Sunday, March 6, 2011


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I was alone on my little sloop in October 1956.    It was cold black above, windy black all around, undulating black sea below.    At the top of each wave I could see a few tiny low lights on the distant coast of England, near the White Cliffs of Dover.    France was out of sight on my left.
It sounded like it, anyway.    Apparently my boat had struck an unbuoyed uncharted wreck. The hull heeled abruptly and was swung around by the waves.    On the next swell it was lifted free, but in the following trough the crash was louder and the boat heeled more.     Clearly the third impact would be the final one, and the sea would pour into the grounded hull.     I had no life raft, and the nearest land was several miles away, beyond the swift currents of the cold dark sea.

The QUOTES above are the immortal words of Snoopy, another would-be author. To find out if (?) and how I survived, read on.

Here I am 93, as of 2017, an Ancient Mariner, a Valuable Antique, and have made little progress in writing a book about my travels.   Part of the delay is knowing that others have had more exciting experiences and have written about them more artfully, and part is sloth.   So I'm starting the book with this blog.

Andy Warhol said everybody would be world-famous for at least 15 minutes.   An exaggeration, but I was spotlighted briefly by Lowell Thomas after crossing the Atlantic alone in 1957.    He was the newscaster who had made himself famous by making Lawrence of Arabia famous.   Soloing the Atlantic was uncommon sixty and more years ago, and always resulted in media coverage, and often a book.   Now many have done it, because of precedent and improved  technology (GPS, self steering, more).    I didn't have much of either.

Often I've been asked why I did that.   For those who don't mean, "What possessed you to do such a foolish thing ?",  here's from whence the infection came:
* Richard Halliburton, whose vagabonding books I got one Christmas at a time when I was a kid, starting with the seductive Royal Road to Romance.
* My grandfather.   Not the German immigrant who got run over by a streetcar in Harvard Square when I was a year old, but my mother's father, Frost Paine Bailey, who was closer to me than was my father.   The Baileys barely stayed afloat financially in the Depression by a little farming, a little real estate, a little taxi service, and his part time job as the Harpswell, Maine, agent for Casco Bay Lines, and school superintendent.   All my senses recall the shiny swirling grey green water, connected to the rest of the planet, in the narrowing gap between the high dock and the little steamer Aucocisco, which Grandpa met twice daily.
* His brother Myron, who captained ships around Cape Horn 30 times, and to the Orient,  as  commercial sail was being  slowly supplanted by engine powered ships.  He survived a divorce, a shipwreck, and the end of the Age of Commercial Sail to die on his little California almond ranch in the Depression.  I met him once, in 1931.  He had much in common with his famous contemporary, Joshua Slocum, who "... left his childhood home on a hardscrabble farm to go to sea... had lost two clipper ships under his command to shipwreck.   His second wife was no sailor and wished to stay inland.   He was broke.   He had been at the pinnacle of a fine career and then everything was lost.   One of the reasons was that the great days of sailing were over: Slocum had been born too late.   Steel ships and steam power were taking the place of wood and canvas, and his own commands were throwbacks to a previous age.... Although most ordinary crew members couldn't read or write, being a sea captain required literacy, knowledge of Euclidean geometry, trigonometry, advanced algebra, as well as knowledge of various languages, customs and law." 
* My parents, who inexplicably let me ride my one-speed bicycle alone from Maine to upper New York and back at age 14.   They were less influential the next year: she died from the effects of rheumatic fever in 1920, and he continued engrossed in the car business.
* Miss Heald, my teacher in our one-room Winslow grade school, who instilled a love of geography.   She told us about the Euphrates flowing past Baghdad to join the Tigris and form the Shat al Arab at Basra, and seared those names on my brain.  
* My appetite for exciting voyages was honed by two flights from Maine to and around Mexico in my  $800 Commonwealth Skyranger.

For about two decades a succession of things had pushed thoughts of the sea to the background: puberty, girls, MIT, World War II, marriage, jobs, small planes, fatherhood.    Then divorce in 1952, which meant the trauma of losing my treasured daughter Carol.   That year I went to Greenland as an engineer.   The hours were long and the tax-free pay was high.   Four years later I took ship passage from Montreal to Holland.   I thought my opportunity to sail across an ocean might never come again.

PS in 2017:  I was not only free of obligations, but also relatively free of concerns about money.   In other words as an American I was rich in postwar Europe, which had hardly begun to recover from the devastation.   From The Economist of 8/26/2017: "The average wage for a labourer in the early 1960s was $39.70".   That's a lot less than a dollar an hour for a work week of 48 hours or so, and it was worse in the 1950s.    

There was a lovely surfeit of girls on the steamship.   That's a Long Story, which means you can read between the lines, I don't know who will read this, and some ideas thought to be modern have really been current for a very long time.


Blogger chuck said...
You have me "reading between the lines". This kind of writing is intimate, tasteful, and fun...and a "lost art".
Blogger Babie D said...
Blogger TJ Blackblog said...
Very inspiring writing. My wife and I are 35 and 36 years old and share dreams of entrepreneurship, travel and adventure. We enjoyed your life stories and would certainly read your noval should you complete one. Your Portland Paper Carriers, Jason and Michelle Pulsifer
Blogger Chris said...
I think you grossly underestimate how interesting others would find your experiences to be.

