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Book Excerpt: Taken By The Wind

The “Louis and Clark” crew (from left in the white shirts), Clark Pellett, the author and Louis Gordon, prep their boat for trip down to New Orleans

The “Louis and Clark” crew (from left in the white shirts), Clark Pellett, the author and Louis Gordon, prep their boat for trip down to New Orleans

In 1975, as a senior at Harvard, the question for Chicago-area sailor Mike Jacker became what to do next. The answer, as related in his new book Taken by the Wind, was to make a small-boat voyage to Tahiti with his grade-school friend Louis Gordon and Harvard classmate Clark Pellett, what Jacker fondly refers to as the “Louis and Clark Expedition.” In the following excerpt, Jacker describes what it was like prepping for such a venture well before the advent of the Internet and the many other resources today’s sailors have at their disposal.

My dream was now a reality. I would be on the “Louis and Clark Expedition” to the tropical South Pacific. Knowing that I would be the navigator, I felt a bit like an inexperienced reincarnation of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone guide of the historical Lewis and Clark Expedition. But how could we get to the South Pacific? Where was our boat?

By early spring, Louis raised the possibility of buying a 6-year-old Cal 2-30 sailboat from his father, who was contemplating acquiring something different for himself. Transporting that boat from Chicago to the ocean would complicate our plan. Nonetheless, we decided it would have to suffice, as no boat had turned up on the East Coast.

Yes, the crew did eventually make it to French Polynesia 

Yes, the crew did eventually make it to French Polynesia 

The Cal 2-30 is a stock 30ft fiberglass sloop. It was designed for racing with a fin keel and spade rudder, rather than the full keel and protected rudder found on ocean cruising sailboats of that era. Crew accommodations and stowage space for cruising is adequate. The 2-30 has a reputation for being fairly stiff, handling heavy winds relatively comfortably for a responsive light displacement boat of its size. Being aware of the adage “a fast passage is a safe passage,” Louis, Clark and I agreed that she would be acceptable. Anyway, our time for finding a different vessel had nearly expired. We agreed on a price. And though we were unable to pay the full amount, Louis’s father was incredibly supportive of our voyage plan and offered to allow us to pay the balance in the future when we had more money or eventually sold the boat.

We also rationalized that taking the boat down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers would itself be an epic adventure. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway bypassing the final stretch of the Mississippi River en route to the Gulf of Mexico was still under construction; therefore, the entire trip from Chicago to New Orleans would need to be by river. The prospect of traveling down the Mississippi to the gulf from our native Midwest evoked images of Huck Finn and paddle-wheeled steamboats. The notion of this extra dimension in our journey rekindled our enthusiasm for the arduous planning that lay ahead.

At this stage, none of us had answers to most of the questions we were being asked. I was not even sure how to find many of the answers. As questions arose, long “to-do” lists evolved. We compiled lists based on information that Louis and I had read about in books and formulated many more lists of our own. These lists included essential modifications to the boat and her gear, additional subjects to be studied or researched prior to departure, items to be purchased, individuals and agencies to be contacted, and procedural checklists to keep aboard. Very soon, we had accumulated dozens of lists. Our tentative stowage roster alone—excluding food items—filled several typewritten pages. By late spring, we had even created a “list of lists,” including emergency procedures, storm preparations, medical supplies, gear stowage, provisions, watch duties, maintenance checklists, expenses, books, navigational equipment and tables, addresses, etc. Some of the lists were finalized, typed, photocopied and safely sealed in plastic to be taken to sea.

A sampling of the author’s many lists (right)

A sampling of the author’s many lists (right)

We even drew a diagram of all the compartments, drawers and dead spaces aboard the boat with a coded key. We then began to create an alphabetized, comprehensive, cross-referenced list of almost all the individual items stowed, identifying their exact locations on the boat. I readily admit we were a bit obsessive. The final stowage list contained 328 entries and resembled the merchandise index of a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, despite our boat having no more space than a VW microbus. I am sure the meticulous organization served in large measure to reduce our anxieties. Nonetheless, we felt that the completeness was worth the effort.

One checklist we created for “Port Entering Procedures” apparently even unnecessarily warned us in all capital letters: “REMEMBER TO GET DRESSED!” But then again we had no real notion of what our mental state would be upon reaching land after a long passage, and we did not want to omit anything that might someday be important. I had vague recollections of reading about Joshua Slocum aboard Spray, and Robert Manry aboard Tinkerbelle hallucinating at sea. There were also speculative reports of Donald Crowhurst’s suicidal insanity after falsifying his position aboard the trimaran, Teignmouth Electron, during the first singlehanded round-the-world race. We simply did not want to take any chances.

