I spent most of May 1977 aboard my 36 foot Carol ketch, Serenity, in the Brisbane River and Moloolabah.
I had begun my voyage in August 1975, departing from the Isles of Shoals off the New England coast and proceeding down the US intercoastal waterway, through the Caribbean and into the Pacific via the Panama Canal. From there, the Galapagos to the Societies, American Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia and reaching Australia on 26 October 1976. I had a short trip back to American Samoa to assist a rebuild of William Robinson’s brigantine, Varua.
To call this voyage life-changing would not be an exaggeration, but until recently I had no occasion to dwell on the events and their long-term repercussions. That changed only after I found, among my mother’s personal effects, a tape recording I had made during the voyage and a written transcript that she had prepared after receiving it.
That transcript plus my logbook, forced me to revisit the trip and consider its implications.
In many ways it is difficult to remember just how different it was cruising 40 years ago. Serenity had: an AM radio; a broken radio direction finder (RDF) of limited utility even when working; a Loran A receiver, a US electronic navigation aid discontinued before Serenity reached Panama; plus a sextant with copies of H.O. 229.
Nor was there an abundance of creature comforts that make cruising today so cultured. There was no refrigeration, no powered winches or windlasses, no oven and, for cooking, there were three Coleman burners in a gimballed rack.
The 16 horsepower Thornycroft diesel was started with a hand crank; the boat, mahogany on oak frames, had a 10.5 metric ton displacement. She was comfortable and solid, but happiest running downwind. When asked about her performance, my stock answer was: “think of a football with a mast.”
Since we had no VHF, when considering a departure we would either check the local newspaper, look for a report from a local AM radio station, or just say “the hell with it” and up anchor. In this case we did find an AM station from the Gold Coast that told us the weather would be just ducky.
Time to go
My crew on this voyage was a young Aussie, David Upton. David grew up in Tasmania; his parents were lighthouse keepers and he had accumulated quite an impressive resume on and off the water.
I had met David in Fiji a year earlier after he had raced there as crew on Bacardi. David was very competent and totally fearless, two characteristics that would prove quite important.
With the assurances of a good forecast, we hauled anchor just after 7am on May 27 1977. It was overcast with a light southwest wind that brought occasional misty showers, the uncorrected barometer onboard was at 30.01.
By the time we were passing the north end of Moreton Island five hours later, the skies were partly cloudy and the wind from the north at 10 knots to 15kn. The engine was shut down as we cleared the outer bully and we set a course of 141° magnetic under all sail at the magnificent speed of 4kn.
By 3pm the wind had risen to 15kn to 20kn and, by 6pm it was blowing NNE at 30kn to 35kn and the barometer had fallen to 29.83. That was a bit too much wind for a full set of sails, so we put a single reef in the main.
It was now raining hard with a big swell running and we were getting nervous, so we fired up the AM radio on the Gold Coast frequency. All was just fine there and the forecast was for sunny skies and fine weather.
That night the wind shifted to N and increased further throughout the following day. By the middle of the day our handheld wind indicator was showing >50kn and the seas, now breaking, were five metres or more. We were now running before the wind with a double-reefed main and reefed staysail.
As the wind and seas continued to build we found it more and more difficult to control the boat. Serenity had an aft cockpit and a large tiller that, in rough seas, had a mind of its own.
The big problem was that when the boat yawed, the reefed sails would power up enough to heel her over and produce a mean weather helm. To counter that you had to pull the tiller to your chin and hold it there, an exhausting exercise.
By 2pm, when the wind veered to NW, we had enough. We then dropped the mainsail and hove-to on port tack under the reefed staysail.
The seas were now huge and the boat was slamming every which way. To make the tiller easier to handle, we ran a line from a pad eye on the opposite side to the tiller, wrapped it around the tiller bar several times and then led it through a pad eye with the tail end providing control.
