A voyaging dream fulfilled
Nearly a thousand miles from the European continent and more than twice that from North America lies an archipelago of green, volcanic peaks rising abruptly from the ceaseless blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The Azores are a lonely outpost of Portugal, mostly known these days as a minor European tourist destination—a temperate and quiet paradise. Yet to a few of us who dabble at the edges of the Atlantic in our various craft, with a tendency to stare out toward the empty horizon, they represent a sort of legendary geography, not just in their physical presence—the verdant pastures and blooming azaleas; the red-tiled roofs and narrow cobblestone streets—but in something altogether greater.
To arrive in the Azores is to have crossed an ocean, to have tested your vessel and yourself beyond the confines and comforts of the coast; to have reached beyond that empty horizon and found something on the other side. Columbus stopped by the Azores on his way back from the New World, long enough to stamp an island with the name of one of his ships. Joshua Slocum anchored there after the first leg of his circumnavigation to take on plums and cheese (which would later give him vivid hallucinations when consumed in excess).
The Azores lingered on the fringes of my consciousness throughout my childhood, as I devoured maritime literature and plied the coast of Maine in an odd assortment of sailboats. These boats were for the most part wooden, and characterized as a whole by persistent leaks, yet they were the vehicles of many early adventures, and the catalyst for rampant wanderings of the imagination. It was only a matter of time before I’d drift out past the continental shelf in one of them, and just keep on going.
On a clear afternoon in early May 2019, a small wooden sloop is making its way north, surging and dipping through an endless procession of white-capped rollers, cutting across the upper reaches of the northeast tradewinds. No one is visible on deck; the boat is piloted by a wind-vane self-steering gear, its plywood paddle twitching back and forth in the stiff breeze, telegraphing small corrections to the wheel. Down below, I’m sprawled across the port settee, wearing jeans and a safety harness, fast asleep. It’s the eve of my 24th birthday.
As the sun closes with the horizon, I’m disturbed from this nap by the angry shiver of luffing sails, an indication of something amiss. On deck I find that a critical element of the self-steering gear, an aluminum drum that links control lines to the wheel, has sheared two of its three anchoring bolts, rendering the whole system useless. The Caribbean island of St. Martin, with its protected anchorages and well-stocked chandleries, is barely over the horizon astern while the Azorean island of Faial, my destination, is roughly 2,600 nautical miles ahead. The choice to retrace my steps seems obvious, and yet I’m unable to come to terms with such a decision. I have dreamt of crossing the Atlantic alone since I first took the helm of a sailing dinghy without parental assistance, and the momentum that has been taking me in this direction is too strong to allow for such an easy out.
I heave-to while considering the situation. Staring at the listless twitching of the disabled drum has brought on familiar waves of nausea, which I do my best to ignore as I carefully remove the remaining bolt and bring the mechanism into the cabin. After two hours of painstaking work, punctuated by trips to the leeward rail to evict the contents of my stomach, I extract the broken bolts, cut new ones to length, and refasten the drum to the wheel. By this time, the golden glow of sunset has given way to the rich gradient of tropical twilight, a handful of stars and planets set against shades of blue. I reset the course, placing the Southern Cross against the backstay, and return to my bunk where I fall asleep once more.
These days, when a young person of limited financial means wishes to go to sea, the usual route is to fix up a plastic classic, a boat from the era of thick, uncored fiberglass hulls with full keels, spongy decks, and varnished coamings—a Bristol, Pearson, or Alberg. Such boats have been modified, tested, and proven as serious cruisers time and time again, and can be found on the market for very reasonable, used-car prices. Yet I knew I had to have a wooden boat. The reasons for this are rooted somewhere in my upbringing; I first became immersed in the world of wooden boats because I wanted to sail and, as the son of a carpenter, I knew how to work with wood. It was a means to an end: when I was 12, building a boat seemed like the most direct path to owning one. Somewhere along the way, while I was patching up old relics and making new ones, I got caught up in the sensory aspects of wooden boats: the warmth and strength of the material, the way a sheer or the hollow of a waterline can hold your gaze for long minutes. Once you have experienced beauty of this sort, it is impossible to settle for anything less. Also, to this day I don’t know how to use polyester resin.
