A SOLO VOYAGE VIA THE THREE GREAT SOUTHERN OCEAN CAPES IN A 32-FOOTER PROVES TESTING FOR JEROME RAND
In October 2017 Jerome Rand set sail single-handed from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in Mighty Sparrow. In June 2018 he cruised right back again, having circumnavigated the globe via the great Southern Ocean capes in his 43-year-old long-keeled, heavy displacement Westsail 32. In today’s climate of great fanfare and buckets-full of sponsorship money, it’s refreshing to read about a determined young man who will have nothing to do with any of this. Without access to any serious funds, he pays for his own adventure like a gentleman, then goes ahead and writes a book about it that is hard to put down. Beginning to read Sailing into Oblivion, there is an absolute minimum of preamble, soul-searching and description of what went before. He simply announces his intentions and gets on with it.
Rand’s frank description of the ups and downs of this truly great voyage is a treat. The way he sets aside what must have been heavy temptation to anchor and sort things out in New Zealand or, perhaps, the Falkland Islands, is an inspiration to anyone who, like me, has a history of succumbing to what seems at the time like common sense. Oh, and by the way, despite lack of support from any bank account but his own, Jerome succeeds in becoming the first solo American to circumnavigate non-stop from an American port in a boat of 32ft or less.
This extract finds him far away in the Southern Ocean, all alone in the fog, as distant from land is it’s possible to be. He has recently lost his stemhead forestay. Read on, and see how anything can be possible given the will to succeed.
As a broken Sparrow sailed its half-starved and half-crazed crew deeper into the empty Pacific, the fog became so overwhelming that the normal world seemed a distant memory. The winds calmed on 12 March and the plan for fixing the stay was put into action.
Though the Spectra line I had used to lash the stay into place seemed very strong, I wanted steel to be the anchor point. I had enough stainless steel and threaded rod to make a very strong replacement, but the original eyebolt had sheared off where the nut was. I only needed to dig away at the plank bowsprit about half an inch to expose enough threads to get a new nut and washer onto it.
The old eyebolt seemed in great shape. Most likely some corrosion was to blame between the nut and the threads. A little Teflon gel would solve that by protecting the metal from further corrosion. Grinding away, I was glad to see that the wood was still hard and dry and showed no signs of rot. Back and forth between digging and placing the eyebolt to see if I was deep enough, the whole time bobbing up and down and keeping an eye out for a wave that would like to jump aboard and soak my tools and me.
After about an hour, I had the eyebolt firmly in place, and covered with 5200 sealant to keep the sea out of the fresh wood of the bowsprit. Once the stay was attached everything looked as though nothing had ever happened. But knowing that it did happen, and that the eyebolt was so old, I added a good lashing of Spectra line to make sure that if it did happen again, I would have some time to get the sail down and not have to wrestle it like before.
With Sparrow back in shape I was able to concentrate on a few other issues that were becoming more and more apparent. The first was the colony of gooseneck barnacles that had hitched a ride below the waterline. I’d first noticed them near the equator when there was only one or two. Like rabbits they multiplied very rapidly. I could only see that they had covered the entire rudder, and I expected that the rest of Sparrow’s hull was the same. I didn’t think it was really affecting the speed in the heavy winds and seas but as the winds became light, I could tell they were adding quite a bit of drag and something needed to be done.
Now, it seems a simple idea to just jump overboard with a scraper and swim around freeing the little goosenecks and whistling
while you do it. Not so. The first problem is the temperature of the water. Very cold doesn’t do justice to what it felt like when I put my hand into the sea. A bigger problem was that the never-ending rolling of Sparrow would make any job under the water very difficult. But the thing that was keeping me on deck and looking for another solution was that I was just outright scared to swim in the Southern Ocean.
So far on the voyage we had encountered many whales, dolphins, and even a few small sharks. At night I would see endless eyes shining back under the light of my headlamp. There were things down there so big I wouldn’t be more than a snack. The more I thought about what lies beneath, the less I was going to just jump right in and start making noise, as well as send a trail of barnacles twinkling into the deep. Creatures would follow that trail for sure! So, I opted for the next best thing.
I first screwed the large paint scraper to a 4ft broom handle. With this I dangled as far as I could over the side of Sparrow’s deck and was able to reach almost the entire rudder. The goosenecks came off from the antifouling paint easily. The ones that had made their way up past the waterline were a bit more difficult and I didn’t want to attack them with too much vigour as Sparrow is a beautiful boat and I wanted to keep her that way. Scratching her paint to get rid of a few barnacles didn’t seem worth it, and quite frankly a bit disrespectful to my partner which had seen me through so many miles around the planet.
