The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm



- 16 -

For Auld Lang Syne

         The day was Easter Sunday, 1948. A fine Ha-
         waiian day with fresh trade winds chasing
         broken white clouds across a blue sky. Outside
         the harbor, as sails were hoisted, the strong
         wind, taut sheets and a ship come to life wiped
         away all nostalgia. Lang Syne heeled under
         full sail, took a bone in her teeth and raced as
         though rejoicing to be in her elements again.(1)

cleft rent from barren, uninhabited Todos Santos Island on the
lonely coast of Baja, Mexico, there lies quietly at anchor a rugged,
hefty Block Island schooner. Although almost forty years old, she
looks not more than ten. Her cosmetics are fresh, her rigging taut,
her superstructure well-kept. The same might be said for her crew,
Bill and Phyllis Crowe, who a quarter century before had been the
second couple in history to have made a circumnavigation in a dream
ship built with their own hands. Time has been kind to both ship
and crew....

Lang Syne's story began, like many of her kind, in the depression- ridden 1930s in balmy Southern California, long before the smog, the freeways, the crowded suburbs, the race riots, and the frantic millions all getting into each other's way; when a Sunday drive in a Model A roadster from L.A. to Long Beach took you down orange and palm- lined roads with cozy little five-acre haciendas, and occasional oil ~ 163 ~ derricks and pumps, and open-air fruit and grocery stalls run by Japa- nese-American families, to the enormous harbor protected from the open sea, where about the only activity at times appeared to be the Catalina ferry landing, and the friendly people building dream boats on rented waterfront lots. Like most Californians of that genre, the Crowes originated some- where else. Phyllis had been born in Iowa (where in those days all good Californians were said to be from), birthplace of many a sailor, such as Harry Pidgeon; while William was an authentic "prune picker," since he was second generation his parents having reached the promised land via prairie schooner across Death Valley before he was born. Bill ran a refrigeration business, which in those depression years was more of a migraine headache than a business, and after their marriage, Bill and Billie (as he called Phyllis) escaped from their problems as often as possible in an ancient 34-foot cruiser which they had patched together. Selling this, they acquired a sailing canoe, then a 19-foot skipjack, and finally built their first real dream ship, a 25- foot Sea Bird type, the original and smaller version of Harry Pidgeon's Islander, which had also been built right here at Los Angeles harbor. They named her Corvus (which means "crow," naturally), and for two years sailed the yawl on coastal waters and back and forth to Catalina and other channel islands. These short voyages, as is usually the case, rather than satisfying their restlessness, only increased it. They sold the business, their car and house, and all other unneeded possessions, and shoved off for Hawaii a week ahead of that year's TransPac Race fleet. They would have entered, but their ship was too small to qualify. As it was, they arrived, after a 20-day passage spent "laughing all the way," days before the fleet, including the 85-foot scratch boat.(2) Once in prewar Hawaii, all thought of returning to the mainland disappeared. They had found the life they wanted. They made new friends, went for short cruises among the islands, and took up perma- nent residence. In those days, Hawaii was a semitropical paradise, a world crossroads for sea wanderers. In port at the time were such vessels as Viator, a little schooner en route from Tahiti; the 32-foot ketch Te Rapunga, in from Amsterdam via Australia with George Dibbern, the eccentric who renounced all citizenship ties and created his own flag (and who had dominion over his own cell when World War II broke out); the catamaran Kaimiloa, bound for France; the ~ 164 ~ 34-foot ketch Hula Gal, headed for Seattle and none other than the Islander with Captain Harry Pidgeon himself living aboard. But the winds of change were already blowing, even in languid Hawaii, where Waikiki was still a tropical beach with palm trees and beachcombers and bare-breasted native girls doing laundry. The Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, was perhaps in the planning stage when Bill and Phyllis decided that their Corvus was too small. With a set of borrowed blueprints of Howard I. Chapelle's updated version of the Block Island schooner, they set about building their ultimate dream ship on the beach at Waikiki on a lot they rented for $5 a month. At no time in history was there a better opportunity to build one's dream ship than in Hawaii in the late 1930s. Labor was cheap and plentiful, and top-quality materials such as Philippine mahogany were abundant. Even in Hawaii, they were able to obtain prime vertical- grained Douglas fir planks from the Pacific Northwest for one-piece full-length strakes. With the help of friends, they set up the keel, steamed the frames, and planked the hull, taking about two years for the project. At one point, not having received a bill from suppliers for months, Crowe went to the Honolulu office to inquire why not. The office manager seemed surprised. It was customary, he said, to send statements only on January 1, unless there was some pressing reason to do otherwise.(3) Before the hull was completed, they moved aboard and "lived with" each arrangement before making it permanent. The ship was launched during an earthquake, and christened with a bottle of beer. For a name, they thought of Auld Lang Syne, in memory of all the good times they had had so far and expected to have in the future, but because this was too long to go on the nameboard, they shortened it to Lang Syne. Lang Syne was a luxury cruise ship compared to Corvus. She was 39 feet overall, 34 feet on the waterline, with a beam of 14 feet and a draft of 6 feet. She was double-ended with a salty sheer line, and rigged with a gaff-head main and jib-headed foremast. The first engine was a small Scripps gasoline mill. In July 1938, the shakedown cruise was made to California via the northern circle to avoid the trades. Lang Syne proved to be a real seagoing home fast, seaworthy, and comfortable. They made a land- fall on familiar San Nicolas Island within minutes of their E.T.A. Later they cruised back to Hawaii, where Lang Syne was moored at the yacht club in Honolulu when the sneak attack came on the ~ 165 ~ morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. The war years were spent on the beach, working in the defense facilities, saving up for the bright new postwar world everyone hoped they were fighting for. In May 1946, the Crowes set off on their first long voyage in more than four years. Now Lang Syne was 10 years old, but as good as new and her Scripps had been replaced with a new 37-horsepower Her- cules-Kermath diesel. In nine days, they sailed half the distance to California, and then were becalmed. During the calm, they noticed a large black buoy with spikes on it nearby a loose mine but were able to motor out of the way. The crossing took 33 days, compared to their first crossing of 47 days on the Lang Syne's maiden voyage. It was the first yacht crossing in five years. In Los Angeles, they bought a car and spent two months sight- seeing, camping, hiking, and visiting relatives. Then they went back to their schooner home, intending to return directly to Hawaii and build a home on land they had purchased during the war. But because a shipping strike was on and there were shortages of every- thing, the Crowes decided to return via the Marquesas and Tahiti. Before leaving, they installed a clutch arrangement on the engine shaft which was linked with a generator to keep batteries charged while under sail, and would hopefully reduce propeller drag.(4)

