Magazine article Sea Classics

A Speck on the Sea: Epic Voyages of the Most Improbable Vessels

Magazine article Sea Classics

A Speck on the Sea: Epic Voyages of the Most Improbable Vessels

Article excerpt



By William H. Longyard

A Speck on the Sea is an epic voyage into the world of epic voyages. William Longyard lets us travel along with voyages of daring, desperation, danger and drama. We sail on 13 chapters of unforgettable ocean adventures, all in the smallest craft imaginable.

Longyard offers evidence that Inuits in small skin-covered kayaks were the first long distance solo-voyagers.

We set the epic standard early in this book with Cap. William Bligh, cast adrift near the Friendly Islands (now Tonga) in an open launch by the mutinous crew of HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789, yet reaching Kupang, Timor, on 12 June, a distance of 4000 miles to the west. Bligh lost just one man very early in the voyage in an altercation with the Tongans.

Some of these venturous mariners performed their feats as the result of a calamity, such as a shipwreck, or desire to escape from something intolerable. But the majority of them were seekers of fame, fortune or driven by something unfathomable to build something so small, a speck on the sea, and sail, row or float it to another continent, or around the world.

Take the ocean voyage of American Paul Boyton in 1874, who had come across a newfangled lifesaving outfit called the Merriman Inflatable Immersion Suit. The Merriman Company needed to demonstrate that the suit indeed worked, and Boyton was their man to show the world. He did so by jumping off the eastbound American steamer Queen when it was 30 miles off the Irish coast in a fierce storm. Fifty-six ships were lost that night in the seas around the British Isles. But not Boyton, who remained snug inside his buoyant suit. With the aid of a paddling contraption, he powered himself to shore, then another ten miles to Cork. Boyton, who was born in Ireland, was hailed as a hero. This book continues to describe Boyton's further adventures, crossing the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar and Messina, and eventually demonstrating a military use for the Merriman suit, actually attempting to covertly attach a mine to a Chilean warship in its war with Peru in 1880.

Danish-born Alfred Johnson was a fisherman who sailed from Cape Ann, Massachusetts, into the Grand Banks. He was a dory man. The small two-man flat-bottomed dories would be brought out to the fishing grounds by a mother ship, then recovered at the end of a day's work. He had fished in all kinds of weather in this small boat. It occurred to him that sailing a dory across the Atlantic might land him fame and fortune at the upcoming Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He modified his dory by decking it over, compartmentalized it to carry stores, and built a small hatch to sit in. With a simple tiller and sailing arrangement, crude compass, the most basic of charts, he slipped out of Gloucester in June of 1876.

Along the way, a gale battered the Centennial, tearing away part of the hatch combing and shipping great amounts of water into the small boat, ruining some of his supplies. Days later, in a gale, Centennial actually rolled over. Johnson had wisely tied himself fast with a rope secured to the dory. Tossed into the cold sea, he eventually climbed back aboard the overturned craft, and had to wrap line around the hull until he could stand on the edge and "unwind it," and with the help of a wave, finally managed to right his craft. His food was spoiled, his stove washed away, his clothes and bedding ruined, and it was raining. But, he hoisted the one sail he had left and headed in what he thought was the direction of the Irish coast. On 12 August, he landed at the Welsh seaport of Abercastle, rested up, and four days later made for Liverpool. By this time the Centennial Exposition was almost over, but he had earned fame as being the first solo Atlantic crossing in a small boat. …

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