A first hand account of the Wanderer’s voyage from Essex, Connecticut, to St. George’s, Bermuda. This article first appeared in the January, 1932 issue of The Bermudian.
Leslie Howarth had summoned the four voluntary members of his crew to convene at Essex the day before sailing to get everything shipshape for an early departure on Saturday morning. I joined Wanderer Friday afternoon were she lay at anchor off the Dauntless Club—a chubby darling of a schooner yacht, saucy with the impudence of all perfect miniatures. She had the raking, robust contours of the ablest Gloucester fisherman, but the glamour of the eggshell enamel, the rich varnish, and the snowy canvas furled along her gleaming spars placed the Wanderer in the fleet elite, and made her a yacht in spite of herself.
There was a dinner for us at the Club that night, arranged by Jim Pratt, the sage of Essex, fourth generation of the village blacksmiths, stout of heart and limb—no chestnuts in his repertoire of yarns. Leslie, Will Zuill and I sat down with our host and partook of that specialty of the Dauntless Club—boneless shad, broiled before the great open fire on a mellow plank to which it was secured by strips of bacon. “Plute” Goodwin and “Hammy” Maxim, the remaining members of the crew, joined us after dinner, the former with his accordion and under the beguiling influence of this sonorous instrument, we became dizzily optimistic, garrulous and gay. The challenge of the open sea that we were to meet tomorrow became merely an informal invitation to a pleasant party.
Scorning the engine, Leslie elected to sail the Wanderer from her moorings to the dock where we loaded provisions. With a light northerly breeze the yacht stole gently into the farewell embrace of the land of her birth, while sunrise burst over the river in a shower of quivering gold.
Four bells chimed from the ship’s clock and we made our adieux to the little group on the pierhead, come to bid us bon voyage. We made sail, staysail and jib. Before the fitful breeze could give her steerageway under that short canvas, the grip of the rapid ebb tide caught the Wanderer and set her resolutely toward an ungainly houseboat with a couple of dinghies swung out of davits which was berthed just below us. Shouts of warning brought the crew of the houseboat to the rail armed with boathooks, and with their aid we just managed to keep clear, our topping-lift missing a davit by an eyelash. Leslie, crouched at the wheel, ordered the mainsail and foresail set. Alone, of us, he had not raised his voice during that hysterical interlude.
The Wanderer fled the pursuing wind that darkened the water astern. The last barrier, the railroad bridge, lifted like a black arm raised in sombre gestures of farewell and the white slim finger of the lighthouse at Saybrook breakwater beckoned. Beyond that lay the sound, softly radiant, like an idle fan of peacock feathers.
Hammy Maxim stuck his head out of the main hatch. “There’s an awful stink of gasoline down here, Skipper!” At once everybody could smell it and a vain search was made for leaks in the gas lines. Gas fumes, strong enough, perhaps, so that if you lighted a match in the cabin. . . “No smoking below” said Leslie.
By luncheon time the wind began to fall away and with the set of the tide against us, progress was slow. Nobody cared, for the otiose afternoon induced an indolent optimism, hunger and a sense of security that dispelled anxiety on the score of the gaseous breath that still haunted us.
Everything was still, as if the breath of our isolated world had been expelled in the last sigh of the dying breeze. Then, abruptly, came the south wind. The headsails flapper [sic] like the wing of some awkward bird suddenly startled into flight, the booms swung creaking to port. The glassy surface of the sound shattered into ripples, and the Wanderer gathered way. We could shape a course for Little Gull on the starboard tack with that breeze.
All the enchanted afternoon the sea was gentle with us, and shortly after eight bells had struck we took our departure in the nautical sense, Block Island light bearing N. E. by N. distant three miles.
Will Zuill and I stood the first watch, the eight to twleve. Astern, the lighthouse flash had dropped below the horizon, as the Wanderer pressed forward against an arc of gloom.
