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As with most grand schemes our plan was simple. We wanted to sail a small yacht from our home in San Francisco to Japan via the islands of the South Pacific, and then to return to the United States on the great circle northern route by way of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and finally the Queen Charlotte Islands on the west coast of Canada. The proposal called for 19,000 miles of sailing on a roughly oval-shaped course that followed the sweep of the major surface currents of the Pacific. During the nineteen-month trip we would call at some seventy-five ports and sail in both warm and cold waters. In the South Pacific our biggest hazard would be coral reefs. In the North Pacific our difficulty would be fog.
We were two. Margaret and I decided after examining the records of many small-yacht trips that crew problems were often more severe than the trips themselves. We would man the ship ourselves, although we realized that meant watch and watch in turn, not so easy sometimes, especially when the going was difficult. However, we weren't worried about the troublesome moments. What we thought of were lovely anchorages in turquoise lagoons, weeks of splendid sailing with the warm trade winds behind us, getting to know such places as Samoa, Moorea, Rarotonga, Kusaie ... and the fun of meeting Polynesians and Micronesians. I was anxious to hear Tahitian music at first hand. Margaret was keen to see a coral atoll. Japan and the northern islands were unknown mysteries.
We planned to stay entirely in the Pacific and to begin with French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and Samoa. Then we would shape our course to the northwest and sail to the Ellice, Gilbert, and Eastern Caroline islands, before stopping at Guam and crossing the Philippine Sea on the way to Japan.
It all seemed a long way and a big undertaking. Could we do it?
I learned long ago that travel is more worthwhile if you spend a little time reading about where you are going. There was certainly no lack of writing about most of our goals in the Pacific. The shelves in the libraries bulged with reports of exploration, memoirs of English and French navigators, dusty histories, reminiscences of early travelers, surveys of modern governments, and various long-haired studies. The books about Japan and the Far East often filled a whole room—even in small libraries.
However, when we tried to find out something about the Ellice and Gilbert islands the librarians shook their heads.
"Not much on those places," they said. "Hardly anyone goes there. No steamship or air service. In fact the Ellice and Gilbert islands are not even on most maps."
"Just the islands for me," said Margaret eagerly. "I want to discover some new places. I want to sing and dance with strange people. I want to sit in the kitchens of the women and see how they cook. I want to find out how their clothes are made and I would like to look at their houses. But I guess the only way we can visit such forgotten islands is in our own ship."
Our own ship! Our own ship! The phrase sounded nice, but it was only talk. At that time we didn't own a ship or even know what to buy, though we had been getting plenty of ideas from the splendid shelf of sailing books we had found in the library. More suggestions came from yachting magazines. But most of the advice was from our acquaintances on the docks of Sausalito, a small community just north of the Golden Gate Bridge inside San Francisco Bay.
"What kind of a ship shall I get?" I asked my expert sailing friends.
"A ketch with a powerful engine," said one.
"By all means buy a schooner," said another. "It's the traditional ship of America and the best for going anywhere."
"A cutter is the only yacht to have," said a third. "The two headsail rig is easy to handle and ..."
Ralph Holloway, my neighbor in Sausalito, owned a trim blue-and-white gaff yawl. "It's just the sail plan you need," he said enthusiastically, unrolling the blueprints on his living-room floor. "Everybody knows that a gaff rig is the best for offshore work. A yawl sail plan is perfect."
Four answers to the same question. I should have known better, but like a fool I held out my burned hand toward the flame.
"What is the best material for a ship?" I asked.
"Wood is the only thing for small ships," said Bill Hauselt, who owned a ten-ton schooner and who spoke with authority. "You can always fix wood yourself and the repairs are simple and quick."
Nipper Riddell, a veteran of a long Pacific cruise, had other ideas. "Bah! Wood is the worst choice you can make for a cruising yacht," he said menacingly. "Forget wood. It's only a homestead for worms. Get yourself a good steel ship. You want strength in case you hit anything. Steel is best."
I mentioned Nipper's suggestion to Bob Van Blaricom, an expert sailor who was a civil engineer.