Holland (The Netherlands)

In early August 1956 I looked up my friend "PJ" (Paul) McDonough and his wife north of London.   He and I had worked together as engineers at Sondrestrom airbase (BW-8) in Greenland, and were amateur pilots.   Now he was upgrading airfields from which he had flown in the War, eventually having become an emaciated prisoner of the Germans.   We rented a little Auster and flew south over the River Thames and the huge prone white figures which the ancients had made by exposing shallow chalk near the White Cliffs of Dover.   Our crossing of the English Channel, to Le Touquet France, was twice the span first flown by Bleriot only 47 years earlier. Customs, Immigration, and difficulty in finding necessary maps shortened our trip.   We flew over the still vivid detritus of the recent War: miles of bomb craters, gun emplacements, V2 rocket sites, to Belgium.   The next day we returned to England.

In Holland I visited Len Punt, a local who was a subcontractor I knew in Greenland. Len confided that he was trying to ditch his girlfriend.   I discovered she was beautiful and intelligent, Len began to suspect he had made a mistake, and Monique and I avoided telling him that he was too late.   That's a Very Long Story.

The Dutch seem proud that their language is as difficult as Finnish, although the dialect in the province of Friesland is so close to English that I easily understood children and they me.   Len's local language ability and connections were essential in my finding and buying the small yacht Swalker from the Bakkers.   That couple had married in a Japanese prison camp in Borneo after their spouses had perished from the extreme conditions.   Recently they had found that their impaired health made it too difficult to handle the sloop they had had built 4 years earlier.   Len also bought for me from a retired windjammer captain an 1890s sextant, essential for navigating oceans before the advent of GPS.   I paid the equivalent of $9 for it, and the same amount to a government bureau to resilver the mirrors and calibrate the instrument.   Years later I had it appraised for $700, donated it to the Maine Maritime Museum, and received an undeserved tax deduction.

The Swalker, which means Wanderer, was 30 feet long, weighed 5 tons including 2 tons of lead in the keel, and had a steel hull.   Dutch builders specialize in steel yachts, perhaps because Holland has no trees to spare.   Steel or aluminum hulls can survive trauma that would sink other boats, a quality that later may have saved my life.   
               It wasn't until the 1960s (except for some boats built in Holland, where steel has long 
               been a favored material) that metal was used to build sailboats of.. moderate size.  

My boat had the cleverly compact essentials of a home.   Starting at the bow there was a triangular storage area, then a toilet and hanging closet on opposite sides.   To the rear (aft) of the charcoal stove in the main cabin were settees on each side, convertible to bunks.   Aft of the settee-bunks, to port (on the left facing forward) was a tiny "kitchen" with a sink and a butane-fired stove on gimbals, in the middle were stairs over the diesel engine leading to the cockpit outside, and to starboard (right) were a chart table and pocket bunk.   The mast on most sailboats extends through the deck and cabin so it can be supported by the keel, but the strong steel deck allowed the Swalker's wooden mast to end there, where it was pivoted and could be lowered for maintenance or passage under bridges.   Power for propulsion and lighting was provided by an internal Coventry Victor 8 HP one-cylinder diesel engine.

So I now had a compact home propelled by wind or motor, with the nautical equivalents of bedroom,
bathroom, toilet, kitchen, and space heater. I prepared food as simply as possible, which meant using either the frying pan or pressure cooker. I had neither the interest, ability or time to make gourmet meals, so I did the minimum to keep me alive and healthy. In Holland and France I cooked vegetables and meat bought in little local stores. In Spain and its islands I usually ate in restaurants, because a complete meal cost the equivalent of about one USA dime.  

The Swalker lacked, nor did I buy, a life raft (because the hull was unsinkable -like the Titanic, but I would see no icebergs- unless tipped over by grounding close to shore), or dinghy (because I always was able to tie to a dock or commercial boat, or borrow a dinghy when attached to a mooring), or transmitter (because I didn't want to endanger others if my actions got me into trouble).

The very little I knew about sailing had been acquired at the MIT Sailing Club on the Charles River, where I had only been allowed to crew.   Part of the purchase deal was that Mr. Bakker would teach me how to sail on a 3 day cruise on the the Ijsselmeer, an inland sea half as big as Delaware, but each time I started to do something it was done imperfectly, so he would finish it.   So when he left I had learned very little.   Then I proceeded to teach myself, with countless errors in trials whose difficulties were to gradually increase in fortunate coincidence with the geography of my convoluted route to America.   By the time I started to cross the Atlantic I had become quite competent.

The Swalker and I began our life together at its berth at the Muiden Yacht Club, on a river near its exit into the Ijsselmeer.   The surrounding boats were elegant, especially the Piet Hein, the Queen's yacht. I carefully studied the situation before casting off for my first time, and too late realized I had not allowed for the river current.   The sounds of clashing hardware mixed with Dutch profanity nearby as I tangled with other watercraft.

Soon freed from that, I entered the Ijsselmeer and shut off the motor before raising the sails. However, I had not allowed for the brisk cross wind, nor the unseen shallow stone dikes flanking the river's outflow.   The motor's impetus was insufficient to free the boat from the consequent grounding, so I jumped in the cold water, pushed Swalker off the hidden rocks, climbed aboard, and set sail for Volendam.

The shallow Ijsselmeer stretched to the horizon. Until the 13th century it had been a lake, as it is now.   Then a great flood converted Lake Flevo into an arm of the ocean, the Zuider Zee of the classic Hans Brinker tale of my childhood.   From 1920 to 1932 a 19 mile dam was constructed to shut out the sea again: a gargantuan project for such a small economy.   Much of the resultant Ijsselmeer was gradually being converted to polders: farmland protected from inundation by dikes and pumps.   Thus a third of Holland is below sea level.   It's the only country that has expanded without taking land from others.