At midnight Plute and Hammy relieved us. The moon rose, spreading a magic carpet over the sea for the feet of the morning that waited shyly in the east. A Coast Guard destroyer wandering near, swept us with a glance from her searchlight, lay for a moment like a slender arrow in the moonlight and disappeared.
During the night the barometer fell steadily. With daylight it was still falling, and soon it was joined in its descent by the spirits of the crew. There was an apathy toward breakfast on the part of most of us, particularly after someone with an unusually strong stomach had ventured into the galley (malodorous crypt) and extracted some greasy slabs of tinned ham which had been laved in the waters of melting ice in the refrigerator. The wind, still dead ahead, freshened from hour-to-hour, and the Wanderer fretted and reared in the rising seas. To make matters a little more disagreeable a thick fog dropped and enshrouded us. It blew harder in angry gusts that tore impatiently at our curtain of mist. Presently the foghorn emitted its hoarse wail through that ghostly white wall. Nobody thought about lunch except with aversion. Tea was brewed at regular hours for the Skipper. Only tea and oranges were consumed that day, while the crew grew dispirited and more seasick with every lurch and shudder of the little schooner. Leslie had determined our noon position as being approximately seventy miles due south of Montauk point. At four thirty p. m. wind and sea were still rising, and although the Wanderer was staggering along at a good six knots Leslie decided to shorten sail, having in mind the sub-normal physical and mental condition of the crew which might render the operation hazardous if it had to be performed after dark.
It was cold. The watch on deck swathed in sweaters, pea jackets and oil-skins shivered as they dismally crouched in the cockpit, whipped by the spray and oppressed by the derisive hoot of the wind in the rigging.
Next morning the wind faltered, and by four bells in the forenoon watch the air was dead calm. Not so the sea which was still chaotic. Monster waves leaped straight up, toppled and cascaded in the foaming thunder. With each lurch the fore-boom slatted viciously to and fro, fetching up at the limit of the short traveller with a crash and a strain that threatened to take the deck house off altogether. Gluey-eyed from lack of sleep, half starved, because nauseated, we alternately looked out at the sea and at the ship’s clock. With one accord we spontaneously named this place in the ocean “Hell Bottom.” Rain squalls fled across the deck with a patter like the light rolling of a snare drum. The Wanderer jumped, jerked, trembled and thrashed.
About four bells that afternoon Leslie had us rouse Hammy Maxim from his stupor to start the engine, a feat which miraculously he managed to perform without the accompaniment of fire alarms which we confidently expected.
The Wanderer, quickening with the sir of life within her, staked down a mighty billow in her path and lunged forward. Below, the atmosphere grew warm and fetid with the labouring engine’s sweat, and we fled on deck as from a lethal chamber. The air was still calm, except for an occasional and fitful breath but we set the fore-staysail and the tri-sail on the main to steady her. I devoutly hoped we’d let the engine live on until it expired of natural causes, but Leslie, sickened by the poisonous vapourings, ordered it stopped, and with a light southerly breeze we fell away on the port tack, heading S. W. by S.
Leslie served out a ration of grog with the scanty evening meal, which Will and Hammy partook of where they lay, hesitating between swallows as if doubtful weather their stomachs were going to receive or reject. For the first hour of the eight to twelve watch that night we were deluged with rain. The win was drowned, the sea cringed. The watch on deck cowered dripping and despondent, while icy trickles penetrated their oil-skins. The downpour ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The wet sails filled with a heavy shudder, and the Wanderer trembled as wind and sea struck again. All hands were called to shorten sail and for an eternity struggled to claw the tri-sail down. In the midsts of the cursing and confusion the helmsman cried, “A light—a light!” and for a moment every eye was strained into the darkness where appeared the starboard light of a vessel. Until it had passed slowly across our bow, we stared with bated breath, following it until it vanished like a setting star. Again the Wanderer was hove-to under the foresail, riding easily, one solitary figure crouched away aft by the wheel.
