June 8, 2014

The siren call of Cape Horn

A MESSAGE from “Jack,” of whereabouts unknown, says:

“John, will you be featuring Webb Chiles in your blog? As I’m sure you’re aware, he has just arrived in Hilo. Be interested in your slant on it. —Jack.”

Well, Jack, I don’t know what can be said about Webb Chiles that hasn’t been said already.  He likes women. He has been married six times. He likes boats. He has sailed around the world, mostly singlehanded, five times. He writes books and loves music. He is artistic and poetic and, naturally, a wonderful seaman.

So why is he now sailing around the Pacific in an ultra-lightweight, downwind, planing hotrod of a Moore 24 called Gannet? It can’t be to break any records. Several Moore 24s have crossed from mainland USA to Hawaii, as he has just done. A boat half the length of Gannet has already been sailed around the world singlehanded. And, ironically enough, he himself has already sailed around the world in an undecked centerboarder, an 18-foot Drascombe Lugger. He chose the tradewind route, but I have always regarded that as his greatest feat of seamanship, eclipsing even the fact of his being the first American to round Cape Horn solo — in a different boat, at a different time, of course.

Webb has to be slightly nuts, I suppose, because he is now 72 and recently went blind in one eye. He and his Moore 24 are eventually heading for New Zealand, where, he says, he will decide whether to return to the States via the Cape of Good Hope, or via Cape Horn.

Webb is not shy of the publicity that helps sell his books, so perhaps this piece of news is just a teaser. Anyone who has followed his sailing career will be sure that he will choose the Cape Horn route, simply because it offers the greater challenge. He says the choice will depend on how the Moore 24 shapes up on the way to New Zealand, but he never worried about the capabilities of his Drascombe Lugger before he cast off her lines.

I think it would be generally agreed that the Southern Ocean is not the right place for a lightweight, singlehanded flier like the Moore 24, but there can be no doubt that the skipper’s experience and capability form a huge portion of what we call a boat’s seaworthiness.

Webb himself explains this latest whim by saying: “I simply like sailing oceans, settling into the pure rhythms of the monastery of the sea.”

It’s interesting that he should think of the sea as a religious home for monks. He claims not to be religious himself, but many sailors who have undertaken long solo voyages have come to regard the wide open oceans as a strong source of spiritual comfort.  Webb actually reminds me of Bernard Moitessier, the famous French singlehander, who said he was never really happy unless he was at sea in a small boat, preferably alone.

We shan’t know for quite a while whether Webb will tackle Cape Horn, but I hope he uses the time available to think about what would happen if his little boat lost her mast, her keel, or her rudder down there in the Screaming 50s. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Ø You can follow Gannet’s track at http://my.yb.tl/gannet; and learn more at www.inthepresentsea.com

Today’s Thought
Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.
— Rebecca West

Here’s some advice for the semi-adventurous, the ones who may not be as bold as Webb Chiles:

 Don't join dangerous cults: Practice safe sects.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


oceanpartisan said...

Hello John,

I hope you take the following in the spirit it is intended, but it is somewhat of an alternative view to what you have written about Webb, even at times slightly critical of parts of what you have written. It is up to you whether you allow it to be published as a comment - and I respect that, it's your blog after all.
Here goes:

You wrote: "Webb is not shy of the publicity that helps sell his books".
~Actually his three most well known books - 'Storm Passage', 'The Open Boat', & 'The Ocean Waits' - are all available for FREE to read and / or download in PDF form on his website. Are any of your books available for a free download John? Just asking.

You wrote: "It’s interesting that he should think of the sea as a religious home for monks".

~ I think you take his metaphor too literally.

You wrote: "Webb actually reminds me of Bernard Moitessier, the famous French singlehander, who said he was never really happy unless he was at sea in a small boat, preferably alone".

~ While I have only read Moitessier's books. I have actually met Webb Chiles in person. Apart from liking boats and sailing, I can't think of two more different personalities. I know you met Moitessier in South Africa, and so by the way did Webb (in Tahiti). Apart from their love of sailing, do you really think they are that alike? I don't see it.

In my opinion, Webb is a gentleman, a great sailor, and an even better writer. You ask why he would undertake such a voyage if no records are there to be broken? I can't speak for him, but I did hear him say in a recent podcast interview that he undertakes voyages to please and interest himself. And all undertaken I might add, without any sponsorship or "look at me" press conferences.

Webb has said he neither encourages nor discourages people from sailing and voyaging. From what I have read he never says his way is the right way or the only way. What he chooses to do once he reaches NZ in either turning right or left is his business, his decision.

One thing that I like about Webb Chiles the man, the sailor, the writer, is that he does not kid anyone or himself by saying that he goes to sea with a test tube hanging over the stern to study how global warming has altered the growth of plankton in the ocean , or to study the drift of plastic and other man made rubbish that man has sullied the sea with, or to raise awareness, money, or both, for the __________ (fill in blank) charity.

He goes to sea simply because he likes to sail.

Sure, as a by-product over the years he has broken records, and survived some serious situations, what other's would call "adventures", and which he has written about matter-of-factly without fanfare or hyperbole, but still with an honesty and subtle humour that all great writers posses. "Almost dying is a hard way to make a living" he once wrote.

But if you have read enough of Webb Chiles you would know that even without these "adventures" he would still be sailing, still be writing.

And he hasn't finished doing either yet.

By the way, he never did circumnavigate in his open boat. He stopped three quarters of the way round in the Canaries, and completed the circumnavigation in a S&S She 36 footer. Of course if you had have read his book-for free-you would have known that.


Auckland, New Zealand

John Vigor said...

Thanks for your comment, Zane, I'll reply in my next column.

John V.