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Unhurried circumnavigator

Jan 1, 2003

This may have been the slowest circumnavigation ever completed. For 12 years Christopher Robinson did little else but circumnavigate the globe aboard his Valiant 40 sailboat Rising Star.

Taking advantage of a unique financial situation and a refreshingly unenslaved attitude about work (he's British, not American, if that makes a difference), Robinson, now 57, devoted himself solely to an east-to-west circumnavigation, often with all-female crews. He planned most of his stops largely at destinations where he could employ one of his three spoken languages (English, French, Portuguese).

In between ocean passages, Robinson often left Rising Star at strategic ports while jetting off for visits to family or friends in England or America or, in some cases, for extended travel or exploration inland. As many as 60 different crewmembers joined him at various ports around the world, including former girlfriends and, eventually, the woman he plans to marry this year in England.

Along the way, Robinson experienced the best and worst parts of sailing, all the more so since he was essentially learning on the job, being new to sailing until the year of his departure. Prior to the start of his sojourn, he suffered a terrible knockdown off the New England coast, crashed into plenty of docks (and rocks), dragged anchor, got lost, and made a fool of himself more than once on the way to becoming an experienced mariner. Even now he is reluctant to count himself among the highly experienced or knowledgeable, despite having sailed some 60,000 ocean miles with only himself and his wits as master.

"I really don't consider myself to be some sort of expert at these matters," he said in a recent interview. "I just have my own experiences. And most of what I know I learned from others, or from reading, and then I relearned it as it was processed through my own experiences."

Still, there was Robinson, along with two other circumnavigators, on the dais at Mystic Seaport Museum in January during a seminar on long-distance ocean sailing. And the truth is that anyone contemplating a similar voyage could certainly learn a thing or two about ocean sailing from talking to himif, that is, the conversation could be kept strictly to matters of sailing. Given Robinson's expansive personality and knowledge of the ways of the world, there is often much else to discuss beyond mere yachting.

Robinson's trek was really more of a wandering, a sojourn, than a circumnavigation. His route included a long side-excursion from Hawaii up to Alaska and then back down the west coasts of Canada and the United States before returning to the South Pacific and a lengthy exploration of Australia and Tasmania. Among other distractions were a winter spent skiing in British Columbia and almost a full year of other forms of travel during which Rising Star waited in New Zealand.

Talented mentor

Robinson himself first learned his lessons almost two decades ago from a well-traveled East Coast yachtsman named Forbes Morse. As Robinson was fitting out his first boat, a 1977 Valiant 40, Morse, whose own boat, Blythe Spirit, was well known on the Bermuda racing circuit, befriended the novice but well-connected sailor, offering advice on equipment and necessities and even making a number of installations himself. Morse also sailed to the Caribbean with Robinson in 1982, teaching him celestial navigation and the ways of watchstanding and offshore seamanship along the way.

The new skipper, at first on leave of absence from his position as a partner with the Big Eight accounting firm Touche Ross, was soon on his own, however. After returning to New England from the Caribbean via Bermuda, he subsequently set off on a cruise to the Azores with flotillas of the Cruising Club of America and the British Ocean Cruising Club, of which he is a member. There he learned one of the great truths of circumnavigating.

"It was while we were in the Azores that one of these very experienced fellows explained to me that sailing around the world is just a series of surprisingly short passages," he recalled. "That was a starting point for me because it helped to put such a dream into achievable perspective. Beyond those short passages, usually a week or 1,000 miles, it's really just a matter of logistics and being self-sufficient.

"Well, that realization was enough to get me started," he added. "It's hard to believe, but I really just kept going from the Azores. You might say I forgot to come back."

From the Azores, Robinson continued on to Spain and Portugal, thence to Madeira and the Canaries, back to the West Indies, and then across the Caribbean Sea to the Panama Canalall with the wind generally abaft the beam, and all in the company of his equally adventurous Swedish girlfriend. The two of them, sometimes with additional crew, continued south and west across the equator and swept across the Pacific via the Galapagos, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Fiji, ultimately reaching New Zealand.

Robinson learned that he could count on achieving an average of 150 miles per day, providing he was willing to motor a bit when necessary. "At that pace we could do a 1,000-mile leg in eight days, which became more or less the benchmark voyage throughout my travels."

One of the most memorable exceptions was the 2,500-mile downwind trek from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, which consumed about 20 days. "More than anywhere else, that was such a carefree voyage. My best memories involve getting up in the middle of the night in just a T-shirt and being perfectly comfortable on deck and just riding the boat across the ocean with never another vessel in sight. It seemed like we would be sailing forever and totally alone and absolutely effortlessly."

An essential tool for the attainment of such bliss, he said, is a well-designed windvane. His was a British-made Hydro Vane, made of cast aluminum and stainless steel. "I always thought it was the best possible windvane because it has its own rudder, which does the steering," he said. "I was glad not to have one of those types with ropes and gear all over the cockpit. We kept the boat's main rudder locked more or less amidships, but with a slight trim whenever it was steering. Of course, this is strictly a trade wind tool. It's for ocean sailing. In 12 years of voyaging I never saw a boat under 45 feet without a windvane of some sort. But for coastal passages it's equally important to have an electric autopilot."

