance. Those books I had read discussed reefing sails, I just hadn't realize reefing was required in such moderate winds. Also, the technical words on the pages of ten books were not half as impressing as one minute under sail. What I needed to be told was: “When your ass gets wet, it's time to reef, boys.”
Maria remained unconvinced I would make a competent sailor and before long I faced the same choice as the previous owner – the girl or the boat. I thought I loved Maria, but I knew I loved the boat. As painful as it was, the choice was obvious.
The next summer I convinced one of my footloose friends, who had not found employment elsewhere, to escape the coming Michigan winter by joining me on a voyage to Florida and the Bahamas. The second member of my little crew was an older fellow, found through a pay-by-the-word Detroit News advertisement I placed containing these economical words and nothing else: “Sailing south. Share expenses. No experience necessary.” None of us had more than limited day-sailing experience, but I figured the best remedy for this was to set aside the sailing books and make our way to the open sea.
The two-man crew I'd managed to enlist made it clear that merely having a boat was not the woman magnet I had imagined. Maria had forced the issue when she told me, “You're going to have to sell that boat so we can buy a house.” She had visions of marriage and a $12,000 down payment on a house in the suburbs with a 30-year mortgage. I couldn't understand, and still don't, how people could chain themselves to a house, a job, a bank loan and a discontented spouse when they are still young enough and uncorrupted enough to appreciate the wonders in this wide-open world. Prisons come in many different guises, the most common being filled to capacity by the self-committed.
By September we reached the Atlantic by sailing through Lakes Erie and Ontario and motoring through the New York Barge Canal system to New York City. We reached Florida through a series of short offshore passages and longer detours inland through the Chesapeake Bay and Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
Like East Coast disciples of Huck Finn, we followed the connected bays, rivers and canals of the waterway on its meandering course south. One misty evening at anchor in the Carolinas, returning fishermen tossed a basket of live crabs into our cockpit for a free dinner. Our journey continued, past the industrial back doors of big cities and the river-facing fishing port towns; past plantation homes set in green forests, primeval cypress swamps and the Georgia salt marsh where slaves once dammed the creeks to harvest rice and King Cotton along the river's muddy banks; and past the shadows of concrete apartment towers lining the canals of southern Florida.
A significant portion of our time was occupied with various schemes to refloat the Triton after running aground when straying from the marked channel. Impatient bridge tenders and road traffic were apparently more annoyed than impressed as we'd try to pass through the opened bridges, under sail, during the frequent stalling fits of the old and cranky Atomic Four gasoline engine. First, the carburetor wasn't getting gas, then it flooded and backfired a ball of flame that singed my eyebrows. Another time it lacked spark. The trouble-shooting and cursing became routine. Living alongside an old engine on a sailboat means you either become a proficient mechanic and a half-assed sailor or a half-assed mechanic and a frustrated sailor.
While on a thirty-six hour offshore passage from Cape Fear to Charleston, I nervously plotted our course and speed each hour as I made wildly inaccurate first attempts at celestial navigation. My first position fix by sextant observation of the sun placed us firmly ashore in mid-Kentucky. I didn't share that with my crew since even they may have noticed a slight error in longitude. A happy ship requires the crew must never lose confidence in their skipper. Keep 'em in the dark if you must. Why advertise your incompetence? Much of it will come out soon enough on its own.
Despite our near total ignorance at the beginning of the voyage, it culminated with an idyllic winter of gunk-holing across the shallow turquoise banks and among the myriad sandy islands of the Bahamas. When the sack of potatoes and three cases of discounted macaroni and cheese we had bought in Miami ran out, we anchored for a while off an uninhabited island, named Great Stirrup Cay, where we fished and collected the leathery meat from conch shells with an intensity tweaked by hunger. Twice each week we walked across the island to where a cruise ship set up a barbecue on the beach. There we mingled with sun burnt vacationers, returning to our boat with bellies and pockets stuffed with hamburgers. Missing our families, girlfriends and a well-rounded diet finally caused us to sail back to Florida where my slimmer, sea-weary friends made their way home.
