Pam Wall is an accomplished cruising sailor and advocate for women in sailing. Pam and her family circumnavigated on the Freya 39, Kandarik, that they built themselves. She’s recently endured family tragedy, but remains as active as ever in the cruising scene and still sails Kandarik with her son, Jamie, from her home in Fort Lauderdale. Andy spoke with Pam at a Cruiser’s University seminar during a Sailboat Show in Annapolis.
You love doing these seminars.
What I love is sharing things that I’ve learned from other people. To me, the greatest joy, that really keeps me going in life now, is being able to share what I’ve learned from the wonderful life that I’ve had sailing the oceans with my family.
How did you get started in sailing?
I was born and raised in Chicago. My dad always, always had sailboats. Every weekend there was a sailboat race, I was down there. I became the president of the sailing club at the University of Wisconsin. The whole time I was in school, during the sailing months, which was just a couple of weeks, we were out in Tech dinghies, and C scows, and things like that on Lake Mendota, which is right there on campus.
Do you recall the “lightbulb” moment that inspired you to want to go cruising?
While I was in Chicago as a young girl, a tiny wooden sloop came into the Chicago Yacht Club with a wonderful couple from South Africa, Bjorn and Margaret. They had just sailed this little boat from South Africa over to the United States, up through the Hudson River and the Erie Barge Canal, through the Great Lakes and into Chicago. I was entranced with this tiny little boat having done something so courageous, something that was so far beyond what I could even imagine. I’ll never forget them because I thought to myself, “This is what I want to do someday.”
Had it even occurred to you that was possible before meeting them?
No, I didn’t even know it was done. Crossing the ocean was something that had never even occurred to me as being possible in such a small boat. I mean, sure, I’d heard of the Queen Mary and things like that, but to do it in a small sailboat like this was unimaginable to me.
What was your plan to pursue that lifestyle?
Well, I didn’t have a plan. I just knew that I wanted to be where it was warm. As I grew up, my dad would always pile his daughters into his car every Christmas and Easter vacation, and we’d drive down Route 41 to Florida. We would go down and we’d always go to Fort Lauderdale because Bahia Mar was the place where the SORC [Southern Ocean Racing Circuit] was taking place and my father loved to race. I knew that’s where I wanted to go, and that’s how I ended up in Fort Lauderdale.
Then the fateful day came when I was typing up a listing on the typewriter and looking out the window onto the docks at this brokerage office. I saw this really good-looking blond-haired, blue-eyed guy walk by and I kind of liked the cut of his jib! I ran out and introduced myself. He turned out to be a young Australian who had arrived in the United States after having sailed his 30ft timber sloop around Cape Horn nonstop from Tahiti. He rounded Cape Horn in 1967, just a couple days after Sir Francis Chichester. However, nobody knew he was out there doing it, not even his parents. He was taking Panacea, this 54ft Morgan, from Fort Lauderdale down to Bertram’s Yard, which is up the Miami River. I said, “Do you want a pilot?” He said, “I don’t need a pilot, thank you.” I said, “Well, can I come along?” He said, “If you want to,” very casual. He told me to show up the next morning.
He needed a place to keep his little 30ft sailboat. I offered my dock. I figured if I had his boat there I would see him again. Well, Andy’s boat was there for about a year and a half until he came back. He called me up from the airport and said, “You don’t know me, but I left my boat at your dock and now I can’t find my boat.” So I picked him up. He asked to stay for two days before he’d sail on to Europe. Two years later we left together.
Was that your first big ocean crossing?
Oh, yeah. The funny thing is that the whole time I was living in Fort Lauderdale, when Andy was staying at my dock, I had a powerboat. I had never been to sea on a sailboat.
Andy’s 30-footer had a one-cylinder Volvo engine that didn’t work. It had a two-burner kerosene stove. There was no toilet aboard; we had to use a bucket. I slept on the cabin sole with the mast between my legs, because that was the only place for me to sleep. It had 22in of freeboard.
