The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 21 -

Awahnee Means Peace

         The circumference of the earth at 60 deg south
         latitude is half what it is at the equator; our
         projected course from New Zealand to New
         Zealand was 12,000 miles. We hoped to sail it
         in 100 days. We took aboard enough stores to
         winter over in Antarctica, 16 months supply, in
         case some accident or failure befell Awahnee.(1)

          AT 0400 HOURS ON DECEMBER 22, 1970, A LONG SLEEK,
seawise cutter moved out from Bluff on the southern tip of South
Island, New Zealand, with the wind west by south, and ran across
Foveaux Strait under storm jib and double-reefed main. A call was
made at Stewart Island, then after final preparations and last-minute
letter writing and a good dinner ashore, the yacht put to sea again at
2020 hours, just as darkness fell.
  The yacht was the world-girdling Awahnee, the first ferro-cement
vessel to circumnavigate, now carrying her owners, Dr. Robert Lyle
Griffith, his wife, Nancy, and son, Reid, on their third circumnaviga-
tion of the world, this time on a track never before attempted by a
pleasure craft.(2)
  Aboard on this voyage, as usual, the Griffiths had several crew
members, all stout New Zealanders who had volunteered Pat
Treston, an Auckland lawyer; Ash Loudon, a student at Otago; and
John O'Brien, an Auckland businessman.(3)
  The yacht was actually Awahnee II the first one of that name,

       ~ 201  ~

designed by the famed Uffa Fox, and in which the Griffiths made
their first circumnavigation, was lost on a voyage in the French
Oceania area. Awahnee II II was built by the Griffiths in New Zealand
from the original plans but in the then experimental ferro-cement
mode, in which New Zealand has become a world leader. Awahnee
II, like the original, was 53 feet overall, with a 42-foot waterline, a
beam of 12 feet, and a draft of 7 feet 6 inches. Loaded, she displaced
25 tons. A 22-horsepower Yanmar three-cylinder diesel provided
auxiliary power.
  For the Antarctic circumnavigation, the ship had bcen completely
reconditioned and modified. The hull and decks had been sand-
blasted to bare concrete and then fiberglassed with cloth and resin.
The interior was lined with Styrofoam to insulate and prevent
condensation. A sixty-foot exhaust pipe was fitted from the engine
forward through the two cabins on the port side under the berths,
then aft again to come out behind the cockpit. This dry exhaust, the
first ever installed that was longer than the boat it was installed in,
provided heat in the cold latitudes. In addition, a closed-circuit
engine-cooling system was devised from two drums that didn't work
which became apparent before they left Whangarei harbor.
  Aboard the double-ender was a year's supply of groceries in case
they became ice-bound or otherwise incapacitated and had to wait
out an Antarctic winter, as had many explorers of old when they
found themselves frozen in the ice pack for a year.

