Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from 'A Single Wave' the tale of author Webb Chiles's extraordinary brush with death in the Pacific Ocean.
Webb Chiles is a one-off, writes Tom Cunliffe. The first American to sail single-handed around Cape Horn, he has circumnavigated five times, mostly in small craft, some of them open.
His philosophy is perhaps best described in his own words: ‘People who know of me at all probably do so as a sailor; but I have always thought of myself as an artist, and I believe that the artist’s defining responsibility is to go to the edge of human experience and send back reports.’
To serve this end, fulfilled to a rare degree, he has written a number of books. In A Single Wave from Sheridan House, he describes three voyages.
This extract is from his 1979 voyage on Chidiock Tichborne, an 18ft open Drascombe Lugger. He has already sailed from San Diego to the South Pacific.
Fourteen days before the narrative begins, he was pitchpoled, swamped and kept afloat only by her air tanks. The rig was badly damaged leaving him drifting.
Unable to clear the boat of water because of the open centreboard case, he launched his inflatable and settled down to drift with the current towards the New Hebrides.
“In the last light, I searched for land. There was none. I wrapped myself in the tarp and tried to settle in for the long night of broken sleep.
How many more long days and nights: four? Forty? A hundred and four? And what was at the end: an island? A ship? Death?
I drifted on.
The blackness that came in the night was a cliff. I went to sit in the chest-deep water, trying to steer the swamped Chidiock Tichborne clear of an island, which, after promising life when I first spotted it, had become just another face of death.
Through rain-streaked glasses, I caught a glimpse of the ghostly line of surf at the base of the cliff, less than a quarter mile away. If we drifted much closer, I would have to abandon Chidiock and take my chances in the inflatable.
But I did not know if I could row the dinghy in such waves, now more than ten feet high and growing steeper as the long swell from the open ocean touched the rising seabed below.
My body was filled with numbness and pain. The tiller and all of Chidiock but the mast were below the water.
We were ‘sailing’ on the 20 square feet of chafing patch on the mainsail. I only hoped that by keeping the bow pointed in the direction of a broad reach, we might clear this island.
From the waist down I had lost sensation, except for agony when I bumped the ulcers on my feet and ankles against the fibreglass floor. My back and neck were on fire.
Always the fire smouldered and at intervals it flared into a spasm of white-hot pain. There was nothing to do at such moments but hang onto the tiller and wait for the pain to pass.
Don’t fail me, body. Don’t fail before the sky begins to lighten.
A wave loomed high above me, the highest wave I had seen from Chidiock, a wall of water as high as the yawl was long. Here we go, I thought. This one is going to break.
Chidiock started up the steep rise. The wave lifted me from her.
I clung to the tiller, no longer steering, just hanging on until the tiller pointed straight up and I was floating at arm’s length above the submerged hull. Within a few yards the comber disappeared into the darkness, but I heard its roar as it slammed into the cliff.
We were not going to clear this end of the island. The cliff was now less than 300 yards away and the waves were becoming steeper.
Without warning a wave broke. Because she was already beneath the sea, Chidiock could not really capsize, but she rolled ponderously onto her side and I was washed away.
My legs were useless. They trailed like vestigial appendages on whatever form of life I was evolving into, as I fought to swim back to the yawl using only my arms.
Chidiock Tichborne remained on her side. This view of her no longer seemed unusual.
If anything, in the 13 days since the pitchpole, I had come to have unlimited confidence in her. The sea could strip everything movable from her, toss her around like a toy, fill her with water; and she would patiently survive.
My legs persisted in their refusal to function, so I could not stand on the centreboard, but the weight of my upper body was enough to right the yawl. We had drifted closer to the island, but we also seemed to have drifted along.
Perhaps all my struggling had been unnecessary. Perhaps if I had simply let us drift, we would have been saved by blind chance, for it was now obvious that we were being carried along the coast faster than we were being carried in.
I could not yet be certain that we were moving fast enough, so I remained at the tiller, more or less holding the bow in the right direction.
Riding sideways up great curling waves just beyond a line of thundering surf, I fell asleep.
My eyes closed and my head fell forward. Reflex snapped it back, which ignited the flames along my spine.
Each spasm had been worse than the one before, and this was a summation. I wondered if it would ever end.
Could so much pain come from a muscle spasm? Whatever the cause, the pain served to keep me awake until we were carried safely past the island, and I was able to collapse into the relative dryness of the dinghy alongside, and rest.
