Even the greatest sailing experts had to learn from their mistakes, as this account by Nigel Calder clearly illustrates

Nigel Calder’s works on the technicalities of boat systems are accepted worldwide as Bibles, but he doesn’t generally trumpet his vast cruising experience. He is a modest man, so when we find he has written a book about his early years, we know it is going to be an interesting read.

In fact, Shakedown Cruise (published by Adlard Coles) is a lot more than that. As Calder describes the building and sailing of his first cruiser, the Atkin-designed Nada, with a variety of shipmates, there’s a laugh to be found on many of its pages.
Calder and his wife, Terrie, learn the ropes the hard and by far the best way – from their own mistakes.

Their plan to sail far into the Pacific doesn’t come to pass at this stage, but they make an extended voyage in the Caribbean with a tiny baby and another on the way in the early 1980s, when the sailing world was a very different place to today. The sheer frankness with which this guru confesses all, even how he pays for it, is enlightening. But it’s the dry, seamanlike humour that carries it along.

Anyone feeling doubts about his or her own ability to see a long cruise through should read this and discover how even the greats have to start somewhere.

From Shakedown Cruise by Nigel Calder

Over the course of the next six years we do everything from casting the lead for Nada’s keel to building the deck and interior and installing the systems, including building the freezer system through a process of trial and error (there is almost no technical information available to boatowners and boatbuilders such as ourselves).

I write and self-publish a book on marine refrigeration systems. It is a financial failure and the last time I try self-publishing! It does, however, open the door to International Marine; I am asked to write a book, Marine Diesel Engines. Meantime, we are able to fund the build process for Nada from my wages as we go along.

We launch Nada in 1982 and continue fitting her out alongside a dock in the midst of a small cypress swamp on the Natalbany River, in Louisiana. Our initial sailing trials are in shallow Lake Maurepas, which empties into the western end of Lake Ponchartrain.

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On our very first sail my log notes: ‘Caught in squall gusting to 40 knots with main, jib, staysail, and mizzen up. No one on board with any sailing experience except Nigel. Mainsail slides jam. Boat knocked down. Breidart head (the chimney for our wood/coal stove) and two (separate!) shoes lost overboard. Return to dock and grease all sail slides.’

Our trials and tribulations continue. The next few log entries read:

‘Charlie pulls main halyard cleat off mast. Return to dock and remake all cleats and winch bases with epoxy and machine screws.’

‘Fine run to Blind River but run aground in mouth of river. Greg swims out an anchor and we winch off.’


Nada at anchor at Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic

‘Strong winds. Spend night anchored near Manchac. Next day winds 32-40 knots. Lose dinghy and have some trouble recovering it (seat torn out). Doing over six knots under mizzen and staysail. Cabin side goes underwater – portholes open!’

We decide it is time to explore farther afield. At Pass Manchac between lakes Maurepas and Ponchartrain there is a two-span interstate bridge and the old highway bridge. I had assumed they would be high enough for us to motor under but when we arrive there we discover they are not.

‘Unless we take the mast down it looks as though our round-the-world cruising boat is trapped in twelve-miles diameter Lake Maurepas! I go to the masthead to see if I can use the leverage of the mast to drag Nada over sideways sufficiently to fit under the bridges.

‘Try to get under Manchac Bridge – Nigel at masthead with navigation light removed. Make it under interstate bridges with eight inches to clear, but need another 12 inches on old road bridge (water level at 50ft mark).’ We return to Lake Maurepas.

‘Feb. 6 1983: Good day’s sailing (20-knot winds). Problem mooring up due to wind and current: get stuck on Colonel Mathew’s cypress tree.’

‘Feb. 20: 25-30 knot winds. Close-hauled (tacking) to Tickfaw. Tack too late and run aground on lee shore. Have to strip off and swim out an anchor to winch off.’


Nada anchored off Soufrière, St Lucia, tied to a palm tree ashore

‘April 1: Left at 5pm. Winds gusting to 30 knots even in river. Blowing from south at sustained Force 8 in lake with 3ft chop – just about stops Nada dead. Power out with mizzen only and make anchorage somewhere around Ruddock around 11pm. Winds increase to over 40 knots and seas pick up to 4-5ft, with many breaking.

‘Boat riding hard on 100ft of chain ­– breaks anchor windlass main shaft. All the chain runs out and is only stopped by bitter end shackled to bulkhead (midnight). Anchor dragging previous to this but holds on bitter end shackle now.

‘Wind swings around to west making it a lee shore. Bowsprit alternately completely buried in the water and 10ft in air. Greg and Nigel both seasick. Unable to repair winch. Ride out a sleepless night. Lull around 4am to 15-20 knots and seas calm to 3ft but begin to pick up again around 5.30am and veering to south-west.


Carnival in St Kitts

‘Manage to get anchor and chain back on board by hand and sail under mizzen and staysail at speeds up to 7.5 knots back to Tickfaw (winds 25-30 knots again). At some point staysail outhaul tears off the boom and breaks in half. Back at landing at 9.30 am!’

‘April l6/17: Go out overnight. Broad reach to Blind River and stay the night. Explore mile or two up the river next day and downwind sail back to Tickfaw – 6 knots in 10-12 knot winds. Very pleasant!’

By 1984 we are finally ready to test all systems in the open ocean. We pick a day when the water level in Lake Maurepas is unusually low and work our way under the two spans of the interstate bridge and the single span of the old highway bridge into Lake Ponchartrain.

We have a pleasant sail to a new berth up Bayou Castine in Mandeville. Over the course of the next two years we test Nada and her systems in two extended open-water passages – during my annual three-week vacation break ­– across the 500-mile-wide Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and back.

