Review – Speck on the Sea

Set sail on an epic voyage into the world of epic voyages

A Speck on the Sea

Epic Voyages of the Most Improbable Vessels

By William H. Longyard

Reviewed by Edward Lundquist

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Most mariners can appreciate a good ending to a bad voyage.  Many of us have been in heavy weather and felt our ship just wasn’t big enough.  I can recall being in stormy seas aboard a U.S. Navy ocean-going fleet tug and thinking my ship was just too tiny for those big waves. 


Compared to the craft that William Longyard tells us about in his book, “A Speck of the Sea,” my 195-foot tug is a giant.  This compendium is itself an epic voyage into the world of epic voyages: journeys of daring, desperation, danger and drama.  These are heroic stories about great ocean adventures accomplished in the most unusual and smallest craft imaginable.


Some incredible tales result from necessity or calamity, such as a shipwreck or a plane crash. 


Longyard sheds light on legends, offering evidence that kayaking Inuits were the original long-distance solo-voyagers who sailed as far as <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Europe.    We get the whole story of cast-off Captain William Bligh, set adrift near the Friendly Islands by the unfriendly crewmembers of HMS Bounty in 1789.  He didn’t set out to perform an amazing feat in a small boat.  But despite the unanticipated consequences, Bligh and his shipmates traveled 4,000 westward to Kupang, Timor with just one casualty, a sailor killed very early in the voyage in an altercation with the Tongans.


Naval aviators Harold Dixon, Anthony Pastula and Gene Aldrich ditched their Douglass Devastator in the drink in the South Pacific early in World War II.  They survived their crash and crawled into a small inflatable rubber raft to discover their boat contained no water or food or even a signaling device.  Their survival gear consisted of a .45 pistol, a whistle and rubber repair kit for the boat.  They had no success shooting birds or catching fish with their makeshift hook (fabricated from a spring mechanism from an ammo clip); but they did have some modest success spearing fish and birds, with a spear fashioned from a small knife.   Any landfall would be welcome after being adrift for 34 days, but they were just as concerned about making landfall on a Japanese-held island as they were about food and water.  They finally came ashore at the isolated Pukapuka, in the isolated Danger islands, part of the isolated Cook Islands.  Let’s just say they were isolated, but safe!  And they had traveled a distance of more than a thousand miles from where they went down!


Some of these voyages were planned with a larger purpose, and some with really no purpose at all.  The most unusual voyages were intentional journeys by unusual mariners seeking fame, fortune, fun, or something not even they could fathom.  


Some adventurers are driven by an idea.  American boat builder O. K. Ingersoll set out to build a better lifeboat, and sailed his 26-foot square-rigged “Ingersoll’s Improved Metallic Lifeboat,” named the Red, White & Blue, from New Jersey to England in 35 days. 


In 1874, another American, Paul Boyton set out to demonstrate the effectiveness of a novel lifesaving outfit called the Merriman Inflatable Immersion Suit, by jumping over the side of a steamship Queen 30 miles off the Irish coast in a fierce storm.  During the night, 56 ships were lost around the British Isles.  Not, however, Boyton, who remained safe and sound inside his buoyant suit.  He paddled ashore, then continued paddling another ten miles to Cork, where the Irish-born Boyton was hailed as a hero.  He liked the role of hero, because he later paddled in his Merriman suit across the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar and Messina, down the Hudson, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. 


John MacGregor is said to have practically invented the sport of canoeing or kayaking.  He conducted some epic voyages in his small craft for a greater purpose, that of saving souls by handing out religious tracts from his canoe.  He called it “Muscular Christianity,” and he wrote about it in his 1866 book, “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe.”  He built 21-foot yawl-rigged catboat and sailed it alone across the English Channel and up the Seine to Paris, and later kayaked around the Holy land and conducted other such voyages for the acclaim and adventure, and the chance to convert non-believers.


