A California sailor becomes the world’s first solo golden shellback
By William Yates
The reefing line just parted, making a shot gun blast—BLAM!—as it went. This gets my attention. I don T-shirt, shorts, shoes, and harness, slip on the spreader lights, and climb the ladder to the cockpit. The big sail is flapping wildly. I ease the preventer and take in the main, then make my way to the mast and lower it. To the cockpit: rig a new reefing line on the sail and feed it through the cheek block. To the mast: raise main. To the cockpit: ease main. To the mast: crank in reefing line, coil lines, take in luff line. To the cockpit: adjust mainsheet, take in preventer, adjust course. Thirty minutes, all downwind.
The half-moon leaves a yellow path on the coean. The Scorpion’s stars glimmer, framed by clouds. The Southern Cross rests on the horizon. Sailing a steady 7 knots. Doctor John is wailin’ the blues on the stereo. I sail onward toward the intersection, a mere 1,34 miles ahead.
It is midnight of day 6 of my solo passage from Kona, Hawaii, to Majuro, Marshall Islands, aboard my Cheoy Lee Offshore 38, Obsession. I am belowdecks now, at the chart table, bathed in red light. I am sailing by way of the intersection of the equator and the Internationl Date Line to become a Solo Golden Shellback, the world’s first solo sailor to cross that remote Pacific intersection (this according to the Museum of Yachting in Newport, Rhode Island, the keeper of such arcane sailing records). Although it is an insignificant record, it is, to me, the pinnacle of King Neptuneism. In any event, it gives this voyage a purpose beyond sailing from point A to point B.
Obsession had languished on the sunbaked, red-clay hard for six months prior to this voyage. When I arrived in Kona to launch her, I found the eingine hoplessly seized. “Guess youcan’t go,” pronounced the mechanic. He was standing over my dead engine, a 5-foot-long, stailess-teal breaker bar in his hand.
The dock man, overhearing, said, “No engine, can’t go. Bummer.”
I was not in a panic, but I was on a schedule; I couldn’t wait around for a month—probably longer—while the engine was overhauled. Besides, I couldn’t afford it. Decision made: I would not fix the engine. Obsession is a sailboat.
These six days at sea have been challenging. After two days of light headwinds, the trade winds hit with 35 knots of grit. The sea has been angry, the squalls abundant. Last night it rained the hardest of rains, hammering the boat like a drum corps; lightning flashed blindingly. Gale-strength squall followed gale-strength squall. The seas were over 15feet; the main was triple-reefed. But it was all downwind.
It is noon,< the start of day 10. I have 825 miles to sail to reach the intersection. My little Honda generator runs on the bridgedeck, fueling the batteries. Aretha Franklin is demanding “Respect” from the Walkman, drowing out the sound.
The decks were covered with flying fish this morning—several dozen of them. Francis Chichester, when sailing in the tropics, would gather them up each morning and cook them for breakfast. This thought crossed my mind for a nanosecond, but they ewre slimy and stank in the tropical sun. I committed them to the sea, then washed my hands.
The day is bright blue on blue. The sky overhead is blue like the outer core of a welder’s spark; at the horizon it lightens to a vivid powder blue. The sea shines deep indigo frosted with small, frolicking whitecaps; the sun’s rays reach into its depths at angles that undulate with the sea. We sail swiftly on a broad reach.
I turn off the generator and notice a large sticker on it that reads DO NOT USE AROUND WATER. Oops. Electricity, gasoline, carbon monoxide—the entire battery-charging enterprise is fraught with hazard, but I am always careful. IN any event, the generator is silent now, and the day is nirvana.
The days have passed all too quickly. I am 60 miles from the intersection on the night of my sixteenth day at sea. It is Golden Shellback Eve, and I am excited about being here. Tomorrow I will sail into tomorrow—tomorrow being Thursday, and when I sail across the Date Line it will be Friday. Confusing.
A three-quarter moon erases all but the brightest stars. It is 80°F outside and, in the breeze, comfortable beyond belief. I had thought that equator would be hotter than it is. The past week’s sailing has been as good as it gets. Blue-blue day after blue-blue day, red sunsets every nightfall, proving day after day the truth of “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
My plan is to cross the intersection at a 45-degree angle, so as to become a Shellback, Golden Shellback, and Royal Dragon (one who has crossed the dateline) simultaneously. The point is to cross the equator at exactly the dateline, “exactly” being defined as within a quarter-mile—I’m calling that close enough.
I am constantly making teeny adjustments to the steering to keep on course. I have a quarter-mile-wide slot to sail through; I don’t want to have to come back and do it again. GPS makes this challenge embarrassingly easy.
It is 0705. We are 0°3’N, 179°58’W—exactly 3.71 miles from the intersection. The breeze is light—8 knots—the sea is calm, and the sky Is clear. A perfect day for an intersection crossing. B.B. King is bluesing the ship this morning—perfectly appropriate intersection-crossing music, I think. I hope King Neptune approves. I watch the GPS; when it reads 0°1’N, 179°59’W I begin clicking photos of it to record the crossing. The GPS numbers wind down and the boat sails into tomorrow.
