Atom's Round-the-World Odyssey

"I wanted freedom, open air, adventure. I found it on the sea." - Alain Gerbault

Voyages of Atom 1980-2001

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First circumnavigation in black
2nd circumnavigation in red

Record of passages on first solo circumnavigation 1984-86. The table below may be useful to others planning a similar route as it gives an idea of which seasons and routes provide favorable winds. On most of these passages I sailed extremely conservatively, reefing deeply and frequently to prevent gear failure and permit better control of the Aries windvane self-steering. Use of the motor was mainly restricted to entering or departing ports. *Your mileage may vary.

Date Passage Days at Sea Miles
2-16 May 1984 Miami to Colon, Panama 15 1,539
2 Jun-16 Jul 1984 Toboga Is, Panama to Hiva Oa, Marquesas 45 4,182
2-8 Aug 1984 Hiva Oa to Bora Bora, French Polynesia 7 927
17-31 Aug 1984 Bora Bora to Vava'u Island, Tonga 13 1.534
20 Sep-1 Oct 1984 Vava'u to Tikopia, Solomon Islands 11 1.217
19 Oct-2 Nov 1984 Tikopia to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea 15 1,432
24 Jun-21 Jul 1985 Port Moresby to Cocos (Keeling Is.) 28 3,066
2-22 Aug 1985 Cocos Island to Mauritius Island 20 2,376
15-16 Oct 1985 Mauritius Island to Reunion Island 1 145
1-15 Nov 1985 Reunion Is. to Durban, South Africa 14 1,473
30 Jan-8 Feb 1986 Durban to Cape Town, South Africa 10 866
21 Feb-9 Mar 1986 Cape Town to St. Helena Island 17 1,711
16 Mar-19 Apr 1986 St. Helena to Martinique, French West Indies 34 3,842
14-26 May 1986 Martinique to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 13 1,333
Total 243 25,643
Average Speed : 106 miles per day

The following is from a brief article about my first solo circumnavigation written for the National Triton Association's Cruising page. The full book can be read free online at Across Islands and Oceans.

First Solo Circumnavigation Aboard the Sailboat Atom

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Somewhere in the South Pacific.
More photos from the first circumnavigation.

As a child watching sailboats gliding across the flat waters of Michigan's Lake St. Clair, I used to imagine they were all bound for distant adventures. The lake was, after all, connected to the sea by a long waterway of lakes, rivers and canals and large ships could daily be seen plowing up or down the lakes deep-water channel. Looking back, it seems I'd always dreamt of a sailing voyage that would take me beyond the confined waters of the Great Lakes to explore the open sea and the fabled islands of the South Pacific. These thoughts kept recurring as I spent my teenage years finishing school and then moving into my own apartment and earning a living. I even came near to marrying prematurely and settling down at one point. Then at the age of 21 an impulsive decision brought my dormant dream within reach when I spent my entire savings of $12,000 buying a used 28-foot Pearson Triton from a local yacht broker.

That first winter I tried living aboard Atom as she lay gripped in a frozen canal, but whenever I lit the alcohol stove for heat the constant rain of condensation inside the uninsulated boat soon forced me back into my apartment. The spring thaw brought relief and I recall chopping ice in the canal and being the first sailboat out on the lake tacking between the ice floes. The next summer I quit my boring factory job in Detroit and convinced two friends to escape the coming Michigan winter by joining me on a voyage to Florida and the Bahamas. None of us had more than limited day-sailing experience, but I figured the best remedy for lack of experience was to set aside the sailing books and make our way to the open sea.

By September we had reached the Atlantic by sailing through Lake Erie and Ontario and the New York Barge Canal system to New York City. We reached Florida through a series of short offshore passages and longer detours inland through the Chesapeake Bay and Intracoastal Waterway. In the waterway, when we weren't busy running aground, we annoyed impatient bridge tenders and road traffic by trying to pass through the opened bridges under sail whenever the Atomic Four engine was having fits.

While offshore, I nervously plotted our course and speed each hour as I made wildly inaccurate first attempts at celestial navigation. My first position fix by sextant placed us firmly in mid-Kentucky, but I didn't share that with my crew since even they may have noticed the error and begun to doubt my competence. Despite our near total ignorance at the beginning of the voyage, it ended with an idyllic winter of gunkholing across the shallow banks and among the myriad sandy islets of the Bahamas. When the food ran out and our funds got low we sailed back to Florida where my sea-weary friends made their way home.

That first voyage introduced me to a cruising life that suited me perfectly and strengthened my resolve for the ultimate adventure - to sail alone around the world. With other friends and sometimes alone, I made longer trips between the Great lakes and the Caribbean during the next two years. I soon discovered that beating down the "Thorny Path" against the trade winds and currents in a small boat wasn't the way to go. There was no way I was going to make it around the world unless I followed a carefully planned route running down the trades. As a final test before the big trip I sailed from New York to Trinidad with one stop in Bermuda and then island hopped back to Florida.

