Expanded History Chapter Two
|Chapter Two – We sail across the Atlantic aboard Arvin Court II.Arvin Court II was moored at Minneford’s yard in City Island, at the western end of Long Island Sound close by the Throgs Neck Bridge. John Knight met us with the dinghy and we rowed out to the boat, she was a heavily-built, steel sloop painted black. Climbing on board I was immediately struck by the utilitarian, functional appearance of the deck. This was no glitzy, expensive yacht built for parties on Long Island Sound. We had a cup of tea and John told us about himself and the boat. He had emigrated from England to South Africa about the same time I had gone to Canada. He met and married Barbara while working in Johannesberg, she was a registered nurse. He was a few years older than myself, of medium height and still retaining a distinctive English accent. South Africa had palled, they decided to leave and, inspired by the Kon Tiki expedition, he got the wanderlust to sail away. Kon Tiki was a balsa wood raft sailed by Thor Heyerdahl from South America to Polynesia to bolster his theory of westward migration to the islands. A trip by raft from South Africa did not seem too practical and John’s thoughts turned to a cruising sailboat, although he had never sailed in his life. After many hours poring over sailing books in the public library he designed a boat himself and set about organizing its construction. At the time he was living in a flat on Arvin Court, he decided to keep the address for the boat. The first requirement was money, for that he persuaded a few friends to share the labor and construction costs, this would guarantee them a berth on the boat when they set sail. Then they needed a place to build it, they looked for a house with a large backyard, a hefty electrical service to run welding machines and proximity to a source of steel plate. The house became, in effect, a commune, with income thrown into the pot and communal decisions made on how to spend it. John was in charge of construction, for which he was well qualified.In his youth he has served a full seven-year apprenticeship at a steel works in the northeast of England, fabrication and welding would be no problem. The crew did most of the woodwork, with a little help from local native carpenters, although most of them had never seen a boat before; Johannesberg is about four hundred miles from the sea. The massive boom, for example, was made locally from Sitka Spruce and must have weighed a quarter of a ton. When she was finished. they trucked the boat across country to Portuguese East Africa (nowadays called Mozambique) and launched her on the coast of the Indian Ocean in 1962. Most of the original members of the commune made the trip down the coast although one poor fellow got so seasick he left the boat on doctor’s advice in East London. Our mutual friend, Doug, had signed up as crew in Cape Town, which was their last port before venturing into the South Atlantic bound for Brazil and the Caribbean. He was a tall, rangy South African who had been working in the gold mines; he was as tough as nails. The old commune came apart after a winter in the Caribbean. In the spring of 1964 John, Barbara and Doug sailed the boat through the Bahamas and along the Intracoastal Waterway to New York. They had many adventures along the way, Edith and I listened fascinated to their stories.The plan was to leave the US in about two weeks and sail directly to Falmouth on the southwest coast of England. The boat had to be provisioned and they needed additional crew, John thought two other men would be sufficient, but Doug also had some ideas on that subject. He concluded the Atlantic would be rather cold in early June; he was busy phoning the many girl friends he had made in St Thomas the previous winter to find an adventurous companion to share his cabin. Edith and I excitedly discussed the afternoon’s visit as we made our way back to Long Island. The idea of crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat seemed so, well – romantic, compared to the daily grind our lives had become. As it happened it was a propitious time for us to think about joining Barbara and John. We were in the final stages of buying the house we had rented for four years because my department chairman had told me I had a job at Brookhaven Laboratory for as long as I wanted. Unfortunately, Edith has experienced considerable discrimination as a young female physician in a department run by very senior male doctors who were mostly conservative old navy men. In addition, they were researchers and they rather looked down on mere clinicians. When she was told she would not be given a staff promotion after four years at the same level she quit, and was just finishing the termination period when we met Barbara and John. Edith had by then obtained a New York State MD license and a change seemed like a good idea. There were also mutterings about starting a family -‘I am thirty-one, you know.’The upshot was that we told Barbara and John that we would join them, our price being that we had to provision the boat for the crossing. For the fourth male crew member a fellow colleague at work volunteered his teen-age son, Steve, who was just about to graduate from high school. Doug had indeed found a mate for the trip, a young lady I shall call Dolly joined us as the seventh crew member. John sailed the boat to Port Jefferson on Long Island’s north shore, about twelve miles from our house. He tied up at the local yacht club and final preparations for our departure began. At the suggestion of a nautically experienced friend we sent two suitcases of good clothes to a forwarding agent in London, a brilliant stroke, as it turned out. We boarded our two cats and wrote to our families to say we were coming to England by ‘slow boat’, we did not actually say it was a sailboat.
