The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 15 -

The Lonely One in the Roaring Forties

         I do not know how long it was; but at about
         2 o'clock in the night of the 12th of July I
         awoke. The bunk was damp. Could a wave
         breaking on deck have got in through the port-
         holes? But I knew that they were shut tight.
         As I moved my arm felt lighter. Thank God!
         There was a gaping hole about three inches
         wide in my forearm; pus was flowing from it.(l)

doubling Cape Horn the impossible way, from east to west. In that
year, Al Hansen, a Norwegian, on Mary Jane, a double-ender Colin
Archer type, succeeded alone only to be wrecked on the coast of
Chiloe, and never to be seen again.(2)
  While at the yacht club in Buenos Aires before starting his voyage,
Hansen met and became good friends with Vito Dumas, a well-
known Argentinian yachtsman with considerable ocean experience.
Dumas had under construction at the time a "Norwegian-type"
ketch, designed by Manuel Campos on lines modified from the Colin
Archer principle and the Platte River whaleboats. Dumas, too, had
ambitions to sail around the Horn from 50� S to 50� S. In fact, he
wanted to sail around the world alone like Slocum had done.
  In 1933, Dumas was a man of some substance. Born in Buenos

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Aires on September 26, 1900, of Italian immigrants and a family
background of artists, engineers, and politicians, he was a strong,
chesty, vigorous, and robust boy, an accomplished swimmer who at
23 had crossed the Platte estuary from Colonia, Uruguay, to the
Argentine coast in 25 1/2 hours. Brought up in poverty, he left school
to work at an early age. He prospered, went into the cattle business,
joined the yacht club, and indulged his hobbies during the 1920s. As
a yachtsman, Dumas was noted for his skill and daring in those often
boisterous southern waters off Brazil and Argentina. In 1931, he
purchased an ancient International 8-meter class racing boat in
France and sailed it alone from Arcachon to Buenos Aires, a distance
of 6,270 nautical miles in 76 days. This boat was Legh I.
  In 1933, Dumas commissioned Campos, who was famous for his
double-ender types influenced by Colin Archer, Atkins, and local
native craft which had originated in the Mediterranean, to design
and build a 32-footer expressly for ocean voyaging.(8) Legh II was 32
feet 2 inches overall, 10 feet 9 inches wide, and had a maximum draft
of 5 feet 7 inches the ultimate refinement of its type and very nearly
a perfect model. She was ketch-rigged and had 9 tons of iron ballast
  It was at first the similarity of their boats that brought together
Hansen and Dumas, but in each other they saw kindred spirits a
strange, deep loneliness and restlessness, in spite of outgoing man-
ners, and an unusually strong tie to their mothers even when grown
men that perhaps psychologists would relate to their inexorable
passion for the mother sea. Each, too, was a man somewhat larger
than life who could never be content unless struggling to climb above
the ordinary.
  In any case, Dumas saw Hansen off and went back to the task of
completing Legh II. Dumas later wrote of Hansen:  

        What a joy it was, that sunny morning in 1934, when he
        came to see me, signed his name on a panel of Legh II,
        then building, and expressed his approval. He talked of
        the mother he had left far away in his Norwegian fjord
        and discussed his plans. It seemed unthinkable that he,
        With all his determination and optimism, should have
        finished as he did.(4)

  For reasons not clear, Dumas's projected world voyage never came
off. Perhaps he was discouraged and shaken by the death of his friend
Al Hansen more likely it was for financial reasons. His business

