A window in the weather enabled the Mollymawks to pop across to La Gomera for Christmas, and here we met up with some other seafarers – or would-be seafarers – with a rather unusual vessel.
The frail old man sitting on the quayside in La Gomera does not look like an adventurer. As we approach he waves a crutch in greeting, and I think to myself, “He looks just like any other aged old grand-pa. He might be on day release from a nursing home”.
“These good people are from the yacht,” says our companion – another silver-haired man, but one who is still relatively fit. Turning to us he says proudly, “This is our captain. A wonderful man.”
“From the yacht! Are you, indeed?” The older man smiles warmly. His weathered face is a maze of creases, and he wears a battered fisherman’s cap. “I’m delighted to meet you,” he says as he takes my hand and shakes it. “You must let me know what you think of my little project.”
Nodding his head towards the vessel under construction on the quay the old man asks, “As an experienced mariner, what do you reckon of my command?” His pale blue eyes search my face, and I see that he wants a serious answer. “I’m a balloonist, you see,” he explains. “Never been on a sailing boat before in my life, except for one little trip in a three-masted brig. So setting off across the Atlantic on a raft will be quite a novelty. Tell me: will An-Tiki get us to the Bahamas?”
Those Magnificent Men…
Decidedly, Anthony Smith is not your average OAP; but then he has never lived an average life. Born 84 years ago in southern England, he started out as an above-average scholar. After World War II (during which he served as a pilot in the RAF) he won a place at Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied zoology. After graduating he began work as a science correspondent for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and from there he found his way into radio and television, writing several natural history programmes and presenting the BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World. He also found time to pen several books, including a widely acclaimed one called The Human Body. So far it has sold 800,000 copies.
One might imagine that success as a writer combined with a high-flying career in television would be enough to keep anybody happy, but Anthony Smith was ambitious; he wanted to fly even higher. In fact, he wanted to go sky high. His work for the BBC had already led him to explore underground irrigation tunnels in Iran (then still known as Persia), and he had also ridden a motorbike the whole length of Africa. Bitten by the travel bug, he hit upon the idea of crossing East Africa again – but this time he would do it in a hydrogen balloon.
Thereafter ballooning became Anthony’s principal fixation – and, as ever, he excelled in the art. In 1963 he became the first Briton to cross the Alps in a balloon, and when the British Ballooning Society was formed he became its president. The other silver-haired gent, as we later learnt, was Robin Batchelor, founder and owner of The Hot Air Balloon Company and co-star of a couple of television shows which involve ballooning across Africa and across Australia. If you’ve ever seen a film sequence or an advert which features a balloon then you’ve probably seen Robin Batchelor in action. Besides winning fame and fortune on the silver-screen he has also crossed the Channel by balloon four times, flown in 30 different countries, and crashed in half a hundred exciting different ways. He is also the chap who taught Richard Branson how to fly. Yet still Robin Batchelor pretty much goes down on his knees before Anthony Smith.
“Anthony is absolutely wonderful,” he says again. “He’s been my hero for 40 years; so, of course, when he wanted to cross the ocean on a raft I was delighted to be able to help him.”
An-Tiki is quite a bit different from the vessel whose name it recalls. Whereas Thor Heyerdahl’s raft was built from balsa wood and was intended to resemble the kind of boat that might have been put together by ancient Amerindians, Anthony’s Tiki is made entirely of modern materials.
“But since I’m an antique, as well as an Ant, the name seems appropriate.”
The raft’s hull – if such it can be called – consists of four massive plastic water pipes which have been sealed at either end and aligned fore and aft. The space between the pipes is about one-and-a-half times their own diameter (70 cm) and although they weigh one-and-a-half tons each it is expected that these pipes will provide enough buoyancy to hold the rest of the construction up above the waves. Thus, effectively, An-Tiki is a quadmaran (or a quattromaran, perhaps?)
Running athwartships atop the four buoyancy chambers are 14 smaller pipes. Those positioned at either end of the vessel are made from tough yellow plastic and were designed to carry gas. The ones in the middle are blue – like the floats – and they were intended, by their manufacturer, to carry water. As it happens, this is still their purpose in their new life as part of the ocean-going raft: they will be used to carry the 2,000 litres of water which Anthony and his crew of three will require for the crossing.
