The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 8 -

The Magnificent Schizoid

          After the war I could neither work in a city
          nor lead the dull life of a businessman. I
          wanted freedom, open air, adventure. I found
          it on the sea.(1)

middle 1800s. Designed by the famous Dixon Kemp, she was built by
P. T. Harris at Rowhedge, Essex, in 1892. She was 39 feet overall, 31
feet 6 inches on the waterline, with a beam of 8 feet 6 inches, and
displaced 12 tons. Long and narrow, with a deep keel and three and
a half tons of lead for ballast, she was a rule cheater of that day, but
for all that a good sea boat and fairly comfortable. The original rig
was a cumbersome gaff-headed sloop with many variations of head-
sails and topsails, but with the newfangled roller-reefing boom, 27
feet long.
  She was exactly the type of vessel that would appeal to the popular
French war hero and tennis champion, Alain Gerbault. In 1921,
while visiting England during the tennis matches, he was a guest
aboard Ralph Stock's new yacht at Southampton.(2) Nearby at her
moorage lay Firecrest. Although she was older than Gerbault himself,
he recognized in her some vague affinity that, perhaps, rooted far
back in his restless subconscious. Ever since the war ended he had
been searching for something, and he knew it could not be in civil
engineering or in business like his father. Here was his friend Ralph
Stock, who had made his wanderjahr already on Dream Ship, return-

     ~ 76 ~

ing to write books about it and enjoy the acclaim of the public and
the admiration of his generation.
  The marriage of Alain Gerbault, the young intellectual war hero,
social rebel, iconoclast, middle-class man-of-the-world, self-appointed
member of the new Lost Generation,(3) and the dowdy matronly Fire-
crest fulfilled a sort of mother-image (his own mother had just died)
and provided him with a perfect modus operandi.
  Born in 1893, Gerbault spent an idyllic youth at Dinard, France,
near the ancient city of St. Malo, home of the legendary corsairs who
led France to glory on the seas 350 years ago. Of an upper middle-
class family, Alain and his brother spent much of their summers on
their father's yacht, played tennis and football, went hunting and
fishing, and slummed around with the sons of the Breton fishermen.
Once the brothers had saved up money to buy a boat of their own,
but it was sold before they could acquire it. In the winter, they
attended the proper schools, learned the social graces, and the indoor
sports such as bridge and whist, and devoured books of adventure
on land and sea, particularly those of the gold hunters in the Yukon
and Alaska, and of explorers in Africa and the New World.
  It was a happy youth, but then came the time for college and Alain
was sent to Paris to study for the civil engineering profession at
Stanislaus College. He did not like the confinement and discipline of
boarding school, and he always considered this the unhappiest period
of his life. But he had a good mind and was able to carry the curricu-
lum easily, and at the same time withdraw when needed into a world
of books and adventure and dreams.
  At twenty-one, Alain enlisted in the Flying Corps, and served as an
officer in the 31st French squadron, which also had some young
American volunteers. One of these gave Gerbault Jack London's
Cruise of the Snark, in which he realized perhaps for the first time
that it was possible to cross an ocean in a small boat.(4)
  "I decided at once that it was going to be my life, if I was lucky
enough to get through the war," he wrote. "Later I was able to
include two of my friends in my schemes, and to decide to buy a
boat, and sail round the world after adventure. But these two friends
were killed fighting in the air, and I was left alone at the armistice."(5)
  In 1919, Alain came out of the Flying Corps as a decorated hero
and instead of becoming the World War I version of the hippie
dropout, he immediately set about becoming tennis champion of
France, and a bridge player of international rating. He was a leader of

