Journey of My Life in Forty-Four Days

The Labrador current sets in a west-south-westerly direction south of Nova Scotia and down towards New York. For a small ship upon which currents have a large effect, it is essential to ride with a favourable one, so for the first two and a half days I sailed in a south-easterly direction until I was through the cold wall barrier which separates the Labrador current from the Gulf Stream; besides a marked temperature rise, the colour of the sea changes from an olive green to a rich and clear royal blue.

These days were marked first by fog, then by violent thunderstorms, and though at least the sea was calm, all my clothes and bedding were damp. Three fishing boats came alongside when I was twenty-four hours out and asked me if I had lost my way and then what I was doing! The last of these New Bedford fishermen heaved down an enormous lobster on to the coach-roof and it took me more than two hours to kill, dismember, and boil it – all thirty-one inches in length; the meat was a welcome change in diet.

The remainder of this passage can best be described by some extracts taken from my log written as the events occurred.

August 26th.
Wind westerly Force 4 and the sea is warmer. I ate the last of the fresh peaches for breakfast, but there are some oranges left. The tanker Commander passed 500 yards to the north of me, bound east. 1400: took in one genoa as the wind freshened, but back on the twins at 22:00. Secured at 23:40 for the night; the weather is excellent.

August 27th.
Medium wave radio reception is falling off, but I heard a report from an unknown station that there is a hurricane, code name ‘Faith’, west of Turks Island in the south-east Bahamas. The wind died away this evening so I secured at 1930; the sea is calm. Day’s run to noon, 76 miles…

August 30th.
There is a lot of Gulf Stream weed about and it fouls the log rotator. The tops of waves have slopped into the cockpit all day and made life a misery, so I was glad of a gin and hot soup in the evening.
I am desperately tired from driving the yacht till all hours. The defect list is growing; both galley pumps are done, and the galvanizing on the rigging has long since gone. Though I am about 180 miles from land, a small yellow bird like a canary flew aboard for a while.

Again there was no washing or shaving permitted, and of course the clothes I was wearing would be ditched on arrival somewhere in Ireland. Though I had a little more fresh water for the return passage than for the outward trip, another new collapsible can I had been given split at a seam; luckily this occurred in daylight and I was able to save most of the precious fluid by siphoning down to a main tank. Later on that day I wrote:

I am back to the old filthy story; wind Force 6 gusting seven and a steadily rising sea; reduced sail to one genoa. I heard on the radio that Chichester has started his voyage to Australia; he must be odd to wish to spend so long at sea; I am tired of looking at it, for to me it is purely a means of conveying my yacht from place to place. I have made 148 stops on this cruise and seen a great deal. About 2,300 miles to Ireland.

This evening I fell overboard while coming aft down the port side; the ship lurched and caught me off balance; I just went clean over the guardrail. Luckily, I was able to grab the foot of the backstay and using the step on the rudder I clambered over the counter in thirty seconds flat. There was a full moon to help… but…

August 31 st.
The flexible hose connecting the paraffin pressure tank to the stove parted last night and made a dreadful mess as it fountained everywhere. It took me forty minutes’ fight to set the twins this morning and I was nearly carried overboard as I hung on the flogging sails while securing the poles to the clews.
I was unable to obtain the BBC World Service, but I did hear the news broadcast from New York. ‘Hurricane Faith’ with winds of 120 m.p.h. heading north-west over the Bahamas. The authorities considering whether to bomb it with ice or leave it alone.

The yacht hit a large baulk of timber while sailing at full tilt; wind westerly Force 6 with a moderate sea; occasionally the yacht was surf-riding. 18:15 a bad squall came in with dense rain. 2400 Radio Bonaire reported ‘Faith’ moving north-north-east at 15m.p.h. and is now 290 miles south-east of Cape Hatteras. Day’s run 94 miles.

September 1st, Sky overcast.
Day’s run to noon 95 miles. The wind has gone round to the north-north-east Force 3 and in the afternoon died away to light airs, so ran the engine for an hour. A very large and ominous swell has developed from the south-west.

September 2nd.
There is no wind. The barometer has dropped ยท2 ins. during the night. The ship lay stopped until 14:30. Several rain-storms, which at times were dense with visibility down to 50 yards. The general appearance of the weather and the low clouds seem ominous.

I secured at 22:30 and switched on the radio at 22:45. Radio Halifax reported ‘Hurricane Faith’ in a position which I plotted as I listened in. 350 miles from me and moving in on east-north-easterly direction at 15 m.p.h., its track was directly through the yacht’s position. The radio went on to say that all North Atlantic shipping had been advised to keep clear of its path right across to Europe, as this hurricane was of extreme strength.

