Joshua Slocum, the first man to complete a solo circumnavigation, reported that someone had steered his boat through a dark and stormy night while he was too sick to even stand up. Ernest Shackleton sensed a “helping presence” on his harrowing crossing of the south polar seas as did “Lucky” Lindbergh during the first solo transatlantic flight.
It’s called The Third Man Factor, the unseen incorporeal presence that offers guidance, protection and help to people who have lost hope and direction under extreme and high stress conditions. Descriptions of such a presence occur repeatedly in stories about mountaineers, deep sea divers, polar explorers, shipwreck survivors, aviators, astronauts and solo sailors.
This fascinating phenomenon has been explained as sensory deprivation-induced hallucinations, shared delusions, divine intervention or the presence of guardian angels. Among the singlehanded sailors I associated with, it is not unusual.
After decades of sailing with other people. I discovered singlehanded ocean sailing and found it to be an amazing source of joy, inspiration and challenge. I entered several San Francisco Bay and offshore solo races and helped start a new organization, the Singlehanded Sailing Society. In fact, after just over a year I had become the Commodore of the group and had committed to enter the next Singlehanded Transpac, a bi-annual race from San Francisco to Kauai that we sponsored..
Although I had, by then completed numerous trips to the Farallon Islands, 27 miles beyond the Golden Gate, and done coastal cruising on other peoples’ boats, most of my 30-year sailing experience had been in small boats on the inland lakes of Minnesota. I quickly learned that it is possible to acquire sailing skills much faster when you have to do everything on the boat yourself.
Over the next year I sailed a lot and learned celestial navigation since electronic navigation equipment was not permitted on the race. I had rigged Kunu, my 35-foot Ericson sloop so that almost everything could be done without leaving the safety of the cockpit. I had provisioned the boat for a 3-month voyage, built wooden porthole covers for all the ports, fabricated an emergency rudder and had a physician friend prepare me a medical kit. Most important, I rigged a lifeline that ran along the deck from stem to stern so that I could reach every point on the boat wiith my harness attached to it. Even if I went overboard, I would, in theory, be able to pull myself back on board.
In addition I had completed the required 300-mile qualifying voyage by sailing 150 miles beyond the Golden Gate (and back) alone. I was inspired one night on that trip when the boat was surrounded by a dozen porpoises dancing in the silvery moonlight with streams of liquid-mercury-like water rolling from their bodies as they jumped and played. More than anything I had yet experienced, this made me a true believer in my career as an advocate for oceans and their inhabitants.
But anxieties were high….. 2300 miles was a long way to sail alone. And, only weeks before the start, while on his qualifying sail, one of the other sailors registered for the race disappeared and his empty boat was found washed up on a beach (Somewhat disquieting was the fact that his safety harness was found neatly folded in the cabin). This was a real confidence-builder, especially for first-timers such as me.
The start was the best part of my race. Kunu and I were one of the first boats to cross the start line and to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, that magic line that separates the safety of the enclosed San Francisco Bay from ‘out there.’ My wife and 3 young kids escorted me for the first few miles in a friend’s power boat, but soon I was lost in the wind and fog along with the other 37 solo racers. Within the first 24 hours of the start, 11 of them had retired from the race for a variety of mechanical, electronic or psychological reasons.
Six hours after our start, another 40 sailboats with full crews left on a separate race to Oahu. Although one of my reasons for entering the race was that I’d be sailing together with all these other boats. In fact, with the exception of sighting one of the crewed boats several miles away on my fourth day out, I did not see any of the other boats, any ships or planes until I reached Hawaii.
Although the first few days were sailed in dense fog, 25 knot winds were making it appear we would have a fast passage, at least until the third day when I awoke to discover 6-inches of water on the cabin floor. The mysterious appearance of many gallons of water from an unknown source produced one of the worst moments of the voyage. I alternated between frantic pumping of the bilge pump and careful inspection of all the possible sources – through-hull fittings for sink and toilet drains and intakes as well as the bilge itself. I found nothing but was somewhat relieved to see that I was pumping water out at a faster rate than it was coming in.
But I knew I couldn’t pump, eat, tend sails and navigate, even without sleep, for another 10 days and I wasn’t about to turn around and head for home. I radioed the few fellow- racers who were still within radio range to brainstorm and one of them asked whether I had checked the opening where the rudder shaft passed through the hull and into the water. I stopped pumping long enough to wriggle into the tight space where the shaft exited the boat and discovered, much to my relief, that this was indeed the source of the leak and that I could stop it by applying some calking material. Despite the fact that my limited electrical system developed short circuits due to condensation from fog that was continuous the first few days leaving me without running lights, interior lights or most of my electronic instruments (except the radio), things were about to get better.