Departing Bluff, the Griffiths and their crew of New Zealanders headed southeast in the general direction of the Ross Sea, roughly following the course of Captain James Cook, the first to circumnavi- gate the Antarctic and whose 205-year-old journal was kept aboard and read aloud by Nancy as they followed his track. Passing Auckland Island, the first port of call was the remote and lonely station on Campbell Island, a New Zealand weather-reporting installation, where they celebrated Christmas with the crews at the station and from the U.S. icebreaker Staten Island. Heading south through the Furious Fifties and into the Shrieking Sixties, they encountered monstrous waves and gale winds, and their first sign of ice, which required a constant lookout day and night. On New Year's Day midsummer there the temperature was 32. Four days out of Campbell Island, they lost a headstay and repairs were made by agile Reid. At 63S, they were trapped by ice and had to backtrack for 40 miles. On the tenth day, at 61S and 159W, they sighted three islands where no land was shown on the charts.(4) ~ 202 ~ Sailing among tall icebergs, some 200 feet in height, they got their first look at the Antarctic continent at 66S as they passed about 600 miles south of Cape Horn. At Palmer Station,5 they were received with astonishment by the U.S. and British scientists. They were now a third of the way around the world at this latitude.(6) From here on, they visited nine scientific stations U.S., Argen- tine, British, Russian, and Chilean and two whaling stations, now defunct. On Deception Island, they anchored in a submerged crater, where there is now a 900-foot-high island. At the U.S.S.R.'s Bellinghausen Base, they learned from the doctor there that Nancy was pregnant. They tried to land a plaque from the New Zealand Shacketon Sea Scouts on Elephant Island, but could not get ashore. This was the survival camp of the ship Endurance, which was crushed in the ice in 1914. At Signey Island in the South Orkneys, they survived the British conviviality. From the Argentine base Orcades, they departed for New Zealand with a drum of fuel and a generous food supply given them by the men, who were already short since the annual supply ship had not arrived. Fearing a disastrous holing of the hull by growlers and floating chunks of ice, they sailed usually with a drogue out on rough nights to steady the yacht, sometimes making 6 knots under a 48-foot storm staysail alone. They came into the Indian Ocean about 1,600 miles from Africa, and three days later crossed the Antarctic Circle. Fresh water was obtained by melting ice from the last berg encountered on a calm day. As they crossed under Australia, they were struck by a staggering blow which sent green water over Awahnee again and again. The final run to Stewart Island and Bluff was made in brilliant sunshine and light winds. The circumnavigation had taken 111 days (the fastest on record), 84 of which were sailing days and 27 of which were in port or partial sailing days. Nancy left to rejoin their baby son, Tenoi'i, in Whangarei, a thousand miles north. Bob and the crew sailed Awahnee up the coast, on the way being struck by lightning and dismasted only 60 miles from home port. It was a climactic end to their third voyage around the world. Born in January 1917, Griffith grew up to be a prosperous and successful veterinarian and cattle rancher in Tomales Bay, California, about sixty miles north of San Francisco. In middle age, he found himself on a treadmill, headed for a cardiac or ulcers, and decided it was time to broaden life a little. Searching the waterfront brokerages and yacht clubs, he found the original Awahnee, which had been ~ 203 ~ built by an Englishman for use as a family yacht. Griffith and his wife made a shakedown cruise up the California coast, and then they set out on the first voyage, a scientific expedition to the Marquesas. After this came other charter trips around the Pacific, then they settled down in New Zealand. After some time ashore, the Griffiths took off again, on their first circumnavigation, west-about across the Indian Ocean, with a crew of five in a fast passage until the Red Sea was reached. There they ran up on a reef and were impaled. At least 250 ships passed by refusing to answer their distress signals. Going ashore, Griffith became em- broiled in local politics and red tape. He went back to the vessel with some dynamite and literally blew Awahnee free, immediately running the yacht ashore before she filled with water. They beached safely and made repairs, then went on into the Mediterranean, where they cruised for months. Passing out through the Strait of Gibraltar, they encountered the worst gale of the voyage, with winds recorded to 138 knots. Their first Atlantic crossing, however, was made in the fast time of eleven days in perfect sailing weather. Then they went down through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific to complete their first circum- navigation. After a few months of leisurely cruising, they went in search of a missing American yacht after first being arrested as gun-runners and forced to clear their record of the charge by the French police. They did not find the missing yacht, but did find three others that were wrecked and unreported. Then Awahnee was carried onto a reef and wrecked. The Griffiths spent a week salvaging everything they could, including rigging, masts, machinery, and food before she broke up. The family had then been to sea for four years. At first, they thought the island was uninhabited, but then found two natives gathering copra. One of them, Teka, later became a long- time member of their crew. After sixty-seven days, they got word to French authorities and were rescued. The rescue was typically Gallic. A gendarme waded ashore, decked out in his finest uniform, and was met by Dr. Griffith in tattered clothes and beard. The gendarme extended his hand. "Dr. Griffith, I presume?" They were taken to Tahiti under guard and accused of being atomic spies. Later cleared, they bought another boat, an ancient English ketch, and sailed to New Zealand. There they found the ~ 204 ~ ferro-cement business going strong. Redesigning Awahnee, they trav- eled over the country looking at boats under construction. Some were so bad that the owners merely dug a hole and bulldozed the hulls into it. But the Griffiths decided this was it. They spent five months building, and another in outfitting Awahnee II. The work was done at Auckland and attracted much attention. The ribs were 3/4-inch water pipe welded in place. Two miles of steel wire was stretched between the ribs, and eight layers of chicken wire stretched over the whole frame (the entire supply available in the city). This was then plastered with a cement mixture in a continuous operation. The shell had an average thickness of 7/8 inch. After launching, she weighed fourteen tons, which went down to twenty-three tons when fully loaded, about ten percent lighter than the original wooden vessel. After a shakedown, the Griffiths departed on their second circum- navigation. Five days out of Russell, Awahnee was punching through 40-foot seas and hurricane winds, and twice was knocked down. In subfreezing weather, they rounded Cape Horn where the anchor froze to the deck and ice hung from the rigging. On a passage from Peru to the Marquesas, a 4,000-mile run, they took only 25 days from the fuel barge at Callao on September 1966 to Taa Huku Bay on the evening of October 13. Fast passages were a trademark with the Griffiths. Usually, they carried a crew of volun- teers and, as Dr. Griffith remarked later, out of two hundred extra crew members shipped, all but three would be welcome back. Reid, the Griffith son who began sailing at age five, grew up at sea where he learned to cook, to work a noon sight, to hand, reef, and steer with the best bluewater sailors. Nancy Griffith, also, became an expert sailor and navigator, and on at least one voyage (to Hawaii) skippered the ship with a crew of amateurs while her husband was away on business. On one passage, Nancy was almost lost. Thrown overboard by a freak jibe of the mainsail, she was in the shark- infested waters of the Indian Ocean for a half hour before she could be spotted, the vessel turned around, and a rescue made.(7) During the second circumnavigation, Awahnee sailed up for Japan and clockwise down around the Aleutians, the Gulf of Alaska, and back to California. At this time, the Griffiths had been at sea for eight years and covered 150,000 sea miles. In San Francisco, the family found the freeway traffic and the crowds more terrifying than anything encountered at sea. After further adventures in the Pacific, the Griffiths came back to ~ 205 ~ California, settling for a time at Inverness, where Bob became involved with a nonprofit enterprise to turn the 100-foot schooner Westwind into a training ship for boys. At the annual dinner of the Cruising Club of America in New York, January 25, 1973, Griffith was the featured speaker. Since 1959, with his family, he had sailed 170,000 miles and made three circum- navigations in two yachts. His was a most remarkable record, and for it, he was awarded the prestigious Blue Water Medal for 1972. The late John Parkinson, Jr., awards chairman, commented, "In all my years of serving on this committee, in my opinion we have never had a recipient so deserving of this honor." The last passage Awahnee made prior to the award, was one of 19 days to Tahiti, then 19 days to Honolulu and 18 1/2 days to San Francisco, arriving there in time for their daughter, Fiona Nikola Antares, to be born in the United States. Reid attended summer school, and later finished high school, while Dr. Bob holed up to write a book on a farm in New England. When the book was done, the babies were older, and Reid graduated from high school, the plan was to cast off moorings at Tomales Bay and set sail again for what- ever adventures remained.(8) ~ 206 ~