I looked at boats by a variety of designers, including a pretty little Harrison Butler cutter with loops of cotton poking through seams on the inside and rainwater trickling through the deck. I clambered around a Laurent Giles sloop with bunks too short for me to stretch out, and marveled at the sheen of varnish on an Aage Nielsen yawl. I came across PROMISE on a frigid day in late November 2017. She was at Seal Cove Boatyard in Brooksville, Maine, resting on a wooden cradle in the back row of a sleeping winter fleet, all covered with green plastic tarps. The broker’s listing described her as a 34′ Al Mason design (my tape measure later described her as a 36-footer— the number I use in conversation depends on whether or not I’m being charged by the foot). I had, perhaps, read the listing too quickly and was surprised by her shallow draft, revealing her as the sort of keel-centerboarder popularized by Cruising Club of America rules. I hadn’t really considered such a hull, yet the boat looked just right. Her lines spoke of moderation, drawn so that she might swim through the water rather than slicing it or shouldering it aside.
As I continue northward, the tradewinds wither and then disappear altogether, leaving me to wallow in the ephemeral area of high pressure that floats around the Bermuda Triangle, breaking and reforming around passing lows. The daily runs recorded in my logbook reflect this transition; 160, 150, 96, 70, 48 nautical miles from one noon position to the next. As the journey progresses, I find myself drifting into the timeless state that awakens at sea—the delineation between yesterday, today, and tomorrow that seems so important within the framework of a land-based existence is, for the most part, ignored. Days are represented as pages in a book, dots on a chart, and penciled hash marks on a deckbeam over the port settee. I spend hours on deck, watching cloud formations as they group and dissipate, observing the occasional Wilson’s storm petrel or skua wheeling and skimming the surface of the water, noting the blocky presence of a container ship on the horizon. Despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest land, I encounter commercial vessels nearly every day, crisscrossing my small circle of visible ocean in every direction. As a small and rather unreflective block of wood in the Atlantic, I have little hope of being noticed on radar—detection and evasion are fully my responsibilities. For the singlehander, this would traditionally entail a scan of the horizon every 20 minutes, day and night—the amount of time it would take a tanker cruising at 20 knots to first appear on the horizon and then run you over. On PROMISE, I’ve installed an AIS alarm that emits a loud, continuous beeping whenever a ship is set to pass within a predetermined radius, and thus sleep for a full eight hours each night, in two- to three-hour segments, waking only to check the sails and wind vane.
Along with my routines of cooking, reading, and birdwatching, I pop out a removable section of sole at the foot of the companionway ladder several times a day to observe the swill of water washing back and forth between the floor timbers. Like every wooden boat I’ve ever owned, PROMISE leaks. The leaking is not serious, nor is it unnoticeable. In calm weather, I might spend a minute each day working the plastic handle of the bilge pump; if I’m beating to windward in a fresh breeze, I might repeat the procedure every six hours. It’s not the volume of water that finds its way into the bilge, but the persistence of the issue that I find tiresome. Every time I stare into the bilge, the level has risen ever so slightly, yet ever so noticeably. I half expect to find a fish staring back at me.
Nothing about going to sea in a wooden boat approaching its half-century anniversary should be inherently riskier than doing so in one of any other material. Resin-starved laminates can disassociate themselves from structural members just as easily as a garboard can spit out its cotton in rough seas; the loss of the Bénéteau-built CHEEKI RAFIKI and her crew during a transatlantic voyage in 2014 was a notable reminder of such dangers. Yet the complexity of wooden construction and potential for hidden rot, electrolysis, worm damage, and the like allows for a greater set of unknowns, each a weight on the mind of the sailor. Eliminating these unknowns is essential to the safety of the vessel and the inner quietude of its crew, particularly out of sight of land.
PROMISE was first launched in 1971, at the Largo, Florida, yard of Nelson Whitesell. Her construction is rugged if not quite traditional: 1″-square cypress strip planking over hefty, double-sawn, longleaf pine frames placed on 2′ centers. The planking is edge-fastened with an abundance of ring-shanked Monel nails, and fastened to the frames with bronze screws. It is also glued together with a brittle, black substance I take to be resorcinol; apparently the Good Word about epoxy hadn’t made it to Largo by 1971. All in all, it must have been an effective method of turning out a stiff and watertight hull in relatively little time. Nearly 50 years down the road, PROMISE’s sprightly sheerline shows no sign of droopiness, and her topsides are tight and fair, lacking the characteristic visible plank lines that mar the appearances of so many strip-planked boats. Her underwater sections, as I found out, are a different story.
