Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Why people take to the sea in small boats – part 3 of 4

Why do people sell up, move aboard a small boat and sail off into the blue?  Some years ago, Cruising World magazine interviewed some of the best known longtime voyagers and liveaboards and asked them what motivated them and what they’d learned along the way.  It makes for fascinating reading.

We Just Kept Going: an Oral History of the Cruising Life
By Elaine Lembo and Tim Murphy
(published by Cruising World 10-Sep-2004)


Scott Kuhner: From the Virgin Islands, we sailed to the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama and in four weeks only saw one other sailboat. Transiting the Panama Canal cost us $12 based on our cargo holding capacity. We spent six weeks in the Galápagos without seeing another boat except for friends on a 35 foot home built boat with whom we were buddy boating.

We made the 3086 mile passage to the Marquesas in only 23 days. Almost the whole time we sailed with twin jibs poled out to either side. Bebinka was easy to sail and very comfortable. On the passage from Bora-Bora to Rarotonga, we hit a severe gale and were hove to for three days. Never once were we worried whether or not the boat would take it; however, there were a few times when we wondered how much more we could take.

By the time we got to Sydney Australia, we realized that it would be easier and quicker to go home if we just kept going west until we closed the loop. Crossing the Indian Ocean from Cocos Keeling to Maurtius the wind blew between 35 and 55 knots for 16 of the 17 days it took us to make the passage. The seas averaged 14 to 20 feet. All we had up was a storm trysail and a poled out storm jib. Thank God the wind was always aft of the beam. Even though we only had a 24 foot water line we averaged 148 miles per day.

The worst weather we had to endure was in July 1974 when we were midway between Cape Hatteras and Bermuda. We were late in the season and got hit by an early hurricane. At first we hove to and finally laid ahull. Our wind speed indicator showed 85 knots at the peak. At 0200, we fell off a wave and got rolled. The boat held together except for loosing the main hatch, the grab rails, the leeward stanchions were flattened against the cabin top and the boom was badly bent. When we righted the water down below was up to the top of the settees. Fortunately, we had the most efficient bilge pump in the world–a frightened woman with a bucket.

Lin and Larry Pardey: Best, every new landfall. Winning races in various ports (often against modern race boats in light wind areas. Some of our inland excursions–including seven months in the Kalahari desert and a motorcycle tour of Europe. And of course, seeing Cape Horn to starboard as we headed into the Pacific. Worst, being weather bound in various harbors. Unseasonable cyclone only 90 miles from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

Beth A. Leonard and Evans Starzinger: Passing under the Cape of Good Hope at sunset with the red cliffs of the cape painted red and gold and sea lions playing in our bow wave was one of the best moments of our time cruising. Another was completing the first circumnavigation . After sailing west for three years, we knew the world was round when we found ourselves back where we had started. Still another was sailing along the Arctic Circle of Iceland’s northwest corner on midsummer’s eve in 2001 and watching the sun touch the horizon and then rise again. The year of cruising in Chile was spectacular and also raised our sailing and seamanship skills to a new level.

Completing the 9,000 mile nonstop Southern Ocean passage from Canal Beagle to Fremantle in Australia was memorable because it was the first time we were not following in the footsteps of our more experienced friends. Our worst moments were the two times (once during each voyage) when we had serious relationship conflicts.

Ida Little and Michael Walsh: We had left the coast of Venezuela at dusk to sail to the mostly uninhabited islands of Los Roques. During the night the wind had come up and the seas were a mess. At dawn we arrived at the islands exhausted and confused by the myriad of islets and shoals. As we debated whether to proceed into the reef studded archipelago, a power boat appeared.

Two men beckoned us to follow. We were guided through a narrow channel into a remote and fully protected pool just big enough for our boat and within swimming distance of a beautiful beach. The men left us two cold beers, a block of ice, and bid us a good day. We stayed for two weeks in that magical place of wilderness, solitude, sea and sand. And then one day a sailboat like our own sailed in with more lost souls. We guided them in to a protected bay where they anchored. During our week together they taught us how to spear the lobsters that were crawling around under the boat.