Few commercial fishing boats are smaller than a dory.  For Danish-born Alfred Johnson, a Grand banks dory man out of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, his small flat-bottomed dory was a perfectly good boat to sail across the Atlantic.  Doing so, he thought, would bring his some favorable attention at the upcoming 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  He decked over a dory, built a small hatch to sit in, fitted the boat with a tiller, modified it to carry stores, and named his craft the Centennial.  He took a compass, some charts and supplies for the trip.  Despite being battered by a gale, losing part of the hatch combing, taking on a great deal of water, actually rolling over at one point, and losing his stove and spoiling much of his stores, he still made it.  He had one sail left, and dead-reckoned himself toward the Irish coast.  Several ships came along side, offering him some food and water, and gave him his bearings.   On Aug. 12, he arrived at Abercastle in Wales, and then continued on to Liverpool.  If he was seeking fame, he had missed out on the Centennial Exposition.  But he had earned fame as being the first solo Atlantic crossing in a small boat.


Thomas Crapo would find fame.  But to achieve it, he would need to sail the Atlantic in a smaller boat (establishing a pattern that continues to this day).  For Crapo that meant doing what Johnson did, but with a boat half the size.  His motivation was money.  His dory, New Bedford, was just 19-feet, seven inches long.  Crapo’s wife, Joanna, insisted on going along, but to make his feat meaningful he forbade his wife from helping in any way.   If he thought her presence might diminish his own accomplishment, having his young bride on the voyage contributed to the publicity value.  The couple sailed on may 28, 1877.  The 1,100 mile voyage was difficult.  It took a toll on both of them, particularly Joanna.   Although not allowed to help, she did serve as a lookout and contributed to the safe conclusion of the trip in crowded sea lanes.  On July 21 they arrived at Penzance.  There bought became a popular attraction around Europe and they earned a large sum of money.  According to Longyard, Joanna Crapo was the first woman to sail across an ocean in a small boat.  Later, Thomas would try to duplicate his glorious voyage in 1899, sailing from New Bedford to Cuba.  Joanna was not with him on this trip.  His body washed up in South Carolina after a fierce storm.


What could be smaller?  How about a 19-and-a-half-foot “folding kayak?” This well-engineered craft, built by German Franziskus Romer, was complete with foot-operated bilge pump, inflatable gasbags and sponsons.  Romer even had the foresight to conduct sea trials before embarking on an impetuous voyage.  On June 3, 1938, he set out from the Canary Islands to the Antilles, a 3,000-mile journey.  After 58 days at sea, fighting fatigue, hunger and sharks, Romer arrived at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.  He was hailed as the new Lindberg.  After recovering his strength, Romer decided to sail the rest of the way to New York, but was lost in a force-12 hurricane shortly after departing St. Thomas.


How about driving across the Atlantic?  Australian Ben Carlin bought an Army surplus amphibious GP-A (General Purpose – Amphibious) craft at government auction, modified it with a “cabin” and large fuel tank, “waterproofed” the underside with neoprene rubber, recruited his wife, Elinore, as first mate, and in 1950, after months of fits and starts, left Halifax for the Azores.  Carlin named his improbable craft Half Safe.  It took 32 demanding and difficult days to reach the Azores, at about three knots, but after replenishing and some voyage repairs they continued to Cape Juby in the Azores.   Elinore had seen enough, and divorced Carlin. Ben enjoyed the experience, and set out to cross from Hong Kong to Japan, this time with another friend.  In 1957, with yet another mate, he crossed from Japan to Anchorage, island hopping along the way, then drove to Montreal.  The irascible Carlin couldn’t get along with his partner, a journalist, on this trip either.


Floridian Hugo Vihlen wanted to cross the Atlantic in the smallest craft ever.  In 1968, after several failed starts, Vihlen took his six-foot-long boat, April Fool, from Morocco and traveled the 4,480 miles in 69 days.


There is a common thread among the adventurers and their feats.  If not necessity, then what would motivate a mariner to dodge severe storms in a decked-over dinghy while drugged on Dexedrine.  What could persuade a person to pilot a puny pleasure craft with precious and paltry provisions; dealing with demons, dementia, deprivation, despair, doubt, for a variety of motivations to demonstrate that they could do something no one else could possibly imagine?  Fame?  Fortune?  Faith?  Or perhaps nothing better to do?


This collection of maritime memoirs and sea-going sagas is an adventure in and of itself.





Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior technical director with the Center for Security Strategies and Operations, Anteon Corporation, Washington, D.C.

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