Nearing Volendam I made the wrong interpretation of a cryptic channel flag, and came to a stop on mud. Again the racing motor could not free the hull, so again I jumped overboard, held my breath under water, and walked the anchor out further than I could throw it.   By winching it in while racing the motor, and sheeting in the mainsail so the ship heeled, I resumed sailing. On arrival in the port of Volendam I was cursed anew for my poor boat handling, this time by a man dressed like Hans Brinker.   Most of the residents of Volendam still wore the town costume: a loose black jacket over a colorful shirt above long baggy black trousers for men, a colorful ankle-length dress for women.   Both wore klompen: cheap wooden shoes whose utility soon convinced me to wear them often.   I stayed there 3 days while a pair of twin jib sails were beautifully crafted for me, for $95.   They were to be used to "tow" the Swalker downwind in the Atlantic trade winds.   I was just in time for Karmas, a holiday of much dancing and drinking and costumes,  and a pretty French girl with an Alabama accent: a moderately Long Story.

Later Monique and I sailed from Muiden to Enkhuizen, its colorful buildings famously askew as if on melting permafrost, and Hoorn, for which Cape Horn in South America was named by Magellan.   The working costumes and accents of each port were distinctive.   On this trip my progress was evident, as I didn't run aground, and nobody swore at me.   In Enkhuizen I learned to cope with the anthropomorphic capriciousness of the ship when going backward.   There a company representative tested my diesel engine, and without charge pronounced it fit to travel.

Mr. Bakker and I went by trolley to Rotterdam, whose modern buildings rose above ruins created by German bombers 16 years earlier, dramatically contrasting with the medieval architecture of Amsterdam, which had been spared the carnage.   He helped me buy things needed for the voyage ahead: wool clothing, books, charts, a ship's log.   The log is a rotor which is towed sufficiently behind the boat's wake to accurately turn a mileage indicator mounted on the stern.   I was told that a shark might eat the shiny spinning rotor, so I bought a spare.   I found Lloyds of London would ensure the boat for the crossing, but the 15% premium was too much for me.   At least it was encouraging that apparently they thought my chances of success were at least 8 to 1 (100/15 + their profit).

Most of this account is from vivid memories, but the following is from a letter I wrote. 

"I sailed from Muiden back to Volendam alone in strong winds, with full sails heeling the boat and the lee gunwale awash.   Needed welding could not be done on Sunday, so I worked on making shelves.   Seven cute girls and boys under 10, dressed in the local costumes, hung around the boat all afternoon, laughing at my poor Dutch, eating my chocolate, and making my work go pleasantly slow.   Many friendly people came to take pictures of the Swalker in the warm sunshine". 
Those were wonderful days....

Rex the neon sign maker on the Swalker foredeck.  A big bridge opens for us.

Then we sailed in the dark thirty miles down the coast to the fishing port and resort of Scheveningen, near the Hague.


A magnetic compass on a steel boat is a capricious thing.   Mine had to be in a central position in the cockpit that would somewhat interfere with the passage of the helmsman to and from the tiller.   Consequently it was mounted on a board which sat loosely in slots athwart the cockpit, so it quickly could be put aside.   Ten days later this turned out to be a hazardous arrangement.   Meanwhile, before leaving Holland to cross the often foggy North Sea, I did a rough calibration of  this vital instrument, by aligning it with a dock of known orientation.   However, as we left the coast on a compass heading for Harwich, England, the angle between our course and the shoreline seemed wrong.   I attributed the discrepancy to perspective, but an hour later we passed a coded buoy that indicated our course was about 15 degrees off.   Two hours after that we came upon an anchored lightship prominently marked "G-R", which confirmed the error. ......   The picture below was scanned from a 56 year old 35 mm slide, unfortunately made on Ektachrome film.   Some photos in this blog are about as old, but look much better because they were made on Kodachrome.

Rex in Swalker cockpit.  "G-R" lightship, where we corrected our heading.
Slack ropes and flag and placid sea indicate no wind, so we were motoring
 A G-R crew member shouted, asking our name and destination.   To conceal my mistake I replied "Dover", towards which in fact we had been heading.   We adjusted our course 20 degrees right, to almost west, and continued through the clear night with the north star directly on the right (translated from the nautical "abeam to starboard") as a reassuring guide.   It was September 24, and since the sun had risen exactly in the east all over the globe only 3 days earlier, eventually the red dawn behind us further confirmed our route.   As the next evening approached but Harwich didn't, I tried to get our position using the current Consol system.    This involved counting dots and dashes from 2 special radio stations, and triangulating from a special chart, but the Russians were broadcasting on top of the signals.

We had aimed to the right of the port of Harwich, so as we approached the English coast we confidently turned left, and finally heard the welcome faint bleat of the Shipwash lightship. From my diary: "The pilot book has 4 pages of tangled jargon about Harwich waters, and says it is a difficult approach even by day, without a pilot vessel.. Our chart shows many wrecks, shoals and other obstructions".   We were entering with the advantage of a rising tide, but the disadvantage of navigating solely by interpreting points of light on a black background.   We got stuck once, but in 5 minutes were freed by the rising waters.  A half hour after we finally found a dock to tie to, an impeccably attired Customs agent arrived to check us in, as courteous and cheery as if he had not had his sleep interrupted at 2 AM.

The next day we motored 8 miles up the River Orwell to the Royal Yacht Club at Cat House Hard, where Rex left for Holland.   Is the Hard an odd name?    Compare that of the excellent pub there, the Butt and Oyster, and Bury St. Edmunds, where I spent the next 3 days at the home of PJ and his wife (see "Holland" section of this blog).   It is sobering that what was a temporary deviation in her smooth exterior is now a man more than a half century old.

A couple fed me twice at their cozy home on a converted barge.   They gave me some some medical supplies, including morphine and Benzedrine pills.   They said Benzedrine would be valuable when I must stay awake, but did not tell me of its dangers.   More important for the safety and beauty that resulted, they convinced me to go to Gibraltar via the French inland waterways and the western Mediterranean Sea, to avoid the violent cold storms that prevailed in October along the Atlantic coast on the direct route to Gibraltar.

