Sailing Alone Across the Atlantic

S

An Atlantic Storm

Solo Atlantic Crossing
Solo Atlantic Crossing

Shortly after World War 1, in 1921, Alain Gerbault (November 17, 1893 – December 16, 1941), a former French Air Force pilot sailed alone across the Atlantic in a small schooner built in 1892. During the war, he and his two closest companions had dreamed of sailing together to the Pacific Islands, but both of his friends had been killed in action. He now followed a revised, solitary, dream by sailing the vast distances of the Atlantic by himself, at the helm of the Firecrest, a single mast 39 foot schooner. After completing the crossing of the Atlantic, Gerbault just kept going and he eventually completed the first solo circumnavigation of the world. In addition to being an accomplished sailor, Gerbault went on to become one of the world’s best tennis players.

Below is his account of encountering a massive storm at sea, far from anyone.


On 9 August (sixty-four days from Gibraltar) found the Firecrest about 500 miles east of Bermuda and approximately 1,200 miles from New York, my destination port. If I were to believe my experience, it would take me about a month to complete my trip. But I knew that the past was not a sure indication for the future.

I sensed that strong western storms were between my present position and the American coast, a forecast that was later fully justified.

In fact, I had, from that day, an indication of what was going to happen.

There had been thunderstorms and strong sea all night. The wind was west and very strong, I wanted to go south of the Bermuda Islands to meet the Gulf-Stream and take advantage of its northeast current to go up to New York. So I turned the Firecrest to the southeast.


Gerbault's Ship, the Firecrest
Gerbault’s Ship, the Firecrest

During the afternoon, my ship had remained practically in the cape, while I repaired the tears in the mainsail. In the afternoon, when it was time to hoist it again, the wind had reached the force of a storm.

The waves were high and crashing on board. The bridge was constantly under water, the narrow cutter lay down under the force of the wind and plunged into the sea, burying the bridge.

This one had the tilt of the roof of a house, and I had to be very careful to move around. A slide, and I would have been overboard, while my ship, now without a master, would have gone away, leaving me for food to sharks and sea bream.

The bridge was so swept by the waves that I had to keep all the clearings and signs closed. It was hot in the cabins; in such conditions, cooking was an extremely difficult task. The station was just wide enough to allow me to stand between the starboard stove and the barrels of water on the other side.

If, in a moment of inattention, I put down a cup or a dish, he would immediately roll on the ground on the opposite side. My stove also had the bad habit of spilling boiling water on my bare legs and feet; I had to keep a constant eye while my ship rolled in the waves.

That afternoon I saw a huge whale cut my way to the front of the ship, moving mountains of water; the monster walked in a straight line, at a speed of more than ten knots; probably pursued by narwhals, which are his natural enemies, he cared little about the obstacles he might encounter on his way.

The storm continued throughout the night. I had changed sides, heading north-northwest, and, after setting sails so that the Firecrest would keep its course, I slept in a bunk that seemed to want to save itself under me.

I was up at 4 o’clock the next morning, just in time to bring the mainsail in front of a strong gust of wind that swirled the foam on the surface of the sea and would surely have torn my entire canvas.

It was a bad weather, really. A vicious wind pushed in front of him huge waves with sheepish ridges. When my ship dived among them, it buried its bow under a whirlwind of foam that flew in the sails and ran along the deck to flow aft.

A large army of black clouds hid the sky from one horizon to another, and clusters of storm clouds were scattered at lower altitudes; the rain hit my face hard with a throbbing rhythm.

I was soaked, saturated with seawater, washed alternately by foam and rain, but it was hot and I was not wearing any clothes that would have been of little use in such circumstances. Without clothes, I dried faster.

gerbaultonthefirecrest 1
Gerbault on the Deck of the Firecrest

I never complained about bad weather, which was the kind of weather I expected, the one that tested the skill and endurance of the sailor and the strength of his ship. Far from being impressed by the majesty of the raging ocean, I trembled as the battle approached: I had a formidable opponent, and, all joyful in the storm, I sang all the sea songs I could remember.

The Firecrest plunged into the foam as if it wanted to be underwater, and lay down heavily under the gusts of wind; the storm was blowing straight from the direction I wanted to go, and the cutter had to fight for every meter he gained.

He really didn’t behave badly in this bad weather. But the beaupré was buried completely in the sea, and when it came out of the water, I could feel all the rigging, the mast and sails shaking, and the cutter shaken. My confidence in the stays of the beaupré was low, if one of them gave in, I could lose the beaupré.

The waves were so high that it was difficult to take an observation; when, at brief moments, the cloud screen opened to let the sun appear, I had to wait until I was at the top of a wave before I saw the horizon.

However, I was able to prove to myself that I was in latitude 33° and longitude 56°.

The storm continued, violent; I went down under the bridge and discovered that the Firecrest had taken on board a great deal of water; the covers of the cleathreen were attached as tightly as possible, but from time to time a little water would enter; downstairs, everything was saturated with seawater.

The storm turned southwest in the afternoon, but did not diminish in any way; at 7 o’clock, just as I was about to take a laugh in the trinquette, it tore from top to bottom. It was difficult to work on the bridge that was so often swept by the waves but I managed to get down the trinquette and roll the mistletoe to reduce the surface of my mainsail.

