The Big Step

Tag: adventures

by Patrick Childress

A singlehander sets off aboard his modified Catalina 27 for a non-stop crossing of the Indian Ocean.

The tumble of propellers and thump of heavy engines woke me with a start. I bolted to the companionway to face a singlehander's nightmare: the unforgiving face of a freighter bearing down on my small boat, full speed ahead! Quickly I disengaged the self-steering vane and steered Juggernaut, my Catalina 27, from the path of disaster.

It was the fourth day of a 53-day crossing of the Indian Ocean and it marked the third time during my circumnavigation that I had to avoid collision by quick evasive action. It would not be the last.

This long stretch of indigo spanning a quarter of the globe is fraught with dangers, but I felt prepared. Single handed passages from Miami, Florida, to Panama and across the Pacific to Australia had sharpened nautical skills; each ocean had been a stepping stone toward the Big Step, a 6,400-mile non-stop Indian Ocean passage. Before leaving Miami, I had made many modifications to my small stock fiberglass sloop to prepare her for crossing oceans (see sidebar on page xx), and I was confident she would not let me down. It was myself I worried about. Would I make a miscalculation or fail to wake in time to avert disaster? Would I be unable to tolerate the solitude?

I had stocked the boat judiciously in Darwin, on the north central coast of Australia, and left Fanny Bay on a fine mid-May morning. As Juggernaut sailed out of the harbor, we passed a well-appointed yacht from Jacksonville, Florida. We exchanged waves and "good mornings" and I grinned. They probably figured I was off on a day sail.

To complete the passage in a reasonable time I hoped to average 120 miles a day, which meant maintaining a speed of five knots. Provisions on board would last 60 days. I only carried enough water for thirty, but planned to augment my supply by catching rainwater. A solar still was aboard in the event that didn't happen. Supplies were purposely lean to keep the boat buoyant and fast; a light boat will lift to the waves more easily and in many cases will prove more seaworthy than a heavy, stable vessel. Heavy displacement boats have broken apart in devastating storms while their light counterparts, unrestrained, have survived by flying with the wind and waves. Singlehanders Vito Dumas and Bernard Moitessier had verified this theory. Juggernaut was prepared for the worst.

On the first full day out of Darwin, the noon sight crossed with the 9 a.m. sight showed progress of 125 miles. That was a pleasant surprise even though the boat flew along briskly in the 15-knot beam wind. The crew wasn't faring as well. Two weeks in port is enough time to de-acclimate the stomach to the severe motion of a choppy sea. I was miserable. Sail could have been reduced to ease the boat's motion but speed was paramount; relative comfort would come in time.

For the next seven days Juggernaut charged downwind under straining double headsails. The wind blew 15 to 20 knots, occasionally dying after dark. Such variable wind velocities and a long, easy ocean swell were earmarks of the deep Indian Ocean. Juggernaut had sailed 954 miles, averaging 136 miles per day. So far, the best single day's run had been 162 miles.

On the ninth day the wind subsided and brakes were put on the good progress; Juggernaut crawled only 98 miles in a 24 hour period. Ironically, it was during a flat calm on the following day, sails flapping uselessly, that I experienced one of the most exciting moments of the entire voyage. Tethered to a line, I slipped into the warm ocean water wearing mask and snorkel and swam with a small pod of dolphins that had been following the boat. They appeared as curious and interested in me as I was intrigued by them. For 10 minutes we shared a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, and I understood clearly the fraternity that is said to exist between these sea mammals and man.

As night approached, the ocean was transformed. Ten-foot seas broke over the cabin as Juggernaut clawed her way to windward against 35 knots of cold, Antarctic wind. The forward hatch became a spewing waterfall. Though bolted tight, the fit was poor and the neoprene rubber did little to close the gap. Ruefully, I chided myself for not having sealed it from the outside with duct tape during a previous calm spell. On port tack the water deluged the head, finding its way to the bilge. This necessitated the use of foul weather gear on visits to the head and made for quick ones at that! On the starboard tack the cascade ran into the hanging locker, conveniently soaking the last of my dry clothes.

Two days passed before the wind shifted to the east and eased a bit in the process. Confused waves were left to toss Juggernaut from crest to crest while I hung inside the cabin. Everything was wet, but worse, I hadn't eaten for three days. Although I was hungry, the canned food was totally unappealing in rough sea. Cheeseburgers crept into my dreams. Impulsively, I tore open an emergency package of Mountain House freeze-dried beef patties and plopped them in a measured amount of boiling water. In an instant the magical transition from biscuit to burger was complete. No prime rib ever tasted so good!

Juggernaut gradually descended the rungs of latitude. By the end of the third week the water in the main tank was lower than anticipated. Occasionally rain showers washed the deck and sails and I stood in the downpour, bucket in hand, ready to capture the first rivulets of salt-free water off the mainsail at the gooseneck. But without fail, at the first sign of fresh water, the rain would cease! I began to think of Egyptian mummies.