- end Chapter 21 -

To Chapter 22.

======================================================================= AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Twenty-one 1. From Awahnee Newsletter #14, in The Spray, Volume XVI, 1972. 2. Soon after the Griffiths' voyage, Dr. David Lewis, another well- known circumnavigator, departed on an attempt to circle the globe at 60 S nonstop and solo, on the small Icebird. 3. See also Sea Spray magazine published at Wellington, for June, July, and August 1971. 4. The nearest charted land was the Nimrod Island group, three hundred miles to the north. The U.S. Hydrographic Office reported the islands were discovered in 1828 and not sighted again. In 195t, they were removed from all charts as nonexistent. The Griffiths applied to have them named the Awahnee Islands. 5. Named for the legendary Nathaniel Palmer, who, in his teens, skippered a whaling supply vessel and purportedly was the first to discover or actually sight the Antarctic continent. 6. See also National Geographic magazine, November 1971, Vol. 140, No. 5, pp. 635. 7. Man-overboard is one of the most harrowing things that can happen to voyagers, and it happens all too frequently. Another notable incident was when Beryl Smeeton was thrown into the sea as Tzu Hang pitchpoled near Cape Horn. 8. In a letter from Bob Griffith, early in 1974, from Hawaii, he indicated Awahnee was still alive and well after 13 years of world voyaging, making frequent passages to and from the mainland.

To Chapter 22.

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