Back in Ft. Lauderdale I worked a few months part-time apprenticing in repairing and fitting out sailboats around the marinas, but there was a shortage of paid work for inexperienced hands. Here I spent most of my remaining funds on a new, $1,500 Aries self-steering wind vane. During the past year, I had experimented with balancing the sails and various sheet-to-tiller arrangements with mixed success. No matter what I tried, the boat would not remain balanced for long periods with the wind from behind and I dreaded the idea of crossing an ocean with one hand tied to the tiller. With the new wind-vane there was no longer any need for the mind-numbing drudgery of hand steering. Now it seemed possible to sail alone into the South Pacific, even going around the world alone, which I quietly set as my goal.
First, however, I needed to replenish my cruising funds and better equip the boat. With a job waiting for me in Detroit, I decided to make my first long offshore passage alone by sailing the thousand miles nonstop from Ft. Lauderdale to New York City. That ten day autumn passage held some anxious moments as I trained myself to sleep in brief naps and keep a vigilant eye out for shipping and weather changes. On this trip I became moderately proficient in celestial navigation which greatly increased my confidence. Before that passage I had renamed the boat Atom, in the sense of the ancient Greek definition: small, powerful, unbreakable. It was also in tribute to the late Jean Gau, owner of the original Atom, whose writings of adventure first inspired me to challenge my own distant seas.
Back in Detroit, I returned to the daily tedium of heavy repair welding in another smoky shop. For fifty-plus hours a week my lungs were poisoned by toxic fumes and asbestos dust that hung in the air like permanent smog – a far cry from the pure cool winds of the Bahamas Out Islands in winter. My co-workers looked like co-zombies, the older hands wheezing and hacking themselves into early retirement or an early grave. I thought of something I had read about men that are sick of living but too frightened to just lay down and die. They go numbly on about their routines, the forgotten, fiery lust for life turned to ashes. They went on working for the promise of a pension and their “health benefits,” which was ironic in that almost any other job would benefit their health better than any doctor's pills. Eventually, their purpose for living disappeared when their jobs moved to China. It's possible I judged them unfairly – expecting others to feel as I do. As for me, between the “In and Out” punches on a time card, I existed somewhere between yesterday's memories and tomorrow's expectations. The time allotted by the gods to a sedentary man with a sedentary mind can be too much; and yet, for a seeker, it is never enough.
In the hours after work and on Sundays I made modifications and repairs to Atom to make her more comfortable and seaworthy. There was little time for sailing. For nearly a year, Atom rested on a trailer in my parents' backyard as I disassembled and refit her from the rudder on up to the mast rigging, or at least as much as my limited experience and resources allowed. Using plywood, epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth, I added bulkheads and reinforced several areas of an already strongly-built hull and deck. Any experienced shipwright would have rightfully pointed out my flawed and inadequate work.
Meanwhile, my parents asked if they would ever have the use of their backyard again. A small crisis came when, without asking, I chopped down one of their beloved trees that crowded my work area and its overhanging branches dripped a red, staining sap on my freshly painted light-blue decks. Atom was then, and remains, a work in progress; transforming, as I do, along with her.
During this time I kept my plans for a solo world voyage to myself. I told friends and family merely that I was planning a trip to the Caribbean and maybe later towards the Pacific. It would be better to quietly get started with the voyage than to worry them or invite more questions than I could answer.
After two years back in Michigan I again quit my job and cleared the decks for adventure. My earlier trip through the Bahamas had taught me that beating down that “Thorny Path” against trade winds and currents in a small boat wasn't the best way to go. Boat and crew took a terrific punishment with progress slow and uncertain. There was no way I could make it around the world unless I followed a carefully planned route, running, for the most part, with the trade-winds at my back. As a last test before the solo voyage, I planned to sail through the lakes back to New York, and from there sail offshore to Trinidad with a stop in Bermuda where I would island hop back to Florida for final fitting out.