After graduating from college in February 2018, I moved to Cape Rosier, in Brooksville, on the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay, where friends had generously offered up a bit of land on which I could set a yurt. The winter was cold, but still relatively snowless, and I split my days between working on PROMISE and foraging in the intertidal zone, my diet leaning heavily on shellfish, seaweed, and peanut butter. I soon got a job pushing sandpaper at Seal Cove Boatyard, which allowed me to branch out in the culinary department while relegating work on PROMISE to evenings and weekends.
The first stage of the renovation involved removing every bit of equipment that didn’t have a place in my vision of the completed vessel, a surprising pile that included a television, watermaker, fried batteries, shoddy cabinetry, and several miles of unlabeled, obsolete, and dead-end wiring. Though this removal of old gear was one of the least-important stages of the project, the psychological value of making immediate and rapid (if destructive) progress, and creating a blank slate with which to work, cannot be understated. Most of this material found its way into a dumpster, but some I was able to sell for a bit of cash or save for reuse later on.
As this work progressed, I started formulating a plan of attack, deciding which tasks deserved to be prioritized and which could be ignored. This sort of planning involved sitting for hours while contemplating the enormity of the project through glazed eyes, self-doubt welling up in my stomach. It was all too much—I might be finished before late middle age, but even this was unlikely. Alternately, I would sit in the cockpit under the pallid glow of a green tarp, one hand on the wheel, and drift away into visions of tradewinds and emerald swells. I put an end to this behavior by unbolting the wheel from the pedestal, and turned to more serious tasks.
As part of the acquisition process, I’d engaged a surveyor to go over PROMISE with a set of eyes more experienced than my own. The report from this inspection revealed no major issues, but recommended a complete refastening below the waterline due to corrosion of the bronze screws. Additionally, I’d noted a good deal of flaking paint in this region; close inspection revealed that these flakes were caused by surficial delignification, rather than a failure of the paint bond. I spent several days in a state of mild panic, digging through all the information I could find about electrolysis and its effect on wood, before talking myself off that particular ledge. The only way forward was to strip the bottom and see what lay beneath.
After several agonizingly slow afternoons with a heat gun and scraper, Bob Vaughan, the yard’s owner, introduced me to a handy piece of technology originally intended for melting the paint off clapboard siding. This tool consists of a coiled heating element, like one might find on an old electric stove, set inside a metal shield. In a few seconds it could raise a perfectly rectangular patch of blisters in the old bottom paint, with an efficiency near that of an open flame. Progress and morale were greatly improved. I was also heartened to discover that the wood beneath the paint and fairing compound was generally sound, with several exceptions. Near the starboard bow, I cut out a section of soft planking spanning several frames and glued in three new strips of white cedar with fish-tail scarfs on each end. A Fein multitool with a carbide blade proved indispensable for cutting cleanly through the edge nails while removing the old planking.
In refastening PROMISE, I decided to leave the old screws in place and add new screws in between them, rather than remove and replace them. Originally, the planking had been fastened to the frames on every other strip, so it was a simple matter to drive screws through the alternates. The frames are 3″ square, so I wasn’t unduly worried about weakening them with additional perforation. In the areas of localized sponginess around some of the more corroded screw heads, I drilled shallow ¾″ and 1″ holes with Forstner bits, soaked the exposed grain with warm, unthickened epoxy, and glued in circular cedar plugs.