Time in mid-ocean had little to mark its passage except for the continued rippling of the sails and the rising and setting of the sun. The wind had whipped itself into a consistent frenzy, with 35-knot head winds the order of each day. Now, with sea legs securely fastened, I spent most of my time in the cabin, doing chores or reading, a pastime rarely allowed in the frenzy of shoreside life.

Although a bit damp, I felt comfortable and secure inside my capsule, insulated from the howling winds and blowing spume by a plastic barrier less than half an inch thick. When there were no problems or emergencies to tend to, my mind would wander. I recalled my boyhood, when the dream of this circumnavigation was born. Inspired by Robert Manry's Tinkerbelle and other sea stories, I would stand in the fields of Indiana and imagine that the swaying wheat stalks were undulating ocean swells. Sometimes during these reflective moments, I questioned the wisdom of my choice and pondered the personal relationships one must give up in order to fulfill such a dream.

To shake off such moods, I donned foul weather gear and visited the noisy, wet world outside. Standing in the blasts of wind and spray, knees flexing and maneuvering for balance under a charcoal sky, I took endless pleasure in watching the massive black hill roll beneath Juggernaut, and knew I'd made the right decision. At that moment, there was nowhere I'd rather have been than exploring the Earth's magnificent oceans.

Day by day, Juggernaut slipped deeper toward the worrisome 20 degrees south latitude. More impressive waves surely lay ahead. Only in the most extreme weather, when solid waves were washing over the bow, did I consider donning a safety harness. An intense fear of falling overboard and knowledge of certain death if I did kept my mind alert and my grasp tight. I'd found on previous passages that harnesses could be restrictive; often the lines had wrapped around my feet, nearly sending me over the side.

On the 28th day, a sip of fresh water nearly made me gag. It was contaminated! Seawater had leaked through the deck filler cap, making what little water was left useless except for cooking. I dug out three gallons of emergency water, only to find reddish brown algae growing in it! To make matters worse, a trip on deck to check the rigging revealed a chafed through topping lift. The loose end hanging from the mast had managed to wrap itself around the head stay and jib so the sail couldn't be lowered.

The following morning I was blessed with a five-knot breeze and calm sea. After the dew evaporated, I hoisted my heaviest anchor line on a halyard so I could go aloft by climbing hand over hand with legs wrapped around the mast. With the wind astern, I sheeted in the 140 as much as possible to help stabilize the boat. On the opposite side, the 110 was poled out to keep us running downwind. A 100-foot line was trailed astern; in case I fell, I could grab hold for my life.

Reaching the spreaders, I paused for a moment and memorized the view. What a beautiful sight: billowed white sails gently tugging at their sheets, the bow etching out ripples in a nearly smooth sea. The view to the horizon, though greater in distance, was no different than what had been visible from the cockpit for the last 32 days"¦endless heaving ocean meeting dirty gray clouds. From this vantage point it became obvious that the emergency trailing line was too short to serve its purpose. I would have to be careful.

From the spreaders it was a quick climb to the top. At times it took all my strength to hug the mast so as not to be shaken free. I felt like a tether-ball being alternately flung and wrapped around the port, then the starboard shrouds. During a momentary lull I reached out for the ruthlessly tangled topping lift, place a slack section between my teeth and then pulled it taut while slicing it with the knife. Just as the fouled line fell free, my limbs lost their death grip on the mast. The anchor line burned away calluses as the descent nearly became uncontrolled free fall. On deck I began to black out and quickly dropped to the cockpit seat until the dizziness abated. Too many days of inactivity had weakened my muscles. From that day on I began a routine of isometric exercises.

Thirty-five days out of Darwin, Juggernaut dropped below 20 degrees south latitude. We were now making a straight line to Durban. A weather pattern had developed. One day we'd experience very light winds; the next three would bring cold gales from the southwest that eventually moderate to the one calm day I longed for. Each storm brought progressively heavier winds and seas. Slamming into the crests of 15-foot waves sent shudders through the hull and rigging. Occasionally an unusually large wave washed over the boat, cascading seawater through the ports. At times the water took so long to clear, I began to wonder if Juggernaut was floating on the ocean's surface or traveling just beneath it, her mast protruding like a periscope.

The weather continued to build, creating scenes I had previously only read about. But now the fear was my own. In the darkness of night, great thundering waves approached from a distance. As they neared, the hissing crescendoed till the wall fell upon us. I lay helpless in the cabin as the hull flexed and pressure changes compressed my eardrums.

On the night of June 25, after 43 days at sea, I woke from a very deep sleep and felt apprehensive for no apparent reason. It was impossible to relax and fall back to sleep. An incomprehensible urgency tugged at me. I slid the hatch forward, peered into the darkness and flushed with fright at the sight of a ship's twinkling white lights on the horizon. It was over five miles away but moving fast.. For a singlehander, thousands of miles from land and out of the shipping lanes, a ship anywhere on the horizon is a ship too near.


A quick check through the binoculars revealed red and green running lights - the ship and Juggernaut were in a collision course! There wasn't time to disengage the vane and change course. Quickly, I switched on every light I had and stood in the companionway shivering as the monster altered course to pass less than a mile away. I am skeptical of many intangible things in this world, but I was beginning to wonder if sensory deprivation could heighten extrasensory potential, allowing a person to sense danger far more readily than he would at other times.

