Sailing vessel Kathryn lay tied to the dock in Belfast Harbor. Even in late May there was an early morning chill in the air. My friend Sam came down from the Co-op with hot coffee and corn muffins, which we devoured in silent camaraderie as a troop of seagulls stood with anticipation. Sorry, lads, none left for you.
Then Sam cast off the lines. I was alone — alone on a sailboat with three thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean between me and my destination, an island called Porto Santo, south of the Azores, close to Madeira.
I needed to put some distance between home and me, but there were many friends on board. First was Wilson, the moose hand puppet, and then Coon, another stuffed toy animal, both perched over my bunk.
There was Bernadette; the stuffed hippopotamus puppet with attached life ring that stood watch 24/7 on the stern rail behind the cockpit. There was also Deborah, a faithful wind autopilot, Alpha, the electronic auto helm, and Bertha, the 38-horsepower Westerbeke diesel engine fed by a sixty-gallon tank.
Everyday our group held therapy sessions amongst ourselves, or mostly I talked and they listened. I heard them call me BTW, Bob the Whacko.
There was also Herb. Herb Hilgenrheiner and I actually did talk to each other daily on the single side band radio. Herb was a weather guru in Toronto, Canada. He sat behind a bank of computers and advised Atlantic sailors in transit about weather patterns. Every evening under my headlight at the navigation desk I would sign in with Herb and give him my latitude and longitude. There would be a two-hour wait as he went down the list of sailboats scattered across the northern Atlantic. Herb’s voice in the dark of night for 21 days and 2,900 nautical miles was my only contact with humanity, but with my stuffed friends and my mechanical friends on board, I was not lonely.
“Sailing vessel Kathryn,” Herb might say, “I suggest you head south below the 40th parallel because a gale has developed off Nova Scotia.” Or he might tell me, “Head north 100 miles. The Bermuda High with flat calms has crept up to the 39th parallel.” Lack of wind would force use of my engine and precious fuel. Herb guided me across the Atlantic Ocean. But Wilson and Coon gave me spiritual guidance along with companionship.
Some people have asked: Where do you stop at night? A marina? Are there places to anchor? No, this is the Atlantic Ocean. Over the preceding months I had conditioned myself to one hour sleep intervals, broken by a quick five-minute search of the horizon through the overhead bubble hatch between those hours of sleep. The trick is to not allow worries or extraneous thoughts to creep into your head. An hour of true REM sleep followed by the quick scan, and then back to sleep. There is no other way. Mind you, every sound on a sailboat is heard when you are solo, sounds such as a luff in the sail, increased flap of the ensign flag on the stern rail, or waves hitting the hull at a different angle.
Nine days from home, the bilge pump kicked on every two hours, then every hour, and soon continuously. That could only mean one thing. There was a major leak in the boat in the middle of the ocean. I tore up every floorboard, searched every thru-hull and hidden corner of the boat. Nothing. Finally, after I crawled under the cockpit with a headlamp, I saw water surge up through the rudderpost with each passing wave. Repair was not possible.
Just so I could sleep, I turned off the bilge pump. With my quick scan of the horizon between sleep sessions, I would turn it back on to drain the bilge of saltwater. As if the leak didn’t frighten me, midway into the passage both Deborah, the Aries wind vane, and Alpha, the electronic autopilot, failed over the course of an hour. It would be impossible to hand steer across the ocean. In a panic, I pictured hand steering for a few hours, then just idle or heave-to to get some sleep. Fatigue is the biggest danger on a boat. It can lead to wrong decisions and tragedy, as my friend Dave experienced at the mouth to the Chagres River in Panama. He had been up for forty-eight hours without sleep when he went up on the reef. With Deborah and Alpha both dead, I panicked. But the panic was followed by a search for the cause. I found a single bolt had broken off on Deborah and a single wire had come loose on Alpha. What a relief.
A solo sailor carefully plans and rehearses every action. A single misstep could be disastrous. One learns to trust one’s decisions, as long as fatigue had not built up. The Kathryn sailboat was rigged so every sail adjustment could be made within the safety of the cockpit and tethered to the boat. Only once in 21 days did I venture up on deck. The winds were less than 5 knots with no measurable seas. Rather than turn on the engine, my echo and I opted to raise the spinnaker. The red, orange, and yellow triradial filled the sky overhead, which prompted multiple photo-shoots to prove to my grown adult children. “Look, Dad raised a spinnaker mid-Atlantic.” Of course, taking it down was a nightmare when it fell into the ocean and under the boat.
The saddest day occurred when a chance wave hit the boat to suddenly lift the stern high. Bernadette, my hippopotamus puppet, was thrown off her perch into the ocean. I almost jumped in to save her. With tears, I watched her float further behind. She smiled at me but with such loneliness and dependence I vowed to go back to that store in Belfast where I found her and buy all her companions. I did. Five different colors. Today they grace my home and other boats. Bernadette, here’s to you, wherever you are.
Meals were simple aboard Kathryn: a can of tuna, chicken, or something combined with a sauce and thrown over rice or pasta. Granola, nuts and yogurt was breakfast, and a sandwich for lunch, once with fresh-baked bread from the oven when the weather allowed. With no wine or hard alcohol on board, I rewarded myself daily with cold Heineken.
The trip took me far from busy shipping lanes, but one day, a cruise ship appeared dead astern, probably half a mile away but coming at a clip of 15 knots. Frantic, I yelled into channel 16 on the VHF. “Pan, Pan! Pan, Pan!” along with my latitude and longitude “Captain. Captain of the cruise ship! Do you have me on your radar?” No response. “Mayday, Mayday!” I was about to turn on the engine and change tack but at the last minute the ship diverted five degrees and flew past as Kathryn escaped its wake. A human voice never answered my frantic calls, but then so many ships have crew on watch that do not speak English, or often, no one is on watch on the bridge at all.
One morning an island stared back at me where no land was supposed to be. It turned out to be San Miguel, the most southern of the Azores islands, but on my small-scale chart, it appeared only as a dot. It was one episode after another, but finally, after twenty-one days and six hours, three thousand miles from Belfast, Maine, my worn and tired crew tied to the floating pier in the safe harbor of Porto Santo. At the head of the ramp, a group of tourists from Madeira had just disembarked. A lady approached me with, “You crossed the ocean in that?” I became a blabbermouth with a barrage of verbal garbage. She was the first human I had talked to in person for 21 days. She probably thought me crazy and soon forgot me, just as I forgot what I said.
The passage was over. I was proud to have done it: solo across the Atlantic. Would I do it again? No way. Day 5 was too much the same as day 18, only with more miles under the keel. I’ve decided long-distance solo sailors are crazy.
Exhausted, I needed to get on with my life. It was time to fly home to Maine. Kathryn would later return for repairs, but this time with a crew.
Bob Gause is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who works in Bangor.