I had been told in the West Indies that it would be the end of any yacht should she ever get caught out in a hurricane, and now I was faced with the cold bare facts. For the fifth time I read the Admiralty Pilot and the ‘Practical Rules for avoiding a Tropical Revolving Storm’. The fact that I had not got 20 knots at my disposal, and that the ship was virtually stopped, only added to a rather cold feeling in my stomach. I calculated that I had about twenty-four hours’ grace, so I turned in for some sleep.

On September 3rd I was woken up at 02:30 as the band began to play in the rigging. There was a really vile swell as I set to work clearing decks of everything possible to reduce windage, for I intended to save the yacht somehow. I took the cockpit dodgers down, ran off flag halyards, and lashed the bunt of the mainsail tightly. ‘Faith’ could not have been far away for the wind was up to about 40 knots and the barometer steadily dropping; the radio report must have been hours out of date.

At first I established that the wind direction was virtually constant, but later it began to back with a very ugly swell running against the wind. At 0800 I decided I was in the navigable semicircle of the storm, and could only lie a-hull with the wind on the starboard quarter, for there was really no option. By 10:30 the wind was certainly over 90 knots if not 100. The swell was enormous, and while in the valleys the wind force was not too bad, on the tops the scream of it plus the crash of the seas against the hull was terrifying. Very little heavy water actually came aboard, and I was glad that some stores and water had already been consumed, for I was heavily laden and low in the water when I had left Nantucket.

I spent most of the time down below in the saloon taking a look through the main hatchway from time to time, or through the scuttles, at the scene on deck – a scene of utter desolation, of whole wave tops being blown off; an awesome sight. As she climbed the long hills of water the wind began to take greater effect, heeling her over until the port toe-rail dipped into the sea, and then a blast of scud and spray would fly over everything. Looking forward I did not think I would last for long on the foredeck, for the wind would have been far too much for me if the seas pouring over the bow did not take me with them, and the guardrails as well. I put aside all thoughts of attempting to rig the sea anchor; to bring it on deck would be stupid, for it would have been torn from my grasp.

The cloud base was very low and appeared as dark grey murk. The rain, which was dense at times, did help to flatten down the seas a little. There was certainly no risk of collision with another vessel, because all shipping had been warned to avoid the path of the hurricane.

Down below, everything was damp or sodden and it was quite impossible to secure all the gear. The engine had emptied its gear-box oil and the mess was dreadful.

My noon position was 400 miles south of St John’s, Newfoundland, and I was thankful that I was so far from land. Not only was there no risk of being driven ashore, but I knew that the nearer one is to the land, and within soundings, the worse do seas become.

The barometer had risen two millibars at last and very quickly the light increased as the cloud base rose and the sun nearly came out, though the wind was still around 100 m.p.h. I guessed that the yacht was being carried to the west-north-west at about one knot, but it later turned out these estimates of direction were worthless.

At 13:30 low clouds began to form again; tremendous dark grey ones. Every hour or so I pumped the bilge as dry as possible and of course all the oily mixture from the discharge was carried over the cockpit and mainsail. The sea could only be described as ‘storm plus plus’ and very frightening. I estimated the swell at 30 feet high or a little over and established its period from crest to crest at 21 seconds.

By 16:30 the barometer had risen a further six millibars on this terrible day, and the ship’s head had turned through 180 degrees as the wind backed to the north.

There was really very little to do during the day except write, and have a little cold food. At great inconvenience I had been able to inject myself with insulin, and at midnight I was able to cook some stew by holding the pan on the stove. By then the wind had decreased to about Force 9, though there was still an enormous swell running out from the centre of the depression, which had moved away to the east-north-east.
In the morning the wind veered to the north-east Force 8 and I was able to get under way at 09:45 with the storm foresail and nine rolls in the mainsail. Though the sun later came out, it was impossible to take a sight owing to the large swell, and my inability to get a good horizon.

September 5th.
The east wind has veered to the south-east Force 5. Sun sights put me sixty miles south of my estimated position. I think this is probably due to a surface drift of the sea caused by the tropical revolving storm. 19:30 lying a-hull again with a moderate gale blowing.

September 6th.
The saloon table is broken. During the night I was catapulted out of the starboard bunk into the port one, breaking the table en route. Clothes and bedding are all sodden and with my numerous knocks and scrapes I shall soon run out of first-aid dressings. I am dog tired from lack of real sleep. The gale is veering to the south. I am now fourteen days out and the count is one major depression, two minors, one hurricane, and one gale. Why do I have all the luck? Restitched one of the genoas for three hours.

