The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 17 -

Stornoway and the Good Samaritan

          All Wanderers on the sea are brothers, but this
          one is a born gentleman, and a rare sailor.(l)

Medal of the Cruising Club of America included an unusually large
number of outstanding candidates, not the least of whom were
Carleton Mitchell of Caribbee and Finistere fame, who had won the
Transoceanic Pennant for his passage to England in 1952; Patrick
Ellam, who with Colin Mudie sailed the tiny Sopranino from Eng-
land to the United States in a remarkable passage; and a Dr. Davis,
who sailed the ketch Miru on a stormy voyage from Australia to
  When the winner was announced at the January club meeting, few
people had even heard of Alfred Petersen of Brooklyn, New York,
whose circumnavigation on the 40-year-old, 33-foot gaff cutter Storn-
oway had begun in New York in June 1948 one of the first postwar
voyages and ended at the same place on August 18, 1952.
  In fact, no one could even find him to present the award. He had
just married a Metropolitan Life secretary and taken a job as a crew-
man on another yacht. His Stornoway, in fact, was better known and
easier to find than the modest ex-machinist and lone sea wanderer
who sailed her.
  Stornoway was a Colin Archer cutter scaled down to 33 feet overall

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by designer Albert Strange. She was built in 1926 by Dauntless Ship-
yard, Essex, Connecticut, of oak frames, longleaf yellow pine plank-
ing, and fir decks. The vessel was named for the main town of the
Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides west of Scotland. The original
owner had been CCA member Lloyd Nichols.
  The sail plan included a main of 350 square feet, jib, trysails, and
twin staysails. The engine was a two-cylinder Palmer gasoline mill.
For ballast, she carried 5,000 pounds of iron outside and 1,000
pounds of lead inside.
  In 1948, World War II was still a recent memory among mmions
of G.I.s who had been rotated home on the point system, before the
Cold War had really started and with Korea still two years away. The
weary and already aging warriors who came home to get married, go
to college, start businesses, and build dream homes in the suburbs
mostly were in a rush to catch up and get back to normalcy. For a
few, the dream home was a dream ship. One of these was Alfred
Petersen, to whom the end of the war meant freedom to roam the
seas, to visit exotic places, to come and go as he chose. A quiet and
competent man, friendly and easy with company, but used to being
alone, Petersen was Harry Pidgeon all over again.(2)
  It was June, and now that he had Stornoway all spruced up and
outfitted to his ideas including headsails and twin staysails which
made her self-steering much of the time it was time to go. He sailed
south to Oxford, Maryland, to complete final preparations, then
continued on down the Intercoastal Waterway to Miami. In Novem-
ber, he sailed via the Windward Passage and Jamaica to Panama.
There, Stornoway was measured, the canal dues paid, and a pilot was
taken aboard for the passage.(3) From Balboa, Petersen sailed down to
the Galapagos, then on the long downhill run to the Marquesas.
From this popular yacht stop, he navigated through the dangerous
Tuamotus to Tahiti, then on to New Zealand and Sydney, Australia.
  Taking the classic route of the singlehanded circumnavigators,
Petersen sailed north behind the Great Barrier Reef in the wake of
Slocum and others and just ahead of the Crowes. He followed
Robinson's route through Torres Strait and up through Indonesia.
  Navigating the treacherous East India waters in the postwar period
while dodging marauding gangs of pirates and guerillas left over from
the wartime period was a challenge even to such voyagers as the
Irving Johnsons, with large crews. For a singlehander like Petersen, it
was a bold and hair-raising feat ordinarily. But Petersen, whose skill
as a navigator was even more precise than that of Gerbault (whose