   ~ 77 ~

the smart-set social structure, a charming, articulate quick-witted man
of small but lithe stature in superb physical condition. While he
professed a social conscience, like most intellectuals, he concealed a
typical middle-class snobbery toward those of more humble stand-
ing a trait that remained with him even during his Noble Savage
wanderings among the natives in the remote Pacific islands.
  During this period, Gerbault was said to have had an affair with
Suzanne Lenglen, the famous Wimbledon champion, and almost
married her.(6) But women apparently did not have the same attrac-
tion for him as they did for most red-blooded males, especially
those with Rousseauean proclivities. He searched for "something to
do." At one point, he thought of trying to fly the Atlantic an
impossible feat against prevailing winds at that time. He later
dwelled at length in his writings about his affliction with sea fever,
but as Jean Merrien wrote in Lonely Voyagers, his was not so much a
longing for the sea as it was the spirit of the record-breaker, the
writer, the artist, the apostle, and always the disturbed intellectual.
  He was neither basically nor temperamentally a sailor; but in the
end, perhaps he did become one.
  After purchasing Firecrest, his life style did not change radically.
With an English boy, Alain said he spent a year or so sailing the
vessel on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, "preparing himself" for his
future sea adventures. Actually, he took the vessel to the south of
France via the Canal du Midi, and most of his sailing was in and out
of Cannes, while he socialized ashore, played tennis and bridge, and
acted out the part of the lone sea adventurer getting ready for the
next epic voyage.
  On June 6, 1923, after a rough and almost disastrous passage to
Gibraltar (where he was lionized by the British naval colony), he
departed for New York via the southern route, not telling anyone his
destination, but characteristically hinting at it to foster curiosity.
Actually, his was a bold venture for that time. Although the southern
route is a common yacht passage these days, until Gerbault few had
attempted it.(7) Indeed, a transatlantic crossing in a small vessel in
either direction was considered a daredevil stunt in spite of Slocum,
Voss, J. A. Buckley, Captain Hudson, Alfred Johnson et al.
  On board, Gerbault had supplies of salt beef, ship's biscuit, bacon,
potatoes, jam, butter, and fresh water for several months. He also had
about two hundred books by his favorite authors Conrad, London,
Francois Villon, Shelley, Plato, Kipling, Poe, Tennyson, Verhaeren,
Loti; Farrere, Masefield to say nothing of voyagers' accounts such as

  ~ 78 ~

those by Slocum, Voss, his friend Stock, and of course books on navi-
gation, natural history, and geography.
  Although he speaks of vast preparations for the adventure, it is
evident that Gerbault departed haphazardly without even a good suit
of sails and adequate rigging. He had not even had enough experi-
ence with Firecrest to learn her characteristics, and especially how to
balance her sails. Not long out of Gibraltar, Alain discovered that he
had been cheated by the ship chandlers, who had sold him spoiled
salt beef (disguised by a layer of good meat on top), an inferior grade
of tea instead of the well-known brand he had ordered, and new
water kegs that soon polluted his supply with tannic acid. But
Gerbault, if nothing else, was a brave man with a noble spirit. He
passed close to Madeira, but did not put in. Weeks later, during the
hurricane season, his water supply almost gone, his vessel in need of
repairs, and he himself sick, Alain passed close to Bermuda, but
elected to go on to New York without stopping.
  Beset by calms and by squalls that ripped his rotting sails, Ger-
bault once was swept overboard, and only by a miracle did he get
back on.
  Down to a glass of tainted water a day, he became ill with a sore
throat and a high fever. When he wasn't trying to survive the storms,
pump out the bilge, and make repairs to the deck and hatches, he
was forever trying to keep ahead of his tattered sails with needle and
  This was a typical day:

       At nine a.m. the reef lacing of my staysail breaks. The
       motion of the boat is now so violent . . . that I cannot
       repair it. All my cups and glasses are broken into small
       pieces. At noon a huge wave breaks aboard and carries
       away my sail locker. A big hole appears in my staysail,
       and my mainsail rips down the centre seam, leaving a
       three-yard-long slit. I can hardly stand on the slippery
       deck. It is raining hard. In the saloon the water is at
       floor level. I have made the annoying discovery that my
       pump is out of order. I am soaked to the skin. There is
       not a single dry place in the boat, and I cannot find a
       way to prevent the rain water from leaking through many
       places around the skylight and hatchways.(8)

  In the Gulf Stream, Gerbault was caught up in the heavy shipping
traffic. A Greek ship came alongside one day and took the wind out

