The Washington Post
Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Raftingby T. R. Pearson
Welcome to the daring, thrilling, and downright strange adventures of William Willis, one of the world’s original extreme sportsmen. Driven by an unfettered appetite for personal challenge and a yen for the path of most resistance, Willis mounted a single-handed and wholly unlikely rescue in the jungles of French Guiana and then twice crossed the broad Pacific on rafts of his own design, with only housecats and a parrot for companionship. His first voyage, atop a ten-ton balsa monstrosity, was undertaken in 1954 when Willis was sixty. His second raft, having crossed eleven thousand miles from Peru, found the north shore of Australia shortly after Willis’s seventieth birthday. A marvel of vigor and fitness, William Willis was a connoisseur of ordeal, all but orchestrating short rations, ship-wreck conditions, and crushing solitude on his trans-Pacific voyages.
He’d been inspired by Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s bid to prove that a primitive raft could negotiate the open ocean. Willis’s trips confirmed that a primitive man could as well. Willis survived on rye flour and seawater, sang to keep his spirits up, communicated with his wife via telepathy, suffered from bouts of temporary blindness, and eased the intermittent pain of a double hernia by looping a halyard around his ankles and dangling upside-down from his mast.
Rich with vivid detail and wry humor, Seaworthy is the story of a sailor you’ve probably never heard of but need to know. In an age when countless rafts were adrift on the waters of the world, their crews out to shore up one theory of ethno-migration or tear down another, Willis’s challenges remained refreshingly personal. His methods were eccentric, his accomplishments little short of remarkable. Don’t miss the chance to meet this singular monk of the sea.
From the Hardcover edition.
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1: Little One
He carried by way of provisions only olive oil and flour, honey and lemon juice, garlic and evaporated milk. Since he intended to drink from the sea, a personal practice of long standing, he’d dispensed with the bother of stowing so much as the first ounce of fresh water. His radar reflector was a scrap of planking wrapped in aluminum foil, his chronometer a balky pocketwatch, his distress flag a scarlet sweater. He’d shipped no proper radio, had but a sextant for his bearings, sailing directions to guide him into the English Channel past Bishop Rock. Among his papers was a letter of introduction to the mayor of Plymouth, England, from the Honorable John V. Lindsay, the mayor of New York City. It read, in part, “If the bearer delivers this letter to you in person, he will have completed a trans-Atlantic voyage of great merit.”
This was his third attempt in as many years at a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, all in a craft he’d christened Little One in honor of his wife. Hardly more than a glorified dinghy, that boat lived decidedly down to her name. She was eleven and a half feet stem to stern and five feet at the beam. She was sloop-rigged and lone-masted, weighed just over one thousand pounds, had three feet of draft, and was, even in sheltered, benign waters, ungainly.
He’d departed on his maiden voyage directly out of New York Harbor. A tug had taken his boat in tow at the foot of Twenty-third Street and had hauled him down the East River and along the Brooklyn shoreline in a bid to avoid both shipping traffic and bothersome harbor chop. He’d cast himself loose just a couple of miles past the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and had passed his first evening at sea watching the sun set over New Jersey while enjoying for dinner two teaspoons of whole wheat flour moistened with spit.
His first week out, the winds were southerly and the sea fog was persistent. He fell overboard one morning while attempting to set his jib, fairly swamped the boat in the process, and doused everything he’d carried. (He was never entirely dry for the remainder of the trip.) On the open ocean, Little One rolled more violently than he’d expected. She bucked and wallowed and generally handled in the manner of a cork, which, when combined with the gloomy weather, rendered his sextant all but useless. He either couldn’t see the sun or was too sea-tossed to shoot a useful sight and so had, as a rule, no reliable sense of just where he might be.
Ordinarily, he could have expected to need three months on the water to reach the English Channel from the narrows of Lower New York Bay, but he was plagued by unfavorable weather—a string of gales, and a hurricane—and after five weeks at sea, he found himself off the coast of Nova Scotia, within sight of Sable Island and in some danger from the surf. He was nearly two hundred miles farther north than he’d intended and well west of where he’d reasonably hoped to be.
Steering south, he met with the Black Swan, a freighter bound for Antwerp, and was given a carton of fresh fruit that he welcomed aboard for ballast. He took to riding out storms by
nailing himself in under his canvas decking, which salt and sun had conspired to spoil the fit of early on. He’d lie with a knife in hand in case he met cause to slash his way out. He slept little, was awake for days at a time, and compensated with meditation, along with a form of rhythmic breathing he’d freely adapted from Eastern religion. He could be, on occasion, so strict in its practice and parsimonious with air that he would rhythmically breathe himself into a faint. He was once unconscious for two days running, and, having survived somehow adrift, he awoke to find his chronometer stopped because he’d failed to wind it.