If we may call our arrival at this bay in Los Roques and our encounter with spear fishermen a “moment,” then this was one of our greatest moments. Though we did not realize it at the time, this place and experience showed us what we were searching for in a cruising style.

Another great moment occurred soon after we began cruising Beachcomber in the Bahamas. Though we had routinely beached our previous small boats, Beachcomber was a 36-footer weighing in at nearly five tons. So our first time putting her aground on the tide was both frightening and exciting. A cold front was bearing down on us. Our anchorage at an uninhabited island in the Bahamas was exposed to the northwest and the holding was poor. Within minutes we decided to run Beachcomber into a shallow creek that dried at low tide. We hauled anchor, poled into the mangrove creek, dropped anchor in 2 feet of water, and sat back to watch and enjoy the drama unfold. In that moment we could foresee the joys we would experience wherever we cruised in this boat.

On our first big sea passage, from Norfolk (where we first met Lin and Larry) to Bermuda, we were assured by the Coast Guard that the weather outlook was good. When our rudder fell apart two days out, in seas like glass, we rigged an oar for steerage and turned back for Norfolk. We limped into a marina late on the second night of our return trip, tied up at a dock, and were hammered by a completely unexpected Hurricane Agnes. We thought losing the rudder was pretty bad but when we headed back out to sea a week later, we ran in to gale force winds that had us hove to for a day, and running before it two more days. This was made worse by having no sun by which to sight a position fix. On the eighth night we motored into St. George’s Harbour, Bermuda, and quickly rowed ashore to walk upon terra firma. The journey had been an apprehensively long “worst moment” of horrible weather that some boats didn’t survive.

Another bad moment occurred off the coast of South America. Though we had been warned not to approach the Guajira area of Colombia, we arrived on that coast late in the day and yearned for a night’s sleep at anchor. We paid for that nice sleep. In the morning three men approached us in a small wooden dinghy. Michael invited them aboard and began chatting with them in Spanish. Two of the men were dressed in rags and very thin. The third man, oddly enough, was dressed all in white and moved gracefully. Very soon one of the men dashed below and began looking around. He found our rifle above a bulkhead and pulled it down. We asked him to put it away.

With that, one of the other men pulled a pistol out of his jacket and yelled “Plata! Plata!,” meaning gold or money. We were trapped below, with the pistol aimed at us from the companionway. We debated resistance then decided on diplomacy. Michael addressed the man in white, saying, okay, here’s my wallet. The Colombian opened the wallet, looked inside and was surprised to find so little. Michael told him it was all we have. The man in white reached into his own pocket and pulled out a wallet, which appeared to hold more money than ours. For a wild moment we thought he might give us some money. He put his money away, looked a little put out, and said he’d take our rifle and our radio and our watch. Michael said we needed our radio for navigation (to get the time signals). The man in white sighed and said okay, he would trade us the radio for the rifle. We agreed. And
they left.

Worst moments definitely capture the drama. Shipwrecking on Great Inagua is another worst moment. We’d been strugglingwith a cold front for days, nearly shipwrecked on uninhabited Little Inagua, and finally drifted onto a reef during the night and couldn’t get off. The whole night of pounding up and down, watching the boat break up and all our worldly possessions slosh around in sea water, not knowing if we’d be able to get ourselves safely to shore or to anywhere for help, made for another long worst moment.

The beautiful thing about cruising is the never-ending opportunity to be spontaneous. Every day affords another chance to do something unplanned. Like having kids. The best part is you control the routines. You design the itinerary. If you don’t like the neighborhood all you have to do is pick up the anchor and go somewhere else. Cross an ocean. Change continents. Sweat on the equator or bundle up in the high latitudes. After our seven-year tropical circumnavigation on Direction we wanted a new challenge. We moved ashore, got jobs, and bought a car. The thrill of suburban life lasted 6 months. Too predictable. Time to move on. Our spirit needed more of a charge than balancing a check book.

