Sailing Sense: The Quiet Stranger

Originally published in the February 2009 issueNo one really knows what inspired Harry Young, a 38-year-old British sailor who’d been staying in New York, to sail solo across the Atlantic. It’s also not clear why he made the passage in a small boat he’d designed and built himself and hadn’t bothered to name, though some think Young had been up to some mischief in New York and
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Originally published in the February 2009 issue

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No one really knows what inspired Harry Young, a 38-year-old British sailor who’d been staying in New York, to sail solo across the Atlantic. It’s also not clear why he made the passage in a small boat he’d designed and built himself and hadn’t bothered to name, though some think Young had been up to some mischief in New York and wanted to leave town quietly. What is known is that he had neither registered nor insured his small craft. What it looked like is also known: It was quite light and had a distinctive tulip-like shape with a lot of sheer. The sheer meant there was hardly any storage room under the -inch-thick deck planks, which Young made watertight by stretching a tarpaulin over them.

The boat was just 14 feet long and had an iron T-shaped keel that weighed about 200 pounds. Without the keel, the boat weighed around 1,700 pounds. To power the loose vessel, Young built a 130-square-foot mainsail and a 34-square-foot jib. Everything seemed slightly run down, and there was more than a whiff of an amateur at work. None of Young’s friends thought he would actually sail to England in his nameless boat. In fact, one of his friends considered the whole project to be little more than a drunk’s reckless ranting, as Young was partial to having a drink or two.

Young left New York in the late spring of 1939. Soon after the start of his voyage across the Atlantic, he ran into strong easterly winds that illuminated the boat’s defects. The underbody was so skewed it was almost impossible to tack, and the boat was so tender it couldn’t be sailed unless the true wind was under 10 knots. Young tried to beat into the easterlies for 21 days and finally turned back.

He tried again a year later. Although he hadn’t changed either the underbody or the sails, he had improved the boat’s stability by stowing generous amounts of red wine, cans of beer and food, plus all necessary spare parts under the cabin sole. He made sure the boards that made up the sole were screwed down firmly so his ballast would remain in place in case of a capsize. Adding a short bowsprit and putting on a larger jib would have bettered performance to windward, but Young lived up to his reputation as a person who always knew better than anyone else.

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During the night of June 8, 1940, his first at sea, Young rode to a sea anchor near the Ambrose lightship, waiting for the dawn. He knew his boat couldn’t steer itself, but the hull shape did allow it to ride over big waves when they were coming right at him. This was how he handled rough conditions on the passage across the Atlantic. When the seas became too big for him to sail, Young would lower the sails and throw over the sea anchor. Then he would cheerfully duck below into his pitch-dark wine cellar and wait for the wind to moderate.

Light westerly breezes during the first 10 days of the voyage allowed Young to click off the miles toward England. But when, on June 18, the wind started to fill in from the southeast, Young quickly dropped his sails and put out his sea anchor. Because the little boat took the building seas in stride, Young probably concluded that he had come up with a brilliant design. Whether he had done so by skill or sheer luck wasn’t important. What was important was that his small boat, smaller than any other that had plied the ocean, proved to be capable of handling the worst weather conditions.

When riding out a storm from June 26 to July 6, Young spent most of his time belowdecks. On the 13th of July he saw land ahead, and the next day he went ashore on the island of Flores, in the Azores. It had taken him 39 days to cross the Atlantic, and over a week of that time had been spent riding to the sea anchor. Young sailed through the Portuguese island chain, calling at Horta, Pico, and finally, on August 2, So Miguel. A photograph taken at the time that shows Young standing next to his little boat is one of the few pieces of evidence confirming the success of his bold sailing adventure. Not long after he posed for the photo, he put his boat on a Portuguese freighter headed for England. That was the last time we know of anyone ever saw or heard from Harry Young.

Obviously, no one knows for certain why Young ended his voyage this way. Some think he wanted to avoid the publicity he knew would come if he did sail to England. Others believe he was concerned about the boat’s ability to handle the Bay of Biscay. But since Harry Young achieved his goal with so little publicity and with such a small budget, he deserves to be mentioned as an extraordinary, if somewhat eccentric, ocean pioneer.

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