Four days out, the overcast disappeared, blue skies, trade winds and rolling, deep blue seas prevailed. My confidence increased and I decided to hoist my spinnaker to increase boat speed. The instant the sail was up, it filled laying the boat nearly on its side. The rail was in the water and the tip of the mast almost touched the water. On the verge of panic, I fought the urge to run frantically around the boat loosening control lines. Then I remembered that the key to successful solo sailing – forcing yourself to carefully think through the steps before moving around slowly to carry them out.
It was immediately apparent that while the boat was on its side, on her beam ends, it appeared she could safely stay that way. So slowly and carefully I loosened the control lines letting the sail fall into the water. An hour later, after retrieving and repacking it for relaunching, I very cautiously raised the spinnaker again and this time it stayed up speeding us along for the next few days.
Sailing alone means that one is in constant, intimate contact with the elements – sea, wind, sun. clouds – and I was often struck by the extreme beauty produced by their interaction and humbled by the vastness. For me, the experience of being a fly speck in the great universe had lasting impact.
Things went well for the next week. Steady trade winds made for a daily routine that included sailing the boat, checking rigging, adjusting the sails, baking bread, eating, taking noon sun sights with my sextant for navigation and periodically sleeping. But then, on the 13th day, the automatic wind vane, which had been steering flawlessly until then, quit working and try as I might, I just couldn’t fix it. That left me responsible for keeping the boat on course by hand.
This wasn’t too bad at first. I even was able to rig some lines from the wheel to blocks on the rail that made it possible to steer even when I was below. But, in order to maintain an accurate compass course, the boat required close attention and since my target was a small island that I didn’t want to miss, I needed to be at the wheel almost constantly. Hand steering was adequate for the remainder of the first day. During that night I sat behind the wheel leaning forward and steering. This meant that each time I dozed off, my head would fall forward and hit the wheel, waking me up. By daybreak, I was still on course but had a line of bumps across my forehead. During the next day I made serious unsuccessful attempts to repair the steering vane. In my sleep deprived state I simply lost it and had temper tantrums where I screamed obscenities at the vane and even threw pieces of garbage at it, all to no avail.
Toward sunset of the third day, I observed a series of very dark line squalls moving toward the boat. In my punchy state, I made the tactically poor but safety-driven decision to go below, reasoning that if I went forward to shorten or drop sails in my groggy condition I likely would trip and go overboard, even with my harness to protect me. I stumbled below and fell into a troubled sleep. Some time later I opened my eyes and saw a man in dark clothes, cutaway coat and a hat standing at the helm, steering the boat. In retrospect, this presence was strikingly reminiscent of pictures taken of Joshua Slocum during the first solo circumnavigation 1895-98. Realizing I was apparently in good hands, I quickly fell back asleep.
I awoke several hours later, returned to the cockpit and, although a staysail had fallen to the deck, found everything else intact. And, much to my amazement and delight, the wind vane was working perfectly, steering the boat toward Kauai.
It is important to note that I am neither a mystic nor a religious person and I have no rational explanation for the presence that apparently sailed the boat during the stormy night or for the recovery of the wind vane that I had spent days trying to repair. I do know that although my experience was quite real, it was not unusual.
Many solo sailors, mountain climbers and even disaster survivors, people experiencing high levels of stress under extreme conditions, describe similar helping presences. In fact, one of my fellow racers, in filling out a survey about experiences during the race (problems, both mechanical and psychological, equipment failure, etc.), answered the question about whether he had experienced hallucinations by saying, “All of my hallucinations were quite real.
So I was back in the race. Partially rested, I resumed my routine of sailing the boat without having to steer by hand, cooking, eating, taking noon sextant sights and working on my tan. The latter was quite easy since I had sailed into the middle of the “Pacific High,” the mid-ocean doldrums where on one memorable day I’d like to forget, my progress toward Hawaii was a total of 17 miles.
But beyond the “Pacific High” progress toward my destination improved. As I got closer to the islands I began to realize that the small dots I’d been placing on the large chart of the Pacific after each daily noon sight were becoming more important. A small computation error could result in my missing Kauai entirely — next stop, Asia! And one noon, several days before my calculations predicted I would see the island, such a navigation error did, in fact, occur.