With the assistance of four doctors, we also listed precautions to be taken before departure, as well as schedules for taking the antimalarial drug, Chloroquine, while in endemic malarial regions. Clark took charge of provisioning our medicine chest. Most first-aid texts are based upon the assumption that professional medical help is nearby. For the sailor who is weeks from land, having prescription medications, including antibiotics and narcotic analgesics, with explicit instructions for proper use is indispensable. One essential book that we planned to take with us was Advanced First Aid Afloat by Peter Eastman, M.D., a surgeon, who lived aboard his Cal Cruising 46. (One year later we learned that Dr. Eastman, unfortunately, had run aground on the reef at Huahine in French Polynesia, not far from where we were at that time.) Shortly after his book arrived by mail in my dormitory, I read through it carefully. I took a bit of perverse pleasure in showing my dorm mates the chapter that included a graphic, step-by-step description of how to perform a limb amputation at sea… using a hacksaw. It never bothered me much because I always imagined that if it ever came to an amputation, I would be the one holding the saw, not the one with the gangrenous leg.

Louis tends to the boat’s lines in the Panama Canal

Louis tends to the boat’s lines in the Panama Canal

Radios and a Sextant

Since all preparations required correspondence through the mail, considerably more time for preparation was needed in 1975 and 1976 than today. I ordered safety equipment, selected an assortment of gear to outfit the boat and began procuring charts. Navigational charts were quite complex to obtain, as no comprehensive catalog of international charts existed. Before acquiring charts, we first had to decide which regions to include. Of necessity, without a definitive cruising plan, we needed to cover waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia and the Pacific islands to the west. This even included Micronesia and Melanesia.

Small-scale charts of large areas and detailed local charts would both be required. We anticipated that additional charts might be available later, in places such as New Orleans and Panama. The charts we requested and located were primarily British Admiralty charts, French charts, and United States government-issued charts. I was quite excited when I first examined nautical charts of remote islands with exotic names. Upon perusal of Pacific island charts, I noted with concern that many were based on Admiralty surveys completed in the 1700s. They occasionally included notations warning that the positions of certain islands might be inaccurate by as much as five nautical miles! Even more concerning, some charts highlighted areas far from land where “breaking waves with possible shoals” had been sighted from the deck of a ship decades earlier. Satellite-based surveys and Google Earth photographs were simply unimaginable fantasies in 1976.

One example of the bureaucracy we faced while still completing our senior year in college was our quest for a Panama Canal Tonnage Certificate. We learned that obtaining this certificate, necessary to transit the Panama Canal, would first require U.S. Coast Guard documentation of our vessel. After hiring an experienced professional for $50 to track down the title papers of previous owners and pay all the necessary government fees, we were placed on the mandatory three-month waiting list to receive our documentation. Following another four letters, two phone calls and a trip to the Chicago Coast Guard office, we received an official registration number, but still no document. We were hoping to have our boat measured for the Panama Canal Tonnage Certificate while still in the United States. In theory, the policy stated that boats arriving at the Canal Zone with a Tonnage Certificate in hand would be exempt from the fee normally charged for being measured in Panama. Measurement by the Coast Guard in the United States was reportedly free of charge. However, the official admeasurer, who had sole authority to issue the Panama Canal Tonnage Certificate, needed to see the original registration document itself. Three long distance calls to the Coast Guard regional headquarters in St. Louis and one call to New Orleans confirmed this for us. We concluded that we would have to wait until we arrived in New Orleans to complete this process.

From left: Clark, the author and Louis re-launch their Cal 2-30 in Louisiana at the beginning of the voyage

From left: Clark, the author and Louis re-launch their Cal 2-30 in Louisiana at the beginning of the voyage

Louis and Clark tasked me with the navigational preparations. One balmy spring afternoon, I visited Robert E. White Instruments, Inc., at that time located on Commercial Wharf in Boston. Browsing through this small traditional shop felt like visiting a museum of nautical history. The variety of polished brass chronometers, sextants and taffrail logs neatly displayed in fine wooden cases was an impressive sight. The proprietor was a distinguished-looking middle-aged man with graying hair. I was a kid with an unkempt Afro hairdo, wearing an old T-shirt. At first, Mr. White looked at me rather askance, but when I told him that I was there to purchase a sextant, he readily took interest. I had done my homework and knew the most reputable sextants by name. I received a thorough introduction from Mr. White to all the instruments necessary for the most precise navigation possible at that time.

