The barometer is rising, the wind has fallen to Force 7, the sea is still rollicking rough, and the world out there is so uninviting that one wants to ignore it without being able to. My wife, Kicki Ericson, and I are cocooned in our sleeping bags like motionless mummies, wanting nothing more than just to lie there and forget the world. There is no room for joy in this place, not with these gray tones, on the 15th day of this winter passage in the Southern Ocean from New Zealand to Chile.
Kicki offers me not one, but two of the precious dried apricots from her private stash of emergency rations. “Never again,” she intones, and I agree. “Not without a treat at the other end.”
I’m not sure that Puerto Montt is composed of the stuff from which treats are made. It rains like mad at this Chilean gateway to Patagonia. And, with us still 4,400 miles away, it’ll be winter before we reach it. It’s now May, late fall in the Southern Hemisphere, and the days are short. Six days of storm-force winds wear at the nerves. Where is the light-heartedness of life? This endless gray gloom above our damp cavern encourages a return to the Stone Age, which in these regions has always been the Water Age. How much longer without relief?
Fortunately, on this passage, it’s all small stuff that breaks: The starboard Sitka-spruce spinnaker pole cracked and is provisionally repaired. The little open chain tray on the foredeck was smashed by a wave. The bulwark forward was slightly stove in. Then the new mainsail caught on the sharp edges of the radar reflector, newly rigged in the shrouds, and sustained three—fortunately mendable—tears. We replaced it temporarily with the trysail, but when I pulled the sail out of the forward hatch, a wave sloshed into the forepeak.
Yes, Kicki is right when she says, “Wanderer doesn’t want this anymore. She deserves something nicer. Rest. Oh, how about some sun from her youth?”
After all, Wanderer III is 60 years old, just slightly older than me. It’s impossible, but I would’ve liked to be with her back when she was young and boats were the only links between islands. If her iroko planks whispered a decipherable language, imagine the stories I’d listen to daily.
She was already under way in an era when Europe was still catching its breath after World War II, England was still clutching onto its empire, Sydney’s Opera House was unbuilt, and Mount Everest was still unconquered. In the early 1950s, there was as yet no mountain biking in Nepal, no heli-skiing in New Zealand, no hang gliding in the Andes, and no kayaking around Cape Horn. But seven-tenths of the planet was unspoiled ocean, a surface hardly explored by yachts, which offered adventure. At the time, few yachts had circumnavigated, and those that had often carried singlehanders or teams of young men on stormy, adrenaline-rich voyages.
Compared to such high-risk exploits, the stories of Eric and Susan Hiscock—who, on this very same Wanderer III, became the first English couple to sail around the world—sounded nearly tame and dull. And exactly therein lay the Hiscocks’ appeal. Within the small international cruising circle, Eric Hiscock’s name was already well known from his excellent, and today still valuable, sailing guide, Cruising Under Sail, later dubbed “The Yachtsman’s Bible.” With his 1956 book, Around the World in Wanderer III, he added the dream. Together, they defined the goal and the guide, offering the theoretical basis for seaworthiness, seamanship, and independence under sail.
The hair-raising aspects of open-ocean cruising had been tamed. A circumnavigation, if well planned, became a sequence of what Eric called “uneventful passages.” Anyone could do it. Wanderer III‘s many uneventful passages inspired thousands, including me.
To a certain extent, the entire rich tapestry of modern cruising rests on the 2.56-meter width of the narrow canvas deck above me. Peering out from under the heavy duvet, I see a tightly organized improvisation: our cabin. It looks totally different from its appearance in Eric and Susan’s photographs taken on their countless uneventful passages in much warmer climes, 30 to 40 degrees of latitude north of us. Up in the tropics, Wanderer III‘s original home cruising ground, the Pacific is actually peaceful. But for the duration of this passage, it’s as if we’re camping. Extreme camping.