On the day of our sailing John planned to leave about eleven in the evening in order to catch the favorable east-going current down long Island Sound. A hectic, informal party developed at the yacht club as friends came to wish us bon voyage, many bringing gifts of snacks or liquor that we never got around to stowing properly. Most of us finally staggered on board pretty crocked. Somehow John got the boat away, I woke up in the morning with a ghastly hang-over, just in time to see Block Island sliding past our starboard side in the distance. Before long the hang-over merged into sea-sickness, I felt terrible, and the thought that at least a month of this lay ahead was not too comforting. We sailed past Nantucket Island, just outside the territorial limit of twelve miles lay a Soviet trawler at anchor in the shoals, bucking horribly in the seaway. It was bristling with antennas for eavesdropping on American military radars and radios; this was the time of the cold war.
A couple of days later we experienced our first gale. The wind and seas built up during the daylight hours. Large waves rolled in from the southwest, unless the helmsman swung the stern round to meet the oncoming waves squarely the sea broke over the starboard (right) side of the boat with a tremendous crash, flooding the cockpit. This was not too dangerous as the cockpit was fitted with scuppers that allowed the water to drain back to the sea, but it took time; the helmsman was often up to his knees in frigid water as he wrestled with the huge tiller. Down below the noise from the sea breaking on the steel hull was frightening. As one crash succeeded another I fervently hoped John’s welding was up to the strain. At times like that one begins to ask oneself why you got into the fix in the first place, a question I often asked myself later in my sailing career. As darkness fell, Doug, who was at the helm, called John to say he could no longer see the oncoming swell in time to swing the stern round, consequently the boat was being constantly inundated.
I stood in the swaying cabin with John and asked him what we should do next. He said he was not sure. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘what did you do in the South Atlantic in weather like this?’ ‘We didn’t have weather like this in the South Atlantic,’ was his reply. I must have looked dumbfounded for he quickly said, ‘I think it’s time we turned to the Bible’. My heart sank, I did not know John very well then and I thought this is a fine time to find out the skipper apparently did not believe in the old aphorism; ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ John turned and reached into the shelf at the forward end of the cabin. He brought down ‘Voyaging Under Sail’, by Eric Hiscock; that was his ‘Bible’! The book was one of a series written by the author in the 1950s that greatly popularized long distance cruising. John thumbed through the index, ‘Let me see, H…, Heavy Weather, Management in, here it is, page 152’.
Hiscock recommended various strategies for dealing with heavy weather, depending on wind speed and sea conditions. John went into the cockpit to measure the wind speed with a hand-held anemometer; it was gusting up to sixty knots. With the right kind of hull shape Hiscock suggested ‘Lying a-hull’, in which all the sails are lowered, the helm set to leeward (downwind) and boat allowed to lie roughly broadside to the waves. In theory, as the boat is pushed sideways by the wind, a slick of smooth water is formed to windward that acts rather like a film of oil; this discourages waves from actually breaking on the boat. It all seemed unbelievable, nevertheless, the four men, donned in foul weather gear, tumbled on deck and lowered the sails. The tiller was tied down and we craned our heads over the windward side. Sure enough, there was the predicted slick of smooth water. Goodness, were we impressed by Mr Hiscock.