In April 1947, they departed Los Angeles harbor for Guadalupe Island, the remote rock owned by Mexico some two hundred miles south of Catalina. They spent several days beachcombing and photo- graphing the sea elephants, although the island was a refuge and off- limits. Just as they were departing, they were boarded by a govern- ment boat, but allowed to continue.(5)

In the Marquesas, they were met by trader Bob McKittrick, still the unofficial greeter of yachts and sea wanderers since the days of Muhlhauser and Stock. They were given a sack of mail to deliver to Tahiti by the administrator, and reached Papeete via the Tuamotus on June 3. At dawn, the pilot boat appeared outside the pass. Bill refused its services, but was told it was compulsory. In the harbor, they tied up to the quay where the port doctor, police, and other officials crowded aboard to find out why they were without visas or passports. Crowe told them he did not want to come in, but the pilot had told him it was required. The pilot, a Captain Bailly, who was also the harbormaster, and obviously a man with a sense of humor, confirmed this. There were already two American yachts in Papeete, the Island Girl and Tere. The Crowes spent two months here and at Moorea, ~ 166 ~ where a Belgian couple managed the small hotel.(6) On the way north to Hawaii, they called at several island ports in the Tuamotus where they were welcomed with much hospitality.(7) They stopped again in the Marquesas to drop off some supplies, much to McKittrick's sur- prise, who thought that, like most yachts that made promises that were not kept, they would never return. At the Marquesas, they learned that the Kon Tiki raft was nearing the area, but declined to cover the event for the waiting world press. The passage to Hawaii was made in the record time of 14 days, beating the previous record of 16 days set by the 48-foot ketch Altair for the 2,100-mile run. Home again and recapping their odyssey with friends, it occurred to them that they had already gone a third of the way around the world. "Let's go the rest of the way," Phyllis blurted. The only other couple to have made a circumnavigation alone was Roger and Edith Strout in Igdrasil, a Spray copy, back in the 1930s. So it was decided. They found a secondhand sailmaking machine, rented the armory for a loft, and made a new set of sails. After acquir- ing another dinghy, they made a cockpit shelter, and installed extra butane tanks.(8) Diving gear, a brazing outfit, a war surplus radio transmitter, pilot books, light lists, charts, and sailing directions went aboard. Among their friends in Hawaii were the Irving Johnsons, who were in port with the new Yankee and crew of amateurs on their fourth circumnavigation. The Johnsons prevailed on them to meet in Pago Pago for the annual Samoan festival. The Crowes still had their car to dispose of and no buyers, but, at the last moment, a friend came along and offered to trade a beach lot for it. The deal was made on the spot, sight unseen. A beach lot in most parts of Hawaii in the 1970s would be worth enough to make one independently wealthy, which indicates that sea wanderers don't necessarily have to be poor businessmen. They departed on Easter Sunday, 1948, for Samoa. The passage was a rough one with towering seas and gale winds. Billie was seasick for the first few days. On this passage, they encountered the phe- nomenon of tidal overfalls marking the meeting of equatorial cur- rents near Fannings Island, which appeared like a line of breaking surf. The last few days to Samoa were spent motoring in a calm. They crossed the equator on April 6, and on the afternoon of the seven- teenth, anchored at Tutuila, one day before their rendezvous with the Yankee. ~ 167 ~ The stay in Samoa included a round of parties and sightseeing, mostly with the Yankee's crew. The visit was marred, the Crowes complained mildly, by bothersome natives the usual complaint of visitors ignorant of Samoan customs. Here, also, the Johnsons con- fided to the Crowes that the responsibility of managing a big 98-foot brigantine sometimes left them wishing they could get back to the simple life. Leaving Pago Pago, the Crowes encountered a violent gale which snapped the gaff boom, and Bill was nearly lost overboard getting in the headsails, which would have been more than disastrous, since Billie had not yet learned celestial navigation. But once safely hove- to, Lang Syne rode the gale easily. On the way to the Fijis, calls were made at several out-of-the-way places, such as Niuafoo, the Tin Can Island in the Tongan group. At Suva, they were made honorary members of the yacht club. One evening at anchor, a beautiful little half-caste girl swam out to Lang Syne and pulled herself up on the rail. She wanted to sign on as a crew member. Bill told her there was already one woman aboard. "Wouldn't two be better7" he was asked. In Suva, Bil1 also had a molar extracted by an Indian dentist who spoke fluent English and was surprised to find that Crowe still had all his teeth at age fifty. The extraction was made without Novocain and without Bill knowing it until the dentist showed him the molar. Apparently