It was late September, the waterways would start to freeze in a few weeks, and there were yet more preparations to be made.   A professional came from London to adjust and calibrate the compass.   His fee was a quite reasonable twenty 1956 dollars.   I filled the water and diesel tanks, the latter especially important because of the severe fuel shortage resulting from the new war over the Suez Canal.   I found time to absorb, permanently, the beauty of the Orwell.   I walked miles along its shaded grassy banks to the ivied walls of the old "public" (English for "private") school at Woolverstone, and watched the iconic sailing barges as they were skillfully tacked upstream on the narrowing twisting river. The barges and skills are no more, but perhaps may return when the world exhausts its cheap oil.

October 2 I began my longest solo sail since the protected Ijsselmeer.   As I approached the sea I ran aground in Harwich again, but this time on a falling tide, and was saved by deft work with the sails and motor.   The day was otherwise uneventful except for close looks at two lightships, and
 outside the 3-mile limit  a big platform atop two concrete cylinders, which was a  "sea fort" (click)  remaining from the recent war and later appropriated by a "pirate" radio station.   As I rounded the broad mouth of the Thames River and entered the English Channel at dusk, the wind died completely.   I started to lower the slatting sails, but a halyard jammed at the top of the 36 foot mast.   The mast lacked steps, so climbing its varnished surface as it swung like a wild inverted pendulum was one of the physically most difficult things I've ever done. As I abruptly descended I stepped on the compass board, which broke in 3 pieces. I repaired it, but later found I had introduced a 10 degree error.

An arm of the Gulf Stream accelerates to pass back and forth through the English Channel funnel, making for strong turbulence that is only partly predictable, and a tidal range exceeded only in the Canadian Bay of Fundy.   That's why the Goodwin Sands (click),
a vast sandbar in the middle of the entrance to the south end of the Channel, is littered with hundreds of shipwrecks from Roman to modern times.   Not all are known and buoyed.   The coded North Foreland light, which should have been to my right, appeared ahead instead.   I steered for the light, not realizing that the altered compass and capricious currents had brought me onto the edge of the infamous Sands.   However, the chart and tide tables indicated I had sufficient clearance over all unbuoyed wrecks.   The night was cold, moonless, and black except for a distant light on the English shore that appeared only when the Swalker was atop a swell.   Suddenly there was a loud thud from below.   The boat heeled abruptly and was swung around by the waves.   I knew immediately I had struck an unmarked wreck.   The boat was lifted free on the next swell, but in the next trough the crash was louder and the boat heeled more, indicating the Swalker was lodged higher and more firmly on the wreck.   I think a wood or Fiberglas hull would have been holed.   Clearly the third impact would be the final one, and the sea would pour in the hull, grounded on its side. I had no life raft, and the nearest land was miles away, over a cold dark sea.   In an automobile crash the perception of time must be extended more than mine was then, but in the period occupied by 3 swells the seconds became minutes, as I went from shock to the Valley of the Shadow to gratitude.   On descent from the next swell there was no crash, only the soft sibilant swish of the sea, which had carried me over and free of the obstacle.

A French idiom for orgasm is "le petit mort", the little death, apparently an ironic reference to the crescendo of sensation.   It is said that a sneeze is briefly like death, since breathing and pulse are briefly arrested.   I had just had my little death, and it resembled not at all those other two.

Rain began, so I put on oilskins.   The lights flanking the entrance gap in the Dover breakwater were apparent near dawn.   Although the Sands incident had certainly gotten my attention, I had taken a Benzedrine pill to stay awake, and later realized that the substance decreases competence while increasing confidence.   To maintain my heading between the red and green lights marking the sides of the harbor entrance I had to constantly adjust my heading because of the apparent swift cross current.   After a while I suddenly realized those lights instead marked the two sides of a passing ship.   That was quite like trying to drive between the lights of what seem to be two parallel approaching motorcycles.   I corrected my course, and soon docked inside the sheltered harbor, beside the mouths of two WWII submarine pens, and had a long sleep.
When I awoke, the captain of an adjacent freighter invited me to dine
 with him and his officers, while the crew repaired some broken fittings on the Swalker.

France, To Paris

October 5 I set sail for Boulogne, France, 25 miles across the Channel.   A fine breeze increased until the boat was heeled about 30 degrees and the gunwales ("gunnels", the deck edges) were awash with foaming white water and sail reefing seemed soon to be necessary.   The high speed brought me swiftly ever nearer the apparent harbor entrance.   Views from such a low elevation can be very deceiving.   As the illusion of a port disappeared into the cliffs ahead, and cresting waves indicated shallow water, and rocks protruded above the sea surface ahead, and the first fighter jet I had ever seen circled low around my apparently disastrous course, I reversed direction and headed for deeper water, which brought me to Boulogne before dark.   The fishing fleet had arrived earlier to avoid the growing storm.   No restoration seemed to have been made in the 12 years since the harbor facilities were devastated in the War.

The entry into France was a series of non-hazardous frustrations.   I went where I was directed to anchor and was soon aground on a falling 29 foot tide.   I put out a special brace I had had made in Holland, so the Swalker just managed to avoid tipping over onto the mud, which event might have been followed by the hull filling and remaining on the bottom of the harbor.   Later I found a suitable mooring, and motored around the harbor asking where I could buy diesel fuel.   All replies were a cryptic "Oui, oui", until the crew of a British freighter gave me 25 gallons of the 100 I needed, free.   I found that the filter for diesel cooling water had completely rusted out, so improvised a new one.