Five days out of St. Martin, the manual bilge pump that has proven essential to keeping water on the proper side of the hull develops a tear in its rubber diaphragm. Bilgewater dribbles onto the galley counter with each stroke, a sign of impending failure. I effect various repairs using a Ziploc bag and polysulfide caulking compound, but it’s apparent that such work will not withstand consistent usage and would certainly fall apart at the first sign of emergency. Bermuda is four days away, a mix of light-wind drifting, bashing to windward, and, at last, a glorious broad reach, surging along at hull speed in a way that erases all memories of seasickness and discontent. On the morning of my approach to St. George’s Harbour, the sky turns purple, then green, heralding the approach of a series of violent squalls. I tie in a deep reef and duck below as Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse is obscured by horizontal sheets of rain. One finds little cause to look in the mirror while alone offshore, except for the occasional confirmation of self in moments of existential confusion. Doing so now, I decide that the nine days of scruff on my chin is enough to get me arrested on sight in Bermuda, and set about removing it, at which point PROMISE decides to crash-jibe, sending me tumbling across the cockpit, then scrambling to ease the preventer with a razor clutched foolishly in one hand. I finally reach the St. George’s customs dock at 9:50 on a Tuesday morning, mostly clean-shaven.
After a two-month interlude in the summer of 2018 to fish on an Alaskan gillnetter, I returned to Cape Rosier to continue working on PROMISE. I’d set my sights on a November departure for the Caribbean, which added a sense of urgency to the project, particularly once the Brooksville foliage took on shades of gold. With the hull in sound condition, I turned my attention elsewhere on the vessel. The process of preparing a boat for offshore sailing is the management of a thousand details, both large and small. Every element of the boat must be examined and considered with a critical eye, and for each I would ask myself, “How important is this part of the boat to my safety? How likely is it to fail? How will I repair it if it does?” Approaching a project in this manner feels dramatic, and cannot account for every detail, but it reveals certain priorities for survival out of sight of land. The hull, of course, is chief among these; staying afloat is staying alive. Next in importance is a means of propulsion, and since the 13 gallons of diesel fuel aboard PROMISE will carry her a mere fraction of an inch across a gnomonic projection of the North Atlantic, this means keeping the mast and sails intact.
PROMISE is rigged as a masthead sloop, though I discovered an obsolete mizzen maststep while snooping around the lazarette one day, and briefly envisioned myself as the sort of more-refined being who might be found sailing a yawl several decades into the 21st century. This idea was scrapped immediately for lack of time, and potential interference between a mizzen and the wind vane. Instead I chose to replace the existing stays, which were of an indeterminate age, with new 1×19 stainless-steel wire and mechanical terminals. Initially, I planned on reusing the old terminals to save a buck, but was advised otherwise by a rigging supplier after describing them to him over the phone. “You know how old those things are?” he asked, incredulously. “They haven’t been made for over 20 years. Now, would you drive a car with 20-year-old brakes?” I thought that I probably would, and likely had, but took the point and purchased new terminals. PROMISE came to me with only one headsail, a 150-percent genoa set on furling gear. The unsuitability of this arrangement for my purposes was driven home when the furler seized up on my third outing with PROMISE, forcing me to dump the genoa over the side. Shortly thereafter I chopped off this problematic piece of technology and ordered a working jib with hanks and reefpoints. It would prove itself to be an almost foolproof arrangement; I was later forced to retrieve the jib from the bottom of a deep Caribbean anchorage after leaving the furled sail unattached (and unattended) on the foredeck.
The theme of simplicity and reliability became universal throughout the boat, as dictated by both budget and taste. The new electrical system amounted to a VHF radio, an inverter, and a handful of LED lights, all easily powered by a single 100-watt solar panel. I passed on the chartplotter and refrigeration, instead spending my money on good sails and heavy ground tackle.
One of the benefits of fixing up a boat on the eastern shores of Penobscot Bay is the amazing wealth of knowledge and talent tucked away there. Whenever a problem arose beyond the range of my expertise, there was always someone willing to talk me through it or lend a hand. Bob Vaughan and his son, Sam, and the crew at Seal Cove Boatyard were particularly generous in this respect. Shawn Duffy, the fabricator there, took time after work one evening to neatly weld a new end onto a leaky water tank I’d extricated from under the starboard settee. Other people graciously donated gear and supplies. One friend, Phil LaFrance, sent me off with a storm trysail recovered from the depths of his attic; another, Steve Garrand, gave me a heavy-duty fishing line and a box of Goldfish crackers “in case you don’t catch anything.” Even a solitary endeavor like crossing an ocean cannot be accomplished alone.
