Expanded History – Chapter Seven
|Chapter Seven-Fiona’s First, Sad Trip to the Pacific, 1990 to 1992 |
In the mid-1980s Edith and I did some strategic lifetime planning. We decided we would retire in about five years, when we would both be in our late fifties. I wanted to take the boat to the South Pacific for a year, she wanted to take a ramble the length of the British Isles, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. There are numerous factors that must be considered in decisions of this kind that are not appropriate to discuss in this recollection of my sailing career. Suffice to say by 1990 I had equipped the boat with radar and satnav and Edith had hired a young physician to assist her in the practice. We were ready; first the South Seas and then the British Isles.The plan was to sail the boat through the Panama Canal and meet Edith, and possibly our daughter, Brenda, in Tahiti. For crew I recruited Steve, who had sailed with me across the Atlantic aboard Arvincourt II, and his brother Doug. Edith would stay six to eight weeks and then return home, I would then cruise to the Gambier Islands and round Cape Horn about Christmas. I would meet up with Edith again in Uruguay and return home via the Caribbean before the start of the next hurricane season. At first things went according to plan, we left in early June and stopped for a few days in Bermuda. On the trip south to St Martin Steve was quite sea-sick. Doug was obviously missing his girl friend, with whom he lived in Los Angeles bur I was completely taken aback when they told me they were preparing to leave the boat in St Martin and I should find another crew. They had both signed up for the full year and I had no back-up. Edith had already made arrangements to meet me in Tahiti in August, I called her as soon as I learned the bad news and asked her to troll my cruising friends for a replacement crew and to gain time I persuaded Steve and Doug to stay on board as far as Panama and leave from there if they still wished. When we got to Colon, at the Atlantic end of the Canal, I phoned Edith to discover that Shoel had decided to join me for the Pacific crossing to French Polynesia. Shoel had sailed with me to Newfoundland on the 1989 summer cruise. It took a few days to make the arrangements to transit the canal. The boat has to be measured and fitted into the busy schedule of ship movements. We eventually sailed in convoy with two other pleasure craft; an English yacht called Horus and an American power boat called Adelante, en route to Canada. We lifted up the three locks on the Atlantic side and anchored for the night in the Gatun Lake, which was created when the Canal was built to provide water for the locks and hydroelectricity. The Canal is an amazing engineering feat and it is even more astonishing to realize it runs entirely off the water from the lake, which is replenished by rain. It was a quick trip down the locks to the Pacific Ocean, when we tied up to refuel Steve and Doug took a taxi to the airport. I remember sitting in the cockpit on a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club looking at the huge bridge of the Pan American Highway that crosses the canal and thinking it was a hell of a long way to Tahiti for two of us to sail the boat, and Edith would be there in about six weeks. Fortunately Shoel showed up on schedule and within two days we left for the Galapagos Islands. We encountered the usual variable weather in that part of the world, swam over the side when it was calm and powered when we had no wind. After a week we crossed the equator, a first for both of us, but I dressed up as Father Neptune and inducted Shoel as a Son of Neptune, A few hours later we had the ‘Enchanted’ islands in sight and anchored for the night at Santa Fe island. The next day we moved to Academy Bay on Santa Cruz Island, we were supposed to have obtained a prior permit to visit the Galapagos, but I soon discovered a few dollars under the table fixed that at the port captain’s office. I mentioned we needed diesel fuel, I gathered from the few words of Spanish that I could understand that it would be forthcoming. In the evening Shoel and I relaxed in the cockpit with a glass of rum, it was a pitch black night. Suddenly there was a crash as a crudely-built lighter bumped into us and three young men jumped aboard. ‘My God!’ we said together, ‘Pirates’. But no, it was simply three sailors from the Ecuadorian Navy with diesel in 20 liter jugs, stolen, I suspect, from naval stores. They proceeded to siphon about 75 gallons into our tanks by sucking on plastic hoses, I am sure they swallowed a good deal. I gave them the dollars they demanded, along with a glass of rum and a caution not to light a cigarette for a while. It turned out to be the dirtiest fuel I had ever acquired up till then and for several months I was kept busy cleaning filters as the engine choked itself to a standstill. We left after a few days of sight-seeing for the Marquesas Islands.We soon picked up the Trade Winds and reeled off the miles each day, hardly ever having to touch the sheets. We had a sched on SSB radio with Horus, the large English yacht that we had accompanied in the Panama Canal, and it was clear they would overtake us somewhere in mid-Pacific on the way to Tahiti. We found numerous squid on deck one morning, Shoel tried frying them for breakfast, I