When a ship first enters a country it must display 3 flags in prescribed locations: that of the country being visited, the flag of the vessel (e.g., USA), and the yellow quarantine flag.   All aboard must remain aboard until authorities arrive, inspect, and give permission to motor inland or to the next port of the country.   That's usually prompt.  However, I roamed Boulogne on foot for 4 days until I found the pertinent local officials, and got from them permission to do what I had been doing for four days.

Early on October 9 I headed for Le Havre, on a straight course mostly out of sight of the indented coast.   The next morning I spied through the mist the cliffs near the entrance to the port.   I had taken another Benzedrine to stay awake on that long passage, so was filled with euphoria and poor judgement.   After I spent 2 hours unnecessarily restoring the boat to pristine condition, the coast was no longer visible.   I motored toward it on calm waters for 3 hours, and still could see only a hazy sea.   I hailed a fishing boat, whose crew told me I was on the right course, but the outflow of the mighty River Seine had displaced me then slowed my return.   About 6 PM I tied to a docked fishing boat in Le Havre harbor (that's redundant, like Mount Katahdin), to avoid coping with the 30 foot tide.   With waning adrenalin I winched the mast down to lie on the deck for the inland waterways ahead, and went to sleep.

The next day I investigated a nearby beautiful white steamship with a Soviet flag.   It carried tourists from the Ukraine, and bales of licorice which were being transferred to a French liner for shipment to the USA.   I was told there were many such transfers, "because the Americans don't like to deal with the Russians". Perhaps.

I spent 3 days in port, and with difficulty obtained the permits required to use the waterways, very detailed strip maps of the hazardous rivers Seine, Saone, and Rhone; and a sparsely detailed guidebook for the canals connecting them, but no diesel fuel.   All the written advice I saw and spoken advice I heard said that it takes at least 2 people to manage a boat going through a canal lock.  Indeed it seemed at times I was like a one-armed paper hanger, but I managed, and at some small rural locks was even able to help an aging lock tender close and open the lock gates, which required turning a crank many revolutions.

On October 12 I headed inland on the Tancarville Canal, bypassing the shoals and turbulence near the mouth of the Seine.   Several big bridges unnecessarily opened for my little boat, and I scooted under others.   I parked by the entrance to the lock which would take me back to the river, and waited until 4 PM the next day until it was my turn to enter.   Apprehensively, because they could crush my boat, I shared the packed confines of the huge lock with ocean freighters bound, like me, for Rouen, 90 miles upstream, or Paris, 240 beyond that.   Some 179 locks remained before the Mediterranean, and winter was coming.

The Tancarville Canal, connecting Le Havre (meaning The Port) with the river Seine, 
upstream from its shallower water and  extreme ocean tides.  The mast has been 
disconnected from its attachment to the deck, so it could be moved forward to 
decrease its aft overhang.   The mast is about 35' long, and the boat only 30' long.   
So the top of the mast at sea was 39' above the water.  Note how awkward it was 
to move around the deck, all the way from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. 
A big Tancarville lock with control tower.  American flag is on Swalker,
 feeling like Bambi squashed between elephants.
Subsequent locks on the Seine were not as large, so were even more crowded.   I had to wait until the big commercial vessels were in the lock, then move very fast to enter, tie up before the lock gates closed, adjust the ropes as the water rose, then untie and motor onward when the upstream lock doors opened.

Through my mind still runs the magnificent panorama of the storied Seine, and the imagined operatic music that accompanied it.   Colored autumn leaves slowly falling, to be whisked away by the swift waters.   Cliffs, made of the same chalk that makes white the cliffs of Dover, and continues under La Manche (the English Channel).   Castles in various states of disrepair on the low hills beyond. 
About 200 barges per day passed me in either direction, some motorless in strings
 of 5 behind a tug, exercising the same right of way etiquette as a Ten Ton Gorilla.

On the river I fell in with Max and Mauricette Delafond on their smaller boat.   We all accepted a tow offered by the generous crew of a barge laboring against the considerable contrary current.   This lasted until the rope broke.

In Rouen I was able to buy precious diesel fuel.   Since the minimum purchase was 200 liters, I stored the excess in a barrel on deck.     The Swalker no longer was a greyhound of the sea, but resembled the scruffy African Queen.   I made friends with an English family on their adjacent megayacht, until their daughter appeared too friendly and they left prematurely for the Mediterranean.

To be young, solvent, and have one's yacht in the center of Paris, between the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, would seem a consummation devoutly to be wished.   The impressionists and Hemingway had gone, but still there were Edith Piaf and Degaulle and the timeless ambiance of the City of Light.   There to enjoy the company of an attractive young actress, the cousin of friends, would seem to be icing on the gateaux.   However, "piece de resistance" is ambiguous, and she not I was the predator, my sole function being to install shelves and make other improvements in her new apartment.

I returned to my equally recalcitrant motor.   The manufacturer in London had written me that their only authorized experts in France were in Paris.   Those two mechanics spent an afternoon on my engine and pronounced it error free, except that it wouldn't start.   I had no propulsion, nor electricity to charge the batteries for lighting.   The experts damaged 5 gaskets and broke a water line, so I installed new gaskets and repaired the line.   After another day on the engine they had found nothing wrong, but showed me the spectacular method I would use from then on to start it.   The routine was to light a diesel soaked rag attached to a metal rod, hold it over the engine air intake while depressing the compression release button and cranking the engine vigorously (by pushing a button, or if the batteries were flat, by hand as with a Model T Ford), then release the button or crank and let the black smoke dissipate while the engine quietly idled.   I knew as much about engines as I had first known about sailing, but later realized the problem source was worn piston rings, which prevented the high compression necessary to heat the incoming air, which henceforth had to be preheated to start the engine.   My boat got a lot of attention while just resting, but the starting routine usually riveted passers by.