Stealthily the fingers of another dawn groped along the rim of the sky, discovering a few pale stars. And before they had faded in the brightening morning Leslie had emerged, spectral in pajamas, and taken sights of Polaris and Arcturus, which gave us a fix that checked fairly well with our dead reckoning position. The sun scattered the clouds while the wind dropped and the sea moderated.
Sounds of activity from the galley heralded a breakfast of baked beans and coffee which all hands managed to put down and keep down. At about four bells the breeze freshened and we filled away on the port tack. We were still beating to windward but the tediousness of the operation was mitigated somewhat by satisfied appetites and restored morale. The reprieve was short-lived, however, for we had barely recovered a measure of optimism when fog enveloped us again, and toward noon the Wanderer was once more tossing wearily with slatting sails. Then when our spirits had reached their gloomiest depths, the incredible happened. A breeze sprang up from the northwest—a fair wind!
In a burst of energy we made sail and squared away on the base course, the bow-wash grew from a light ripple to a foaming wave, bubbles seethed in the wake astern and the Wanderer bounded forward. The sunlight glittered on the sea where the tiny mauve sail of an occasional Portuguese man-o’-war rode buoyantly. Low on the horizon a few clouds floated lazily, a grey motor ship passed to the westward and the dark blue waters began to gleam with patches of gulf weed. The brace of petrels that had hovered and fluttered away until they were lost in the pale sheen of the sky. All afternoon the wind blew fair and we bowled along before it, lightly lifting and falling with the undulations of the pursuing sea.
Will Zuill and Hammy Maxim emerged from their cocoon and basked in the grateful warmth of the cockpit where a tea was given in their honour. A vote was passed favoring the repeal of the 18th Amendment and Leslie, taking the hint, served out a ration of grog to all hands.
The sun dipped below the western horizon and the sky was suffused with the tender and exotic tints of a crimson afterglow. A few clouds, like plumes, grew luminous with a pink flush and the tremulous spark of a star suddenly glowed above the embers of that vast and dying fire. With sunset, wind and sea increased and we snugged down for the night during which the Wanderer ran on blithely under foresail and staysail, logging an average of six knots. We sighted the lights of a large steamer sailing the opposite course and about three miles distant.
About two a. m. we entered the Gulf Stream, but despite the warmer latitudes, we were glad of the comfort of sweaters and pea jackets when on deck.
The Gulf Stream, so speedily traversed in a steamer, is a strange and formidable world to the crew of a small sailing craft. There is the continual threat of heavy squalls which may burst from any quarter without warning, the massing on the horizon of vast clouds, the misgivings its constant uncertainties inspire. Yachtsmen generally expect to take a sound thrashing from the Gulf Stream, yet we sailed serenely into the centre of it without incurring its wrath, although we were, in a measure, prepared. We felt that no ordeal could be worse than our experience of “Hell Bottom.”
The wind softened and a small black cloud detached itself from the horizon and floated lazily into the limpid sky where it hung like a puff of smoke, then revolving slowly it assumed the contour of a funnel. To windward a canopy of clouds blotted out the sun and we lay suddenly becalmed. A school of porpoises frolicked past us. Rain squalls lashed us in a dreary succession but no wind came that night. The slatting of the sails became unbearable and we doused everything, letting the Wanderer ride out this intermittent deluge under bare poles.
At daybreak all hands gladly turned out, for sleep had been impossible. A breeze sprang up again from the northwest. We made sail hastily, with the wind freshening and the light of clear morning flooding the sky. The barometer was rising and the air, balmy and of penetrating warmth, lured everybody on deck where bedding and cushions had been laid out to dry. The M. S. Bermuda was sighted, and although we must have been a tiny object to her lookout at that distance we learned on reaching port that she had sighted and reported us.