     ~ 79 ~

of his sails so that he could not maneuver. It annoyed him and he
told the Greek captain so. Comparing positions, he had the satisfac-
tion of knowing his own calculations were exact, while those of the
Greek were erroneous.
  Then he encountered fog, but spoke a French fishing boat from St.
Pierre. At 2 A.M. on September 15, after 101 days at sea, he anchored
off Fort Totten, having made a landfall on Nantucket, and having
sailed through the United States fleet maneuvering off Newport.
Thereupon he was boarded by newspaper reporters, newsreel camera-
men, and given a hero's welcome by yacht clubs and the public alike.
William Nutting, the ubiquitous founder of the Cruising Club of
America, took him in tow and opened the doors of the influential
and the mighty. He spent months as a guest of new friends while his
boat was cared for nearby. He began to write his book, The Fight of
the Firecrest, a somewhat lurid account of his transatlantic crossing
in which he reveals to experienced seamen, if not the panting public,
his lack of sea sense and sailing ability.
  But Alain Gerbault was one of those rare individuals who had the
charisma of which heroes and the famous are made. Everything he
did made news even if he did nothing it made news. In the U.S.,
where public heroes are a social necessity, he became the darling of
the press and the cult of the Lost Generation, as well as the staid old
yachting society. He lectured and wrote articles for money; he fended
off erstwhile adventurers who wanted to join his next voyage; he was
honored at the Explorers Club. And he loved every minute of it,
while at the same time professing annoyance at the intrusion into his
private life.
  He left Firecrest in New York and returned to France to finish his
book, to be decorated with the Legion of Honor, and to accept a
10,000-franc prize from the Academy of Sports.(9) Then he returned
to New York amid much advance publicity and prepared for his
voyage to the South Pacific via Bermuda and Panama. Numerous
repairs were made to Firecrest, including modification of the gaff-
headed rig to the Bermudian style which was easier for one man to
  Refitted and loaded down with supplies, fresh water, food for
months, gifts from friends, rifles and ammo, bows and arrows, charts
and instruments, and a movie camera with a mile and a half of film
in air-tight containers, Firecrest left Fire Island for Bermuda in early
September, 1924. This time, Alain had a send-off by members of the

   ~ 80 ~

CCA and the Explorers Club, the widow of Bill Nutting, who was lost
meantime in Greenland waters, by the yachting press and many
officials, accompanied by three-gun salutes and a dipping of the
French flag.
  A typical rough passage was made to St. George's harbor, and three
months were spent in Bermuda once again making repairs. He com-
palined that the money he spent in New York on outfitting would
have bought a new yacht in France. But he was placated by receiving
the CCA'S coveted Blue Water Medal for 1923, presented aboard a
British vessel.(10) He took on a native boy for a cook here, but during
a galley fire the lad was burned so badly that he died. After that,
Gerbault never attempted to take a companion or crew member on
his voyages.
  On April 1, at 8 P.M., Firecrest reached Colon. Gerbault's fame, of
course, had preceded him, and he was made welcome by the French,
British, and American officials. By extraordinary courtesy, the lock
operators had been ordered to regulate the valves so that Firecrest
was gently carried upward instead of being subjected to the usual
turbulence and often dangerous locking that every other yacht before
and since has been subjected to.
  At the Pacific end, he hobnobbed with the captains and admirals
of the American and British ships at Balboa, met Dr. William Beebe
again who was there with the Arcturus, took time out to win the
tennis championship of Panama, and prepared for the long Pacific
passage. Typically, although he detailed at great length his social
activities, he never so much as mentioned Captain Harry Pidgeon,
who was there with Islander, and with whom he exchanged visits.
During the two months spent here, he received from home a new
movie camera, a gift from his friend Pierre Albarran, and a Gramo-
phone sent over by the French tennis champion, Jean Borotra. With
local customs officials, his every wish was their command. The
American admiral donated a tender to tow him around and men and
materials for work on Firecrest. A new sail arrived from New York
and was bent on. The officers of the Rochester feted him at a send-off
luncheon, and on May 31, 1924, Alain Gerbault, the iconoclast, the
escapist, the railer against society, and the dropout, sailed for the
South Pacific.
  He only got as far as Toboga Island where he paused to make
notes, and then on June 11 sailed for the Galapagos Islands. His stay
there was short, and was highlighted by a visit to the Progreso