At the postoffice I picked up a check from the sale of my Chevrolet Belair in Maine, but after sending $500 to my ex-wife and $200 to my Mexican lawyer (a different sort of long story), paying miscellaneous expenses, and having $170 stolen by clever Arab money changers, I was left with about $50 for the pilot I would need to descend the notorious Rhone, a dollar a day for food until the next money drop near the Riviera, and a small reserve.   For the next 3 weeks I would not be a Rich American.

More sobering news arrived.   It would be impossible to cope with the locks ahead alone, a drought had made the Rhone too shallow for the Swalker to descend, the canals would soon freeze, and the escalating conflict over that other canal, the Suez, might result in World War III.... It has been suggested that, "When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout".   However, there was nothing I could do about these  problems, so after 12 days in Paris Swalker and I left for the Riviera, continuing upstream on the Seine.

France, After Paris

I ascended the sinuous Seine for 3 days through the suburbs of Paris, until dense fog halted all traffic on November 7.   With permission I tied my boat to a barge overnight, which was simpler than anchoring or tieing to trees.   This was my introduction to the Barge People, an informal isolated international society whose member families spend their lives on their barge homes, transporting goods on the waterways connecting 6 European countries... November 1 the locks went on the winter schedule, open only 8 AM to 5 PM, which could slow my progress even further.

Near Champagne I left the narrowing river for the much narrower Canal de Loing.    I seemed also to have entered the 19th century.   Sometimes I saw brown autumn fields being plowed by oxen.   There were far fewer peasants on the banks, and most of those to whom I waved shyly turned their backs.    This was not simple disdain for the USA, because occasionally I would be asked about the American flag I displayed on the stern.   "Quel drapeau ?" (what country does that flag represent ?).  But how many of us recognize the French flag, whose 3 colors we copied?

The narrow secondary canals of inland France required special barges which snugly fit the smaller locks.   The number of barges was much smaller than on the Seine. When two of them met, one would go aground on one bank, usually the right, while the other squeezed by on the other side, noisily removing paint.   A few barges were pulled by colorfully ornamented horses trodding waterside paths compressed over 3 centuries.   When an intersecting bridge was encountered, the horse would be unhitched and led forward, then smoothly reattached beyond the obstruction, to the barge which had continued by inertia.

The canal banks were often lined with Lombardy poplars (aka plane or plain trees), giving the impression that I was travelling through three dimensional Impressionist paintings.   This account seems mostly a list of unique problems met and solved, but know that my days crossing the back country of France were filled with beauty, competing in memory with adventures.

Photo of Briare in Loiret

Borrowed from the Internet is this recent picture of the Briare canal, typical of rural canals between Paris and Lyon, a favorite subject of Impressionist painters and embraced by Lombardy poplars. The picture shows the canals remain as beautiful as when I traversed them in 1956.

This website has many beautiful photos of the waterways of France:
Clicking on anything in it just under "Aboard In France" will produce copious descriptions.

For efficiency, the locks were alternately occupied by descending and ascending boats. If I had to wait long enough to enter a lock I would run the boat gently aground on the sloping right bank, pole vault to shore with the free end of a mooring rope in my hand, and tie to a post or tree.   Once I spent too long buying meat for my standard pressure-cooked stew, so too quickly vaulted aboard and severely bruised my leg.   Another small mishap happened when a barge charged out of a lock while I waited on the bank, holding ropes to control the Swalker.   I couldn't resist the greater hydraulic pull on my boat created by his speed and proximity, so my long horizontal overhanging mast tangled with his gear, which threatened damage to both boats and introduced me to profanity in another language.

All locks had lock-keepers in vigilant attendance.   Those on small locks were usually aging veterans of World War I or II, some handicapped.   So I often worked the unmotorized lock machinery myself, which speeded my passage.   The lock-keepers supplemented their meager salaries by selling vegetables they raised, or extending a tip basket on a long pole.

From my log:

"With ascending locks I shift into reverse to nearly stop the boat as it enters, then clamber up the lock ladder if any, or up the lock gate, or over the lock side if it's a shallow one.   Then I retrieve the mooring ropes with the boat hook I took with me, and help close the gates and water intakes.   As tons of water surge in from the lock bottom, I tie one rope to a lock bollard and pull on the other to control the boat as it rises.   When the lock is full I open one uphill gate while the keeper opens the other.   Then I buy vegetables or leave a tip, untie the ropes and motor onward".

Descending locks are much easier to negotiate.   The water drains from the bottom of the lock so there is very little turbulence, hence mooring ropes are not necessary, for the boat can be controlled with a finger.

The technology of canal locks is old, simple, ingenious.   Over a thousand years ago the Chinese discovered that heavy boats could be raised - and lowered - by falling water, by opening and closing doors in a big box in a waterway.    It's a perpetual cycle:
 water is transported to the clouds by solar power, from whence it occasionally falls to enable the lock system.  Once I looked down on rooftops as Swalker ascended a staircase of interconnected locks built before there was a USA.    Centuries before that, Dutch engineers invented the windmill, which harnessed solar power in the form of moving air.

After a watercraft goes downstream downhill, there are several ways to get it back upstream uphill.   On the canal system, it's by locks.   On a swift current like the Rhone before it was tamed, it was by powerful engines.   In some places it was muscles pulling on ropes: horses on some European rivers and people in the Yangtze gorges.   On the Mississippi in the 1800s and Canada's MacKenzie in the 2000s, the solution was to sell the barge or raft whole or in pieces at the end of a downstream downhill run, and return upstream with the money.

