The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 20 -

The Saga of the White Seal

        Once upon a time, there was a white seal who
        lived with all the other seals among the icebergs
        of the South Atlantic, happily and without fear.
        Then one day a ship appeared among the ice
        flows and all the seals swam out to greet it and
        all but this one, who escaped the eyes of the
        hunters, were slaughtered. And forever after,
        the white seal roamed the oceans of the world,
        looking for a safe place to live.(l)

Africa, in the 1930s, with a restless curiosity about the world, and a
hope of someday building his own dream ship. As a child, he had
listened enthralled as his father read bedtime stories to him. One of
his favorites was Kipling's tale of the white seal.
   Mechanically talented, Gerry served an apprenticeship as a metal-
worker as the uncertainties of war grew stronger each day. Finally, he
enlisted in a South African infantry battalion and found himself
heading north for the battlefields.
  In the 1930s, like many other lads, he had been exposed to the
wonderful little ocean-roaming ketches from the board of John G.
Hanna, the Dunedin, Florida, genius, and had followed the exploits
of many a Tahiti or Carol across the pages of the leading yachting
publications. While still in the army, in 1943, he purchased a set of
plans for the 30-foot Tahiti,(2) and carried them with him everywhere

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the battalion was sent in North Africa and Europe. At every oppor-
tunity, he would haul them out and dream over the lines.(3)
  By the time he was demobbed after the war, he had already
decided to build Tahiti's larger sister, Carol.(4) Being a metalworker,
he also decided it would have to be of steel and not wood, which
meant redesigning the vessel. He first wrote to Hanna, who under-
stood such things as few naval architects do, and exchanged a new set
of Carol drawings for the old battered up Tahiti plans. Gerry then
bought the lot next door to his parents' house, poured a 15 by 40
concrete slab to work on, and enrolled in a correspondence course to
learn the basics of yacht design for the sole purpose of converting
Hanna's original lines into a chine hull so that a metal skin could be
developed on them.
  Again, with straightforward audacity, he sent his drawings to
Hanna for checking. Hanna gave his approval, but not much encour-
agement for the use of steel instead of wood. Gerry then sent the
plans to J Murray Watts, one of the leading U.S. designers of steel
vessels, and got his favorable opinion.
  By August 1946, Trobridge was making up a new table of offsets
and laying down full-size lines. By January 1947, he had the keel and
frames set up. About two years later, the hull and deck were plated.
Two more years, in August 1951, and he had the cabin on, the spars
made, the interior roughed in, and the boat ready to launch. It had
not been easy. Boat building is a tedious job, especially when you
have to do it in your spare time while holding down a regular job to
earn a living. He suffered the inevitable delays, the long weeks of
doubt, depression, and discouragement when he could not stand the
sight of that skeleton out in the yard that never ceased to demand
attention and energy.
  But gradually all the interminable details were sorted out, the
dream ship took final form, and his spirits and enthusiasm rose along
with it. Once during the construction, he fell and injured his back.
While confined to bed, he studied celestial navigation. When he
broke his arm, he used his convalescence to take care of light chores
he could handle with one wing. Trobridge had not only grown up
with his dream, but with the single-minded purpose and indomitable
nature needed for a project of this kind.
  Then came time for launching and christening. The family and the
neighbors gathered one Sunday morning after church. His mother
christened the dream ship White Seal after Gerry's favorite child-
hood tale. There was a short invocation, a wish for a long, happy, and