pulled his leg that their mother, the giant squid, would not be too pleased. One night we heard a terrible racket from under the hull and naturally I suspected the worst; the propeller had somehow worked loose. In the morning when it was light we dropped the sails and I slipped over the side with a mask and snorkel. But it wasn’t the main propeller, merely the small impeller that drove the speedometer, which had literally worn out. I took it off and we sailed without a log until I got it fixed in Tahiti. Eighteen days after leaving the Galapagos we sighted Hiva Oa and pulled into the anchorage at night, Horus was already anchored there and gave us directions over the radio. We stayed a few days but I found it slightly depressing; the village was dominated by a high, almost vertical, mountain whose top was usually in cloud. I found its brooding presence rather unsettling. Our next stop was anything but; the Bay of Virgins on Fatu Hiva. I suspect it was named by some hopeful Spanish explorer centuries ago. It was exactly what every tropical island should look like. From the sea steep, mysterious valleys climbed into the thickly wooded interior. As we got closer we could see phallic-looking shafts of rock, covered with vines, dotting the landscape, clearly volcanic in origin. When we anchored a couple of young men paddled by and traded us a Mahi-Mahi for half a bottle of rum. On shore we ran into a party, all young men, who were strumming ukuleles and singing wonderful Polynesian chants. There didn’t seem to be too many virgins around, however. It was certainly as exotic an introduction to the South Seas as anyone could wish for. We stayed a couple of days, traded a few items and sailed on. They mostly wanted ‘cartouche’, (cartridges) which we didn’t have; I don’t carry a gun on the boat. The French authorities are very strict about controlling firearms in the islands. From the Marqueses, which are high and steep with no reefs, we sailed to the Tuamotu Archipelago, which are a complete contrast; very low atolls and reefs. At Ahe and Rangiroa we entered the atolls through a pass in the reef, anchored near a village and spent one or two days sight-seeing and snorkeling. These islands are served by a supply ship from Tahiti that comes every month, thus they were happy to trade, especially for Spam, which is a great favorite with Polynesians. The usual joke is that since the missionaries eliminated cannibalism Spam is closest taste they can get to human flesh. We pushed on to the Society Islands, of which Tahiti is the largest. We arrived at the capital, Papeete, five days before Edith flew in with Brenda and Brenda’s friend Jessie, as a teen-ager, Brenda rarely traveled alone.We tied up stern-to at the picturesque dock, always an illustration in any book about cruising the South Seas. Unfortunately, nowadays a major four-lane highway runs just a few feet from the dock, with the attendant noise and dirt. As soon as the ladies had settled in and we had explored a little of Papeete we left for Moorea, whose craggy silhouette was clearly visible from the dock. It was much quieter than the capital, we anchored in several spots for swimming and sight-seeing. There is a famous belvedere that affords a sweeping view of much of the south side of Moorea that we climbed to. After a few days we sailed downwind to Huahine, another charming island with lovely scenic anchorages. Then we moved on to Bora Bora, a spectacularly beautiful island. I believe that when the Americans built the runway there in WW II it became the inspiration for the musical ‘South Pacific’. Almost every island had its Bali Hai hotel when we were there. It was getting time to think about getting back to Papeete; Shoel had to get back to work and the college term was looming for the girls. Unfortunately what had been such a lovely downwind sail through the island chain became a terrible beat to windward on the return. I completely underestimated the time it would take, worse, Edith and the girls were terribly seasick. The day before their flight was scheduled to leave Papeete we still did not have the island in sight, I made the decision to turn downwind for Huahine, which we had passed in the night, and hope that they could catch a ride on the inter-island air service. We pulled into Fare, the main village, and found to our relief that there were seats on the afternoon plane to Tahiti. After they had gone Edith and I sat in the suddenly quiet cockpit as Fiona gently rolled on the anchor and toasted the start of our retirement. The next day we noticed preparations being made for a big party. We discovered the annual inter-island Hobie Cat race was due in the next day. In the morning a French naval ship pulled into the anchorage and unloaded scores of duffel bags and personal gear and a bevy of girl friends. By late afternoon the Hobies were struggling in, having sailed from Tahiti, about 70 miles away. Edith and I watched from the veranda of the Bali Hai Hotel, sipping on cold beers. The contestants wore wet suits and their exposed skin was covered with thick white cream. In the evening there were welcoming speeches by the local officials and then the party commenced, with native drummers and dancing girls in grass skirts. We stayed at Fare until the wind died down a few days later and then powered to Papeete overnight. Instead of returning to the