Published in Blue Water Sailing, July 2010)
During his last single-handed ocean passage, Yves Gélinas, aged 69, reflects back on his destiny as a sailor
I just sailed out of Porto Santo in the Madeira archipelago, headed for St-Martin in the West Indies. This passage marks the term of a seven summer cruise in Europe on this Alberg 30 I acquired in 1973 and named Jean-du-Sud from a song by the great poet and folk-signer Gilles Vigneault, who grew up in Natashquan, a small isolated village on the St. Lawrence Lower North Shore. The song Jean-du-Sud was inspired by his father, a fisherman who in prohibition days, would sail alone to St-Pierre and when he came back, it was not fish that made his boat float so low…
I painted the name Jean-du-Sud on the hull as should be, but could not add a hailing port, incapable to decide on any, as during those past 35 years, we did not linger in port. I did not add the miles we sailed together but they could total a hundred thousand: three return trips between Québec and the West Indies, one passage across the Atlantic, a few across the Channel, a cruise to Sweden, return to Québec single-handed with a big detour around the world, through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn. Once back on this side of the ocean, I cruised in the St. Lawrence River and gulf, in Maine, around Newport, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, along the East Coast between Halifax and Annapolis, then to Georgian Bay. To mark the twenty years of my voyage around the world, I sailed across the North Atlantic to Ireland, England and France and during seven summers, cruised the French canals, towards Holland, across the North Sea to the Caledonian Canal, Hebrides, Wales, Isles of Scilly, South Brittany, up the Gironde to Bordeaux, across Bay of Biscay to the rias of Galicia, Portugal, Spain, into the Med, to Corsica, Sardinia and Italy.
I thought I would sail Jean-du-Sud back home to Québec just before I would feel too old to do it and last summer I sensed this moment was near. I turned westwards, sailed back to Gibraltar via Minorca, Majorca and Ibiza, then crossed to Porto Santo. A few days ago, as I was getting ready to sail across the Atlantic, I celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday and came to believe this will probably be my last single-handed ocean passage.
This brought me to reflect on my destiny as a sailor. What was the force that made me devote the major part of my adult life to this passion? What made me set aside a successful career in theatre and movie making to go sailing? Truly, all I can say is that this force was overwhelming and explain how it imposed itself on me.
Had I been born on the seashore, such an attraction would be easy to figure, but that is not the case. Born in Montréal, I spent my childhood summers in Oka, on Lake of Two Mountains, but that water was fresh and I had no notion of the sea or ocean sailing. However, I remember a dream I had when I was six or seven, finding a little toy sailboat blown ashore by the wind; this dream was so powerful that when I woke up, I immediately ran to the shore and more than sixty years later, my sad disappointment in not finding it and realizing it had been only a dream is still a vivid memory.
My father owned a Snipe that died when I was nine or ten, its centerboard trunk rotted away, albeit not before it allowed me to discover that a boat could be sailed across and even up the wind. When I was a teenager, he acquired a 35’ powerboat on which we cruised up the Ottawa River, through the Rideau Canal to Kingston and the Thousand Islands, down the St. Lawrence.
I did not make the connection between cruising and sailing until I was twenty: a friend who owned a small gaff yawl he wintered in Shelburne, on Lake Champlain, invited me to sail it back to its summer mooring in Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River. During that three day trip, we were unable to start its old Acadia engine and reached Saint-Jean under sail alone. I discovered that it was possible to travel with one’s floating home blown by the wind and from then on, I devoured all the books and magazines about sailing I could find, in English as well as French.
I was studying at a theatre school in Montréal, had my summers free and offered my services as crew to boat owners I knew. I found a berth aboard L’Airelle, a 40 ft ketch, for a cruise down the St. Lawrence River. This was in the early sixties, when hulls were wood, sails cotton and running rigging sisal. The owner of L’Airelle was an actor who had been able to have this boat built thanks to a lucrative advertising contract that came to an end. The following summer, he had to work. Knowing a wooden boat must be launched to prevent its seams drying up and opening, I offered him to cover all expenses of the season with three other friends and sail his boat. So on my second sailing season, I found myself in command of a 40 ft ketch. We sailed down the St. Lawrence, crossed the Gulf to Magdalen Islands and sailed around Prince Edward Island through Northumberland Strait. Same situation the following summer; we sailed L’Airelle to the French islands of St-Pierre et Miquelon, off Newfoundland and back through Bras d’Or lakes in Nova-Scotia.