In the meantime, my oilfield job almost kills me on several occasions (I still bear the scars from one of the fires). The first two mechanics I work with are both injured so badly that neither ever returns to work.

Just before I sign on, three women walk into the company offices in New Orleans and threaten to file a discrimination suit because there are no female employees offshore. The company promptly hires all three and throws them into the bunkhouses with the rest of us with no separate bedrooms or bathrooms. They stick it out but eventually all three are seriously hurt.


The family enjoys a dip while Nada is anchored off Culebrita island, Puerto Rico

After six years, my offshore career is ended by two ruptured discs in my back which have given me problems ever since, but by then Nada is paid for…

As we are readying Nada, some of Terrie’s relatives would like to complete the damage the oilfield has done! They attempt to seize her grandfather’s assets and hide him in a nasty nursing home under a false name.

When we find him and file to recover his assets so we can put him in a decent home, our little house is shot up (Terrie has a number of photo prints hanging up to dry which have bullet holes through them), I am threatened at gunpoint and assaulted, Terrie is subjected to obscene phone calls and death threats while I am offshore, threats are made to poison our well, and friends visiting us have guns trained on them as they come in and out of our driveway. Nada is vandalised.

We get to know way more about the Louisiana legal system and the mechanisms of local law (un)enforcement than we ever want to. Before it is all over, Terrie’s grandfather dies, the lawyers carve up most of his estate between them and Terrie’s father’s house burns to the ground in suspicious circumstances. It is one reason we now live in Maine.

We plan to cruise in a broad arc through the Caribbean, taking in most of the West Indies and the northern coast of South America before transiting the Panama Canal and following the ‘milk run’ to the South Pacific. We had reckoned on leaving in November and are already months behind our planned departure date. Our baby is due in July.

We need to have Nada safely below latitude 11°N, south of the Caribbean hurricane belt, before the onset of hurricane season at the end of June; if there are any complications with the birth, this will enable us to leave Nada without worry.

The family enjoys a dip while Nada is anchored off Culebrita island, Puerto Rico

Nap time for Terrie, Pippin and Paul – a rare treat aboard Nada

We press on toward the eastern end of Lake Ponchartrain, with its lift and swing bridges. On two previous night exits we were forced to climb the girders of the massive bridge structures to wake the bridge operators in order to get the bridges opened, but this time we pass through without a hitch.

The wintertime night air cools and a patchy fog settles on the surface of the water obscuring the range lights for the narrow channel beyond the bridges, a passage we have successfully made in the dark on a number of previous occasions. But this time the tide pushes us out of the channel and at 5am we run aground on a falling tide.

We hurriedly launch our home-built cold-moulded wooden dinghy. I row out an anchor and drop it in the channel, a mere boat length away. Ray and Lyle set to work cranking on the manual anchor windlass. With considerable enthusiasm they drag us onto a narrow spoil bank between Nada and the channel. Daybreak finds our 6ft draught boat in 4½ft of water and stuck fast in the mud. Some start to a dream cruise!


Nigel with eight-month-old Pippin before their voyage to Venezuela in 1987

I do what I should have done in the first place: take the dinghy and pole around to check depths. It does not take long to realise that we will have to go out the way we came in. We set a stern anchor and another off to the side. Ray dons scuba gear and tries to recover the main anchor, but we have pulled it in so deep it is immovable.

We buoy it, cast it loose, and push it to the back of our minds to concentrate on the main problem: getting off. To lessen our draught we take the mainsail halyard to the side anchor and haul the boat down by the masthead until the deck is underwater, a tactic I had read about but not yet tried.

We crank and crank at the stern anchor until the line is bar taut and the crew running out of steam. In spite of rolling the side decks under, we haven’t moved an inch: muddy Ponchartrain has us firmly in her grasp.

A young man motors by in a shrimp boat. We persuade him to tie onto the mainsail halyard and pull us from the side. I jump aboard his boat and he throttles up. Nada rolls over and once again the side deck goes under. The crew is standing on the inside of the cockpit coamings and hanging onto the rigging and mast to keep from falling out of the cockpit. Terrie is hanging onto Pippin. The shrimper jerks back his throttles.

“Give it more gas!” I yell.

“It’ll roll over,” he shouts back.

We take a short break while I give him a brief explanation of the nature of ballast keels and stability on sailboats. The shrimper manoeuvres back into position, takes up the slack, and guns his engines. The rail rolls under; the side deck goes under; the portholes in the cabin side begin to go under. He pulls back his throttles.


Shakedown Cruise by Nigel Calder is published by Adlard Coles, RRP: £18

“More gas; more gas,” I cry.

“My knees are turning to jelly!”

“It’s my boat; you let me worry about it.”

And so, finally, he gives it the gas, the portholes go halfway under, the crew hangs on tightly, and Nada slowly comes free. We use his power winches to recover all three anchors and are ready to move on again; dragging off by the masthead clearly works!

It’s a lesson we remember years later. We foul the bottom once more in Lake Ponchartrain and have to kedge off before regaining the channel.

There is still no wind. We motor through the channel that links Lake Ponchartrain with the Gulf of Mexico. We pick up a little breeze from the north-east in the Mississippi Sound.

Dusk finds us approaching the low-lying chain of sandy barrier islands protecting the Mississippi coastline. We clear the last of these during the night, entering the open Waters of the Gulf of Mexico at last. In the early hours of the morning the wind veers to the north-west and then north, and we are finally able to shut down the engine and reach eastward. We are on our way.

First published in the December 2018 issue of Yachting World.