The Circumnavigators: by Donald Holm


Within a few miles of my home in suburban Portland, Oregon, there are perhaps two dozen small ships all sailing vessels of thirty to forty feet in length in various stages of construction, with the ultimate purpose of carrying their owners and builders on world voyages.

The shipyards are old barns, backyards, temporary sheds of wood framing and plastic sheeting. Even at the small moorage on Multnomah Channel where I keep my sloop, there are four such vessels being built in a corner of the parking lot, and there is a waiting list for the space.

I am sure that similar activity can be found at every seaport of every maritime country in the Free World where the political, social, and economic status is sophisticated enough to stimulate the natural human urge to escape to a more simple life, or to indulge one's curiosity and restlessness by travel to faraway places.

And for every ship abuilding there are perhaps a thousand or more secret dreamers (many of whom live hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water) who spend their leisure hours marking ads in the classified sections of metropolitan newspapers and boating periodicals, or prowling the marinas, yacht clubs, and small boat harbors searching for a ship in which to make their escape at a price within their dreams.

Most of them, of course, will never get beyond the ad-marking stage; or if they do, most of their ardor will have been dissipated bythe actual physical activity and the reality of inquiry. There is nothing new or unusual about this. Civilized man has endeavored to escape to sea at least since the time of the Minoans, circa 1500 B.C. Daydreams like this are what help many over the small daily crises, the frustrations of the job, and that state of mental rebellion that Henry David Thoreau was trying to define when he wrote that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Some of these owners, builders, and searchers have announced their intentions in advance, and are already savoring the heady stimulation of publicity and small notoriety which they hope to earn later.

Others hold it as a secret ambition and will not talk about it, or if they do, they are vague about future ports of call and even departure dates. A few are building only what they refer to as "retirement boats," for which they have no conscious plans other than living aboard when the ship is finished and launched. These are the cagey ones. They not only have the dream, but they have the means, the time, and the personal discipline it takes to accomplish it. One has a feeling that they are waiting to see what the situation looks like whenthey are ready for sea, and chances are pretty good that one will learnat some future date that they are on their way around the world after all.

Among these dreamers is a bachelor and college professor who is completing his 32-foot Atkins ketch at precisely the same rate as his academic career draws to a close. When his boat is finished and his retirement checks are coming in regularly, he plans to sail the one hundred miles down the Willamette River of Oregon to the Columbia, and then down the ninety miles or so to the Pacific Ocean.

"When I get there," he told me, "then I will decide whether to turn right or left."

Like many other unfortunates, I am incited by and envious of all these dreams and ships abuilding, for I lost my chance years ago. I, too, once planned a solo circumnavigation, only to become one of the thousands who were thwarted by fate and circumstances. Born and raised on the bleak prairies of North Dakota, in almost the exact center of the North American continent and as far as you can get from any ocean, the sea fascinated me since my earliest remembrance. Perhaps it was some latent manifestation of my Viking ancestry; more likely it was merely the result of my early reading of Robert Louis Stevenson or Herman Melville or John Masefield. I had never even set eyes on an ocean until I was nineteen years old.

But my first conscious urge to build my own ship and travel to faraway places (although I had built rowboats and canoes when I was not more than ten years old for use on the local Mouse River) was fired by John Hanna's wonderful little Tahiti ketch, hundreds of which have been built by dreamers like me, and dozens of which have made long voyages, even around the world. Created on his drawing board as Orca at Dunedin, Florida, in about 1923, this famous 30-footdouble-ender was released to an eager audience through a series of articles in the old Modern Mechanix that were subsequently collected for reprint in the 1935 edition of How To Build 20 Boats.

Today, almost forty years later, I still get the same thrill and feel the same yearnings as I did when I first devoured Hanna's own explanation:

      The Tahiti design has been built, tested, put up against real deep water and dirty weather, and proved good. Not one boat, but five of them. Not by one man, but by many skilled sailors and competent judges. Not in just one place of favorable conditions, but in the Atlantic, Gulf, Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the North Sea, off England's coast. Not in one pleasant summer, but in all weather as it comes for six years. I put the first one through her paces myself, sometimes with one man, sometimes handling her alone. Everything the owners of others have reported to me has simply confirmed my own observations, or gone farther.

      She is dry; that means she stays on top of the waves, and does not tend to stick her nose under them. She is easy in her motion; she is remarkably easy to handle, and obedient to her helm; the rig, known as the ketch rig, is extraordinarily well balanced, not only under full sail, which all boats are, but under any combination of sails, which few boats are; and she has that much-desired but seldom-attained merit of a good cruiser, the ability to sail herself and hold her course for hours with the tiller lashed.

      She has laughed at the worst storm she has ever met wind estimated at 75 to 90 miles an hour by the Boston papers.

      In short, whatever it takes to get to Tahiti and back, this ship has.

What daydreamer, be he a young kid on a Midwest farm, or a middle-aged Walter Mitty on New York's Madison Avenue, could resist that kind of romance!

Moreover, this was one enthusiastic project that withstood a half-century of actual experience, and there are probably more people building Tahiti types today than ever before proving the wisdom and soundness of the late John Hanna's siren call. (Incidentally, Istill have the original articles and plans for Tahiti, almost disintegrated by time and handling.)

I was only sixteen and chasing under the social and economic re-

straints of a small town in mid-America when exposed to the Modern Mechanix articles. I spent hours reading and rereading them, andteaching myself how to understand blueprints, to loft lines, and to set up molds. This was during the Depression and the Great Droughtof the mid-1930's before the dogs of World War II had been unleashed. Though life was a great deal less complex and the future less uncertain than now, this seemed to have no bearing on the ageless urge to escape to sea.

