The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 6 -

The Farmer Who Went to Sea

         The Islander was my first attempt at building
         a sailboat, but I don't suppose there ever was an
         amateur-built craft that so nearly fulfilled the
         dream of her owner, or that a landsman ever
         came to weaving a magic carpet of the sea.(l)

harbor of Los Angeles lay peacefully in the early morning fog; the
delicate scents of the land and of the fresh orange crop and of the
eucalyptus groves mingled with the more pungent smells of the tide
flats now momentarily bare. The sound of a church bell came faintly
across from the direction of Long Beach. A tuna clipper moved out
of San Pedro. A couple of yachts drifted out with the tide, heading
for Catalina Island. Although a terrible war gripped Europe and
much of the world, America was not yet in it; even so, a number of
defense industries, including new shipyards, were already operating in
the Los Angeles area in anticipation of United States participation.
  On this particular Sunday, however, peace lay over the land and
waterfront so heavy that it almost seemed tangible. Most industries
and the docks were shut down. The only sound was a steady ring of
an adze striking its cutting blows on a huge Douglas fir timber.(2)
  The man working so industriously this Sunday morning was a
Quaker, although not an outwardly practicing one, and he did not

    ~ 57 ~

consider what he was doing as working on Sunday. He was building
his dream ship. A small, wiry man with thin sandy hair and blue eyes,
he had come down to Los Angeles harbor from the Sequoia country,
where he had been operating a photo business for the tourist trade, to
find work in the defense effort. The tourist trade was bad enough in
summer, but in winter, with war clouds hovering, there was no
money in it. So he sold out the business, and with the proceeds of a
small farm he had inherited, he packed up and came down out of the
High Sierras to the big city. He was forty-five years old, a bachelor
without family ties, and behind him lay a colorful and even adven-
turous life that belied his modest and unassuming manners. Essen-
tially, Harry Pidgeon was always his own man who all his life had
done just about everything he felt like except sail to the romantic
islands of the world in his own ship. A few days before, he had rented
a lot on the beach and set about to fulfill that oversight.
  At the moment, a casual visitor even from Pidgeon's home state of
Iowa where most of southern California at that time came from 
would have considered him just another nut on the beach. Nearby,
across the channel on the Terminal Island side, a "colored Moses," as
the locals called him, was building an ark in which to transport his
followers to Liberia, the size of the ark being regulated by the
amount of donations that came in. As funds continue to come, the
ark continued to increase in size until it was now two stories high,
covered with windows through one of which a stovepipe emitted
smoke from a cooking fire on this Sunday morn.
  A beachcomber in a nearby shack was working on a vessel which
would use an electric motor to generate power, run by a windmill on
  The harbor was an interesting place with fascinating people and
projects going on, and there was no lack of friendly visitors and
onlookers, many of whom volunteered advice gratuitously. It was a
happy place to live and carry out one's dreams, but Harry Pidgeon,
the individualist, needed neither advice nor help. He was accustomed
to being alone and doing things his own way.
  Born in 1874 on a farm in Iowa, he did not see salt water until he
went to California at age eighteen. None of his ancestors had ever
been seafaring people, and as far as he knew they had always been
dirt farmers. After several dull years on a ranch, during which he had
built a canoe but had no place to use it, he headed for Alaska with
another young farmer named Dan Williamson. Alaska was still a
place of mystery and adventure, and the famed Gold Rush had not

