The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 7 -

The Irish Rebel

         I was invited to join a mountaineering party in
         the New Zealand Alps at Christmas, 1923, and
         having a nearly new yacht I regarded this as an
         excellent opportunity of finding out the merits
         or demerits of her design, which was of my own

hauser closed the last sea miles toward Dartmouth, England, on
Amaryllis to end his circumnavigation and his life over in Dublin,
Ireland, now free from English rule, a haughty little Irishman named
Conor O'Brien, whose attitude toward the English was patronizing
at best, was setting out on the first yacht voyage around the world
south of the three stormy capes.(2)
  O'Brien, a prickly intellectual, was a product of the Irish Rebellion
or Civil War, depending upon whose side you were on, and with his
sister had been a militant underground fighter and gun-runner. The
escapades, however, which gave him more puckish pleasure, had been
those smuggling runs in disguised fishing smacks under the noses of
the British contraband patrols.'
  After the war, O'Brien completed Saoirse-Gaelic for "freedom"
at the Fishery School shops in Baltimore, County Cork. He had
designed her himself, after the lines of an Arklow fishing smack, one
of which he had served on as a gun-runner and for which he had more
than a sentimental attachment. She was 42 feet overall, 37 feet on
the waterline, had 12 feet of beam, and drew almost 7 feet of water

     ~ 66 ~

when loaded. She was planked with pitch pine over oak frames with
iron fastenings. Eight tons of scrap iron were carried inside. About
200 gallons of water was stored in galvanized tanks, and replenished
from whatever source available on the voyage.(4) Fresh foods, staples,
and potatoes for three months made up the ship's stores.
  Potatoes, O'Brien commented en route, were the seaman's curse.
"There are only three places in the world where they are worth
taking on board: Ireland, Argentina, and Tristan da Cunha."
  Although O'Brien had never been off soundings before, he had
considerable experience in sailing boats in coastal waters. And, con-
trary to his little bit of fancy, the purpose of his circumnavigation was
not primarily to go mountain climbing in New Zealand. He was also
stricken by sea fever, as were many postwar men and women, and a
circumnavigation around the world in the high southern latitudes was
a challenge that appealed to him. He does not explain why he did not
take his sister, who had shared many of his adventures, as had Ralph
Stock, but the reason probably was because by now she had become a
settled housewife. In any case, in the early 1920s, interest in blue-
water sailing yachts had begun to boom in many maritime countries.
Yachtsmen had begun to haunt used book shops scrounging for logs
and old accounts of colonial passages, whaling voyages, and explora-
tions for vicarious research or actual planning of proposed voyages.(6)
  O'Brien was especially interested in the logs of the Lightning and
Oweenee, whose routes had been down the Atlantic, across the
Indian Ocean in the high latitudes, and back again via Cape Hom.
Always curious and an experimenter, O'Brien was not only charmed
by these old voyages, but wanted to see for himself what it was like,
especially with a modern fore-and-aft rigged ship, taking advantage of
the normal wind and currents of the world.
  His route took him south from Dublin to Madeira, the Canary
Islands, Cape Verde; thence to Pernambuco in Brazil, southeast to
Trinidad, across to Tristan da Cunha and Cape Town and Durban;
eastward across the Indian Ocean via St. Paul's and Amsterdam
islands, south of Cape Leeuwin to Melbourne; thence to Auckland,
New Zealand, east around Cape Horn, stopping for an extended visit
in the Falklands and a side trip on a support ship to the whaling
grounds in the Antarctic; and home again via Trinidad, Pernambuco,
and Fayal in the Azores.
  So, on June 20, 1923, the Irish yacht Saoirse, of 20 tons Thames
measure, left Dublin bound for the Cape, with the owner and an
untried crew of two on board. O'Brien, who was an impatient man,

