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Scrap-built raft crosses Atlantic

Jan 1, 2003

To the editorIt was our first gale of the season. We had left Newfoundland in the middle of June and were about three weeks into the crossing. The previous year, sailing from Maine to Newfoundland, we had had a few good blows, with waves up to about 12 feet. The raft had proved more than capable; the self-steering system working perfectly. We had all marveled at the raft's ability to self-correct on the face of a wave.

But somehow this year my confidence wasn't there. I wanted to stay at the helm and steer; I wanted to be in control. As the waves built toward 20 feet, I just wanted my hand on that tiller. My husband, however, knowing that fatigue is our number-one enemy on long passages, convinced me to lock the tiller as we always had, but stay and watch, ready to take over if need be. It was a compromise I felt I could live with, and, within a short time, my confidence returned as I watched the raft ease her way over the top of wave after breaking wave, always finding the perfect alignment down each one. Even when the waves came from several angles, she split the difference, never showing the slightest tendency toward broaching. Soon we were back to letting the raft take care of herself, staying below, and coming out only for our 15-minute checks for ships.

We were out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean my husband, myself, and two close friends on an impossible-looking vessel, Son of Town Hall, trying to do something never before attemptedcircumnavigate the globe in a raft built from scrap. My husband and I had been fooling around in scrap-built rafts for years on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, always building from whatever was at hand. One day, anchored in Coconut Grove, Fla., we looked at each other and said, "Why not? Why not go around the world by raft?" We are artists and musicians, always short of cash, but we believe that if you're willing to look at whatever you want to do from its bare-bones elements, and use creativity to find new ways to put those elements together, you can do anything. Twelve years later, what we had put together was now proving itself in the North Atlantic. It looked like we were nuts, but every odd looking piece had a purpose. We had built the 50-foot-by-12-foot raft to be unsinkable (built on logs and foam), self-righting (proven in a double knockdown at the Wells, Maine, harbor entrance when we crossed the bar broadside in eight- to 10-foot breakers after a two-day on-shore blowthe raft instantly bounced back upright), and incredibly strong (proven by withstanding numerous strandings in surf). And, in a move reminiscent of Kon-Tiki, which was lashed together rather than nailed, we had gone so far as to tie and sew every piece of plywood in the sides and cabin tops into the 2 x 6 frames with 1/2-inch polypropylene line, making the raft look something like an unraveling sweater.

Our biggest obstacle had been to get the raft to steer right. Since the raft was flat bottomed, with a hard chine, and drew a mere 20 inches, there simply was no resistance underwater. Every time the wind went over 15 knots, the raft would turn sideways. We finally solved this by installing a huge retractable daggerboard at the stern, just ahead of the rudder. This, together with a very small storm squaresail hoisted at the bow, sheeted fore and aft, effectively turned the raft downwind under all circumstances.

Our sails were patterned after the ancient Chinese junksshort rigged, no standing rigging, fully battened for instant dousing and easy reefingand sewn out of every kind of scrap tarp, canvas and cloth, backed by fish net for added strength. Three masts, made from discarded pipe, gave us flexibility of sail areaone to four sails could be hoisted, depending on conditions. The raft efficiently sailed itself, with the tiller pinned, from downwind to a beam reach. We sailed when the wind was with us, and sea-anchored when it turned against us.

For navigation we had a handheld GPS and a Davis plastic sextant, which we used whenever the sun was visible, keeping up our celestial skills in case electronics should fail us. A radar detector and second-hand radar unit gave us help in spotting ships, and a VHF radio allowed us to communicate with them and pass messages to shore.

It was 60 days after leaving the iceberg-studded coast of Newfoundland that we finally dropped anchor in Castletownbere, Ireland. None of us would have guessed it could take so long. We had averaged 1.5 knots overall, and we felt we had crawled across the Atlantic on our hands and knees. Still, not one of us would have traded our place on that raft for any other method of crossing. We felt somewhat like the early explorers must have felt when they finally saw land that they had only dreamed existed. We had dreamed and worked and created every step of this endeavor, and success was sweet beyond our dreams.