In and Out of Slocum's Wake

I convinced myself that the only way to understand the story was to replicate the adventure, find as faithful a replica of Spray as possible, and set sail. Easier said than done.

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By the mid-1990s, I’d been roaming around the oceans of the world, mostly racing, for more than 20 years and could feel creeping upon me the desire to do something different. Then a friend gave me a copy of Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. I’d read it many years before, but after reading it again, I often found myself thinking about Slocum’s Spray, intrigued by her sailing characteristics.

From the way he described her, Spray appeared to be the ideal cruising boat: beamy, with lots of volume, and carrying shoal draft that permitted both careening on the beach and the exploration of shallow waterways. I was both skeptical and curious about the boat’s sailing qualities. I was fascinated that Slocum had been able to transit the channels of Patagonia in appreciably less than a month--not once, but twice. I know that region, and it really got me to thinking. In that season, February and March, the wind blows 90 percent of the time straight down the channel--that’s to say on the nose--and it blows with considerable force. Little by little, I convinced myself that the only way to understand the story was to replicate the adventure--find as faithful a replica of Spray as possible, and set sail. Easier said than done.

Other factors incited me to orient myself on this path. I was growing tired of ocean races and of looking for sponsors for each event; I was feeling the need for a change. The birth of my son, Briac, hardened my resolve. A long voyage would enable his mother, Annick, and me to devote several years of our lives to him and, at the same time, impart to him a little of the experience of voyaging. After much searching, several false leads, and many trips across the United States, we found the perfect replica. A happy concurrence of circumstances--the sale of our house in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and of our old boat--then allowed us to proceed with the project.

We had the replica trucked from Maine to Jamestown and, after 15 days spent in inspection and preparation, we decided to head to sea to test her--and us. As a way of finding out if we had the stomach for a long voyage, what could be simpler than to cross the Atlantic? On a sunny morning in July, Spray of Saint Briac set off under full sail for the mouth of Narragansett Bay, thence to point her bow due east, toward the far-off coast of Brittany. Saint-Briac is the name of the pretty little fishing village on the northern coast where I went sailing for the first time, under the tutelage of a remarkable man, my grandfather, a former navy captain.

For someone accustomed to sailing fast boats like the Open 60s in races like the BOC Challenge or the Vendée Globe, this was a hard grind. Quite simply, I had to learn how to sail all over again and forget everything I’d done in the past. To fathom Spray, and to sail her in accordance with her personality, I had to transport myself back to the time of Joshua Slocum and my grandfather.

But what a joy it was to delve into the mysteries of this legendary vessel! Not that it was easy. I can’t tell you how many times I had to clench my fists and my teeth to keep my calm in order to persevere with my grueling apprenticeship. I learned, sometimes painfully, the subtleties of this boat that reveal her as a marvel of naval architecture, the result of two centuries of breeding and molding through generation after generation.

As the miles went by, this intimacy brought the contentment of being on the water to a new level, and the magic of Spray of Saint Briac would erase all notion of time and place.

Captain Joshua Slocum had sailed on the same ocean a hundred years before us, and far from land, in the middle of the lovely South Atlantic Ocean, all it took for us was to shed our present-day clothes and we could easily imagine ourselves living these same moments more than a century ago: the sea, the sun, the sky, this boat, and us. We felt in touch with the hardy sailors who’d traced the seas aboard their magnificent tall ships.

The next year, with an Atlantic circle behind us and after a checkup for Spray of Saint Briac, we agreed to go ahead with a circumnavigation. As it was 1995, the centenary of Joshua Slocum’s departure, we decided to follow his route. The timing was part coincidence--let’s say that it was written somewhere.

Maybe it was also written that just days after our July 13 departure, Tropical Storm Chantal would catch us in her strong winds and demented seas. Spray of Saint Briac exhibited qualities equal to those of the original Spray: She was magnificent. With the storm staysail sheeted to the centerline, warps trailed from the stern, and the helm lashed, Spray of Saint Briac advanced at three to five knots. Below, it felt as though we were on the mooring; Annick prepared a fine dinner, while 4-year-old Briac colored in books. The skipper alone stayed on the alert, in the aft cabin, ready for action, stretching out on the bunk so as not to tire himself, waiting for things to improve or, somber thought, deteriorate.

We found the Azores and Portugal enchanting places to explore. Unfortunately, abnormally bad weather that the locals said hadn’t been seen in a hundred years trapped us there for many months. In the end, we lost a year before we could leave for the Canaries. That spelled the end of the passage I’d dreamed of to South America and Patagonia, for to make it back to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Slocum centenary celebrations on June 27, 1998, we would now have to continue via Panama.