I had been using the noon sight, the simplest and least time consuming celestial navigation technique, to determine my latitude and longitude. To do this, beginning shortly before noon, using a sextant, one begins to plot the angle sun overhead as it climbs ever higher in the sky until, at some point – local apparent noon — it appears to stop rising. One then uses the exact time of this final observation as the starting point for a series table entries and calculations which, when done correctly, will result in an accurate latitude and longitude fix.
Unfortunately, my celestial navigation teacher in San Francisco had neglected to tell me that when the angle of the sun above the horizon is the same as one’s latitude, the sun does not reach an apex at noon, but simply appears to travel in a straight line across the horizon, making it impossible to get an accurate sighting time from which to calculate one’s location.
I couldn’t figure out exactly where I was and, in my still sleep deprived state, concluded that it was likely I’d miss the island of Kauai unless I contacted the Coast Guard for assistance, dishonoring myself and the Singlehanded Sailing Society. I sank into the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. For at a few hours I was in a deep, dark funk, immobilized. But then I remembered that a friend had loaned me his radio direction finder (RDF), an electronic instrument with which one can get fairly accurate compass bearings to radio beacons or commercial radio stations. Over the next hour, I frantically searched for AM radio stations on the RDF dial. Since I was within a few hundred miles of the islands, I was able to get lines of position to four different radio stations and those lines all crossed in a neat little square on my chart – my location! I was ecstatic. My depression disappeared and I confidently set my course for Kauai.
Two days later, my dead reckoning navigation indicated that I was nearing Kauii and I was anxiously looking through the heavily overcast morning, intent on making my landfall. I was expecting to see the Kiluaea lighthouse which the charts said was supposed to be visible from 21 miles out to sea. All of my calculations indicated I was right on course. My radio direction finder was receiving the right signal from the radio beacon and I was steering directly toward it. My estimates placed me 20 miles from the island. Since it was so overcast it was not of great concern that I wasn’t seeing a double flash every 10 seconds, the Kiluaea light characteristics indicated on the chart. But when it still hadn’t materialized when my estimate said it was supposed to be only 15 miles away, I began to worry. I was straining to see it. By 10 miles out I was in high anxiety mode and by 5 miles I was convinced I once again had made some serious navigational error. I checked and rechecked all my calculations but could find nothing wrong. And then, about 3 miles out, as I peered into the distance, there was a smudge of clouds on the horizon and a light. It did not evaporate as previous clouds had, but gradually transformed into a real coastline. And I was able to contact the race committee in Hanalei Bay by radio. I was there! I wasn’t going to miss Kauai and have to sail on forever or until I hit Asia!
A very literate fellow-singlehander had written that landfall, after one’s first ocean crossing, has to rank up there with the other firsts in one’s adult life. I can only agree! That moment when the lighthouse and shoreline actually materialized was a truly ecstatic one. Since then, I’ve learned that even experienced navigators with lots of electronic assistance experience moments of doubt while waiting for their first glimpse of land after crossing an ocean.
The next hours are a blur. While continuing to sail toward the Hanalei Bay finish line, I began cleaning up the boat so that my first guests would not see the chaos I’d created during the preceding 18 days, especially the frantic period of my near panic during the final hours. Once I passed Puu Poa Point, I could see the finish line and soon was able to drop sails and then the anchor. As the committee boat approached, I did a back flip into the water off the stern of the boat. I’d made it! And what did they deliver to the ecstatic first time singledhanded ocean crosser? The most beautiful, cold, bottomless beer I’d ever drunk!
After a reunion with my wife and kids, much kidding from fellow racers, many of whom had been there for days, we had a spectacular dinner at Hanalei’s finest restaurant with far too much alcohol. I fell into my first uninterrupted deep sleep in weeks until, at about 3 a.m., when I was jarred awake when the perpetual motion from being at sea abruptly stopped!
Michael Herz has spent over 40 years protecting oceans, coasts, bays and rivers. He is past chair of Friends of the Earth, US, founder of San Francisco Baykeeper, former executive vice president of the Oceanic Society, and past member of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission after the Exxon Valdez. He also has researched oil spills off the Calif. coast, in Casco Bay, Maine, and in the Gulf of Mexico. He has a Ph.D (U.S.C.), did research & taught psychobiology (at UC San Francisco ) and is a board member of the Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Rivers Prevent Harm. He lives in Damariscotta, ME, with his wife, Kate Josephs, and is an avid standup padder and lifelong sailor having sailed over 20,000 miles off most of both U.S. coasts, Belize, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Australia, the Seychelles, Croatia and singlehanded to Hawaii from California.