I ended up buying a brand-new, all-brass, Heath “Hezzanith” sextant, along with an assortment of singlehanded dividers, navigational triangles, a 1976 nautical almanac, and H.O. 249 reduction tables. This sextant, costing me $372.75, was one of the biggest purchases in my life. I had considered buying a taffrail log to stream behind the boat for measuring distance traveled through the water. However, I had read that the fish-like metal spinners of these taffrail logs were often grabbed by hungry sharks and lost. I resolved instead to install a mechanical sumlog attached through the hull of the boat. As for timekeeping, I learned that Louis’s father had planned to give him a quartz chronometer in a wooden case as a bon voyage gift…With my mission accomplished, one more item could be checked off the list.

Louis, Clark, and I were busy completing our respective final semesters in college. Due to our inadequate resources, we were forced to base many decisions upon insufficient information. We possessed a limited knowledge of electronics, and the boat’s cabin was likely to be wet. Therefore, we elected not to invest in a shortwave radio transmitter. We did buy a portable Sony 10-band radio receiver, a first-generation 121.5 MHz emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and some new crystals for the five-channel, crystal-tuned VHF/FM radio set already aboard the boat. A few ham radio friends from the college radio club tried to convince me to purchase some portable single-sideband gear for safety reasons. But I reasoned that in the event of an emergency, the electronics in our small, damp vessel likely would already be out of commission.

Some other concerned friends were astonished that we did not intend to carry firearms. A rifle could prove useful for hunting wild goats or for killing pirates at sea. But none of us had actual experience with guns, so we shied away from them, fearing potential accidents or quarrels, as well as stringent foreign entry regulations. I had lived in cities with some of the highest crime rates in the world without a gun and had never felt the need for one. I did understand that there were no police officers at sea. We would just plan to deal with pirates in some other manner. Louis and I concluded that Clark, at six foot four and quite husky, would prove better protection than any gun. As a final resort, we toyed with the notion of using our flare pistol to launch 16-gauge parachute flares into the belly of any would be Captain Kidd. Unfortunately, real-world piracy was a serious issue, not to be brushed off lightly. In 1975, near the coast of Columbia, several sailboats had gone missing with all crew lost. Speculation revolved around drug-trafficking outlaws who likely intercepted the boats offshore and commandeered them for illegal smuggling after summarily killing everyone aboard.

Some company in the Panama Canal

Some company in the Panama Canal

But all these decisions remained hypothetical. No single deliberation weighed too heavily upon me, for even then, I truly had not convinced myself that we would succeed in putting to sea. The preparations seemed more like a game, an exercise in virtual logistics. I was participating in a scheme so grandiose that the possibility of its realization sometimes frightened me more than the likelihood of its failure. I waited for some insurmountable obstacle to impede fulfillment of the dream. As the weeks passed, I paradoxically began to fear that our voyage might actually happen. It seemed illogical, improbable at best, that three total novices could have arrived so easily at this stage of preparation. Something was bound to fail. At some level I hoped it would. College commencement ceremonies that spring were replete with predictable speakers counseling various approaches to the challenges of life. I tried to envision how my plans might correlate with their advice. I saw clearly that this was the ideal time to earnestly embark upon a new path, far from academics. Following graduation, my commitment to the voyage became full-time. “All systems were GO.”

By early summer, Louis, Clark and I had determined that navigating down the hazard-filled Mississippi River for three weeks under auxiliary power presented the greatest potential impediment to our true goal of sailing to the South Pacific. To hasten our departure, we chose to transport the boat, located at Larsen Marine in Waukegan, Illinois, to Louisiana by truck. Through his father’s business, Clark obtained access to a semi-trailer tractor and driver in Iowa. The truck had a “high-lowboy trailer” not designed for boat transport, and the driver had never moved a boat. The bed was one to two feet more elevated than that of a true lowboy flat-bed rig more suited to boat hauling. Following a few measurements and calculations, we concluded that it would work. The decision to forgo the river journey relieved us of considerable time pressure. The Atlantic hurricane season loomed ominously ahead, reaching full swing by August. Our naïve hope was to beat the storm season across the Gulf of Mexico. College was behind us… And we were already far behind schedule. 

Ed Note: After the voyage, the author went on to become an orthopedic surgeon, eventually returning to the Chicago area, where he sails today aboard the Ericson 38, Joliba, on Lake Michigan. For more information or to order the book Taken by the Wind: Memoir of a Sailor’s Voyage in a Bygone Era, (available in both paperback and on kindle) go to mikejacker.com. The book can also be ordered directly through amazon.com 

Mike-Jacker

September 2021

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