Dawn was delayed by a squall. When it passed I saw that six or seven miles directly ahead of us lay two more islands: one, a small, sheer peak jutting from the sea; the other with three 2,000ft peaks, about which the squall line lingered.
I pushed myself up and ate a breakfast of half a dozen crackers, raspberry jam, a can of pears, and a handful of peanuts, washed down with unlimited water.
At the first sight of land, rationing ended. The need for energy far outweighed the possibility that I might not be able to get ashore and have to drift on. I even drank two precious bottles of Coca-Cola.
I had predicted landfall in the New Hebrides at two weeks from the pitchpole, and here we were, two weeks later to the day, but I still had to reach shore alive. The size of the waves worried me, as did the nature of the shore.
The first outpost of man
Of a few things I was certain: beyond the island ahead of me lay only the open ocean for 1,400 miles to Australia; landing would be safer on the leeward side of the island; I must be on land before night; I dreaded the physical pain of returning to Chidiock, but I did so anyway.
The first moment of re-immersion was almost unbearable, but then my feet and legs went numb and I forgot them. As I tried to sail Chidiock, the sun broke through the clouds and turned the small island bright green.
For another hour the larger island remained shrouded, but then the sky cleared and it too turned emerald. And I saw a house.
I could not take my eyes from it, the first outpost of man, which during the days adrift I had thought I might never see again. A while later, a column of smoke rose from farther up the mountain side.
Once again, no matter how I tried to sail, Chidiock was carried sideways by the current. In the night the current had saved us, now we were being carried away from land.
When there were only three hours of daylight remaining, I knew that I could not get Chidiock ashore before dark, if ever. Sadly I returned to the inflatable, cast off, and began to row.
The gap between the boats widened. The dinghy rowed well as I quartered wind and wave.
I was still too far off to determine anything of the shore, except that midway along the island mist filled the air as though from heavy surf.
There was no question of rowing around to the leeward side. I had neither the time nor the strength, though I was buoyed by the certainty that an end would come before sunset.
As I rowed I gazed back at Chidiock Tichborne. We had been through so much: 7,000 miles since San Diego.
I waited for one last glimpse of her. There she was on a crest, torn sails fluttering, awash, valiant. I engraved this image in my mind and then deliberately turned away.
Battling the breaking waves
For an hour I rowed hard, managing to get across wind and current. Then I rested and drank a Coke as we drifted closer.
Individual palm trees became distinguishable, and a second house on the hillside not far from the first, but no village that might mark a pass or a landing.
The waves started to build before I saw the beach. For a quarter mile out from it lay the smooth turquoise waters of a lagoon. Life. And between me and the lagoon was the reef.
When I was close to the surf line, I began rowing along the shore, searching for a pass. There was none. Only an unbroken line of surf, between three and five breakers deep, increasing in violence into the distance.
I turned and tried to row back but the dinghy was caught in the sweep of the seas.
Suddenly the ocean changed colour and I saw coral reaching toward me. Any place was as good as any other. The coral would slice me up, but if I could protect my head, I should survive. I turned in.
At first I went slowly, trying to get a feel for the rhythm of the waves. I backed water as the dinghy trembled on a crest that almost broke beneath us; then I rowed as hard as I could.
The next wave rose. Still rowing I noted the lovely translucent blue of the water as it climbed to the sky. I even had time to think that this might be the last thing I ever noticed.
The wave toppled and threw us out, up, and forward. The dinghy’s bow was dropping, and I dived toward the stern in an attempt to balance it.
The wave passed and I came up for a breath, surprised to find myself still inside the dinghy with the oars in my hands. The second wave was worse than the first.
My sense of direction was lost. I fell backwards as the dinghy stood on its head while the wave swept us along. I forgot my intention to protect my head with my arms, and rose once again with oars in hand, rowing.
The third wave was smaller than the first two and less dangerous. I was able to keep my head above water, though neck deep in foam. Then it too passed and instinctively I was again rowing for my life.
The moment when I realised that there was no need, that we were through, that we had made it without even a scratch, came abruptly. The wild ride over the reef, the days of doubt adrift, the solitary struggle, and now I was going to live. I really was going to live.”
Against all odds, Chidiock Tichborne was saved. Webb Chiles continued his voyage as far as Saudi Arabia where he was arrested as a spy and his boat impounded.
As of the end of April 2017, Chiles was in St Lucia on Gannet, his ultra-light Moore 24, bound for San Diego to complete his sixth circumnavigation, updating his blog regularly. All his books can be downloaded on Kindle. His website www.inthepresentsea.com is a must – especially for his past exploits.