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Vamanos

[Joyce on Vamanos]One day I was in a Waikiki restaurant reading a newspaper while eating breakfast. One article told of how a crew of five had started to sailed for California in a 36’ sailboat. After one week at sea they were hit by a black squall. While trying to take down the sail the mast broke and left them helpless. They managed to limp back to Hawaii.

The thought suddenly struck me, if I wanted the experience of an ocean voyage I needed to get on that boat. After inquiring I learned that the old crew refused to go back to sea with this captain. But, still wanting to make an ocean voyage, I looked up Dr. Sturges. (He was a retired eye surgeon.) I told him of my experience on the Kualoa and that I was studying navigation. I was accepted a few days later. I quit my job, gave up my share of the Kualoa and began making preparations for the voyage, including the building of a new mast. When we were at sea I would find out why the old crew would not sail with Dr. Sturges.

September 1962

The first night at sea I lay in my bunk wishing I were dead. Why did I come out here on this voyage? Why would anyone want to make such a voyage? Tom and Herald, the other crew members just laughed at me. If they were seasick they did not show it. Because of the heavy pounding seas, they were talking about reducing sail. I said, "That’s not for me. I can’t move out of his bunk."

Well, Herald forced me out on deck to change sails. I had the dry heaves, there was nothing left in me to come up. The crew made me work harder and faster, I wanted them to leave me alone. Then I wished I would fall over the side, that would end it all. It was night and they would never find me, so I thought. I did not know it at the time, but the crew was forcing me to get over my sea sickness. After changing the sails I went back to my bunk and began to feel better. A few hours later I was able to take in some food and a couple of days later I was over the seasickness and was able to carry my share of the work load. In time I was able to enjoy the voyage.

There were five of us on the Vamanos. The captain was a retired eye surgeon. Tom and Herald had sailed in the Trans-pac race from Los Angeles a few months earlier. The fifth member of our crew was Joyce. She was a Canadian from Vancouver, B.C. She spent the last two years traveling around the world, mostly by bus and train. This was her last leg of her wanderings. Being the only woman on board, and a pretty one at that, we all spent a lot of time trying to please her. (The large crew was the result of not understanding self-steering systems. The tiller was manned twenty-four a day. Today, most ocean cruising yachts are handled by a couple.)

The first week we beat to the north to reach the favorable winds that would carry us east to California. The Pacific waves were mountainous. High on the crest of a wave it seemed like we were on top of the world. Then Vamanos would plunge down the back side of the wave, hit bottom, and our little boat would bury its bow into the next on-coming wave. The deck would be awash as our little boat would break its way to the surface again.

It was during heavy seas that we had to reduce sail. From the safety of the cockpit, I looked out over the deck and saw what looked like a wall of water coming at us. The wave exploded against the hull filling the air with spray. Next the bow pointed up to the low black angry sky and then dive back into the wild sea. The wind was blowing hard against the sails and put a tremendous strain on all the rigging. We had to reduce sail quickly before our little boat snapped another mast. (Safety at sea relied on physical strength with the motto "One hand for ourself and one hand for the boat." Lifelines around the deck and safety harnesses were rarely used. Today this is standard equipment.)

Two of us would work our way along the deck, out to the bow, always holding onto something solid and keeping our bodies low so an on-coming wave would not throw us off balance. I sat on the bow scared to death as the waves washed over me, but too proud to go back to the safety of the cockpit. I was trying to build up courage to finish the work. We tried to get the jib down without dropping it in the water which might drag us overboard. As the bow plunged under a wave, we held on with all the strength we had. When the bow came up we brought in as much of the jib as we could before the next wave hit. With the jib down and bagged we raised the small storm jib. Now the boat did not plunge as much and sailing was easier.

When I got my sea legs I enjoyed being out on deck working the sails during stormy weather. This being my first voyage, I thought the seas were always rough like this. When we reached the horse latitudes, it was a different story.

The horse Latitudes is an area of calm that divides the tropics from the temperate zone. In the olden days, sailing ships would be becalmed for weeks at a time. The ship would start to run out of drinking water. The first to perish on board would be the horses.

We sat in these calm waters for ten days. I thought this could be used for a time of rest, but calm seas is a time of strained nerves. Sitting in the middle of an ocean and not going anyplace tends to make one very uneasy. There was just too much free time to think of problems and time to take our frustrations out on each other. In stormy weather we were too busy for all of that.

The first personality clash came in a power play between the captain and the other two men. Each one accused the other of not knowing how to sail the boat. As tempers flared the captain said, "I have the legal right to throw a man overboard. I am captain and can do whatever necessary for the safety of the ship."

Tom replied, "You are crazy! We should lock you up in the bow section and take over the ship."