Short lengths of timber serve to locate the pipes at their proper angle, one to another, and they are lashed together using orange webbing cargo straps. Originally the team planned to use rope, but they felt that it would be easier to tighten the lashings using ratchet-tensioners (which are the device used by lorrymen to secure a load to their truck).
“Won’t they rust?” we exclaimed in alarm, as we examined the construction.
“The experts reckon they’ll be good for three months,” Robin replied.
“Three weeks, maybe,” muttered Nick. “After that they’ll be seized solid.”
Slotted amongst the gas pipes, at each corner of the raft, are four rectangular shafts constructed from ¾” plywood. These are daggerboard boxes, and their purpose is to house four large plywood daggerboards – or “guaras”, as the crew call them. The boards are copied from ancient Peruvian rafts and they can be used to steer the boat. Depending on which ones are lowered, she will turn to port or starboard. That, at any rate, is the theory.
“Well, it worked for Heyerdahl.”
Plastic pipes, widely spaced, don’t make a good deck – particularly not for a man who walks with the aid of crutches – and so they are to be overlaid with stout wooden planks. There are some who feel that shutterboard would have done the job as well, and even as we watched and listened the crew were still discussing this part of the design. One of the greatest fears for a rafter is of his lashings falling slack and the timbers (or pipes) becoming skewed from their neat perpendicular intersections, until they meet diagonally – like the slats on a folding fire-guard. Which type of decking would be most efficient in preventing this sort of catastrophe, the Captain wondered?
Accommodation for the voyagers consists of a single deckhouse – or “pod”, as Anthony and Robin call it. (Perhaps it’s a ballooning term?) When he first began to make plans for this little expedition Anthony spoke of using “a converted pigsty” – one of those corrugated iron affairs, we assume – and viewed from afar the cabin looks like a road-mender’s hut – which is a corrugated aluminium affair. However, in reality the “pod” is actually a bit of a des res, being a tall structure crafted from corrugated stainless steel and lined with heat-deflecting foil.
Two well-constructed bunks on either side of the cabin serve as locker-seats and also as beds, in the conventional manner. Two more bunks occupy the after wall, one above the other. The galley and the chart table (with satellite navigation and communication systems) are set at the for’ard end of the cabin on either side of the door. Yes, the door faces for’ard, because this vessel is only ever going to go downwind. Lacking a keel, and lacking an efficient set of sails, that’s the only way she can go.
Directly for’ard of the deckhouse (pod, pigsty, road-mender’s hut) stands the single mast – a stout timber bearing an uncanny resemblance to a telegraph pole. Dressed by a rigger who was evidently accustomed to working on old gaffers and the like, it looks somewhat out of place: the only truly maritime thing aboard this bundle of plastic pipes and other industrial hardware. Mock-hempen ropes, beautifully spliced, and seized with tarred twine, lead down to pass around hand-crafted dead-eyes. But there the boaty business ends abruptly. The dead-eyes are rove with braided polyester which passes around the water-pipes in PVC tubing.
The purpose of a mast is to carry a sail. Of course. An-Tiki’s sail is a square one, especially made for the vessel by a sailmaker in Devon. With it she will go pretty-much directly downwind, regardless of which of the four “guaras” is in the water – or so we Mollymawks believe. Having recently watched a square-sailed Phoenician ship fail to sail a beam reach we find it difficult to believe that this raft will do better. If her crew can get their craft to sail 30 degrees either side of directly downwind they will be doing as well as could possibly be expected. That, in any event, is our ever-so outspoken opinion.
In the Wake of the Anglo-Saxon
And that brings us to the question of destination. Whither is this quirky craft bound?
“Eleuthera,” says her captain confidently.
70-odd years ago, when Anthony Smith was a lad, he read a newspaper report concerning a ship which was sunk by a German raider (a merchant vessel fitted with guns and equipped with surveillance aircraft). The sunken ship was a British merchant vessel called Anglo-Saxon, and it was minding its own business – pootling south towards Buenos Aires with a cargo of coal – when it was torpedoed. Not content with sinking the ship the enemy then proceeded to destroy the lifeboats, one after another. By the time they had finished their business only one small jolly-boat remained, hidden in the darkness of the night, and into it climbed seven survivors.