As I couldn’t reach very far below the waterline around the rest of the hull, I added another few feet of pipe to the brush handle. A little rickety and looking like some taped-together crane, I was getting far below the water line and the trail of goosenecks fell away. A few hours of this and I had made my way around the hull and called the job done. Without being able to inspect my work I wasn’t really sure it was worth the trouble, but plenty of the little stowaways were gone and sometimes just a little effort is great for morale.
With the light, foggy winds dropping, our daily miles fell below 100. Even though we were nearing the absolute middle of the South Pacific, the so-called Point Nemo, the fog kept our world closed in with only the occasional peek of blue sky. Days passed and always the fog stayed. The waves would come up and down from different directions as low-pressure systems passed to the south and north. Sparrow’s motion, ever changing, kept me working constantly with the sails to keep us going. We were in limbo. Every day seemed the same, nothing to see but fog and the waves that appeared and disappeared from the void. This was about the time that I started to notice the mould.
I had become very used to the damp conditions in the cabin. Most nights I could see my own breath condensing on the non-insulated fibreglass and bronze portholes. When we entered the fog, we were now essentially a moving sponge, soaking up all the moisture the air could give us. I first saw the little black specs on the white walls. Soon the constantly damp charts were producing a black tint on the edges. Then my pillow, a dark red camping pillow, seemed decidedly darker in colour.
The charts, I would continue to dry out over the stove, very carefully holding each one until the crisp feel of dry paper was returned. As for the pillow? I put a dry T-shirt over it, a seemingly mould-free pillowcase over that, and
‘I could see my breath condensing on the noninsulated fibreglass’
figured I’d live with the current situation for the next month. I never considered it could be bad for my health, so I let the mould enjoy its time aboard Mighty Sparrow. We were becoming an ecosystem.
A near gale sprung up from the east-north-east on 14 March. All we could do was sit hove-to and wait until things changed. And change the wind did. All day the sails went up and down. We were becalmed, then beaten by the near gale and then bashed by waves and then becalmed again. By the end of the day I was exhausted.
Each sail change required getting back into my wet weather gear, then going on deck and getting soaked. It would only take a few minutes to change the sails then down below I would go. Never more than an hour would pass before heading back on deck and doing another sail change. Each time I shipped a good amount of saltwater down below, to add to the damp conditions of the cabin.
With all the work, the day came to an end quickly in a windless and foggy world. We had covered just 50 miles in 24 hours. At first, I was discouraged by the low miles, but soon I realised that those were my miles. I’d put in the effort to keep Sparrow moving that day and I was proud of what I’d done. Sleep came fast after a quick meal with the addition of a can of corn as my reward. However slowly, we were still making miles.
The conditions deteriorated to a miserable state for days; winds ever shifting and dropping to nothing. With every change in direction, the waves were built up and now came from the north, south, and east. When the winds came from the east, I found that our tacking angle was about 180°. I had to laugh at this point. With the waves so confused and the barnacles slowing us down we were no longer able to sail to windward. Not even one degree!
My diary entry from 18 March 2018 reads: “Let me paint a picture of this fine Southern Ocean morning. The stove is burning away to add a little heat to the 38° air in the cabin. I have pinned myself into the nav station as Sparrow lurches up and down 10ft with every wave from the east and the south. The wind is switching between east and north-east every 10 minutes. Our heading changes accordingly from 180° to 110° on the compass. The wind force changes as well. So not only do we lurch up and over each wave but now we heel over to 30° in the puffs and then lie flat in the lulls. My shoulder is killing me so I took one of the strong painkillers from the med kit; now feeling good and laughing out loud. The conditions are so bad it has become a comedy, or maybe a tragedy, not sure.
YOU’VE GOT TO LAUGH...
I have always had the ability to laugh at some of the worst situations that I get myself into. Long before my solo adventures I remember a time when I’d set up my camping tarp in a seemingly great spot for the night. Sometime around 0300, the rains came and, lo and behold, I hadn’t found a great spot at all; I was sleeping in a hole! As the icy cold water started to seep into my sleeping bag I woke. The foam pad I was sleeping on had become an island. The rain continued and soon I found myself sitting in 3ins of water. All I could do was sit there and wait for morning. Incredibly, I started to laugh. Giggling at first, and then almost uncontrollably laughing when the rain fell harder and harder. To be able to laugh at the worst of times was a great help midway across the Pacific.
The beating continued, but by 20 March we were as close to Point Nemo as we would get, about 25 miles north of the furthest point from land anywhere on the planet! Over 8 million square miles of empty ocean and we were a dot in the middle. For me this was a special time and, although there was nothing different to look at, I had a sense of reaching a mountaintop. Instead of getting further from land we were now getting closer.
“The day did bring a sad truth about our world. I’d spent most of the day on deck in awe of my position at the end of the earth. During that time, I was still able to see a plastic bottle floating on the surface. A very common sight in many places in our oceans. But way out at the farthest reaches? We have polluted every mile of our ocean world. Not one place is free from the plague of singleuse plastic trash. Not one single place.