The Longest Passage

by | Apr 18, 2022

 Hawai‘i was my home base. Not my home—I didn’t need that because everything I owned fit into a backpack—but it was the place I returned to between adventures that now included climbing as well as sailing. It was the place where I would pause to reflect on where I had been and to plan where I would go next.
After I finished two quarters at the university in Mexico, I returned to Hawai‘i and moved aboard a fifty-foot ketch named Irish Rover that belonged to a couple I met when I was living aboard the Zephyrus. They had moved ashore, and they were happy to have me move aboard to keep an eye on the boat.
It was May 1971, and I had three weeks left to complete my coursework to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawai‘i. I was sipping my morning coffee when I felt a slight movement of the hull that indicated someone had stepped on deck. A moment later, there was a knock on the cabin and sliding the companionway hatch I met Dick McLvride.  He was in his mid-forties with a Kiwi accent. I invited him below, and he descended[RR1]  the companionway with deliberate steps, the way sailors do when they’ve spent years at sea keeping their balance. His hair was cropped short in contrast to my hair, which was long enough that I could tie it under my chin.
“Tea, if you have any.”
“Milk and sugar?”
“Ah, that’d be great.”
Dick explained he was captain of the Astral, a ninety-eight-foot ketch designed by the celebrated naval architect Philip Rhodes, which had arrived in Ala Wai a week before. All of us live-aboards had taken note: it was by far the fanciest yacht in the harbor. Dick and his crew sailed the boat for a rich American who came aboard every month or two with his wife and friends.
“We’ll be leaving next week for Tahiti and the Leewards,” he said. “Not sure after that, depends on the owner. Or actually, his missus—she makes the decisions on where to go next.”
“I sailed down to the Societies three years ago,” I said. “On a thirty-six-foot Lapworth.”
“I’ve heard you’re a good sailor. I’m short one hand. Wondering if you might be interested?”
“In a crew position?”
“General deckhand. Four hundred a month. US dollars. The owner pays in cash.”
“For how long?”
“Long as you want, assuming you stay fit for the job.”
I sipped my coffee. The Irish Rover was a floating luxury apartment. I was going to graduate in three weeks. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after that, but I felt good about seeing through my commitment to finish college.
“When do you need an answer?”
“Day after tomorrow.”

I rode my rusty three-speed to the Manoa campus to meet with the Dean of Arts and Sciences.
“I don’t see a problem here,” the Dean said after I explained my conundrum.
“You don’t?”
“You can’t pass up an opportunity like this. I’ll talk to your professors. I’m sure we can figure out a way for you to finish the courses.”
Of the three courses, World Geography and Literature of the South Pacific were easy; I’d bring the course books with me, write papers, and mail them to the professors. The third course was Introductory Calculus, and the professor (who always came to class in the same inexpensive gray slacks and yellowing white short-sleeve Oxford shirt) was adamant I had to pass the final exam. The Dean worked a deal where he would send me the exam as soon as I got to a place where I could find another university to proctor it.
“Pass the exam,” the Dean said, “and I’ll mail you your diploma.”
A week later I watched from the stern as South Point on the Big Island dropped below the horizon. With sails trimmed, we steered as close to the wind as we could to gain easting before the northeast trades shifted to the southeast. There were only two of us Yanks on the otherwise all-Kiwi crew, the other American being a last-minute addition to fill the role of yacht steward, the guy who serves everybody. I suspected the captain and the other Kiwis had already dismissed him when I overheard them refer to him as “a bit of a wanker.” I assumed wanker was not a derivative of Yank.
The opportunity to prove my mettle came on the third day when, with a rifle-crack, the wire-rope jib halyard gave way at the masthead.
“I’ll go up, Captain,” I said.
The mast was 110 feet off the deck. The trade winds were blowing thirty knots and waves were breaking over the bow. I attached the bosun’s chair to the main halyard and the Kiwis starting winching me aloft. Not even halfway, I realized the extent of what I had volunteered to do. There was a nylon strap attaching my seat to the mast, but even as I kept hitching it higher, I swept in an arc that widened with each crank of the winch, my weight stretching the loop as I struggled to keep a grip on the sail track.
I got to the masthead. With each sweep of the arc I would go fifty, maybe seventy feet in one direction, wide over the rough sea below me, then start back the opposite direction. In the brief apex between sweeps, I struggled to get the end of the new wire rope through the sheave, but every time, the bosun’s chair would snap into the mast, pinching the inside of my thighs between the hard wood seat and the hard aluminum mast.
Finally, I got the wire rope through the sheave and the end secured to my bosun’s chair. I signaled the crew to lower me. On deck, my legs were shaking. I lowered my pants and saw the skin on the insides of my thighs already was turning blue.
“Well done!” Captain Dick said, slapping me on the back. “Extra grog for the Yank.”
Oh no, I thought to myself. He handed me the bottle of rum. I knew what I had to do. I took a swig and wiped my mouth and thanked him, and then concentrated on holding it until no one was looking. Then I puked over the rail.