We sold Direction and bought 33-foot foot Driver. Our plan was to sail to Iceland. For this we wanted a steel boat–something that was impervious to ice and a little more resilient to floating debris. Fiberglass can be strong, but steel is stronger: especially it’s point loading characteristics. It is also less prone to leaking because everything is welded in place instead of bolted on . A 33-foot steel boat tends to be heavier than its fiberglass counter part, but at sea that extra displacement gives a boat a smoother ride over the waves. Maintenance of a steel boat is not as bad as many people think. You just have to keep on top of it. Let it maintenance slide, however, and you will pay a high price.

Driver was the strongest boat in our price range/departure range. I mention “departure range” because knowing when you want to go is as important as where. “Someday” never comes. When you set a strict departure date your life gets folded around going. You’re committed. Having a strict departure date is a rudder that will help steer a project to completion. Everything you do perpetuates the day of casting off. Wanting everything to be “right” is not only expensive but also time consuming.

Our decision to sail to the Arctic on Driver, and to try and reach 80 degrees north latitude, evolved over a couple years. At first, our goal was to sail to Iceland, to go somewhere off the beaten track. We figured if we could make it to Iceland our thirst for adventure would be sated forever. Once there, however, we became captivated by hearty locals and the diverse landscape, so we made the last minute decision to winter-over aboard the boat. The following summer we sailed to the Arctic islands of Lofoten, Norway, and spent another winter living aboard. The summer after that (2000) we sailed to Spitsbergen.

Of course it was cold in these places but cold becomes part of the periphery. After a while we didn’t even notice that it was not warm. The warmth of the people, the awe inspiring scenery, and the aura of the higher latitudes nulled the effects of less-than-tropical-conditions. Had it been warm, the people living there would not be who they were. Had it been warm every anchorage would have had other boats in it or condos on the shoreline. We were tired of sailing in the tropics where, in general, the locals had seen us as a source of income, not as a source for friendship.

“Lack of space” on a boat is similar to “lack of warmth” in a place. After a while it becomes relative. It’s all a mental game that hinges on how badly you want to cruise.

Cruising with children is not something we originally set out to do. We never said “Hey! lets raise our family on a 25-foot boat, sail around the world, then buy a 33-footer and sail to the arctic! Babies just came our way so we accepted it and carried on. Sailing with babies is challenging. However, what it boiled down to is this: “how badly do we want to continue, and what sacrifices are we willing to endure to make our cruising plans work?” Given half a chance, the human spirit is remarkably adaptable.

It is due to Jaja’s undying positive attitude that we’ve made it all these years sailing with kids. Behind every good boat is a good woman. The real reason we thrived in Iceland and Norway is due to our children. Instead of home schooling we put them into the local schools systems. The primary motive was to give them a daily change of environment, a better chance to make friends, and the opportunity to become bilingual. But it had another advantage; it put us in touch with other families. Jaja and I attended school functions which gave the locals a chance to see that, although we lived on a boat, we were a family like them. We became friends with the other parents. Our social life and the kid’s social life thrived. We were accepted into the communities as equals.

Thies Matzen: Enhanced by three days which we had just spent navigating the thick fogs of the Antarctic Convergence, our arrival in Grytviken, South Georgia, will forever stand out for me. Tacking into that bay with all that sunshine beaming over majestic ,icecapped mountains, just for us, tacking up towards the rusty remains of the whalers’ base, penguins splashing, a happiness so bouyant, the tenseness of three days so released. It can’t be beaten.

But there have been many other landfalls that, after weary, navigationally difficult passages, have released in me similar intense feelings of joy and satisfaction. Electronic navigation systems fill the cruising basket with certainty, yet empty it of that, to me, essential magic so difficult to touch ashore. Then too, 14 days of drifting in the heart of the Pacific, pushed by a current but no wind, stillness spread aboard and over the ocean, no worries, no needs. And to find ourselves perfectly content with it is a gift cruising can provide.