I depart Bermuda exactly 48 hours after arriving, armed with a shiny new bilge pump and a week’s worth of predictive wind charts. Without any sort of long-range communication on board, weather forecasting is no more than an educated guessing game, with a barometer and rudimentary knowledge of cloud formations to guide me in the right direction. Modern forecasting technology presumes to tell us what the atmosphere will be doing for as many as 10 days into the future, but its accuracy seems to hold for only the first three. The fourth day is generally a hazy interpretation of reality, while the fifth and beyond might as well be karmic astrology. Still, I work with my decaying GRIB files for as long as possible, playing them against observations of the wind and sky to create a mental map of surrounding weather patterns.
For three days I steadily make my way northeast, first closehauled against a gentle northerly, then broad-reaching in 25 knots as the wind backs to the southwest. Traditional wisdom holds that sailing vessels making an eastward crossing of the Atlantic should try to reach the latitude of 40N as quickly as possible, where prevailing westerlies can be found, thus circumventing a windless patch of ocean known as the Azores High. The recent phenomenon of sailors’ apparent willingness to fire up the engine and motor for hundreds of offshore miles has led many boats to take a more direct track, at the expense of a higher fuel bill. I can stand the high-compression racket of a diesel engine for no more than a couple of hours at a time, and thus choose the former route.
Despite this, the 20th of May finds me thoroughly becalmed at 37°N 57°W, five days out of Bermuda. The term “becalmed” suggests some sort of ethereal stillness, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s “…painted ship/Upon a painted ocean.” More often it is a state of constant, unpleasant motion. Even a gentle swell can generate a persistent roll, the masthead scribing a broad arc in the air as the mainsail fills and backs with enough violence to part the lashings on the sail slides. Strike the sail and, without its dampening effect, the boat will nearly roll her gunwales under. In such conditions, the counter stern on PROMISE will slap the surface of the water as she hobbyhorses in the swell. It is not a comforting sound.
In the early hours of the 21st, the wind returns with purpose and I tuck a reef in the main, happy to be underway once more. The day when it arrives is tinged with an indistinct haze. The sky is not quite overcast, yet there is an atmospheric filter that diffuses the sun’s light into a malicious yellow glare, and turns the building seas a leaden gray. In the noon log entry, I note that the barometer has dropped four millibars in as many hours; it is now clear that I’m on the edge of a significant depression sweeping in from the west. I’ve weathered two gales thus far on PROMISE and have no great concern about the onset of another. I go about my usual routine of bending-on the storm trysail to a separate track on the mast, bolting plywood shutters to the doghouse windows, securing loose gear in the cabin. At 2100, the barometer has yet to find bottom, and the wind is steadily hitting the mid-30s. I surf downwind under storm jib for a while, but it is hardly a comfortable or controlled ride—from time to time, a foamy crest finds its way into the cockpit as PROMISE yaws on the face of a wave—and I eventually raise the trysail, bring her into the wind, and heave-to.
The night is not restful. By the morning of the 22nd, the sea and wind have advanced to a state outside the scope of my experience. Later on, I will estimate that the waves were somewhere in the 15' range, but at the moment, they are on par with the Adirondacks. Later on, I will think about lots of things, for instance, why I failed to turn around and get out of the way while it was still possible, but at the moment, I am frightened and eating instant noodles while sitting on the cabin sole.
Twenty hours into the gale, there is no sign of reprieve. I take a stroll forward on hands and knees to check the lashings on the dinghy and find all is well. The return journey is a slow, careful crawl down the side deck, stepping into the cockpit with one foot after the other, unclipping my safety harness from the jackline, placing a hand on the companionway, and…I hesitate, stayed by a sound or sensation, and look back to windward. The wave seems to be towering almost directly overhead, a wall of cascading whitewater that has appeared out of nowhere and singled me out for destruction. I have time only to reach for the steering pedestal and lock my fingers around its stainless-steel arch before the wall breaks on top of me and everything turns sideways.