Unfortunately, a consequence of lying broadside to the waves was a violent rolling motion, down below it was all one could do to stay in a bunk. All those last-minute presents, which had been carelessly stored on any handy shelf, came crashing to the cabin floor (the sole in nautical parlance) forming a horrible amalgam of candies, peanuts, chips and other goodies mixed with detergent that had spilled from an uncorked bottle. Most of us were violently sick again. It was a day before the storm blew itself out and we could untie the tiller, raise sail and press on. But we had survived without major damage, the best one can hope for in really bad weather.
As we progressed steadily eastwards John shaped a course that would take us south of the expected limit of icebergs brought into the Atlantic by the Labrador Current, the nemesis of the RMS Titanic. Although we did not encounter any icebergs the current itself provided damp, chilly miserable conditions for about a week. Condensation dripped off the sails and boom, a two-hour watch at the tiller was an endurance test. I have a vivid memory of a night watch when I spotted the lights of a ship on our port (left) emerging out of the mist ahead. I alerted John who had a quick look and concluded it was no danger to us. A cold drizzle enveloped the boat and the occasional wave broke into the cockpit, leaving one’s boots immersed in cold seawater as it gurgled down the scuppers. As the ship drew closer I saw it was a liner. I could just imagine the warm passengers glancing through a port and talking about what they would do when they got to New York the next day. I am sure they never saw the tiny Arvin Court II, with its half-frozen helmsman. I certainly felt sorry for myself that night.
When we left the baleful influence of the Labrador Current the weather improved and for the first time in nearly two weeks the ladies spent a few hours on deck, until then only the men stood had regular watches topside, two hours on and six off unless called for. Barbara’s sea-sickness had given way to morning sickness. Edith had visited her every day as she lay prostrate in the aft cabin but I had not seen Barbara since we shoved off. Edith herself had recovered to some extent but she wasn’t eating much. Poor Dolly was in the worst shape, a glimpse of the sun worked wonders for her. She had no experience of living rough, such as camping, in fact I imagine she was a typical Manhattan dweller, never more than a few yards from the nearest cozy restaurant or bar. She had naively accepted Doug’s embellished version of sailboat cruising – lounging in a deck chair under a hot sun. The unceasing, often violent motion, the cold, damp, unheated and cramped cabin and sea-sickness had all been traumatic for her. Edith had kept her on a steady diet of tranquilizer pills. Needless to say, she was furious with Doug for conning her into taking the trip, the two were barely on speaking terms.
I have not mentioned yet another suffering creature aboard Arvin Court II; John had acquired a dog in the Caribbean called ‘Marco’ after the famous explorer. It was a local breed known as a schipperke, about the size of a terrier, it was black all over and had no tail. Marco was sea-sick along with the rest of us, worse, he left his droppings in handy corners on deck, particularly favoring coils of rope. Twice in the middle of the night I picked up a coil in preparation for reefing only to find it was ‘prelubricated’. I am not a dog lover, several times in my life dogs have bitten me, completely without provocation. I was not averse to seeing Marco fall over the side, on one occasion John and I had some bitter words on the subject, perhaps because he saw me giving the mutt a nudge towards the edge.
The advent of better weather enabled me to make an assessment of the boat, once Edith and I had got over the shock of the completely alien environment we had pitched ourselves into. Arvin Court II was a beamy forty-six foot-long cutter rigged sloop, that is, she had one mast and two headsails forward of the mast. The companionway from the cockpit led to a pilothouse with a chart table, it was usually referred as the ‘doghouse’. Aft of the doghouse, under the cockpit was a cabin shared by Barbara and John. Forward of the doghouse were two small cabins, one on each side, Edith and I shared one, Dolly and Doug the other. Forward of these spaces was the main cabin with benches, the galley and, on one side, the toilet, or ‘head’ as it is called on a boat. Steve dossed down on whatever bench was on the lee (downwind) side so that he did not tend to roll off it. Another factor he had to consider in finding a place to sleep was leaks from the skylight above the main cabin. The facilities and equipment were very much 1950’s yachting; Eric Hiscocks’ era. This is not surprising as the books John perused as he pondered the design were probably written then.