the dentist had hypnotized him. The next stop was for a haircut by an Indian barber. The extraction had cost $1.25; the haircut, 20 cents. On the way to Australia, they passed remote Walpole and Kunie islands near New Caledonia, and received news on the radio that Captain Harry Pidgeon was shipwrecked only four hundred miles away on his third circumnavigation aboard Islander. Before leaving Hawaii, Crowe had asked Pidgeon if he were not leaving too early to avoid the hurricane season, and was told, "Those things always happen somewhere else. They don't worry me." With his wife, Pidgeon had anchored in Hog Harbor, Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, a harbor normally well protected, and had been blown up on the beach. They called at Brisbane, covering the 1,600 miles in only 13 days, on the way nearly colliding with a large pod of whales. After a wild tow up the river by the pilot boat, they were invited to use the private mooring of Eric Dalby at his waterfront estate. They were ~ 168 ~ given an honorary membership in the Royal Queensland Yacht Club and Billie became the third woman in the history of the club to be invited to the commodore's luncheon. The long trip around behind the Great Barrier Reef was one of their most enjoyable and fascinating passages. Nights were spent anchored in remote creeks, days with visiting people ashore in iso- lated settlements, skindiving, fishing, and hunting on shore. They prowled the reefs from late June until September, and came very near to remaining in this region permanently. They stopped at Cairns before this port became world-famous as a game-fishing center, and traveled inland on a switchbacking railroad to the town of Lareeba at 3,000-foot elevation. At one stop, in Cook's Passage, Bill was skin- diving when a large octopus grabbed his leg. He managed to get loose with a tire iron. They passed Sunday Island in Torres Strait, went around Cape York, and picked up their mail at Thursday Island. The local agent, who was holding their mail, grinned as he handed them a notice from Uncle Sam's Collector of Internal Revenue. Next came the New Guinea coast. They enjoyed a brief stay in Dili, the capital of Portuguese Timor. The East Indies were then in the early stages of postwar political turmoil. Worse yet, the un- charted waters and misplaced navigational aids were complicated by bands of armed natives with itchy trigger fingers. But they kept another appointment with Yankee at Bali, and then went on to Batavia, Singapore, and Ceylon. They had one tense period in the Java Sea, when boarded by a band of armed natives, whom Crowe met with a calm and bold front and just the proper degree of indig- nation. It was a close call. Before leaving Singapore, Bill bought a Christmas tree marked "Made in England" to have aboard when the day came. After Billie had gone to sleep on Christmas Eve, Bill got out the tree and fixed it to the cabin table. When Billie awoke, she gasped with delight. They made heavy weather on the passage to Ceylon. After a short stay there, they went on to Mombasa by way of the Maldives. One evening, clipping along at eight knots, they collided with or were attacked by a whale, one of several sleeping on the surface. The encounter broke their bobstay. At 3 A.M. on the morning of January 25, they smelled the burning sugar cane on the mainland of Africa. The American consul at Mombasa presented them with a new national ensign, replacing the one they had won in a 1940 race and carried to four continents. ~ 169 ~ There was quite a lively American colony here, including a vivacious young girl named Margery Passmore who managed the Ritz Hotel. The Lang Syne was the first American yacht here after the war. At Zanzibar, 120 miles down the coast, they were directed to an unprotected anchorage, and in a blow Lang Syne went aground. This nearly ended the voyage, but the Crowes, in their usual competent way, kedged off while the port authorities stood by, wringing their hands but not helping. They beached the vessel for repairs among the fleet of Arab dhows, and became guests of the governor for the rest of their stay. On the 1,700-mile passage to Durban, South Africa, Billie caught a kingfish on "Alfonso," the battered feather jig they had dragged halfway around the world. On March 4, after reef crawling the Afri- can coast, they arrived at Durban. Here, of course, they found a warm welcome from local yacht clubs and were invited to lecture. They showed movies of Hawaii, and during one presentation in the crowded hall, someone suddenly shouted, "With all that at home, what in the world are you doing in Durban?" Leaving on St. Patrick's Day, they hugged the coast and had a fair passage around to Cape Town, where the Royal Cape Yacht Club had the welcome flag up for them. Some of the yachts that came out to meet them beat the harbor officials, somewhat to the Crowes' embarrassment. Picking up their first mail since Singapore, the Crowes made a few minor repairs including a new photocell for "Pete," the automatic pilot, and, on July 10, departed with an escort of dozens of yachts and press boats. Instead of the usual route, they followed the coast up to the mouth of the Congo, crossing the bar to the old town of St. Paul de Luanda. Gracious local officials made arrangements for a native pilot to take them upriver. They met a local doctor who told them he had treated Alain Gerbault years before, at Dili, while they had been prisoners of the Japanese.