After talking my hometown buddy, Mathew, out of enlisting in the army, the two of us set off from Detroit in the autumn, hell-bent for warmer climes like the honking Canadian Geese passing overhead. A northerly gale caught us a few days out of New York harbor, kicking up a surprisingly high breaking sea as we crossed the Gulf Stream current. The motion was as lively as an endless roller coaster – as if we were on tracks running downwind, the wind vane holding her course. Not once did we turn sideways in a broach as boats will do when hard pressed and badly helmed. We rode Atom like a horse, gaining more confidence in her as she charged up and down the hills without stumbling. Sitting inside with hatches secured, I could block out the breaking waves landing on deck and mute the moaning of the wind in the rigging. I believed I was invincible in my cocoon.
Unfortunately, my crewmate saw it differently. Where I was absolutely liberated to be galloping over hills on my steed, Mathew complained he felt he was riding a tire as it rolled and bounced down one rocky hill and up another in an endless dizzying procession. He was also terrified we would be sunk by the high waves that broke harmlessly onto the afterdeck and filled the cockpit with their light foaming crests. Worst of all, he seemed to be terminally seasick. During those seven days he rarely left his bunk other than when I dragged him up on deck, clipped him into his harness and wedged him into a corner of the cockpit. Mostly, he sat crouched down or bent over on his knees with chin over the rail as if in supplication to Allah. Otherwise, he sat in his bunk still wearing his green Army surplus rain gear with a bucket held between his knees and cursing involuntarily. After a few days without eating he heaved up nothing but bits of yellow slime and still, he couldn't stop convulsing. It was remarkable that someone could be that sick and still be alive.
Having never felt mal de mer, I have a bad habit of treating the seasick with heartless contempt. I gave less than helpful advice like: “Pull yourself together, man.” Usually I coax and cajole seasick crew into taking a spell at the tiller. This sometimes works because it's hard to concentrate on seasickness when you're trying to follow a compass course and not jibe the sails while getting face-slapped by constant sea spray. Seasickness becomes lost amongst the general fear and misery of the helm.
Strangely, within minutes of arriving in Bermuda, Mathew made a miraculous recovery. Within an hour of mooring alongside the quay in St. George's Harbour, Mathew was sitting up at the table with raised knife and fork as I dished up a sticky pot of macaroni and canned tuna spiced with two heaping spoons of black pepper. That night at the pub he described the trip to the other sailors there as “The Hell Voyage,” adding with exaggerated drama: “The storm was incredible! The first couple days I was afraid I would die. After that, I wished I was dead.”
In a few days he was on a plane back to Detroit, a place that looked a whole lot better to him than another trip offshore. But time heals a sailor's bad memories just as surely as a new passion cures a jilted lover. I took some satisfaction in hearing that Mathew purchased his own sailboat for use on the lakes a few years later.
By now I had enough basic sailing skills to continue the trip. Still, I wasn't yet entirely comfortable with the idea of going solo and attempted to find replacement crew to share the watch-keeping and travel expenses. While moored along the quay in St. Georges, I hung a sign low in the mast rigging that read: “Sailing to West Indies. Crew needed. Share expenses.”
A week later, as I was about ready to depart alone, I awoke to knocking on the cabin top. I stuck my head out the hatch to see a thin young man with stubby black hair staring down at me from the quay. He pointed to my sign and said, “I'm your man. Jon Clark from Manchester.”
Jon was on vacation in Bermuda visiting his brother who worked here as a gardener. His sailing experience was limited to some short passages along the English coast. He did have two important qualifications: he had the money to share expenses and his was the only serious response I got. I practically yanked him aboard before he could reconsider. Jon proved to be a great sea companion on the 15-day nonstop passage to Trinidad. Though he was seasick for a few days and doubtless in some misery, you would hardly have known it. He stood his watches without complaint, ate my peppery meals, and then quietly went on deck and spewed them over the side, answering my queries with, “Feeling much better now, thank you.”