On deck the standing rigging, which supports the mast, was galvanized steel wire. It is strong but tends to rust quickly in a saltwater environment. The halyards and sheets, used to raise and control the sails, were made of manila three-ply rope. Nowadays the rigging and halyards would be stainless steel, the relative cost of stainless has fallen dramatically as yachting has become more widespread. Manila has been replaced by braided dacron rope, it is much stronger and does not rot, although braided rope is harder to splice than three-ply. All three manila halyards chafed and failed during the trip and three times we hauled John up the mast to reeve new ones. To provide additional purchase the halyards ran through blocks, which we ‘sweated’ up by wrapping the halyards around belaying pins at the base of the mast, a technique that has been used for hundreds of years, but which is rendered obsolete on modern yachts by powerful winches.
The boat had to be steered every inch of the way across the Atlantic by the person on watch. In bad weather it could a miserable two hours at the tiller. Today most long-distance yachts use self-steerers, either wind driven or electric, they are easily the equivalent of an extra crew and don’t have to be fed. There were no life-jackets, man-over-board pole, liferaft and the other safety gizmos that litter the deck of a modern yacht. As John cheerfully said, ‘A life-jacket in the North Atlantic will only keep you alive longer before you die of hypothermia anyway.’ Below decks was equally spartan; no heater, refrigerator or electric lights.
We pulled her leg about performing the necessary functions in there using Braille. This light was used sparingly because the engine would not function, vital to keeping the battery charged. Why it did not run I don’t remember. We had no radio transmitter, only a small portable short-wave receiver and a Heathkit direction-finder radio I had brought along. Cooking was done with a primus stove that used kerosene and had to be pumped up occasionally, it reminded me of my camping days. The primus was supplemented by a stove with an oil-wick. Although the boat seems primitive by today’s standards, she was strong and sea-worthy and was capable of making any passage attempted by a modern yacht, simply a little more slowly and with fewer creature comforts. In fact, she was probably safer as an ocean cruiser than many mass-produced yachts of today, which are built to minimize weight and maximize speed and thereby often sacrifice strength.
Once the danger of encountering an iceberg was behind us John planned a course to the English Channel and started to plot our daily position using sun sights. Naturally, I was intrigued by this and asked him where he learned celestial navigation. He confessed he had learned ‘on the job’, sailing from Cape Town. On board was a book that became another sailing classic; ‘Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen’ by Mary Blewitt. When the boat was clear of the African continent John took sights but got ludicrous results, such as position in the middle of the Sahara. This he kept to himself and instead showed the crew a cross on the chart that he confidently claimed was their position. They were duly impressed. After much practice and surreptitious study of Blewitt’s book he began to get it right in time to make a good landfall at St Helena Island, halfway to Brazil.
I had brought a sextant along with me loaned by a well-known sailor and good friend, Denis Puleston. He is the author of a wonderful book about sailing a small boat from England to the Caribbbean before the war. It is called ‘Blue Water Vagabond’ and is still in print. I pored over Ms Blewitt’s book and started to take sights along with John. The portable radio gave us the exact time that we needed to work out the sights. This introduction triggered a lifelong interest in celestial navigation and ultimately led to my involvement in six Newport to Bermuda Races as navigator. It took hundreds of years for all the steps and instruments used in modern celestial navigation to be figured out. The method taught by Mary Blewitt was developed prior to World War II in several advanced countries as the speed of bombers increased. It was found that the calculations performed on ships could easily take half-an-hour or more by an expert navigator. In that time the plane would travel too far for the position to be any use, and there weren’t that many expert navigators anyway. A way had to be found to take a sight on the sun or stars that could be plotted in ten minutes or less by someone with a few months training.
