CIRCUMNAVIGATIONS AND BLUE-WATER PASSAGES - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CIRCUMNAVIGATIONS AND BLUE-WATER PASSAGES. In 1876 Alfred Johnson singlehandedly crossed the Atlantic in his twenty-foot dory Centennial from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Abercastle, Wales, which took fifty-nine days. Johnson was a handline Banks fisherman completely familiar with dories. Thus began the age of singlehanded sailing. The first person to make a singlehanded circumnavigation was Nova Scotia-born Joshua Slocum,* a professional sea captain who built the thirty-six-foot, nine-inch sloop Spray from the remains of an old oyster sloop. Slocum’s dry wit and nautical competence made Sailing Alone around the World the classic circumnavigation account, first published in 1900 and still in print. The smallest American sailboat to round Cape Horn* as of 1985 was sailed by a father-and-son team, David and Daniel Hays, in a twenty-five-foot Vertue, a fiberglass replica of a proven blue-water design. The two Hays present their nautical and psychological account in My Old Man and the Sea (1995).

The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss (1913) by John Claus Voss is a classic in the Slocum tradition. Voss, like Slocum, was a professional sea captain at the end of the age of sail. Voss hoped to follow in Slocum’s wake but believed his written account would be profitable only if his vessel were smaller and unique. Accordingly, he decked over a large Indian dugout canoe and stepped three small masts. Tilikum was thirty-eight feet overall, including the figurehead, five feet, six inches wide, and drew two feet when completely loaded. Voss sailed from Victoria, B.C., to London (19011904). Although not a technical circumnavigation, the tip of Africa was rounded, and the narrow and shallow vessel survived many gales, which fortune Voss attributed to his sea anchor, a cone-shaped canvas bag streamed from the bow. Voss lost his crew member overboard and sailed alone for 1,200 miles. Unlike Slocum, Voss offers technical advice to small- boat voyagers, including an account of surviving a typhoon in the twenty- five-foot, eight-inch yawl Sea Queen.

Following World War I, sailors from many nations went to sea. Among these was Harry Pidgeon, born on an Iowa farm, who built the thirty-four- foot yawl Islander, an enlarged Sea Bird-type similar to Voss’ Sea Queen. Pidgeon, an amateur boat builder and sailor, solo-circumnavigated twice, 1921-1925 and 1932-1937. His well-written account, Around the World Single-Handed (1933), inspired other amateurs with limited means and skills.

Vito Dumas, an Argentine rancher, made a remarkable circumnavigation 1942-1943, rounding the great capes and making only three landfalls. Captain Raymond Johnes translated Alone through the Roaring Forties (1960), enabling English-speaking readers to learn how Dumas singlehanded his thirty-one-foot, six-inch double-ended ketch Legh II over the planet’s heaviest seas. John Guzzwell built the twenty-foot, six-inch yawl Trekka and singlehandedly circumnavigated, leaving from Victoria, B.C. (1953-1957). Guzzwell’s Trekka round the World (1963) demonstrated what a well- designed and superbly sailed microcruiser could do; his clear, honest, and unmelodramatic style is both informative and inspiring.

Dumas and Guzzwell were both experienced blue-water sailors prior to circumnavigating. Perhaps copy editor Robert Manry’s Atlantic crossing (1965) in the thirteen-foot, six-inch sloop Tinkerbelle captivated the public precisely because of Manry’s apparent nautical innocence. He seemed to have gone out for an afternoon’s sail and stayed out long enough to cross an ocean. Trekka and Tinkerbelle set “smallest” records, Trekka’s lasting until 1980. Manry’s book, Tinkerbelle (1966), reveals that he had carefully studied the history of ocean crossing in midget sailboats, but his knowledge was mostly theoretical; he first learned how to deploy his sea anchor and learned that Tinkerbelle was indeed self-righting while in passage.

Hugo S. Vihlen, a pilot living in Florida, had his six-foot boat designed and built for an Atlantic passage. In 1968 his eighty-five-day second attempt from Casablanca to just off the coast of Florida was successful. April Fool (1971) reveals what a resolute amateur can accomplish. In 1993 Vihlen sailed the five-foot, four-inch Father’s Day from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Falmouth, England, in 105 days. Minnesota schoolteacher Gerry Spiess designed, built, and sailed the ten-foot Yankee Girl from Chesapeake Bay to Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1979, taking 54 days. The voyage is presented in Alone against the Atlantic (1981), written by Spiess with Marlin Bree. Spiess subsequently crossed the Pacific in Yankee Girl from California to Australia in 1981. In 1999 Tori Murden was the first American and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic, a feat she accomplished in eighty- one days beginning in the Canary Islands and ending in Guadeloupe.

Two single-handed circumnavigations are noteworthy because of the young age of the sailors. Robin Lee Graham was sixteen when he departed in 1965. With Derek L. T. Gill he wrote Dove (1972; the story first appeared as three National Geographic articles [1968, 1969, 1970]; the Gregory Peck-produced film, The Dove, appeared in 1974). Tania Aebi, who was eighteen when she departed in 1985, wrote Maiden Voyage (1989) with Bernadette Brennan.

Among notable ocean races was the 1960 initiation of the Observer’s Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR), won by Francis Chichester. The OSTAR spawned similar events, including the Golden Globe nonstop, singlehanded race around the world in 1968. At age sixty-five, American Philip S. Weld won the 1980 OSTAR in Moxie, a fifty-foot trimaran. An experienced multihull racer, Weld describes the race and the events leading to it in Moxie (1981). Dodge Morgan set the record for the fastest singlehanded, nonstop circumnavigation eastabout via the capes in 1985-1986; his account is presented in The Voyage of American Promise (1989).

The epic account of poet Webb Chiles appears in his Storm Passage (1977). Chiles sailed three-quarters of the way around the world before being imprisoned and his boat confiscated by a Red Sea nation whose officials could not believe he was yachting around the world in an eighteen- foot boat. Chiles tells of storms, shipwreck, and physical and psychological suffering, and he offers joy and triumph as well in Open Boat across the Pacific (1982) and The Ocean Waits (1984).

Bill Pinkney was the first African American solo circumnavigator (19901992); departing and arriving at the Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, he rounded all of the most challenging and the stormiest capes, including Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Leeuwin. Pinkney sailed in a forty-seven-foot cutter named the Commitment and produced a packet for schoolchildren called “The Middle Passage Project.” Hundreds of sailboats now circumnavigate in relative safety made possible by electronic aids to steering, navigating, weather forecasting, and communications. The sea remains open, but an electronic umbilical cord connects current sailors to shore. A comprehensive bibliography that includes the preceding works not individually listed in the following can be found in Henderson. [See also CRUISING LITERATURE; DARING THE SEA]

FURTHER READING: Borden, Charles A. Sea Quest. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, 1967; Clarke, Derrick H. Blue Water Dream. New York: David McKay, 1981; Doherty, John Stephen, The Boats They Sailed In. New York: Norton, 1985; Henderson, Richard. Singlehanded Sailing. 2d ed. Camden: International Marine, 1988; Holm, Don. The Circumnavigators. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Lee F. Werth