Between Puerto Rico and Panama, the unbelievable happened. At dead of night, in a big seaway and a good breeze, which for Spray of Saint Briac is Force 5 or 6, the boat took off on a dramatic surf. Water burst through the scuppers, and walls of spray shot out from both sides of the boat. It was fantastic, a true miracle: What a thrill and a pleasure it was to feel those 18 tons take off.

It would be the only time it happened in the entire voyage.

After passing through the Panama Canal, we felt a great release of nervous tension. The last lock opened, and before us lay the great Pacific Ocean, beckoning us with the prospect of exploring its enchanting islands.

Unlike the majority of cruising boats, which head for the Marquesas Islands, we chose to set a course for the Gambier islands to their south and west. Although it’s a slightly longer route, we wouldn’t regret it. The anchorage here is off Rikitea, the village and only port--a little jewel framed in foliage--in 30 feet of water that’s quiet and well protected. Only boats coming up from Chile or bound there via Easter Island pass through, so there’s room for everyone. We never counted more than 10 boats. We took long walks on the island and were able to pick grapefruit, acidulous oranges, and avocados full of vitamins for our needy bodies. We stayed there nearly 45 days before heading north toward American Samoa and Pago Pago.

The Pacific deceived us: The trade winds didn’t show up. Instead, we found weak and often contrary winds. El Niño was the apparent reason, but who knows? Perhaps it was also responsible for the phenomenon we encountered next.

We’d left Pago Pago three days before and were sailing in winds up to 35 knots and in no visibility, a true London drizzle. In that place and at that time of year, it was hard to believe, but there was worse to come. The following day, we heard over a Fiji radio station the words "Cyclone warning!" Such an announcement would always get your attention, but the season should normally have ended three months before. That was quite a shock. And the news that Cyclone Kelly had formed 300 miles to our north and in the hours to come would be on a course converging with ours in the west was hardly reassuring.

As it turned out, Kelly moved in the opposite direction and crossed our path where we’d been two days before. Phew! At the time, we’d been a few miles north of Fiji, where we could perhaps have found shelter, but we’d decided to hold our course toward the west.

Once we were past Vanuatu, at last we found the trade winds that for so many weeks we’d been hoping for. With two reefs in her mainsail, Spray of Saint Briac pushed her powerful bow through the sea. Our daily average was in the neighborhood of 150 to 160 nautical miles. It was magnificent and exhilarating sailing, and even when the reef cringle pulled out during an intentional controlled jibe, we just had to tie in the third reef and carry on. The following day we changed the mainsail, and after two hours of work, we were able to resume our course toward Australia, where we would end our six months in the Pacific.

Cairns signified the return to civilization, with its treats for the simple sailor--supermarkets, hot showers, cold beers--and also its inconveniences. These began with officialdom, and here they were particularly meticulous, confiscating part of our provisions and even a dried pinecone, one of little Briac’s souvenirs.

After a full month, for the most part spent maintaining the boat, we set off toward the north, behind the protection of the coral barrier. Just before we reached Cooktown, we passed three superb whales. Briac, pressed to the bulwarks, watched, silent with excitement, as these leviathans of the sea moved slowly and surely in the opposite direction. What a magnificent spectacle of grace and power it is when that enormous tail emerges and then slowly disappears into the pale, sandy-blue depths.

In the attractive and pleasant port of Cooktown, we moored in the place where, a hundred years before, Joshua Slocum had anchored Spray. It was an emotional moment, and a happy one. The local paper honored us in its columns, and the editor took us on a tour, during which Briac had a chance to hand-feed a young wallaby. The town is captivating. Its wide main street is still lined with wooden houses right out of the Wild West and couldn’t have changed much since Captain Slocum passed through. Our only regret was that we couldn’t stay here longer before Spray of Saint Briac had to resume her northward progress.

We arrived at Darwin, where the huge tides are comparable to those in the Bay of Fundy or the English Channel, and were treated to remarkable hospitality by the Darwin Sailing Club. We poor seafarers felt as if we’d found a home. We met other cruisers, and Briac enjoyed the playground and the television. It was a little paradise, and far removed from the swell that awaited us.

Shortly before we cast off our lines from the fuel dock, an Australian, knowing our destination--westward--described the Indian Ocean as "a piece of cake," which left me a little skeptical. As it turned out, it was more than a piece of cake: It was tedious. There was little wind and often a big cross swell, which was hard on the rig and made life aboard quite uncomfortable. We perhaps should have set a course toward Christmas Island instead of heading directly for Rodrigues, 300 miles northeast of Mauritius, of which it is a part.

Rodrigues the lovely, Rodrigues the enchantress will always remain one of the most pleasant stops we made. Unfortunately, the cyclone season was approaching, and we had to keep moving.