Anglo-Saxon was 800 miles west of the Canaries when she was sunk, and the jolly-boat – although equipped with a lugsail – made slow progress from this position. By the time she reached the far side of the pond, 70 days later, only two men remained alive; and those two awoke one morning to find themselves washing ashore on a sandy isle – the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas. Thus, Anthony Smith believes that any vessel drifting on the current will wash up in Eleuthera… Or does he?
“If you’d left a fortnight ago,” we told him, “you’d probably be just arriving off Tarifa, in the Straits of Gibraltar.”
“And I’m sure I’d be very happy,” he says with a smile.
Get a Life!
Eleuthera is the target destination, then; but the real purpose of the expedition is simply to go, and to do, and to be; to travel, and to find out. To live.
“Most people my age are happy with a trip to Sainsbury’s every Tuesday,” says Anthony. “I want to show them that you don’t have to be satisfied with that. This crossing is one that I’ve had in mind since 1952, but back then I was just a student and I didn’t have the money. So, I’m doing it now!”
Now Anthony has the money, but he also has metal pins in his legs. They were got, not as a by-product of old age nor even through a ballooning accident, but as a result of being run down by a motor car whilst he was walking – on the pavement, mark you! – only a few yards from his house.
Perhaps Anthony has another message to pass on, besides the one about getting out of your bath-chair: people have told him that he is too old to be larking around on the ocean on a raft, but could the forthcoming adventure really be any more dangerous than that gentle stroll along a suburban English street?
As an added bonus, he is using the project to raise money for Water-Aid, a charity which seeks to provide safe drinking water to people in Third World countries.
What do we think of your project, Anthony? Well, you asked, and so I will answer:
One’s immediate first impression, on visiting the raft, is of a bunch of happy and very likeable people who are working together in concert, most efficiently and effectively, but who don’t really know what they are about. Rather like a group of musicians mending a car. Or a group of yotties building a balloon… You can imagine how that would go; and you can imagine how you would feel, watching them.
Possibly the most startling thing about An-Tiki is the design; or rather, the lack of it. Like the ostrich, she seems to have been assembled by a committee. Nevertheless, like that wonderful creature she seems to be turning out rather well in most respects.
One or two wrinkles remain to be ironed out. In particular, the lack of a rudder with which to steer the vessel seems to be something of an oversight, particularly when there is a very specific destination planned…
We are also somewhat concerned about the raft’s ultimate stability. Her weight is such that, according to your calculations, she needs the buoyancy of at least two of the big water-pipes to keep her afloat. If ever the rolling swells pick up the stern and send the raft nose first into the wave ahead then she will broach – she will be forced to round up, so that she is sideways onto the wind and sea. The windage of the deck-house will not help at all when the crew try to get the raft heading downwind again, and if the following waves shunt her along sideways then the leeward pipes might be submerged, seriously jeopardising stability.
A worst case scenario, of course… and hopefully the raft’s stout wooden deck and the gas pipes would provide sufficient buoyancy to prevent disaster.
Other niggles include the cargo straps and their tinny tensioners. If the raft begins to twist – as she is quite likely to do in three metre swells – then you will need to be able to tighten the lashings. So do grease those gadgets well, won’t you? And do make sure that the crew can still get at them when the vessel is bobbing about on the briney.
It will be interesting to see how the rig gets on as the pipes move in relation to one another. One camp holds that the stays should be able to stretch, in order to allow for this flexing. The other wants bar taut rigging which, it is felt, will help to keep the raft rigid. We’re not sure which theory we favour… but we reckon that you should certainly carry plenty of spare rope, in order to be able to cope with breakages.
And how about sealing the edges of the plywood daggerboards and the daggerboard cases? Even marine grade plywood will delaminate if you leave it to soak in saltwater for three months.
The deckhouse gets our approval, although it is rather tall, but the fact that it isn’t an integral part of the structure causes us some concern. Hopefully, you won’t meet any bad weather or big swells. At this time of year, provided you manage to head south from the Canaries, you shouldn’t get anything stronger than a force five or six. Still, it’s best to be on the safe side: that hut, which will contain all of your provisions, must be fastened to raft in the most secure manner imaginable. And even then, we would like to see some of the vitals and some of the fishing gear kept on deck, in another very securely lashed canister.
One of the most impressive things about the An-Tiki project is the way that Anthony’s friends have rallied round to help him.