In 1967, I purchased a 24 ft fibreglass sloop and had it delivered to Prince Edward Island, where I was acting in a play in Charlottetown. I had just married and made my honeymoon aboard the boat. But after a few years, I saw that despite honest efforts on her part, the mother of my two daughters was unhappy at sea and would never follow me there. Seeing myself stuck at home for the rest of my life, I started feeling symptoms of a stomach ulcer which I could attenuate with medication, but the required dose kept increasing to the point that my pharmacist felt obligated to warn me against abuse. I am convinced that had I not reacted as I did, I would now be dead, killed by cancer or a similar stress related disease. I found myself compelled to make a wrenching decision and after seven years, bring this marriage to an end.
I also ended my career in acting and movie making, realizing that achievement in arts required all of one’s energies and thoughts and I had only this thing in mind: sailing. The many books on spirituality I read agreed on one point: to attain inner peace, you must free yourself from your desires and there are two ways to do that: either you forget about them or make them come true ; I knew I could never forget that passion.
It seemed I needed a boat in this incarnation and my lending bank inadvertently gave it to me. I had partnered with my brother in purchasing Jean-du-Sud and sailed south to the West Indies the following winter. My brother joined me twice for a few weeks, but I used the boat much more than he did so after one year, he offered me to buy his share at cost or sell the boat. Having already borrowed my half, I knew I could hardly afford the whole boat; I nevertheless contacted my bank manager, describing my financial and professional situation exactly as it was, without any embellishment. To my great surprise, he agreed, providing my brother underwrite the loan. With both our signatures on the contract I became the sole owner.
A sail back to the West Indies for a season of charter allowed me to make part of the monthly payments. I had another credit card debt and the banker suggested consolidating both with a new loan. I signed where asked, but did not realize that the loan underwritten by my brother got paid by this new one, which carried only my signature.
Second voyage to the West Indies, second charter season which was even less lucrative than the first. Since I could not repay the bank, I decided to put the boat up for sale, hoping I would have some money left to buy a smaller boat, or I would go to India take care of my soul. But I had become attached to Jean-du-Sud and was asking more than the price paid two years earlier. At the end of the summer, not having found my price, I asked the bank manager permission to head back to the West Indies for a third charter season, after which I would come back in early Spring to sell the boat. He answered : “OK, but before you go, we will take a legal lien on the boat and an insurance, because the current loan carries only your signature. I do not have time to take care of it now, I am leaving for a vacation. Come back in three weeks.”
I still believed that if I did not pay back this loan, my brother would have to do it. In essence the banker told me that if I left with the boat before the end of his vacation, my borrowing money in the future could be harder. Could I live with that? What would you have done in my place?
I was a good boy and believe it or not, still hesitated, trying to appease my bad conscience. I heard about a person who had just come back from the Sri Aurobindo ashram and had known the Mother. I seeked her advice, trusting she would be correctly inspired. During our conversation, it appeared that if I really wanted to take care of my soul, I could do it more effectively on my boat. To be sure, she suggested to resort to this antique Chinese technique called Yi King which, according to Étienne Perrot, author of the French version, “allows man to penetrate the enigma of his destiny and brings us beyond any theology or philosophic system, to a degree of limpid depth where the eye of the heart contemplates the evidence of truth”. I forgot the details, but I clearly remember being amazed; to each question, the answer provided by the combination of hexagrams left absolutely no ambiguity: Leave! Go ahead! Fear nothing! This is your way!
From then on, to sublimate the anguish of losing Jean-du-Sud in case it would be repossessed, I attempted to convince myself that it was lent to me for as long as I would need it and if it was taken away from me, it would mean I no longer required it. I still have it.
As much as I enjoy sailing, I do not appreciate being riveted to a tiller and early on, I attempted to find a way of convincing a boat to steer itself. On my first, I built a self-steering gear inspired by Blondie Hasler, with vertical vane and servo-pendulum linked to the tiller; this gear allowed to make my first single-handed passage between Percé and Magdalen Islands. Immediately after I purchased my current Jean-du-Sud, I built another self-steering gear, with auxiliary rudder driven by a horizontal axis vane. It steered through three voyages to the West Indies, one trans-Atlantic passage and a cruise to Sweden. It maintained an approximate heading, but I was not happy with its performance downwind and in heavy weather, the nemesis of any such gear.
On my return from Sweden, I found work in the St-Malo area, in Brittany, in a yard that built small aluminium centerboarders for sailing schools. I saw I could take advantage of the resources of this yard to reinforce Jean-du-Sud and prepare it for a great challenge: sailing back to Québec single-handed and non-stop; but I would not sail directly, I would make a big detour around the world, through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn.
