Round Trip To Atlantic

TRANSATLANTIC SOLO A solo race across the Atlantic from east to west was the greatest yacht race that I had ever heard of, and it fired my imagination. Three thousand miles, plugging into the prevailing westerlies, probably strong, bucking the Gulf Stream current, crossing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland which were not only one of the densest fog areas of the world, but also stuffed with fishing trawlers. No wonder the Atlantic had only once before been raced across from east to west.

That was in 1870, by two big schooners, the Dauntless and the Cambria. The Dauntless, 124-foot long with a crew of thirty-nine, and a potential speed of 14 knots, lost the race by one hour and thirty-seven minutes, due, it was said, to spending two hours looking for two of her crew washed overboard while changing a jib. Anything once lost sight of in a seaway is difficult to find again, so ‘it is not surprising that they failed to recover the men overboard.

Round Trip To Atlantic Photo Gallery

Sheila backed me in every way to get into this race. She was criticised for this because I was thought to be still a sick man, but she stuck to her view that it would complete my cure. I wrote to Colonel Hasler and disputed some of his proposed conditions for the race, particularly one that entrants must first qualify by a solo sail to the Fastnet Rock and back. This course requires constant accurate navigation throughout, because of the nearness of land and the shipping routes along it, and a single-hander would find it difficult to get any sleep during the six to ten days’ sail. Blondie Hasler came to my office for a talk. He was a quiet-speaking, interesting man; short, round and bald-headed with a red face. He never seemed to move a muscle while speaking. He steadily and quietly pursued his affairs. He was a regular officer of the Marines, retired with a total disability pension for a back injury, and famous for the expedition he thought up and led in the war which resulted in his being known as the Cockleshell Hero. Ten Marines in canoes made their way 60 miles up the Gironde River to Bordeaux, where they sank several steamers at the quayside. Only two of them returned alive. Blondie was also an expert ocean racer, and one year, with a novel type of boat for ocean racing, came top of the smallest class of the RORC for the season’s racing. Blondie’s proposal was that this Atlantic solo race would encourage the development of suitable boats, gear and technique to simplify sailing. But the race had stuck; people were scared of it, saying that it was a dangerous hair-brained scheme. Sheila and I threw all our weight into the effort to get it going again. Blondie had first suggested the race to the Slocum Society of America, who seemed to me an amiable bunch of cranky American sailors quite different from what one would expect to find associated with the name of Slocum, who was an expert navigator as well as a fine sailor and a fine man. The Slocum Society had first praised the idea of such a race, later refused to support it, and now seemed to have lost all interest in it. Blondie had also enlisted the interest of the editor of The Observer, David Astor, a friend of his who had served with him in the Marines. It seemed at first that a starting line was the only thing needed for a race across the Atlantic, but the hard truth was that it also needed considerable money for a yacht in racing trim, with the special gear and six months’ stores required for a double crossing of the Atlantic, apart from expenses while in America. During that half year a man would be away from his job, and probably receiving no income from it. At first The Observer offered a prize of £1,000 for the winner, and £250 for each yacht taking part. Then they shrank into their shell, warned that if the yachts were sunk, their rivals would tear them in pieces for luring the flower of young British manhood to its doom with offers of sordid gold. Fortunately they were a sporting lot, with Chris Brasher and Lindley Abbatt backing up the Editor, and finally they offered £250 each to any starter as option money for the winner’s story, for which another £750 would be paid. Several good clubs were asked to start this race, but all turned it down. One of my friends, Bill Waleran, suggested the Royal Western Yacht Club of England. Of course! Plymouth was the traditional place from which to set sail for America, and the RWYC was the club to take over the race – it had sponsored the first Fastnet Race, and the RORC had been founded in its club rooms. The Slocum Society agreed to finish the race.

The prize money may seem small compared with some of the prizes in horse races and other matches, but we were concerned only to be able to take part in such a race. At one stage, when it looked as if no one would sponsor, start or finish the race, I offered to race Blondie across for half a crown.

Blondie’s entry for the race was a junk-rigged folkboat. It has been said that the junk sail is the most efficient in existence, and certainly the Chinese have had thousands of years in which to perfect it. Joshua Slocum, that great sailor and the first man to sail around the world alone, built himself a junk-rigged canoe in the 1890s, and sailed in it with his family from Buenos Aires to New England, making a fast passage, including one day’s run of 150 miles. Blondie was a canny, tough seadog, and with his yacht made a formidable rival.

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