The method adopted was to do all the calculations beforehand and list the results in a book of tables carried on every plane. The navigator simply used these precomputed results to figure out his position with reference to the nearest tabulated data. This turns out to be wonderfully quick and easy for yachtsmen, and yachtswomen, after all, the book was written by a lady. Ironically, the results are hardly accurate enough for bombing and during the war celestial navigation had to be supplemented by electronic navigation. On a yacht the position obtained, called a fix, is usually accurate to within a few miles, probably this is the same precision obtained by bombers during the war.
The crossing proceeded, one watch followed another, and we had two more gales to deal with. Then we were becalmed for a couple of days; we launched a dinghy and rowed round the boat taking photos. On the day Steve would have graduated from high school we held a ceremony of our own for him. John removed the centerfold from a ‘Playboy’ magazine, wrapped it with red ribbon, and presented it to Steve inscribed with a salacious certification. I gave John a fur-lined jock strap at the same time, reminding him he had been in a warm country for seven years and he had probably forgotten just how chilly it could get in England.
We usually trolled a fishing line, catching three fish during the passage. They were albacore, small members of the tuna family about two feet long. The problem with catching fish was that we had to eat them before they spoiled. We had fresh fish for breakfast, lunch and supper; a diet that soon palls. The lure was a spoon that we made ourselves. One day as the lure skipped through the waves a hundred feet behind the boat a rapacious sea bird, probably a fulmar, swooped down and carried the lure aloft. When the line tightened it broke the bird’s neck and it fluttered into our wake. Immediately all the accompanying birds fell on the corpse, by the time we pulled the line aboard there were only bones and feathers on the hook.
We had one rather frightening experience when the boat was accidentally jibed at night in a strong wind. The boat was running, with the wind directly behind us. The mainsail boom in this situation is allowed to move forward on the lee side so that the maximum sail area is presented to the wind. If the boat’s heading is changed so that the wind catches the other side of the sail the boom will suddenly swing across the boat. A heavy boom like the one on Arvin Court gains considerable momentum when this occurs and can cause damage. To stop this a line called a preventer was rigged from the end of the boom to the bow so that the boom is constrained from swinging to the other side of the boat. When the boat jibed it proved impossible to steer it back on course. John called the men on deck to lower the sail. The boom was being held by the preventer in a midships position, just level with the companionway into the cockpit. The strain on the preventer was immense, in the beam of a flashlight I could see a fine spray of water being squeezed from the rope by the stress. If the rope had parted anyone standing in the companionway would have been squashed. As we tried to lower the sail it flogged violently. A small wooden box on the doghouse roof that held shackles and other useful bits and pieces was struck by a fold of sail and disintegrated, scattering the contents to the wind. It was all we could to hang on and drag the sail down inch by inch.
When we finally got within a few hundred miles of the British Isles we encountered northeast winds, which meant we could not head directly for our destination. We had to ‘tack’, that is, sail as close to the wind as we could with the wind on one side, then after twelve hours put the wind on the other side, sailing a zigzag course. It was very tiring, the boat pounded, we were all sick again. In sailor jargon this is called ‘a beat to weather’, cruisers try to avoid it at all costs. The real downside is that only half the miles you actually sail will bring you closer to the destination. The beat persisted for several days, finally the wind hauled astern of us and we had a glorious run to whisk us up the Channel and get our first sight of England. During the beat we were not able to get sun sights due to clouds but finally the sun appeared, combined with bearings from the Heathkit radio the sun sights enabled John to accomplish a perfect landfall. In those days, prior to satellite navigation systems, the moments before sighting land were always tense. Later John told me he thought this was the most exciting part of the trip.