I read many accounts of sailors who had attempted that route and all (except Moitessier) had problems with their self-steering gear, which often forced them to interrupt or abandon their voyage. I had already designed and built two; since I wanted to go non-stop, I needed an absolutely dependable gear and started to work on a new foolproof design. After a year spent almost full-time on design and experimentation, I still had not found a solution I was satisfied with and I remember having this thought (I could have written prayer): “I have been searching long enough, I should now find something! A few hours later, while fiddling with a piece of wire bent first in the shape of a horizontal crank, then a vertical Z, I found what I had been searching for: how to transform with a single moving part, the vertical movement of a connecting rod coming from the vane, into the rotation of the servo-pendulum stock that cancels itself as it tilts laterally under the force of water flowing past the hull.
I did all the improvements on my boat that did not require money: I took the engine out, built a new stronger mast capable of resisting a knock-down, reinforced the hull and cabin top. But I also needed new rigging, new sails and other equipment I could not fabricate myself, so I flew back to Québec and attempted to raise the money I needed.
As I wrote earlier, before I became a full-time sailor, I worked as an actor and filmmaker, so decided to relate this voyage on film. Digital equipment not being developed yet, I would shoot 16 mm film with sound recorded separately on a tape recorder. I naïvely believed that the money I would find to make the film could also cover the trip expenses. I was brutally brought back down to reality: nautical tradition in Québec being what it was, when I told people I planned to sail a 30 ft boat alone non-stop around the world, I was already deemed a lunatic. When I added I wanted to shoot a 16 mm feature-length film while I sailed… Even on land, a film made by a single person both behind and in front of the camera had never been done!
I worked at it doggedly and finally convinced a producer he would not lose his shirt. In exchange of daily reports transmitted from the boat, received in Montréal by a very skilled Ham operator, relayed by phone patch to a radio station network and broadcast in Québec, I could pay for sails, provisioning and other equipment.
After three years of hard work, I left Saint-Malo Sept. 1, 1981. I did not make the circumnavigation non-stop; I was capsized and dismasted in the Southern Pacific Ocean, reached the Chatham Islands under jury rig, spliced the mast, refitted and completed the voyage, arriving in Gaspé May 9, 1983, having sailed 28000 miles in 282 days. With Jean-du-Sud Around the World, the 100 minute film I shot won the Palme d’Or at the La Rochelle Sailing Film Festival twice, for Part One - St-Malo-Chatham - in 1983 and Part Two - Chatham-Gaspé - in ’85, a total of 9 awards (5 Gold) in 7 festivals; it was broadcast on TV in 11 countries, reproduced in a few thousand videocassettes, now on DVD[*]. Many viewers consider it the finest sailing film they have seen.
Hoping to profit financially from the invention of my self-steering gear, I had consulted the files at the patent office in Paris and found it could indeed be patented. But I made the mistake of not doing it right away as I wanted to test it first. The test was conclusive: in 28000 miles, I never had to steer by hand, the gear I designed steering a precise course on all points of sail through all forces of wind or states of sea. After my return, I contacted nautical hardware manufacturers and received quite a shock: electric autopilots were just appearing on the market and there was no interest left for self-steering gears. Since there was no longer any demand for my invention, no need to waste money on a patent. A few years later however, articles appeared in sailing magazines, saying that autopilots were not dependable, needed a fair amount of electric power and after all, there may still be a demand for self-steering gears. Since I did not have a patent I could sell, I had to exploit my invention myself. The market already offered a good number of self-steering gears and I would never have made the effort of adding mine if I was not deeply convinced it was better than others in elegance, strength and performance, especially downwind in light air. To evoke the demanding test I submitted it to, I named it CapeHorn.
My academic background being theatre arts, I knew little about fabrication and owned no other tools than those I carried aboard Jean-du-Sud. I learned by sub-contracting and then spying in shops to find out what kind of tooling was needed and how it was operated. One day, a customer who wanted to close shop and take off sailing offered to trade a lathe for a self-steering gear. Friends taught me how to work it and gradually, I was able to set up my own manufacturing shop.
At that same time, I became deeply attracted to a woman named Céline. To avoid making the same mistake twice, I invited her aboard Jean-du-Sud before I allowed myself to fall in love. If she eventually did the same and agreed to marry me, it was not on account of my wealth, as all income was re-invested in tooling and advertising and I could not pay myself any salary. Fortunately, Céline trusted me and assumed the daily expenses.