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safe life in an often hostile world. Someone cut the birthday cake,
with its little white seal in a cradle, and then everyone pitched in for
the celebration.                              
  At christening, White Seal weighed 15 tons and was 500 miles
from salt water. After the party, Gerry and friends jacked up the 37-
foot hull onto a lowboy trailer, and the next day the journey overland
to Durban began. After launching, White Seal was outfitted, and, by
April 1952, she was ready for a shakedown cruise.(5)
  Gerry, with three young and inexperienced friends, made the
shakedown voyage to Lourenco Marques in southern Mozambique,
about 300 miles up the east coast of Africa. The trip took three and a
half days going and six and a half days returning, treating them to flat
calms and roaring gales that shook the kinks out of boat and man.
The voyage taught them many things about the sea and small-boat
handling they had not thought of. One of the lessons learned early
was the technique of heaving-to, a necessity for any ocean voyager in
any size craft. Gerry also got a chance to practice his celestial naviga-
tion, and worked out at least one perfect fix. Defects in the rigging
were noted and later corrected.
  Gerry also learned to master the use of the ancient 28-horsepower
American-made Le Roi stationary engine that a friend had given him.
Characteristically, he had rebuilt the engine and refitted the carburetor
to burn kerosene. At 1800 r.p.m., it burned 1.5 gallons an hour and
propelled White Seal at 5 knots.(6)
  About a year later, Gerry was ready to begin his world wandering
with White Seal. On February 28, with four companions, he de-
parted Durban for England, and for the next 6 years, 9 months, and
63,000 miles,White Seal roamed the world looking for a better place
to live. Her route was one of the most unusual, and possibly one of
the most interesting of all circumnavigations. Whereas most voyagers
head immediately for the tropical South Seas and hopefully an idyllic
life with broadminded native girls, Trobridge and his intrepid com-
panions sailed northward to England. From there, the track led to
Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Trinidad and the West Indies,
Florida, New York, Toronto, the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi
River, and through the Yucatan Channel to Panama; then to the
Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas, Raiatea, Tahiti, Bora Bora,
Samoa, Fiji, Brisbane, up behind the Great Barrier Reef, through
Torres Strait to Darwin, the Keeling-Cocos Islands, Mauritius, and
back to Durban.

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  Thus, Gerry Trobridge in his dream boat, White Seal, became the
first South African to circumnavigate in a small yacht, and the first to
leave Durban and go around.(7)
  White Seal proved to be a superb sea boat, easy to handle, dry and
comfortable of motion, roomy and able to carry astonishing stores of
food and supplies as much as six months' supply for four people.
She was fairly fast up to seven or eight knots under the best of
conditions (but carried an enormous cloud of sail, almost 1,200
square feet with everything flying). She was a gentle lady in a follow-
ing sea, or hove-to, or even lying at anchor in a breeze. The mild steel
used in the hull was of South African manufacture and proved to be
completely practical and immensely strong in the face of sometimes
crashing seas and occasional groundings. There was little difficulty
with rust and corrosion, the only protection ever given the hull being
paint and zinc sacrifice plates.
  White Seal's accident-free, 63,000-mile circumnavigation, of
course, was due not only to ordinary good luck, but also to the
ingenuity and skill with mechanical things, and the inherent good
judgment of the skipper. His philosophy was: Keep it simple, and
you won't have to fix it.
  At the start of the world cruise, Gerry had with him as crew Colin
Greenaire (as far as Cape Town), Gene Greathead, Bill Riggs, and
Bunny Lagerwey all bachelors, full of adventure and high spirits,
but with little practical sea experience. Lagerwey, an airline pilot, was
a skilled navigator, however. Clearing for Cape Town, they left in
the wake of a Mozambique hurricane while the sea was still bois-
terous, and soon all were seasick. Gerry moved off soundings to get
away from the chop and found enormous swells running, which
scared them back inside the 100-fathom line. On shore, they had to
buck southwest winds and adverse current, making less than ten
miles a day. With a sick and demoralized crew, Gerry ran back out
again during the night (in the dark, he would not have to look at the
enormous seas) discovering, as others have, that outside there is
usually a helping current instead of a hindering one, and often better
time can be made in spite of the large seas.(8)
  At Cape Town, where they were assisted in mooring by a tipsy
crew of club members, followed by a night-long celebration, they
learned another lesson. They woke up and found White Seal had
snapped her lines and lay alongside the dock untied. By happy
coincidence, it was a flat calm period in a notoriously windy harbor