    ~ 81 ~

hacienda of Senor Don Manuel Augusto Cobos, son of the island's
owner who had been murdered by his employees, and a young man
who had been educated in Paris.(ll)
  After a short visit and study of local flora and fauna, Alain ex-
changed ceremonies with Cobos and departed for Mangareva, which
he reached after forty-nine days at sea. After leaving the Galapagos
and entering the Pacific island world, Gerbault became increasingly
introspective and egocentric, and devoted his writings to long dis-
courses on the social, economic, and historical aspects of the islands
and their inhabitants. In fact, his endless variations of this theme
detract greatly from his undeniably perceptive and intelligent analy-
sis of conditions.                           
  He visited the Marquesas, which he explored and analyzed at great
length and in great detail, and then as he boasts he ventured into
the dreaded Tuamotus where such people as Muhlhauser, Stock,
London, and Stevenson did not dare to sail.(l2)
  At last came Tahiti, the mecca of every South Pacific voyager. He
was not disappointed with this paradise, but the French officialdom
and the commercialization of Papeete bothered him, as did the
"exploitation" of the natives on all the islands. While there, he often
visited with Marau Taaroa a Tati, the widow of the former King
Pomare V. He played tennis and football, but was disappointed in
the lack of interest in such sports.
  After refitting again, Firecrest sailed on May 21, 1926. During his
stay at Bora Bora, one of Gerbault's favorite places, an English sloop
and a French warship put into the harbor about the same time and
entertained the lone voyager. Next came Samoa, where Gerbault was
hosted at the American July 4 celebration, watched a baseball game,
and played tennis.
  On Friday, August 13,(13) he sailed out of Apia for his unluckiest
encounter at Uvea, one of the Wallis Islands, where years before a
French warship, Lermite, had been wrecked. After a rough passage,
he entered the fringing reef and anchored off the jetty at Matautu.
During the night, the wind veered and a gale arose, and Firecrest was
driven up on the reef. The next day, Alain discovered that the four-
ton lead ballast had broken off the keel after the beating on the
  With the help of the natives and two Chinese artisans, Gerbault
removed the rigging, emptied the ballast from inside, and took off his
personal belongings, which were stored with the French trader. Fire-

    ~ 82 ~

crest was righted and shored up. The lead keel was salvaged. He
managed to get a wireless message off, relayed to his influential friend
Pierre Albarran in Paris, and orders went out. The French warship
Cassiopee was dispatched with bronze keel bolts and other materials.
Meanwhile, help also came from the Burns, Philips Company ship
Penoenche, and the rescue and repair of Firecrest became the most
imperative undertaking in the South Pacific that year.
  At last, on Thursday, December 9, after four months at the Wallis
Islands, he weighed anchor and sailed again, to the Ringgold Islands
where Jack London had nearly lost Snark and where Lord Pembroke
had piled up his luxurious Albatross.
  Alain spent several months at Suva, hosted by the local society,
playing tennis, and writing about the native people and customs.
Next came the New Hebrides, where he found the Snark, Jack
London's ill-fated vessel, in the service of a trader at Port-Vila. He
sailed for New Guinea on April 12, where his vessel was attacked by a
giant swordfish.
  He called at Port Moresby, played tennis ashore with local officials
and their families, then wandered through the Coral Sea to Thursday
Island, and across the Arafura Sea to the Indian Ocean. His route
followed Slocum's from here on, out to the Keeling-Cocos, where he
paused briefly and then went on to Rodriguez and Mauritius, playing
tennis ashore as usual for relaxation. He finally tore himself away
from the social routine and left Reunion for Madagascar.
  On December 4, Gerbault sighted a whale and the next day a
comet in the sky. On December 8, he witnessed a total eclipse, which
gave him an opportunity to check his chronometers.
  Instead of stopping at Madagascar, he sailed on to Durban, South
Africa, where he received a tumultuous welcome and celebrated
Christmas, while commenting in his journals that he was an enemy
of civilization.
  On January 4, he left Durban, and after three weeks of calms
varied with rough weather arrived at Cape Town and put up at the
Royal Yacht Club.
  He refitted again here, and was soon ready to sail after turning
down a cabled invitation from Jean Borotra to wait for the French
touring tennis team and join them.
  He called at St. Helena where he stayed for some time and took
part in a football match between the English garrison and the
"natives" of the island. Next came Ascension, His Majesty's "Stone