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life had ended in a Japanese prison camp at Dili), shrugged it off. His
route took him from Port Moresby to Timor, Kupang, Bali, Surabaja,
Dakarta, Singapore, and across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon, then to
the Red Sea, still following Robinson's track.
  At Aden, Petersen entered the Red Sea, notorious for its adverse
winds and currents, and uncharted reefs. He managed to reef crawl
upward with no serious mishaps, until one night he ran aground
while catnapping at the tiller. Going ashore to find help, he left
Stornoway alone. When he returned, he found her stripped of every-
thing movable by thieves.
  The Red Sea passage had long been a dream of Petersen's. He had
looked forward to it in spite of its hazards and blistering heat, rather
than the Cape of Good Hope route usually taken by yachts. Now it
seemed to have come to a disastrous end on a lonely reef in the Strait
of Bag-el-Mandeb, along the desolate Yemen coast, and seven miles
from the old town of Al Mukha where he had sought help while the
thieves made off with compass, sextant, spare sails, food, supplies,
and bedding.
  Returning to Al Mukha, Petersen appealed to local officials, and
not being able to speak a language they understood, he tried to draw
pictures of a boat on a reef. He was then seized and thrown in jail for
four days, as a suspicious character. Released from jail, he was able to
hire a fishing vessel to help him. The ballast was taken off, the fuel
and water tanks emptied. He then hired twenty Arab policemen,
including some of the pirates who had robbed him, and Stornoway
was pulled free and anchored in deep water eleven days after she
went aground.(4)
  Patching up the vessel, he made his way slowly across the Strait of
Eritrea to the town of Assab and anchored while he settled up his bills
and refitted. Final repairs and outfitting were made further up the
coast at Massawa, where better facilities were available. By the time
this had all been accomplished, Petersen was nearly a physical and
nervous wreck, suffering from the strain and anxiety, from the crush-
ing heat and dysentery, with running sores over his entire body. But
rather than stay around longer, he started out on the 900-mile run to
  Going through the canal, he stopped briefly at Port Said, and then
sailed on to Cyprus, in company with the English voyager, Edward
Poett, who was having trouble with his 13 ton cutter, Kefaya. Peter-
sen left Stornoway at Cyprus, and sailed with his friend to Nice on
the cumbersome Kefaya. Returning to Cyprus, he picked up Storno-

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way, and then made a difficult 34-day passage to Gibraltar against
head winds and short steep seas. From there, he sailed to Dakar,
already delayed about five months due to his Good Samaritan deeds.
  At Dakar, he found his friend Poett again, seriously ill. Again, he
tied up Stornoway and helped Poett sail Kefaya from Nice, where the
hard-to-manage cutter had been left, down to Dakar.(5)
  Petersen said good-bye to Poett in French West Africa finally, and
sailed to New York in fifty days nonstop, completing his circumnavi-
gation in four years and four months, and then sank into anonymity
  Had not his friend Poett become worried, Petersen may not even
have come to the attention of the Cruising Club awards committee.
The Englishman wrote in a letter to Yachting magazine:
  ". . . by helping me, Petersen was seriously handicapped in his
own voyage with respect to seasonal hurricanes. But that was Al
Petersen, a gentleman by heart and by instinct. Your readers are too
experienced not to fully realize that what has gone into the handling
of his small boat is real first-class seamanship. Good sailors are usually
fine men. Don't you find it so?"
  When located by CCA, Petersen was now married to Marjorie, a
New York secretary, a former dinghy sailor who had won many
trophies, and one of the few women at that time to have earned the
rating of Navigator of the U.S. Power Squadron.
  Although experienced in small boats, Marjorie had never been out
of sight of land. In 1955, after two years of marriage, during which Al
had seen enough of life on the beach, he said to her one day:
  "Let's go for a sail on the ocean."
  "Oh, no," she replied, "I couldn't."
  Why not? Because she had never done so. All the more reason why
she should.(6)
  So they departed on Stornoway for a long cruise to Bermuda,
which Al had missed on his circumnavigation, followed by a leisurely
visit to many out-of-the-way places. During this voyage, Marjorie
discovered that she was incurably susceptible to mal de mer, but did
not let it conquer her. Back in New York, they worked ashore again.
Al, a machinist, and Marjorie, a secretary, had no difficulty finding
ready employment wherever they went.
  Thinking of all the places Al had missed on his solo voyage, they
prepared for another long trip, refitting Stornoway and putting
aboard supplies for a year. Finally they departed Sheepshead Bay for
the short run to the Atlantic Highlands on June 10. The weather was

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foggy and unsettled. Two friends, Jean Lacombe, and John Pflieger
of the Slocum Society, came down to see them off in a motorboat
loaded with champagne and food for a final banquet. At last they got
away, motoring out of the fog to the Ambrose Lightship where sails
were set for the 3,000-mile passage to Lisbon, with Stornoway self-
steering most of the way, and the voyage without incident, except for
a near collision with a large metal pontoon.
  From Lisbon, they went on to Marseilles, Monaco, and the Cote
d'Azur or Blue Coast. In December, they sailed to Bonifacio, Malta,
Tunisia, and back to Gibraltar.
  The return trip was made across the Atlantic from the Canaries to
Barbados, and home via Antigua and Savannah. They had sailed
thirteen thousand miles in safety and reasonable comfort, and visited
85 ports and anchorages in nine European and African countries,
taking almost two years to the day.
  On this, as on all the Stornoway's voyages, planning was thorough
and meticulous. Mariorie and Al were able to reduce living aboard a
small vessel, not as big as some of the modern motor homes on the
U.S. freeways, to an art regardless of where they anchored. Marjorie
proved to be a perfect balance wheel for the somewhat shy and retir-
ing Al. Enthusiastic and outgoing, her personality complemented his.
Wherever they went, they fitted in easily with the local yachts people
and townfolk, seldom had difficulties with port officials, and always
were self-sufficient.
  In 1966, they left again on another long cruise, this time down
through the Panama Canal and up to San Francisco. In the summer
of 1970, Stornoway tied up at the small-boat harbor in Sausalito,
California, after having completed a long and leisurely circumnaviga-
tion of the Pacific, taking three years to reach Japan via the Mar-
quesas, Tuamotus, Tahiti, and the East Indies.
  Of the last stormy leg to San Francisco, Mariorie wrote:

