In 1992 the author entered the singlehanded transatlantic race from England to the USA. Things didn't quite turn out as planned... but you'll have to read it for yourself. The story starts with sailing to the UK the year before the race.
It's split into five parts to reduce download times. Please be patient, as the pictures do eat up a bit of bandwidth.
This is dedicated to my children, Graham and Kristy, in the hope that someday, probably decades from now, they'll come to understand their silly old dad.
The story simply would not have been possible without the journal kept by Bill Gaal on our Eastbound transatlantic trip, and the one Scott Rosenthal maintained during that unforgettable party week before the race in Plymouth. Thanks, guys, and... when do we leave again?
by Robert Service
Within a pub that's off the Strand and handy to the bar,
With pipe in mouth and mug in hand sat Jobson of the Star.
"Come, sit ye down, ye wond'ring wight, and have a yarn," says he.
"I can't," says I, "because tonight I'm off to Tripoli;
To Tripoli and Trebizond and Timbuctoo mayhap,
Or any magic name beyond I find upon the map.
I go the errant trail to try, to clutch the skirts of Chance,
To make once more before I die the gesture of Romance."
Then Jobson yawned above his jug, and rumbled: "Is that so?
Well, anyway, sit down, you mug, and drink before you go."
Now Jobson is a chum of mine, and in a dusty den,
Within the street that's known as Fleet, he wields a wicked pen.
And every night it's his delight, above the fleeting show,
To castigate the living Great, and keep the lowly low.
And all there is to know he knows, for unto him is spurred
The knowledge of the knowledge of the Thing That Has Occurred.
And all that is to hear he hears, for to his ear is whirled
The echo of the Sound That Shocks The World.
Let Revolutions rage and rend, and Kingdoms rise and fall,
There Jobson sits and smokes and spits, and writes about it all.
And so we jawed a little while on matters small and great;
He told me with his cynic smile of grave affairs of state.
Of princes, peers and presidents, and folk beyond my ken,
He spoke as you and I might speak of ordinary men.
For Jobson is a scribe of worth, and has respect for none,
And all the mighty ones of earth are targets for his fun.
So when I said good-bye, says he, with his satyric leer:
"Too bad to go, when life is so damned interesting here.
The Government rides for a fall, and things are getting hot.
You'd better stick around, old pal; you'll miss an awful lot."
Yet still I went and wandered far, by secret ways and wide.
Adventure was the shining star I took to be my guide.
For fifty moons I followed on, and every moon was sweet,
And lit as if for me alone the trail before my feet.
From cities desolate with doom my moons swam up and set,
On tower and temple, tent and tomb, on mosque and minaret.
To heights that hailed the dawn I scaled, by cliff and chasm sheer;
To far Cathay I found my way, and fabulous Kashmir.
From camel-back I traced the track that bars the barren bled,
And leads to hell-and-blazes, and I followed where it led.
Like emeralds in sapphire set, and ripe for human rape,
I passed with passionate regret the Islands of Escape.
With death I clinched a time or two, and gave the brute a fall.
Hunger and cold and thirst I knew, yet ... how I loved it all!
Then suddenly I seemed to tire of trekking up and down,
And longed for some domestic fire, and sailed for London Town.
And in a pub that's off the Strand, and handy to the bar,
With pipe in mouth and mug in hand sat Jobson of the Star.
"Hullo!" says he. "Come, take a pew, and tell me where you've been."
It seems to me that lately you have vanished from the scene."
"I've been," says I, "to Kordovan and Kong and Calabar,
To Sarawak and Samarkand, to Ghat and Bolivar;
To Caracas and Guayaquil, to Lhasa and Pekin,
To Brahmaputra and Brazil, to Bagdad and Benin.
I've sailed the Black Sea and the White, the Yellow and the Red,
The Sula and the Celebes, the Bering and the Dead.
I've climbed on Chimborazo, and I've wandered in Peru;
I've camped on Kinchinjunga, and I've crossed the Great Karroo.
I've drifted on the Hoang-ho, the Nile and the Amazon;
I've swam the Tiber and the Po ..." thus I was going on,
When Jobson yawned above his beer, and rumbled: "Is that
It's been so damned exciting here, too bad you had to go.
We've had a devil of a slump; the market's gone to pot;
You should of stuck around, you chump, you've missed an awful lot."
In haggard lands where ages brood, on plains burnt out and dim,
I broke the bread of brotherhood with ruthless men and grim.
By ways untrod I walked with god, by parched and bitter path;
In deserts dim I talked with Him, and learned to know His Wrath.
But in a pub that's off the Strand, sits Jobson every night,
And tells me what a fool I am, and maybe he is right.
For Jobson is a man of stamp, and proud of him am I;
And I am just a bloody tramp, and will be till I die.
I'm terrified of getting old. Having grown out of childhood monster-closet scares, getting old is about all that's left that I truly fear. Maybe making payroll is a close second.
Old doesn't conjure images of being a crotchety septuagenarian. No, old is a 20-something youngster worried about retirement. Old is hitting age 40 or 50 or 60 with nothing consequential to show, other than perhaps some money, for those elapsed decades. Old is finding yourself in a rut whose boundaries are lined with a depression of duty, and whose precipices seem just too wearyingly steep to attempt.
I write these words having just turned 40. It's the end of faking it, the end of getting by on good looks or boyish charm. The boy wonder trick just doesn't play with a head shot through with gray. New generations have grown up and taken our accustomed places. One parties during Spring break in Florida; another has come into its own as young parents and responsible citizens.
My friends during the Vietnam era all had one recurring nightmare - waking up and finding ourselves at 40 (it was always 40, dammit), and realizing that we had lost our lives. Perhaps we had kids that hated us; a car not paid for and dual mortgages on one of 500 identical homes. We earnestly vowed to stay forever young. We all knew, for sure, that at middle age we'd be nothing more than older hippies, a little slower, perhaps, but with the same keen eye for injustice and the same determination to make the world better a better place.
