Farewell to the Gulf Stream

An old salt hangs up his off­shore tether.

Cruising World - - Contents - by John Rous­man­iere

Lucky enough to have learned to sail when I was a boy knock­ing around Maine’s Ken­nebec River in a small wooden cen­ter­board sloop, I har­bor a his­tory of mixed feel­ings about boats. Most of these emo­tions are pos­i­tive, even ec­static. Feel­ing the wind and ex­ploit­ing it in a mov­ing boat — there is a pro­found sense of in­de­pen­dence. And yet when I first learned it, this seemed too mirac­u­lous. I can re­call feel­ing a pre­mo­ni­tion that sail­ing is too glo­ri­ous to be any­thing other than tem­po­rary, like a lovely Christ­mas morn­ing un­der a pretty tree that will be in the trash to­mor­row.

Will the day ever come when I will have to give up boats? Un­til now, the an­swer has been no. Yet when I have been ask­ing this ques­tion re­cently, six decades after those early joys on the Ken­nebec, I have a sense that the ground rules are chang­ing.

While we are never too old for hol­i­days, some other things must in­evitably be given up. The irony is that the abo­li­tion is at my own ini­tia­tive. This past June, be­cause of some­thing I learned about my­self, I de­cided to cut back on boats, swear­ing off the type of sail­ing that I most deeply love, which is go­ing far out to sea. I made this de­ci­sion last sum­mer in Eng­land be­cause I de­cided that, at age 74, my ba­sic ca­pa­bil­i­ties were grad­u­ally fail­ing.

When a very fine yacht club on the Isle of Wight in­vited me to come over from the States and present a talk on yacht­ing his­tory at its club­house, my

wife, Leah, quickly or­ga­nized around that su­perb event an equally su­perb shore­side va­ca­tion on a theme (English cathe­drals and pil­grim­age sites) of pro­found in­ter­est to us both.

I mean­while ar­ranged to get in some sail­ing after we left Eng­land by join­ing the crew of a clas­sic wooden yawl that would sail one of my most fa­vorite chal­leng­ing routes, 650 miles from Ber­muda across the Gulf Stream to the States. Tak­ing both prospects — the tours, and the de­liv­ery — se­ri­ously, I im­me­di­ately ex­panded my fit­ness reg­i­men, with daily long walks and ex­ten­sive up­per-body ex­er­cises.

But once we were in Eng­land, our am­bi­tious and seem­ingly sen­si­ble plan be­gan to fall apart. We had not con­sid­ered one im­por­tant ques­tion: Could I do all this? I was eat­ing well and sleep­ing well, my re­cent phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion had been a suc­cess, and the jet lag was well be­hind us. Still, by midafter­noon on most days in Lon­don or Can­ter­bury or Sal­is­bury, my pre­vi­ously re­silient body and brain were scram­bled to the point of be­ing dis­tracted, for­get­ful and (so I was in­formed) grouchy. After a week of this, Leah tact­fully won­dered out loud if I re­ally was up to the Ber­muda de­liv­ery. My im­me­di­ate re­sponse was a de­fi­ant hus­bandly yes. Still, I knew ex­actly what she was say­ing. I de­cided to track my­self and make my own de­ci­sion. By the end of a day of con­stant self­ex­am­i­na­tion, I re­al­ized that though I was gen­er­ally in good health, I was not at my old state of re­silience. I felt more tired, for­get­ful and dis­tracted than I could re­call.

I asked my­self one search­ing ques­tion: Would you want to have some­one at this stage in your watch in the Gulf Stream? My an­swer: Prob­a­bly not. With that, I de­cided to with­draw from the de­liv­ery crew. In my re­luc­tant email to the own­ers, I wrote, “One of my most im­por­tant safety rules of thumb is that any sailor who is phys­i­cally or men­tally ‘off ’ in any way that makes him un­re­li­able doesn’t be­long in an off­shore boat. … Now three months into my 75th year, I have al­ways been in­de­pen­dent and vig­or­ous. These symp­toms are new and dis­turb­ing.”

I be­gan to won­der whether, at my age and in my con­di­tion, I could con­tinue my old sea­man­ship prac­tices. One of my habits was to take a walk­a­bout and in­spec­tion tour of the deck and nearby fit­tings ev­ery two or three hours (of course, I was al­ways hooked on with my safety har­ness). Once, in a deeply reefed 45-foot sloop slog­ging through the Gulf Stream to­ward Ber­muda, my flash­light beam trig­gered a bright spark in the lee­ward wa­ter­way. Fur­ther in­spec­tion re­vealed it to be a cot­ter pin that had some­how fallen out of the head­stay turn­buckle (where it was quickly re­in­stalled).

Would I do that in­spec­tion to­day? Surely not in rough weather. But I could train a younger sailor.


Con­cerned about my strength, en­durance and men­tal acu­ity, I was quite sure that I had made the cor­rect de­ci­sion by drop­ping out of the de­liv­ery crew. Yet I had some doubts, and to test them I con­sulted the spir­its of some great and thought­ful sailors who, each in his own way, had said some­thing wise about sea­far­ing in rough con­di­tions.

Joseph Con­rad, who spent the first half of his life at sea and then de­voted the sec­ond half to writ­ing about it, of­fered a pithy rule of thumb in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

The Mir­ror of the Sea. Con­rad’s rule was this: “A sea­man la­bor­ing un­der an un­due sense of se­cu­rity be­comes at once worth hardly half his salt.” The key word is

un­due. A sailor must be hon­est and frank about risks.