  ~ 58 ~

yet started. All he knew about the territory he learned from Lieu-
tenant Schwatka's expedition in Along the Great River of Alaska.
  With Dan, Pidgeon shipped out to the landing below Chilkoot
Pass, joined a party of prospectors going over, and on the shores of
Marsh Lake, a source of the Yukon River, he and Dan whipsawed
some planks from a spruce tree and built a boat. With no experience
on water at all, they paddled out of the lake and shot the rapids in
Miles Canyon, where they found others portaging. Next came Five
Finger Rapids, where one of the party they joined, an ex-sailor named
Peter Lorentzen, drowned. Harry and Dan rescued the others and
took Peter's partner, Henry, to Circle City, the new mining town.(3)
  That fall, after many adventures on the Yukon River, the two
young farmers reached the mouth at St. Michael's Island and took
passage on a freighter, the Bertha, for California.
  Back on the farm in Iowa, Harry found he could not settle down
again. He went back to Alaska and spent several years exploring and
hunting, and taking pictures with his camera, which was a hobby that
he turned into a business. He built several boats, one of which was a
sailboat in which he explored the islands of the Panhandle section.
Later, he made a trip to the old homestead in Iowa, became inter-
ested in the Mississippi's possibilities, went to Minneapolis and built
a houseboat below St. Anthony Falls, and spent a year floating down
to New Orleans. Abandoning the flatboat at Port Eads, he returned
to California and spent the next few years farming and operating a
photo business in the Sierras.
  In his mind, he could not forget his dream to sail to faraway
islands. When Thomas Fleming Day, the legendary editor of Rud-
der, and his staff developed the Sea Bird, and its variations the Naiad
and Seagoer, Pidgeon recognized his dream ship immediately. He
sent for the plans, which were in a booklet called How To Build a
Cruising Yawl.(4) The lines-and offsets for all three yawls were in-
cluded, so he borrowed ideas from each of them and added a few of
his own. The finished result, which he named Islander, was out-
wardly the , with the deep keel containing 1,250 pounds of
cast iron attached to heavy timbers that formed an enormously strong
backbone. She was yawl-rigged, 34 feet overall, 10 feet 9 inches beam,
and drew 5 feet of water with no load. She was rigged with 630
square feet of canvas and had no motor, which Pidgeon did not want
and could not afford. Completed, the Islander had cost $1,000 and 18
months of hard labor.
  For the wartime years, Pidgeon lived aboard his yawl and made

    ~ 59 ~

short coastwise cruises, meanwhile studying celestial navigation from
a textbook, Navigation by Harold Jacoby. After the war, a yachtsman
friend invited him to sail to Hawaii, which seemed like an ideal way
to get some practical ocean experience. Leaving Islander with a
friend, Pidgeon joined the other yacht. Like Slocum, the men took
aboard a box of ripe plums which they ate as they sailed out. When
clear of land, they encountered a strong gale and heavy seas and the
effects of the ripe plums. Unlike Slocum, who had the pilot of the
Pinta aboard, the owner and crew quickly lost enthusiasm for Hawaii.
The owner turned around and sailed back. This experience convinced
Pidgeon that the singlehanded sailor was better off.
  Sometime later, he decided to sail Islander to Hawaii, and did so in
twenty-five days, during which he experienced the exhilaration of
running down the trades, and the beauty of the open sea in all its
moods. It gave him the needed experience in manning the ship
singlehandedly and put to use his studies in navigation. But he was
sea weary when he got to Honolulu and thought twice about beating
back against the trade winds. After an extended stay, he departed via
the northern circle route with a friend, an undertaker's son named
Earl Brooks, also from California. They made the passage in forty-
three days, during which Pidgeon became thoroughly familiar with
handling his yawl in all conditions of sea and weather.
  At noon on November 18, 1921, Pidgeon departed Los Angeles
harbor alone in Islander, bound for the Marquesas. He had laid
aboard enough staples to last a year, with plenty of space left over.
Aboard were beans, peas, rice, dried fruits, sugar, and bacon. For
bread, Pidgeon carried wheat and corn which he ground into flour
with a handmill. All these were kept in air-tight containers to exclude
moisture and insects. He also had a large supply of canned salmon
and milk, as well as fresh potatoes, onions, and garden vegetables and
other foods.
  On the first leg, Pidgeon ran before a mountainous sea and a gale,
but then reached the trade winds belt and enjoyed fine sailing. On
December 21, he crossed the equator, and at 3:30 P.M. on December
30, he sighted Ua Huka Island, and soon after dropped the hook at
Nuku Hiva, forty-two days from Los Angeles.
  A student of Melville and Porter, Pidgeon was fascinated with the
Marquesas and spent considerable time here. Ashore he met Andre
Alexander, the French commissioner, and Bob McKittrick, the store-
keeper and greeter of hundreds of yachts.(5) McKittrick told Pidgeon
about the two English yachts that had recently called there, Amaryllis