Now most of us are skidding into middle age, raising a brood of kids, recursively reiterating our heritage. We have that mortgaged house, a dozen overworked credit cards, and lots of stuff. We have mostly succeeded in achieving some measure of the American dream, making surprisingly high family incomes, though often all that is eaten up with the urgencies of living and whim satisfaction. Sometimes just making it to tomorrow is the only goal we can muster enthusiasm for. Improving the world? Having fun? Who has the time?
Perhaps my definition of old lies in these words. "Just making it to tomorrow" is insufficient reason to carry on. I see forgoing fun for the distant dream of a senile retirement as a fool's fantasy. And so my fear resurfaces - I will not be the bitter old man, pleased by nothing, relishing misfortune, hating himself and all around him, collecting negative experiences to embellish his tales of woe. Nor will I be the politically correct average Joe, living in benign contentment despite having let opportunities slide by, whiling away the hours reminiscing over photos of mini vacations of yore, yet saddled with a vague discontented feeling of "is this all there is"?
It's easy to surrender to life's trials and become a reactive couch potato, settling a little deeper into that armchair and making the unconscious decision that the remote control and bag of chips are our destiny. Our naive promises at age 16 were saner than the quiet resignation of middle age. Though we didn't grasp how declining energy and hormone levels could make accepting the present so easy, our intention to fight to be proactively engaged in shaping the present and future was right on.
And so I've spent my life doing things that are, well, hard. If the outcome is uncertain then the appeal is irresistible. Since childhood I was one of those boring intense introverts given to doing things rather than playing. Somehow that just has not changed.
I've managed to squeeze in who knows how many millions of miles of air travel to all corners of the world, learned to fly and scuba dive, have built businesses and boats, retired for a year at age 24 on a shoestring, and, more than anything, have sailed and sailed, on vessels ranging from 5 foot dinghies to ships, always holding old at bay with yet another foolish quest.
There's invariably a piper to pay. After securing a pilot's license I realized that, to make the skies safe for mankind, I better give up flying. When I resolved to sail around the world, I lived in a VW microbus for a year to save money for the boat. After years of rebuilding the boat, finally ready to leave, I was forced to exhaust my savings to buy off a dishonest boat shop holding my vessel hostage. That dream remains unfulfilled (for now); and though the execution of it left me drifting in a liferaft, finally returning to the States penniless, the entire experience was a marvelous adventure whose memories I savor.
Sometimes I feel like I sow a wave of destruction. Sunken boats, angry creditors, and irate air traffic controllers all litter my wake. And money - oh how money dribbles through my grasp, lost following the latest dream. Yet, each of those pursuits is locked tight in my memory; the dollars, francs, pounds and marks long forgotten. The adventures all bring a retrospective smile, and an almost involuntary gasp of "what a hell of a time that was!".
Skin wrinkles, hair grays, but as long as I can follow a dream, the harder and crazier the better, I know I'll stave off old for another year. And so I embarked on the 1992 Europe 1 Single-handed Transatlantic Race, an adventure I craved for decades.
In 1960 five single-handed sailors set forth from Plymouth, England, bound for New York in the first Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR). The name reflects its sponsor, London's Observer newspaper.
There was no real prize; instead, the sailors participated for the fun and the challenge. Francis Chichester (later knighted for a solo circumnavigation) wagered a half crown - perhaps 50 cents - that he'd cross the finish first, which he indeed did after 40 days at sea.
The OSTAR has run every four years since. Entrants have ranged from a 19 foot day sailor to a 236 foot three- masted vessel built specifically for the race - unbelievably sailed by one man, Alain Colas (regrettably lost at sea some years later). The 19 footer beat the giant on corrected time. In some years over 100 entrants crossed the starting line.
The European press gives the OSTAR coverage worthy of the Superbowl, yet Americans hear little of it, other than regular commentaries that the event is too dangerous. In fact, only two sailors have been lost in the race's 32 year history, an astonishing record considering the millions of solo miles accumulated in it over the years.
The Royal Western Yacht Club (which I often refer to as the RWYC in this narrative) hosts each race from their clubhouse in Plymouth. Although the finish was changed from the Big Apple to Newport, Rhode Island in 1964 because of the dangerous shipping on the New York approaches, and the boats must now be 25 to 60 feet long, all of the important traditions of the race remain in force.
The rule book has grown from a verbal understanding to 30 pages of detailed requirements. Most of the regulations deal with required safety equipment; the race itself remains fanatically free form, with few mandates and no course requirements. In fact, 1992's course was listed as "Plymouth Sound to Newport Rhode Island, leaving Eddystone Rock and Nantucket Island to Starboard". Exactly how one is to navigate 4 million square miles of Atlantic is left to the individual skippers.
I first became aware of this singlehanded sprint in the early 70s. I was captivated by the romance and sheer audaciousness of the concept, and for two decades had been a prisoner of the outrageous idea of racing solo across the Atlantic. Not that I'm a racer - in fact, until the start in Plymouth I had never been in a formal sailing contest. In 1992 I had neither the boat nor the disposition to be a serious competitor. But the OSTAR has become the ultimate singlehanded sailing challenge, and for me, solo ocean sailing is as close to heaven as I expect to get.
The OSTAR has crossed my path many times over the years. Bill Maney and I spent long hours discussing the 1980 race while we lived in a floating city of 20 boats anchored in St. Augustine, Florida during the winter of 1978. With a lot of pushing from me, Bill decided to sign up for the event. Having lost his left arm at the shoulder as a kid he surely qualified as the only true singlehander involved.
I met Bill, Marybeth, their wooden Herreshof Diddikai, and Bilbo (a 100 pound sheep dog) in Annapolis while they were southbound and I was desperately getting my Arwen, an ancient Swedish double-ended cutter, ready for a solo circumnavigation. We were soulmates - wooden boat owners almost always are. They needed help with transportation; I still had the microbus. Somehow their one week stay stretched into a couple of months. As I sold the bus and other belongings we rafted our vessels together for many weeks in Back Creek, helping each other solve mechanical problems, partying the nights away, and generating a friendship that has lasted through the years.