noisy waterfront dock we anchored at Maeva Beach, where a very nice hotel provided all the facilities we needed and it was only a short ride to Papeete on ‘Le Truck’, when we wanted to go there. We explored the island, which is quite large, and had a funny adventure when we decided to visit the museum dedicated to Gauguin, about thirty miles east of Maeva Beach. We discovered there was a bus service and had no problem getting there. Besides the museum there was a wonderful botanical garden, which Edith really enjoyed. The problem arose when we tried to get back towards the end of the afternoon. We waited at the bus-stop, but none came. After an hour or so we began to get rather worried, it was fairly lonely part of Tahiti, the museum had closed and darkness was approaching. Then a tour bus screeched to a stop and the driver asked what we were doing. ‘Well, waiting for a bus,’ we told him. ‘There are no more today, he explained; the buses were run by private entrepreneurs and as most of the passenger traffic at that time of day was from Papeete, they would not return until the rush in the morning. Fortunately his bus had a couple of empty seats and he was nice enough to offer us a ride. We also got to visit some caves that were part of his tour and he regaled his passengers with local stories over the PA, one really caught my fancy. Here it is; just before WW I the famous author and playwright, Somerset Maugham, was touring the South Seas by steamer. Gauguin had been dead for about ten years and his work was becoming collectible. Maugham went to the Papeete suburb where Gauguin had once lived and tracked down the house. He asked the current occupant if Gauguin had left any paintings but the guy shook his head. Then he remembered that Gauguin had offered to paint the door of a man who had repaired a leak in the roof as repayment for the work. Maugham went round to the fellow’s house and sure enough there was a Gauguin painting on the back door. The door itself was not in good shape and Maugham offered to replace it with a new door if he could keep the old one. This seemed like a good deal to the owner and Maugham got the old door. It is now in the Getty museum and worth millions. Believe it or not!
Edith flew home shortly after this little adventure, one more guest had planned to visit the boat before I left for the return in November; Louise, a veteran of several summer cruises. She had expected to find Steve and Doug doing the crewing and was a little dropped on to find she was the only crew. Nevertheless we sailed to Huahine, Raiatea and back to Moorea. When we returned to Maeva Beach we rented a car for a return visit to the Gauguin Museum and that gave us the chance to tour the east of the island, called Tahiti-iti; little Tahiti because it looks like a pimple stuck to the main island. Louise flew home after a short stay and I set about organizing the return leg via Cape Horn. I recruited a local crew by means of an ad in the Papeete paper, which read: ‘Crew wanted for US sailboat bound for Chile, Brazil, Caribbean in late Oct. Some experience req. FIONA 41.08.54.’ In the end I picked two locals, a Frenchman, Simon and a Polynesian, Andre. I refueled the boat, reprovisioned and eventually called Edith by phone to let her know I was ready to leave. Then she gave me the staggering news; she had been diagnosed as having ovarian cancer, a fast-growing, malicious cancer which is very hard to detect in the early stages. Obviously the return trip would have to be postponed, I looked at my options. A major problem was customs; I had a cruising permit good for six months, of which three had already elapsed. I discussed the problem with local officials, by surrendering the boat documentation and hauling Fiona out of the water the permit would be suspended until I returned and customs duty, based on the value of the boat, would not be charged provided I personally left French Polynesia. The only yard in the Society islands capable of hauling and storing Fiona was a small operation in Raiatea which serviced the ‘Moorings’ charter fleet. I gave them a call and arranged to sail over the next day. I told my new crew that the trip was off but Simon agreed to help me get the boat to Raiatea. We sailed overnight and encountered a tremendous squall as we entered the reef at Raiatea, Simon was clearly scared and I wondered how he would have coped with Cape Horn weather. Simon returned to Tahiti on a ferry, the next day the boat was hauled using a travel-lift that just had enough clearance to get her over the edge of the slip and she was wedged into place with 55 gallon oil drums. Nearby was an American couple who were repairing some serious structural problems on their Taiwanese-built boat. I gave them much of the food I had stored for the trip and bid them farewell. A young Polynesian gave me a ride to the local airstrip on his Vespa and I flew to Tahiti to catch a Qantas flight to Los Angeles. I got home on October 29th, 1990; Edith was already in hospital recovering from the first operation to remove the cancerous tissue. And so began the worst year of my life. Edith endured two more operations to remove tissue, about the limit for that approach and then decided to go for a bone marrow transplant at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. She died during the final stages of the procedure in September, 1991.