   ~ 67 ~

had conducted a shakedown cruise from Shamlon to Dunleary prior
to leaving, during which the green crew somewhat got the hang of
things. But throughout the voyage, he constantly complained about
his crew-which varied from two to four, and included waterfront
hangers-on, stranded yachties, rumpots, green kids, old men, and
natives picked up along the way. Like many a voyager before and
after him, including Robinson, Long, and even Muhlhauser, O'Brien
found the native islanders to be the most dependable companions on
long passages.
  "I have not described life on board," he wrote in his log, "for I do
not suffer fools gladly and cannot trust the discretion of my pen."
  From the first, O'Brien was forced to admit that Saoirse was not
ideal for ocean cruising, being more suited for the short choppy seas
around the British Isles. But he knew what he wanted and had
designed her for living aboard-which helped to take the sting out of
his constant crew problems. She had a raised poop deck aft with a
small cockpit and a charthouse with a bunk. One could sit in the
shelter of the chartroom hatch and steer in bad weather. The fore-
peak included a large sail locker, aft of which came a generous crew
cabin, then a huge galley and saloon with a swinging table to accom-
modate many for meals and card playing or letter writing, then the
captain's stateroom on the starboard side aft of this, convenient to
the chartroom and steering cockpit. Saoirse had no engine, and it was
for this reason, O'Brien said, that he decided not to use the Panama
Canal and the traditional trade winds route.
  With her eight tons of inside ballast, Saoirse proved to be very
stiff, which contributed to her first accident-a broken mast. O'Brien
quickly concluded that the ketch rig at sea was "an infernal nui-
sance," and he experimented constantly with variations that included
staysails, squaresails, foretopsails, and even stunsails. With all sails
flying, Saoirse at times carried an enormous cloud of canvas almost
1,600 square feet!(6)
  O'Brien was nothing if not a perfectionist and a martinet at sea.
They fortunately encountered fair winds as far as Cape Verde
Islands. In about latitude 4 S and longitude 24 W, just after
picking up the southeast trades, they discovered that the masthead
was sprung and split. O'Brien decided to go into Pernambuco for
repairs, and at the same time scrub the bottom, as the yacht was not
  Pernambuco was O'Brien's first foreign port, and it took three
weeks to find the right tides for the bottom scraping, the mast re-

   ~ 68 ~

pairs, and to have the chronometer rated. Leaving on September 1, a
fast passage of thirty-five days was made to Cape Town, at an average
of 111 miles a day. News of his coming had reached South Africa
before his arrival, and even as Table Mountain appeared with the
"table cloth set"(7) he was met by yachts and trawlers that signaled a
welcome. With a mast still needing repairs or replacing, he hurried to
beat the southeaster into the port.
  A complete refitting was carried out in Cape Town, including a
new and heavier mast, while O'Brien was entertained by local yachts-
men and taken on sightseeing side trips. On the third Sunday after
his arrival, he left again and it seemed the whole town turned out to
witness the departure. The famous Danish yacht Shanghai was also
sailing at the same time, which probably accounted for the crowds.
Refusing an offer of government tugs to tow Saoirse out of the
harbor, O'Brien prevailed upon the Shanghai, which had an engine,
to snake him out of the crowded port. Once at sea and with a new
crew, O'Brien discovered he should have stayed around and super-
vised the repairs and the outfitting. There were more than a dozen
defects of workmanship and parts, and not only were there serious
defects in masts and rigging, but the main water supply had been
broken and then covered up by workmen to hide the mistake, which
resulted in losing a third of his water. The steering gear now jammed
because the wrong size chains had been installed. The American salt
beef which he had ordered turned out to be spoiled. On top of that,
Saoirse had a close call when it rammed a huge finback whale, and
the passage around proved to be a cranky one, during which O'Brien
was often unsure of his position. Finally and prudently, he decided to
put into Durban to correct the defects and re-outfit. Here two of the
crew, known only in the log as "H" and "P," left the ship. After a
month's visit, O'Brien shipped two experienced seamen from a bark
that was stranded in port over unpaid debts, and at the last minute
took aboard a teen-ager who, O'Brien wrote, was "shanghaied on
board by his father, who said quite untruthfully, that the boy wanted
to run away to sea, and that he, the father, wanted to make sure he
ran away in a well-managed ship."
  The lad, who was as anxious to get away from his father as the
latter was to be rid of him, turned out to be the best helmsman
O'Brien ever had. Later, the boy found a good job in Melbourne and
was grateful ever after that O'Brien had "made a man of him."
  O'Brien left Port Natal on December 11 bound for Melbourne.
The route took him within sight of Amsterdam and St. Paul's, but at