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began to deteriorate. The Depression was on. In some parts of the
world, such as Europe, the traditional market for South American
products, there was political upheaval. Herr Hitler had come on the
scene, as had Mussolini, in Dumas's own Italy. In Spain, often con-
sidered the Mother Country by Latin Americans, there was strife and
revolution. At home, the government was unstable, with much
heated dissension among various factions. And Dumas was having
family as well as financial problems.
  For the next several years, Legh II was sailed locally and raced in
the Rio offshore competition. Returning from Rio after one series of
races, Dumas encountered an unexpected pampero and a freak wave
which capsized and rolled Legh II over with apparently little damage.
From that moment on, Dumas had sublime faith in his little
  But soon he had to sell Legh 1I to buy some cattle, and with it
went his dream of a solo circumnavigation. But as his finances and
family problems worsened, he found he could still dream of escape.
On rainy days, he could bend over his charts and let his soul sail away
on "the impossible route" around the world in the Roaring Forties.
  World War II came to engulf the world. Dumas was now forty-
two years old and a failure. Worse yet, he felt a vast void of unfulfill-
ment in his life that had begun as a child when he had given up
school to go to work to help support his mother and father. He had
the Argentine version of the seven-year itch, and now, with the
breath of war reaching into every ocean and every country, time was
running out. How long would it last? How old would he be then?
Maybe there was still time.
  He hunted around for Legh II, and found that she was still in the
hands of the original purchaser. But now, he was to learn, the owner
would not sell for anything except cash. All Dumas had for collateral
was a herd of cattle which had been driven from farm to farm and
fair to fair so often that they were too weak and skinny to hold up
their own weight. The beef market was down. No one wanted them.
It was ironic that Dumas had sold Legh II in order to buy cattle; now
he could not sell his cattle to buy his boat back.
  At last, an old friend came forward and gave him the cash. As news
got around of Dumas's plans, old friends appeared out of nowhere.
They loaned him money, gave him supplies and equipment, clothing,
medicines, books, encouragement. Friends and club members showed
up with tools, lunch baskets, and mate to help him refurbish and
outfit Legh II. If nothing else, his decision to beat the war around

   ~ 153 ~

the world evoked an outpouring of respect, friendship, and admira-
tion from old friends, family members, and even hundreds of
  After all this, it was difficult to tear himself away from it all, but
finally, on Friday, June 26, 1942, he made his last rounds of port and
customs, got together with an inner circle of close friends for a last
party, and the following morning, before crowds of thousands of well-
wishers and press representatives, Dumas had a tearful and emotional
good-bye scene with his mother, brother, and son.
  Adios, my country. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Slowly he moved
down the channel. Several yachts escorted him On one was his son,
Vito Diego. "Keep well, Vito," he called to him. "Be good!"
  Then he was off through the congested river traffic for Monte-
video. There he waited out a blow at the yacht club, went through
another gay and emotional departure, and headed at last for the
Atlantic into the teeth of a soutwester.
  He could not have picked a worse time. Pamperos were frequent.
The wind and seas were vicious. The nights were black, without sign
of life. Legh II ran on,her sails not yet balanced, not having got her
sea legs. On July 3, exhausted, Dumas heard running water inside.
Inspection showed a bad leak. Enormous seas battered the boat.
Somehow he cleared away five hundred bottles and other gear and
discovered a crack in a plank. Quickly, he made emergency repairs
with canvas and red lead. During this, he injured his arm in the
violent motion, but he had saved the ship. He went to bed and slept,
only to awaken with an infected right arm. For several days, he
fought the infection with injections of antibiotics to no effect.
  The seas continued violent. The leaking plank opened up again. A
jar of honey broke and its contents ran into the bilge. Dumas was
now running a high fever every movement sent streamers of pain
through his body; he became delirious. The putrid odor of decaying
flesh filled the close cabin. Hundreds of miles from land, there
seemed no alternative but to amputate his own arm at the elbow
with an ax or a seaman's knife but before he could do this he passed
out. When he awoke, he was lying in a puddle. The wound had
opened and pus was draining out. There was a three-inch hole in his
arm. With his knife, he pried out the core of the abscess; then he
dressed the wound and gave himself another injection.
  As if to celebrate his recovery, the sun came out and the wind
veered to the south. He put the ship in order, cleaned the cabin, had

