True Tales of Extraordinary Seafaring Adventures
By Marlin Bree, Marlin, Bree
Marlor Press, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Marlin Bree
All rights reserved.
TEN FEET ACROSS THE PACIFIC
MISTS SHROUDED THE GRAY SEAS OFF THE LIZARD as Yankee Girl searched for land. Aboard his 10-foot sloop, Gerry Spiess had been working his way toward Falmouth, England, encountering not only a thick fog but strong tidal currents that could sweep his little plywood boat into the treacherous reefs of Cornwall's coastline. He'd listen for the Lizard's fog horn, a long blast followed by a short one, then start up his outboard engine and head directly toward the sound. After 10 minutes, he'd turn off the engine, listen and take a new bearing.
Suddenly, the fog lifted. Rising above the cliffs was the sparkling Lizard point and beyond, green fields.
The ex-schoolteacher breathed a sigh of relief. He had ended one of the most remarkable voyages in history by piloting his home -built boat 3,800 miles across the stormy North Atlantic Ocean to England to set a new world's record for the smallest boat to cross from West to East.
Two years after his 1979 North Atlantic voyage, he wanted to sail the same little boat again. This time the challenge he picked was to cross the world's largest ocean.
It would be a monumental voyage of 7,800 miles to Sydney, Australia, across the Pacific Ocean.
He shoved off from Long Beach, California, hoping to quickly pick up the South Pacific's steady and balmy trade winds. His first port of call, Honolulu, Hawaii, beckoned to the west.
But the Pacific had turned cold and treacherous.
TEN FEET ACROSS THE PACIFIC
The remarkable voyage of Gerry Spiess and Yankee Girl
A full moon had arisen over the South Pacific Ocean and in its silvery light, ominous big rollers were forming and breaking. Long waves with white breakers were beginning to overhang the small sailboat and slam hard into Yankee Girl's transom, giving her nasty shoves.
As Gerry Spiess threw open the hatch, a chill wind brushed his face and he saw that the waves were starting to run confused and were piling up.
A splash of spray hit him - the water was remarkably cold.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Voyaging in the South Pacific was supposed to have sunshiny days in warm trade winds, with tropical nights ablaze with stars. But this trip was turning nasty.
It was the evening of the ninth day, and, the waves were rearing up to overshadow the 10-foot sloop. He had entered the convergence zone, where a cold current runs down from Alaska and meets the warm central current. Big rollers were starting to form and break.
When the wind changed direction, it had created two sets of waves. One set of waves was running 8 to 12 feet; the other waves ran at more than 8 feet.
Worse yet, the wave trains were starting to collide as the wind came around.
Slamming his hatch shut, Gerry slumped back into his cabin and the warmth of a sleeping bag. He was thankful that he had decided earlier to take down all sails and run under bare poles - a standard procedure for rough weather. But he knew he was in for a rough night.
There was a heavy thump. Suddenly, sheets of water poured through the closed hatch. Startled, Gerry looked up to see a small Niagara flooding inside the cabin. The water felt surprisingly cold.
Hawaii lay more than 1,800 miles away - and was looking increasingly distant.
A following wave had overrun Yankee Girl, buried her in water, and turned her into a submarine with only her mast sticking out. The water pressure had blasted through the sliding hatch closure.
Moments later, she fought her way free of the wave, but Gerry knew his boat was in danger. Yankee Girl was heavy laden.
The steep seas, closely bunched, were so bad that even running under bare poles wasn't working. She couldn't take many more waves over her transom.
Timing the waves, Gerry threw back the hatch and crouched on the wet deck as Yankee Girl pitched below him.
In the moonlight, he could see a big wave roaring toward him. He managed to close the hatch below him., but there was not a lot to hang onto. He lunged forward on the cabin top to the mast, in the peculiar scuttling motion he had to use on a tippy boat with a five -and-a-half foot beam
With one hand on the mast, he inserted a foot on the starboard shroud and chain plate and crouched down. The wave roared over the transom and overran the boat, splashing him.
Gerry felt the boat careen momentarily to one side. Yankee Girl hesitated, then righted herself.
From his position, he could reach forward with one hand to pull out the jib, which was lashed under shock chord along the bow's starboard side.
Coolly, he leaned forward with one hand to pull out the sail and hank it onto the forestay. He tied the jib halyard to the sail and crossed the jib sheet to the opposite side. Minutes later, he had the mainsail unlashed along the boom.
Wet and chilled, he tumbled back into the cockpit and hoisted the deeply reefed main and the jib. After throwing the tiller to the opposite side, Yankee Girl obediently turned, pointed her bow into the wind and heaved to.
He had done it. The effect was astonishing and immediate.
It seemed as if the ocean suddenly had gone calm; Yankee Girl slowly would move forward, then fall off, stall out, move a little backward, then resume her motion forward. Instead of being bashed in her broad, flat transom by the heavy waves, her pointed bow speared into the breakers and shoved them to one side. With her sails up, she had balance and direction.
