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

Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World Magazine

Open Boat Adventure

Profile by James Baldwin

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

In 1990, Alberto Torroba sailed alone across the Pacific from Panama to the Philippines. That's remarkable enough. However, what made his voyage truly amazing is that his boat was a 15-foot open dugout canoe carved from a single tree. Two years later, on a beach in a remote island of the Philippines, he built a catamaran from plywood and bamboo, married a local girl from the island, and continued his voyage to China. From the deck of our boat, Atom, we watched as the 26-foot engineless catamaran tacked into Hong Kong's Deep Water Bay and anchored nearby. The next day we met 41-year-old Alberto and his new wife, Rebecca Benocilla. They had just arrived 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, without navigational instruments - not even a compass.

In fact, Alberto's latest boat was free from just about all the modern equipment considered essential to long-distance passage making. There was no life raft, certainly no transmitting radio, not even a receiver. There were no electric instruments; in fact no electricity whatsoever. The boat had an interesting peddle/paddle system installed forward between the hulls that served as auxiliary "power" for moving about in calm harbors.

During the next few months of early 1993, we became close friends with Alberto and Rebecca. The tall, longhaired Alberto is one of the truly free spirits in this world. He is not one to follow trends or seek advice. He had spent his early years working on his family's sprawling ranch in Argentina. In his early 20s, he turned his back on ranching to explore the world in small boats. Over a period of several years he nearly circumnavigated South America in a variety of open-decked sail-powered fishing boats and became highly skilled in handling the vulnerable little vessels in all types of seas. He went on to cross the South Pacific in a 24-foot engineless sloop, and later to round New Guinea 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 find his boat. With the help of a native canoe maker, he selected a single aspave tree, and shaped the trunk into a hull with a slight keel carved into the bottom. He hung a rudder onto the stern and fitted a mainsail and a tiny jib. He christened the boat Ave Marina (Spanish for Sea Bird).

Alberto was forced to abandon his first attempt when extended calms and contrary currents in the Gulf of Panama bedeviled him for 24 days. He paddled back to shore just as he ran out of food and water. Undaunted, he waited for the steadier January winds and set off again on the 900 mile passage to the Galapagos Islands.

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Track of Ave Marina across the Pacific

To navigate, he used methods similar to those employed by the ancient Polynesians when they explored and settled the islands of the Pacific. With the accumulated knowledge of all his previous voyages of the stars, winds and currents, and the habits of sea birds, he found his way from island to island unaided (and unencumbered) by modern technology. After he'd lost his hand-held compass and sole chart of the Pacific overboard during his first capsize, his only navigation tools were a bob line (a string with a small lead weight on one end) to sight the stars, and a keen sense of observation that few other sailors possess.

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. 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.

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. This is exactly what happened 20 days after he left Panama.

When at sea, Alberto exists mostly on muesli (homemade granola), coconuts, lemons and dried fruit, and fish he catches and eats raw or sun dried. At least once, though, a gnawing hunger drove him to eat the barnacles off the bottom of his canoe. His water supply at the beginning of each passage consisted of 20 gallons in jugs. His working, living and sleeping space was on a six-foot board laid in the bottom of the canoe. A plastic sheet was rigged for protection from the sun, which he describes as the major enemy of the open boat.

The Galapagos was a point of no return as he noted in his journal:

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 southeast trade winds will permit me to turn back. Next stop is French Polynesia, 3,000 miles away.

In moderate winds he could balance the boat to steer herself. At other times he hand steered for long hours or simply let the boat drift while he rested. Without any ballast he had to use his body weight to balance the canoe to prevent capsizing. Nevertheless, disaster occurred a few days after leaving the Galapagos when a jammed sail halyard in a rising wind caught him off balance.

His journal recaptures the moment:

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 didnt know what to do. A couple of attempts at uprighting 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 was two cans of water, some granola, and a fishing line.

When I pulled out the mast the canoe would sit upright, but because the log canoe was still fresh and green it lay with the gunwales nearly awash. I did not even have a bucket to bail with. For hours I scooped water and always a breaking sea would fill it full again. Exhausted, I lay in the water, just balancing the boat. Everything seemed hopeless. So, I just waited and calmed myself.

Later I noticed that by balancing my weight carefully I could retard the interval of when a wave would wash over the boat. 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. All through the morning I bailed and over and over again the boat filled. Eventually a calm moment came and when the canoe was half empty I stood up and bailed with an enthusiasm I had never experienced before. Finally dried out and sailing again my spirits soared.

I remembered that my original idea had been to cross the Pacific in an open canoe but was afraid to do so. Now I had my empty canoe as a primitive man. And I laughed and shouted nonsense to the wind. I was happy. Happiness is not a feeling that depends on success or failure. It is a movable thing that depends on whether you are going uphill or downhill, regardless of where you are on the hill.

By rationing water (supplemented with sips of salt water) and catching fish he was able to keep sailing his boat west. Forty-one days later he made landfall at the fabled island of Fatu Hiva in French Polynesia. As he continued his journey across the Pacific, he called at numerous islands, to the general astonishment of the natives. To see a white man appear from over the horizon in a canoe was an almost unbelievable sight. In every case the local people befriended him and took him into their homes for a meal and a few nights of undisturbed sleep.

Remarkably, he 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 islands. The average sailor is blind to these hidden waves. There is no class you can take or anything anyone can tell you to be able to learn it. Our navigational equipment and the numerous comforts on our 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 natures signs. Those who never enter natures harsh school will never learn, those who fail the course, die.

Losing his compass, Alberto found had opened a new dimension in my mind. He 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. 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.

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 in the ocean. A few miles off course and he would miss it. After seven days a star in the constellation of Capricorn sighted at the end of his bob line indicated he might be near the island.