A problem remained; what to do about Marco? At that time dogs entering the United Kingdom were subject to a strict quarantine of several months in order to prevent the importation of rabies. It was very expensive, the owner had to pay board for the animal at an approved kennel. John and Barbara did not have that kind of money. We were quite sure Marco did not have rabies, he had just spent over a month isolated on a boat, but that did not count, of course. John was determined to smuggle the dog into the country. Edith had some morphine tablets in the medical kit. She dissolved a grain in water and injected it into Marco as we neared Falmouth. The idea was to knock him out for a few hours, but Marco refused to be knocked out. It lay on the bunk in the aft cabin, whining softly. Edith was amazed, she said that shot would have killed a human being. Before we knew it a trim thirty-foot launch called Mosquito pulled alongside and two uniformed customs officers climbed aboard. John took them into the doghouse and poured them stiff drinks of Scotch. They were very nice, perhaps they turned a deaf ear to Marco’s whines, we all rubbed our stomachs and talked loudly. They filled out some forms and left. We anchored the boat at a spot the customs men had indicated and rowed ashore in the dinghy.
After thirty-three days at sea the solid ground swayed beneath our feet. Because most of the meals during the trip had been prepared with a pressure cooker, we craved for a hearty, greasy, meal. We found a fish and chip shop and sat down to a great mound of the delicious stuff, along with lots of slightly stale bread. Then we went to the railway station, checked on the trains to London for the next day and I phoned a reservation at a rather nice hotel I knew near the British Museum. Doug stayed with the boat while the rest of us traveled up by train the following day. We had no trouble getting a compartment to ourselves; none of us had showered since we left Port Jefferson.
Dolly, who was delighted to be back on dry land but very disappointed about the way things had turned out, went straight to Heathrow and a plane back to the States. She had already exceeded her allotted vacation time and did not want to lose her job. Barbara, John and Marko continued on to John’s home in the northeast. Steve checked into a youth hostel and we went to the hotel. We had thrown away most of our clothing in Falmouth and donated our foul weather gear and sleeping bags to the boat. So apart from Denis’ sextant and a few personal items we had no baggage. The clerk at reception to one look at our salt encrusted clothes, sniffed, and said we would have to pay in advance. That was OK, we just wanted a bathtub and a nice dry bed. The next day we picked up the luggage we had forwarded and became respectable. We had gained a lot of experience and each lost ten pounds.
John returned to join Doug after a couple of weeks and they sailed the boat to a port near John’s home. Ultimately John sold her without sailing on her again. They stayed in England until Barbara gave birth to a girl and then she and John emigrated to the US Virgin Islands, where they ran several successful businesses. John gave up cruising and became a very competitive sailboat racer. To my knowledge Barbara never stepped on the deck of a sailboat again. Marco met a sad end; I think John told the story of the morphine injection once too often in his local pub while they were still living in England. One day a policeman came round and took the dog away. Dolly kept in touch with Edith by Christmas cards, she married and started a family of her own, I don’t think she ever sailed again either. Doug returned to South Africa and became a stockbroker. Late in life he married a charming lady who had a family from a previous marriage and I always look them up when I am in Cape Town. Steve went on to college and crewed for me several times when I acquired my own cruising sailboats. And Arvin court II, what became of her? Well, it’s a small world….
Thirty-seven years after our great North Atlantic adventure, my own boat was anchored at Marsh Harbour, in the Bahamian Abacos group. I was visiting a nearby boat in the dinghy when another sailor stopped by for a brief chat. After a few minutes he asked to be excused – he wanted to pop over to Arvin Court! My astonishment can be imagined. ‘There’s a boat here called Arvin Court?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Just over there.’ ‘Hold on, I’m going to follow you.’ I jumped into my dinghy but as we got closer the boat was not familiar, and yet, clearly painted on the stern, was ‘Arvin Court III’. She was flying a Canadian flag. I introduced myself to the captain and his wife; an English couple called Tom and Gill. I explained my interest in their boat. They told me they had bought Arvin Court II off John back in the 1960’s, sailed her to the Caribbean and then to Canada, where they established residence. Finally they sold her to another Canadian, present whereabouts unknown, and regretted it ever since. When they bought their present boat they felt the least they could do was name her Arvin Court III. They invited me for supper the next day, I told them the story of our crossing and what had become of Barbara and John. They gave me a nice picture of the boat, taken before they sold her; she was painted white by then.
Arvin Court ll, shown after she was painted white.