Robin Batchelor is certainly the most enthusiastic helper, but by no means the most productive. That honour goes, without question, to Tony Humphreys of Ocean Pursuits. Tony used to work for Chay Blyth’s Challenger company, organising everything from corporate training weekends in the Solent to the ARC Transatlantic Rally and the Challenge round the world races. Since leaving Chay’s employ he has been involved with the organisation and management of several transatlantic rowing races, and it was because of his knowledge in this arena that he was contacted by the rafters and asked to act in an advisory capacity. Before he met the team Tony expected to face questions regarding provisioning and ocean safety, but on arrival in La Gomera he found himself enrolled, implicitly, as the project foreman. Whether it’s the mast that wants stepping or the cabin table that needs building, Tony Humphreys is the man who either delegates or does the job himself; and when the others stop to banter with passersby Tony keeps on going. Well, as he says, “Somebody has to!”
Anthony has also managed to rope in his elderly Israeli cousin, Margaret, and his cousin’s grandson, and one of the grandson’s friends – all of whom flew to the Canaries especially to lend a hand, and none of whom is skiving. The two teenage boys spend all day cutting and fitting pieces of wood to the raft, according to Tony’s instructions.
The Ship’s Doctor
Meanwhile, the other members of the crew are also involved in the construction of the raft. Anthony originally intended that the voyage should be undertaken by a team of four pensioners, but when no other old crocks responded to his ad he enlisted three youngsters who are in their fifties. Working hard alongside Tony we found Andy Bainbridge, a Canadian citizen and a doctor of medicine, who used to keep a yacht in the States and sail her to and from the Caribbean. Dr Bainbridge has brought along a whole sackful of medical supplies, ranging from anaesthetics and sutures to neck splints and a resuscitation pump; so from this point of view, at least, the rafters are better equipped by far than most of their fellow seafarers.
When asked what he would miss most, during the adventure, the doctor replied, “My wife.”
At 73 years of age, Andy’s wife, Beryl, meets one of the skipper’s original criteria – and she says that she would love to go rafting across the ocean – but alas the second criteria is that the applicant be male.
The Sailing Master and the Ship’s Boy
The other members of An-Tiki’s crew are John Russell, whose sailing experience has all been in Wayfarers, and Dave Hildred, who is the only one of the team ever to have sailed across the Atlantic before. Dave now lives in the Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean, but by virtue of his prior experience of the ocean he has been appointed Sailing Master. He it was who enlisted John and Andy, for the trio are actually school friends! Knowing each other of old they work well together as – in compliance with Tony’s instructions – they assemble the raft.
Funnily enough the only member of the crew who doesn’t appear to be pulling his weight is the captain. Anthony sits on the sidelines and watches his team at work. Perhaps the effort of pushing a saw would be too much for the octogenarian, but still one is surprised to see what little interest he seems to have in maintaining control of his project. Perhaps there is something else going on here: Anthony provided the inspiration, and the others are now finding their way around the problems, learning as they go. He seems to take as much pleasure from observing their behaviour as a naturalist studying the antics and interactions of a tribe of chimpanzees.
One of the questions most frequently put to the rafters by passersby is “How long will the passage take?”
Acting as spokesman for the team, Robin Batchelor offers a variety of answers which can be summed up in the phrase, “God only knows.”
Of course, one never does know how long an ocean crossing will take – it all depends on the wind – but in this case there is absolutely no basis for any speculation, because nobody has any idea how fast a pile of plastic pipes can be driven by one smallish square of cloth.
One of the less experienced members of the crew suggested to us that the raft would probably average four or five knots… This is about what we would expect Mollymawk to average on this particular passage. Indeed, it’s considerably better than we managed last year when the winds were lighter than usual.
For what it is worth, the celebrated junk-built raft which crossed from California to Hawaii in 2008 travelled at only half a knot. And, being made entirely of plastic bottles encased in old fishing net, she was very much lighter than An-Tiki.
Where Will She Wash Up? (Place your bets now!)
The speed of the vessel – and its landfall too, perhaps – will be dictated by the winds, and these will depend upon which route the voyagers follow. If the raft heads directly westward, at the latitude of the Canaries (as the old jolly boat is thought to have done), then it certainly could run into some nasty weather. And this weather is likely to take the form of strong headwinds which would ferry the vessel directly back to the shore it lately left.