  ~ 69 ~

the last moment he decided not to stop even though he had a special
chart of the remote islands given him by the ship chandler at
Durban, who encouraged him to check them for shipwrecked
mariners. The passage was made mostly along 38, but good winds
were found here. It took 51 days to sail the 5,700 miles. On January
29, they made land on the beam and saw the first vessel in 50 days.
They drifted slowly up the coast and came to anchor at Port Phillip,
  O'Brien divided up the cash on board, about 17, and they set out
to see the town. A near mishap occurred when Saoirse dragged her
anchor and scraped several other yachts. When O'Brien rushed up to
save her, he discovered that the crew had deserted the ship, taking
the skiff with them.
  At the time, Melbourne was in the grip of a crime wave, and it was
unsafe to be alone on the streets in some sections. He had been given
much publicity on his arrival, of course, and had numerous applica-
tions for prospective crew members. One of his first recruits was
murdered on his way down to join the yacht. Three Tasmanians
were finally shipped aboard and the departure was made in a seven-
knot tide rip off Port Phillip Heads. Two of the new hands became so
seasick, and the third so frightened, that O'Brien returned and
dumped them off at the Shipping Office. While in port, he met the
skipper of the Seaweed, a yacht of about the same size as Saoirse,
which had left Southampton a fortnight before and arrived at
Melbourne a month earlier, with the skipper, his wife, and one other
crew member.
  Finally getting away from Melbourne, which he despised, O'Brien
now had a new crew-a Swede-American, a slow man with an
engaging smile and easy-going nature, and another who claimed to
have shipped in large schooners, but who became a trial upon
O'Brien's patience. The third crewman was a wiry man, full of
complexes and nervous energies, who had come from a good family
and had been a British naval officer. In spite of O'Brien's natural
dislike for this Britisher, the man was well-educated, and for the first
time O'Brien felt he had an intellectual equal aboard.
  It was already too late for mountain climbing when they reached
New Zealand, but not too late for passing around Cape Horn.
Unable to sell his yacht either in Australia or New Zealand, O'Brien
got a clearance for Dublin and departed. About 150 miles out, it was
discovered that a line dragging astern had fouled and killed a molly-
hawk or albatross. From then on, it was bad luck. One of the crew

  ~ 70 ~

injured his elbow, which became worse and needed medical atten-
tion. Weather and adverse winds portended a bad passage. Soon
after, another crewman injured a leg which became septic. Water
had gotten into the cabin and ruined the supply of matches. A sack
of coal had been washed overboard. It was too much. By May 10,
they were back in New Zealand. Leaving the injured crewman in
Napier, O'Brien sailed on to Auckland, paid off the rest, and changed
his route to visit the Cook, Fiji, and Samoan islands.
  O'Brien, like Muhlhauser, spent much time carping about New
Zealand, which he considered over-organized and badly "American-
ized." O'Brien, forgetting his own rebellious nationalism, complained
that in New Zealand, "nationalism ran mad in the streets, accounting
for a good deal of jealousy of strangers and intolerance of foreign
  He also commented on the widespread use of ferro-cement in New
Zealand for construction purposes, which anticipated the ferro-
cement boatbuilding boom by half a century.
  By now, O'Brien had lost his patience in finding crewmen. "I am
now resigned to looking for two more or less competent slaves." He
found a crew of native Tonga boys who wanted to go home, and a
couple of Irishmen who had sailing ship discharges, "and that was
the end of my stay in New Zealand."
  From Auckland, he sailed for Nuku Alofa. Word of his departure got
him pressed into service as a mail and cargo vessel, for which he was
paid a small fee. It was a rough passage, but Tonga proved to be one
of the few exotic places he saw on the entire circumnavigation. Still
bothered by his foul bottom and corroding iron fastenings, which he
had been unable to repair in New Zealand, O'Brien tried to sell
Saoirse in Tonga. But unlike Ralph Stock, who had no trouble
peddling his Dream Ship in a Tonga clubhouse, O'Brien found no
buyer. Here he paid off one of his Irishmen, found a clockmaker who
was also a sailmaker, and had a new jib made. He found no slipways
here, and moreover the tides were so small that it was impossible to
beach the vessel. But the Tongans impressed him more than any of
the other "foreigners" he met on his voyage, and here he picked up
Kioa, a local boy who worked in a garage and wanted to escape from
an uncle who dominated him. Remembering his success with the lad
from Durban, and being naturally sympathetic toward a rebel,
O'Brien took him aboard. Kioa proved to be a superb sailor, a good
cook, and a dependable and willing hand at all times. It was the best
thing that happened to O'Brien on the entire voyage around.