"Steel! Wood! Are you mad?" said Bob. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life replacing rotten planks and soft frames? Or scraping rust and painting steel? Forget woodies and tin boats. Get with the times. Buy a fiberglass ship. Plastic is the best choice these days."
My head was spinning from all these opinions, each of which seemed to go off on a different point of the compass. Only one thing was certain. Small sailing-ship owners were an outspoken, fiercely independent lot who delighted in expressing forceful, earnestly argued views.
The yacht brokers had more ideas. In fact once they started talking they never stopped. They sounded like violin players entranced by the sound of their own fiddling. The brokers never asked us what we wanted; they only tried to sell us what they wanted. They kept telling us what we should have. The brokers asked nosy questions about our finances and suggested schemes for buying harbor-type, cocktail-hour yachts that would have had us in debt forever. Margaret and I fled in horror.
We began to read newspaper advertisements and to tramp the San Francisco Bay docks seeking FOR SALE signs. We shopped diligently for months and inspected several dozen yachts. A ship we could afford was generally too small, too old, in bad condition, or perhaps all three. The cost of big, handsome yachts was beyond us. One ship had a splendid hull but we didn't like the interior. A Hong Kong-built cutter seemed a good choice until an expert told us the frames and deck beams were too light for offshore cruising. We were shown a forty-two-foot cutter named Helaine that had been constructed by a famous Alameda shipyard. We looked, we liked it, we hesitated ... and a friend bought it.
We drove to the Pacific Northwest to see what yachts were for sale. One Sunday morning in October at the Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle we saw a sleek black- hulled sloop about to go out for a race. The yacht seemed much larger than her thirty-five feet. We liked the ship right away but sighed at the probable cost of a fiberglass hull.
The craft turned out to be a Spencer 35, a design with a good racing record that was built in Canada, just across the border. We traveled to Vancouver and looked up the tiny boat works on Mitchell Island, where we met the builder and later the naval architect, John Brandlmayr. The price was more than we had planned, but we were thrilled at the prospect of a sleek new yacht beautifully finished in teak below decks. I outlined the Pacific trip proposal to Brandlmayr and he thought the ship could do it. We had barely enough money, so I agreed to do a little of the interior finishing and to shop for the Diesel engine, rigging fittings, ground tackle, and the sails myself.
We decided on the name Whisper for our new ship. The builder started construction in November 1965, and she was launched the following February. We spent March fitting her out and installing a Hasler wind vane automatic steering gear which we hoped would reduce tedious watches. In April we sailed Whisper south to San Francisco, covering the 1,000 miles in eleven days.
We soon learned that a new ship needs many modifications, refinements, and a continuing supply of equipment. We threw out an expensive Diesel cooking and heating stove because the depth of the ship made a proper draft impossible. The ship lacked conventional bilge drainage, so we ran a hose from the chain locker to the engine bilge. The floor of the head compartment had no drainage and had to be rebuilt. We put the hand bilge pump in three places before it found a permanent home. We installed larger outlet pipes and valves in the self-draining cockpit. We had trouble with deck leaks around the chain plates and in the after section of the forepeak. A friend, Doug Duane, a magician with metal, made us a dozen special stainless-steel fittings, including a fifteen-gallon kerosene tank that we needed to hold the fuel for lamps, a new cooking stove, and a cabin heater from England.
Margaret and I both kept our regular jobs, but we spent every spare hour of 1966 working on Whisper. Our problems fell into two classes:
(1) Instead of stockpiling money for the trip we found we were spending large sums outfitting the ship ($55 to Paris for charts of French Polynesia, $14 for two mushroom ventilators, $9 for fire-extinguisher refills, $ 150 for a spare sextant, etc.).
(2) For every job we scratched off our project list we found two more to do. For example, on April 30 I had a list with thirty-eight projects (drill locker ventilation holes, improve cockpit locker drainage, install windlass spring, make dinghy chocks, and so forth). That day I completed four jobs but found six new ones, so the list increased to forty!