Gerry sighed with satisfaction. Heaving to was one of the heavy weather maneuvers Yankee Girl excelled at. She did not do well lying to a sea anchor, for she would sail forward and overreach, making the anchor useless in waves. But with her v-shaped hull, and long keel, she could heave-to steadily, even in broken seas, and work easily with the waves, like a little fishing bobber.
A last look around and Gerry slammed the hatch shut, dogging it down.
He had done all he could for his little boat. Now she'd have to look after him.
At dawn, he sensed something was different. Yankee Girl's motion had changed.
His muscles aching from the long night and his skin itching from his damp bunk, Gerry threw open the hatch and blinked in the early morning light.
The sun was high in the sky, but the Pacific spread lumpy seas to every horizon. Gone were the breaking seas of last night, but Yankee Girl's sails were beginning to slat and flutter.
They had gone from too much wind to not enough.
Gerry scratched his salt-soaked beard and peered over the transom - his engine was still on its motor mount. It had been repeatedly doused as waves had overrun the boat. It must have been battered by thousands of breakers; he'd heard it shudder and bang under the wave's battering. More than once during the night, he wondered if it'd been torn off.
But it was a tough two-cycle outboard, and, he'd always had great luck with the two-cycles, even on his stormy North Atlantic crossing, where his elderly 4-hp. Evinrude had been beaten by cross waves and repeatedly doused. Behind him was a brand new 4.5-hp. engine.
These engines always fire up, Gerry thought, as he pulled the s tarting cord through to get the gas up.
Then he yanked another time - hard.
He tried again and again, but the outboard would not start. It would spin through, but not catch and fire up. He began to perspire and not just from the exertion.
Had something broken in the storm? Without an engine, he would be in deep trouble. He needed the small outboard to get back on schedule in the calms and to get into harbors. It was a critical part of his strategy.
More tries at starting the engine would not help - it was time for a new tactic. He took his hand from the starting chord, his arm already starting to ache.
What was the problem? The first guess came quickly. Electrical, probably. That was always a good guess on boats. Out of curiosity, he raised the throttle arm and peered beneath. The engine had a shut-off, or kill, button at the end of the throttle arm. If you pushed the button, the engine stopped.
He saw what was causing the problem. Somehow, the waves had shorted out the kill switch.
With a needle nose pliers from his repair kit, he snipped its wires - hopefully bypassing the problem.
He crossed his fingers and hauled hard on the starter cord. With a whuff of smoke, the little two-stroke started up and soon settled into a raspy idle.
He set his course toward Hawaii, running his engine just barely turning over at a fast idle - at a stately cruising speed of around 2.2 knots (2.53 mph.) - which he maintained almost nonstop day and night for the next 6 days.
To refuel, he'd unscrew the filler top of his six-gallon main gas tank, pour in gas from one of the gas cans from the bilge, screw back the top, and continue cruising - without stopping his engine. He did shut his engine off several times to change the engine's single spark plug - cheap insurance, he figured.
The slow, but consistent running was part of his crossing strategy. It took patience, but gave him great gas mileage. At the speed he ran the engine, the two-cycle single cylinder engine only used a fraction of a gallon per hour. That meant one gallon of pre-mixed gas and oil would last more than seven hours. A 24-hour day's run would consume only 3.5 gallons. He carried 54 gallons of pre-mixed gas on board, most of it in the bilges, down low for ballast.
At low speeds, Yankee Girl's power cruising was effortless, but noisy. When he was piloting the boat, he sat in the aft bunk, with his head near the transom and the outboard, or when he slept in short periods, he had his head just a few feet from the engine. He found he couldn't get away from the outboard's noise - particularly annoying for a wind sailor.
He became aware of another problem. Inside the cabin, Gerry sniffed the air to discover the faint, but unmistakable smell of two-cycle smoke.
He sat up straighter. If that were coming back into the open hatchway, there might be something else: the deadly invisible, odorless killer - carbon monoxide gas.
With a light following breeze, but not enough wind to power up the sails, there was no escaping the problem that heavier-than-air carbon monoxide was finding its way into his tiny cabin and down into the bilges.
He tried keeping the hatch open only one or two inches, which was only a partial solution, he realized. He also found he couldn't sleep well or for very long. The engine droned on.
He began to yearn for the trade winds.
He did not feel the first, gentle gust, but noticed that his engine speeded up from its usual fast idle. Odd, Gerry thought and he looked up to see his sails starting to draw.
His boat was a wind ship again.
It was the beginning of the third stage of his trip to Hawaii and the one he looked forward to the most. He shut down the little outboard by choking it off and let the trade winds fill his sails and carry him to the islands.
Soaring along in the trades was a wonderful feeling. Yankee Girl was clearly enjoying herself, bowling along majestically on a peaceful, rolling sea. The Pacific was starting to live up to its legends.
In crossing the North Atlantic, he came to rely on his twin jibs to pull him along, but now he could try out his 180-square-foot spinnaker, set on two poles. The big red chute ballooned up in front of him and Yankee Girl picked up speed.
But it was not a comfortable ride with all that canvas up. Yankee Girl seemed not to handle or steer well: she would yaw a bit and need course correction. Frankly, she worried him.