Kicki Ericson: There is no doubt that South Georgia immediately springs to mind as the most outstanding cruising experience. It was a privilege to live inside South Georgia’s Garden of Eden: extreme beauty, surrounding a wealth of animals who killed, ate and mated, but never hated.

Other highlights were being taught a native dance on Tabuaeran, Kiribati in order to perform at the Easter competition. I was the first white woman to dance a batere (based on the flight of the frigate bird) on Tabuaeran. Years later I performed again on Canton and Abaiang Islands, Kiribati. Or having 20 Malagasy descend upon us, unasked, to help raise our anchor, which had become entangled with a monstrously huge tire.

Annie Hill: It’s always wonderful to sail into an anchorage and see an old and loved friend there–especially when it’s unexpected. One shining recollection is my first sight of Iceland, with the sun sparkling off the glaciers–they were so pure and unsullied that the sight was breathtaking. Sailing alongside a young humpback whale that was rolling along, slapping his tail and waving his flippers is unforgettable. Finding the ‘perfect’ harbor, that was uncharted and possibly previously unvisited; watching albatross soaring around the boat; dropping anchor in Barbados after our first Atlantic crossing; having birds land on deck, rest and fly off safely towards land; sailing Badger for the first time; the continuing magic of new landfalls –there are so many ‘best’ moments. The worst include seeing my boat on the beach; the gut-gnawing fear when failure to tack meant disaster; horrifying times at anchor in hurricane-force winds; the combination of a gale, fog and drifting ice.
Dan and Mimi Dyer: Best moment: Japan appearing out of the fog, after a 10-day sail from Guam; worst moment: chart shows us directly over a 2-foot spot–which way to go? Worst moment: Pacific fleet weather reports two new typhoons headed for the Bonin Islands; we’re in the Bonins! (They tracked west, we turned tail north.) Best and worst: We sailed into Admiralty Bay, Bequia, crossing our outbound track after six years, and were disappointed to see no familiar boats in the anchorage. Dan remarked wistfully that it reminded him of the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?” We dropped the hook, and less than an hour later in sailed our best friends, with the kids waving crayoned signs, “Welcome Rabbit, around the world!”

Joe Minick
: To date, our single best moment has been watching the rocky coast of Ireland emerge less than a mile away in light rain and fog after spending the prior 24 hours hove to in a gale at the end of our Atlantic crossing. Generally speaking our best moments center around those days when we reach on endlessly in 20 knots or so, basking in the sun and warmth of the cockpit with little else required at the moment. New landfalls and destinations are also part of our best memories along with dozens of new friends and acquaintances made along the way. Worst moments are more difficult in that there haven’t been any really outstanding ones. We have embarrassed ourselves in marinas, ridden out bad weather alone, and dealt with failures as they occur but I guess the worst is still to ahead if some disaster should befall us. The hardest times during a passage have always
centered around a failure or situation that keeps us from resting adequately. Fatigue mounts up quickly and the ability to deal with difficult situations decreases dramatically.

Alvah Simon: Some of the best moments of our years cruising were the sweet smell of frangipani wafting off the Marquesas after 42 days at sea–Deep in the Chilean canals, lying dead still on the foredeck as an Andean condor spirals down to investigate –Nursing sick and injured children back to health in the remote areas of the Solomon Islands.

Worst moments of our cruising years: missing my father’s funeral and realizing this is the heavy price we pay for our freedoms; burying friends, shot or drowned, in far outposts of a dangerous world.

(to be continued)

We Just Kept Going: an Oral History of the Cruising Life
By Elaine Lembo and Tim Murphy
(published by Cruising World 10-Sep-2004)


One comment on “* Why people take to the sea in small boats – part 3 of 4

  1. Enda Marchi
    February 20, 2010

    I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing.


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This entry was posted on February 9, 2010 by in Sailing and tagged , , , , , .
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