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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Oh, Baby, Baby, It's a Wild World: Transatlantic Crossing, Spring 1981

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

"Oh, Baby, Baby, it's a wild world

It's hard to get by just upon a smile.

Oh, Baby, Baby, it's a wild world

And I'll always remember you

Like a child, Girl."- Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam

May 6

Tomorrow we leave Antigua and go north and east across the wide Atlantic ocean. Only the seven of us and the ship and the kitten.

There's a song playing on the tapedeck that always reminds me of a specific night when I was about fifteen or so, at a high school party out at Pete and Smitty's hut. There was a bonfire and roast venison and corn on the cob and wine and dope, and my first flashes of a certain feeling of happiness, of enjoying our own carousel, just us backwoods geeks, in spite of it all. Feeling maudlin is how it's classified, I guess: when I'm able to sit silently grinning like some inflatable doll Buddha, enjoying the attendant melancholy.

Or I also heard the song, played it again and again on my grandmother's old record player, that summer in California in the Berkeley hills, when she was dead and her dynasty, her castle, was being disbanded. And me bored, simmering over with teenage energy, doing nothing, nobody including myself knowing how much I needed to be doing something, anything.

But now. I'm almost bewildered when I stop to realize what we're doing now. It's so unlikely, so wonderful sounding, and from here seems so simple. I have already sent out a flock of postcards calmly informing family and friends of our latest escapade. But I'm not really calm, I'm frightened by our own good luck sometimes. Just let my sore throat get better so I can sing when I'm at the wheel and thousands of miles of merciless water surround us. Or when we are stranded in the heat and garbage of ancient Europe with no money and no one who speaks Spanish slowly enough for us to understand.

But neither of these these would compare to my terror if had to take out a mortgage, or an insurance policy, or go to dental assistant school.

Right now things seem so simple. We will sail this big boat and run the engine, cook, clean the boat, work on the boat. Reality is postponed two more months. And the future is no longer just a blank looming void. There's a small boat in it. And a small girl.

Over the past few days we hitched a ride on a yacht to Antigua, located the "L'Amie IV" with our boat on it, presented our case, and to our relief, the skipper offered us a reasonable deal. The gist of the matter is that David, myself, and our sixteen foot vessel are all going to Spain. We leave here in about four days, and they reckon about thirty days to Gibraltar, with a few days' stop in the Azores on the way. We'll work on the boat as part of our passage costs. We're also paying them for food, and a prearranged fee for transporting the lifeboat. Then we and the little boat will disembark somewhere, for further unimaginable adventures in Mallorca, Palermo ,or the southern coast of Spain. Dave's daughter Mary will join us around that time, in late June. We'll need some money, and it will take time to make our yacht operational. But we're not in a hurry.

Life is good! We have our own spacious if stifling cabin, while the little boat is securely wedged and lashed on the deck amidships, upside down.

We are just barely getting to know "L'Amie's" crew, seven of whom are assembled so far. The skipper, Len, is a New Zealander, a stocky dark haired fellow with an air of quiet confidence. His wife Leslie, an American, is a slim young lady with big brown eyes and freckles who is in charge of provisioning and cooking for the voyage. There are other Americans and Danes on board; two other women, and the ubiquitous young kitten, in this case, Bilge, the one I rescued out of the bilge on the "Jens Juhl".

This boat is similar to the "Jens Juhl" except that the cargo hold has been converted for chartering into galley, salon and cabins . She is a seaworthy black ketch, about 80 feet long, with a squaresail on the main for going downwind. She has made the transatlantic passage several times before.

I am looking forward to working and sailing on a large vessel again, before going to a drastically smaller one. My spirits are very high at the moment.

May 13

Day seven of our voyage. By now the days have become routine. We are on the Swedish watch system, so David and I stand watch together and are awake from 1:00 to 5:00 both in the afternoon and early morning, alertly driving the boat. No more of this automatic pilot stuff. Sunrises are beautiful. We've seen several other vessels, a few birds, lots of flying fish. Caught a huge dorado the other morning. The people are amiable and the little black and white kitten is a maniac.

May 17

We are in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and the moon is damn near full. The weather has been bland, in fact we've been motoring for the past few days, after a fair amount of sailing at the outset. Right now we've got the squaresail up but are still under diesel power. Today while I was out on the bowsprit monkeying with the genoa jib, a big gang of dolphins suddenly appeared, dancing under us, and I could hear the high pitched squeakings of their conversation. Moments like that make me glad I decided to sail on these big old boats. Bucking around suspended over the water, grabbing the forestay in the crook of my elbow as I undo a shackle. It's a romantic occupation. Like the day on the "Jens Juhl" when we were showing off with another Baltic trader, the "Lindo", and I managed to be the one to go waltzing out on the main gaff to release the fouled topsail sheet. Just knowing I'm willing and able to do such things, nonsensical as they are, makes me feel good.