For two months we sailed the Windward Isles of the Caribbean and climbed the volcanic peaks of nearly every island between Trinidad and Martinique. Our timing was not so lucky when we landed in Grenada in October, 1983, and found ourselves ducking bullets as the Americans attacked to retake the island from a Cuban-backed regime. On the first day of the battle a Grenadian policeman came out to our boat in a small launch and demanded we surrender our weapons. He seemed disappointed to hear we had none. It was unclear whether he was pro-Cuban, pro-American, or as confused as most of the locals. Probably, like most people, he was wisely not going to commit himself until there was an obvious victor. Before leaving he advised us to keep our heads down and not move until the shooting stopped. That is just what we did for three long days.
We weren't much bothered by anyone after that encounter with the police, aside from the U.S. Navy helicopters circling overhead several times each day. At night we watched small arms tracer fire decorate the hillsides like berserk fireflies. In our minds there was always the chance we might be boarded by Cuban soldiers aiming to hijack our boat to sail home. When the fighting was over we sailed north through the islands of the Grenadines and on to Martinique where Jon caught a flight back to England. With new confidence in my sailing skills and my boat, I sailed alone back to Ft. Lauderdale with stops along the way at Guadeloupe, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and a single stop in the Bahamas.
Over several years of sharing my boat with all manner of crewmates, it became apparent that having crew aboard was generally more work than not having them at all. A crew must be fed, consulted, depended upon, humored and catered to in countless ways. Compared to sailing alone, the experience when shared was somehow diluted, less vivid, less memorable. Although I was an only child who had long ago learned how to fill solitary hours, I had never been accused of being anti-social. Still, sailors who choose to go alone on the sea go there to stand apart from society, if only briefly. To those considering a long voyage alone, it should be heartening to know that among the inevitable trials and miseries there is also much to be gained. Only absolute solitude can sharpen the senses and develop a deep appreciation of simple pleasures otherwise lost to the distractions of a companion. In any case, the time of a sailor alone at sea is brief compared to the time he shares with friends in port and ashore. And when he does come ashore from his solitary sojourn he surely can appreciate his friends all the more after experiencing their absence.
That first solo voyage introduced me to a life cruising under sail that suited me perfectly and strengthened my resolve for the ultimate adventure – to sail alone around the world. If you've never felt the lure of Jack London's Call of the Wild, or Herman Melville's romance of the South Seas, or Henry David Thoreau's quest for essential living and self-examination, then there is little I can write now to inspire it, or even explain it.
While enjoying the mild winter climate of Florida, I made final preparations to Atom for the voyage ahead. The thing that concerned me most was the lightly stayed mast, which I watched vibrate and bend a bit more than I thought was safe while beating against heavy seas. The existing rigging was twenty years old and marginally sized as well. I couldn't afford new rigging at this point so I left the original wires in place on the fractional rig and added extra rigging going to the head of the mast that I scrounged from cast-offs in the boatyard dumpsters. This rig would never win a race to windward because of the extra weight and windage aloft, but my voyage was primarily downwind with long stretches far from repair facilities. I was willing to do whatever it took to prevent the mast coming down and leaving me adrift in mid-ocean.
With a hull as solid as the Triton, I didn't let the lack of a life raft worry me, especially since I couldn't afford one anyway. My 6½-foot plastic dinghy had built-in flotation that could be used in an emergency, but only in fairly calm conditions. Underneath the dinghy stowed on deck, I kept a grab bag of survival gear with a jug of fresh water, a jar of peanut butter, fishing gear and flares.
Although a short-wave transceiver was way beyond my budget, I did have a short-range VHF radio for contacting nearby boats or shore stations, and a cheap short-wave AM receiver so I could hear news and get accurate time signals required for celestial navigation. It was just as well that I had no long-range two-way radio since it would have given me a false feeling of security. In U.S. coastal waters, people have gotten used to the idea of instant rescue. In the far Pacific or Indian Ocean, you are on your own and you'd better face that fact right at the start. Besides, I wasn't going to sea to chat with other people. As I mentioned before, there was time enough for that in port where the contrast from the soul-cleansing isolation of being alone at sea gave me reason to appreciate human contact all the more. Confronting myself and my fears alone would lead me towards that liberating state of self-sufficiency I was seeking.