Although there were an enormous number of things to take care of, I decided the first priority was to get Fiona back home. I left for the flight back to French Polynesia with two young fellows as crew in late October, 1991, and we arrived at Raiatea on Hallow’een. My crew consisted of Chris, who had just been thrown out of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy for sailing too much and not hitting the books enough, and Pete, whose father was a well-known circumnavigator, and who had sailed on several legs of the circumnavigation. He had had a few run-ins with the State Police about traffic violations and his father felt a long sea voyage was the ideal way to get him out of circulation. I took back a good deal of stuff including three gallons of bottom paint, which was hellishly expensive in French Polynesia. The boat was in sad shape; thieves had broken in and removed many tools, electronics and booze. Insects had established themselves throughout the interior and small plants were growing on deck. In one locker there was a thriving ant colony along with the queen at the center of a heaving mass of worker ants. We buckled down to tidy up and I made a long list of equipment for Red to air freight to Tahiti. It took us six days to get the boat in the water, for a shake-down we sailed to Bora Bora. After stops in Huahine and Moorea we anchored in the old familiar spot at Maeva Beach. Red sent two massive parcels of gear including a GPS receiver (just coming on line) and a stereo for the cabin. The French customs were very nice, gave me back the boat documents and suggested quite strongly that I leave as soon as possible because the cyclone (hurricane) season had started. Chris and Pete were fascinated by the night life in Papeete. After dark small trucks park near the waterfront to serve ethnic food; Americans serve ‘burgers, Italians pizza, etc. Polynesians serve dogs, which are roasted on a spit. Tranvestism and cross dressing have long had a place in the Polynesian culture, I had to warn the boys about possible surprises if they got too friendly with some of the exotic looking ‘ladies’. We refueled and set sail for the Gambier Islands on 21st November, 1991, just over three weeks after we arrived and in good time to make the weather window at Cape Horn. The Gambiers are the most easterly of the French Polynesian islands and the beat against the trade winds took us twelve days, we anchored in terrible weather in high winds and rain in the lee of a reef. The next day we moved to a small dock at the principal village of Mangereva. The island supported a population of about 300, but in the past an obsessed priest got them to build a magnificent church which was decorated inside by the most amazing mother-of-pearl carvings. Shortly after we arrived, a young American woman walked onto the dock, took one look at the home port painted on the stern and shrieked ‘New York’. She was stuck on the island waiting for her boyfriend, who was captain of a schooner and she tried to beg a ride to Pitcairn Island, which was our next destination. I pointed out that we might not even be able to land on Pitcairn and if we could she probably would not be allowed to stay, in which case she was bound for Cape Horn. I gave her a stiff rum as she mulled it over and she then decided to stay where she was. There was a French meteorological station on the island which was associated with the nuclear test site to the west. We walked up to the station which ran off an old British Lister diesel, thumping away all the time. We discovered a cyclone had indeed hit the islands a few days earlier and caused considerable damage in Moorea, so we got out just in time. The Japanese farm cultured pearls in the Gambiers, we talked to one of the divers and I helped design an antenna for his marine radio, in return he gave me two beautiful pearl shells with gorgeous nacre insides. We left after two days for the one-day sail to Pitcairn. We arrived in the dark and anchored in the lee of a tall cliff called ‘The Rope’. As I walked on the foredeck in bare feet I felt something under my toes; it was a roll-pin. Roll-pins held the foils of the roller furling system together, so this discovery was not good, considering we were facing a 4,300 mile leg to Cape Horn. When it was light we winched Chris up the headstay but we were rolling too much in the swell and any repairs were out of the question. We decided to always keep a few turns of the sail on the foils until we could fix the problem. I called Pitcairn on the radio and talked to Tom Christian; a rather historic name considering it was Fletcher Christian who engineered the Bounty mutiny in the 18th century. He suggested we circle the island looking for a calm landing spot, which we did without success. We anchored in Bounty Bay and, rather reluctantly I thought, Tom arranged for a boat to pick us up. There was a ramp on the shore with an old Ford engine that pulled the boat safely out of the surf as soon as it touched land. We were guests of the Warren family; only about 60 people lived on Pitcairn, mostly descendants of the original mutineers. They live in fairly primitive conditions with electricity a couple of hours a day from a communal diesel generator. We bought some stamps and Mr. Warren gave us a tour with all of us hanging onto his Honda ATV. At a headland we could see Fiona rolling violently in the offshore swell. Mr. Warren said an American yacht had dragged in that same spot a month or two before, a woman was drowned and the boat lost. I got the hint, gave him $20 for the gas he had used and he got a couple of young lads to ran us back to the boat. It was rolling so much that with proper timing I could step directly onto the railcap from their dinghy. We tossed the lads a couple of cold beers, weighed anchor and left for the Horn.