We left Annapolis together with promises to meet in Norfolk or Florida. Arwen's 40 year old one-cylinder engine slowed me from the start. I sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway for months, always a few days or weeks behind them. They left a record of their stays in marinas. Slip fees are proportional to the boat's length: I marveled at Diddikai's apparent shrinkage as their funds ran ever lower.
We finally rendezvoused in St. Augustine where we spent four months anchored in the swift Intracoastal tides, rebuilding Arwen's engine and studying diesel mechanics at the local VoTech. The current was too strong for most of us to row ashore except at slack tide. Marybeth, Diddikai's designated rower due to Bill's single arm, made quite a scene each day as she frenetically rowed herself, Bill, and Bilbo ashore.
I left St. Augustine months before Diddikai, losing touch with them until we reunited in Rhode Island several years later. It turns out that they had decided to sail to Panama to accept jobs offered by Nick and Janie, a couple in our floating menagerie that I had met some time before in Fernandina. Janie, a beautiful redhead, invited me to join them for dinner the day we met. By 0300 that same night Nick and I battled a sudden force 13 blow by flashlight in the rank engine room of a 70 foot shrimper, desperately trying to rewire pumps with water rising about our knees. We saved that vessel but several others were lost. Arwen sustained a holing (above the waterline) from a one inch diameter bolt hurled by the furious seas. I managed to patch the leak before much water made its way below.
Bill's approach to navigation was a bit unusual. He's an astrologer extraordinaire, and stays pretty well tuned into the cosmos... or something. Sextant sights and plotting are not part of his daily routine. Instead, he just sort of knows where the boat is, even on the broad expanses of open ocean. I don't understand the technique at all and have chuckled about it for years - but he's usually right on. On Diddikai's sail to Panama his insight was a bit flawed, and they drifted too close to Cuba. Locals dispatched a military vessel to intercept them. Bill, fearful of rotting in one of Castro's jails, cleverly opened fire. Of course the Cubans' fired back, Diddikai's 12 gauge no match for their heavy machine gun. After a short running gun battle Bill surrendered when he realized the Cubans intended to crash into his newly varnished rail. After three days under arrest they were freed and towed outside the 3 mile limit. (2003 update: Marybeth tells me this version of the story is somewhat exaggerated, though they were pulled into Cuba under arrest, and detained as described. I figure a good story can transcend the truth at times, so chose to leave this unedited. And, in an incredible twist of fate, Marybeth and I are now married, to my great delight.)
In Panama the promised job never materialized. Nick and Janie were now using different names - something having to do with the nature of their business's product. Bill and Marybeth looked unsuccessfully for work. After running out of cash they moved to the San Blas islands and lived with the Indians for 3 months, eating nothing but rice.
Eventually they returned to Florida only to get an acceptance letter from the OSTAR race committee. In hours Diddikai was underway for England. She stopped in Bermuda, where they realized that with only $30 England was just not in the cards. Bill withdrew from the race and Diddikai returned to Rhode Island.
In 1984 the OSTAR crossed my bows again. Cathy and I sailed Amber to Newport, a rough and rainy voyage. We were both seasick for most of the 50 hours from Cape May to Brenton Reef Tower but the sailing was wonderful and I enjoyed it immensely.
One night, swinging around a mooring in the middle of the intensely crowded harbor, an OSTAR finisher appeared! We had but a vague realization that the race was in progress, and had never expected see the first boat across the line. During that night 12 OSTAR boats completed the course, still bunched together after racing for weeks across the Atlantic. The fire started to rage in me... somehow, sometime, I'd get in that race.
By 1986 our business was surviving, if not flourishing. I sent $500 to the Royal Western Yacht Club (half of the entry fee) and was accepted as an entrant in the 1988 OSTAR. Later, the 1988 event was renamed the CSTAR in honor of the sponsoring brewery (Carlsburg), but OSTAR remained its popular name.
1988 rolled around with Softaid eating every ounce of my energy and our first child only a year old. We did manage to sail to Charleston and back that summer, but the race was simply out of the question. I wrote the Royal Western, advising them that I had to withdraw, but asking them to put my entry fee towards the next event. I became the first to sign up for 1992.
Years filled with sailing adventures slid by. By 1990 I could see a hint of a promise of finally entering the OSTAR. The race rules had finally been cast in concrete so I could start planning.
The Royal Western Yacht Club has no desire to send dozens of skippers to their deaths so properly requires extensive safety equipment and an enormous amount of experience. The ocean is a vast place with ports weeks out of reach.
In 1992 each skipper needed 1500 nautical miles of offshore experience before undertaking two qualifying cruises. The first was at least 1000 ocean miles in the entered yacht; the second was another 500 non-stop miles sailed alone in the open sea. 3000 miles might not sound like much in the jet age, but at the pace of a sailboat few sailors ever accumulate so many sea miles. Even fewer ever sail an appreciable distance alone (especially offshore). The result is the most experienced group of sailors that gathers anywhere, culled by the race's rules and their own dreams.
To qualify I needed a 500 mile non-stop solo sail in Amber. In 1990 Scott Rosenthal, Bill Gaal, Ed Criscuolo, and I sailed to Bermuda, 700 miles ESE of Norfolk, Virginia, in 6 days. I later sailed her back alone,. Both trips were easy, marred only by Bill's crashing his moped head-on into a car while in Bermuda. He survived but left the islands on a stretcher with 150 new stitches.
Amber behaved splendidly on these trips, as she always has in the 8 years we owned her. Documented as Amber II out of Norfolk, VA, she was a Cheoy Lee Lion sloop, 35 feet overall, drawing 6 feet of water, with a beam of 8 feet 10 inches. She was built in Hong Kong in 1961. The hull planking, decks, and house were teak; the frames were Iroko, copper riveted to the strakes. Her acres of varnish and 11 feet of overhang turned eyes in every port she visited. Some beauties are best left stabled as their looks often come at the expense of structural soundness. Not so Amber, which, at 16,000 pounds, was designed for North Sea racing in horrendous conditions.