Long visit in New Zealand

By the time he reached New Zealand, Robinson was already several years into his circumnavigation, having long-since given up his business partnership back home. That was quite enough, apparently, for the Swedish girlfriend, but Robinson knew it was hardly the end for him. Nevertheless, Rising Star did not move for the next year, resting, as it were, at a friendly yacht club. Robinson bought a car and toured every bit of New Zealand; he then returned to London to visit family and eventually found his way back to his home (normally rented out during his travels) in Old Lyme, Conn. Tending to financial matters back home is always an important consideration for Robinson, who counts himself fortunate in having made enough money from real estate investments in Manhattan in the 1970s to support his sailing lifestyle. Thus, the former accountant and current investor traveled around the world often judging the merits of each destination by the amount of effort required to secure a copy of his favorite magazine, the British financial and political journal, The Economist.

With land-based matters well tended, Robinson soon found himself headed back to the South Pacific. "This remains one of the great cruising grounds of the world," he explained. "There are so many incredible islands and destinations, many of them still uninhabited. Despite the well-known incursions of jet aircraft and cruise ships, the area is still quite pure. And I was not ready to leave it.

"I'll give you an example of how great these places seemed to me," he continued. "On an island in the Vava'u group (part of Tonga), I was invited by a local family to a dinner up in the hills where they served a roasted pig in a hut. It was such an incredible experience. I know that I could never do anything like that off a cruise ship or stepping off an airplane. You can't get to these islands except by boat. And you can't put a monetary value on that kind of experience. The friendly people of Tonga had to be a highlight of my entire time in the Pacific. I went back there three times."

Robinson first stopped in Tonga after having left New Zealand, working his way back north-northeast, often upwind, toward Hawaii. On that leg of the trip he experienced what he recalls as his best and worst destinations.

The worst, he said, was American Samoa. "This was a bad anchorage and the water was filthy. It was a smelly port with all the tuna factories, and there was a port captain who controlled every maneuver of the boats, which included numerous fees. There were very poor facilities, and the yacht club did not seem to welcome cruising sailors. On top of all that, everything went wrong with my boat when I was there in 1989."

The best, he said, was Palmyra, an American possession just above the equator and about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. "I loved this place," he said. "Despite the difficult entrance into the lagoon, it is just beautiful and almost uninhabited, except for some Kiribatis who work at maintaining the runway and may be involved in developing some sort of deep-sea sport fishing operation." (Readers should note that permission to visit the island should first be sought from the Savio Development Co. in Honolulu 808-943-6400.)

These destinations are typical of Robinson's itinerary of linguistically friendly places. He did not realize it at first but soon caught on that it is quite possible to circle the globe along a route where English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese is spoken.

"It so happens that France and Britain are the two powers that still have remnants of their colonial empires, which left their languages intact. The French language, for instance, dominates the South Pacific. In all the Marquesas, Tuamotos, Society Islands, New Caledonia, and the Chagos Archipelago, as well as the Seychelles and even in Madagascar, one can get along quite well with French. And, of course, it's well known how many other areas speak English as a primary language, in particular the huge land masses near Australia as well as South Africa. In Panama and Central America there is Spanish, of course, and I was able to speak Portuguese while cruising along the coast of Brazil just before we headed back into the Caribbean, where both French and English are spoken."

On a whim to Alaska

After sailing north some 2,000 miles to Hawaii, Robinson then set his sights on Alaska and the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. "I originally had intended to head back south again, but once when we were tossing the inflatable globe around the cabin I caught sight of Alaska way up there, and I immediately made up my mind to go there," he said. "It's all part of the rather unstructured route of my voyage, where much of the route was dictated by whim rather than by a grand plan."

It wasn't so easy to get there, however. The trip from Hawaii to Sitka took 17 days, with most of the last few days spent in dense fog. "I'd rather be in stormy weather than in foggy weather like that again," he noted.

Reaching the northern apex of the trip at Sitka, Rising Star began cruising south to Glacier Bay National Park and down the inland passages through Desolation Sound to Vancouver and Seattle. "We saw some amazing sights," he recalled. "We saw whales, bears, moose, salmon, puffins, and bald eagles in profusion. What a spectacular place. There are no roads in much of that region, and so the only way to see it is by boat."

In Seattle, Robinson did something really bold. He contacted the Valiant company in Texas and arranged to trade in Rising Star for a totally new model, with a truck delivering the new boat and simultaneously hauling away the old boat. "I don't know whether I did all the right research or whether I've just been lucky," he said. "But I've never regretted the decision to go with these Valiants. I think they are beautifully designed ocean cruising boats."

Over the course of a winter based in Seattle (and nearby ski areas), Robinson fitted out his new Rising Star with the same windvane and set to work customizing it with his own gear and design improvements, paying particular attention this time to techniques for minimizing damage that could be caused by unsecured objects flying about in heavy weather.

