The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 33 -

Around the World on the Installment Plan

         I saw John standing amidships. Incredibly he
         was standing, because, as I could see now, both
         masts were gone, and the motion was now so
         quick that I could not keep my feet on the
         deck. He was standing with his legs wide apart,
         his knees bent and his hands on his thighs. I
         called to him to give me a hand. He came up
         and knelt down beside me, and said, "This is it,
         you know, Miles."(l)

would not likely forget. He had an impacted tooth, which he had
neglected to have removed in Melbourne before leaving on this
detour in his planned circumnavigation, to accompany Miles and
Beryl Smeeton to England on Tzu Hang via Cape Horn. And on
this date, while his own little Trekka was hauled out in a shed in
New Zealand and he was five thousand miles away, in the vicinity of
the Horn, he found himself upside down with tools and furniture
crashing about his head.
  Guzzwell was the third person in the now-famous episode in which
Tzu Hang was pitchpoled and corkscrewed by a giant wave in a
survival storm, and dismasted.(2) By sheer pluck and ingenuity, the
damage was repaired, a jury rig fashioned, and the battered vessel

  ~ 289 ~

brought into Valparaiso, some one thousand miles away. Guzzwell
was that type of British mechanic who, in the midst of almost total
disaster in which emergency repairs were immediately required,
calmly set up a makeshift vice in the dark and cluttered cabin and
first sharpened every one of the tools he would need.
  As Brigadier Smeeton, who admitted to never sharpening a tool,
recalled later, it was this simple act that provided the sense of
competence and right thinking that sustained them all through the
next terrible three weeks.
  His tools keen, Guzzwell set about methodically to patch the hole
in the deck, rebuild temporarily the cabin trunk, and fashion a steer-
ing oar and a gin pole mast, while being tossed around in thirty-foot
  John Guzzwell, perhaps more than most circumnavigators, was
born to the oceans. His ancestors had been trawler men, whose red
sails were common to the fishing port of Grimsby, England, and the
North Sea fishing banks. His father had been born there, son of a
trawler owner, but had wandered about the world to mine gold in
Alaska and go pearl fishing in the South Seas, only to wind up in
Jersey, where John was born and where his memories began.
  The family had not been settled long when the elder Guzzwell
became restless with shore life. The result was the construction of
Our Boy, a 52-foot gaff ketch in which the family sailed to South
Africa. There John grew up, acquiring a trade and a hobby of motor-
cycle racing. Recalling his father's many stories about the logging
camps on the northwest coast of North America, when John was old
enough he emigrated to Canada and settled at Victoria, British
Columbia near where the Smeetons had also settled on a retirement
  Arriving at Victoria in March 1953, he soon had a good job and
was saving money. In the back of his mind was a plan to sail around
the world in his own ship. On days off, he would go down to the
Maritime Museum on the waterfront and look at Tilikum, Captain
John Voss's famous dugout canoe. He did not, however, have any
harebrained stunt in mind.
  With characteristic good judgment, he wrote to J. Laurent Giles of
Laurent Giles & Partners, Lymington. Jack Giles, designer of the
famous Vertues, in which more long voyages have been made than
any other small-boat class, had been the genius behind Sopranino, the
19-foot miniature cruiser in which Patrick Elam and Colin Mudie
had made their flawless passages.(3) Giles considered Sopranino the

   ~ 290 ~

smallest practical ocean cruiser. For Guzzwell, he produced a slightly
larger version, the 21-foot Trekka. Because it was necessary to
strengthen the hull for the log and debris-filled waters of the Pacific
Northwest, the heavier planking resulted in a displacement nearly
twice that of Sopranino, although Trekka was only two feet longer.
  With watertight compartments, Trekka was unsinkable, an un-
usual feature of any sailboat, especially one this small. Another
innovation was a fin keel that could be unbolted and shipped over-
land separate from the hull.
  With great skill, Guzzwell laminated the keel himself in the
basement of the Y.M.C.A. where he lived. The frames and hull
planking were assembled in the back of Bell's Fish and Chips in
Victoria. In only nine months, working in his spare time, Guzzwell
completed the hull. She was a beautiful little ship, and Giles had
created an astonishing amount of room below decks by the use of
reverse sheer. To minimize the hogged effect of reverse sheer, the
topsides were given severe tumblehome, which tended to give the
vessel the appearance of great speed. The decks (and later the
bottom) were sheathed in fiberglass.
  Launched, Trekka became to Guzzwell something alive and vital,
like woman created from the rib of man. There was something
vaguely sacred about her.(4)
  Trekka was launched in August 1954. The masts and rigging were
added later, in the spring of 1955. Bending on the new sails, John let
go the lines. The wind caught the sails for the first time, and John
felt the surge of power as the tight little ship came alive in his hands.
He knew then that he had done his work well. She was fast, sailed
upright in fresh breezes, and steered herself to windward with minor
  In September 1955, laden with sixty days provisions, and twenty-
four gallons of water in plastic bottles, Trekka departed Victoria
harbor. Beating out past Race Rocks, and up the Strait of Juan de
Fuca, he was spoken by a Scandinavian fisherman who wanted to
know who he was and where he was going in that "ploddy little
  When Guzzwell replied that he was headed for Honolulu, the
fisherman shook his head and ripped off an oath of disbelief.
  Out on the rugged North Pacific, Trekka immediately encountered
her first test of bad weather. Guzzwell discovered that she would not
ride to a sea anchor, so he lashed everything down and lay ahull until
the wind veered off to the southwest. He experimented with a twin