  ~ 71 ~

  It now became imperative to return to Auckland to stop the
destruction by worms in the hull. There he lost all his crew again
except Kioa. After repairs were made and preparations for the Horn
passage completed, he shipped aboard "W," who was escaping from
a wife; "C," who was beyond redemption by anyone but the Devil;
and "B," a bricklayer's laborer, who was trying to escape from having
to work and thought a voyage on a yacht would be an ideal vacation.
  On October 22, 1924, Saoirse left Auckland, homeward bound via
Cape Horn. Sailing in the forties and fifties, the long passage was
relatively uneventful, save for the constant aggravation of O'Brien's
lazy crew. The westerlies carried them well up toward the Falklands,
and, on December 6, they arrived at Stanley Harbour, 46 days out
and having sailed 5,800 miles nonstop.
  "K" (Kioa), who had sworn to go to the ends of the earth with
O'Brien, proved his value from the beginning, and took much of the
worry off the skipper, especially during the dreaded encounters with
ice and some heavy seas when the rudder chain broke and had to be
repaired. The actual rounding of the bleak and dark Horn Island,
however, was made with true Irish luck on a mild day in clear
weather. Even dragging a foul garden along on the bottom, O'Brien
was making 140 miles a day. And, by chance, when they arrived at
Stanley Harbour, the Christmas festivities were underway.
  Several weeks were spent sightseeing on the local mail boats, hiking
over the tundra, and enjoying the local hospitality. Saoirse was taken
to a cove and beached for cleaning and repairs. During the stay here,
O'Brien shipped as a passenger on a mail and supply trawler to the
whaling settlements in Antarctica and the Palmer Peninsula. Al-
though fascinated by the excursion, he was somewhat appalled by the
whaling industry. "When I tasted whale meat, I admitted it was
necessary to kill whales for the sake of the kitchen, though the other
aspects of the industry rather disgusted me."
  The South Shetlands, he noted, looked rather like the Outer
Hebrides at home, with "little excuse for existing."
  During the stay in Stanley, one of the crew became enamored of a
lady and married her. O'Brien paid him off, loaded fresh meat and
water aboard, and, on February 28, departed. Because of "M's"
defection, he was now shorthanded. The first part of the trip was
rough. Not until St. Patrick's Day, he noted, did the weather moder-
ate. On the passage, he traveled over uncharted shoals which he
named "Saoirse Rock." Another crewman became ill, so he decided

  ~ 72 ~

to put into Pemambuco again. The work was now left to him and
  In Pernambuco, O'Brien enjoyed another fine visit and discharged
the ill man. The vessel was again hauled and scrubbed, and re-
painted. On April 6, he was cleared for Dublin. During this passage,
he had trouble with his eyes, and for a time was almost blind, not
being able to shoot the sun. He was forced to depend entirely on
Kioa, to whom he gave lessons in navigation.
  A landfall was made on Pico, the 7,500-foot mountain on Fayal. By
letter, O'Brien had arranged for his sister to come out to meet him.
There was a reunion and a visit. The last 1,300 miles to Dublin was
made quickly. Making Fastnet Light on the nose on June 15, soon
they were at Wicklow where a reception committee awaited to take
them in tow. In the Roads, his other sister came off to "give him his
sailing orders" with the customs Officer.
  Then, at last, met by cheering crowds, bands playing, and many
speeches, he was towed to Dunleary and the long procession formed
to carry him up to Dublin.
  Somewhat embarrassed by all the attention, but nevertheless relish-
ing it, O'Brien was pleased to be the first Irishman to circumnavigate
in a yacht. "It is good to have sailed around the world in order to be
home again," he wrote.
  Soon after, he published his book, Across Three Oceans, based on
his logs, which became a best-seller. Written with puckish humor and
filled with fascinating details of yacht management on long passages,
it is so well-written that most readers have been misled by the easy,
off-hand narrative into thinking the circumnavigation was easy. As
Claud Worth wrote in his introduction to O'Brien's book, "Mr.
O'Brien's seamanlike account is so modestly written that a casual
reader might miss its full significance. But anyone who knows any-
thing of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the
chart, will realize the good seamanship, vigilance and endurance re-
quired to drive this little bluff-bowed vessel, with her foul un-
coppered bottom, at speeds of from 150 to 170 miles a day as well as
the weight of the wind and sea which must sometimes have been
  O'Brien subsequently wrote several other books on yachting, which
became standard references. In Deep Water Yacht Rig, he ruefully
admits that many of the conclusions he had reached on his circum-
navigation about rigs and yachts were wrong in light of subsequent