On our 46th day at sea, with less than a gallon of algae water left, the rains finally came! Nine gallons of pure sweet water funneled into previously empty but freshly cleaned main tank.

With water no longer a problem, Juggernaut closed the distance to the African continent. There, currents flowing from the east converge south to Madagascar with the swift southerly flow of the Agulhas current that follows the African coast. Fierce storms from the southwest slamming against these currents can stand waves on end. The east coast of Africa is a graveyard of ships that had their backs broken in such storms. I had no desire to witness the 60-foot seas African pilots warn sailors about.

Time passed slowly as anticipation of landfall increased. Ships were everywhere and I felt uncomfortable not keeping watch, even during the day. But a singlehander must sleep and at 1 p.m., 50 miles east of Durban, fatigue completely overcame me. I slept.

Suddenly, Juggernaut lurched violently. I awoke in mid-catapult to the opposite bunk. This time, I thought my luck had run out. Scrambling up the companionway, I grabbed a long bladed knife from the galley. My only thought was cutting the lashings of the dinghy, if that was still possible, to use as a lifeboat.

Lunging to the cockpit, I was stunned to see not the vertical hull of the expected freighter, but vertical walls of nine-foot breaking seas! We were in the midst of a tumultuous upheaval indicative of a Force 7 blow, but not a breath of air stirred! I sheeted in the main to keep the boat from being thrown on her beam ends. This threatened to ruin my last operative mainsail, popping and snapping at its seams, but there was no other way to stabilize the boat. Juggernaut was bounced and jostled within the strange maelstrom for two hours until the waves finally died away. Later, in Durban, the port captain and other knowledgeable people told me Aquatic eruptions are not unheard of in the area. Converging currents, long ocean waves approaching from the south and meeting the Agulhas current, or even a suboceanic volcanic eruption could have created such an upheaval.

On the 52nd day, the sun eased itself into a horizon made not of sea, but a sliver of land! Dusty dry air rolling over brown hills splintered the sky into rays of orange and red and shades I had forgotten existed. Although the safety and shelter of harbor were miles away, my sense of excitement and satisfaction mounted. Soon, darkness blended sky and land into one. I started the engine and guided Juggernaut across a flat sea, northward against the current that had overpowered us under sail. My world was total darkness except for the soft red glow of the compass light and the cyclopean eye of the lighthouse leading me toward blackness where a city was supposed to be. Rounding a headland, it was as though a stage curtain drew slowly apart to unveil the startling lights of hotels, skyscrapers and colors of a brilliance and intensity I'd not seen since leaving Miami Beach on the horizon nearly three years before.

The outboard drank the last of the fuel and sputtered into silence just short of the flashing red and green lights at the harbor entrance to Durban. After 52-1/2 days at sea, the welcome lights and profile of a pilot boat appeared to tow Juggernaut through the long, narrow entrance to the sanctuary of Durban Harbor.

The air was colder and more humid than at sea, but I was excited and elated to have safely landed in a foreign port where new adventures awaited. I was anxious to put my feet on dry land, to eat hamburgers "¦.

But it was late. Those things could wait for morning. Undisturbed sleep suddenly became most important.

Patrick Childress, 35, is a Master Mariner who has been sailing for more than 30 years. His circumnavigation in Juggernaut was completed in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1982. He currently lives in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and sails Narragansett Bay and beyond aboard another Catalina 27.


Modifying A Catalina 27 To Circumnavigate


Before setting out from Miami aboard Juggernaut, I tackled some 30 odd tasks to better prepare her for the voyage that lay ahead. Here are a few of what I consider the most important modifications.

* Installed medium capacity electric bilge pump and large capacity electric pump on its own circuit and battery beneath the galley sole. The medium pump took care of the bilge water. The large capacity pump, in case of flooding, would automatically kick in, freeing me to search for and repair the leak or prepare to abandon ship.

* Installed four large cockpit drains horizontally through aft end of cockpit and piped through to transom.

* Installed heavier upper and lower aft shrouds. Forward shrouds stayed the same.

* Installed open faced turnbuckles of a stronger caliber.

* Installed double backstays with a backstay adjuster.

* Reworked campanionway entrance. Raised threshold wood to 2-½ inches above fiberglass threshold to force water running down slats into cockpit. Made overhang on hatch cover -¾-inch thicker to overhand companionway slats.

* Opened every nook and cranny for additional storage space.

* Made new hatch runners for tighter fit. Installed plastic tabs on front of hatch to help reduce spray entering hatch runners and into cabin.

* Installed aft lower shroud chain plates rather than using deck plates.

* Installed double headstays.

* Removed forward bolt on rudder bracket going through tiller and replace with two stainless steel hose clamps. A hole through the wood tiller at this point makes for a weak spot where the tiller can snap under stress.

* Installed half inch bolt through rudderpost cap attaching cap to rudder shaft. Original bolt is too small diameter and eventually wears an oblong hole.

* Installed handrails and grab rails in cabin and on deck.


Comments (0)

Catalina 320 International Association