The following March we began to lay in stores. One evening at dusk a driver from a wholesale grocer unloaded most of his truck on the dock. We almost fainted when we saw the mountain of canned goods ("Opening a grocery?" inquired a man walking his dog). However, little by little we tucked away the thirty cases of canned meats, vegetables, and fruits, a sack of rice, long skinny boxes of spaghetti, and giant cans of onion flakes, instant potatoes, and dried eggs. Fang, the ship's cat, was mystified by all the containers, and while we were putting the stores away she liked to hide behind the boxes and to jump among the cans.
By now we had both given up our jobs and were living and working full time on Whisper. There was so much to do that even day and night weren't long enough. We constructed shelves underneath the cockpit and strapped in such items as eight gallons of bottom paint, varnish, fiberglassing chemicals, and various solvents and sealants. We tucked away a dozen lamp chimneys, extra winch handles, spares for the Primus stoves, and a large box of engine parts. We slipped 130 charts beneath the forepeak bunks, which began to rise alarmingly. Doctors whom we knew loaded us down with enough drugs to start a pharmacy.
"I don't approve of your trip particularly," said Dr. Hank Turkell, the Coroner of San Francisco, who owned a nearby motor-sailer, "but if you're really going you had better take these antibiotics along," he said, generously handing me a small box.
A dentist, Jerry Williams, who had the ship next to us obligingly fitted out a kit for emergency tooth fillings.
We hired an expert to adjust the compass.
We had both shorts and swimming suits for the tropics, and heavy sweaters, thermal underwear, sea boots, and oilskins for the North Pacific. We had light bulbs, nose drops, Stillson wrenches, birthday candles, metric taps, ukulele strings ...
We had thousands of items on board, so many that Margaret was obliged to keep lists in order to find things. For foodstuffs she kept one notebook with locations and a second that listed the quantity. We got visas in our passports for the countries we planned to visit. We went to the doctor for various traveler's injections and booster shots. It seemed that we were working twice as hard and twice as long as we did when we had regular jobs.
But sometimes we stopped work to go sailing, which after all was what the ship was for. San Francisco is a lovely place to sail, for the winds are good and the seas slight. At dawn the sky above the bay was often a delicate garden of daffodil yellow and wild rose. In the afternoon, tongues of cottony white fog would slip in from the Pacific and gently drift past the massive towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. At dusk the lights of San Francisco spun a web of silver that floated above the strong, silent water. In our little ship we would glide along and marvel at it all.
The word had gotten around that we were soon to leave on a long trip. The number of curious visitors on weekends became a problem. Although we had many jobs we were glad to see people and to explain the working of the automatic wind vane steering gear which was a novelty. However, on some Sundays twenty-five or thirty people would appear, some expecting to be fed, given drinks, and generally entertained. Hardly anyone took off his shoes, and by Sunday night the decks and cabin sole would be black with tracked-on dirt.
Sometimes we solved the weekend problem by slipping out for a sail and anchoring in a cove somewhere, often with our friends, Bob and Jane Van Blaricom, who helped us immensely. They had a new baby, Anne, who Bob carried on board in a basket. Bob and Jane had purchased a forty-foot cutter in England and had sailed it across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and up to San Francisco, where they had sold it at a big profit.
"And hated ourselves ever since," said Bob wistfully, wishing that he still owned Armorel. "Cruising in small boats is the real life. We certainly wish we were going with you. What fools we were to sell Armorel."
"Some of our friends think us quite adventurous and brave," I said. "Others think us quite mad. One thing is certain. We'll be entirely on our own when we're out there. We'll have to be self-sufficient and to look out for ourselves. Of course the first question most people ask when they hear about the trip is: 'How powerful is your radio transmitter?' I tell them that we have no transmitter and that even if we did there would be no one to call far out in the Pacific, certainly no U.S. Coast Guard. Many people profess to like boating but they have a genuine fear of the sea—or maybe it's a fear of the unknown. I don't wish to sound cocky, but I am supremely confident."
"You won't have any problems at all," replied Bob. "The biggest problem for adventurers is to get away from home. The world is full of talkers and dreamers. Not many people do anything."