The force of the falling water feels something like that of an avalanche. My body folds and rolls, saltwater filling my mouth and nose, all senses temporarily obscured. When I regain my vision, PROMISE is lying on her side, almost docilely, exhibiting no inclination to either right herself or turn turtle. The masthead is lost in the foamy backside of the receding wave. I am half in and half out of the water, still holding on with one hand, and taking this bizarre moment of respite to consider my options, of which there are very few; the first wave has put her down, and the second, now rising in its place, will finish the job. Fortunately, PROMISE seems to have other ideas, and swivels to point her nose downhill, the mast breaking free of the surface while sheets of seawater slough off the trysail. Now we are careening downwind like a speeding duck, shaking the water from its feathers. In a state of dazed confusion, I bring her into the wind and heave-to once more.
Some damage is apparent immediately. The green weather cloths that normally protect the cockpit from wind and spray are in tatters, the remains snapping from bent stanchions until cut away. The working jib has broken its ties on the foredeck and is streaming to leeward along with a rat’s nest of previously coiled line. More concerning is the scene down below, where sleeping bags, clothing, and books are sloshing back and forth across the cabin sole. I reach for the pump handle, never before so thankful for a functional and effective piece of equipment, and work it furiously until my mental state subsides into an intelligible conglomeration of thoughts. The boat is still afloat, and so am I, though miserable. The closest land is Newfoundland, 400…no, closer to 500 miles to the north. What are the signs of hypothermia? My boots are full of water. I need to get the jib back on deck.
Later in the Azores, while tied up in the harbor of Praia da Vittoria, Graciosa, the most beautiful island I’ve ever seen, I will drink tea with a Finnish man named Jan, and discuss the reasons for going to sea in a small wooden boat. “When the sea and wind are at their worst,” Jan will say, “and I’m up on the deck, fighting the sails, I think, ‘Yes! I’m alive!’ This is truly living!”
And so, in this moment, I know I am alive, kneeling on the foredeck and dragging yards of slick Dacron from the ocean, inch by inch, cold spray hitting me like birdshot. Somewhere in these agonizing minutes is the nagging thought that I’m here of my own volition. By choosing to go to sea, I’ve entered into a contract from which there is no extrication, save for its fulfillment. My tasks are to keep the boat afloat and sailing, to maintain the functionality of its systems to this end, to keep myself aboard and in good health. I finish securing the jib and retire below, where I find I’m unable to remove my wet clothing, instead wrapping myself in a soggy sleeping bag on the cabin sole, wedged between the settee and centerboard trunk.
Shortly before I left Maine, I bought a used life raft from a friend after being roundly chastised for even considering setting out without one. Since then, it has lived on a shelf in the cabin, its bright yellow-and-orange valise representing some modicum of safety (in appearance, at least). In reflecting on the knockdown, I have since often considered that the raft would have been useless in the time of greatest need. Even if I’d kept it mounted on deck, the chances that either I or the raft would stay connected to PROMISE long enough to be of use in a complete capsize are slim indeed. In actuality, what kept me safe was a well-constructed, sound hull that could take a battering and live on, fresh rigging to keep the mast in place, and a decent bilge pump to keep the ocean where it belongs. I credit my ignorance for getting into such a situation, and months of preparation in the boatyard for getting out of it alive.
The most memorable moment of the crossing comes a week after the knockdown. The sun has emerged for the first time in days, and I’m beating south over long, even swells, surrounded by a pod of dolphins. These happy creatures are also headed east, in accordance with their own cetacean purposes, flitting gracefully in PROMISE’s bow wave, and occasionally jumping high above the surface of the water, so that a wash of spray hangs crystallized in the low morning sunlight. I sit on the foredeck, utterly transfixed by this performance, thinking how it might just make up for any amount of grinding and painting in the back of a boatyard. This is why I chose to fix up an old wooden boat and go to sea—so that I could pass the nights alone, hundreds of miles from land, beam-reaching under a full moon while drinking wine from an enamel cup, or marvel at the black expanse of a whale breaking the surface not 10' from the boat in a thick North Atlantic fog. So that I could drink in the brilliant green slopes of Faial, appearing out of low-hanging clouds after 17 days at sea, and know the feeling of having reached past the edge of the horizon, and found something on the other side.
Milo Stanley is a woodworker, musician, and commercial fisherman from Maine. He is currently taking a mandatory break from sailing foreign coastlines to explore his home waters, the Kennebec River.