In Papeete our steward—the wanker—was told he was being relieved. I felt sorry for him, but at the same I realized I had worked hard to be accepted. The steward had also done his job, cleaning the galley and the boat and serving meals and doing dishes, and while he said he had an interest in learning how to sail, he hadn’t volunteered to go on deck even when off-watch to change sails in the harshest squalls, or to learn from the engineer how to service the twin diesels, or how to use the boat’s Loran navigation system, or to switch out a broken halyard a 110 feet off the deck.
Captain Dick told me to drive the Citroen Deux Chevaux we had rented to the airport to pick up the new steward.
“He’s an old mate of mine,” Captain Dick said. “Ray Crawford. Lobster fisherman out of the Bay of Islands, but had to sell his boat. Good bloke, you’ll like him.”
I wondered whether “lobster fisherman” was the best curriculum vitae for what essentially was the job of being the on-board waiter, and my doubts were not allayed when Ray Crawford stepped off the Boeing 707. He looked to be mid-fifties, with a wide forehead and weathered skin. He had a strong handshake, and his fingers felt liked firm sausages, oversized from a life of pulling nets and traps.
“What kind of vehicle is this?” Ray asked as he squeezed into the front seat.
“It’s a Citroen. Called the Deux Chevaux.”
“A Do-Show?”
“No, no, deux chevaux. Means ‘two horses,’ as in ‘two horsepower.’”
“They got that right.”
As we entered Papeete, Ray said parts of the town still looked the same.
“So you’ve been here?”
“A long time ago.”
“On a sailboat?”
“Yes, back in the 1930s.”
I was about to ask him more, but then we arrived at the yacht. Ray stood looking at the ninety-eight foot Rhodes ketch that was now his new home.
“What do you think?”
“I think she’s dressed up like a Sydney whore.”

The owner and his wife spent the next two weeks on the boat as we sailed to Mo‘orea, Ra‘iātea, Huahini, and Bora Bora. We were nervous about how they would get on with Ray, but everyone seemed to hit it off, especially the owner’s wife, who was British and in her sixties and fussy about having tea on time and Vichy mineral water with her meals. But Rayseemed to delight in serving her, and after he gave her a plaque with short pieces of rope glued to it, each tied in the varying knots of the sailor’s craft, he thoroughly won her heart.
But we were flummoxed, however, when instead of agreeing with her husband that we next go to Fiji—an easy downhill ride with the trades at our back—she decided she wanted to have Christmas in Mexico, a 4,500-mile beat against the wind that would likely take six weeks, maybe more.
“I so love piñatas,” she said.
If there was a silver lining, it was that our route would take us through the Marquesas, a group of islands northeast of Tahiti that in the early 1970s were infrequently visited. That night, after my stint at the helm, I handed the wheel to one of my watchmates and worked my way along the windward rail to the bow. I loved standing in the bow pulpit, feeling the warm trades, especially on nights with moonlight to illuminate the sea and the sails. We were close-hauled, sails trimmed tautly, charging forward at ten knots.
Holding onto the forestay, I looked toward the Marquesas, somewhere below the silvery horizon. Then I saw something―something that shouldn’t have been there. Was it my imagination? I surveyed the moonlit sea. No, there it was again, in plain sight. Oh my god, straight ahead. A tower of whitewater. A wave breaking on a reef.
I ran aft as fast as I could, entered the wheelhouse, and without saying anything grabbed the helm and spun the wheel.
“What the….” my watchmate yelled.
The sails backed, and I reached down to start the engines.
“Reef! Straight ahead!”
I pushed a red button next to the helm, and the alarm sounded just as the engines fired.
“Release the jib!” I ordered.
I heard the boom slam as the main jibed. In my head I added 180 degrees to our previous course, and then powered the twin diesels in opposite directions to turn the boat as fast as possible. With the opposite course approaching on the compass rose, I backed off the reverse engine and powered both engines in tandem just as Captain Dick emerged from below. He was naked and you could tell he’d been asleep when the alarm sounded.
“What the bloody…”
“There’s a reef. Straight ahead. I saw the white water.”
Still naked, Captain Dick left the wheelhouse, and peered aft. In another moment, he saw a wave hit the reef.
“What’s the course?”
“I’ve reversed it, back toward Papeete.”
“Hold it and keep the engines going. Until I figure out what happened.”
Dick went below to put on boxer shorts, then returned and sat at the navigation table in the wheelhouse, studying charts and reviewing his figures.
“Bloody hell, I added the declination instead of subtracting it. We were heading dead into Tetiaroa.”
“Marlon Brando’s island?” one of my watchmates asked.
“We would have surprised that wanker,” another added.
Captain Dick was sober-faced and didn’t answer. He stared out the wheelhouse, then said to no one, “Somebody would have died.”
We were quiet. Then Captain Dick turned to me and said, “Thanks.”