My biggest concern now was that after refitting Atom at a boatyard in Ft. Lauderdale, I had only $500 in savings remaining. But with the reckless and wise impatience of youth, I refused to consider delaying the voyage another year or two by returning to work. After all, if lack of money stopped me this year, then other insecurities could just as easily keep stopping me until my instinct to explore faded into a life of vague regrets. So rather than wait, I worked out a budget allowing me to spend less than $100 a month. This might seem impossible today, but it was not then. It did require a large dose of rashness and ingenuity and just a little in the way of hardship. An example of this was that a new set of charts for all the oceans and harbors along my proposed track would cost me several hundreds of dollars. Even photocopying borrowed charts was beyond my micro- budget. I solved the problem by buying a roll of tracing paper for $5 and traced copies from charts borrowed from fellow sailors in ports I visited along the way. Sometimes other sailors donated charts they no longer needed. Not that I would recommend this for prudent navigation just a solution for a desperate man unwilling to be delayed by excuses.

In May of 1984 I set out alone from Miami and threaded my way nonstop for 15 days through the islands of the Caribbean to Panama. Atom mostly steered herself with the Aries windvane I'd installed in Florida, giving me the freedom to take short naps, prepare meals and navigate by sextant and dead reckoning and occasional compass bearings off islands. I'd planned to make only thirteen stops on the entire voyage, partly as a way to reduce expenses, but mostly I looked forward to the long uninterrupted passages and wanted to stay focused on my goal of a two-year circumnavigation. Sure, I missed some beautiful places along the way, but I did set my course for those islands that, from the research I'd done, were most alluring to me.

I sensed this voyage would forever change me and my perception of the world and I chose this time to make some lifestyle changes as well. To keep a kind of harmony with my environment and the creatures who would be my sole companions, I chose to stop catching fish and adopted a vegetarian diet. A daily exercise regimen and meditation helped keep body and mind together on the long, sometimes lonely days ahead.

After locking through the Panama Canal, I entered the 10,000-mile-wide Pacific Ocean. For six months I explored the stunningly beautiful islands of Polynesia, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands. On the little island of Tikopia I was surprised to find one of the last remaining outposts where native Pacific Island culture was successfully resisting the onslaught of Western notions of technology, private ownership, and a money economy. Several times I was tempted to abandon the voyage and settle down among the kind-hearted people of these happy isles, but the old dream of completing the voyage and the thought that whatever it was I was looking for always lay just over the horizon, lured me on.

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Chiefs of Tikopia

While awaiting the end of the Indian Ocean's typhoon season in New Guinea, I spent three months walking, much of the way alone, with a backpack through the island's immense rain forest. Staying in thatched huts of remote mountain tribes, I learned what it means to live as a primitive man in a primitive land. Without consciously seeking danger, I nevertheless found plenty of it here, such as narrowly escaping death from recurring attacks of drug-resistant malaria, nearly getting caught up in tribal warfare, and once falling some 50 feet down a hidden vertical shaft in an abandoned gold mine.

A village chief who befriended me in the highlands (an ex-cannibal who had four wives himself) tried to convince me to stay by offering me either or both of his two daughters in marriage. I escaped by pleading poverty since I truly couldn't afford the standard bride-price of 100 fat pigs for each slim girl. Besides, explaining two New Guinea Highland's wives to my relatives back home might prove awkward. New Guinea was pure Adventure Country! I loved its wildness, but realized I had to leave before it killed me. Before leaving though, I worked a few months building a wooden yacht for a couple Australian expat businessmen at a local boatyard, the proceeds of which paid for the entire two year voyage.

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A chief and his father in New Guinea Highlands

From the smothering rain forests of New Guinea, Atom and I sailed nonstop for 30 days, through the wreck-littered Torres Strait and past the long northern coast of Australia to Cocos (Keeling) Island. It's hard to convey to those brought up sailing with GPS, satellite rescue beacons and lift rafts, the nervous tension of sailing alone blindly through a squally night, uncertain of your position among a labyrinth of reefs, currents, and low islands. The relief of having this most dangerous leg of the voyage behind me was indescribable. It is this palpable aura of danger, along with the solitude and the physical efforts of sailing a boat, more than anything else that makes each landfall such a deeply moving experience for the single-handed sailor. The more you remove this element of risk, the physical effort, and the solitude, through modern technology, the more diminished the experience. That's not to say a modern gadget-equipped yacht cannot provide sufficient satisfaction to the modern-day adventurer, but it is a fundamentally different experience and cannot be compared too closely.

