October 28, 2012

500 incredible days

IT’S A LITTLE LATE, I admit, but I’ve just read Serge Testa’s book about his solo round-the-world voyage in his 12-foot sailboat, Acrohc Australis. I have been meaning to read it for years, but . . . well, you know how certain things get away from you.

I was in Durban, South Africa, in 1985 when Serge arrived on the first leg of his voyage from Brisbane, Australia, where he lived.  I recognized a good story when I saw one, and I called the pre-eminent American sail cruising magazine, Cruising World.  “Would you like a story and pictures about a man sailing a 12-foot yacht around the world solo?” I asked.

“Oh no,” they said, sounding quite aghast.  “We don’t encourage dangerous gimmicks.”

“This isn’t a gimmick,” I said. “This is a proper seaworthy little yacht.”

“We don’t want other people copying him and getting into trouble,” I was told.

So that was that. Serge was headline news in all the South African newspapers, but I never got to write that story for Cruising World.  Interestly enough, though, some years later, when Serge’s book was published, somebody at Cruising World finally saw the light. The magazine contributed this endorsement of the book for the back cover:

“Serge Testa’s 500 Days is a lively, warm and well-written account of a seamanlike circumnavigation.” 

They still weren’t exactly falling over themselves with enthusiasm for this extraordinary exploit, but it was a far cry from the days when they thought it was a deplorable gimmick.

I’ve always thought Serge would have gotten a better press if he’d given his boat a name English-speaking people could pronounce. Australis is fine, of course, a good Latin word generally understood and very appropriate for a boat born in Australia, but Acrohc?

I guess the best translation is “Southern Thing.” Here’s the gen, straight from the horse’s mouth: 

“I asked my mother what she would call the boat. She answered me in the Italian dialect we often speak at home, ‘What boat? Oh, you mean that thing!’ The translation of ‘thing’ is Acrohc, so my boat became Acrohc Australis, a strange name perhaps but then it was for a strange boat.”

 But Serge was a very modest, unassuming man. Apart from its size, Acrohc wasn’t a strange boat at all really. It was simply the heaviest 12-footer anybody has ever seen, with a displacement in ocean-going trim of about 1,700 pounds. It was a proper little yacht, carefully thought out with respect to safety, and had six watertight compartments. Serge designed and built her himself from aluminum sheets just slightly less than 1/8th inch thick.

She was 11 foot 10 inches between perpendiculars and about 5 feet wide. She had a wide fin keel with torpedo-shaped ballast of 265 pounds at the bottom.

She was completely decked over, and designed to be operated at all times from down below — that is, from a sitting position beneath a solid dodger with portlights all round. By shuffling the cushions around, Serge could make a bed long enough to lie down on.

But for days on end at sea, conditions were too rough for him to open the top hatch of the dodger and he suffered badly from skin rashes brought on by the constant dampness down below in the hot tropics.

Achrohc’s mainsail was tall and skinny, set on a high mast with two sets of spreaders. Her headsails did most of the work, giving her a top speed of 5 knots and an average of about 3 knots, guided by a wind-vane self-steering system that Serge designed and built himself.  The vane could be set from down below, and all the sail controls could be handled from Serge’s sitting position, too.

He only had to extend his arms to touch the chart table, the bile pump, the navigation instruments, the galley sink, and the alcohol stove, which caused two fires in mid-ocean, one quite serious that burned his face and neck.

I lost count of the number of storms he endured and the number of times he ran aground. Despite all these setbacks, he persisted until he sailed back to great acclaim in Brisbane (and into the Guinness Book of Records) after 500 days at sea and three years en route

It’s hard for an ordinary person to imagine how things would be on a 12-footer in a storm at sea, but Serge shrugs it off as business as usual.  This is a book of understatement by a sailor of unusual talent and courage who also likes beer and rum and girls, a resourceful charmer if ever there was one.  What more could you want in a sailing book?

Ø 500 Days: Around the World on a 12-Foot Yacht, by Serge Testa.

Today’s Thought
The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.
— Bagehot, Literary Studies: Shakespeare

“Hey, sweetheart, look at this. I found a green snake.”
“Oh, don’t touch it, darling, they’re just as dangerous as ripe ones.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)



KevinH said...

"bile pump" ? ? Well, yes, I suppose you might need one on such a small craft!

John Vigor said...

Yes, sorry about the bile pump. The "g" got away from me and I didn't do a thorough enough job of proofing. My bad.
Although, as you say, Kevin, it's not entirely inappropriate on a boat that small.

John V

Serge Testa said...

Hi John, Thanks for the nice article about the book and my voyage. You're right about the name being a hindrance, but it was an unusual boat, so needed an unusual name. Hope we will meet somewhere out there.
Fair winds,
Serge Testa