That evening it blew harder and we shortened sail, running into a starless night pursued by a succession of heavy squalls and showers. A sea breaking amidships filled the Wanderer to the bulwarks, and the lee scuppers gushed like fountains. Then abruptly the sky cleared, even washed and shaved. Plute brought his accordion on deck and Leslie led the chorus of rollicking sea chanteys. A white bird circled low above us, soaring again into the pale sky; it was a Bermuda long-tail!
A flaming sunset was drowned in the sweeping flood of twilight. Eight bells chimed and the next moment Will Zuill cried “A light!”
Three points off the starboard the bold white flash of Gibb’s Hill lighthouse gleamed for a moment and was gone.
Leslie was immediately showered with congratulations upon his splendid navigation. If we had sighted the Cape of Good Hope they would have been just as hearty, for one landfall was as good as another to us.
We doused the mainsail with deft and eager hands, for although the Skipper estimated that we were still some twenty-five miles off-shore, he deemed it wise to approach with caution, and we ran under shortened sail until we picked up the North Rock beacon. When St. David’s and North Rock lights were in line with Gibb’s Hill we jogged slowly along, shaping a course from the lee of the island, where we decided to lay to until daylight. To starboard the friendly lights of Hamilton glowed cheerfully. We seemed so near our goal and then…
Quite suddenly it began to blow a northwest gale. A torrent of wind struck out of the darkness raising the sea against us. Hove-to on the port tack the Wanderer pitched and floundered, shuddering under the lash of the black squalls. Disheartened, drenched, and weary, we watched the shore lights recede as we were driven relentlessly out to sea. With the jib set the schooner rode uneasily, coming into the wind with a thunder of canvas and filling away in wild dashes. When we attempted to douse the jib the downhaul parted, leaving it thrashing and puckered. It became apparent that someone would have to go out on the bowsprit and claw it down. During the voyage I had assumed responsibility for the jib, but until now it had been a pleasant duty to stop it, and riding the bowsprit as it hurtled like a flung spear over the sea had been an exhilarating sensation. Now, however, with every plunge of the Wanderer’s bow the spar was dipping into the black waters, to emerge and toss skyward.
Leslie had been steadfastly averse to anyone going on the bowsprit after nightfall, and when I went it was over his protest. I edged out along the slippery pole with the deliberate movements of a snail and clinging desperate, grappled with the wet canvas that presently came down on top of me like a collapsing tent. I frapped it freely feebly with a couple of stops and returned aboard, after two complete immersions. I was grateful for the neat Scotch which Leslie pressed upon me when I got below.
Relieved of the jib the Wanderer rode comfortably and made less leeway, although when day broke we found ourselves all of five miles off-shore, with St. George’s dead to windward and the gale and sea unabated. The Skipper again called on Hammy Maxim and the engine, but our progress was a terrible succession of shocks as the screw forced the Wanderer slowly ahead into that steep and jagged sea. The galley shelves disgorged its contents, the kettle leaped straight up from the stove, and everything below seemed to be crashing into demolition. This continued for two hours while the Wanderer fought her was inch by inch towards the shelter of the harbour. We were shivering and bedraggled when we finally gained the narrow entrance and glided forward with a rush and sudden sensation of immobility and peace. We came to anchor off the picturesque and silent town and the Red Ensign was proudly unfurled over our stern.
The quarantine flag brought the port physician to give us a clean bill of health and accept a drink. A small deputation immediately left for the shore, whence they returned in half an hour with a large chunk of ice and a formidable package covered with many wrappings of newspapers. All hands were bidden to the seclusion of the cabin where denuded of its coverings stood a magnum of the best champagne.
Undeterred by their sleepless night and still heaving stomachs the crew fell upon this new arrival with shouts of acclamation. Toasts were drunk to the Wanderer and to her gallant Skipper and then to one another, and as the sun climbed over St. David’s head and looked down upon the little schooner in St. George’s Harbour the voyage of the Wanderer from Essex to St. George’s became an eventful memory.