By Robert Hooke
I spent my summers in Sag Harbor as a child but didn’t start sailing until I was in my 30s. First on a 26-footer around the local bays and then along the south coast of England on a Nicholson 35, while working in London. I always dreamed of making a long offshore passage, maybe even crossing the Atlantic.
I got my chance several years later when I took five weeks off on my rotation back to the U.S.
My skills as a sailor improved on that first Atlantic crossing. I decided to return London and advanced to sailing a 45-foot French-built yacht with a more complex rig.
After five years with a European bank I decided I needed to move on. Maybe I could coordinate the move with participating in one of sailing’s most challenging events, the BOC Singlehanded Race Around the World, which was the following year. I knew there would not be another chance like this and I left the firm.
I wanted to sail a boat I knew, so I asked the French firm to build me an offshore racing version of my cruising yacht. I met with other trans-ocean sailors and discussed conditions in the various areas where I would be sailing, what lessons they had learned and, in my mind, practiced what action I would take in those difficult situations.
I made the August crossing to Newport for the start of the race in a quick passage under good conditions with a brief gale west of the Azores. In September of 1990 I set off for Cape Town.
The first leg of the race had its unanticipated challenges. The trouble began 300 miles south of Bermuda when a steering cable broke. To repair it I used a guy wire from my stern radar post — which was a quarter of the cable wire diameter — and prayed. Then my generator fuel pump broke. I rigged a gravity feed from a bucket hanging from the overhead but dirt ended that. Now I had no power except a solar panel and wind turbine which was just enough to run the GPS and only a wind vane on the stern for self steering.
Arriving in Cape Town I was moored next to Mike Plant, an experienced offshore sailor, and talked about the exciting sail to Cape Town. He smiled and said “the real sailing starts in the Southern Ocean.”
Shortly, as I headed for Australia, I had a following wind of 35-45 mph and 25-35 foot swells. Then I caught the edge of a storm with winds up to 65 mph and was flattened by a rogue wave which loosened my standing rigging (and mast) and knocked out my radar and wind instruments. Under reduced sail, I was consoled by an albatross who stayed with me for 1000 miles.
Off the east coast of Australia, with a clear horizon, I went below for lunch when there was a huge crash. I thought the mast had finally come down. I went on deck to see a fishing trawler back his bow out of the side of my boat. There was a 6-by-8-foot hole in the boat, which started to fill with water. The trawler towed me into Ulladulla, his home port; but by the time I made repairs and sailed to Sydney for a new mast, I was already two weeks behind the rest of the fleet.
Immediately on leaving Sydney, my wind instruments went down again. I had sailed 2,000 miles to Australia without them so I felt I could manage. In the South Tasmin Sea between New Zealand and Australia, I was caught in another storm of 55-65 mph winds. As the wind increased I finally took down all sails and was making nine knots with just the wind on the hull. Night closed in and I went below to ride it out. The boat was taking the heavy swell OK, while occasionally being smacked by a breaking wave. At around 2 a.m. I felt the boat rise higher than normal, tilt slightly, then drop, like being in an elevator, and crash into the sea. As the wave went over, the boat kept rolling until almost upside down before coming back and righting.
I had been “dropped off a wave,” which is being on the crest just as it breaks. I could hear water gurgling and assumed the hull had cracked and I was sinking. I remember feeling surprisingly calm and went on deck to launch the life raft. When in the cockpit I could see that the boat appeared OK and that the water I heard was running out of the full cockpit.. The next day I continued on my way but I noticed the rigging deck connection was heaving. I went below to check the rod attachment to the stringers. Had they cracked and loosened the rigging-again? I couldn’t continue with a risk of the mast coming down.
I could return 700 miles to Sydney for repairs but by then the fleet would be too far ahead to help in case of an emergency. I decided to retire after 15,000 miles. The decision was heartbreaking after coming this far. I had known there would be difficult times during the voyage but I wondered whether I was being given a message — this was not my time.
My emotions from this experience run the gamut of pride, satisfaction, frustration and disappointment and I guess you can’t ask anything more from an adventure than that. I certainly broadened my sailing competence, but what I am most proud of is that I accepted the risks and calmly dealt with adversity, using my ingenuity to solve what could have been voyage-ending situations. I was also surprised at how comfortable I was being alone with only myself for company and to rely on. The lack of social interaction was replaced by the total emergence in nature — being at one with the sea. One beautiful evening, as I was sailing through the tropics, I said to myself, how would I poetically describe this moment:
A melody in the wind and rhythm from the swell
Lyrics are softly whispered along the waterline
In a theatre of moon and stars, it’s magic