   ~ 291 ~

headsails self-steering arrangement, and soon Trekka was boiling
along by herself. Off Cape Menocino, Trekka encountered the worst
gale in her 30,000-mile circumnavigation, with winds up to 70 miles
an hour, and seas more than 30 feet high. Guzzwell had time to ask
himself, "What the hell am I doing here?"
  A landfall was made on Punta Arenas. While in San Francisco,
Guzzwell met the Smeetons and their daughter, Clio, with Tzu
Hang. A warm friendship developed, and they sailed together for
Hawaii. Trekka beat the larger Tzu Hang to the islands, to their
surprise. After some time cruising in those waters, the two yachts
departed for the south, making Fanning Island first, and then con-
tinuing on to Samoa, Tonga, and New Zealand.
  There, Clio had to fly back to England and school. The Smeetons
did not want to attempt a Horn passage on the old clipper route
alone, so Guzzwell volunteered to accompany them. He hauled out
Trekka and stored her with friends. Then he went aboard Tzu Hang
and helped prepare and outfit the big ketch for the long hazardous
passage through the Roaring Forties to Stanley in the Falklands,
where Guzzwell planned to get off and return to New Zealand. The
final preparations were made in Melbourne.
  Departing on December 22, 1955, they sailed down past the north-
east tip of Tasmania, through Bass Strait, thence south of New
Zealand between 40 deg. and 50 deg. directly for the Horn. Compared to
Trekka, Tzu Hang was an ocean liner. She was 46 feet overall with an
11-foot 6-inch beam, a double-ender of solid teak, built in Hong
Kong in 1938. The Smeetons had bought her from the first owner in
1951, and without any previous sailing experience, had taken her to
British Columbia from England, with only their young daughter,
Clio, as crew. They were to spend almost 20 years sailing the oceans
of the world in Tzu Hang.
  They were near the 100th meridian on February 14, at the time of
the capsizing, almost directly west of the Strait of Magellan. Making
from fifty to seventy miles a day under jury rig, they limped into
Arauco Bay and the port of Coronel on March 22. With the help of
the British consul, the Chilean navy, and many kind people, to say
nothing of the skills of John Guzzwell, the ketch was repaired and
new masts stepped. John stayed long enough to see the project
through, but finally had to leave to live his own dreams.
  The Smeetons hated to see him go, not only because of his skills,
but because he had become part of the family and much of him was
to be seen in the rebuilt Tzu Hang. Moreover, they had been

   ~ 292 ~

through the ultimate adventure together, and they had survived
  Leaving the Smeetons in Chile, Guzzwell flew to South Africa to
visit his mother in Natal. She was preparing to return to the Channel
Islands, and had sold her house. There was much work to do, selling
the furniture and taking care of the paperwork involved. He accom-
panied his mother to Jersey, and saw her settled before leaving by
ship for Sydney, Australia. From there, he found passage to Auck-
land, and immediately rushed out to Russell where Trekka was
stored, with his friends, Francis and Millie Arlidge.
  With his ever-present tool box, John went to work. He had been
gone from Trekka for sixteen months, during which she had waited
faithfully for him to return. Now she looked mighty sweet, sitting on
the cradle. But there was much to do. First he covered the bottom
with a sheath of fiberglass. Then he made some changes based on his
experience with the Smeetons. At last, he was ready to sail again.
  Crossing the Tasman Sea to Australia, he sailed up through the
Barrier Reef, through Torres Strait, and the Arafura Sea to Keeling-
Cocos. Unlike most voyagers, he found mild sailing while crossing the
Indian Ocean. In one passage, from Keeling-Cocos to Rodriguez, he
made 2,000 miles in 17 days for an average of about 111 miles a
day astonishing for a boat of Trekka's 18-foot waterline.
  At Middle Island, he encountered another English circumnavi-
gator, Norman Young, in a Falmouth punt, Diana. They sailed in
company all the way from the Barrier Reef to Thursday Island. The
summer and early autumn months were spent crossing to Africa. Off
the coast of Madagascar, taking advantage of currents, Trekka made
one daily run of 155 miles, noon to noon. Guzzwell reached Durban
on December 2, and was welcomed with the usual hospitality. He
spent the Christmas season here. One day, he met a man who had
just returned from British Columbia a man who had been one of
the rubberneckers when Trekka was being built behind the fish and
chips joint.                 
 On January 15, 1959, Guzzwell departed for Cape Town, immedi-
ately encountering steep seas and a southwest gale in which he had to
heave to for days. At one point, he was pushed back fifty miles by the
Agulhas Current. But he reached Cape Town with no further prob-
lem. As he entered the harbor, he saw the "table cloth" being set on
Table Mountain, a sure sign of a southeaster. He barely made it to
moorings before darkness and the storm descended, but at the last
moment a violent williwaw knocked Trekka flat.