Clutching the camera, I climb the companionway ladder to present myself to King Neptune. I stand in the cockpit, naked as a canary—as I’m prone to be these days—and speak: “King Neptune, I am William Yates, captain of the saling vessel Obsession. I have sailed nearly 2,000 miles to present myself to you with the humble hope that you will admit me into the order of Golden Shellbacks. I bring gifts, King Neptune. First, a silver coin to add to your vast treasure chest. [I toss a quarter into the sea.] And from the sprawling almond plantations of the San Joaquin Valley of the great state of Califonia, I bring you almods, dipped in chocolate and sugar-coated the color of the sea. [I toss in a handful of blue almond M&M’s] And finally, I offer you a drink of very Special Old Pale brandy distilled by the fine people at the E&L Distillery in Modesto, California. [I pour a shot of brandy into the sea.] And now I anoint myself with your pristine waters. [I empty a bucket of seawater over my head.] King Neptune, I am a mariner worthy, I believe, of your blessings. If you are displeased with me, show me a sign in the next 60 seconds. If there is no sign, I shall take it to mean you have accepted me into your family. [Sixty seconds pass. Nothing happens.] Oh, King Neptune, I thank you. I am humbled by your presence. I will remain your faithful servant the rest of my days.” Pretty silly, but there had to be a ceremony.
I go below and open the package the kids had sent to be opened at the equator. It contains a golden King Neptune wearing a gold shell and a congratulations card. I am moved and look at their pictures on the bulkhead and think of them and my wife, Lindsay, who all put up with, and support, my passion for solo long-distance sailing.
I tack onto starboard and head for Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands. For the moment, I am sailing in the Southern Hemisphere. True, I’m only 2 miles south of the equator, but it is the South Pacific.
Majuro lies 675 miles ahead. That should be about six days’ sailing, give or take. The sun is intense mid-afternoon, but it’s comfortable in the shade of the mainsail or under the dodger. The sky is brushed with shreds of white clouds. The sea away from the sun is tranquil and deep sapphire blue. The breeze blows 8 knots, pushing us peacefully along at 4. If there is ocean sailing in heaven, it must be like this.
Hundreds of seabirds fly around the boat; the sea is alive too, boiling with life. Schools of flying fish dart frantically between swells. Small schools of tuna break the surface, their paths through the air forming an upside-down “U.” A marlin—a big marlin—shoots out of the water like a rocket. Gravity takes hold, stopping its ascent, and the fish is suspended in air, its tail resting on the surfaced of the water. Streams of water pour off its glistening body. It is magnificent, majestic. My mouth hangs open. Then, in slow motion, the fish drops over sideways, causing a splash like a fat man executing a cannonball, and it is gone.
The days have passed in tropical bliss. I am approaching the passage between Arno and Majuro atolls. It is 6 miles ahead, but I see only tropical ocean. When I step up onto the cockpit bench, the horizon off the starboard bow is unexpectedly penciled with bright-green palm trees. I step down to the cockpit sole and they disappear. I step up and down a few times; the trees are there, the trees are gone as the altitude of my eyes changes by a mere 18 inches. Amazing.
I sail downwind along the north coast of Majuro Atoll under full sail. The wind increases; I watch a black , nasty squall approach from astern. Before I have a chance to react, the squall overtakes us, broaching the boat and pelting rain like bullets. I take control of the helm, bringing the boat back on course. There is no leaving the steering station. I should reef, but there is no way to accomplish it during the squall. We sail swiftly, on the edge. The companionway is open, the hatches are open, the ports are open. Rain pours into the cabin, but I cannot leave the helm, not eve for a second. My heavy vessel sails like a windsurfer. I steer calmly and felt at one with the boat.
The squall passes, but the wind remains strong. I manage to take a reef in the main before turning into the channel between two palm-covered islets. I expected the lagoon to be tranquil, but it is not. It is blowing and it is rough. I have a 10-mile beat to reach to the anchorage, and I tack and tack and tack. My arms and hands ache. Thank God for big, two-speed, self-tailing winches.
A handful of other cruising boats are here; a rusty freighter lies along the wharf. It is not crowded. I am secured to a mooring 100 yards off the Robert Reimers Hotel. The sun has set; I have not left the boat because I arrived too late to clear customs. Tomorrow for that.
The shore is strung with lights. Occasionally a small truck rumbles by. There are a few people hanging around on the wharf under a lightpost, the men dressed in dark pants and light shirts, the owmen in Mother Hubbards. There is no laughter, no barking dogs, no music blaring, no radio-traffic. These people, I am told, are reserved and religious. I don’t think there are any rowdy saloons here. This is not the West Indies.
I reflect on the passage. It took Obsession 22 days to reach Majuro—2,850 nautical miles from Kona via the intersection. I am a Solo Golden Shellback, the first solo sailor ever to transit that intersection. I’m flabbergasted no one has done it before.
William Yates has sailed over 30,000 miles solo. Last year he sailed from California to Fiji with one stop in Hawaii onboard his Columbia 50.