(9) Lang Syne was taken about twenty-five miles upriver to Zenze Creek, where the Crowes anchored in front of the Katala village. They spent several days here, bartering with the natives, listening to the jungle sounds at night, and watching the crocodiles play. Bill made the downriver run himself without a pilot, a tense but master- ful piece of small-boat handling. From the Congo, the Crowes wandered the Atlantic, putting in at Rio de Janeiro, where some difficulty was experienced with local ~ 170 ~ officials who seldom saw an American yacht. They quickly made friends and fell in with the local social whirl. Here they found a letter from Herbert Stone, publisher of Yachting, waiting at the yacht club. He extended an invitation to come to New York and also asked for a series of articles on the voyage. They also received another notice from I.R.S. saying their payment made from Cape Town was $14 short, and please remit with interest. The long, hard uphill beat was made to Recife, capital of Pernam- buco. After some difficulties over papers, they managed to escape and had six days of easy sailing to the mouth of the Amazon. Then came Port of Spain, the Antilles up to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, and through the Sargasso Sea to the United States, arriving off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in late May. They sailed up the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty, and put in at the Seventy-ninth Street Landing, where a buoy was assigned to them. From the deck of Lang Syne, the Crowes looked up at the solid rows of apartment buildings and the traffic on the parkway, and then looked at each other, reached across the boom, and shook hands. They spent the summer cruising Long Island Sound, visiting with the Johnsons, who had beaten them home by a year, and with their son, Steve, who had married one of the crew, Mary Booth, and now lived in Larchmont. The Crowes had never seen television. Yacht-club friends arranged for them to see a replay of their arrival in New York, which had been covered by a battery of cameras. New York fascinated them mainly because it proved to be the yachting capital of the world. They also enjoyed a stay in New England waters. In August, they set sail for the south via the Intercoastal Waterways, traveling with other snowbirds heading for Florida. Along the way, they received word that they had been awarded the coveted Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America. From Florida, they made a leisurely visit to the Bahamas, then sailed for Jamaica, and on to Panama. Like many others before them, they complained of the rough treatment in the locks. They stopped at the Balboa Yacht Club, beached the vessel for a bottom painting, loaded supplies aboard for the last leg of the cruise. They got clear- ance for Los Angeles, visited ports in Central America and Mexico, Las Perlas Island, and Cocos. At the latter place, they anchored in Chatham Bay alongside a large diesel yacht from Gulfport, and loafed for several days. At Acapulco, where they put in for fuel, they encountered difficulties with authorities, but with the assistance of ~ 171 ~ Enrique, their friend who had sailed the Barco de Oro around the world the first Mexican yacht to do so they overcame. On June 5, they saw their first North Pacific albatross. On June 12, they passed Santa Catalina and ran into the San Pedro Channel. They did not want to be "in" yet, until they could clean up the ship and get organized. An enterprising Examiner reporter, however, discovered Lang Syne anchored by using one of those pay telescopes at Point Fermin Park, and came out in a water taxi. The next few months were spent in the Los Angeles area with family members, and cruising their old waters around Catalina. Finally, on March 15, 1952, they cut loose again and headed home to Honolulu. After a rough passage, they put in at Hilo for a few days, then went on again to Lang Syne's birthplace on the beach at Waikiki. In the lee of Diamond Head, sails were furled, a string of flags of all countries visited was run up, and the schooner was escorted into the basin by a parade of yachts with horns and whistles blowing, and leis of orchids, ginger blossoms, and fragrant carnations draped on the rigging. The story of the Crowes' circumnavigation in Lang Syne is one of quiet competence by friendly, outgoing people, who planned and prepared thoroughly, had few untoward incidents, never took unnec- essary chances, but never passed up an interesting port or anchorage. As the CCA put it in the Blue Water Medal citation: "They cruised the waters of the world with no heroics and a minimum of misadventures. In its preparation and execution, the Crowes' voyage has exemplified outstandingly the meritorious sea- manship to which the Blue Water Medal is dedicated." ~ 172 ~