September 7th.
Full sail at last! There are extensive fog patches and the visibility is only half a mile. 2000 a depression came in with dense rain lasting for three hours.
On September 8th the sun shone and I was able to open up the ship and air bedding and clothes; she must have looked like a tinker’s stall, but it was good for my morale. A lot of hemp rope had rotted and was only fit to be ditched. This was a momentous day for I ran off the West Atlantic Chart on to the East one, and this left only 1,600 miles to the Fastnet Rock.

September 10th.
Two heavy rain-storms and at 1000 a further one with visibility down to 50 yards. 12:30. Hove to on the port tack under storm foresail with wind Force 7 to 8. The can of powdered milk shot off the chart table and has spilt everywhere; ditched the remainder and cleared up the sticky mess. Life is miserable and the yacht is being swept by a sea every minute or so, spurting water below through the joints of both hatches…

September 12th. Three minor depressions and one large one during the day. The weather is truly vile. While lowering the mainsail, a batten tore its pocket badly and took six hours to repair. The mess of rusting tins and spilt food below is revolting. My oilskins seem useless except for keeping out the wind and I have forgotten when my clothes and bunk were last dry; a submarine is ‘Ritzy’ by comparison. That day I covered 127 miles from noon to noon, and this was the best day’s run of the whole voyage.

On September 16th a freighter steamed close by at 20:00 and an officer asked me for my particulars; he said his vessel was the Charmaine. Later a liner picked me up in her searchlight.

During the night I lost 2 1/2 gallons of water in a can lashed to the mast; it must have been swept overboard. I was then left with 21 gallons (Imperial ones!) and while I thought I would be all right in this respect, I was running very short of methylated spirit which was necessary for pre-heating the primus stove. I spent three hours restitching one genoa, whilst the other was holding out well; an advantage of having two. Another hour was spent on the mainsail and I only hoped it would see me home, for it was really not worth repairing.

Later that day I wrote in the log:
The bilge pump has choked again, this time with matches from a spilt box. The log has been a foot under water many times. I am twenty-five days out now and there remain 1,000 miles to the Fastnet. I have lost some weight and my clothes are beginning to fall off me. I seem to be using a great deal of energy in simply hanging on. The yacht is rising slowly in the water and becoming more buoyant as stores and water are consumed. My diabetes is under reasonable control.

September 18th.
The stove is in a mess; the burners need decoking and there are several paraffin leaks. I have temporarily fixed the gimballing to allow it to swing fully as I am tired of seeing my food catapulted against the ship’s side and having to collect it from the bilge; the whole thing really needs throwing in the sea and starting anew.

I passed the Panamanian freighter Aristodinos at 300 yards range and no one even appeared on her deck in answer to my waves! For the first time I picked up the BBC Home Service on the medium wave.

On September 20th I reached the longitude of Flores in the Azores. With the wind in the south or south-east, the yacht was able to steer herself with the helm pinned and I was able to catch up on some rest. Hearing a noise in the evening, I went on deck and saw I was in a school of 300 to 400 dolphins; a friendly sight. I had a slight eye infection and used sulphacetamide ointment which soon cured it.

September 23rd. Both torches are smashed but I have repaired one using yards of Sellotape. The deckhead of the saloon is black with soot from the leaking paraffin stove and I am tired of the endless round of rope-ends to rewhip and lashings to attend to. I certainly never want to stitch a sail again, and another essential mainsail batten pocket has ripped; this time I lost the batten.

08:30. Barometer dropping again; hove to under storm foresail with helm a-lee; drifting north. Force 8 gale rising tog by noon. 14:00. No wind as the centre of the depression went through. Spent another forty minutes stitching the mainsail.

15:00. Wind up to Force 6 from the south-west, and then at 1600: wham! a severe squall of 60 to 70 knots struck her down on her beam-ends and I could see the fishes looking at me through the port scuttles! Two more squalls before nightfall.

The next morning I was driving her under storm canvas with 580 miles to go to the Fastnet. I was almost out of coffee, my stock of biscuits was getting low, and the potatoes were finished. I could not lay the course for south-west Ireland unless the wind veered, so the only thing to do was to steer her as close to the wind as possible in a general direction to the east. I had to get a move on, for not only would I soon be in serious trouble over victuals, but a leak had developed somewhere.

Boils on my right wrist were festering as were several cuts, and the only thing I had to look forward to was that the weather could not get much worse.

On September 28th I rationed the Bovril, and though all the brandy had been drunk, I still had some gin left. Food now had to be rationed, and to eke out the supply of methylated spirit I could only afford to light the stove twice per day.

I heard the news on the radio, and in spite of all my difficulties I did not look forward to returning to England, especially with winter coming on.