Since I was making such a drastic change in my lifestyle, I chose this opportunity to purge the toxins from my body. I had already quit smoking, drinking alcohol, even coffee, as well as all other kinds of subtly mind-numbing drugs. Gone, too, would be the excessive fats, sugars and meats, and most of the additive-laden foods of my past life. In place of that, I committed myself to at least two years of a vegetarian diet of mostly unprocessed foods consisting mainly of whole grains and vegetables.
This was not a way for me to try to add years to my life – I wouldn't be sailing across the oceans alone in a small boat if that was my goal. I sensed that something in my lifestyle was keeping me from being as fit as I knew I could be, and would need to be, to live the life I imagined.
The major items on my initial provisioning list were: 20 pounds each of whole wheat flour, corn meal, brown rice, dry beans, dried fruit, non-fat powdered milk and oats. I also bought alfalfa and mung beans for sprouting, potatoes, onions, cabbages, limes and an assortment of other foods that keep well without refrigeration. I would bake my bread and grow sprouting seeds onboard to supplement the fresh vegetables available at the native markets along the way. For snacks I had baked enough homemade, toasted granola in the oven at a friend's house to fill a garbage bag. I bought only a few canned goods such as tomato paste and carried none of those expensive meat products. As a protein supplement I took several pounds of brewer's yeast to mix with milk and some dried soybean product called TVP (texturized vegetable protein), which is a good high-protein meat substitute.
I did not entirely forsake modern technology. My most useful electronic gadget was the depth sounder, followed closely by the radar detector alarm I used for collision avoidance. One item that I might have been better off without, but was too unsure of myself to believe it then, was that cranky old Atomic Four inboard engine that, by frequent tuning, I was able to coax into assisting me when entering ports on windless days and to get me through the Panama Canal. When the inboard engine, with its generator, was not being used, a small, home-made wind generator, eventually replaced with a solar panel, kept the single 12-volt battery charged. Later I concluded that a small outboard motor kept in a locker until needed would serve me better. For offshore navigation, aside from a faulty mechanical boat speed indicator, I had only the traditional methods of celestial navigation: a sextant, a compass and a clock. Through necessity, my sense of guessing speed, drift and leeway improved with every passage.
Now that the boat was ready, my biggest concern was that I had only $500 in savings remaining. I didn't expect this would get me around the world. I did hope it would see me across the Pacific. From there I planned to work my way around the globe, taking temporary jobs wherever I found them. Thankfully, I was wise enough, or reckless enough, to refuse delaying the voyage another year or two by returning to work. After all, if lack of money stopped me this year, then other insecurities could just as easily keep stopping me until my instinct to explore faded into that cursed life of regrets I was so eager to escape.
I worked out a budget that allowed me to spend less than $100 a month. This might seem impossible today, but it was not then. It did require a large dose of rashness and ingenuity and just a little in the way of what others might call hardship. An example of this was that a new set of charts for all the oceans and harbors along my proposed track would cost me several hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Even photocopying borrowed charts was beyond my micro-budget and copy machines were still rare in distant ports. I solved the problem by buying a roll of tracing paper for $5 and traced copies from charts borrowed from fellow sailors in ports I visited along the way. Later, I found that sometimes other sailors would pass on charts that they no longer needed. Not that I would recommend this for prudent navigation – just a solution for a desperate young man unwilling to be delayed by excuses.
My plan was to sail direct for Panama, transit the canal and cross the South Pacific to Australia, or perhaps New Guinea, where I would wait out the Southern Hemisphere's cyclone season. The following year I'd cross the Indian Ocean to South Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope during the summer months. The alternative route up the Red Sea and through the Med was out because of the contrary winds and expenses involved. From South Africa's Cape Town it was more or less an easy downwind run across the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea to return to Florida where I'd begun. I expected to make only ten to fifteen stops along the way, partly as a way to reduce expenses, and also because I looked forward to some long, uninterrupted passages. I had already picked out most of these likely stops from research I'd gathered by reading every account I could find of travelers before me. The time limit of a two-year circumnavigation suited the seasonal weather patterns and gave me a goal with a foreseeable end.