The forepeak has been an unventilated wet area for at least a week. The galley, due to unavoidable comings and goings, is also wet. A midship curtain endeavors to keep the bunks dry. Piled between these is the price we pay for a clear deck: the anchors and lines, lashed securely over the ballast. The boat ends are lightened, well, as much as is possible on a 9.3-meter ship that’s been our home for 30 years and carries everything we need in life. For even these tough Southern Ocean passages aren’t merely trips but parts of our lives.
This total metamorphosis of our accommodations, which optimizes Wanderer III for rough seas, was never necessary in the first years of our cruising. We predominantly sailed in warmer waters. With a penchant for atolls, our forays to the higher latitudes were then brief. For the last 14 years, however, it’s been the other way around: We’ve spent very little time spent in the tropics, with all the side effects such a territorial shift brings with it.
The first optimizing measures for higher latitudes took place in the Falklands. Our wood-burning stove—inactive since New Zealand—found a new spot behind the mast and has hindered our access to the forepeak ever since. This necessitated some rearranging, a new flue, and heat-resistant copper plates. We found what we needed at the local dump. Then the heavy, 60-meter length of 10-millimeter chain was procured, and we readied three of our four anchors for immediate use. Then we increased our supply of 20-millimeter shore lines to 500 meters, sewed an egg-shaped spray hood, and looked for stowage for our new Antarctic boots. It left Kicki with the feeling that most of our interior had been optimized away—a feeling that’s never left her since.
On this optimized boat, we have an optimistic barometer. Uncalibrated, it consistently brightens our situation by no less than 17 hectopascals above the actual atmospheric pressure. Unintentionally it probably raises morale by not plummeting to the true lows. Yet its tendencies are accurate. As I knock it, it starts climbing.
The rising barometer was like a mental brightening of the horizon. Again and again, low after low, on this 74-day passage through the westerlies, we would glean hope from the barometer. Or despair, when battling the strangely predominant headwinds from the east, which shouldn’t have been there. Without any weather forecasts, we interpreted our situation as an uncommon distribution of highs and lows. We were totally alone: Nobody knew where we were, and we couldn’t inform anyone. We were “solo” on an optimized, optimistic boat, which, in these high latitudes, was still far from being optimal.
Wooden and small, Wanderer III, despite her many good traits, can never be ideal. With a 26-foot waterline and 10-ton displacement, she’s no racehorse. On most passages, she takes twice as long as larger, modern hulls. This translates into more sea time and seabird sightings, but also twice as much Southern Ocean exposure, with its associated likelihood of being hit by bad weather. In any windy situation, the 16-horsepower engine is insufficient, and at sea, our limited diesel capacity of 20 liters overrules progress in calms. On long ocean crossings, like this one from New Zealand to Chile, we don’t carry additional jerricans of fuel, filling up instead with extra water. Once under way, it’s cold on board. Wanderer III is too small to carry fuel for warmth. Instead, we have to collect wood, peat, or coal at our destination for the stove. The only place we couldn’t rely on finding fuel was Antarctica, so we carried Argentine quebracho wood and charcoal in the forepeak. It was just a two-month trip, and being cold was an acceptable price to pay for the visual wonders of the white continent. Provisioning for longer trips to uninhabited regions requires logistical finesse. In the end, it’s Wanderer III’s size that turns such visits into extreme logistical exercises.
With the exception of perhaps the North Atlantic, a wooden yacht on the trade-wind route can feel quite lonely nowadays. In the high latitudes, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, she’s definitely no longer among her kind. Metal clearly reigns here. Nearly all the yachts in these latitudes are solid, heavily motorized aluminum or steel constructions and suited to the rough weather and tough conditions.
I’ll never forget the last evening of our first visit to South Georgia 13 years ago. For our final days of preparing Wanderer III for our voyage to South Africa, we’d tied up next to explorer Amyr Klink’s Paratii, with its AeroRig. In his native Brazil, Amyr enjoys the fame of a football star. He’d just completed a singlehanded circumnavigation of Antarctica within the Antarctic Convergence. His Paratii was a 50-foot aluminum giant. Wanderer III at her side looked like a dwarf.