    ~ 83 ~

Frigate," where he was welcomed by the Cable Company employees,  
and with whom he played tennis and climbed to the top of the
  On May 26, Gerbault began the long passage up the Atlantic to
the Cape Verdes, crossing the equator on June 5, after three years in
southern latitudes. On July 9, he narrowly escaped disaster on St.
Vincent when he went aground through a blunder. Rescued again, he
put the Firecrest into a yard for repairs, had new sails made, left once
more, had to return again for more repairs, and finally decided to stay
there and complete another book that winter.
  The months passed easily at Porto-Grande. He enjoyed time ashore
and visiting other ships, played tennis and football, and worked on
the book.
  In October, the French warship Edgar Quinet arrived. On board
was Captain Darland, who with Pierre Albarran and the Minister of
Marine had sent the Cassiop'e to his aid in the Wallis Islands. Then
came the U.S.S. Raleigh, with Admiral Dayton aboard, along with
Captain Jacobs who had been port captain in Cristobal, when
Gerbault passed through the canal. Next came the Antares, French
sister ship to the Cassiopee, just in time for Gerbault to take the
officers to the New Year's Eve dance given by the Cable Company.
At midnight, when 1928 gave way to 1929, the Swedish training ship
Fylgia arrived and accidentally damaged Firecrest's bowsprit, but the
Swedish carpenters later replaced it with American spruce.
  Before sailing, Gerbault played on the football team as center-
forward against the English team from the cruiser Durban. Then he
offered a cup to be given to the winner of the best team on the
island, a cup that had been his first tennis trophy, won when a boy at
Dinard. By happy coincidence, Gerbault was on the team that won,
and it was he who kicked the winning goal.
  On May 6, he weighed anchor and sailed for home. Eleven days
later, he discovered that he suffered from catarrhal conjunctivitis to
his great discomfort. On May 26, at 10 A.M., he crossed his outbound
track and thus completed a circumnavigation begun some six years
  Now the Southern Cross, which he had come to regard as his
symbol of freedom, was put down behind him and ahead lay a return
to "civilized life."
  The trade winds became feeble, then he entered a zone of calms,
variables, and squalls. He decided to put into the Azores, where he
again received a warm welcome and took on the best tennis players

   ~ 84 ~

on the island. Once again he left. On Tuesday, July 16, the steamer
Michigan of the French Line spoke him, and Gerbault sent a
message to his friend Pierre de Pacquier. He refused proffered food,
but accepted some newspapers in order to catch up on tennis
  On July 20, he entered the English Channel, and a fog. Early in
the morning, When he encountered the Mistinguette, the ship's crew
recognized him and some came aboard with bottles of Spanish cider.
  He gave in to a little homesickness at this time and accepted a tow
which, he said, would enable him to watch Jean Borotra play for the
Davis Cup, which was to start the following morning.
  At 11 A.M. the next day, he sailed into Cherbourg harbor. He
hoisted the Firecrest's code number- O Z Y U. The following morn-
ing, he left for Le Havre. Then, at last, after ninety-six hours with-
out sleep, there was the welcoming committee of harbor boats,
Officials, reporters, friends like Pierre de Pacquier and Coco Gentien,
and his best friend of all, Pierre Albarran, in the crowd at the quay at
  His voyage had taken, in total, seven hundred days spent at sea,
and covered more than forty thousand sea miles. Home again was the
sailor, malcontent, tennis champion, iconoclast, war hero, intellectual,
dropout, and social reformer, home from the sea. Firecrest, his
vehicle, his modus operandi for his vague and restless dreams, was
now old, worn, and battered beyond redemption.
  Now he was an even greater hero. Now more than ever he had
demonstrated France's historic mastery of the seas in a way that
inspired and excited the public. He was sought after, quoted, hon-
ored, interviewed, lionized, and virtually worshipped. But now this
left a curious distaste for it all that he had not felt before. He began
to realize that he had left what he had sought back there in the
remote Pacific islands. He gave Firecrest to the French government
as a training vessel, and she was reported sunk in a squall on her first
trip with cadets aboard.
  He then built another vessel to his own specifications, a smaller
ship, only 34 feet overall but more comfortable, which was painted a
glistening black and named with the supreme egoism that Gerbault
could not disguise, the Alain Gerbault, honoring himself. Now, with
plenty of money and the world his own special oyster, he sailed for
the South Pacific and disappeared from public scrutiny for years.
These were, at last, the happy years for Alain Gerbault, spent
wandering from island to island, living and working with the natives,