My joy at finally reaching the open waters of the Indian Ocean was soon muted by the realization that the trade winds blow at their strongest here, often at gale force for several days at a time. We made fast passages between the widely spaced islands, running with deeply reefed sails at an average speed of 130 miles a day. Not bad for a boat with a twenty-two foot waterline length in heavy seas using a self-steering gear. Atom would even try to do 150 miles a day here, and I sometimes let her. But that kind of speed threatened to unravel her old sails or even bring down the mast if caught back-winded in an unintended jibe. Unable to afford all new rigging during my pre-voyage refit, I had at least lessened the chance of dismasting by adding second-hand masthead rigging to the original fractional rig.Not elegant or helpful during beating to windward, but reassuring.

Although the islands of the South Indian Ocean are less numerous than the Pacific, they are no less exotic. I was again lured away from the sea to backpack across Mauritius and then the French territory of Reunion Island. With its active volcano, knife-edged mountains rising 10,000 feet above the sea, and uncountable waterfalls pouring into lush hidden valleys where small communities live in complete indifference to the mad goings on of the outside world, Reunion Island qualified as the nearest thing I'd seen to paradise this side of the South Pacific. Perhaps my wistful view of these two neighbor islands is biased from my memory of the girl who waved goodbye from the shore while Atom sailed reluctantly out of the bay.

The only illness I suffered at sea on this voyage, other than the heartache of leaving new friends, occurred after I departed Reunion for Durban, South Africa. Somewhere south of Madagascar, in a region known for frequent gales and unsteady winds, I went from mere lovesick self-pity to being completely incapacitated from a sudden severe relapse of malaria. With my last bit of energy I double reefed the main and set the storm jib. As I lay in my bunk for three days in a black depression with the malarial tell-tale raging fever alternating with trembling chills, Atom mostly looked after herself, and somehow covered 200 miles through disturbed seas in the general direction of Durban. How she did it, I can't say. I was beyond caring. I only know there was squall after squall and I don't recall lifting a hand to guide her or adjust the sails. It was as if God's own hand controlled the helm.

In Durban I made an attempt at replacing the soggy patches in Atom's balsa-core deck. For a long time, water had been seeping in through various thru-deck fittings, saturating the core and running inside to soak virtually every item in every locker after a few days at sea. It wasn't until a couple years later, however, when I completely replaced the deck core in Hawaii, that I was finally able to sail in a dry boat.

Against the advice of local experts, who recommended coastal hops from harbor to harbor, I decided the safest way to sail alone along the South African coast was to stay well offshore, and so made the run from Durban to Cape Town nonstop in ten days.

Near Cape Agulhas, a moderate gale of cold wind and roller coaster seas originating in Antarctic regions forced me to turn and run back for a day under a bar-tight storm jib sheeted amidships. While dropping headlong down one slab-sided rogue wave, Atom broached and the windvane jerked so hard on the tiller that it snapped in two. At the same moment the lee spreader dipped into the sea and a shroud broke at its lower swaged fitting. Atom rolled beam-to the pounding seas slamming the tiller stub back and forth as I worked quickly bolting on the spare tiller. Since I had added extra masthead rigging in Florida, the mast at least remained upright. I was also thankful here that I had prepared for heavy weather by strengthening bulkheads and reducing the volume of the cockpit footwell by installing storm shutters.

Later, we rounded the impressive cliffs of South Africa's Cape of Good Hope with a favorable current in a flat calm. As if compensating for the beating given us off Cape Agulhas, theSea Gods let us cross the South Atlantic with hardly any effort. Day after pleasant day, Atom rode the waves with sails spread like giant butterfly wings before the gentle southeast trade winds. At night in the South Atlantic I gazed at the frosty streak of Halley's Comet through the open hatch as I rested in my bunk. If Atom deviated from her northwest course, I knew at a glance because the comet's trail would disappear from my view of sky through the hatchway.

From Cape Town back to Florida, I enjoyed the life alone on the sea so much that I visited land only twice - stopping briefly at St. Helena Island and Martinique. On these islands I continued my habit of walking with backpack across each island and climbing their highest peaks.If you want to truly see an island, you must walk over it. Spend a night on the mountain tops or in the forest. Get out of your car or bus and do it on foot - there is no other way.

As exhausting and frightening as it was at times, as I remember it, the easy days far outnumbered the bad. The personal rewards of the voyage were incalculable and I never for a moment regretted my decision to go. By keeping the bow of my boat pointed west and chasing the sun across 24 time zones, I had a curious feeling I could count myself one solar day younger than if I had remained at home. A day younger and a lifetime richer. Those two years as a vagabond sailor ended any chance that I could remain satisfied with the normal life of a land dweller. Within a year I set out again on my sturdy Triton, this time on a voyage alone to China and what would become a 12-year-long second circumnavigation.

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T. S. Eliot

Continue to Atom's Second Circumnavigation

Check the Articles page for more on Atom's voyages and cruising destinations.