The trip to the Horn took 31 days, we encountered mixed weather with several unexpected calm spells, and it only got cold and windy south of 50 º S. We soon settled into a daily routine, the boys played a lot of cards and made a cribbage board. I baked a loaf every day and checked in with the Pacific ham radio net. A couple of times the hams were able to hook me up to a telephone and I called Red to give him our progress. One twenty-four period in the fifties we sailed over two hundred nautical miles; an average of eight knots. But that kind of sailing is very uncomfortable in a boat the size of Fiona and also stresses the gear too much. On Christmas Day we ran into one of the calm patches about 44º S. We had set up a little tree on the cabin table and Santa paid a visit with some small gifts. The boys started the day with Bloody Mary’s and slept out a couple of watches. As we got near the Horn it snowed briefly and, of course, the cabin heater died. We checked in with Cape Horn Radio, operated by the Chilean Navy, on 9th January, 1992, in typical Cape Horn weather; rain and gusts to 40 knots in squalls. We turned left into Goree Sound, heading for Port Williams, but head winds in Nassau Bay slowed us down and it looked like we would not make port in daylight. I was concerned about sailing in the rocky, treacherous Beagle Channel at night, but then ahead of us we spotted another sailboat making for a small port on the left and we followed her in. Our guide was a local charter boat and we had tied up at Port Toro. It was not a port of entry and there was great consternation that we had no Chilean papers. Telephone calls were exchanged with the navy in Port Williams and eventually we were told we could stay the night. What else could they say, I was not about to leave? The local police were very nice and Sergeant Garcia invited us into his house for a late supper. The next day we tied to the sunken steamer Micalvi, which serves as the local yacht club in Port Williams. It is a naval base with a small civilian population, a couple of shops, post office and a restaurant. We were able to refuel, get our laundry done and try to repair the roller furler. While we were there a willawaw came through; an intense local depression that produced a 100 knot wind for a few hours. We doubled our lines to the old ship, which was firmly resting on the sea bed and survived with no damage. But a small cruise ship tied up to a dock at the base tore the bollards out of the pier and drifted into the Beagle Channel, which was white with foam. I did not give much for his chances but the captain managed to survive and come back for his passengers, many of whom had been marooned when the ship blew away. After five days we sailed for the Falkland Islands via the Le Maire Strait, which separates Staten Island from Tierra del Fuego. The Strait has a bad reputation when the wind opposes the current, but we sailed through with no problems. We were spotted by the Argentinean Navy who called us on the radio for details of the boat and destination.
After a three day passage we arrived at Port Stanley, we tied up to a rickety wooden jetty for customs clearance; it was windy, gusts to 40 knots. When the official was leaving I asked him where we could tie up. He said yachts usually anchored in the harbor, but I did not like that idea, using the dinghy would be very wet. ‘Could we stay here?’ I asked. ‘Oh, no,’ he said, ‘this place gets rough when the wind pipes up!’ He evidently felt 40 knots of wind was fairly mild by Falkland standards. Eventually we arranged to berth at the new floating dock installed after the Argentine invasion of 1982; it was about a mile and half out of town. We made the trip to town many times along the muddy coastal path so we could enjoy the pleasures of the Globe tavern. Tied up next to us was a rather battered looking yacht from New Zealand. It was plastered with yellow and black police crime scene tape. I asked the dock master what the story was. Apparently a sailor who had lost a leg in a car accident had stolen the boat in New Zealand and sailed it to Port Stanley with just a teenager as crew. He changed the name and intended to charter in the Caribbean. Unfortunately for him someone on a visiting New Zealand yacht recognized the boat and he was tried and sentenced in Port Stanley for importing stolen property. He got three months hard labor, and I actually saw him one day cleaning old beer cans out of a ditch, under the watchful eyes of a policeman. Some friends of mine had a relative who farmed on one of the outer islands and they were visiting at the time. We sailed over to Westpoint Island and met Rod and Lil Napier, along with my friends Jen and Pete. It was a wonderful visit; we hiked all over the small island to inspect penguin rookeries and nesting albatrosses. One evening, when fortunately we were on the boat, a strong wind came up and we dragged anchor. Under full power I could hardly keep the boat into wind as the crew struggled to bring up the anchor. It was covered in kelp, which is probably why we dragged, as they pulled it off it flew back into the cockpit and plastered me at the wheel. Rod called us on his hand-held VHF radio and directed us to a better spot. The next day Lil gave us some fresh eggs and veggies and then we set sail for La Paloma, Uruguay, on the mouth of the River Plate.