When we bought her she was feeling her age. She had nary a broken frame nor any bad fastenings. We eventually replaced her engine, rebuilt the cockpit, replaced all of her wiring, most of the plumbing and rigging, built a new galley, and attended to the hundreds of details essential to ocean-going craft. Cathy and I bought her as a day sailor that we intended to take regularly on long trips, so every change and improvement was made in the context of "how will that stand up at sea?"
The RWYC found a sponsor for the 1992 OSTAR - the Europe 1 radio stations. The official name of the race thus became the Europe 1 STAR. Most sailors avoided that mouthful in favor of the easier and traditional acronym OSTAR.
The OSTAR was scheduled to depart England in June of 1992, posing a particularly difficult problem for sailors from the United States. How could we get our boats to Plymouth by the end of May? We'd have to leave in early April to get to England in time, making it all but impossible to shoehorn the race into a work schedule.
This was out of the question for me. I entertained the notion of sending Amber over as deck cargo on a steamship but was dissuaded by the price (about $10,000). Besides, I wanted to arrive under sail!
My only real option was to sail over the year before the OSTAR, leaving Amber ashore in England for the winter. With careful planning I could be gone from the USA for about 6 weeks each in 1991 and 1992 - a lot of time, but manageable.
I started planning the transatlantic voyage after returning from Bermuda in July of 1990. Lots of planning was essential. The pound had hit a new high so I couldn't afford to buy a lot of replacement fittings on arrival in the UK. I decided to fill her lockers with spare parts and tools, hopefully stocking everything needed for the pair of Atlantic crossings. For a year I ordered gear, buying most of the equipment required by the race committee as well as the huge inventory of charts, sailing directions, and pilots needed to get to England, and to cover unexpected stops in diversionary ports (Ireland, Wales, the Azores, and Western Europe).
One question kept surfacing - what route should Amber take? The standard course for cruising sailors runs from the East coast to Bermuda, from there to the Azores, and thence to England. It's called "the Milk Run", as the longest leg is only 1200 nautical miles, the weather is generally mild, and fog is rare. The weather is just a little too mild to get the high daily mileages my type A schedule required. Amber was just too heavy to make decent time in the light airs typical of this route.
Eventually I decided to take the shortest possible course, an approximate great circle running up above 50º north. We could expect rough weather, very cold conditions, and more fog than in any other part of the world. Few small boat sailors go this way as most prefer the sunny stormless days of a mid-latitude crossing... making this decision even more enticing.
Sailing a great circle had some compelling advantages over the more traditional Bermuda-Azores route. Southwest winds predominate; Amber could fly with the breeze on her quarter most days. We'd have the Gulf Stream behind us for much of the way, adding a half knot or more to our speed - a lot, when our goal was to average 5 knots. Finally, Amber had been in Bermuda the year before. I had little interest in retracing that trip when someplace new beckoned.
The Baltimore to England great circle falls directly over Newfoundland, Canada, a fact exploited by the airlines in the pre-jet age. Gander became the refueling point for all transatlantic air crossings. Now Gander airport is a shadow of its former self as jet traffic whizzes overhead, bound across non-stop.
I decided to make a stop in Newfoundland and return to the States by air before continuing across. The plan became evolved into three 2-week segments: 2 weeks to sail to Newfoundland, 2 weeks back in the States, and 2 weeks to sail the rest of the way to England.
1991 saw Softaid in turmoil, with the recession battering electronics businesses severely. By late Spring it was clear that I couldn't afford to leave the business for such a long time. Sales hovered around break-even. Our lines of credit were tapped out; cashflow management reached crisis proportions.
Once before I withdrew from the OSTAR for business reasons. Now I decided that it was time to press on. The business would succeed or fail, but the time to listen to conventional wisdom was over. Who knows what the future would bring... this could possibly be my last opportunity to run the race. Adventure won out. We departed on July 4 from Baltimore, bound for our first stop: Cape May, New Jersey.
No wise sailor departs on a trip on a Friday. We elected to leave on our national holiday, a Thursday. The crew consisted of myself, Bill Gaal, Tom Pearson and Don Ice.
Tom and Don are members of the Thursday Night Drinking Group, an informal gathering of a dozen or so over- opinionated folks who gather weekly to unwind. Years ago started the Thursday bash when we realized that the urgencies of modern living made it all but impossible for us to get together for a bit of rowdiness. The local pub is delighted to have us; we spend heavily. In three years at least a portion of the Group has met every week.
The Group built a boat for a local cardboard boat race. Our crew of 7 under-muscled engineers successfully navigated the course without mishap. Where the other boats were held together by masking tape and a prayer, our stressed-skin deck (engineered by Don) could have supported a sizable dance. The pontoons were full of our empties, the result of hundreds of late night boatbuilding man-hours.
Amber's 22 hour trip took us to the northern end of the Chesapeake bay, through the C& D canal, down the Delaware Bay, through the Cape May Canal, and thence to Cape May. Somehow the logbook has only three entries for the 22 hour voyage. I suppose none of us were into the sailing mode yet.
About midnight we passed Bob and Carol Rosenthal's trawler tied up at Chesapeake City on the C& D. We motored over and traded friendly insults. Gypsy was also bound to Cape May, though they stopped for the night. Scott Rosenthal, their son and one of Amber's regular crew members, was aboard as well. "Wimps!", we yelled, while they soundly slept in warm beds, and we plugged on in the rain.
In Cape May we effected a few minor repairs (the lot of the cruising sailor - repairs in port after port). Gypsy arrived and Bob took us out to dinner.
I've met some incredible people in my travels. Some have stories that could fill a book. Bob, though, is one of the world's few truly outrageous people. He's a tough businessman, yet he has consistently bent over backwards to help those in need - even in some cases where the needy had clearly cheated him in earlier dealings.