He suffered from heavy nosebleeds and decided, essentially on a hunch, that they were simply nature’s way of staving off cerebral hemorrhage. He had a bout with a hernia he’d allowed to go untreated for years and sought to ease his discomfort by looping the mizzen halyard around his ankles and hoisting himself upside down to the masthead, where he rearranged his guts. He noted in his log the “pernicious” effects of drinking Atlantic seawater (he allowed himself a quarter of a cup a day), and he concluded that the practice “might well lead to madness and suicide,” which, as potential calamities go, proved wholly insufficient to curb him.
His voyage was beset in turn by squalls and windless, fogbound lulls. He met scores of ships and refused all offers to take him off the water. He sang sea chanteys to lift his spirits. He measured and recorded his blood pressure daily and performed each afternoon a simple urinalysis. In testing the transmitter he had carried in the event of emergency, he discovered that the contraption didn’t work. He drifted east and south in the Gulf Stream and was convinced he’d make the Azores if the weather cooperated and his hernia gave him some peace. But the wind dropped, and he suffered a series of strangulation attacks, each of which could have led to the rapid, fatal onset of gangrene. He liked to think that his diet of flour, seawater, and condensed milk worked to forestall fever and served (though he couldn’t begin to say how) to spare him.
He wasn’t persuaded, however, that his luck and health would last, and he settled on the prudent option of cutting short his voyage and attempting another when he was properly mended. But just then sea traffic evaporated, and he saw no ships for a couple of weeks. When he finally spied the stacks of a Boston-bound steamer on the horizon, he inadvertently set his mainsail alight with the flare he’d struck to hail it and managed to go unnoticed nonetheless.
After two months at sea to the day, he crossed paths with the Sapphire Gladys, a New York freighter bound for Rotterdam. Again he declined to be taken off, since the Sapphire Gladys was eastbound, and instead requested that the captain radio the Coast Guard. The cutter Ingham was dispatched and managed to find him the following morning at a point, essentially, due east of Amagansett, Long Island, and due south of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland—a good two thousand nautical miles away from Plymouth, England.
* * *
His second attempt, the following summer, was only modestly more successful. In the intervening year, he’d fitted Little One with a wooden deck and a cabin that measured all of fifty-two by thirty inches, hardly room enough to sit with any comfort, much less stand. He’d been at sea for three full months when the Polish trawler Belona came across him; a crewman saw the scarlet sweater flying from his mast. He was entirely out of food and was in a “cataleptic trance.” He came to on the deck of the ship and asked to be put back onto the water, insisting he was capable of finishing the voyage, but the trawler captain sensibly refused.
Overall, Little One had traveled thirty-five hundred nautical miles, but only about two thousand of it was easting. Gales and squalls were largely to blame, though in a statement to a reporter, the skipper confessed that he’d known “some trouble navigating.”
Refitted and freshly resolved, he set out again the following spring. He’d arranged for a tow to the sea buoy twelve miles off Montauk Point, where he dropped his line and set his sails and struck out again for Plymouth. It was Wednesday, May 1, 1968. His name was William Willis, and he was seventy-four years old.
William Willis’s attempt to cross an ocean in his twilight years was, as much as anything, an act of symmetry. He’d fairly started life a blue-water sailor and was determined to finish as one. Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1893, Willis signed on as a deck boy on the Henriette at the age of fifteen in a bid to help support his family, lately abandoned by his father. She was a square-rigger, the Henriette, a five-masted bark bound for Santa Rosalía in the Gulf of California with a cargo of coke for a copper smelter.
The Henriette carried a crew of thirty-four all told, only one of them a holdover from the previous voyage, which had seen the captain, a soundly detested martinet, die under sail of
an infected boil. Once his body had been unceremoniously pitched overboard, command was assumed by the first mate, who proved equally harsh and appreciably less sane. He took to wearing the late captain’s sumptuous dress uniform—many sizes too large for him—and touring the deck with a brace of pistols he would discharge whimsically at seamen in the rigging.
The crew mutinied, after a fashion. They barricaded themselves belowdecks, sending a lone man to the wheel each watch until the Henriette was brought safely into the port of Iquique in northern Chile, where the first mate was overpowered and hustled off the ship.
On Willis’s maiden voyage, the new captain was very little in evidence as the Henriette sailed south through the English Channel and into the North Atlantic on a course for the Drake Passage around Cape Horn. The crew was the typical mongrel lot of the times—Germans, Poles, Danes, Russians—and the shipboard conditions were all but medieval. Although illness and injury were commonplace on such voyages, there was no medicine on the Henriette but for a “cathartic” that was suspected of being “strong enough to put a leak in the ship if poured into the bilges.” Broken limbs were rudely splinted, amputations performed with the carpenter’s saw. Most lapses in decorum and failures of sound sense were met with a belaying pin to the cranium and a stint in irons in the sunless hole beneath the poop deck.