The next evening some frigate birds passed close by and I was sure they were on their way home to Suwarrow. The 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. I have seen them hundreds of miles from land, and in groups.

The main thing about birds is the way they fly. When a bird is fishing he will fly erratically. You will understand very soon that he is not going anywhere. The best time to watch 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 of it. 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.

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Coming ashore in the Philippines

Alberto also had adventures ashore. In Vanuatu he moored his boat along a riverbank and walked off alone into the mountains to learn what he could from the primitive tribes before progress puts them to work for a dollar and hour and the white man's alcohol erases their human dignity.

He climbed the volcanic mountains and lived with the tribes in the forests, thriving on immersing himself in the contrast of jungle to open sea.

Between New Guinea and the Philippines a storm blew him over a hundred miles off course into the North Pacific. He had no chart of this part of the sea but remembered that Palau was in the general area. Since he was nearly out of food and water, he knew he must try to reach land soon. One night he saw a fishing boat but they didn't see his signal (a candle in a coconut) and passed him by. The next day he saw another boat, an Okinawan fishing boat, and signaled them by reflecting the sun off a piece of tin. They saw his signal, gave him some food and water, and pointed him in the direction of Palau, 50 miles away. We can only imagine the incredulous looks of the fisherman as man and canoe sailed confidently on their way.

While he was in Palau a typhoon hit the island. After sheltering on shore, he went to look for his boat the next day, but it was gone. Friends helped him search the reefs and islands until they found Ave Marina sitting on a beach, full of sand and water, but largely undamaged.

Once repairs were made to his rigging and fresh provisions brought aboard, he got underway.

Arriving next in the Philippines marked the end of the canoe voyage across the Pacific and the beginning of new adventures. On the island of Masapelid, off Mindanao, he met and married Rebecca Benocilla, the daughter of a local fisherman. He now needed a larger boat to continue on to China with his wife. He also wanted to try something different -- a boat that would not depend on constantly shifting his body weight to keep from capsizing. Here Alberto gave away his beloved Ave Marina to a local Catholic missionary who used the canoe to carry supplies to his mission on a nearby island. I cannot imagine a more courageous and blessed canoe on the sea than Ave Marina.

CROSSING THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

For the 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. 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 sharpening on a stone. The catamaran was constructed of Philippine red luan, ironwood, plywood and bamboo, with copper nails and epoxy glue for fastenings. Total cost was just under US$1,500.

The biggest challenge in the construction process was 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 lumber 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 vanished.

For weeks the entire village closely followed the lack of progress as men scratched their heads 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 skeptical villagers, 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 many years of sharpening. The rest of the construction went more or less according to plan despite the inevitable difficulties in finding boat building 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 hoisted loose-footed onto the bamboo mast. Two jibs cut out of plastic awning material completed the sail inventory. In calm waters Alberto can lower the unusual paddle-wheel system he built partly out of bicycle parts and maneuver the boat by pedaling it like a bicycle.

Because of Alberto's concern with 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 as well as his low-budget boatbuilding and ongoing travels.

When the boat was completed, the couple left Masapelid to sail northwest over 500 miles through the Philippine Archipelago, stopping at several islands along the way. 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 each inhabited island in the group. Alberto found this quite extravagant compared to the raw fish, coconuts and homemade granola that he 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 to temporarily lose his sense of direction. For another day they drifted through continuous thunderstorms and lightning.

After the storms 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 reef. Once I sighted the coast of China it was just a matter of sailing southwest along the coast until we reached Macau. Though it sounds simple enough, in practice it is exhausting work sailing along the China coast. Visibility is often poor in rain and fog this time of year, there are numerous off-lying islands and rocks around which to navigate, and there is always the danger of being run down by ships and fishing boats.

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

After leaving their boat safely tied up in Macaus 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 and he enrolled in a three-month intensive course including acupuncture. Before going off to the school, the Torrobas sailed to Hong Kong, where we first met them. Rebecca returned to the Philippines on another boat to wait there for Albertos return.

Alberto later told us 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. When his studies were finished he returned to Hong Kong with his Chinese healing school diploma, a box of acupuncture needles, and an eagerness to practice his new healing skills. He was soon treating people from other boats in the anchorage with some success on various minor ailments. Regardless 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 can cure many ills.

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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.

Although the catamaran has served him well, he was not completely satisfied with its performance. His next project was to sail the cat back to the Philippines, where he would build an unballasted 23-foot wood monohull sailboat, somewhat resembling the larger traditional Chinese sampan fishing craft.

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

The greatest danger he faced 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 it. If you watch and pay attention you will never hit a reef, Alberto told us. Sailors who get shipwrecked do so because of overconfidence in their navigation equipment, not because of a lack of it.

As an analogy he recalled an earlier time in the Panamanian jungle. He and a dozen or so men were carrying a 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 barefoot; the lone bootless hiker. His life had depended on seeing that snake. It is a lesson Alberto has never forgotten.

Once he was safely past Pratas Reef, he continued on for 650 miles, making good progress in strong beam winds that required extra vigilance to prevent capsize, until reaching the island of Palawan in the Philippines. A year later we 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 a few years ago. Since then, Alberto has rejoined Rebecca and last I heard they were living on the family's ranch in Argentina.

Alberto on his ranch must often think of the sea and I wonder if he has plans to go out upon it again. For Alberto, his boats are an extension of himself, vessels to carry his spirit and tools for exploring the world without and the world within. His life, as reckless as it seems to us, is perhaps not unlike some of our own dreams in our unguarded moments.

The difference is that he acts on his dreams and does not let the naysayers define his abilities or his destiny.