Tired and soaked as I was, I could not rest, but worked part of the night to sew the torn sail back together. Throughout the night, it was a succession of thunderstorms and gusts of wind.

The next day the storm diminished, but the sea was still very strong; for about twenty-four hours the weather was calmer, and I took the opportunity to repair all my sails.

On Monday, August 13, my observations showed me that I had covered about 45 miles in twenty-four hours. I could not make much of a westerly journey against these storms that carried me north of Bermuda; I could now only cut the power of the Gulf-Stream too far east.

On Monday afternoon, the Firecrest was languishing violently in a new storm wind and a dismounted sea; he constantly buried his beaupré in the waves, and the effort transmitted to the mast was very great; I was convinced at that moment that a long beaupré and the horn of the mainsail were only a source of trouble for a solitary navigator. I made the decision to modify my rigging after reaching New York, and to replace it with a triangular Marconi sail that will be balanced by a shorter beaupré.

I gave up repairing one of my trinquettes, because the repair would have absorbed all the sail wire I had left.

Furious seas broke on board all night; the next morning everything was wet in the crew station. At 4 o’clock in the morning I found the Firecrest plunging into a strong sea and trying to beat its way against a storm from the west.

The barometer went down, indicating that I was not yet at the worst of the storm; in the morning the storm increased further, and by 11 a.m. its strength was extraordinary; downstairs, everything was in extreme disorder. It was very difficult to cook lunch; I tried in vain to boil rice when a wave swept on board, and I received the boiling water on my lap. Climbing on the deck, I discovered that the wave had taken the panel of my cargo hold to the sails, at the back of the boat.

Holes began to appear in the mainsail and the trinquette, and I had to bring them. It was an opportunity for me to try on my floating anchor and I let my ship drift in the storm, but I found that there was little difference and that it behaved just as well without it.

Many sailors claim that a floating anchor is very useful when it is impossible to wear any canvas to keep the front of the ship in the wind, but I was far from finding that this was so. My experience is against everything that has been written about ships in storms. I think the danger of being rolled into the trough of the waves does not apply to a ship the size of the Firecrest. I found that there was not much difference in presenting the front, side or back to the blades, as long as the boat drifted without moving forward. If I could wear a little canvas, it was at the cape—under reduced wing—that I found the slightest danger.

I was forced to cover the cargo hold with old sails to prevent water from entering.

As I tried that night to cook my dinner, the pump of my stove, which forces the pressurized oil through a small hole, broke, and I had to abandon the kitchen; though very tired, I spent part of the night repairing the trinquette.

Path Taken by Gerbault and the Firecrest Across the Atlantic
Path Taken by Gerbault and the Firecrest Across the Atlantic

The storm clouds disappeared the next morning, August 15, and the strength of the wind diminished a little. All night the Firecrest had remained moored to the floating anchor. Just before noon I brought her back on board, hoisted the sails, and at noon I resumed my journey to the northwest.

This was the last time I used the floating anchor, as I had found it of little use.

Twenty minutes after I got back on my way, a gust of wind hit the cutter and tore to shreds the trinquette that I had repaired all night, for ten long hours. She left in an instant, in a single gust of wind. However, I was able to smile while thinking about the hours I had spent sewing all the pieces together. No longer having a trinquette, I hoisted a foc in its place.

At that time, I hadn’t slept for thirty hours. The Firecrest took care of himself and I was able to sleep for two hours; the next day the storm was less strong and I put everything in order, throwing overboard everything I found useless. This always gives me a real pleasure and it is one of the great joys of the sea to be able to throw away from oneself everything that one no longer likes.

Sea bream still followed the Firecrest,but now they were very shy and no longer dared to come within reach of my harpoon. The next day, however, I was able to pierce one that was almost a meter long.

I thought with a smile about my current superiority, but that one day perhaps the voracious fish would have their revenge: reward for their tireless and patient pursuit.

On August 18, the storm came back very strong, my sails began to open again, parts of the rigging broke under the effort. My pump was out of order; the waves were very strong and very high, and at night I was cold-wet and exhausted with fatigue; I took quinine to prevent cooling. After running out of water for a month, I had so much now that I couldn’t keep it out of my ship; it was impossible to prevent the heavy rain and the foam of the sea from finding a passage through the canvases that closed the hold to the sails.

The water was now at floor level in the cabin, and when the Firecrest tilted to an edge, it jumped into the drawers and bunks, wetting and spoiling everything.

Outside, now, was blowing a real hurricane. The sky was completely obscured by black clouds so low and thick that the day seemed to be night. I had to roll my mainsail until nothing showed itself but the horn and very little canvas. The waves were so high and the ship was beating its way so heavily that it seemed, at times, that it wanted to throw its mast away from it. The rain was pouring in torrents, throbbing, pushed by the force of the storm and almost blinding me, I could barely open my eyes, and when I did, I barely saw from one end of the ship to the other. For several days, I had exposed myself to rain and foam. The skin on my hands had become so soft that I suffered terribly when I had to pull on the ropes.

Silent film reel from the 1920s showing Gerbault and the Firecrest returning to France after his 700 day circumnavigation of the world.

Translated from the French in SEUL A TRAVERS L’ATLANTIQUE (ALONE ACROSS THE ATLANTIC) by Alain Gerbault.

By Translator Mike

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