  ~ 154 ~

something to eat, and then went on deck and took the tiller which he
had not touched in days.
  Cape Town is on approximately the same latitude as Buenos Aires.
On this long passage, Dumas ran before gale winds, with seas often
50 feet high, when steering became an ordeal of endurance. On
August 5, he sighted the cloud bank over Tristan da Cunha. On the
thirteenth, he crossed the prime meridian into East Longitude.
  One day, he heard a siren and rushed up on deck to find a Brazil-
ian ship hailing him. It being wartime, they were all on edge until
identification was made. By now, German and Japanese raiders
roamed all the oceans of the world. The United States was still
reeling from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of half the
Pacific fleet. Tankers were being sunk off the U.S. east coast by the
dozen. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo with B-25s launched from the
deck of the Hornet would have little effect except to bolster morale
among the Allies.
  On August 31, Legh II was spoken by a British warship, which had
a submarine lurking close by. Then, fifty-five days after leaving the
River Plate, he sighted Table Mountain. At dusk, he came into the
harbor where he was met by officials, the press, and well-wishers. It
was 3 A.M. before he was alone again and able to lie down for his first
real rest without motion. Even for wartime, he was given a most
cordial welcome. The ten pounds which made up his total finances
at the time, went unspent. All fees were waived. Parties and recep-
tions were held for him. His fame had preceded him a senior naval
officer there had read his first book about his voyage in Legh I.5 His
public image was not only that of an intrepid solo bluewater sailor,
but of a literary personage, too.
  He received many letters and telegrams from people who wanted
to meet him. One was an invitation from a lady of means, a thirty-
year-old widow who was also lonely and had artistic tastes (Dumas,
among his other talents, was also a painter). He moved in with her at
her villa for several idyllic weeks. For a Latin in his troublesome
forties in need of emotional and spiritual feasting, he was tempted to
accept her offer of a permanent residence in this South African love
nest; but he remembered the old Argentinian modismo: Never let a
friend's hand get warm in yours.(6)
  Finally, he had to say a demain . Again, his departure was hectic.
Preparations were endless. People donated time and money to him.
He acquired charts that would take him past the remote St. Paul and
   ~ 155 ~

Amsterdam, where it was said that Alain Gerbault had once planned
a get-rich fur-trapping scheme. On Monday, September 14, Dumas
took aboard the last supplies, made his tearful farewells with emo-
tional embraces and handshakes, and made his way out of the harbor.
  Soon he moved into the region of constant storms, at times
surrounded by gigantic waterspouts, averaging 120 to 150 miles a day,
with waves often 50 feet high and 900 feet long he was in the
Roaring Forties, those legendary latitudes which, until Dumas, had
never been experienced by yachtsmen. He passed out of the Atlantic
into the Indian Ocean. For weeks on end, he sailed alone through
the region of phantom ships such as the Flying Dutchman, the ghosts
of ancient ships of the old East India trade. He thought of the Marie
Celeste found with all sails set, a meal in the galley, and no one
aboard. Once he heard voices coming from the forward locker, which
he never used, voices in Spanish, talking about how they could steal
food without Dumas knowing. Once a voice asked him for cigarettes.
Because he was in a storm, he could not leave the helm. At the end
of three days, he was able to go forward armed with a gaff; but by
then the voices had disappeared.(7)
  He also had many encounters and close calls with whales. He grew
a beard. He marveled at the sea life between gales, and experimented
with rigs,and techniques. What else does one do on a voyage of 104

       It is said that solitude is best shared with another. These
       seas offer joys to anyone who is capable of loving and
       understanding nature. Are there not people who can
       spend hours watching the rain as it falls? I once read
       somewhere that three things could never be boring: pass-
       ing clouds, dancing flames, and running water. They
       are not the only ones. I should add in the first place,
       work. The self-sufficient man acquires a peculiar state of

  Once he saw ten albatrosses sitting on the water examining an
object, which turned out to be a small jar, and the birds seemed to be
having a conference to decide what this foreign object was. On
October 28, Dumas passed Amsterdam Island, with St. Paul to the
north and he avoided them. "All I could possibly find would be
some shipwrecked mariner waiting for his death."(9)
  Daily runs became about one hundred miles. He recorded a new
kind of porpoise with white belly and tail and brown back, as have