One ob­server of this rule was Olin Stephens, a great yacht de­signer (his boats in­clude the one I was to sail in from Ber­muda) who was a vastly ex­pe­ri­enced and suc­cess­ful skip­per and nav­i­ga­tor. A man of con­sid­er­able re­serve and mod­esty, he some­times was quite bold in his sail­ing As a young man, the au­thor found him­self at the helm dur­ing the no­to­ri­ous 1979 Fast­net Race (top). Ovcr a life­time of sail­ing, he’s also taken the wheel dur­ing many a rau­cous Gulf Stream cross­ing (op­po­site). Northerly winds buf­fet­ing the north-flow­ing Gulf Stream of­ten set up chal­leng­ing con­di­tions off the U.S. East Coast.

The most im­por­tant piece

of safety equip­ment in a

boat is a healthy, fit sailor.

and his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, All This and

Sail­ing, Too, for which I pro­vided ed­i­to­rial as­sis­tance. He had few fears on the wa­ter so long as he trusted the boat. “The hard push was the high­light for me,” he wrote of a wild Fast­net Race in Eng­land in 1931 in his yawl Do­rade. “We were sail­ing fast, and I thought it was won­der­ful as I felt her roll, first with the main boom hit­ting the wa­ter, then with the spin­naker pole al­most do­ing the same. I could hear the wa­ter com­ing in over the bow and rush­ing down the side deck, mov­ing fast, much of it over the cabin trunk and com­pan­ion­way. It sounded a lit­tle like Ni­a­gara Falls.” His ship­mates wor­ried, but Olin knew the boat was do­ing what he had de­signed it to do. Fifty years later, at age 72, he re­tired from both work and se­ri­ous rac­ing.


This no­tion of pre­par­ing well for any chal­leng­ing ac­tiv­ity has re­cently been re­named “fore­hand­ed­ness.” A sur­geon, Christo­pher Nemeth, has de­fined it this way: “An­tic­i­pa­tion and prepa­ra­tion for the un­cer­tain fu­ture so that we are ready for it by the time it be­comes the present. Fore­hand­ed­ness en­ables us to achieve a ro­bust per­for­mance that can make suc­cess pos­si­ble in spite of cir­cum­stances.”

“Cir­cum­stances” can vary, but if there is one place where they are con­stantly un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, it is in a sail­boat bang­ing across the mighty Gulf Stream, with great swirls of rapid warm-wa­ter cur­rents bash­ing against each other and the strong winds that of­ten blow. Of my 25-plus Stream cross­ings, at least half have been dif­fi­cult. In one, a 65-knot gust blew the in­ner forestay right off the boat. Dur­ing my first Stream cross­ing, as a 19-year-old deck­hand on a big ketch headed to Greece, we were obliged by a northerly gale and the huge break­ing sea it stirred up to heave-to for a day un­der a storm try­sail. We couldn’t set that es­sen­tial lit­tle sail un­til the deck­hand spent the af­ter­noon reat­tach­ing the sail slides that had fallen off be­cause their seiz­ings had rot­ted away.

This mem­ory re­minds me of some Gulf Stream wis­dom writ­ten by the bril­liant boat­ing jour­nal­ist Alfred F. Loomis: “A man who can’t stand the Stream blues is no ad­di­tion to a crew, how­ever or­na­men­tal he may be to a bar.”


My own con­tri­bu­tions to pithy sea­man­ship rules in­clude this state­ment in my sail­ing man­ual, The An­napo­lis Book of Sea­man­ship: “The most im­por­tant piece of safety equip­ment in a boat is a healthy, fit sailor.” My point is that many sailors place too much faith in the safety hard­ware they buy, and not enough in the skills, lead­er­ship and good judg­ment of the sailors they sign on as crew.

But there is an­other is­sue that strikes to the heart of my per­sonal con­cern. That is phys­i­cal fit­ness. Cruis­ing World’s Herb Mc­cormick raised this is­sue in his book As Long as It’s Fun, his fine bi­og­ra­phy of the re­mark­able Pardeys, Lin and Larry. Builders, own­ers and only crew of the fa­mous Taleisin, they have re­tired from voy­ag­ing due to ad­vanc­ing age and health con­cerns. Lin told Herb, “I’m find­ing it dif­fi­cult to right out say, ‘I’m not sail­ing across any more oceans with Larry,’ but he’s made it pretty clear that he doesn’t feel he has the stamina to han­dle emer­gency sit­u­a­tions. So why be out there?” In other words, when voy­ag­ing is not all that much fun any­more, you don’t have to do it.

Re­flect­ing on these risks and vari­ables, and the re­lated morale is­sues, I think of a story about Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary. Long after he con­quered Ever­est, he was not hav­ing much fun at all on a long, slow, dis­cour­ag­ing slog across Antarc­tica. As he lay toss­ing in his sleep­ing bag, nagged by his fal­ter­ing con­fi­dence, he took care­ful, ob­jec­tive in­ven­tory of his ap­ti­tudes and came up with this: “Slightly crazy, fre­quently ter­ri­fied and not a bad nav­i­ga­tor — and that about summed it up.”

Re­as­sured of his fun­da­men­tal com­pe­tence, Hil­lary rolled over and slept like a baby. He had in his hum­ble way suc­ceeded in con­vert­ing un­healthy fear into con­struc­tive cau­tion. Know­ing when to take a step back or even give in is a mea­sure of wis­dom and ma­tu­rity. We can sur­vive the im­por­tant sac­ri­fices.

Pretty as a pic­ture at times, the Gulf Stream has a fe­ro­cious side too.

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