Jean Gau

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The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm

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Jean Gau aboard Atom in Port Moresby, New Guinea (courtesy Rob Sintes)

Chapter 23: The Chef's Special

THE TIME WAS ONE A.M., OCTOBER 25, 1971. THE PLACE, 14 miles off Assateague, the long barrier island on the Maryland-Virginia border, some 25 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland. The vessel, Atom, a 30-foot Tahiti ketch, on her tenth crossing of the Atlantic and third circumnavigation of the world. Her skipper, 69-year-old Jean Gau, erstwhile New York chef, dishwasher, sailor-adventurer, painter, was now nearing the end of an arduous 108-day passage from Spain. Jean did not know why this passage should have been so difficult. Mon Dieu! Had he not made it easily nine times before? He had hoped to pass the time in serene isolation, as usual, working on his latest painting, reading, and contemplating life. But, no. He had experienced contrary winds, calms, extreme temperatures, then had taken a battering from Hurricane Edith. Now, caught for five days in the tail end of Hurricane Ginger, he was tired. Oh, he was tired. Perhaps, like Atom he was finally getting old.

On the night of October 24, he had gone below to listen to radio reports. He had wanted to stop at Puerto Rico, but Edith would not let him. He had come near Bermuda, and wanted to stop, but Ginger had kept him off. For five days, he had been awake most of the time, coming up toward New York, pumping almost constantly, while Ginger raged. "This time," Gau said, "I think she is finished, but I make it just the same." As he went below, thoughts crossed his mind of Dumas, the Argentinian singlehander who had gone up on the beach on the Patagonia coast through fatigue, almost at the end of his circumnavigation in the Roaring Forties; and of even the old master, Joshua Slocum, who ran his Spray up on a Uruguay beach; and Pidgeon, whose Islander had been embayed and grounded on a South African beach. While below, he dozed in a stupor, as if drugged, not alert enough to sense the shift of wind, until at one A.M., something aroused him. He sat up, listening for the sounds of the ship and the rigging to tell him what was wrong. Then he heard the hiss of breakers. He rushed up on deck, but it was too late. Atom was already on top of the beach. Fortunately, he had grounded on an extremely high tide, which carried Atom above the surf line before she became battered.

When daylight came, Gau packed a bag with food and clothes and started walking, dragging the sack in the sand wearily and despondent. He did not know it, but he had beached on one of the most uninhabited and desolate stretches of coast on the entire Atlantic seaboard. Moreover, it was a National Seashore and National Wildlife Refuge, not a place for humans, kept as primitive as possible by federal law. He only knew that Atom had been his home for twenty-six of her thirty-three years. He knew her as well as he knew himself. He had weathered many storms in her over the past twenty years at sea, including hurricanes that had wrecked larger ships. Now she was gone. When he began walking, by sheer chance he headed north. Had he walked south, he would have had to go nine miles without hope of finding anyone. As it was, he walked only a mile and a half and came to the Maryland border, where he encountered the only two private homes on thirty-five miles of lonely beach. One of them belonged to Robert Clements, a Washington, D.C., resident, who was there with his family, on this Monday morning, only because it was a school holiday. "I heard a dog barking and that voice of the dog was the sweetest music to me," Gau later said.

Until this moment, life had seemed to come to an end for Jean Gau. Born February 17, 1902, at Valras-Plage, France, as a young man between the wars, penniless but with a dual love for sea and painting, he had gone to America for the freedom and opportunity to pursue both mistresses. In New York, he obtained work as a dishwasher, then became a fry cook, assistant chef, and then chef in a large hotel. With French frugality, he lived simply, spending his spare time painting or haunting the waterfronts. He became a naturalized American, in fact, if not entirely in spirit, for his residence was confined to the New York area. For Jean Gau, the heart would always be in France, no matter where the body was.

In 1936, as the Great Depression was easing off, he bought the forty-foot schooner, Onda II, and, on June 15, left New York on a long voyage, with a stop at his home in Valras-Plage. Near Cadiz, Spain, he ran aground and Onda II was lost, along with many of his best paintings, some of which were regarded by experts as too valuable to be taken to sea.