   ~ 293 ~

 Taking on stores, he put to sea again on February 14, 1959, exactly
two years after the capsizing on Tzu Hang. On March 2, he arrived at
St. Helena. Another week of sailing brought him to Ascension. On
St. Helena, everyone had talked of Napoleon and the old days; on
Ascension, the talk was of the Snark guided missile and rocket
motors. He crossed the equator on March 30. On April 30, he sighted
the light on Ragged Point, Barbados. The port officials seemed
impressed not by the arrival of such a small vessel but by the fact
that it had arrived without hoisting the yellow quarantine flag. 
 After a week, he sailed for Panama, arriving at Cristobal on May
lt. He made the canal transit without fuss, tying up to a banana boat
and using old auto tires for fenders. He was charged $2.16 for the
passage, including the pilot. He thought this was reasonable, in lieu
of the alternative, which was to sail around the Horn.
 From Balboa, he decided not to attempt an uphill beat. Instead, he
sailed for Hawaii, recording one fantastic day's run of 175 miles,
aided by the equatorial current. In one week, he recorded 1,101 miles.
This fast trade winds passage was made with twin headsails and a
small spinnaker set to ease the roll.
 On the afternoon of July 22, 1959, he sailed around Diamond
Head, and made a board up the Ala Wai Channel. He had now
completed his circumnavigation, crossing his outbound track on the
twentieth, the smallest vessel in history to have accomplished this
feat. The voyage had been made entirely without mishap, a near
flawless circumnavigation.
 From Hawaii, Guzzwell set off for the 2,600-mile passage to Vic-
toria before the winter gales set in. Three weeks later, he sailed up
Victoria harbor, where Trekka had been born in the back of a fish
and chips joint, exactly four years to the day after John had departed
on his adventure.
 Guzzwell next wrote a book5 and edited the movie footage he had
taken at sea, including the voyage with the Smeetons. With the
money he made, he was able to get married. In 1961, John and his
wife, Maureen, sailed Trekka to Hawaii and back to California.
There they sold her to another couple, Cliff and Marian Cain, who
were novices at the game. But with the confidence Trekka inspired,
the Cains sailed out of Monterey and around the world, repeating
Guzzwell's circumnavigation.                                     
 A sister ship of Trekka, the Thlaloca, built by Hein and Siggi
Zenker at a cost of $2,800, was sailed around the world from 1962 to

   ~ 294 ~

1966 at a running cost of $70 a month from Canada and back to
  John Guzzwell, with his earnings from royalties and the sale of
Trekka, built another dream ship, another Giles design, but this time
a 45-foot, 20-ton ketch, Treasure. On it, John and Maureen sailed to
New Zealand. There the Guzzwells settled in permanently or until
the oceans again called.(6)

  ~ 295 ~

 - end Chapter 33 -

To Chapter 34.

========================================================================= AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Thirty-three 1. Once Is Enough by Miles Smeeton (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 2. W. A. Robinson in Varua encountered the ultimate storm in the same general area a few years earlier. 3. See Two Against the Western Ocean by Patrick Elam and Colin Mudie. Mudie, a young Giles associate, later became a well-known designer in his own right. 4. Trekka was 20.8 feet loa; 18.5 feet lwl, 6.5 feet beam, 4.5 feet draft. She was built of plywood bulkheads tied to bunks and internal parts, with a laminated keel and steam bent timbers of oak. The skin planking was 9/16 red cedar, edge-glued. The hull and plywood deck were covered with fiberglass, and later in New Zealand the bottom also was sheathed with fiberglass. The fin keel and skeg were of 3/8 inch steel plate. She was ketch rigged, with a total of 340 square feet of sail. "Trekka" comes from the Boer, "Voortrekkers," who trekked up into the Transvaal and Natal in the 1860s. 5. Trekka Around the World by John Guzzwell. See Bibliography. Guzzwell was awarded the Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America for his circumnavigation. 6. In March 1974, however, I found him aboard Treasure at Honolulu's yacht harbor. What's John doing now? In a letter to the author he wrote: "After building Treasure in England we voyaged to the South Pacific, to Australia and New Zealand, staying some fours years in New Zealand where I built a couple of yachts. We circumnavigated New Zealand in 1970, they came to Hawaii where I built a 47-foot ketch for a local man and am now halfway through building a sister ship of my Treasure for another man. In 1972 we took Treasure to Alaskan waters, Kodiak, Prince William Sound and the Inside Pas- sage, then returned to Hawaii. We plan to continue cruising after I've finished building this present yacht. My sons are now 12 years old and although we'd like to be cruising now, I also have to earn our living like the rest of the world however, we escape once in a while!"

To Chapter 34.

Return to Table of Contents.