November 10-11 logs:

"I spent the night by the bridge at Nemours, which is '(du) pont de Nemours' from whence came the name of the American chemical company.  The next day was a holiday, so the locks were closed.   I spent the day removing, fixing, and replacing the semi-blocked muffler, and removing much of the soot deposited in the bilge when the muffler noisily disconnected".

November 12-13 logs:

"The muffler malfunctioned again, so I disconnected it and vented it in the bilge again.   While doing this, clad in heavy wools and oilskins, with my head in the bilge and my feet overhanging the hull, a shoe fell off.    I dove in the cold water to retrieve it, without success, so until the next money drop I will wear my wooden klompen.   They float, and are handy for driving in mooring stakes.... This is the latitude of Labrador, in mid-November... I went from the Canal du Loing to Canal du Briare this afternoon... The dearth of traffic allows me to make much better time: today 41 km and 16 locks.   I overtake and squeeze by an occasional barge at my standard 5 mph, thereby demonstrating anew that Americans are speed demons.    Tonght I listened to BBC while eating a hot meal I made of buttered vegetables, soup, cheese sandwiches, milk and cheap red wine.   The coal stove works fine.   I walked past a moonlit graveyard to an adjacent village of 3000 people, but none was afoot and all was quiet and dark... The camera quit permanently".

The Canal de Briare  (click here)  was completed in 1642, which was 314 years before I used it.
If you click on  that, you might note the several links within it on which you can click, and that the Canals du Loing, Briare, and lateral a la Loire are in line, part of my route from Paris to the Mediterranean.

File: 45250.jpg Briare Canal Bridge
 Here the Briare canal crosses the Loire river on a half-mile bridge to the 
Canal Lateral de la Loire.   The structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel,
who designed the famous tower in Paris.   Completed in 1896, this
"canal aqueduct"was until recently the world's longest.    The "Lateral Canal"
 lies beside the Loire River and uses its waters, but has locks to bypass its rapids.

There are French canals that pass through unlit tunnels, but none were on my route.

November 20 log:  "Yesterday I passed the summit at 986', the highest the boat will ever be... This morning ice coated the trees, decks, and water.  The sun shone on a world of irridescent silver beauty, and there was a lovely steady tinkle of shattered fragments as I motored through the half inch of surface ice".  Soon the ice would be too thick at this altitude and latitude,

November 21:  "My best day's run: 22 locks and 53 km, the last 7 at night.  Between river strip maps I have to rely on signs at intersections, and came on one that said only, "No Fishing".  I correctly guessed the right fork was the correct one, and spent the night at my first city since Paris: Chalon-sur-Saone.

November 22:  I passed through 3 locks, nearly my last on the Swalker, left the Canal du Centre at Chalons-sur-Saone, and started down the Saone River.  The guidebook said a pilot is advised but not absolutely necessary.   Good: I had no money for a pilot.   I followed the strip map carefully, sometimes on the inside of a bend, sometimes outside.  Going aground on the shifting bottom could be made worse by the push of the strong current.  I soon did so, precisely on what the strip chart showed as the red marked route in the middle third of the river, to avoid a barge laboring upstream.   I spent the night there, and in the morning watched, through soft silent snow from sodden skies, slow cyclists on the distant shore, oblivious to my presence.   My gestured entreaties to ascending barges went unheeded, understandably because if they stopped, steering would be difficult for them.   I was on the foredeck in my bathing suit in the falling snow about to walk the anchor out so I might winch off, when that got the attention of another barge captain, who slowed, threw me a light rope that I attached to a heavier one, which was used to pull me free.   I shouted, "MERCI !" and he vanished in the gloom upstream.

November 23:   I spent the night tied to a barge inside a lock, which would have been OK if my alarm clock had not failed.   I awoke just in time to cast off before they shed me in the river. I was told that because cold has reduced meltwater from the nearby Alpine glaciers, the Saone was low and there were many hazards downstream, so I followed the barge closely for 37 km.   There were enough unbuoyed underwater breakwaters and shoals on the strip map already, without low water.   Just beyond the next lock the barge got tangled with another, so I passed them and continued, until 6 km later another barge crowded me aground again.   The current here was relatively fast, 3.5 km/hour, so I was really stuck.     Barges ignored me for hours, until one bravely paused only 20 feet away, and towed me free.

I arrived in Lyon, where the Saone met the Rhone, hoping to find a barge that, for a price, would attach to the Swalker and lead me down the Rhone to more tranquil water at Beaucaire.   However, traffic was way down because of the low water and fuel shortage. Barges ascending the Rhone torrent needed 1000 HP, whereas engines of 50 to 100 HP sufficed on other French waterways.   Fortunately I found a Rhone pilot, Jerome Pariset, who had 20 years of experience.   He asked the draft of my vessel (1.35 meters), deliberated, said that was precisely the minimum depth of the rapids ahead and he would guide me to Beaucaire for 12,000 francs, about $32.   A 1956 dollar adjusted for inflation to 2011 is about $10.   There was no waiting list, because I was aware of no other non-commercial craft making this trip at this season except that megayacht in Rouen.  There were long lines of cars at gas stations, most cars being pushed by hand as their line moved forward.   I was fortunate to have bought that barrel of fuel in Rouen, for the war and petroleum shortages were getting worse.   Once I reached the Mediterranean the boat could be propelled free by the wind.

Some may wonder why, if I were... intrepid... enough to have come this far, I hadn't planned to run the great river on my own.   The answer is that I knew my limitations well enough that the Swalker and I survived intact.   M. Pariset and I passed several wrecked yachts whose owners had been too confident.   Since the current was sometimes 10 mph (not kph), twice the top speed of the Swalker under power, we ran the motor just enough to maintain steeredgeway.  M. Pariset apparently knew the river very well: sometimes he would direct me towards the inside of a curve, where one would expect the water to be shallower, and twice we lightly bounced over the bottom, as he had predicted. 