With a brand-new boat, he finally set sail again from Seattle, heading down the West Coast of the U.S., which, he says, is not very interesting. He then returned to Hawaii, which in his opinion is a relatively poor cruising area. From there it was back to the South Pacific. "I headed for Australia," he said.

Enter the lore of Capt. Cook. Like many sailors, Robinson was caught up by a recent biography of Capt. James Cook, the British seafarer who explored so much of the Pacific in the 1700s. "This is something that has always captivated me," he said. "To be able to sail to some bit of remote coastline where you can look at a scene exactly as, say, Capt. Cook might have looked at ita place where absolutely nothing has changed. I truly enjoyed that experience any number of times in Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.

Feeling Cook's presence

"For example there is a place called Lizard Island off the east coast of Australia near the famous Endeavor Reef where Cook went aground. You can read how Cook climbed to a vantage point atop Lizard Island after repairing his ship so he could look for a passage out through the reefs (a passage now called Cook's Pass). So I climbed up there and I was standing there alone, and I could just feel his presence. I could just imagine that he and his officers were coming around the corner just behind me to take a look.

"Another, similar experience for me was Mustone Rock off the south coast of Tasmania. I know that Cook first charted that rock when Bligh was his navigator, and there it was when we sailed up to it. I was looking at it from the deck of my own vessel, and it was just mind-boggling. Of course, I didn't really fancy myself as some kind of explorer, but in those waters more than anyplace else, perhaps, I was able to imagine what it must have been like for Cook and his colleagues when they charted these waters for the first time more than 200 years ago."

Robinson's rather prolonged stay in Australian waters (not unusual for American and British sailors) was highlighted by his unusual means of getting around to the far side of that continent. Unlike most circumnavigators who sail around the top of Australia through the Torres Strait, Rising Star went around the south end.

"I heard from a couple of local sailors that there are two months during the year, namely around February, when the winds are such that one can sail from east to west across the Great Australian Bight," he said. "So off we went, dropping down first to the island of Tasmania. After visiting Hobart we went around to the back side of Tasmania where we discovered two vast, virtually uninhabited cruising areas which, again, must have first been charted both by Cook and his people as well as by the Dutchman, Abel Tasman.

"Finding areas which are essentially uninhabited is one of the great pleasures of long-distance cruising," Robinson added. "For me it's such a thrill to sail into an anchorage which is totally remote. It's like a discovery. And there's a satisfaction in being miles and miles from anywhere and in being totally self-contained as a vessel. On the west coast of Tasmania we found areas that were truly remote into which one could safely maneuver the entire Seventh Fleet."

From Tasmania, Rising Star and her crew were able to ride favorable winds in February of 1995 all the way around to Perth on Australia's west coast, a distance of some 1,300 miles.

Robinson and various crewmembers spent two to three months in Fremantle at the Royal Perth Yacht Club, followed by a period of coastal cruising with overnight sails up the west coast, until they headed offshore again toward the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. That was a 10-day leg in July of 1995.

Then it was another 1,000 miles to the Chagos Archipelago, followed by another 1,000 miles to the Seychelles, and from there to northern Madagascar.

"We actually had to slow our pace down so as not to make the crossing towards South Africa before November or so," Robinson recalled. "And that was not hard to do once we discovered Isle Juan de Nova off the west coast of Madagascar, which was occupied only by a contingent of French paratroopers.

"We approached this place without really knowing what was there, and in our most polite French asked permission to land. Well, as it turned out, these soldiers could not have been more hospitable. It was like a Club Med. We played beach volleyball; they showed us the old ruins of a plantation, drove us around seated on a sofa on a trailer drawn by a tractor; we were wined and dined; we took fresh showers; we did our laundry; and we continuously relaxed with our crew sleeping on shore and me staying with the boat at night because we were, after all, still anchored on a reef. These special times are often only available to those who can get to a place in a boat."

African coast intimidating

Robinson said he had a very rough time making port in Richards Bay, just north of Durban, South Africaencountering the worst bout of bad weather of his entire circumnavigation. In general he found the entire coast of Africa too intimidating to enjoy. However, in Richards Bay he was, in February 1996, joined on the boat by his fiancée, Kate Mitchell, for the long run up from the South Atlantic back to the Caribbean and eventually New England. Along the way there were stops at St. Helena, Ascension Island, various Brazilian destinations, and French Guiana.

Robinson ended his wanderings in the spring of 1997 at the Old Lyme Marina in Connecticutfrom where he originally started. He recently placed his well-known Valiant 40 on the market for sale, indicating he may stay home for a year or two, savoring the pleasures of land life.

In retrospect, Robinson said he would identify four great cruising areas in the world: the South Pacific islands, Australian waters, the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia and, believe it or not, the Chesapeake.

"I would like to find a way to go to some of these areas, one after the other, and to keep my boat in one place, enjoying every aspect of them, until I croak," he said.

"But I could never see myself living on a boat for any period of time. I know that I enjoy the pleasures of land too much for that," he added. "The boat is a wonderful means of travel and adventure, and I have truly loved my boat, but my home is on land along with my home and my friends and family."


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