   ~ 60 ~

and Dream Ship. Sightseeing in Melville's Typee and taking pictures
for later lectures, the time passed easily for Pidgeon. Also among the
callers to the Marquesas was Captain Joe Winchester on the Tahi-
tian Maiden, about whom both John Voss and Kenny Luxton had
written earlier And the colony included the usual botanists and
naturalists from American museums.
  While here, Pidgeon had an abscessed tooth removed by a Mr.
Sterling of the American colony, suffered an injury to both arms, and
an infected foot from stepping on a sea urchin. He managed, how-
ever, to haul the yawl and clean the bottom.
  At noon on May 3, 1922, he sailed from Nuku Hiva to Tahiti via
the Tuamotus, where he visited the Mormon missionary on Takaroa,
who related to him the visit of the Speejacks some time before.
  Pidgeon was delighted with Tahiti, and especially the quiet peace-
ful town of Papeete, hidden among the trees, and the picturesque
harbor. The climate was balmy and restful, and the people friendly.
Here a party of Americans took him for a motor ride around the
island, during which the driver, a Californian, showed the passengers
how they drove at home, rolling the vehicle over on a curve. No one
was hurt, however.
  While he was there, the American yacht Invader from Santa Barbara
came in with her owner, J. P. Jefferson. When the cruise ship arrived
from San Francisco, a man who had earlier tried to join Pidgeon on
his voyage came up and shook hands. After celebrating Bastille Day,
Pidgeon departed for Moorea, Bora Bora, and Samoa. He was unable
to obtain a chart of Fiji, but found a small map on a steamship folder
which he used. In Suva, he was welcomed by the ubiquitous harbor-
master Mr. Twentymen, enjoyed a lengthy stay, and then sailed to
the New Hebrides on April 25, 1923. New Guinea came next, and
then Torres Strait and Thursday Island, where Pidgeon expected to
pick up his mail.
  He suffered a bad infection in his thumb during this period, which
was treated by friends. At Thursday Island, he had to endure the
Australian red tape, but this was a crossroads point where he could go
south behind the Great Barrier Reef, or pass through the East Indies
to the Orient and the Philippines, or he could return to California
via Captain Slocum's track across the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
  Islander needed some repairs. She had encountered a reef, suffered
several groundings, had once pulled the anchor and sailed off by
herself, and in general needed attention. For this Pidgeon moved
over to the lee of Prince of Wales Island. While here, the American

   ~ 61 ~

yacht Ohio, with the newspaper tycoon E. W. Scripps aboard,
arrived. Pidgeon was invited aboard with the mayor of Thursday
Island. The Ohio had been cruising Southeast Asia, and there were
political discussions about Japanese-American relations, but Mr.
Scripps was most interested in Captain Harry Pidgeon and his little
Islander, especially when Scripps learned that it cost only fifty cents a
day to operate.
  Also while here, the Americans learned of the death of President
Harding. Mayor Corwin put the flag at half-mast on the town hall
and declared a holiday.
  Pidgeon sailed on August 7, 1923, stopping at Koepang in Dutch
Timor, then at Christmas Island, where he had an enjoyable visit.
  At the Keeling-Cocos Islands, he was welcomed by a descendant of
the founder, John Clunies-Ross, and spent a weekend on Home
Island.(6) On October 13, Pidgeon made Rodriguez, learning that the
famous yacht Shanghai had been there just ahead of him. He visited
the caverns, enjoyed the local hospitality, and was robbed of his
money and photographs, which were later recovered.
  In Mauritius, Pidgeon was also welcomed and enjoyed the stay. He
sailed on December 4 for South Africa, passed Madagascar, and
encountered a storm in the Mozambique Channel. He came into
Durban on the tail end of the northeaster and was towed to a berth
in the creek.
  Christmas was spent here with new friends and several lectures
were made with his lantern slides. Then, on February 27, 1924, he
put to sea again. The worst weather and biggest seas were encoun-
tered on the sail around the Cape of Good Hope, but the little
Islander was up to it. With sheets close-hauled and sprays flying,
Pidgeon beat up to Green Point where he was met by a launch and
towed to a berth at the docks in Cape Town. Among the delegation
awaiting his arrival was the commodore of the Royal Yacht Club,
who extended the club's courtesies to him.
  Pidgeon very nearly abandoned his circumnavigation to settle here
permanently. Of all the places he visited, he liked South Africa, its
people and climate, best of all, but in the end his restlessness moved
him on.
  Soon after leaving Cape Town on the Atlantic leg, Islander was
driven ashore embayed on a sandy beach. Some nearby farmers
took Pidgeon into their home and helped him get his yawl afloat
again. Like Slocum, Pidgeon's hosts could not understand how he
could be sailing home by going west all the time. The world was flat,