Dr. Sturges said, "That would be mutiny."

There was one person that kept a level head through all this, Joyce. She became a mediator. She suggested that the captain finish his watch and the others go below and sleep to get ready for their watch. They could discuss it later. She never entered into their disagreements, but when the crew was tired of arguing, they would ask her for advice. Everyone seemed to want to please her, so they took her word as final.

I didn’t know enough about sailing to have an opinion one way or another. So I usually did not take part in these disputes.

The third day into the calm, Dr. Sturges suggested we go on food rationing. He told us that things were not going too well and for safety reasons we should cut down on our food. We thought there was enough food for the trip, but we agreed to try it. For the first light breakfast Joyce made thin soup. Lunch and dinner were sandwiches. The second day was the same. The third day we were so hungry we found ourselves eating more than we were before we went on rations. The captain tried to convince us to stay on rations, saying, "What if a storm comes up and blows us back out to sea?" Tom told him he should have thought of that before we left. Rations were stopped and we ate well for the rest of the trip.

One day in the calm, the air was hot and the ocean was glass smooth. Joyce and I decided to go swimming. The sails were hanging limp, so we jumped in. The cool water felt refreshing. The others on deck wanted to come also, but as usual, there was a disagreement. Tom and Herald said they could not come in because the captain might start the engine and leave us. Dr. Sturges, just as paranoid, wouldn’t come in because the others might steal his boat. They finally came to an agreement. All three went below, removed the rotor from the distributor cap and stow it away. Then they came on deck and jumped in the water together.

There we were, five of us swimming around a small boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with all its sails up. I suddenly realized that this is how ghost ships are made. Everyone gets off the ship for some reason, then a sudden gust of wind fills the sails and the ship is gone. There would be no way we could get back to it. The boat would be found months later with all of its emergency and safety equipment in order and in place. Then reporters would write about the strange disappearance of the crew. "What strange force made them get off the ship?" And it was only that we were hot and wanted to cool off. Joyce must have thought of that too, she got back on board while the rest of us played.

When the winds picked up, tempers calmed down. It was a down wind run and our boat seemed to fly along. We were surfing down giant swells trying to ride them as far as possible. The waves always went faster than we could go. We wished we could stay on one wave all the way to California. Then we would get there in no time. We were beginning to tire of the voyage and of each other.

During this time, Joyce kept us fascinated with her stories of her adventures around the world. Hitchhiking was her favorite means of getting around Europe. She also traveled by train in the Arab countries and by bus in India and other parts of Asia. She even rode with a camel caravan once. Her rules were to travel around the world by any means used by the local population. This usually meant traveling in ways not common to the typical tourist. Sailing on a 35’ sail boat is not a common way to travel the Pacific. A guy really had to respect a girl like that.

I did not have much respect for Dr. Sturges and never did understand why. It may have been because Tom and Herald had no respect and I considered them to be experienced seamen. But the Captain was an excellent sailor and navigator. He spent hours showing me how to set sails correctly which would make the boat easier to steer and move faster. He showed me little tricks to make the steering easier, making use of the waves themselves to make the boat sail faster. Dr. Sturges showed me how easy it was to navigate on the open seas. He took sun sights with a sextant every day and we knew exactly where we were. He taught me little tricks for accurate navigation from a small bouncing boat, things I would later use on my own voyages.

One thing I received from this voyage was self-confidence. A year earlier I was afraid to say anything about my dreams. Now, I not only feel free to talk about them, I feel I could carry them out.

Twenty-seven days after leaving Honolulu, we arrived in Long Beach Harbor after dark. The winds were light and the sea was calm. This made maneuvering through the breakwater very easy. The boat batteries were dead and we had no running lights. There was no engine because we could not find the rotor cap that was removed when the crew went swimming. We had a flash light with weak batteries to wave off other ships. This was clearly the most dangerous part of the voyage, trying to keep from getting run over by another ship. Not having much sailing experience, I didn’t understand navigation lights or running lights at night. At one point I asked, "What does red, green and two white lights mean?"

Tom cried, "A ship is going to run us down!"

We waved our flashlights but they didn’t see us. The small amount of wind in our sails carried us just outside the ship’s path. It seemed like we could reach out and tough its hull as it went by.

By dawn, we were tied up at the captain’s home dock. Joyce and I left the boat and all hostilities behind us

During the voyage, I was making plans to travel to South America and make a trip down the Amazon River. I asked Joyce to come with me, but she said she was tired of traveling and wanted to spend some time with her folks. Her travels were over, mine were just beginning. At the bus station in Los Angeles, Joyce took the bus to Vancouver and I took another bus headed for Central America and employment by the Panama Canal Company, Panama.

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