Our German friends Harald and Hedel Voss were then also at the ex-whaling station’s dilapidated wharf in Grytviken, the main settlement on South Georgia. Their Moritz D is also an aluminum yacht; they’ve done extraordinary voyages on her that have never reached the public’s ear. We were all gathered on Paratii. I don’t know what Amyr might have mixed into our Brazilian coffees, but soon Wanderer III, Kicki, and I were bowled over by a lively discussion. It dealt with existential questions, not of life and death but of present and future: Wanderer III vs. something better suited, something metal, something practical. Amyr led the way:
“Now listen, Thies. You like these icy regions, the cold, and the wildlife here. You’ll be sailing here for many years to come. I can hear that. Why not do it on a boat more suited to the climate? Just look at Wanderer, how loaded she is with all the gear. Build something new. We’ve all done it.”
We talked till late into the night, our last on that marvelous island. Early the next morning, I pulled 35 meters of heavy chain from under the floorboards and dragged it into the abandoned whaling station, where it lay for years with our name on it. This lightened my conscience more than it did Wanderer III. Then we cast off into light winds, which soon turned stormy. Thirty-five days later, we reached Cape Town after yet another—to use Eric’s words—”uneventful passage” right through an area of ocean that during the Hiscocks’ time had been mentally incomprehensible for those sailing small boats. It was a trip that confirmed rather than shook my confidence in Wanderer III.
Obviously, she’s small and limiting. She limits us spatially, aesthetically, and historically. We have to respect her historic context. There will never be a sheltering wheelhouse from which to watch the wildlife nor, simpler yet, a proper double bed. And no bowsprit for increased sail area to allow her to move more easily in choppy seas and light air. Considering her size, however, she has an extraordinary ability to master storms under sail and to tack from a lee shore. Or in similar conditions, on the open ocean, to heave to well without losing ground, which is essential for an underpowered ship.
The reasons why I don’t make the quantum leap and switch to a metal boat run deep. Thirty years of togetherness in harmonic symbiosis is one of them. A matching mentality of boat and owner is another. Since early in my life, I wished to spend as much time as possible at or on the sea, living quietly, independently, and according to a value system in which not economics but simplicity, openness, curiosity, and time are important. Wanderer III supports us in this as hardly another boat could. Silently, unobtrusively, she brings our lives into accord with values for which she herself is a role model.
Plus I know her inside and out. I know wood. All the voyages that inspired me happened on wooden boats. Wooden boats are attractive in every phase of their lives. Where they’re built becomes a favored gathering spot. In their active lives, they often catch the eye. Even as wrecks they remain aesthetical, as if they belonged in our lives at every stage—more than boats of any other material.
Of course, she had to be well built, and she is. Wanderer III is traditionally planked and caulked and is well kept. There’s no strengthening with either diagonal cold molding or fiberglass mats; instead, she’s sheathed in copper. That’s her. Yet no matter how well she may be built, in the Southern Ocean she remains a somewhat fragile composition of a thousand parts. Nothing wrong with that: Being fragile and vulnerable helps one to move through the world with respect.
As a traditional builder of wooden boats, I like to show that such craft aren’t just pretty to look at. They’re made to sail, too. They’re not just romantic but also astonishingly functional. Something as basic as Wanderer III, after 60 years and 290,000 miles under sail, is still up for anything. And imagine how her tiny cabin, which at times we so radically transform, has been continuously lived in, on the oceans, since 1952.
For us to live in such a small space would never be possible if it didn’t move. And that’s what Wanderer III, our only home, does so fantastically. To the wildlife that so inspires Kicki. Over the oceans that I so love. And every once in a while, she pulls us back to the now-altered places of her youth.
Thies Matzen and his wife, Kicki Ericson, are currently aboard Wanderer III in Argentina, where they’re planning their next adventure.