My first real job was as a technician (and later engineer) for Neotec Corporation. Through a series of lucky breaks at age 16 I managed to get a $1.60/hour job, starting an exciting time that lasted for most of my 10 years at the company. I look back on these years as a frenetic burst of activity. Neotec busied itself with survival; in my minor role I reveled as a techie in the emerging world of microprocessor technology.
Neotec could never pay its bills. In a decade my paycheck bounced only twice, a testimony to the Company's creative accounting practices. An army of angry creditors hounded the Company constantly. We never really knew each morning if we'd find the doors padlocked by the sheriff.
Despite the money troubles most of us worked like slaves. We invented new technologies! Neotec was the first east coast company to build a microprocessor-based product! An infinite sea of technical problems faced us in the engineering department, but we thrived in the challenges, working unbelievable hours to get products to market.
The cash-poor company funded operations via an intricate array of schemes no mere human could comprehend. In a bid for survival Neotec went public. For the first time the glare of public scrutiny opened the books. An outside auditor once confided "I've seen every trick this company has pulled before... but never all by one company!" I suppose the shenanigans were at least technically legal, but somehow we employees never cared. I remember Bob always smiling and joking, but, now being in his position as a president of a technology company, I can imagine his sleepless nights.
Despite all of his other worries Bob always looked after me. Though the organization chart showed me several layers under him he made sure I got all of the breaks. He saw to it that I started traveling, first in the USA and Canada, and later internationally. All of 19 years old I found myself on a month's round-the-world business trip, the start of more overseas travel than I can recall.
At age 24 I quit Neotec to go sailing. When I ran out of funds in Florida Bob sent me to Brazil for a month. He quickly hired me back into my old job after Arwen sank.
At the time I figured my natural ability earned me these trips and privileges. Now, I can see Bob's unseen hand working in the background. No wizard of human nature could have effected my destiny more profoundly. The travel became the background noise of my life, giving me a restlessness I cannot overcome. Even now, seated at the keyboard in sedate Laurel, MD, thinking of these passport-busting ventures gives me the yearning to be back in exotic Djakarta or flower-filled Kuala Lumpur, traveling in Australia's outback or hiking through the riot of life clinging to a few sparse inches of topsoil in the Amazonian jungle, dodging the relentless hustling of Hong Kong... any place where the language is strange and life operates differently than an American expects.
In the early 70s Neotec started building instruments that measured the protein in ground beef. The equipment never really worked properly. Bob developed an incredibly complex financing scheme involving millions from a bank and more from outside investors. I'll never forget him patiently explaining the deal's financing to Scott and myself one afternoon. It all made perfect sense and was astonishingly beautiful in its intricate crystalline structure, but 5 minutes later neither Scott nor I could recreate even a portion of the arrangement. Like a house of cards that depends on complexity for its balance the deal's machinations were too much for our brains.
The instruments flopped; a flurry of lawsuits left everyone exhausted; but Neotec pulled through. When Bob left the company the fun left with him. I quit soon afterwards. Without his will the company all but collapsed. It was finally acquired at a fire-sale price by a conglomerate.
I wish Bob would write a history of these times. His sense of humor pervades all of his verbal retellings. Bill barely knew Bob, but came away from our dinner celebration in Cape May thoughtful. "If only I could interview him for my Master's thesis", Bill repeated for days, "my business professors have no idea what they are talking about!" Like my understanding of the ground meat deal, most of Bob's stories have flitted away from me. Bill touched only the surface of the real Bob. He heard but a thimbleful of Bob's business wisdom and laughter. Bill was certainly right, though had but only a tiny sense of the vast depth of Bob's well.
To this day I call Bob when the chips are down and I need business advice or just a good listener. Many years ago, when we were in serious financial difficulty, he spent an afternoon with me helping to create a survival strategy. Though I was ready to give up he counseled patience and being extraordinarily tough. The creditors were forming posses, yet Bob helped me realize the strength of my position, and helped me smile though the impossibly difficult recovery plan.
Only three suits resulted. All were settled out of court, all on terms favorable to us.
2016 update: Bob passed away this year. I knew him from the 1950s when I was a child. One day I'll have to write more about him. Suffice to say that he and my Dad invented the Lunar Module. They proposed it while at Grumman in the '50s. Grumman lost the bid. NASA later recompeted the RFP and Grumman won. Bob was a mentor, and a close friend. I'll miss him.
Despite the previous evening's parties Bill and I were up at dawn. After a couple of hours of waiting for Tom and Don to get up we finally tossed them from their berths, leaving them on the dock to find their own way home.
Cape May is a busy place with very shallow waters. Fishermen in expensive chromed high-speed powerboats zip in and out of the inlet all day churning up an unpleasant chop. We steered course 085 magnetic to take us out to sea, away from land and the marauding fishermen.
Strangely, 085 magnetic almost parallels the coast. For the first 6 days we made steady progress north and east while on 085 to 090. Part of this is due to the eastward curve of North America. Part comes from the change in magnetic variation.
Compasses rarely point true north. They seek the magnetic pole slightly northwest of Hudson's Bay, 800 nautical miles from the true north pole. All mariners quickly learn to compensate their course for this error, which depends on one's position on the globe and local magnetic anomalies. It is further complicated by a slow drift with time.
Jack working at the chart table
In the Chesapeake Bay the compass points only 9 degrees west of true north. In Newfoundland the error increased to 25 degrees west. Part of the daily navigation routine was to alter our course calculations to account for this changing variation.
At 0400 I woke to find nothing visible in the dense fog. A radar scan showed 4 big stationary targets within 3 miles. For some inexplicable reason I dozed off. Normally ships that close would keep me awake and concerned.
At 0435 the radar detector beeped. I was dead asleep and bounded into the cockpit still in a daze. The world was still encased in fog; visibility was about 300 feet.
The swirling mists both within and without of my brain confused me. I was convinced I saw a black mass descending on us. We turned on lights and called on the radio - there was no answer. Before the radar warmed up a huge fishing ship appeared ahead at the limit of the fog radius, 180 degrees from where I thought I saw the blackness. Dozens of bright lights previously masked by the gray mist shone about it. Frantically throwing the helm to starboard we scraped by. I was scared and shaking from the near encounter.
