Webb Chiles is off sailing around the world in an open boat, a stock 18-footer called a Drascombe Lugger. She is yawl-rigged, unboomed and built of fiberglass with integral flotation. A sister ship can be seen bobbing about the little harbor at Annapolis, where such a sailing rowboat seems right at home.
Why anyone would try to sail a Drascombe Lugger around the world is a good question to which there is probably no good answer. Chiles, who has already circumnavigated solo aboard a conventional sloop, says he set off again because of a fear of becoming "cute and cuddly," a wish to compete with the ghost of navigators such as Capt. Bligh and a strong sense of personal destiny. "What does one do when he is born at the end of a tradition and longs for greatness?" Chiles wonders, sailing in the wake of the Bounty.
This volume takes him from San Diego to the New Hebrides. It is, in his publisher's words, "the first part of what will be a trilogy if the author survives."
Upon leaving California, Chiles experienced 12 days of steady rain. The rain did not dampen his enthusiasm, but because he had no cabin it got him very wet. Near Tahiti, he weathered a gale ("One of the many useful facts my voyage has established is that when a man is sufficiently tired, he can sleep anywhere"). Shortly after leaving Suva in the Fiji Islands, he was pitch-poled by a wave, losing mizzenmast, sails and much gear.
Swamped, the boat floated with her gunwales just above the waves; when it capsized previously to that time, Chiles had been able to bail her out with a bucket. With his bucket lost, and unable to staunch the inflow from her submerged centerboard trunk, he could not.
Chiles then pumped up his Boston Whaler inflatable dinghy, climbed in and took color photographs of the situation. For the next two weeks, he and the dinghy and the swamped boat drifted, until Emae Island in the New Hebrides hove near. The skipper abandoned ship and rowed ashore. The next day the Lugger was found a few miles down the beach.
Voyage books are read with relish by sailors less for their traditional narratives ("Conditions continued to deteriorate, until by noon Friday we were sailing close-hauled . . .") than as texts. Patrick Ellam and Colin Mudie's account of their transatlantic crossing in the 19-foot Sopranino proved to the skeptical world of 1952 that a properly designed small boat could be seaworthy. More recently, Maurice and Maralyn Bailey's "Staying Alive," the story of their 117 days in an inflatable dinghy after their yacht was sunk by a whale, has become required reading for prudent blue-water sailors, all of whom carry such rafts. For a voyager to be a memorable stylist--such as Joshua Slocum, Tristan Jones or Ernest K. Gann--is grand, but not required.
But Chiles is of another category. His primary goal, his dream in the night, seems to be to strike a resounding blow on the gong of personal recognition. He does not suggest we follow his example, but rather that we admire his ambition. He dares us to watch him go over Niagrara Falls in a barrel, and presumes we will gather afterwards to pry open the lid and marvel. Particularly "if the author survives."
It is not a good idea to inquire too closely about the point of any adventure. They seldom have one. No matter the justifications about discovering a shortcut to India or possible mineral resources on the moon, all adventures occur because somebody, somewhere, longed for greatness. Yet it is not the longing that impresses, but the venture.
The Drascombe Lugger sounds like a perfectly ridiculous choice for a trip around the world. Even Chiles, an expert boat handler and a very tough cookie, could not bail her out when swamped. By the evidence of his own account, his survival so far is the result of a lucky current.
No one with an imagination would prevent him from carrying on around the rest of the world and into volumes two and three. But considering the risk, he will understand if we do not wish to follow.