I also heard about the Puffin; the small boat in which two journalists, Johnstone and Hoare, were rowing from Florida to Ireland. The S.S. Monarch had reported sighting their upturned craft, and it was believed that they had been overwhelmed during ‘Hurricane Faith’. If they were in its path they never stood a chance and the boat was probably rolled over many times.

There was a steady leak from the petrol tank, but I was able to save most of the contents by siphoning the petrol into cans.

October 1st.
There were severe squalls gusting up to Force 8 yesterday. Though I saved the mainsail from tearing, it took hours of sewing to repair one of the genoas. Only 150 miles to the Fastnet now and I am down to one dozen eggs. The radio is ‘blinking’ on the short wave and the long-wave band only functions intermittently. The wind has gone round to the east and the barometer has dropped a half-inch in twenty hours. There is a curse on this voyage and nothing has gone right…

October 3rd. I am forty-one days out and was not sure whether I would see the dawn or not.

By 22:00 on the 2nd the wind had risen to Force 8 from the east and I had shortened sail to the storm foresail. She was then making three knots, but heavy seas were pounding aboard, and I had many foam baths getting sail down. I tried running her off before the wind and was twice pooped within a minute; wholly, for as I sat in the cockpit with the water round my waist, I could see only the top of the coach roof showing in the moonlight. According to my calculations, my position was about 20 miles from Bull Rock off the south-west coast of Ireland, and I stood on the boom several times to see if I could pick up the loom of the light, but there was no sign of it.

The seas were large, breaking heavily, and the starboard after guardrail stanchion was torn away by a sea, leaving a splintered toe-rail and bent screws. At 23:00 I missed by 100 yards the nearest of four large trawlers which were all lit up, and about 02:00 the wind was up to Force 9 or 10. Lying a-hull once more, the bilge water was again slopping up to the deck head and it was dangerous to go into the cockpit without a lifeline.

My noon position by dead reckoning was about 45 miles west-north-west of Valencia, for the yacht had been driven back. The log line had got foul of the rudder head and so the position was really a guess.

There is not much food left; the mainsail’s leach line looks as if it is about to part and I dare not put battens in the two lower pockets or the sail will undoubtedly rip. In forty-one days I had six minor depressions, three larger ones, four full gales, a hurricane, and a fair proportion of head winds: the United States coastguards were right!

At the fourth knock-down during this gale, seeing the sea pouring in through the starboard scuttles during the afternoon of the 4th, I thought that the end had come.

The shambles below was fantastic with smashed glass and food everywhere; the cabin was flooded to two inches over the floor and everything on the port shelf of the fo’c’sle was now in a mess on the starboard side and vice versa. The bilge pump was choked with garbage, so I baled the water from the bilge into the sink and then pumped that out to regain full buoyancy once more.

Two hours later she was struck down again and the main hatch forced open. The radio was flooded and useless, and thirty feet of anchor cable had gone twice round the mast and finished up in the starboard bunk. As the entire contents of the port bunk came over my head while I sat on the starboard one upside-down, the mast must have been pointing downward. A lot of gear was lost and the cockpit was smashed up. After she had righted herself I remember standing up in it unable to understand why I was standing in water. She lay very low and I thought she was going. The after-end of the cockpit well had been stove in and then I realized that the sea was coming up the cockpit drains, not down, so I shut the seacocks and baled for my life. All the after guardrail stanchions were torn out and left hanging on bent screws, with the toe-rails broken down and splintered. All the matches were sodden and both emergency packets too, so I had no heat or light and the torch was in a hundred pieces. I found some stores from the fo’c’sle in a locker by the engine, and yet again this had poured oil from the gear-box everywhere. Porridge was everywhere in a revolting mess and likewise the shattered remains of my last ten eggs. The rigging was very slack and I thought it had stretched because of the large forces put on the mast when she rolled over.

I had drunk all of the gin and I shivered for hours before I remembered that there was a bottle of wine, which I was carrying to a friend in Ireland as a gift; if I had not drunk it he certainly would not have. After these enormous seas had passed I found there was generally about half an hour of comparative calm before they began to build up badly again.

The seas were really worse than those I experienced during ‘Hurricane Faith’ for they were of a shorter period; this was probably caused by being on the 100-fathoms line.

Yesterday I was able to get a snapshot of the sun, which enabled me to calculate a position line, and my guesswork must have been right for at 07:30 this morning Skellig Rock lighthouse came into view through the rain squalls and I sailed on for Bull Rock.

15:00. Entered this tiny cove at Garnish (Kenmare River, south-west Ireland), forty-four days out from Nantucket. Distance sailed, 2,880 miles.

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