   ~ 156 ~

other sailors in these latitudes. He also discovered a fly aboard.
(Slocum had his spiders; Caldwell his cockroaches and rats for
companions. )
  The whales became a menace, sometimes charging at him, only to
swerve away at the last moment. He found that at night he could
scare the whales away with a flashlight. On November 6, a gigantic
wave broke aboard with a crash.(10)
  As he sailed into a cyclone on his approach to Australia, he bat-
tened ship and offered a prayer to St. Teresa. Tempted to run for
land, only 130 miles away, he instead changed course to pass Cape
Leeuwin and make New Zealand in one stage from Cape Town. His
fresh water had dwindled to mud, and in spite of massive doses of
vitamin C, he had the first symptoms of scurvy. There were yet 1,440
miles to go to reach Tasmania.
  Riding enormous seas, his clothes in rags, weak from malnutrition,
with an injured leg, he sailed on across the Tasman Sea. On Decem-
ber 16, he was 160 miles from Cape Providence, 800 miles from
Wellington. After 101 days at sea, he was only a quarter mile out
from his reckoning. On December 27, he neared the coast with lovely
white houses on shore. Off Worser, he luffed up and came alongside
a harbor launch.
  "Where have you come from?"
  "From the Cape of Good Hope."
  Behind him were 104 days of solitude, struggle, sickness, and the
will to survive. For the first time in history, a lone sailor had accom-
plished the formidable nonstop route from Cape Town to New
Zealand. "I will never, never sail again!"
  Wellington, now on full wartime footing with large numbers of
British and American military forces there, extended all its warm
hospitality to the lonely Argentinian. The British and American
sailors adopted him. A local family, the Meadows, took him home to
  But, finally, on January 30, he broke away again, and embarked on
the old clipper route toward Cape Horn with his next stop, Santiago,
Chile, 5,000 miles away. Again he was alone on the loneliest ocean on
earth. Again he encountered menacing whales, once climbing up on
the back of one cachalot. He fell down a hatch and broke a rib. He
read and slept a lot, and made from 100 to 130 miles a day. Once,
halfway there, he saw something floating on the water. It was a
woman's pink slipper with a pompom of silk. Where had it come
from? What lady once daintily slipped it off her foot, perhaps for the

   ~ 157 ~

benefit of a man in the first suggestive courtship ritual? It must have
been an elegant lady-it was size 4.
  On March 4, he saw a westbound ship. Two days later, some birds
from Pitcaim joined him he tried to build a binnacle for the com-
pass, but had lost his only tool, a screwdriver, overboard. He had
more close calls with whales. On Sunday, April 11, at 2000 hours, 71
days out, he came on deck to see the lights of Point Curaumillas
flashing to starboard. Valparaiso was ahead. His landfall had been
perfect. Just across the bay, he could see the lights and hear the
sounds of the barbor. A voice came out of the darkness. "Mu-
chacho," he called. "Be a good chap and tell the harbormaster."
  He planned to attempt Cape Horn between the middle of June
and the middle of July. Dumas knew what he was doing. He had
studied the impossible route for ten years. He calculated daily runs,
time traveled, winds and currents. He thought he knew the secret of
the Horn.                      
  Not until the end of May did he sail. Meanwhile he was feted as
usual as a hero and celebrity by his fellow South Americans. The
Chilean navy, famous for its hospitality, took Dumas to their hearts
and overhauled Legh II. His chronometer was repaired and rated. He
was given a set of charts. From his home across the Andes, where
news of his arrival had reached, came messages and gifts from friends.
  On Sunday, May 25, he went to Mass, then to the hotel room for
his luggage, and while the city slept, boarded Legh II. Loaded down
with wine, spirits, food, and supplies for six months, he embarked on
the shortest and most dangerous leg of his voyage. Soon Juan Fer-
nandez, the Robinson Crusoe island, showed ahead, and was left
behind. The seas became boisterous, with waves breaking in frighten-
ing sounds. After six days of gales, he was 600 miles from Cape I Horn.
On June 18, he was abreast of Cape Pillar, the entrance to Magellan
Strait, 180 miles to the east. On June 22, he sighted Tierra del Fuego
to the northeast. He lay in his bunk and read the records of Cook
and Bougainviile, and recalled the joy of hearing that Al Hansen had
succeeded, and the sorrow later. Could he escape the curse that
broods between 50d S and 50d S?
  One dark stormy night, he estimated that the Horn was abeam. It
was about midnight, and the wind and seas were high he could not
go outside. All he could do was hang on with both hands. There was
a violent shock. He was thrown forward and struck his face on a
panel. His nose spouted blood. It was broken.
  Cape Horn makes everyone pay tribute.