On the port tack, that line was held in your left hand while your right hand kept friction between the line turns and the tiller shaft. To head more to starboard, the line could be eased or the wraps rotated by hand; to head more to port, the wraps would be rotated the other way to move the tiller closer to the helmsman.
To provide a bit more personal security, we created a spider web of lines within the cockpit that passed over the helmsman’s shoulders and across his thighs to lock him into position.
It gets worse
Somewhere over that period David let me know that there was water over the floorboards below decks. He took the tiller while I went below to investigate. The electric bilge pump lowered the level enough to reveal that the problem was the through-hull fitting for the pitot tube that gave us boat speed.
A running repair was made using a small screwdriver as a caulking iron and heavy nylon sail twine as the caulking. This was but a small taste of what was to come.
As the day continued the seas became mountainous and chaotic. Sitting in the cockpit, lashed to the boat and leashed to the tiller, waves would sweep down the length of the boat or, just as often, suddenly crash over you from your blind side.
Those were the absolute worst. First you heard a growl from over your shoulder that became a roar and then suddenly you were completely underwater, losing contact with the cockpit and floating up against the web of support lines. Then, as the boat regained its footing and rose up, your head was first to break the surface.
Things below decks were almost as unpleasant. The noise was deafening and the motion difficult to predict and adjust to.
The strain on the mast was extreme and the design did not have running backs to brace the staysail. At some point forces became great enough that the shaped, wooden mainmast partners started to shatter, dropping them into the bilge and opening up a gap that let the mast start pumping violently against the sides of the cutout. For the rest of the storm we were taking small blocks split from short 2x4s carried for emergencies and driving them as wedges around the mast to constrain its gyrations. Each wedge had a limited life expectancy.
The wind continued to veer and by mid-afternoon it was blowing from the west, driving us to the east at around 2kn. It seemed to me that the wind was stronger than ever before but, with our wind gauge pegged at 70kn, we had no way to tell if the wind was stronger or if it was a perception fostered by exhaustion.
I was at the helm when we took a particularly fierce wave that blew out the small round portlight we opened when working in the engine room. This flooded the small engine room, doused the engine and filled the air intake with seawater.
While clearing the water the electric bilge pump fried, so once the port was secured we used buckets and a Thirsty Billy hand pump to remove the water. I did not want to try the engine until after things calmed down enough that I could clear all of the water from its passageways. This meant we could not take advantage of the engine-driven, bronze-geared bilge pump until that was done.
Eye of the tiger
Then, at 6pm, the wind suddenly stopped, the skies cleared and the barometer bottomed out. Sorry to report that, in the chaos of the period, I did not think to record the value in the log. I just wrote ‘the eye? Barometer at lowest.’
This period lasted for about 90 minutes before the wind roared back, first from the south and then gradually shifting toward SE. This time we tried setting a small sea anchor from the bow, something that is easy to say but takes forever to accomplish. Just moving forward from the cockpit was painfully slow, wedging in with both hands and feet as waves crashed onto us and creeping from brace-point to brace-point dragging the chute in its sack.
Once the chute was over the side and taking the strain we went below to try and rest, but it soon became clear that the boat was not happy. She would tend to charge ahead when the pressure eased on the rode, pulled forward by the elasticity of the nylon. Then, when the next big wave struck, the slack rode failed to stabilise us sufficiently so the boat was being thrown to the side.
We stuck it out until with a mighty crash a particularly large breaker threw the boat on its beam ends. Things flew around the cabin like missiles, water seemed to be coming in from everywhere and in the aftermath the boat was wallowing in the trough.
A can of bottom paint in the bilge had lost its lid and the fumes were terrible.
There was nothing to be done but cast off the sea anchor, hoist the reefed staysail and return to running off-wind.
It was a long, dark and wet night, standing 90 minute watches followed by an hour of bailing and 30 minutes to rest on the sole, wedged between the settee seat and the saloon table.
The paint can had been found and resealed, but we both developed headaches, dry throats and a general lethargy that persisted for some time. We were already exhausted so fumes did not help a bit.