The fog finally burned off in the late afternoon as the wind dropped off. We hauled up Amber's huge spinnaker. She took off like a jet on afterburners.
The day began in a pea soup fog. We motored in the light wind, burning up valuable fuel but making decent progress towards our goal. After tens of thousands of offshore miles I'm still somewhat amazed that a small sailing vessel can effectively travel under power when far from land. Ships carry huge fuel bunkers - sometimes as much as 25,000 tons. How can a 35 foot sailing craft, with an engine not much bigger than that on a lawn tractor, brazenly power up and down the swells in mid-ocean?
On an offshore sailboat the engine's most important purpose is generating electricity for the lights, autopilot, radar, and other comforts of civilized life. Most important is power for the autopilot - Bill and I simply could not steer all the way across 3000 miles of ocean. A sailing vessel operates 24 hours a day at sea whether there is a full crew or just a lone skipper. A decent autopilot makes a solo offshore passage both possible and a wonderful experience. The yacht tends herself day and night. It's a fabulous feeling to come on deck at night to find the boat sailing fast on course.
Amber pulled about 50 amp-hours from her batteries each day if we were careful to use systems sparingly. Over the years I had optimized her electrical system to permit us to run the more important devices, like the autopilot, cassette player, navigation lights and VHF radio, without worrying much about waste. Interior lights, the cabin fan, and other accessories were used on an as-needed basis only. The radar alone needed 100 amp-hours daily were we to run it round-the-clock.
Dozens of loads drew power from Amber's pair of 120 amp-hour batteries, but only the diesel recharged them. Even though I had bypassed the alternator's regulator with a manual control circuit to boost the charge rate, almost every day we had to run the engine for an hour or two to recharge her depleted batteries. Occasionally I'd skip a day if the sailing was especially good or if a particularly bad storm interfered with the routine.
Amber started all of her voyages with about the same amount of fuel on board (50 gallons) regardless of the distance involved. On shorter trips we'd benefit by being able to motor more on windless days. Crossing oceans made motoring a luxury available only as long as enough fuel was left to keep up the batteries for the remainder of the sail.
Part of each trip's planning was to compute a fuel budget in 100 mile increments. The budget, posted on a placard over the chart table, told us how much fuel must be left in the tanks as a function of our position to guarantee adequate charging for the remaining portion of the sail. The slight surplus gave us an average number of hours we could motor per day. On days the sailing was good we'd hoard these hours to spend them when the wind was not so kind. When our daily allowance was exhausted we'd sit, even if there was not a breath of air.
Now the wind increased to force 6 in the evening. Sailing under a double reefed main and genoa we made 5.5 knots in the right direction. Bill drew cooking shift but was suddenly overwhelmed by mal de mer. I happily took over; happy, since I felt so good.
Seasickness has been my bane for decades. Some years ago I did a computer search of the medical literature on motion sickness, pulling everything from old wives tales to NASA's latest investigations. It's amazing how many cures have been prescribed by both scientists and tradition. Most relied, it seemed, on either mental discipline or hopeful pseudo-cures (like pressure bands on your wrist). As a modern technology person I needed a drug: something that looked like medicine, that was prescribed like medicine, and that hopefully behaved with the magic of an antibiotic or other 20th century wizardry.
Seasickness never bothered me in my youth. Things got worse as time went on, culminating in a delivery Cathy and I did from the Caribbean. I was sick for a week. 200 miles offshore the lunatic captain/owner finally let us know that the centerboard had fallen off the year before - and he hadn't bothered to replace it. It was an unhappy voyage, made much worse for me by unrelenting illness. Cathy and I jumped ship in North Carolina, hitchhiked to the airport, and breathed a sigh of relief as we settled in to the 737's seats - the problems were over! An hour later we were dumping fuel over Dulles Airport. The plane eventually landed with 100 passengers hugging their ankles, chased by an army of emergency vehicles.
On an aborted attempt to sail singlehandedly to Bermuda I tangled with the tail end of a tropical storm. Amber behaved like a lady while my stomach performed like a rude drunken teenager. I almost gave up ocean sailing afterwards. Fortunately, the spirit of adventure overruled common sense and I departed on many more voyages, often making unwanted offerings to Neptune but always experimenting with the chemical balance that finally "cured" my offshore discomfort. I say "cured" tentatively, always appreciative of nature's malicious ways and ever vigilant to her changing moods.
Dramamine and the over-the-counter drugs are a joke. My stomach demands the maximum level of protection! The answer is a combination of Ephedrine and Phenegrin. Over the course of a number of voyages I tried various combinations with varying levels of success. My personal sure-fire cure for seasickness is 50 mg of each drug every 4 hours. The dosage far exceeds every recommendation I've found but works wonders.
Some people react oddly to these strong drugs. Scott once quite literally ran in circles around the deck for hours. This was one of those voyages where everything went wrong. Debris rained down on us from the masthead, the heater melted down, and other mechanical failures eventually convinced us to give up and return. The Ephedrine dose was too high for him. He later backed off to 25 mg and 50 mg of Phenegrin and found relief from seasickness and from hyperactivity.
Drugs rarely curse me with side effects. 50/50 mg every 4 hours keeps a smile on my face even in the worst of storms. I suspect that much of the effect is psychosomatic, but who cares? After far too many years hanging over the lee side, I'm thrilled to be able to drink a beer and smile throughout the good and the bad weather.
So now I grin and take over the sick crew member's work, happy in my own stomach stability. Though the drugs have been miraculous for tens of thousands of miles I know that my tough-guy stance is tenuous at best. Some day the sea will no doubt claim me again as a motion victim.