  ~ 73 ~

voyages on the North Atlantic. Many yacht designers and owners
who read Across Three Oceans, but not the subsequent works,
accepted these early conclusions, however, as gospel.
  After his famous circumnavigation, the years between wars were
spent writing and sailing, and enjoying his notoriety as an Irish patriot
as well as a world voyager.
  In World War II, too old to fight and anyway, O'Brien was more
of a writer than a fighter he enlisted in the Small Vessels Pool as a
lieutenant in the reserve, ferrying ships from the United States to
England. Now sixty-three, he was spare of build and somewhat
stooped, with graying hair and a shaggy moustache. As an officer with
one of the "runner crews," he seemed to be fulfilling a need. Besides,
under wartime conditions, paper was scarce and he couldn't get his
books published. "I thought I'd better go back to sea," he told a
reporter, his blue eyes twinkling.(8)
  During one of his trips to New York, O'Brien was invited to
Ipswich, Connecticut, by another famous circumnavigator, William
A. Robinson, now land-bound for the duration as a successful ship-
yard operator. O'Brien went up and stayed for a weekend, during
which he and Robbie talked of many things of ships and the south-
ern seas, the remote islands in the sun, the wild and stormy forties
and fifties, and of bluewater rigs and ideal ships. Even then, Robin-
son was living aboard the unfinished ultimate dream ship, Varua,
designed for him by Starling Burgess and L. Francis Herreshoff to his
specifications, especially for escaping to the islands again, and built in
his own yard.
  They talked of times when a man with a ship like Saoirse or Svaap
could once again cast loose the bonds that held them to humdrum
  For Robbie, it was a dream that would come true within a few
years. For O'Brien, who did not share the same type dreams as
Robinson except those of freedom and spirit, it was the ending, for
not long afterward he died.
  He had thrice won the Challenge Cup of the prestigious Royal
Cruising Club, and assured himself of a measure of immortality
among dreamers and lovers of the sea everywhere, and his many
innovations of rig and sailing had become standard. In spite of her
lumbering appearance, Saoirse logged 31,000 miles in 280 sailing days,
averaging 5.25 knots, a record that is seldom beaten with today's
modem yachts and rigs.
  During his entire circumnavigation, O'Brien called only at twelve

  ~ 74 ~

ports. He was not a gregarious man, and many things about the world
and about people he had difficulty accepting. He was an intellectual,
and like most intellectuals, he was forever dissatisfied and disap-
pointed in what he found around him. He was imperious, and even
cocky and arrogant at times, but he remained essentially a Gaelic
spirit, comfortably provincial in ideals and outlook.
  But, for all this, he probably would be most pleased and delighted
to know that his Saoirse, at this writing, is still sailing the waters
around the British Isles, virtually unchanged in rig or appointments
since she carried him across three oceans and around the three stormy

  ~ 75 ~

- end Chapter 7 -

To Chapter 8.

========================================================================= AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Seven 1. Across Three Oceans by Conor O'Brien (London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1926). Like many voyagers since, O'Brien was an enthusiastic moun- taineer as well as yachtsman. 2. The three stormy capes of the old sailing ship route were Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin (off the southwest tip of Australia), and Cape Horn. The usual yacht route around the world is west about in the trades via the Panama Canal, the South Pacific islands, Torres Strait, and either Cape Town or Suez (before the canal was closed) . 3. O'Brien and his sister served under the super-patriot, Erskine Childers, whose book, The Riddle of the Sands, is considered to be the best yachting novel ever written, and one of the all-time classic spy stories. Childers, a clerk in Parliament and a yachting enthusiast as well as idealistic intellectual took the side of the Irish in the Civil War, mostly smuggling guns to the rebels. He was ultimately executed by the I.R.A. which had turned against him after using him. 4. O'Brien filled his water tanks with whatever was available, where- ever he stopped, without bothering with chlorine, on the theory that if the water had not yet killed the local inhabitants, it must be all right a very dangerous practice, to say the least, and certainly not recommended today. 5. O'Brien was a half century ahead of Sir Francis Chichester in seeking out and analyzing the old sailing-ship logs. 6. None other than L. Francis Herreshoff said of him: "I consider O'Brien's books the most masterly analysis of seagoing conditions perhaps ever written, and even if he and I do not see eye to eye in all matters pertaining to rig and rigging well, no progress would be made if we all thought alike- but under no circumstances would I contradict Conor O'Brien for he has had actual experience." Quoted from the old master's instructions on how to build Marco Polo, which ran in Rudder magazine, 1946. 7. When the cloud cover forms over Table Mountain, it is said that the "table cloth is set," which signals the coming of a southeast gale. 8. New York Times, July 20, 1943.

To Chapter 8.

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