That night, lashed in the cockpit, my judgment was definitely impaired. David, exhausted, was asleep below and when it was his turn for the watch my calls failed to awaken him. This made me angry and I decided that to get even with him I would stand his watch and make him sorry.
How my muddled brain came up with that particular plan is a mystery in hindsight. The only good thing about it was that I did not have to unlash myself and climb out of the security net of lines and down the companionway; given my mental state I am not convinced I would have made it.
Into the third day
Towards dawn on 29 May the seas began to drop and the wind, now steadily SE, fell below 20kn. By 0700 we were seeing 10kn to 15kn. David surfaced, well rested and not sorry in the slightest but probably wondering about his luck.
We set the full main and poled out the starboard twin headsail and ran at a course of 55°M.
At noon a running fix told us that we were at 27°20’S, 155°27’W: after two long days we were just 110nm from Moreton Island.
The motion was still rather chaotic and we continued to take on water at an alarming rate. We had broken an oak frame on the starboard side below the marine head and we could see water entering as the hull worked.
In a 2.5 hour off-watch period, 45 minutes or more would be spent bailing. I opted to rest on the cabin sole so that, if I fell asleep and the water level rose, I would be wakened.
Despite the motion we were experiencing, getting the engine running was a top priority. We needed to charge the batteries and we wanted to use the engine-driven bilge pump to give us a break from the Thirsty Billy. So I crawled back under the cockpit, wedged myself in position and took off the valve cover and head, dried everything with towels and reassembled everything. The job took hours more than it should because the motion made it very difficult to hang onto things and losing parts would be a very bad idea.
The boat was moving well and it was pretty exhilarating to be heading in the right direction at a good clip. The waves were still big, but they were regular and well-spaced. The boat happily surfed down the faces leaving a trail of white water in her wake.
David climbed the mast and took a few photos. On the way back down, he noticed that a scarf had opened up on the boxed mast section about five feet above deck level, port side.
That was probably another consequence of the knockdown smash and we watched it carefully until conditions permitted a repair attempt.
On the morning of 30 May, the winds had dropped to 5kn and we successfully cranked up the engine. We were able to make good a course of 34°M with the club-footed staysail sheeted flat.
Things stopped going our way around 1600 when we started getting large rollers from the south intersecting with 1m to 2m waves from the east. We were now making good the course of 70°M and still motorsailing, although the staysail was doing little other than dampening the roll a bit.
We continued all night as the wind built from the NE and, by mid-afternoon on 31 May, the engine was off and we were sailing through heavy squalls in 15kn to 25kn winds.
Fortunately, the squally period passed quickly and at 1800 we were again motorsailing, this time through steady rain. Then I got a high temperature alarm buzzer. On investigating I found that the raw water pump belt was loose and I also noticed that the clutch bearing on the engine-driven bilge pump, which was seeing heavy usage, was making nasty sounds.
I tightened the raw water pump belt and sprayed the clutch with WD-40. This quieted things down, although I was not sure how long such treatment would be effective.
The answer was not very long: as soon as the engine rpms rose the bilge pump quit working altogether, although the clutch seemed to be fine.
We put that in the ‘worry about it later’ list and bailed as needed when off-watch.
The squalls soon returned and we shut down the engine and reefed the sails. In doing so we found that the main halyard was chafed most of the way through and the upper sail slide was broken.
We put a splice in the halyard and replaced the slide and carried on through the night. By morning the wind had gone around to west at 10kn to 20kn and we were running in 2m to 3m seas with both twin headsails dragging us along.
With the sheets led aft through quarterblocks to the tiller, she self-steered after a fashion, but man did she roll. As the wind went SW, the roll got too hard to handle and we doused the twins.
It was still raining and now it was cold, the temperature in the cockpit was 10° Celsius and we were poorly dressed for those conditions.