   ~ 197 ~

  Sailing on the thirteenth of the month, they made the nine hun-
dred miles to St. Helena in thirty-one days. Next came Ascension, St.
Vincent Island, Horta, and the long run uphill to England.
  Gerry and White Seal spent a year in England, he working as a
marine diesel mechanic and lecturing. Two of the crew left the ship
here, but on May 9, 1954, with Gene Greathead, Gerry departed
London, called at several ports, and then cleared from Falmouth on
August 20 for Vigo, Spain. Next came Portugal, then Tenerife, and
directly across to Georgetown, British Guiana. From here, White
Seal and her crew cruised and chartered up and down the West
Indies for a year of so, living off the land and sea, without any
definite plans.
 Finally, it was time to move. Leaving Charlotte Amalie on June 20,  
1955, White Seal sailed to Port Everglades, Florida, via the Bahamas,
then up the coast to New York through the Hudson waterway to
Toronto, arriving on August 6. Greathead had now left the ship, too.
Gerry continued on up the Hudson, through the Erie Canal to
Buffalo, Lake Erie, working along the way as a machinist and steam-
fitter. During 1957, White Seal cruised the Great Lakes, visiting
thirty-seven ports. From Toronto to Detroit, Gerry had Ron Shettel
as crew member. In the Detroit area, Gerry met and married Marie,
and she joined White Seal for the rest of of the circumnavigation.
  On August 22, they left Chicago via the linkage to the Mississippi,
with Shettel still aboard, and went down the river to New Orleans. On
October 30, Marie and Gerry alone departed New Orleans for Biloxi,
and then sailed directly for Panama.
  On this leg, while Marie was still new to White Seal and to the
ocean, they were caught in one of the worst storms of the year 
which battered them mercilessly for three days. Finally making
Grand Cayman, they rested for nine days until the weather im-
proved. The six hundred miles to Panama was made in six days, in
time to spend Christmas with Marie's parents who flew down from
the States.
  It was three months before Marie got over the encounter with the
storm and was ready to move on. By this time, she was also pregnant,
so when they left Balboa it was with a strong urgency to reach Aus-
tralia in time for the baby to be born. During the three months in
Panama, Gerry worked at odd jobs and made some alterations to
White Seal's rigging. At this point, Gerry and Marie also came to an
understanding: A Caribbean storm is a traumatic experience the first
time you go to sea in a small boat. It is also superfluous to get married

   ~ 198 ~

and go to sea, if the only social contact you will have is while passing
in the hatchway while changing watches.
  From then on, the watch-and-watch routine was out. White Seal
was made to steer herself. Electricity was put aboard so a masthead
light could be rigged. From then on, in good weather, they let the
ship tend herself at night, or they lay ahull and went to bed.
  The leg from Balboa to Galapagos was an idyllic sail, which con-
tinued all the way to the Marquesas. In fact, reaching the Marquesas
after thirty-nine days, they were almost reluctant to stop and share
their world with anyone.
  In Tahiti, they took on a paying guest, Kevin Ardill, an Australian
looking for a way home. After visiting Bora Bora, Samoa, and the
Fijis where Gerry got work as a machinist they arrived in Brisbane
on October 1, 1958.
  During the stay here, a baby girl was born, and Gerry obtained
work for nine months or so. When the baby was six months old,
plans were made to continue the voyage.(9)
  On May 27, 1959, White Seal departed at last, with a crew that
now included the baby, Tracy ("the most demanding and useless
crew member we ever shipped"), three enormous cartons of dis-
posable diapers; Dave Benedict, a young, competent, and good-
natured (but always broke ) Californian; and Alan Moulton, an
Australian who went as far as Townsville. Another, Keith Buchanan,
joined the ship at Cairns for the trip to Darwin.
  The cruise up inside the Great Barrier Reef was a Sunday sail that
lasted three months. They arrived at Thursday Island on August 7,
1959, after visiting 38 ports and anchorages. After a few days, they
departed for the Keeling-Cocos Islands on September 6. From here
on, easy-going Gerry became impatient to reach Durban and com-
plete a circumnavigation. The voyage across the Indian Ocean was
agonizingly slow. For the first 10 days, they made only 378 miles,
until they came under the influence of the trades, then they began
to make l,000-mile weeks.
  After a short stay at Cocos, they had good sailing for several days,
then a period of violent squalls, followed by high winds. They arrived
at Mauritius seven days ahead of estimates, and here took a good rest
while anchored in the Black River.
  Leaving on November 8, they had a violent passage on the final
leg, marked by squalls, boisterous seas, and changing winds. At mid-
night, on November 24, 1959, Gerry and White Seal entered Durban
harbor to fulfill his goal.