        Well, we finally made it but it took 70 awfully long
        days, about 45 of them very unpleasant indeed. Gale force
        winds, tremendous curling seas, fog, cold that was our
        lot. A breaking wave smashed in Lewis,(7) the dinghy, a
        total loss, we fear. Another big one hurled me across the
        cabin breaking my upper left arm. This was only three
        weeks out, so I had seven more of jouncing (although
        we did have five days of calm and some moderate going
        toward the finish). The battens and sail ties we used as

     ~ 177 ~

       a splint did a good job, though. X rays, nine weeks later,
       showed that the break did not quite come together, but
       I grew a bridge of bone right across, more bone than r
       needed actually which accounts for a bump in my arm,
       but this will absorb in about four months. Therapy
       only six sessions, although I still have to keep exercising
       - has done wonders-wish it would fix up Lewis, too.(8)

In 1972, they again said good-bye to friends and headed south, along
the west coast of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama
Canal, like true wanderers of the sea, heading once more for the
  In a letter from Panama, Marjorie wrote:

       We arrived at Cristobal . . . and are headed for the
       Mediterranean, eastern part this time, and hope to reach
       there by late summer, cruise for a short time and then
       find a winter haven. We have another book at the pub-
       lishers, Trade Winds and Monsoons, and tells of our tour
       of the Pacific the islands, New Zealand, Australia, In-
       donesia, Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong, and Japan,
       thence return to San Francisco. We also did many articles
       for the American magazine Motorboating and the Aus-
       tralian Modern Boating, during this time. We will soon
       be leaving for Port au Prince, having some chores to do,
       stores to collect, and securing five-day stays from customs
       and immigration....(9)

  Thus Stornoway, modest, beamy, but comfortable, graceful, and
salty, sails on, the world-wandering home for the Petersens, just as
Lang Syne has been for the Crowes, on the oceans of the world. It is
all they have ever asked for. 

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 - end Chapter 17 -

To Chapter 18.

========================================================================== AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Seventeen 1. From a letter by Edward Poett of the cutter Kefaya. 2. By coincidence, Stornoway's home port in New York was also for some years the moorage of Harry Pidgeon's Islander. 3. See "Transit Through the Funnel of the World" by Marjorie Petersen in the March 1971 issue of Boating for the best account of a yacht passage through the Panama Canal. On Al's first transit, Stornoway was nearly wrecked in the turbulent locks. 4. Petersen's adventures on the Red Sea and encounters with Arabs match those of William Robinson, who was captured by pirates, and of Dr. Robert Griffith, whose first Awahnee also went aground on a reef in the same locality. 5. There have been many garbled version of Al's good deeds, but this one is the most authentic, originating with the Petersens. 6. See Stornoway, East and West by Marjorie Petersen (New York: Van Nostrand, 1966). 7. "Lewis" was the second dinghy smashed in by a curling wave coming over the cabin. This also happened to them on the rough passage of the coast of Venezuela en route to the Pacific. 8. From a letter to Eleanor Borden, in The Spray, Vol. XIV, 1970. 9. From a letter to the author dated April 29, 1973. The new book referred to was then being published by Van Nostrand, now Litton Educational Publications. In a later letter, from Stornoway at Zea Marina, Piraeus, Greece, Marjorie reported a stormy passage after crossing the Atlantic, via Haiti, Bermuda, Fayal, San Miguel, and on to Algeciras. In the Mediterranean, they suffered a knock- down one night in the Strait of Sicily in a sirocco. "We will be here for awhile, waiting for winter to subside. Not too bad 39 degrees the lowest so far but frightening southerly gales that have us right on a lee shore. And Piraeus is not the greatest mud-colored high-rises taking the place of balconied shuttered gracious old houses; this senseless twirling of worry beads, the dirty-windowed coffee houses looking like the lobbies of old men's homes. We need to go sailing!"

To Chapter 18.

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