Off the stern of the Astral, the island of Nuku Hiva submerged slowly into the line between sky and sea. We had stayed in the Marquesas for a blissful week, and now Ray and I sat on the afterdeck splicing loops into the ends of mooring lines. Ray showed me how to unravel the line on the bitter ends of the rope lengths and then, with my marlin spike, open the braids and back-splice the strands to create a permanent loop. I held the marlin spike in my right hand, where on my wrist I wore a Turk’s Head bracelet that Ray had woven for me, a memento I would wear fondly for years until finally it rotted away.
“It’s going to be a long passage,” I said.
“It was a lovely visit, though. To see the Marquesas.”
“It’ll be six weeks before we see land again. Maybe longer.”
“That’s not so long.”
“You’ve had a longer passage?”
“I was on one that lasted four months.”
“Four months! Where were you going that took that long?”
“Papeete to New York, non-stop. On the square-rigger Joseph Conrad, the last full-rigged ship to round the Horn under sail.”
I pulled the marlin spike out of the mooring line and inserted it into the scabbard that held my rigging knife. I was sitting on a coiled line, my body swaying to the slow motion of the big ketch.
“That’s the story you were going to tell me that day I picked you up at the airport?”
“That’s the one. Want to hear it?”

“It was February 1936,” Ray began. “My father was getting ready for his annual trip to Auckland. I was eighteen years old, and our family ran a general merchandise store in the middle of the North Island. We were the only pakehas in the area, and I had grown up speaking more Maori than English.
“On Sunday he took me to the harbor to see the square-rigger Joseph Conrad on its voyage around the world. We were standing on the dock when the captain, Alan Villiers, came on deck and invited us aboard. He told my father that he was in need of more hands, including a cabin boy. Captain Villiers then looked at me and asked if I was interested in the job. I asked my father, and he nodded approval.
“We sailed north to Tahiti, and Papeete was the second town I’d ever seen, and like I told you, parts of it still look the same, especially the waterfront.
“By then I had been promoted to deck hand. We made it to fifty south, running before the westerlies. When we rounded the Horn the captain told us we were likely the last full-rigged ship with only its sails that would ever make that claim.
“By the time we saw the lights of New York Harbor we had sailed without stop for thirteen thousand miles. I had my sea legs, but when I went ashore I had a hard time standing upright. New York was the third city I had seen in my life. I left the boat and walked to Grand Central Station. I felt like a drunk, everything moving after all those months at sea. It was at the height of the rush, and I lost my balance and fell. I remember it well, lying on my back looking up at that big dome with all those people stepping over me, none of them seeming to notice, none of them stopping to help.”

Ray Crawford was an elder of the tribe I wanted to belong to: men and women who ventured into the wild parts of the world, who had the skills to face its storms and tempests, but who also had allowed its beauty to shape their values and beliefs. I would go on meet other elders who gave me a window into what sailing and climbing was like in the decades before me: Fritz Wiessner, who nearly reached the summit of K2 in 1939; Elizabeth Knowlton, who attempted Nanga Parbat in the 1930s; Charlie Houston, who was the first to explore the south side of Mount Everest in 1950. Ray gave me a firsthand window into what it was like for all the generations of sailors before me who had rounded the Horn in the square-riggers.
Three years later I was living in Sausalito, painting boats in the harbor to earn money for my next adventure. I used to frequent a bookstore on the main street, and one day I spotted an old volume with a green cloth cover. Cruise of the Conrad, by Alan Villiers. I looked at the black-and-white photographs of the ship under sail, including shots of the rounding of Cape Horn. In the back I found an appendix titled “The Crew of the Joseph Conrad.” Scanning the names, I found what I was looking for: “Ray Crawford, Cadet. Auckland, New Zealand.”
Forty-five years later, that book is still on my shelf. One day when I’m on the East Coast I want to go to the Mystic Seaport to visit the collection of old ships, including the Joseph Conrad.