I was in love, and thank goodness he was in love with me. We had no refrigeration, so it was strictly oatmeal and beans the whole way, and any fish that we could catch. But by the time we got to Bermuda I was getting along pretty well and by the time we got to the Azores, I felt like I was an old salt. We continued on to England and I was loving it.
How did you and Andy evolve into Kandarik, your iconic Freya 39?
The Freya design was the famous racing boat in Australia in the ‘60s that won the Sydney Hobart Race three times in a row. If you were a young Aussie man like Andy, you always wanted to buy or build a Freya. We borrowed a car and drove to California, and spent three of the coldest, wettest, most miserable months laying out hull number one of the Freya 39.
So you physically helped build the boat?
Oh, yeah, we did. Talk about fiberglass dust and filth. It was freezing. I remember the resin wasn’t kicking, because it was too cold in this big sort of warehouse that we were in, and I had to go and get Tilley lamps and put them all around so the resin would go off. After three months we got the hull finished, and we put the ballast in 100lb pigs—10,000lb of ballast in 100lb pigs, sliding down into a fiberglass bare hull. Unbelievable. We put a temporary deck in and trucked it back to Fort Lauderdale.
How long until you actually sailed her?
We used the boat every summer after we got it home. The first thing we did when we got home was put a real deck on and a terribly small little cockpit. We put in a Volvo three-cylinder engine, and then we rigged it because we wanted to sail it.
She was totally empty down below and on deck. We would go to the Bahamas every summer with our infant children, with nothing down below but a tiny header tank for the diesel if we had to use it. We had a little bunk for our daughter that was at the turn of the bilge. We didn’t even have a cabin sole. We had a ladder from Home Depot to get down below. We slept on top of the tanks.
How did you finally get away cruising?
We knew we would never finish the boat. The boat still isn’t finished. But the pit that you get into is thinking, “Do I have enough money?” We waited another year from the time we wanted to go, which was a big mistake. We didn’t have any more money the next year either. Finally, Andy just said, “I’m putting my tools down. I’m getting aboard the boat. We don’t have enough money. Say goodbye to your parents. We’re going.” He was so right to do that.
What did it feel like when you guys finally left the dock?
I was scared. But I was with this young man that had married me and wanted me to go off sailing with him. It was the answer to everything that I had dreamed of. I was also terribly, terribly excited. I think he was, too. We sailed that boat together in every possible way you can imagine. It became yin and yang, and it was beautiful.
What advice do you give to other women cruisers?
Everything I worried about never happened. And everything that did happen, when we took care of it, just felt so empowering. So don’t worry about it. Get out there and do it. The biggest thing is, don’t ever be a passenger. Because if you’re a passenger, you don’t understand things. You don’t understand your vessel. You’ll get frightened. But if you know what to do for those situations, if you can toss a line and make it get to where you want it to go, if you can steer the boat and if you can dock that boat, you will feel so empowered.
You’ve been through tough times, losing your husband and then your daughter. I can’t relate to the level that you’ve gone through, but I lost my mom three years ago, and my dad is still trying to figure out his own cruising plans. How have you been able to climb out of that?
I thought I had lost my life. But I still had a wonderful son who needed me just as much as I needed him. I got through it by keeping busy and doing seminars. I think that’s what saved me. When I get up here and talk about everything Andy taught me and about my beautiful daughter, Samantha, and what a wonderful crewmember she was and what a wonderful mother to her little girl, it keeps those memories alive for me. I imagine they’re up there watching, saying, “You go, girl!”
You still have Kandarik. Does the boat still bring you joy?
My son, Jamie, and I sail her a lot together, and Jamie is just as fantastic a seaman as his father. He had his father all his young life to emulate and to learn from. I keep the boat down in Biscayne Bay during the wintertime, and Jamie and I take it out as much as we can. We both agree—it’s the only time that we feel at peace.
The full hour-long interview with Pam Wall is available online as a free audio podcast, hosted by Andy Schell. Just search ‘On the Wind,’ on iTunes & Google Play, or visit 59-north.com/onthewind.