The mystique of Africa engulfs you the moment you step ashore. At Richards Bay, it was manifested for us in the Zulu villages and through that handsome and proud tribe’s evocative dances. It was also in the game reserves, where we lived out our childhood dreams. For Briac, then 5 years old, it was a marvelous experience and a formidable lesson in geography.

It took us three weeks to cover the 800 miles to Cape Town, traveling in three stages between depressions. We stayed weatherbound in Mosselbaai (Mossel Bay) for 10 days while waiting for a favorable forecast. There we made the acquaintance of the French pop singer Antoine (like Cher or Charo, that’s his whole name) practicing his new career as documentary filmmaker on his crazy yellow catamaran, Banana Split.

What a great joy and relief it was when we finally rounded the aptly named Cape of Good Hope and were once again in the vastness of the South Atlantic and its promise of trade winds. We savored the sail northward along the coast, with its majestic, rocky cliffs, in my view the most beautiful in this part of the world. That blissful day was made complete when our entrance into the harbor coincided with a glorious, colorful sunset. Cape Town, the refuge of sailors; in this splendid city, with its Mediterranean climate, "welcome" and "hospitality" are not empty words.

Spray of Saint Briac was honored with a berth at the guest dock and soon received a visit from the manager, Anthony Steward--who’d made the record books a decade earlier for being the first to sail solo around the world in an open boat. He came bearing a bottle of champagne. With this, Anthony immediately won the approval of Briac, who’s very sensitive to the niceties of good manners.

We were several times mentioned in the South African press and spent memorable moments with Bertie Reed, the well-known solo sailor and his family. There, a meal without crayfish isn’t a real meal, and all it takes is a brief dive to bring to one’s plate these marvelous crustaceans, which are like small lobsters without claws. What more is there to say about the quality of the food, the smoothness of the wines, the ambience of the restaurants, or the unforgettable hospitality of the people? Merci, Cape Town.

With many regrets, we put to sea again, heading north in search of our favorite winds, the trades. The South Atlantic is without a doubt the most pleasant of the oceans, once you find wind. It then blows steadily at 15 knots on average, there’s no swell, and the tuna are plentiful. It’s true contentment at sea, and Spray’s magic enfolded us day after day.

With the deadline of the Slocum centennial approaching, our trip to the Atlantic’s western side passed all too quickly. Our landfall in Natal, Brazil, broke this spell that had taken us, it seemed, out of time and place. In Trin-idad, we found boatyard rates are now no lower than in the States. After that it was Culebra, Briac’s favorite island, and pleased we were to be there again. The horses were still on the beach at Isla Palomino, and in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, we reprovisioned. Waiting for us there was a letter from Ted Jones, commodore of the Slocum Society, fixing details for the celebrations in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

The sail along the New Jersey coast ended with the glorious spectacle presented by sailing up New York’s East River. The incredible scene that is Manhattan unfolded before our eyes, with its noise--of traffic, and helicopters, and all the activities of that seething mass of humanity--becoming ever more deafening until, when passing under the Brooklyn Bridge, it became almost intolerable. We will never grow weary of this sight, however often repeated. Thank you, Manhattan, for the show.

Passing Castle Hill Light in Narragansett Bay, we closed the door on our voyage around the world. We picked up the mooring off Jamestown with a wonderful feeling of a job well done and a dream fulfilled. It wasn’t, however, a time for us to sleep. We had to prepare Spray of Saint Briac for the centenary celebrations, first in Newport and then Fairhaven, and it was only on arriving in the latter port that, like Joshua Slocum, we’d have closed our circle.

The last few yards that brought us to the anchorage near Cozy Cove Marina at Poverty Point, in Fairhaven, were the most moving of them all. Preceded by a fireboat, with its water jets all in action, and a police boat, with the port captain aboard, lights flashing, and sirens screaming, we followed, a hundred years later, the course that led Captain Slocum to the conclusion of his incredible voyage. Tears of emotion ran down our cheeks and those of many of the other participants in the celebration. We’d never felt Captain Slocum’s presence so close. Bless you, Captain, and thank you for your Spray.

This voyage proved the qualities of Spray of Saint Briac and confirmed what Joshua Slocum had written in his book. Yet it’s greatest success was found in our son. We’d watched him grow up, year by year, and we only have to look at him now to know that he’s the most noble accomplishment of the voyage of Spray of Saint Briac.

Guy Bernardin spent many years plying the oceans in singlehanded races from the OSTAR to the Vendée Globe. When not seeking sponsorship for his next adventure, he lives with Annick and Briac in the Corrèze region of France, where they own a bed-and-breakfast inn. His book about their cruise around the world, Sailing Around the World: A Family Retraces Joshua Slocum’s Voyage, was published by Sheridan House in the fall of 2002.