   ~ 85 ~

campaigning on their behalf against colonial bureaucracy, writing,
thinking, trying to understand the meaning of things. Infrequently,
he put into Papeete, where he visited with friends, such as William
Robinson, who now lived there permanently, posed for photographs
taken by visiting yachtsmen like Dwight Long, and then disappeared
again among the islands.
  On August 22, 1944, wire service stories appeared around the world
that Alain Gerbault was dead. His beloved Alain Gerbault had taken
a direct bomb hit in the East Indies, and he had died of a tropical
fever as early as December 1941 on Portuguese Timor.(14)
  Not until 1947 was his body recovered by the French Navy and
returned to his favorite island, Bora Bora, where he was buried with
full military honors beside the lagoon he loved best, his grave marked
with a monument.
  A unique person, Gerbault became, in maturity, a true man of the
world, one who at last found peace and meaning. Outstanding physi-
cally, with a superb sense of timing and almost limitless endurance,
he was also a man of keen mind. Like Robinson, he could have risen
to the top of any profession in "civilized" society, but chose to go his
own way. Fortunately, also like Robinson, he was a gifted writer, one
of the few who could finance his dreams while living them.
 'He was also one of the immortals among those with wandering sea
fever. Like Slocum, he will not be forgotten. As he himself once
cabled to his friends and admirers back home:

        You must not be sad, for one day I shall come back.
                              ALAIN GERBAULT

    ~ 86 ~

 - end Chapter 8 -
To Chapter 9.


AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Eight 1. The Fight of the Firecrest by Alain Gerbault (New York: Apple ton, 1926). First of Gerbault's three highly successful voyaging books, and one of eight he wrote during his lifetime. 2. Stock, who had lived in France for a time following the publica tion of his successful book, The Cruise of the Dream Ship, now had a replace- ment. He and Gerbault were good friends. 3. Down through the years to World War II, the Korean War, and the conflict in Southeast Asia, only the labels have been changed. The motives and substance of each new generation are remarkably similar. 4. So he said, but he was an avid reader and well-known to him were the voyages of Slocum, Voss, and others. 5. In this statement, Gerbault, I suspect, was merely rationalizing for the benefit of the reading public. 6. According to Jean Merrien, the well-known French yachtsman and maritime writer. 7. Those few included Slocum, Voss, Stock, Muhlhauser, and per- haps many others whose adventures went unheralded. 8. The Fight of the Firecrest, by Alain Gerbault (New York: Appleton, 1926). 9. He has been credited with winning the Davis Cup of that year by some starry-eyed writers. This is a team competition, however, and no French team won it until 1927. 10. He was, in fact, the first winner of the coveted Blue Water Medal of the CCA, for the year 1923, and without doubt it was his friendship with William Nutting, founder of CCA, which influenced the board. The medal was designed by Arthur Sturgis Hildebrand, a freelance writer and CCA member, who lost his life at sea the same year the first award was made. "Today, well-executed ocean crossings in small vessels are quite frequent, and Gerbault would not even be considered for a Blue Water Medal." So com- mented John Parkinson, Jr., the late CCA historian, in Nowhere Is Too Far. 11. Cobos will be remembered as the gracious host who told his story to every voyager who came that way during the 1920s and 1930s. He married the beautiful Norwegian girl with whom Robinson gamboled over the mountains on horseback in the moonlight during his idyllic stay with Svaap. For the most authentic account of the Norwegians and the Cobos family, see To the South Seas, by Gifford Pinchot (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1930) . 12. Actually, all those he mentioned had visited the Dangerous Archipelago, as have numerous other yachtsmen since. 13. Friday the thirteenth was Gerbault's unlucky day, in spite of his protestations that he was not superstitious. It was on a Friday the thirteenth, that his sails were torn away during the first Atlantic crossing, when he suf- fered severe damage. Again, it was Friday the thirteenth when he suffered damage on the passage to Bermuda. 14. See Chapter 16 for another clue to the mystery of how Gerbault died.

To Chapter 9.

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