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.
However much you or I may love to travel to some pretty remote places, or be fascinated by the exploits of Amundsen, Scott or Shackleton, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever entertained the thought of sailing single-handed around Antarctica. It’s one of those few voyages that I’d really would rather read about than attempt for myself.
And especially after reading David Lewis’ account of his own amazing voyage in Ice Bird, his 32-foot steel sloop. In 1972, at the age of 54, he set out from Sydney, Australia, was dismasted on his way south, reached Antarctica after 13 weeks without contact with the outside world. After repairing the boat at the American base, he sailed for South Africa, was dismasted again and finlly reach Cape Town in March 1974. These bare facts do not in any way do justice to what reads in his book like one long ordeal from dock to dock to dock.
“The dismasted yacht was tossing wildly enough to make one’s footing precarious when I dragged myself from my bunk in the morning and, dubiously fortified with cold coffee, resolutely put behind me lost hopes and set to work. The broken mast was stripped nd the rigging disentangled and coiled, a physically exhausting task which extended well into the afternoon. Next came the jury mast.”
It’s easy to forget that Lewis was building his jury rig on a tiny deck that was jerking and bucking like a bronco. Even the simplest tasks would have been tiring and complicated. No wonder he writes, having finally got his jury mast erected:
“At this stage the wind increased and it became too rough to continue working. I went below, uncertain if worse was to come and expressed my dread, “God grant this isn’t another gale.”
You may wonder – as many people have, including other sailors – what would possess an otherwise sane man to put himself up against such forces. Part of the answer always seems to lie in a certain restlessness of the person concerned. David Lewis, a New Zealander, writes that he threw himself into “socially useful activities” in East London, England, after the Second World War:
“Yet even here restlessness intruded from time to time…I tried to ignore the message that the sea was there waiting, still untamed and free and aloof as it had always been; still beautiful and terrible in its impersonal anger. I made tentative approaches to the sea – like sailing a dinghy that I built myself, and a 27-foot, 60-year-old barge yacht in which I became acquainted with most of the sandbanks of the Thames Estuary. In general, however, I did succeed in overcoming these irresponsible longings.”
Meanwhile, Lewis began studying the ancient methods of navigation used by Polynesian mariners and this ultimately led to the 4 year research fellowship in Australia. Once back in the southern hemisphere, the longing to go to sea again and an abiding interest in the frozen southern continent – Antarctica – began to come together; “to reach it, relying entirely upon my own resources, was to accept the ultimate challenge of the sea.”
Navigation is, rather obviously, one of the great challenges of ocean travel, despite the complacency which GPS seems to be engendering in sailors. Polynesian sailors have been among the grestest ocean navigators and Lewis wanted to know how they did it.
According to his obituary (he died in Queensland, Australia in 2002):
“He went to a Micronesian island whose sailors were known to make voyages in their canoes without modern instruments, and in due course he was invited to a meeting of elders, where he was asked, “What is your name, where are you from, and why are you here?”
His iron will and stubborn persistence were always masked by a humble, apologetic manner – he was, indeed, “the mildest-mannered man who e’er cut throats” – and he quietly replied: “My name is David Lewis, I come from the village of London in the island of England, and I have come to sit at the feet of your wise men and to learn how to find my way across the sea.”
They recognised him as one of their own, took him on their canoe voyages and taught him their navigational lore. Their navigation skills had never been lost but had been in continuous use up to the present day, unrecognised by Europeans.
In Isbjorn they accompanied him to islands further afield, where he met and learned from other native navigators. Their navigation depended on a memorised nautical almanac referring to many more stars than our own. They used only vertical and horizontal observations and therefore did not need a sextant, and for a compass they used their almanac of “amplitudes” for the rising and setting of stars.
Lewis recorded all this in his research thesis, and in his books We, the Navigators and The Voyaging Stars.”
Ice Bird is a fascinating account of a remarkable voyage – but probably best not to show it to any reluctant crew or passenger you might be attempting to coax into sailing with you.