As an experiment I shut down the engine and closed the raw water pump through-hull, detached the inlet hose and attached it to the bilge pump strainer. This seemed to work OK, as long as we checked regularly to see that the strainer did not clog.
On 2 June the winds increased to SW at 25kn to 35kn and the seas kicked up. Serenity was now surfing down 5m swells but the spacing and angle were consistent and the boat stayed in control.
We had a full moon and surfing down the waves by moonlight with the foaming wake boiling behind us was an amazing experience. We surfed all night and at dawn we set a new speed record for Serenity, averaging 7.9kn over 17 hours.
It was too good to last and a few hours later we were barely making headway in the rain. In the late afternoon we set a drifter and a mizzen staysail in addition to our working sails.
It was time to go back to motoring, which meant the cooling water inlet had to be reconnected to the through-hull to provide continuous water flow. At 2330 we started the engine to motorsail, but at 2340 I shut it down because there was no water showing up in the exhaust flow.
Although the Jabsco raw water pump was relatively new, the impeller was in tatters without a single blade remaining. It seemed likely to me that this was caused by debris that made it through the bilge strainer, but there was no way to be certain of that. Unfortunately a search revealed no spare impellers onboard.
By 0200 I had given up: depressed and hoping a solution would come to mind after a couple of hours rest.
The solution I arrived at was devious but effective. I crawled back behind the engine and found that the reason the engine-driven pump had quit was that a drain plug on the pump had fallen into the bilge. I reinserted it and then attached the pump inlet hose to the raw water intake through-hull and the pump outlet to the water injection fitting on the exhaust.
With the clutch engaged, the bilge pump could take over the role of water injection pump. We were relieved when it worked as planned.
We left the Jabsco in position, but cut the belt so it would not be spinning dry. By noon on 4 June we were underway again in light SE breezes and by nightfall we were sailing once again.
We were able to sail most of the next day, with our course set to pass 40nm south of Conway Reef. But the wind was building and gradually heading us and Serenity, not weatherly under ideal conditions, was not up to the task.
So with heavy hearts we decided we had no option but to tack and head in the wrong direction: toward New Zealand. With the head seas beating on the starboard bow, where our dodgy planks were located, there was once again considerable water below so, before tacking, we turned off the wind and ran west for an hour while we took turns bailing.
Periodically one or another of us would stick a head out of the hatch and look around; sometime after midnight David gave a call to say that a ship was bearing down on us. It was a big freighter and we were dead in its track with no means to hail them.
I went to the switch panel and activated the masthead strobe while David played a flashlight on our staysail. To this day I have never seen a large ship change course so dramatically, it was a full-on emergency manoeuvre.
It seemed like overkill just to dodge a 10m yacht, but in retrospect David suggested that the watchstander saw the strobe in the confused sea state and thought his DR was off and they were about to drive onto Conway Reef. This was a particularly dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness of masthead strobes, which were at the time sold as emergency beacons: when you turn it on, big ships run away rather than come to your assistance.
We spent the next day hove-to making repairs. The engine exhaust had developed a leak and we made a partially effective patch using aluminum foil and duct tape. Thereafter we would keep the engine room port ajar and the hatch open when motoring.
We redid some stitching on the main and the staysail and re-organised things above and below decks in anticipation of heavier weather once we started sailing south once again.
One of the twin poles had cracked after impacting the forward lowers when backwinded.
This was repaired by filling the split with epoxy and then covering the damaged area with a whipping of parachute cord and wraps of 1/8” nylon that were then coated with varnish.
An attempt was made to repair the open scarf on the mast by working another batch of epoxy glue into it with a putty knife and then drawing it up with silicon-bronze wood screws.
We got back underway early on 9 June with the wind blowing ESE at 25kn. With reefed sails we were heading for NZ at about 4kn, hoping for westerlies before we got there.