After several hours, Gerry hauled the spinnaker down and again hoisted his twin jibs. In this arrangement, his two 39-square foot jibs were both poled out from the bow to resemble two odd-shaped triangles. By sheeting each jib separately, he could control the sails perfectly from the safety of his cockpit.
Now Yankee Girl steered herself in the trade winds, without his hand on the helm and with perfect control.
He noted with satisfaction that his speed was only a two-tenths of a knot slower than with the spinnaker.
Now in her stride, the little boat began to eat up the miles. With the twin jibs pulling her along like small ponies, her daily run increased. Some days, she'd do 85 nautical miles - some days, 95.
Gerry relaxed in the open cockpit, enjoying his fine pocket cruiser in the trade winds and bright sunshine - the South Pacific he had hoped for. As he peered into the water, he saw that its color had changed to a deep indigo blue. He reached over and cupped a handful just to admire its beauty.
For his navigation, he had two Davis plastic sextants. This included a sextant he bought for $20 and had used to cross the Atlantic. He mostly used the $20 one because he liked it so much.
From his navigational calculations, he knew he was nearing the Hawaiian Islands, so he turned on his transistor radio and listened to a broadcast from a Hawaiian station. He had an aircraft radio on board and he could hear pilots somewhere in the skies checking with air controllers in preparation for landing.
As one flight high in the sky came nearly overhead, Gerry called to it via his aircraft radio. He told them where he was and gave them his GPS coordinates, but after several tries, the pilots could not make the tiny boat out in the waves below. Gerry watched their contrails etch white against the blue sky.
The jet would land in Honolulu in 40 minutes.
He'd be there in about five days.
Off in the distance, the islands of Hawaii rose to greet him, first the Big Island, then, Maui, and finally Molokai. Blue peaks emerged out of a light hazing of mist. He could see their green tips from a long way off.
It was his first sighted landfall in nearly 2,500 miles and the islands were right where his plastic sextant told him they'd be.
Gratefully, Gerry steered around the northern edge of Molokai to a small beach with a sand bottom and good protection from the trade winds.
It was late afternoon when he dropped his small anchor and began to make preparations for his landing at Honolulu. He did not want to come through the Kaiwi Channel at night on his way to Oahu and he needed to make preparations after many days at sea.
With Yankee Girl bobbing in the blue waters, and, Molokai's green hills nearby, Gerry enjoyed the Hawaiian breezes with the hatch open.
The land smelled wonderful, but there was much to do.
From the bow area, he brought up some empty gas cans, which he filled with seawater, so that his boat would have the right trim. Since Yankee Girl did not have any permanent ballast, but relied upon stores for weight below, he needed to maintain the right load in the bilges.
He checked his main gas tank and figured he'd have enough gas left to make it in to Honolulu. No need to top it up: he'd sail in the beautiful trade winds and he'd only need to run his engine for maneuvering.
He shook his head: there was a lot of housekeeping to do, but that'd have to wait. Down below in the bilges, salt water had begun to rust some of his cans of food and supplies. The inside of his boat was damp because of the water he had taken inside through the hatch closures.
He had already lost his flannel-lined sleeping bag, which had gotten soaked. He had tried to dry it out, but on a small boat, there was no room and after three days it began to smell badly - like old tennis shoes. His only recourse was to toss it overboard. For warmth, he had huddled under several blankets because the early part of the voyage had temperatures lower than expected in the cold California current, which swept a third of the way to Hawaii
But now tropical breezes wafted over him. He had a supper out of a can - his favorite at sea, Dinty Moore stew - and fell asleep, exhausted.
It was a good night's sleep, in the shadow of the great island, his boat bobbing gently in protected blue waters.
Tomorrow would be his homecoming.
The VHF radio inside the grass-thatched bar in Honolulu had been squawking transmissions as I listened intently for Gerry's messages. Gerry's destination was the Waikiki Yacht Club. I had flown over with my wife, Loris, and my son, Will, to greet him.
Some members of the media had been out in the channel in chartered boats to film Yankee Girl's triumphant arrival and were back, looking somewhat green. "God that was rough," one of them said. "What must it have been like in that little boat?" It had been a wild ride, no question of it. The Kaiwi Channel lies between the islands of Molokai and Oahu and funnels both trade winds and currents into fast-moving, high waves. At times, even some local sailors don't venture out into the rough Kaiwi Channel.
But it was a sleigh ride for Gerry heading past Diamond Head. Speeding along on only one jib, he sat on the starboard side of the cockpit, bracing himself in the rollers, and waving to members of the press.
He was jubilant.
He and his boat were headed home.
In the Waikiki Yacht Club bar, I kept hearing Gerry's voice on the VHF radio. Yankee Girl had arrived outside the breakwaters and he seemed impatient to come in.
I knew why. He was waiting for someone to guide him into the harbor and that someone was sitting at a table in front of me.
"I need to finish this hand," my skipper told me. He was playing cards. As I was to learn, these were the islands, and, some things were done on island time. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Broken Seas by Marlin Bree, Marlin, Bree. Copyright © 2005 Marlin Bree. Excerpted by permission of Marlor Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.