Back in New York again, he went to work in the hotel until he had saved up another stake, enough to buy Atom, one of the first of the famed Tahiti ketches, designed by John Hanna, the Dunedin, Florida, genius. Atom had been built in 1938 from the plans which had been released by John Hanna and published in Modern Mechanics. She was seven years old when Gau found her, as World War II was ending, and moved aboard. She was perfectly suited to his temperament, personal habits, and needs. When hostilities had ended formally, he made ready, and on May 28, 1947, departed New York bound again for Valras-Plage via the Azores on his first circumnavigation. In the next twenty years, he was to circle the globe twice, cross the Atlantic ten times, survive hurricanes, and become a legend among bluewater voyagers. On his first circumnavigation, returning to New York, he was caught by Hurricane Carrie, six hundred miles southwest of the Azores, which on the afternoon of September 21, 1957, sunk the four-masted bark Pamir, bound for Hamburg with thirty-five seamen and fifty-one cadets. Gau, in tiny Atom, weathered the hurricane hove-to.

Later in New York, his interview in the New York Times went thus: "How was it?" "The world? Oh, very nice." "Any trouble?" "No trouble, no accidents, no sickness, a few gales." Before Carrie struck, he had furled sails, lashed the helm, rigged a can of oil to drip over the side, and gone below to read, paint, and sleep.

On his second circumnavigation, Gau left New York in the summer of 1962 bound for Cartagena. His log records departure from that port in the autumn of 1963, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there, he sailed to Panama in the summer of 1964. Next came Papeete via the usual route from Balboa. In the summer of 1965, he sailed to Auckland, then later went on to Port Moresby, and the long passage across the Indian Ocean to Durban, South Africa, where he sojourned for some time with three famous countrymen and voyagers, Bernard Moitessier, Marcel Bardiaux, and Joseph Merlot, on Marie-Therese II, Les Quatre Vents, and Korrigun, respectively. In February 1966, he left Durban, and on this passage he was capsized and dismasted. During this encounter, he lost his wire cutters overboard, but was able to cut loose the wreckage with a hacksaw blade held in his hands.(6) Putting into Mossel Bay, he made repairs, and then, in the late autumn, he departed for Puerto Rico and New York, arriving on June 10 after a five-year absence.

His second circumnavigation had been most interesting. It had taken him, among other places, to the Galapagos, to Pitcairn Island (where he could not land as the Johnsons in the well-manned Yankee could), and to many places off the usual track of world voyagers. In Torres Strait, he ran onto a coral reef and thought the end had come. "I was high and dry and got out of my boat to walk around the reef at 5 a.m. I found parts of masts and spars and a rusted cable and blocks, tangled crazily in seaweed. It was an old wreck imbedded in the coral with human skeletons aboard. To think that my fate would be practically the same, made it more depressing. Luckily, at 1900 hours, at high tide, I was able to get my boat off. Then I sailed across the Arafura and Timor Sea."

After his capsizing and repairs, he did not stop at Cape Town, but sailed directly to Grenada, a distance of 5,463 miles. On December 7, he passed St. Helena, on December 29 was rolling off Fernando de Noronha, and on February 4, 1967, was 35 miles off Puerto Rico in the middle of the American fleet on maneuvers. He signaled that he needed help, having lost the mainsail and the engine being in- operative. "Don't worry, Atom," came the reply, "we are sending a tug." Then a sub surfaced and asked if he needed food and water. He said he was thirsty but needed no food. Over came 20 bottles of ice- cold beer. Then the big tug came and towed him at 8 knots into the naval base, where a delegation of officials, reporters, and photographers waited. He was taken to a hospital, examined, then hosted at the base. The passage from Mossel Bay had turned into his longest 6,000 miles in 123 days. He stayed in Puerto Rico for sixty-nine days, waiting for weather, meanwhile selling a few paintings and articles to the local papers. He was often a guest of local residents. And the publicity had got for him a set of new parts for the engine from the Palmer Company.

On April 27, he departed for New York, 1,380 miles away. On June 9, he saw the flash of the Ambrose Lightship, forty-five days out, during which time he had seldom left the tiller. He entered a dense fog, with much ship traffic. On June 10, he entered the quarantine station, and at 4 A.M. the next day picked up his mooring at the Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club. He was home again after 40,000 miles and five years. He had already planned for his ninth crossing of the Atlantic to visit his mother in France, but meanwhile he again picked up his chef's cap at the New American Hotel to replenish his bankroll. He worked nights and returned to the yacht club at 4 A.M. each morning. It was a bad winter, with much ice, and since Atom was moored a hundred yards out, he had to cross in a dinghy. In January, Sheepshead Bay froze over and he could not get aboard. He stayed onshore with friends. Then the ice broke up under a gale and Atom went up against a dock, damaging the bowsprit and part of a rail. But spring came, and again Atom was ready. Loaded down with gifts from friends at the club, he departed.