  ~ 62 ~

the old folks said. Their children, however, scoffed at the elders. "Oh,
mother," said one, "don't you know the world is round?"
  On September 22, Pidgeon sailed from Cape Town for the second
time, and called at St. Helena, where the islanders still recalled
Slocum's visit in 1898. The American consul, R. A. Clark, who had
given Slocum the troublesome goat, was still there.
  The next stop was Ascension. Leaving there, Pidgeon had an acci-
dent in which the water cask sprang a leak and filled the bilge.
Fernando de Noronha was sighted on December 26. On January 10,
Islander was damaged and nearly run down by a passing ship whose
captain thought Pidgeon was in trouble.
  Pidgeon reached Trinidad on January 20, delivering some mail
from friends back on Mauritius. He enjoyed the carnival in Port of
Spain, and then repaired the battered Islander. After that, he visited
the pitch lake from which Sir Walter Raleigh got the tar to caulk his
ships in 1595, visited among the West Indies, and then departed for
Panama, arriving at Cristobal on May 2.
  At the post office, Pidgeon received mail and newspaper clippings
from California containing an interview with Captain Johnson of the
S. S. San Quirino, an oil tanker which had nearly run him down in
the South Atlantic. Later he visited the ship in Los Angeles and had
a good laugh with the crew over the incident.
  Pidgeon tried to visit the San Blas islands, but could not get per-
mission. He did visit Portobelo with a local photographer named
Lewis. He also encountered the yacht Los Amigos from Los Angeles
on which his friend from Hawaii days, the undertaker's son, Earl
Brooks, had helped organize a treasure-hunting expedition.
  For the Panama Canal Passage, Islander was rated at five tons.
The charge was $3.75 for the toll and $5 for measuring. Instead
of hiring a launch, Pidgeon used the outboard motor which he
borrowed, run by his friend from the Los Amigos, Captain Goldberg.
The outboard failed them, so Pidgeon spread his sails and ghosted
through into Gatun Lake where he anchored for a few days. Among the
ships that passed was the old Tusitala, one of America's last square-
rigged windjammers.
  At Balboa, Pidgeon encountered Alain Gerbault, the famed
French tennis player and war veteran, who was now on his way
around in Firecrest. Harry did not like Firecrest, which was a racing
cutter; and Islander did not appeal to the Frenchman's esthetic
senses. Here, Pidgeon also met again Mr. Scripps on the Ohio, which
was on its way to Africa, where later the newspaper magnate died at

   ~ 63 ~

sea. In Balboa, Dr. William Beebe arrived on Arcturus, en route to
the Galapagos Islands. Then came a party of British scientists on the
yacht St. George, en route to Easter Island to solve the riddle of the
stone faces planted on the hillsides by ancient peoples.
 Pidgeon enjoyed most the visit from the sailors on the U.S.S.
Wyoming, which was in port, and his visits on the warship. Many of
the sailors were fascinated by his life and vowed they would do the
same when they got out.                                     
 At Farfan Point, Pidgeon beached the Islander and repainted. He
also replaced the cookstove and made other repairs. On August 7, he
stood out to sea again for the final run to Los Angeles. This proved to
be the longest and most tedious leg, taking him west of Clipperton,
and up the long pull to the California coast, eighty-five days during
which Islander grew a garden on her bottom and drifted for weeks in
the doldrums.
 Still in good health and uncomplaining as usual, Pidgeon hauled
down the sails in Los Angeles harbor on October 31, 1925.
 For his circumnavigation, Pidgeon was awarded the third Blue
Water Medal in the history of the Cruising Club of America. Charter
member Clifford Mallory arranged to have both Pidgeon and his yawl
transported from California to the East Coast free of charge on one
of his American-Hawaiian Line steamers to attend the April CCA
meeting in 1926, and to speak to the members of his experiences.
 The club took to Pidgeon warmly and he was induced to stay in
the East, which he did until 1932. For four years, while he was
writing his book, Pidgeon moored the yawl at a dock at George
Bonnell's island at Byram Shore, Greenwich, and took his meals
ashore with George.                                              
 John Parkinson, Jr.,(7) the late secretary of the CCA, recalled that 
his father, a famous yachtsman, had invited Pidgeon to spend a week at
their home. He remembered him as a small man, retiring to the point
of shyness, but a man of charm and humor when speaking on subjects 
which interested him.
 In 1928, Pidgeon took part in the Bermuda Race, winning over two
other boats in his class, one of which was Svaap, with William A.
Robinson, who started his circumnavigation with this race and also
won a Blue Water Medal later.
 In 1932, Pidgeon set off on another circumnavigation also taking
five years. During World War II, he married, and in 1947, with
his bride, at the age of seventy-three, he departed Hawaii for his third
circumnavigation on the aging Islander. A typhoon caught him in