The Rhone was being tamed by a huge multi-year engineering project.   The first step was the Donzere-Mondregon bypass canal and the world's highest single-lift lock.   We tied to floating bollards in the lock, and in 3 minutes were dropped 85 feet.   Looking up from the bottom of the chasm to the little patch of sky would not suit claustrophobics.   We went out under the massive downstream wall of the lock.   M. Pariset hitched us a tow with a passing barge friend for the rest of the bypass canal.   A barge with the power to go slowly upstream on the Rhone could travel swiftly in calm water, so we were dragged 10 miles at 15 mph, twice the Swalker's theoretical maximum, as evidenced by the towering stern wave that followed us.

I recalled the song "Sur (on) le Pont d'Avignon" from school, but here passed under the broken remains of that storied bridge.

The second afternoon out of Lyon we turned the boat upstream at Beaucaire, running the engine at top speed and still going downstream, until we sidled into the beginning of my last canal, le Canal du Rhone a Sete, joining the river to the Mediterranean port of Sete, in southwestern France.

M. Pariset returned home.   I docked in front of a bar, and took the train to Arles, where I picked up a mass of mail, including two $500 checks.   The postmistress said the mail had been there the legal limit, and would have been returned to the senders the next day. I continued to Cannes, where with difficulty I had American Express cash the checks.   I ate well, and bought shoes.

At a party on the Riviera I met two young Englishmen with alleged boating experience, who agreed to go with me to Gibraltar.   The bar owner gave me a cat, but it soon opted to go ashore permanently.   We traversed the canal to Sete, passing through the reknowned Camargue marsh with its wild horses.   This Mediterranean port was the end of the canal system for me.   It is also the terminus of the Canal du Midi, a huge engineering feat, completed in 1681 to connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
Click on:  Canal du Midi .

The next anecdote deserves more than "It's a Long Story".   Family and other friends, please remember this happened 50 years ago, and I did not know most of you then.

The scene was a small bar like in a low budget movie which couldn't afford extras.  There were just Peter, Allan, and I at a table; the dour Amazon bar owner, and, seated demurely on a bar stool, an apparent clone of Audrey Hepburn.   Tam on a short hairdo, beautiful.

We talked at length. Her name was Marianne, and she was not happy.   She said she had been betrayed by her sweetheart in Marseille, and had come here that afternoon, where nobody knew her, to work in a bar.   My two shipmates snickered (in English, which she did not understand) that all bar girls have made-up stories and are cynical lying thieves.

Without expression, the bar owner nodded her permission for Marianne to leave with me.

At the hotel I put the required equivalent of a worker's daily wage on the dresser.   She really seemed like a college girl who had impulsively embarked on a career of sin.   She directed that we sit cross-legged on the bed, where she told me an Aesop's fable.   After an hour of exchanging Grimm and other tales, my French improving all the while, we knew each other better, and dawn had begun filtering through the curtains.   It was a much more delightful method of language enhancement than I'd had in high school.

The inevitable happened, then we fell asleep. When I awoke, she was gone. My shipmates would expect my wallet to have vanished. It was still there, as was every franc I had put on the dresser. The unwritten message was, "I really am not that kind of woman".

Charm and beauty aside, she had integrity where it would not have been expected.   Our paths had crossed at a nadir in her life.   In my adult life I'd never known a woman who liked me and asked nothing in return.   I did not want to let her go.   And let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

t the bar, the Amazon said disdainfully that the girl had changed her mind and left for her home in Marseille.   I ran to the station.   The train had just left.

There are many forks in the road.   If I had stuck with the stock of motorcycle makers Toyota and Honda in 1964, if that speeding car had not missed me, if had reached that train in time... Only the memory of Marianne Of Sete remained... remains.   With rue my heart was laden... who knows where the path not taken would have led ?

Evening the next day we 3 males took Swalker from the inner harbor towards the outer harbor, so we could sail early for the next port without waiting for the intermediate bridge to open.   The waters were as black as the night, apparently asleep and motionless.   As we approached the bridge I kept signalling the tender, but it became apparent that he was not awake or not there.   I put the tiller hard over to make a tight U-turn, and realized too late that the still silent surface was swiftly seeking the sea.  The bridge met our mast at its mid-height, and the current steadily dragged the Swalker sidewise under the bridge.   A cross tree (a horizontal brace half way up the mast) broke, then the lone forestay separated with a loud twang. The mast was about to go.  The propeller came out of the water as the hull tipped, and we were left with no propulsion except the strength of our arms, which could not overcome the power of the current.   Soon my boat would be on its side part way under the bridge, fill with water, and go to the bottom of the shipping channel, without clearance for the freighters passing over it.   No life or lights on shore could be seen. All was lost.

Then we heard a faint distant noise... voices... singing... harmony.

The suddenly stationary silhouettes of six silent singers appeared above us on the bank. I called "M'aidez !" (Mayday = Help me !).   The men scrambled down to the waterside. I threw them our biggest rope, they pulled with the same coordination with which they had sung, and after a final flurry of metallic protests from the rigging we were free.   As they quickly left I shouted, "Merci mil fois!" (thanks a thousand times) and threw them a carton of American cigarettes, which had cost a dollar duty-free in Rouen.

Repairs were made the next day.   On the following we passed the bridge by daylight, and set sail for Spain.

Never once had I been asked for my canal permits, which had expired 3 weeks earlier.

To see the next segment (because of peculiarities in
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