La Paloma turned out to be small fishing village with a budding summer tourist trade. It had once been served by rail, the abandoned track and station were on the road into town from the dock. There was room for half a dozen boats moored bow-to at the dock. Next to us was a yacht belonging to an Air France captain. He invited us on board and proceeded to pour stiff drinks. We were all a little tipsy when he triumphantly produced his pride and joy; an early model Winchester rifle. When he passed it to me I pulled down the lever, what I did not realize was that it had a full magazine and thus I inadvertently chambered a round. That’s how accidents happen; he gingerly unloaded the gun without shooting anybody. When we left I spent my remaining pesos at a grungy grocery store illuminated with 25 watt bulbs. I hastily took a couple of cans that looked like a meat stew along with other canned foods. A week later, on the way to Brazil, I opened one for supper and tipped it in a pan. It was curious looking meat; pieces about one inch square and a quarter of an inch thick, but the disconcerting thing was that one side had short, stubby hairs. We translated the label on the remaining can with our Spanish dictionary; I had bought cans of monkey cheeks! They went over the side; food for fishes and I opened a can of dependable Spam.
Our destination after La Paloma was Santos in Brazil. Shortly after leaving we ran into some heavy weather and the head of the staysail tore. In rough seas we pulled it into the cabin and sewed on a patch with sewing machine we carried. The boat was rolling so much one of the crew had to hold the machine steady. As the weather calmed down we made good progress under sail, one morning we noticed a freighter on the starboard bow, it looked like it would pass us about half a mile ahead. We were down-wind and we suddenly noticed the dreadful smell of the farmyard from hell. Sure enough, as the ship passed we could read the name on the stern; ‘Livestock Express’. How on earth the ship’s crew lived with it continuously I cannot imagine. Shortly after that the wind died and we started the engine. I was pushing to get home in time for Brenda’s college graduation in early May, it was already mid-February and we still had over six thousand miles still to go. By the time we got to Santos Bay the gauges were showing the tanks to be empty. We anchored for the night and in the morning made our way to the Santos yacht club, any minute I expected the engine to die, but we made it to the fuel dock at the club. The Santos Yacht Club is extremely luxurious, it exists for wealthy yachtsmen from Sao Paulo, about sixty miles away. Many of then the helicoptered in on Friday afternoon for a weekend on their boats, well over a hundred large yachts lay in the slips, mostly power boats. I had to check-in with the Brazilian authorities, at the federal police office, where immigration is handled, I ran into a snag. They wanted to see our visas, which we didn’t have. In the end I had to hire an agent who spoke English and Portuguese, after a long conversation with the police he told me I would have to appear before a judge. The judge was a lady, my agent had asked if anything was broken on the boat and I said the radio wasn’t working, which was true but not very important. He told her this as an excuse for coming to Brazil, under maritime law a ship can always put into port for repairs. She didn’t really buy it, but gave me eight days to get it fixed and she wanted a letter from the repairman, and she fined me $30. To pay it I had to buy a form at a stationery shop, take it to a bank with the money and then take the receipt back to the court. By the time I had finished it took me two days to check in. The agent charged me $200 and the repairman another $200 for the letter, although he did not fix the radio. I felt truly ripped off. But the club made up for that, they gave us free mooring alongside for the eight days and we got to use all their facilities, including the wonderful showers which came with an attendant bearing free towels and soap. We really did have a lot to do; the tube up the inside of the mast holding the electrical wires had come loose and had to be re-riveted, among other repairs. Pete took the chance to see some friends in Vitoria, a city on the coast about 200 miles away. We did a monumental reprovisioning at the local supermarket and left after the statutory eight days. For some reason, looking back on it I am not sure why, I elected to sail across the Atlantic to the Cape Verde Islands and back again to Bermuda. I think I decided the winds would be more favorable that way, which was partly true. On our way out of Brazil we anchored for a night at Ihla Grande, a scenic spot known as the ‘French Polynesia of Brazil’. Since then I have been back to the region several times, although not quite Polynesia it is a very pleasant cruising area.