By noon on 10 June the barometer was dropping and the winds were from the east, gusting well over 30kn. We were now being driven to the SSW and the boat was again taking a beating. Water was over the cabin sole and we were bailing almost continuously, pumping by hand into the sink in the head up forward, because access aft was problematic with the boat heeled so far over.
We hove-to that night under reefed staysail in gale/storm conditions with 7m seas breaking over us and water everywhere below.
It was at this time that I took my portable Dictaphone into the forepeak and made a recording for my parents, which I placed in a plastic bag with my passport.
The winds were lighter the next day, but the seas so confused it was difficult to move around the boat because you could not anticipate her movements. We got the boat under sail at last and were able to see the bottom of the bilge after three hours of bailing. The rate of water entry had again slowed to manageable levels.
On 14 June we crossed the dateline on course to pass south of Minerva Reef. En-route we found two more leaks: one at the stuffing box, which could be fixed and another at the stem that we just had to live with. We had decided it was hopeless to try and keep the bilges dry and settled for pumping them for a while when the bilge panels started floating around.
On the afternoon of 17 June we found we were being set east more than we expected, bringing us between Ata Island and Pelorus Reef at night. So at 1730 we hove-to and got underway again just after midnight.
Ata Island showed up on schedule about 20nm distant at 1000 the next day. We could now set course for Tongatapu but, when we got to the coast of the island, the current was against us and night was falling, so we again hove-to to enter at first light.
Although completely exhausted at this point, we spent several hours cleaning and tidying up below; after 22 days things were, shall we say, less than presentable.
We collected wet and dirty clothing, re-organised lockers whose contents were jumbled and, in some cases, smashed and cleaned what few dishes had been dirtied over that period; much of the time we were eating cold food from cans or freeze dried food from pouches.
When all was set for landfall, we lay down, on damp berths rather than the cabin sole and waited for daylight.
It is hard to describe the sense of shock and dismay when dawn revealed an empty horizon: Tongatapu had disappeared. We motorsailed into an ESE wind for nearly five hours before reaching our original position; overnight we hd been set west at over 2kn. Now we faced a hard beat into 15kn to 25kn winds to get into the lagoon and on to Nuku’alofa, the capital.
Once secured, we went below to cook a real meal and get a decent night’s sleep at last. We cooked a modest feast: canned chicken and rice with canned vegetables and decided on rice pudding for dessert.
While that cooked, we sat down at the main saloon table to toast our survival. We do not drink on passages, but we had dregs in a few bottles left over from a farewell bash in Australia. We managed to come up with the ingredients for a White Russian: a shot of vodka, shot of Kahlua, shot of Crème de Cacao and some canned cream and we contentedly shared that drink.
My next memory is of waking up with the sun in my eyes, my face on the table and a terrible smell in the air. David and I had both passed out, more from exhaustion and relief than from alcohol. The pudding had continued to cook until it carbonised, whereupon the aluminum pot deformed and the plastic handle toasted; we probably would have died in a fire if the Coleman burner had not run out of fuel.
When we went on deck we found that the Tongans had moved us to a different spot and a large cruise ship was parked where we had berthed. None of those incidents had awakened us.
My perspective was permanently altered by the 33 days between Brisbane and Pago Pago. Although I had spent two years at sea in all kinds of conditions, this was the first time I had to deal with extreme weather and multiple system failures and the first time I’d considered the possibility that I would end my career lost at sea.
The experience highlighted for me how important it is to know the strengths and weaknesses of your boat and your crew.
Another thing it taught me was the value of sheer determination and focus. If you let yourself be overwhelmed by the totality of a crisis it becomes too big to deal with. The default today would be to trigger the EPIRB and take to the liferaft. But we had no comparable option and neither of us felt like giving up.
So we subdivided the crisis into individual problems, ranked them in order of importance and dealt with them one after another. By staying focussed on the task at hand we made it through.
Over the next 39 years I had passages on a variety of vessels and I learned something new every time I left the dock. But no other voyage taught me so much in so dramatic a fashion. ≈