Neither Margaret nor I had ever visited the South Pacific or the Far East. Although we had sailed a little in the West Indies, in Greece, in Scotland, and up and down the west coast of the United States, we had never undertaken a major ocean crossing by ourselves. There was much talk about the Pacific being too large for a small yacht. We would have to find out....
We were ready to go. We had a good ship, hopefully were well prepared, and had an exciting itinerary.
The table was set. The meal was in front of us.
The Long Crossing
On our twelfth day at sea, May 15, we were halfway between California and the Marquesas, the northernmost islands of French Polynesia. We had forgotten about land. Civilization seemed remote and unbelievable. Our position that day was 15° 15' north of the equator and 125° west of Greenwich. San Francisco was 1,560 miles to the north. Hilo, Hawaii, lay 1,740 miles in a direction a little north of west, and my chart showed that El Salvador, in Central America, was 2,340 miles to the east.
When I stood in the companionway and looked around I saw only the ocean, the sky, and the trade wind clouds—small rabbit tails of cotton that lay stacked overhead like puffs from a giant pipe. We had seen no ships since leaving California, and we were emphatically alone—alone in a world of blue. A feathery turquoise glowed in the sky; around me as I turned I could see a hard rim of ink-bottle blue where the sky stopped and the sea began. The etched line of the horizon was firm and definitive and it almost seemed to enclose a private world. It was a delight to be by ourselves, and how free we were! Our lives lay in our hands alone—no one knew where we were—and the independence was a good feeling. I felt exuberant and reassured somehow. I knew that I was in charge of the ship and what we did, but I also had the notion that I was in control of the sea that I could see around me—a foolish idea, I suppose, for it is manifest that the sea knows no master. Yet as long as we paid proper respect to the might of the ocean I felt sure that our tiny ship would be safe.
On that sun-drenched day Whisper flew along with the strong northeast trade wind blowing hard on her port quarter. We had eased the mainsail to starboard so the wind blew directly against the big sail, which we balanced with a jib held out to port on a long pole set at right angles to the following wind. In general we had found the northeast trades stronger than we had reckoned. The arrows on the Pilot charts indicated winds of Force 4, eleven to sixteen knots, but we often experienced Force 6, twenty-two to twenty-seven knots, and sometimes more. However, the winds were fair and behind us.
The trade wind sailing was glorious. Whisper seemed totally alive and as responsive as a lady in love. How we rushed along! With the sails full and straining we would ride up on a big swell and whoosh forward as a white-topped crest raced past. The air was fresh and you took in great lungfuls of the clean stuff. The sun felt hot on my bare shoulders, and Margaret and I often sat on the side decks and let our feet hang over the edge into the 75° water. When I looked aloft the sun glinted on the warm brown of the spruce mast and sparkled on bits of the rigging. Whisper rolled steadily from side to side, and I looked up through half-closed eyes to see the white sails dancing beneath the blue of the sky. Was the ship moving and the sky steady or was it the other way? The white embraced the blue and waltzed around and around. The white pirouetted. The blue bowed. It was a dream; it was heaven!
We steered Whisper largely with an automatic mechanism, a Hasler wind vane steering gear. The device was a valuable crewman who was always alert and working, never grumbled, never got hungry, and was particularly good on long night watches. As time went on we found the steering gear more and more useful. It gave Margaret and me time to navigate, do odd jobs, read, and get plenty of sleep. Steering hour after hour at sea is a bore; we had plenty of other things to do.
Excerpted from THE HAL ROTH SEAFARING TRILOGY by Hal Roth. Copyright © 2005 by Hal Roth. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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1 An Idea
2 The Long Crossing
3 So Lofty and Green
4 The People of the Sea
5 Every body's Paradise
6 Where Are the Cooks?
7 The Smallest Island
8 The Heart of Polynesia
9 Twice Adopted
10 The Back Door to Yesterday
11 Close to Shipwreck
12 The Porpoise Is Dead, the Whale Is Sunk
13 A Large Outrigger Has Been Sighted
14 Where Are You, Magellan?
15 A Sail in Japan
16 Are the Aleutians Cold?
17 Gales, Totems, and Eagles
Appendix: A Few Notes on Whisper
Posted August 20, 2009
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Posted February 9, 2012
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