For several days the superb weather brought consistent 15-20 knot southwesterly winds. Under the boomed-out genoa and main (reefed when the wind was strong) we made good progress towards our goal. At noon Amber was 710 miles from Cape May and 150 miles from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sable Island was 75 miles to the North. One of the scariest points in the Atlantic, tiny Sable Island lies at the confluence of the northeast setting Gulf Stream and southwesterly Labrador Current, and is the graveyard of centuries of vessels. We specifically gave it a wide berth.
Bill enjoying the downwind sail to Newfoundland
The wind stayed on the starboard quarter. There was little spray - the decks stayed amazingly dry. The only downside was the abysmal rolling. Each sea picked Amber up and rolled her heavily to port. Gravity snapped her back to starboard in a drunken stagger northwards. The pots clanged, the stoves would swing back and forth, the ice/water mixture in the icebox sloshed back and forth, the tools in the tool box danced and kept us awake nights, but the generally clear weather and good sailing made this only a minor annoyance.
The Queen Elizabeth II roared past at 30 knots bound for New York with her load of passengers. We chatted to the officers on the VHF. Their weather report forecast more beautiful days - ain't life grand?
The QE2 poses for a picture
Amber was one of the few sailing vessels on this great circle route but every morning a tremendous double explosion reminded us that others save miles by following the peculiar rules of Naperian geometry. The Concorde roared overhead unseen and unheard except for its sonic boom. As the days progressed the boom occurred earlier and earlier as we met her at more easterly addresses.
We never saw a sign of air traffic - apparently transatlantic planes fly much too high to see. Even contrails were non-existent. The Concorde's noisy reminders of real life subtly reassured us that, indeed, our navigation was more or less correct.
At sea I'm on constant chafe patrol. Once a day I go around the deck, bosun's bag in hand, looking for things that rub; things that have broken, and things that are about to break. I scanned the mast each day with binoculars looking for lurking problems aloft. The constant motion of a sailboat at sea pits entropy against all the owner's resources. Even a double-headsail sloop has dozens of lines to control the sails; if any of them rub against anything the line will quickly part. Amber's two booms and spinnaker pole had to be kept free of lines, the lifelines, and the sails, or they would destroy whatever they are in contact with.
It's surprising the sorts of problems one finds. On this trip the genoa rubbed against the bow pulpit. Baggywrinkle was partially helpful. Then I wrapped the pulpit in many layers of duct tape. A single day sufficed to eliminate the tape. Finally I secured a large fender on the pulpit so the sail could rub on its smooth surface. This was the magic that halted the chafe altogether... in this one spot. A dozen other problems required equal amounts of TLC.
Even metal fittings chafe. I've found half-inch steel pins chafed to a fraction of their original size and strength. Dan Pyzel, an old sailing friend, kept a rouge's gallery of chafe samples that he gleefully displayed to ocean sailing wannabes who just didn't understand how a little movement, multiplied by thousands of cycles per day, could destroy anything made by man.
Chafe duty is a pleasure, though, except on those few occasions when you uncover some disaster. The tools are the traditional tools of the sailor - spike and palm, marlin and sail needles. I take great satisfaction in my tools. My fingers are not strong enough to remove a bolt, but give me a wrench and my hand can perform amazing new feats. We computer folks like to consider the PC a mind-tool that increases the power and reach of one's brain. Conventional hand tools give us a similar ability to manipulate the mechanical world in ways impossible via the unaided human body.
I'm a fanatic about tools, keeping them clean and sharp, buying only the best, collecting the cream of the technology of yesteryear that, while out of style, may still be the best solution to a problem. I spent 15 years slowly rebuilding the collection lost in the 1978 shipwreck.
Though power tools with big motors that hurl sawdust like a swirling gale satisfy my testosterone craving for brute mechanical power, high quality chisels and planes are among my favorite possessions. A hand plane works well only if you take time to understand the wood, molding its use to the grain, hardness, and even moisture content of the work. In contrast, a 2 horsepower electric plane blindly tears through any obstacle leaving its marks of destruction behind in telltale chatter-gouges.
We once bought a load of cherry with which to fashion a dining room table. I planed the edges of those boards, for weeks it seemed, trying to get perfectly matching glue joints. Each stroke brought up a curled shaving sometimes just the thickness of piece of paper. My blade uncovered a small lead object: a bullet, buried in the wood with no obvious entrance tunnel. The tree must have grown around the lead over the years encasing it in a tiny cavern. How fascinating to come across that spent round! What story lay behind it? I'm sure that, had I been working with a power planer, the bullet and its story would have been swallowed in the debris.
The tools of the sailor are somehow the best of the lot. Many are unchanged from those used centuries ago; some, like the hollow fid, use modern materials to improve on an ancient concept. I've always taken a delight in turning a splice with my trusty fid, finishing a piece of fancy work with the serving mallet, and tapping a line of cotton into a seam with exactly the right one of a selection of caulking irons.
Much of a sailor's work is repetitive in nature - sewing, whipping, splicing - and there is a sort of satisfaction in letting your hands do their thing while the mind wanders. I imagine women running spinning wheels centuries ago felt the same thing, though spending weary days at a such mind-numbing task has little attraction. A sailor's work is not so unvaried. One gets to sample the pleasures of repetition without being overwhelmed by its unchanging drudgery.
Foredeck work while running downwind is enchanting. Aft the boat is noisy. Clanking pots from below echo into the cockpit. The sound of the sea seems much louder as it swirls up behind, overtaking the yacht and whooshing on by. Up forward the only noise is Amber's motion through the seas. As she rides up a wave the sudden rush of water counterpoints the constant sound of her stem cleaving gently through the water.
Many a time I've sewn a sail while it pulls the boat along, it's enormous power quietly constrained by the stays and shrouds. A 410 square foot sail generates quite a few horsepower, yet the load on a few square feet of it is very low. You can push any part of the sail around by hand, yet cannot move the sheet without a two-speed winch.
Morning brought a dense fog which limited visibility to under 100 feet. In good weather the view from a sailboat is a circle of empty ocean about three miles in radius. Fog constricts that vantage to but a few yards at times. We motored blindly eastward at 5.5 knots.