After five years of living in privation, three important nautical magazines, Cruising World in America, Voiles et Voiliers in France and Yachting Monthly in England, almost simultaneously published an article on self-steering and, for the first time, CapeHorn figured among others, acquiring its legitimate market positioning. Demand increasing, I could afford to hire my nephew Eric Sicotte to take charge of fabrication.
Some twenty years later, the CapeHorn Self-Steering gear provides us both with a comfortable income, while still allowing me to move the sales office aboard Jean-du-Sud during summer months thanks to new means of communication such as Wi-Fi, HF radio and satellite, marketing self-steering gears being mostly a matter of answering E-Mails. But I still have to exhibit at boat shows; to sail Jean-du-Sud back home from Europe, I had planned to leave Gibraltar in mid-October, after the Annapolis show, and sail directly across the Atlantic, arriving in St. Martin in late November, in time to catch a plane to the Paris boat show. But a website I consulted predicted three or four “named storms”, two “hurricanes” and one “severe hurricane” during the months of October and November. I also read an article in Cruising World written by Don Street, owner of the famous centennial yawl Iolaire, in which he advised against making the passage before December, the hurricane season now being one month longer and the trade wind not establishing itself until December, due to recent global warming related climate changes. I happened to stumble unto him at the Annapolis Show and explained my predicament. His answer was: “If I were you, I would sail from Gibraltar to Porto Santo, leave my boat there and sail across the Atlantic in January. I followed his advice and left Porto Santo January 22. I may have escaped a hurricane, but I was rolled brutally as I found a trade wind constantly blowing between 25 and 35 knots, with a corresponding sea made worse by a northerly swell blown up by winter storms in the North Atlantic. In a typical passage, you get days of rough weather, but there is normally a majority of days when sailing is agreeable. I had no such day and could not carry a full mainsail more than 24 hours during the whole crossing.
When I sailed back to Saint-Malo in September 2001, twenty years after I left for the circumnavigation, people I had known there did not recognize me. Yet, after a few minutes, they said my boat had not changed, confirming that fibreglass ages better than man. I received another proof during this passage, as when manoeuvring on the foredeck, I took the precaution of wearing a harness much more often than I used to earlier, not only on account of the brutal roll, but because I felt I was no longer as agile as I used to be. Nevertheless, manoeuvring my boat is quite a bit easier with the genoa furler and a second headstay parallel to the furler. I no longer have to change jibs and when off the wind, I merely roll the genoa to adapt its surface to wind strength.
The radar installed 10 years ago, as well as the new AIS receiver added in Porto Santo before I left, reduced the risk of collision appreciably. During the circumnavigation, I had to rely mostly on luck, on my masthead running light, and on the vigilance of the watch officer on the bridge of nearby ships, but now, with the radar on watchman mode sounding an alarm when a ship is detected, I can sleep better at night But I did not find AIS to be reliable: I sighted three small freighters between Porto Santo and the Canaries, its alarm did not sound and they did not show on screen. I called them by VHF to ask if they had an AIS transmitter, but got no answer. The two ships I saw between the Canaries and St. Martin also went undetected, to the point that I doubted the unit was working. But it finally detected one 30 miles away the day before I made my landfall. I conclude that many ships are still without a transponder and if AIS complements radar, it does not replace it.
Before I left for the circumnavigation, I wrote that I had never been happier than when I was alone on my boat. I was single and had not met Céline; it is in her company that for the past 20 years, I have been happiest, especially when we sail together, as she is never any farther than 30 feet! We made the passage across the North Atlantic to Ireland together and I was disappointed with her decision not to make the return trip, convinced that this tropical passage down the trades would be the apex of our seven summer cruise through Europe. I must now admit she was right: those heavy seas and incessant roll could have disgusted her with sailing forever.
Jean-du-Sud covered 3018 miles in 21 days, 6 hours, averaging 142 miles a day, a very respectable performance for a 30 ft boat, which demonstrates beyond doubt that I had all the wind I needed. I made the promise of never again crossing the Atlantic in January, but this is of little consequence since it will be my last passage.
After it sailed up the coast, Jean-du-Sud will pick up its mooring in front of my house in Oka and will at last find its home port. It will still sail coastwise, but I doubt it will cross an ocean again, unless one of my four grandchildren is seduced as I was by the call of the sea. Luring them into the joys of sailing is my mission for the coming years.