As Melville had written almost a century before, "I thought Iwould sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is away I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation."

Leaving home immediately after graduation from high school, I spent several years roaming about, finding work where I could. At last, in 1939, I was established in Juneau, Alaska, with a steady job and a small savings account. My magic carpet was getting closer to reality.

By this time, another wonderful thing had happened: A boatbuilding firm in Michigan, Bay City Boats, was manufacturing prefabricated kits for a line of boats that could easily be assembled at one-third the cost by diligent amateurs. Among the models in Bay City's line were a 45-foot schooner, Hanna's Gulfweed and Carol and right after the war, L. Francis Herreshoff's famed Marco Polo and the Tahiti ketch!

For about $600, you could purchase the complete frame for Tahiti, all ready to set up and bolt together. For another $250, you could purchase the planking, cut, drilled, and ready to bend on. Other kits for the engine, tankage, rigging, and sails were available at equally reasonable prices, even for 1939.

At last, I had the means and the facilities to make the dream come true, and off went my order for the frame kit. Meanwhile, I found space in town for a temporary shipyard. But like the dreams of thousands of others of military age, my plans were thwarted by the outbreak of war in Europe and subsequently Pearl Harbor. War time restrictions and long years of military service (ironically often served in those very same exotic South Pacific areas that had once fired their imaginations) killed the dream for most. The luckier ones, like Dwight Long of Seattle, who departed in his Idle Hour just in time to avoid the opening of hostilities, got their dreams fulfilled before it was too late. For others, the passage of too many years and the subsequent readjustment to peacetime and a cold war had caused the

magic moment to be lost forever. For them, things were never quite the same, and never would be again.

But for many, the dream did continue, and each upcoming generation had its usual quota of dreamers. In the mid-1950s and againin the late 1960s, there was a boom in the number of small boatssetting out on world cruises. The trend today toward bluewater voyaging is even greater. In fact, the present-day boom in sailing andboat building is unprecedented. If it continues, future escapists may find the ocean lanes of the world regulated by traffic signals. Today there are literally thousands of yachts en route to exotic places, while there were hundreds in the 1950s and 1960s. The urge to go has eventaken on a sort of frantic overtone, fed by the affluence of this decade and the availability of improved designs and new maintenance-free materials such as fiber glass, aluminum, and even ferro-cement.

Perhaps some of this frantic feeling today is due to the underlying insecurity of the times, the realization that the world is not only becoming overcrowded and polluted as it shrinks, but that the old personal freedoms and individual enterprises are being eroded by the emergence of monolithic political systems, of totalitarian communist aggressions that, once imposed, are never again thrown off, and of new welfare states that sap the initiative and dull the imagination.

The oceans of the world are now all that remain for those who seek personal freedom and challenge. The quiet desperation of many who still cherish individualism has become a crushing anxiety to embark before it is too late.

As for myself, I have learned to indulge my inner yearnings with coastwise cruising, sailing among the islands of the north, and in offshore fishing trips to Alaskan and Mexican waters. Time spent in the Navy during the war and on commercial fishing boats in the North Pacific has helped compensate for the feeling that something has been missed. The writing of books and articles and a daily column in a metropolitan newspaper on related subjects has been an effective outlet for repressed impulses. And, as a frustrated world voyager, over the years I have been an avid follower of the sea adventures of others, getting a vicarious pleasure this way. As a hobby, I have studied and analyzed the voyages of nearly a hundred circumnavigators those who succeeded and those who failed and those who were never heard from again.

This book is my attempt to pull together the best and most representative of these voyagers, and to try and define for my own personal satisfaction and curiosity, if nothing else, many of the underlying reasons that motivate a man to leave the comforts of an established society and bounce around the world at an average rate of five miles an hour in cramped, damp, and often extremely uncomfortable quarters.

Who are these people? What are they really seeking? What motivates them to undertake the risks involved in crossing vast oceans in tiny ships, frequently alone, always dependent upon the prevailing winds and currents, subject to all the raw hazards of the open sea, the possibility of accident and sickness, fearful uncertainties of the unknown, and the inevitable and exasperating red tape of many petty customs and port officials in foreign lands? Certainly, there is nothing easy or simple about a bluewater voyage.

Are these people seeking adventure? Romance? Escape? Or are theyreally searching for meaning in their lives? Do they desire fame and fortune? Or is it just an impulse for achievement against overwhelming odds?

Are they anachronisms in a world that no longer has use for explorers and pioneers? Are they bums, dropouts, copouts, or just plain nuts? Do they have something that you and I do not, besides money? Or, as one psychologist opined, are they just people with suicidal compulsions, their voyages being spectacular manifestations of it?

Of enduring interest to all erstwhile voyagers, of course, be they daydreamers or actual doers, are the technical details of these voyages. How did they do it? How did they get the money and the years of time it takes to go on a world voyage? What kind of boats did they find most seaworthy and comfortable? How did they cope with heavy weather? How about medical supplies, stores, fuel, water, food, spare parts? How did they cope with port and customs authorities? What about landfalls and uncharted reefs, or celestial navigation? How did they manage on passages of a month or more without sight of land or another ship? And when they did make a landfall, which natives were friendly, and which were not?

Thwarted dreamers or serious planners all eagerly lap up such fascinating bits of business, for this is the stuff of which dream ships are derived, even if vicariously.

Here then are the most notable men and women who have circumnavigated the world, and especially those who have solo navigated. World voyagers are the elite of modern travelers, and circumnavigators in small ships are the nobility of the elite. The solo circumnavigation is the epitome of all personal odysseys.

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