- end Chapter 16 -

To Chapter 17.

====================================================================== AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Sixteen 1. Heaven, Hell and Salt Water by Bill and Phyllis Crowe (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957) . 2. One of the entries was the Arcturus, the black-hulled yacht of General George Patton, the controversial leader of the Third Army in World War II. 3. How times have changed. In 1973, when I tried to cash a small check in Honolulu, I was regarded as a member of an international smuggling ring. I had to produce three credit cards, leave my thumb print, and pose for a mug shot before my request would be considered. 4. The Crowes used this system for the entire voyage around the world. Tests in the Stevens Institute tank, however, have more recently shown that there is less drag when the prop is not rotating. 5. With his disarming manner Bill Crowe, who spoke Spanish fairly fluently, had little trouble talking himseif out of such situations. The Miles Smeetons, about a decade later, also visited the island illegally and barely escaped a boat sent out to intercept them. 6. The Belgian couple was probably the L. G. Van de Wieles of Omoo fame. 7. Hospitality in French Oceania has become a thing of the past, current voyagers report. 8. The Crowes were among the first bluewater voyagers to use the cheap and efficient propane for cooking. Their two tanks lasted them all the way around the world. Properly installed and used, butane has proved to be safe, clean, and entirely practical aboard yachts. 9. This little-known pearl of information seems to authenticate Gerbault's internment as a war prisoner, and his death from a tropical disease. Unfortunately, Crowe does not give the name of the doctor.

To Chapter 17.

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