Rations consisted primarily of bean soup and salted beef, along with a weekly half cup of brown sugar. The sea biscuits were maggoty, and the hold was overrun with roaches, no few of which found their way into the stewpot. The barrel of gin intended for the crew, supplied by the ship’s owners, was never dispensed, because it—along with a fair bit of crew
rations—had been lowered to a boat in the Elbe and sent to the captain’s house, a brand of thievery widely sanctioned as a custom of the sea.
At first Willis’s duties were largely custodial in nature. He swept the decks, chipped rust in the dank, airless chain locker, and repainted the lifeboats, while the more experienced seamen were occupied overhauling the rigging of the ship. Starting at the mastheads, they worked their way down, replacing every gear and brace and block and line while the sailmakers, on the deck below, patched and mended the acres of canvas one of the largest four-masters on the seas carried when fully under way. At night, between watches, Willis would climb recreationally into the rigging, making treacherous progress up the masts and back down to get a feel for the ratlines beneath his feet, the rolling pitch of the ship, the wind in the shrouds.
Willis and his fellow deck boys spent part of each watch learning the ropes with the help of the first mate. A beast of a man, he would shout out, “Main topgallant staysail downhaul” or “Foretopmast staysail halyard!” and the deck boys would run to the rope he’d named, with the mate hot behind them. Mistakes were punished with lashes from a length of tarred hemp. All quivering complaints from the victims were met with the same suggestion: Jump overboard anytime you please.
At thirty-eight degrees south, just below Buenos Aires, the crew bent on the storm sails intended to carry the Henriette around Cape Horn. The weather worsened. The seas steepened. The ship ran before gales at as much as ten knots while the temperature dropped and the crew broke out oilskins and sea boots. Willis was soon cured of his fascination with the rigging. He was ordered into the shrouds in sleet and hailstorms to take in sail high above the rolling ship on squally, frigid, pitch-black nights. When a breaking sea washed through the galley and injured the cook, the crew had no hot food for days, living on cereal and hardtack softened in cold coffee. Their clothes were either wet or frozen. There were no gloves on board, just mittens for the helmsmen. The men’s mattresses and blankets were soaked through. No fire burned on the ship at all.
Close upon the Horn, the Henriette met a Finnish bark sailing north under little more than rags on splintered masts. She lay deep in the seas with her bowsprit and bulwarks torn away. Her crew was pumping furiously, hoping to make Port Stanley in the Falklands. She raised no signal of distress but plunged on, half buried in the combers, just another victim of the roaring forties and fit warning of what lay ahead.
Gales and even hurricanes blown up from the Antarctic were unremitting as the Henriette cleared the Scotia Sea and entered the longest uninterrupted fetch of water on the planet. When, after weeks of storms, the sun finally peeked through for mere seconds, the captain took a sight and discovered that the Henriette had been driven dangerously close to the cape. He ordered a change in tack in a tremendous rolling swell that was accomplished with two lifeboats smashed to bits and the galley half destroyed from a breaking sea. But the maneuver succeeded, and the ship drifted south, away from the land and into the grip of the Southern Ocean.
The sails, the stays, the yardarms, all were soon sheathed in ice. Storm-plagued, fighting the currents and prevailing winds, the Henriette ventured so far south as to meet with bergs broken off the Antarctic pack. Watches were suspended, and the crew did duty for days on end, alternately setting sail and taking it in as the Henriette threaded her way through and around the danger. Even a glancing collision could readily have breached her hull and sent the ship to the bottom, and as the ice thickened around the Henriette and the threat became all but constant, the nervous crew sent a delegation to the captain.
Three seamen sought out the man in his quarters to suggest he set an easterly course to escape from the ice. Two of the party were immediately clapped in irons and confined for insubordination. The third was sent back to the crew with a message from the captain: “Tell them forward that I am setting the course on this ship.”
Crowded with canvas but for upper gallants and royals, the Henriette drove west by north before gales in a sea littered with ice. The true position of the ship remained a mystery for days on end as the sun stayed hidden from view and no proper sights could be taken, but the Henriette held together and plunged on, finally rounding Cape Horn and heading north into the Pacific, where she shed her storm sails and the crew reworked the rigging and scrubbed the fouled pine decking with sand and stones until it shone white.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
T. R. Pearson is the author of ten novels, including Glad News of the Natural World, A Short History of a Small Place, and Blue Ridge. This is his first nonfiction book.
From the Hardcover edition.
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