Towards noon the fog finally burned off. We motored on a sea as quiet as a painted ocean, happy to be able to substitute diesel fuel for wind.
The evening sky was illuminated by startling beams of light shooting up from the horizon. It took a few moments to realize that these were the Northern Lights. Only 150 miles from Newfoundland we were far enough north to see the spectacular show.
Wispy fingers of light streaked skyward towards the Milky Way. Ever so slowly they danced, weaving gradual patterns among the stars. At first looking merely like yellow and white searchlights, the color slowly grew more varied and the beams gained width and substance, yet remained ghostly pale and tenuous.
In the course of a few hours the temperature dropped dramatically. The Northern Lights brought sub-Arctic conditions which remained through our stay in Newfoundland. The air was cold enough we could see our breath, a winter-only phenomenon for our southern blood. I curled up in a sleeping bag, switching on the radar mounted over my berth for a few minutes throughout the night rather than going on deck for a look around. I could take a few sweeps without leaving the down cocoon.
While planning this voyage I contacted some of the few sailors who had sailed to Newfoundland, looking for advice about sailing over the dreaded Grand Banks where fog and dense traffic is the rule. All adamantly insisted that sailing in these waters without radar was insane. As a result I bought a new Raytheon R-10X unit for $1800.
Now I understood. We were enmeshed in fog for days. An almost constant stream of radar targets shot by. Some were fast moving ships that we dodged electronically, never seeing them by eye. Smaller echoes were fishing vessels that were too busy to answer our calls on the VHF.
We had plenty of wind despite the fog. Amber sailed on at a steady 5.8 to 6 knots. On this day heavy, cold rain accompanied the fog. The rain saturated the radar no matter how carefully we tuned its anticlutter controls. We were bucking the southbound Labrador Current and fighting a northerly wind. The foredeck was almost continuously underwater as Amber slogged into the force 6 wind.
During the night we passed 20 miles off the southeastern tip of Newfoundland. Cape Race was too far away to see by eye or radar. The following morning we made radar landfall at a range of 10 miles after sailing over a thousand miles since the last hint of land.
The screen continued to show hundreds of immobile targets. Bill and I were baffled by the vast amount of what we took to be very slow traffic. A sudden brief lifting of the fog showed the culprits - icebergs! Most were concentrated near land, no doubt aground.
We sailed six miles offshore all the way to the Northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula. While passing St. John's I contacted the marine operator on the VHF and placed a phone call home. At 0300 Amber turned around the minuscule Cape St. Francis light into Conception Bay.
Redland Bluff, Newfoundland
For four hours we motored down Conception Bay to Long Pond. The fog rarely left for more than a few minutes so we moved the radar screen into the cockpit to make navigation easier. It picked out the channel entrance electronically but the fog lifted as Amber started into it, giving us an easy final mile to the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. The channel was marked by little buoys at 50 foot intervals, all equipped with radar reflectors. Clear days are seldom seen! We tied up at the dock at 0707 local time.
After securing Amber we taxied to St. John's to clear customs. The official reprimanded us for improperly leaving the yacht. I'm afraid that after 10 days at sea we were not particularly sympathetic to her outrage. She insisted we sail 100 miles back to St. John's harbor to receive proper pratique. Bill and I made our intention to stay put quite clear; she finally caved in and reluctantly stamped our passports and Amber's paperwork.
Playing tourist in St. John's, traveling the byways and sampling the local pubs, burned up most of the day. Having backgrounds in the spy business we took enormous delight in a huge Russian "fishing trawler" moored to a jetty in the city. We merrily snapped pictures of the token tiny fish hanging astern dwarfed by a pair of 10 meter dish antennas.
I guess we looked a little ragged. In line at the bank to change money security pulled us aside and started to question us about the $20 notes grasped in our fists. It seems a number of bad USA twenties were in circulation. Ours were accepted as authentic, but not without a lot of suspicion on the bankers' parts. No doubt these fears were made worse by our high spirits and general unconcern with their problem.
A quick taxi ride took us to the top of Signal Hill where Marconi made the first transatlantic radio contact so long ago. Much more interesting than the local history was the broad panorama presented to us below. On this rare clear day visibility was phenomenal from the top of the hill. We gazed at a scene out of an Arctic film - towering icebergs covered the sea. Fishing vessels, looking like tiny insects, weaved between them. Occasionally a berg completely obstructed St. Johns' narrow entrance until it sailed by.
Commercial fishing vessels paraded around and around in a peaceful but angry protest. This was the worst ice year in history. An unusually warm Greenland summer in 1989 greatly increased iceberg calving. The bergs take two years to get to Newfoundland; this summer they arrived off the coast in such numbers that the ocean's temperature dropped by almost four degrees. The fish left for warmer climes. Newfoundland depends on fishing as its primary source of income, so the economic impact of the unwelcome bergs was enormous. The industry was already reeling from restrictions imposed to prevent over-fishing in certain areas of the Grand Banks.
Amber tied up in Newfoundland
Later we watched a constant parade of icebergs floating by the windows of the bar of the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. Buenavista Bay, the next port west of Amber's location, was almost blocked by a berg a mile long. Canadian Navy planes regularly landed on the ice island that was aground in 60 fathoms.
Amber passed 600 bergs in the 100 miles from Cape Race to Conception Bay. Local pundits cheerfully informed us that smaller chunks of ice, called bergy bits or growlers, are so low to the water that they rarely return a radar echo. Ah, blissful ignorance!
I called the office to get a confused message - "Robert is in jail". This was the start of yet another epic in the adventure of business and taking care of employees; one that ended sadly months later.
Traveling by boat is awkward, since one can never predict an arrival time with any degree of accuracy. Our return flights were booked as open tickets, necessitating a stream of pleadings and standby seatings in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Newark. Neither of us cared which of the three DC airports our journey ended at. We left a trail of confused ticketing agents in our wake who were all puzzled and not quite trusting of our one-way open-ended itineraries.
Link to Part II of the story.