The 3,600 nautical mile leg from Ihla Grande to Praia in the Cape Verde Islands took thirty days. At first we had good sailing in the southeast trades, and then we experienced the usual calms and squalls in the Doldrums north of the equator. Both Pete and Chris had sailed across the equator before, so I did not have to dress up as Father Neptune, thank goodness. That didn’t stop us having a little extra rum that day. North of the Doldrums we ran into in to the northeast trades, which gave us a beat to the islands, the price we had to pay to get to windward for the next leg to Bermuda. The beat took us ten tedious days. Praia, to be frank, was a run-down dump with no redeeming features. For a couple of hundred years the Portuguese used it as a transfer port for slaves being taken from the African continent to ocean going ships heading for north or south America or the Caribbean. A large island in the center of the harbor still had the remains of the barracoons used to house the poor wretches while they awaited shipment. The ragged kids at the broken down jetty where we tied the dinghy had to be bribed so the dinghy and engine stayed relatively safe. It was a two mile hike (at least it seemed that far) in the hot sun to the commercial dock for customs and immigration clearance. A visa was issued on arrival and in anticipation we had obtained passport photos in Brazil. The official was not out to help, in schoolboy French, our only common language, he said the visa photos did not match the passport pics and I explained we had all grown beards. He then said he wanted to see Pete and Chris, so I walked back to the dinghy, got the crew and walked back to the office. He stared at Chris and then said ‘Le nez est trop grand’, implying Chris was not Chris. Obviously we were being jerked around; I think we were getting our lumps for all those years of slavery. Eventually the paper work was done and we wandered to the main square for a beer. Like all former Portuguese towns it had a nice bandstand, now in need of some paint. We were constantly importuned, I felt particularly sorry for the young women, who pestered Chris and Pete saying, ‘Marry me. Marry me!’ There was a central telephone office and I called home, Red passed on a message to call my lawyer. When I did I found out problems had developed concerning the sale of Edith’s practice to the assistant she had hired. It was a reminder that by spending months on the boat I was simply postponing facing a lot of problems back home on Long Island. Fuel turned out to be difficult to get; it was available at the commercial dock but only from a 2 inch pipe. Fresh water was a similar problem; they were only geared up to service commercial ships. In the end we left with what we had on board, although an Atlantic crossing with only about 30 gallons of fuel was going to be interesting. One thing we did have to get was propane for the stove; we were just about out of it. Either we had a leak or the tank was only partially filled in Brazil, I suspect the latter. Propane was available at a filling station above the dock, but it turned out the fittings were completely incompatible with the US style on Fiona’s tank. I decided to buy one of their tanks, with a matching regulator, and connect it to the low pressure pipe to the galley. I stood on the filling bay trying to find a tank that wasn’t too rusty. Fifty yards away was the main storage tank, a huge, silver sphere a hundred feet in diameter, I believe it was donated by the Danes. Below me a bunch of happy-go-lucky fellows were loading full tanks onto a truck. To increase the capacity someone had added plywood sheets to the sides supported by a couple of 2 by 4 s. As the load of steel tanks got higher and higher a side suddenly collapsed and a score of tanks fell to the ground. One struck the nozzle on something and it spun round as propane spurted out. I thought of the thousands of cubic feet in the storage tank nearby and what would happen if someone lit a cigarette. ‘I’ll take this one,’ I said hurriedly as I grabbed the nearest tank and skedaddled. The fellows loading the truck thought it was a big joke and laughed at the antics of the venting tank. We left after four days and headed for Bermuda, 2,700 nautical miles to the northwest.