  ~ 158 ~

  The twenty-fifth came and went. He forged on under mizzen,
storm trysail, staysail, and jib. He had left the Horn behind. Beside
him stood the ghost of a dead sailor, Al Hansen. Dumas wept.
  His course then led northward past Staten Island, the coast of
Patagonia over shallow areas where the depth was eighty fathoms or
less. Here, seas could not get up enough to harm him.(11)
  On July 5, he saw a Chilean steamer with a four-master in tow. He
was five miles off the coast. His chronometer had been in error. The
low hills behind the dunes loomed up. The water was green. At
night, he came to the Mala Cara Buoy the ugly one. Mar del Plata,
eighteen miles away, was sighted on July 7. He came upon some
fishing boats in the bright morning and asked them to notify author-
ities. They opened a bottle and sang sea chanties. A towline was
passed and Legh II entered port sedately.
  He was given a hero's welcome. Greetings arrived from everyone in
Argentina, it seemed. There were receptions at the Rotary Club, the
yacht and sailing clubs, and in private homes. Reporters and photog-
raphers hounded him. There was a ceremony at sunrise on July 19.
All the crews of all the ships stood at attention, as the sun climbed
rose red in the pale sky, and a bugle broke the silence as the flag went
  "For this I would go around the world a hundred times."(12)
  For Dumas, it was fulfillment at last. This he could savor and
contemplate over and over again from a remote hideaway in the
Sierra de Cordoba, where he could look down as the lights came on
in the evening in the valley, blinking like falling stars, each of them a
boat on land with its own particular problems. He contemplated the
scene and the peace he had at last achieved.
  "Lord, be lavish of Thy Peace and guide to all the ports of the
world, those sailors who are orphaned in the immensity of the sea."

  Later, Dumas would be honored by the Royal Cruising Club of
London, awarded the first Slocum Prize of the Slocum Society. He
would settle on a country estate near Buenos Aires, but his sailing
days were not over. In 1946, after the war, he took Legh II on a
voyage to New York, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and back. In
1955, he again set sail, this time in a new vessel, the Sirio, making
New York in one landfall, 7,100 miles in 117 days.
  Dumas was a true Renaissance man. Not only was he a superb
sailor, farmer, and cattle raiser, but a musician, an artist with an
original and innovative style, a lover, a family man, and an eccentric.
His solo sailing techniques have been copied by others, such as his

  ~ 159 ~

bold running before the waves of the high southern latitudes instead
of heaving to or lying to a sea anchor, which he abhorred; and his
relying on his patron saints instead of bilge pumps or tools (he
carried only one screwdriver). He suffered from malnutrition because
he would not catch and kill a fish. He was determined that if he died
it would be with his boots on.
  Legh II would become a derelict at Mar del Plata, the Argentine
summer resort. Toward the end of August 1971, she was sailing from
Buenos Aires with students from the National Nautical School.
When the weather turned bad, Legh II was driven ashore. Later she
would be salvaged and placed in a maritime museum.(l3) She had died
with her boots on.

  ~ 160 ~

 - end Chapter 15 -

To Chapter 16.

====================================================================== AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Fifteen 1. Alone Through the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas; first published in English by Adlard Coles, Ltd., 1960, in association with George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., London; and John de Graff, Inc., New York. Translation by Captain Raymond Townes. 2. Most voyagers chose either the strait or sneaked through the passages behind Horn Island; see Grifffith, Bernicot, Slocum, Bardiaux, Tilman, Lewis, and others. 3. Campos also designed and built Gaucho for Ernesto Uriburo, which made one of the first yacht voyages after World War II. 4. Alone Through the Roaring Forties. 5. Solo Rumbo a la Cruz del Sur. Long out of print and rare; pub- lisher unknown. 6. Dumas was not the first voyager to be enchanted by South Africa and almost overcome with temptation to end his voyage there. See Slocum, Pidgeon, Gerbault, Moitessier, and others. 7. This psychic phenomenon is apparently very common among long-distant solo sailors. Slocum had his pilot of the Pinta, Alec Rose had his talking doll; many have reported hearing voices, some of which they attempted to answer. The tragic Donald Crowhurst episode was a classic and clinical case of a man's mind decaying over a long period alone at sea. 8. Alone Through the Roaring Forties. 9. Conor O'Brien, on his voyage, expressed almost the identical sen- timent, which borders on the unsporting. These two lonely rocks, however, in the 1960s and 1970s, have become the mecca for ham radio operators on "DX Expeditions." 10. In this same general area, Bill King, on Galway Blazer II, was rammed and stove in by a whale. He was barely able to limp back to Perth. 11. Moitessier and Bardiaux had other ideas about this region. In their view, the shallow depths here created vicious seas, which they considered much worse than those on the open oceans. 12. Alone Through the Roaring Forties. 13. Reported by Richard McCloskey, founding father and first secre- tary of the Slocum Society in The Spray, Vol. XV, 1971.

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