   ~ 64 ~

Hog Harbor in the New Hebrides, and the venerable old yawl was
driven up on the rocks and destroyed.
  Subsequently, he began building another yawl, this time a Sea
Bird, somewhat smaller than Islander, but before he could sail again,
death took him at age eighty-one.(8)
  A friendly, unassuming man who charmed people wherever he
sailed in the world, from natives to millionaires, Pidgeon never really
asked much of life, except the privilege of going his own way alone.
He never sought fame and never accumulated wealth. He was a man,
however, gifted with that illusive knack of getting the most out of life
with the least amount of fuss.
  "Ulysses," he wrote, "is fabled to have had a very adventurous
voyage while returning from the sack of Troy, but for sufficient
reasons I avoided adventure as much as possible. Just the same, any
landsman who builds his own vessel and sails alone around the world
will certainly meet with some adventures, so I shall offer no apology
for my voyage. Those days were the freest and happiest of my life."

     ~ 65 ~

- end Chapter 6 -

To Chapter 7.


AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Six 1. Around the World Singlehanded by Harry Pidgeon (New York: Appleton, 1932). Pidgeon, who took four years to write his book, obviously had Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World before him as a model during this unfamiliar business. There are many similarities of organization and style, but unfortunately Pidgeon did not have a talented Century Magazine editor to give his work the professional touch as did Slocum. 2. Douglas fir often called Oregon pine, is the tree which forms the backbone of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. At that time, huge straight-grained timbers of almost any size were readily available, as were extra long planks for full-length strakes. Circumnavigator William Crowe used such one-piece planks in building his 39-foot Lang Syne in 1936 3. Before the famous and glamorous Klondike Gold Rush, the cen- ter of interest in gold mining was at Circle City in Alaska. Gold was discovered later on Klondike Creek in the Yukon Territory, and sparked the mad rush that led to Dawson and other gold fields. 4. This plans book is still available from Rudder. Probably more vessels have been built from Sea Bird plans than any other yacht ever designed. Styled for easy homebuilding, it used the then-advanced hard-chine technique. The original was sailed to Rome, Italy, by Day and two companions. 5. Pidgeon helps to solve the mystery of when McKittrick arrived in the Marquesas. Although Stock does not mention the trader, Muhlhauser did. Since McKittrick told Pidgeon about meeting the Amaryllis and the Dream Ship, he must have arrived there before 1919. 6. Early voyagers, from Slocum on, all reported the warm welcome received at Keeling-Cocos. In 1973, however, visiting yachtsmen discovered that their welcome had long since been worn out by sea tramps who have sponged on the Clunies-Ross family. Visitors are no longer welcome at Home Island, altbough the cable station and air held personnel are still glad to see them. 7. See Nowhere Is Too Far, edited by John Parkinson, Jr. (New York: Cruising Club of America, 1960). 8. His bride, Margaret, had been an experienced sailor in her own right before marrying Captain Pidgeon. Born at sea on her father's square-rigger, she early learned the arts of the sailor and of handling small boats. The Islander was the couple's home. In 1947, they sailed her to Hawaii from Los Angeles. In November, they departed Honolulu for Torres Strait, encountering rough weather during the 66-day passage to the New Hebrides, and a broken main boom. To make the repair, they put into Hog Island where an unseasonable hurricane caught them. Returning to California, they began work on a Sea Bird, the 25-foot version of Islander. Harry was then seventy-nine. He died in 1955.

To Chapter 7.

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