Our first adventure of the crossing came shortly after we left Praia, which lies to the southeast of the archipelago. As we headed west we passed a mile south of Brava, a steep volcanic island. The wind had been great; 30 knots from the northeast, but in the lee of the island it suddenly dropped to zero, as though cut off by a switch. The boat was left rolling in the swell, after a few minutes I decided to start the engine and motor out of the wind shadow. The engine refused to start, I tinkered in the engine room for twenty minutes and then went on deck, Brava seemed closer. A quick check by radar showed a current was pushing us onto the rocky, inhospitable shore. It was too deep to anchor; Brava rose almost vertically out of the sea. We put the dinghy over the side and lashed it fore and aft. Then I started the tiny Seagull outboard motor to pull Fiona out of harm’s way. There was no discernable speed on the log but after half an hour the radar showed we were making slight progress. It took two hours before we gained enough offing to pick up a slight wind and sail away. I still have that Seagull, how can I abandon a friend like that? The trades blew steadily and we sailed quickly into the Atlantic. A week after leaving Brava behind we were furling the jib near 42º W, about a thousand miles from land, when the headstay parted with a bang. This left the furling gear and jib dangling from the halyard. We lowered the whole rig to the deck with some difficulty; the furling gear was about ten feet longer than the boat and we had to lower it outside the shrouds. After removing the sail we threw the furling gear, minus the drum and swivel, over the side, the foils had been bent too much to ever used again. I had had some warning that trouble was afoot; in Santos when I was working at the masthead I noticed a couple of strands of the headstay had broken, but I figured it would get us home, I was wrong. The basic cause was that the upper bushing of the furling gear had slipped to the bottom of the top foil, thus the tube was unsupported and a groove wore in the aluminum. When the foils were turned, during furling or reefing, it acted like a pipe cutter on the wire of the headstay. For the next two days we worked to get the jib up again, I spent a lot of time at the masthead in the bosun’s chair. First the swaged eye had to be removed from the masthead fitting, Then we cut a new stay from spare wire and attached Norseman eyes to each end, one end was hauled up to the masthead and the clevis pin inserted. While this was going on Pete was lashing a length of wire halyard to the luff of the jib, every two feet he inserted a small shackle which was to be attached to the headstay. The wire was swaged to the head and the tack thimbles, when it was all finished the sail set as good as new. Of course, it could not be reefed or furled, we had to hand it and lash it to the lifeline when the wind piped up. A week later, on my birthday, April 16th, we were totally becalmed. I was somewhat concerned as Brenda’s graduation was drawing close but we just drifted and enjoyed the cake and rum on a sea like a mill pond. The next day the wind came back and a week later we sailed into St Georges, Bermuda. It had taken us twenty days from Praia and we arrived with ten gallons in the fuel tanks. At Happy Hour we toasted Victor the Vane.
We had logged about 16,500 nautical miles since we left Tahiti in November, spent 123 days at sea and stopped in seven ports on the way. Chris and Pete flew home from Bermuda and I decided to do the same thing, so I rented a mooring for Fiona and flew to New York at the end of April. I did not enjoy my stay at home much; too many problems and too many memories. But I did make the graduation ceremony, as promised. I flew back to Bermuda in late May and a succession of visitors kept me busy sailing the beautiful waters of the archipelago. I was also able to take many extended walks, a long sea voyage on a sailboat generally develops the shoulder muscles but allows the legs to atrophy. Brenda and Jessie spent a week on board, followed by Louise and her daughter Christina. We thought Christina would enjoy seeing the mysterious fire worm, a small creature that lives at the bottom of shallow bays in Bermuda. Every month three days after the full moon they rise to the surface after sunset for reproduction, the female spins around making a phosphorescent ring in the water to attract males. We anchored the dinghy in a suitable bay near the airport and waited. Sure enough, they began to rise to the surface and spin their green circle, I kid you not! Shoel flew in and we were joined by JoAnnn who had sailed with us aboard Iona in 1968. We made a last sortie to the west end reefs for a week. Next Walter, a young friend of Brenda’s and who in later years would share a circumnavigation with me, flew down. Eventually we all sailed the boat back to Newport for customs clearance into the US in August. We sailed back to Patchogue via Block Island, and pulled into Weeks Yachtyard two years and two months after we left with such high hopes in 1990. The authorities at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy were so impressed with Chris because he had sailed round Cape Horn that he was readmitted and went on to graduate. Pete got himself a coast guard captain’s license and became a charter boat captain. I went back to the Laboratory on a part-time basis for a couple of years before I retired in 1995. But before that I made two long summer cruises to Canada.
Please contact Eric Forsyth via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If Fiona is at sea you can contact the ship here: WDI9795@sailmail.com