Then again, if the rafters head south in search of the tradewinds they might find themselves unable to make the necessary northing on the far side of the pond. Perhaps they will wash over to Brazil, drift north on the strong coastal current there, and be carried into the Amazon… Or into the Dragon’s Mouth, between Trinidad and Venezuela… Or perhaps, like the yacht which was abandoned during the 2009 ARC race, they will wash up in Antigua.
Any of the three would probably please Anthony Smith, as would almost any other outcome, for like that genuine ancient mariner and every cruising man’s hero, Joshua Slocum, he is content to go with the flow: “Be the current against, what matters it?” asked Slocum, rhetorically. “Be it in our favour we are carried hence, but to what place or for what purpose? Our plan of the voyage is so insignificant that it matters little whither we go…”
I’ve an idea that ocean sailing – and ocean drifting – will suit Anthony Smith very well, and that he will wish he had come to it many years ago, in his youth. He won’t mind if the passage takes the full 70 days that those torpedoed sailors took. He’ll watch his crew play with the sail, urgently seeking to drive the raft half-a-knot faster, and he’ll smile. He’ll be pleased when they find out how to catch fish, but he’ll not worry unduly if they don’t. I doubt if he’ll ever give a single order or even make a decision. And whether they complete their passage plan or not he will be satisfied with the fact that he is making what he likes to call an Elderly Crossing.
That, I suspect, will be the name of the inevitable book which will follow; and the cover will feature a revamped version of the familiar road sign, with the two stooped figures at the centre of the red triangle throwing their walking sticks in the air and jumping for joy. That, after all, is what Anthony is doing – symbolically if not quite in reality.
The raft is equipped with a tracker and so you can follow their progress.
Update (27th March 2010)
On January 30th the wind was fair and An-Tiki was finally ready to set sail; and so, without further ado – and without any form of sea-trials – that is what she did.
Dave, Andy and John had just spent their first night aboard; Captain Smith joined them early in the morning, and by the time the Mollymawks had finished their breakfast the raft was being towed out to sea.
That was now eight weeks ago – and yet the raft is still little more than half way towards her destination in the Bahamas; so what has gone wrong?
A yacht setting out from the Canary Islands might expect to be arriving in the Caribbean after little more than three weeks – but An-Tiki is not a yacht. Her hull is streamlined but it is not hydro-dynamically shaped, and her one small square sail can only pull her downwind. Thus, when they meet contrary winds the rafters can only drop the sail, toss out a small storm anchor, and pace the deck in frustration.
Yachtsmen heading for the Caribbean don’t generally head west straight away; and nor did An-Tiki. However, she did turn right rather sooner than we personally would have recommended. As a result she has met with a series of lows. Fortunately they have all been small, but they have still sent the raft drifting back the way she came.
Had the skipper continued south to 18 degrees or less then the raft would have found the Trades, which are the more reliable, stronger winds circling the ocean. These winds would have carried the vessel onward at greater speed. Dave’s reason for not wanting to come this far south is, however, perfectly sound: if they head south then eventually, having crossed the pond, the rafters will have to head north again to the latitude of the Bahamas; and no one knows whether their vessel is capable of doing this. No one knows whether she can reach (with the wind on her beam) in a force five.
It should also be noted that the Bahamas are a good deal further from the Canaries than Barbados or Antigua, so that even a well-designed yacht would take a week longer to reach this destination.
Thus, the proper answer to the question is that nothing has gone wrong. Rafting just takes a bit more time and patience than yotting.
Despite fears about her construction the raft seems to be holding together well. The webbing straps which fasten the water-pipes have not slipped; the pipes have not moved about in relation to one another, as the Kon-Tiki’s balsa logs did throughout that voyage; and the tensioners have evidently not rusted away.
The raft is apparently quite stable – although it has to be said that she does not appear to have met with any particularly testing seas. Hopefully she never will!
One of the few things to have given the rafters any trouble was the rudders which, acting on the advice of various well-wishers, they finally elected to fit. On the second day out these both snapped in half!
The chosen design was for spade rudders and, unfortunately, no stops were fitted; so the balanced blades were able to turn sideways on to the direction of travel. Despite being massively constructed the rudders were not able to cope with this kind of force. They broke at the point where the pintles were fastened.