    ~ 199 ~

  Home again, the young man who had built his dream boat and
sailed the world looking for a better place, moved ashore with his
family and got a job. They tried to sell their beloved White Seal, but
life ashore began to pall. Disillusioned with local politics and the
problems of society, they left Durban on February 12, 1963, this time
with a second child. When they moved aboard, everything had
seemed to shrink in size from what they remembered. The first
month aboard, prior to departing, it rained constantly, trapping them
in close confinement. The kids got into everything, broke things, ran
thirty gallons of kerosene into the bilge, and hurt themselves. Once
underway, with Hamish Campbell and David Cox as crew members,
they sailed to Cape Town via Port Elizabeth.(10)
  At Port Elizabeth, Tracy got the mumps. Before they arrived in
Cape Town, all the crew had come down with them, and they were
quarantined for two weeks.
  Here, a painter, George Enslin, came on the scene with a deposit
for the purchase of White Seal. Gerry agreed to the price and also to
sailing with Enslin to the West Indies to teach him seamanship and
navigation. The family moved off the boat and took passage to the
States on a freighter. Three weeks later, the deal fell through, and
Gerry was stranded with no family and no money.
  He raised a crew of three in two days and couldn't have done
better if he had screened candidates for a lifetime. With Mike Smith
(son of Bill Smith, who was on the original shakedown), Roger
Williams, and John Scott, White Seal departed on April 9, 1963,
arriving at St. Helena on April 26; Ascension, May 5; and Trinidad,
B.W.I., on June 5. From Trinidad, the voyagers loafed through
twenty ports and anchorages to Port Everglades, arriving July 10. On
July 20, they reached Patchoque, New York, and the end of the trail
for White Seal.
  Now more than twenty years old, White Seal, the backyard-built
Hanna ketch, is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Steve Doherty of New York,
and with some modifications, mainly of engine and accommodations,
she sails on as spry and as lively as ever.
  The Trobridges? The family found a home at last on shore in
  White Seal, like the restless creature of Kipling's tale, sails on and

   ~ 200 ~

 - end Chapter 20 -

To Chapter 21.

============================================================================= AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Twenty 1. Suggested by Kipling's children's story of the white seal. See also Conversation with a World Voyager by Gerry Trobridge (New York: Seven Seas Press, 1971). 2. Plans for Tahiti and many other Hanna designs are still available from his widow, Dorothy, at Dunedin, Florida. 3. Conversation with a World Voyager (see Note I ) . 4. Tahiti's vitals are: length overall 30 feet; load waterline, 26 feet; beam, 10 feet; draft, 4 feet; displacement, 18,100 pounds. Carol's are - 36 feet 8 inches, 32 feet 10 inches, 12 feet, 4 feet, and 29,300 pounds, respectively. 5. White Seal had a steel trough of 3/4 inch plate for a keel. Bottom plating was a 3/16 inch steel plate. Topsides and cabin were 1/8 inch. Frames were 4 inches by 1/2 inch steel, with six longitudinals of 1 1/2 by 1/4 inch steel let into the frames. The chine and sheer strake were bolstered with 1 1/2 inch pipe. 6. While in the Great Lakes area, the president of the Le Roi com- pany heard about White Seal, came down to see the engine, and later had it torn down and rebuilt at no charge. 7. For one thing, the old belief held by the Boers that the world was flat, not round, still persists in some quarters See Slocum for an amusing ac- count of this. 8. Since the closing of the Suez Canal, the heavy tanker and steam- ship traffic makes the offshore passage hazardous. See Robin Graham for his experiences in Dove, trying to get around close to shore. 9. Although they had hurried to get to Brisbane in time, they needn't have, Gerry said later. The baby didn't come for a full three weeks. They were to learn later that their daughter was never on time for anything, said Gerry. 1O. In a recent letter, Hamish Campbell, now a physician who took over his father's practice, said he had to confine his sailing to inland waters on a day sailer.

To Chapter 21.

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