The weather was variable, and on the radio he heard that a French warship had picked up Edith Bauman, the German woman participating in the Single-handed Transatlantic Race, from her life raft after she had encountered Hurricane Brenda. On July 31, at 8:30 A.M., a U.S. Navy plane came over and signaled with a flare that he was approaching danger. It turned out to be a white buoy marking the spot where the submarine Scorpion had been lost. He put in at Fayal, where he was given a hero's welcome by the Club Nautico. He had a pleasant stay, attended the bull fights, talked to yachting groups. On August 18, he departed for Gibraltar, reached the south coast of Spain on September 19, was received with great hospitality at the Real Club de Regata, as usual. He arrived at Valras on October 8, after 106 days sea time, completing his ninth crossing.

In the spring of 1970, he tried to return to New York, but twenty days out he had to put in for repairs. In the spring of 1971, he started out again on his tenth crossing, which was to be the start also of his third circumnavigation. But by the time he had piled up on the beach on October 25, he had already given up the idea, and was returning to New York to work in the Taft Hotel in order to make enough money to return to France. There, in Marseilles, a yacht harbor had been built and dedicated to him, Jean Gau, and also it had been decreed that Jean Gau could moor his Atom there for the rest of his life. But now, on the lonely coast of Maryland, his home for twenty-six years was high and dry. What would happen to him? When he stumbled to the beach cottage of Robert Clements, one of only two houses on thirty-five miles of sandy seashore, Jean Gau could not believe his good fortune. But there was more to come. Clements was an insurance man, and knew what to do. He called his colleagues in Washington, as well as the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Boat Owners Association of America. Soon Jean Gau was almost overwhelmed with Good Samaritans. A guard was posted immediately to prevent anyone from making a salvage claim. The National Park Service rushed in to help. The navy and the Coast Guard dispatched men and equipment. On November 6, just 13 days after Atom went aground, a Park Service crew dug a 30-foot trench, 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep. A six-man navy salvage crew brought in a 44-foot utility boat and sand-moving equipment. The sand and water were pumped out of Atom, the hull patched with fast-setting cement. With the private cruiser Janet L offshore pulling on a hauser, Atom was brought free of the beach at 8:22 A.M. and towed to Ocean City to be hauled out by crane for permanent repairs. The order for the navy salvage assistance had come direct from the Pentagon, from Commander Robert Moss, deputy director of ocean engineering, who said his decision was made because "of the old gentleman's history with his boat." It was not, he added, a normal navy-type duty, but they did try to help out now and then and show human compassion. As for Jean Gau, he was more than ever confused. He had lived as he wished all his life, accepting the best his two countries could offer, although he had asked nothing but freedom and opportunity. In la belle France, there awaited a new yacht harbor dedicated to his honor. In his adopted country, he had been able to finance his every wish. And now, such an outpouring of compassion, completely unsolicited, when his beloved Atom came to grief on this lonely seashore it was too much. Eh bien? Tout est bien qui finit bien!

A final note on the aging circumnavigator and his aging Atom. After his boat was repaired and re-outfitted, Jean Gau sailed again across the Atlantic. When he had not been heard from for five months, the French government launched an extensive search, unsuccessfully. Months later, in 1973, Gau turned up in France -alone, penniless, and without Atom. His beloved ketch had been blown up on the beach of North Africa and this time had been wrecked beyond salvage.

- end Chapter 23 -

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AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Twenty-three 1. Bernard Moitessier, on the occasion of the meeting of the four French sailors in Durban. 2. Quoted from an interview with Tom Hutch of the Washington Post. 3. From The National Fisherman, Vol. 52, No. 9. 4. See the story of John Hanna in the Designs of John Hanna (New York: Seven Seas Press, 1971 ) . 5. See Sailing to the Reefs by Bernard Moitessier for the fascinating and salty and sometimes acrimonious bull sessions held by these four legendary French seamen. Also in Durban at the time were Henry Wakelam on Wanda and Raymond Cruikshank on Vagabond, among other sea wanderers. 6. Aficionados of John Hanna and Tahiti should note also that Tom Steele in Adios, a 32-foot version of Tahiti, was capsized and dismasted off Cape Horn in almost the same spot. Although Steele also made two circumnavigations in his Tahiti ketch, he would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as a "non-capsizable" boat. 7. The Spray, Vol. XVI, 1972. 8. From The National Fisherman, Jan. 1972, Vol. 52, No. 9. In the fall of 1972, the John Swain boat shop in Cambridge, Maryland was selected to repair and refasten Atom's hull. Swain removed a defective plank from the yacht's garboard strake, which now hangs proudly in his office to "remind him of his friendship with M. Gau." Swain, at the time only 28, was already well-known for his boat designs.