Many seafarers would have given up when faced with this sort of crisis – indeed, many seafarers HAVE given up, and called for help, when their rudders broke – but despite the fact that they were still almost within sight of the Canaries the crew of An-Tiki decided to press on. For this they are to be congratulated.
Since the loss of the rudders the vessel has been steered in the manner originally intended – using a long steering oar (or sweep) and the four daggerboards (or guaras). The daggerboards are positioned at each corner of the raft, roughly speaking. When asked whether raising or lowering one of them affected their heading, the crew replied, “And how!”
Since the boards are very heavy they do not like to have to move them too often.
As An-Tiki gets closer to the Caribbean she will meet stronger winds, and so she ought probably to be able to reach the Bahamas before the end of April; but will the crew be willing to press on and achieve what they set out to do?
The nearest piece of land for them at the moment is Antigua. In order to find the Bahamas they will have to sail close past St Maartens, past Anguilla… and past the Virgin Islands.
Will Dave really have the strength to turn aside from the island where he has made his home and to keep right on – past Puerto Rico; past Hispaniola; past the Turks and Caicos?
We shall see…
Today (28th March) the captain of An-Tiki announced that a destination had been chosen… which seems an odd turn of phrase given that the rafters’ avowed destination has always been the island of Eleuthera, in the Bahamas.
As of today, however, the plan is to head for the Caribbean island of St Maarten, which just happens to be the nearest piece of land, lying roughly 500 miles downwind of the vessel’s current position.
In making his announcement Anthony explains that the voyagers wanted to show that a raft is “navigable”, but in reality stopping the journey at the most convenient place will do exactly the opposite; it will tend to suggest that the rafters fear that An-Tiki will be unable to make enough northing to clear the Windward Islands and reach the latitude of the Bahamas.
If the raft cannot make up then, certainly, choosing the most accessible piece of land was the only sensible course of action. The northern coasts of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola are wind-swept and wave-swept, and we certainly don’t wish to hear that An-Tiki has made her return to terra-firma in the same way that Kon-Tiki did: by failing to weather one of the Tuamotos and crashing onto an off-lying reef.
We wish Anthony and his crew an easy landfall – in the broad light of day – and a safe and uneventful arrival.
AFTER 65 DAYS ON THE OCEAN BLUE…
65 days after setting out for Eleuthera, in the Bahamas, An-Tiki made landfall on the island of St Barths and a few hours later she arrived at a pre-arranged rendezvous position two miles off St Maarten. From here the vessel was towed into the Lagoon, and she is now safely berthed.
One might imagine that Anthony would now be happy to lie back and bask in the glorious praise heaped down upon him from all quarters – after all; there are not so many disabled folks who can claim to have spent their 85th birthday on a raft in mid-Atlantic – but in fact the ancient mariner appears to have mixed feelings about his achievement. So far as he is concerned, An-Tiki was perfectly capable of pushing on to her original destination: the one chosen by him many, many years ago, and the one for which the crew signed-on.
It is a pity that after having invested all of his savings – to the tune of £60,000, we hear – the captain should be cheated of his dream. However, knowing Anthony we feel certain that he will take this disappointment in his stride and will do the thing that he set out to do. Yes, we fully expect that he will embark again, this winter, and that the “bundle of plastic water-pipes” will complete the journey for which she was built.
The raft appears to have survived the expedition without suffering any major structural failures. As we understand it, she showed no tendency whatsoever to flex, and so the webbing straps did not need adjustment. The ratchet tensioners have not seized up – yet… (We hope that somebody has been detailed to grease them over the coming months.) The daggerboards have not delaminated (yet…) and they are said to have worked reasonably well. The raft did not meet with any bad weather and so her stability was not tested.
The crew evidently enjoyed the expedition and they worked well together – but I have my doubts about whether the three Bearded Ones will be joining Anthony for the next leg of the trip. Indeed, I’ve an idea that he would probably prefer the company of a trio of mermaids…
So, if you fit the bill – if you are female, fit enough to climb the mast, and competent to sail and navigate – and if you would like to sail An-Tiki from St Maarten to the Bahamas, feel free to drop us a line and we will put you in touch.
Thank-you to everybody for your comments on this article.