May 24

We are closing in on the Azores. The islands of Fayal and Pico are in sight. The cat was lost overboard one night, sadly, when he went on deck with Len who was taking a sight with the sextant on a bright moonlit night. Len, who hadn't been keeping track of the cat, being intent on his task, didn't see it happen but Leslie and I searched everywhere on board to no avail, hoping to find him. He loved to leap around and play so he may have skidded off the deck while being exuberant. Poor little mite. Leslie doesn't say anything, but she must be heartbroken. She and I were both so fond of the little kitty and spent hours mothering him. All alone in the wide ocean.

The only signs of life we've seen out here have been leaping dolphins, a whale and a sea turtle. One day one of the halyards got hopelessly tangled aloft between the squaresail yard and the mast. Len studied the situation from the deck with furrowed brow, and then attempted to go up in the bosun's chair, with the rest of us heaving and hauling to get him up there, to set things right. The angle of the chair's halyard was all wrong and he couldn't hold steady enough to fix the problem, so he came back down. David had been calmly watching the proceedings, and then simply climbed free hand up the rig and out onto the yard like a graceful monkey, with the sail flapping around him, where he freed the line and then returned to the deck without a word.

May 26

We are anchored in the Baia de Horta, the big town on Fayal, with a volcanic crater just around the corner. The island is Portuguese. We haven't seen much of it yet, but will be here several days. Just walking along the quay, we found a busy butchery/fish market with piles of shark innards and guys in blood soaked foul weather gear. Next to that a boatyard where they mill their own lumber out of huge old imported trees. And down on the wharf are many wonderful small wooden boats, brightly painted in reds, greens and blues, including some whaling boats, 35 feet long and very narrow. They have no engines, only large lightweight sailing rigs, and evil looking gleaming greased harpoons stowed under waterproof flaps, ready to go. I guess nowadays they are towed out to where the whales have been sighted. We saw one go out this afternoon but don't know of any results.

Our passage took sixteen and a half days. We did a lot of motoring; there was rarely enough wind to to get the barge moving. But the times we did sail, once with the squaresail and two topsails, were especially nice. There was no rough weather. We ate very well from the freezer. The other people on the boat have been very easy to get along with. Fortunately there are no overly abrasive personalities.

Our little boat made the trip very nicely and we have been doing some things in preparation for living on it. David did a patch up paint job on the hull, and is varnishing the tiller and rudder. He also carved two little doughnut-like deadeyes for stays; now I'm starting to make two littler ones for sheet fairleads. I'm also assiduously studying Spanish out of a moldy little "Teach Yourself" book that was in the "L'Amie"'s library. We now know one sentence of Danish and are continually impressed by the Europeans who can chatter away in three or more languages while our French and Spanish are barely survival level.

It's good to be back north away from the tropical sun. I was beginning to really fry in the Caribbean. Now it's cool at night and the water is chilly. We're glad we still have all our wool clothes that we've been carrying around for months. Days are warm and it's green with lots of flowers everywhere, and wildflowers up on the rim of a volcano's crater where we walked today.

Tomorrow we plan to explore the town and buy some pastries and ice cream. Food is amazingly cheap here, we hear: a good meal can be had for under two dollars. Our status here as crew/passengers rather than paid crew is in ways regrettable. We only have about $2.75 to our names after paying the fare, so we can't afford to buy a meal even at that price. What little we've seen here we like very much, including friendly people not yet sick of tourists. Everything is inexpensive. All sorts of boat building, cheese making, wine making, shoe mending, cafe sitting, and horse riding goes on. There's a long wall along the quay where visiting ships paint their names and pictures, so I added "L'Amie"'s.

We took a bus to the village of Cedros and hiked around the volcanic crater. This is a clean, beautiful island where people grow their food and sell it cheap. Clean water, rain and fog like Maine, and then bright windy days. Oxen harrowing small fields, men riding horses to work, good tasting milk from the horse cart, and pastries and expresso in the cafes. People wear capes and shawls here, but the little kids have on T-shirts saying "PEPSI COLA DISCO SOUND". Good place to come back to to raise kids and chickens. But it will probably get ruined in a few years.

May 31

Now three days out from Fayal, bound for Gibraltar in four to eight more days. At the moment we're sailing blissfully after two days of asphyxiation from the engine fumes. The squaresail and two topsails, and some sort of jury rigged staysail, are carrying us east. The weather is overcast, chilly, squally, with a northwest wind. Like Maine in May.

We're all looking forward to finally arriving in Spain. We left Fayal with only six on board (one of the Danes defected) so we are a little shorthanded. The monotony of the voyage is beginning to get to us. We have the 9:00 to 1:00 am and pm watch this time, which is civilized compared to our previous schedule.

For fun I tried to make fortune cookies for everyone, including writing fortunes and putting them inside. One said "A beautiful oriental woman will spill coffee on you in a diner". This caused some confusion as apparently they don't have diners in Europe.

I was practicing my Spanish, making up sentences, and said "Los generales han perdido sus cabezas. The generals have lost their minds". "Don't say that in Spain!" Len protested, only half joking. "The Guardia Civil wont like it!" Franco has only been dead five years. I remember my friend Rachel's parents swore they would never visit Spain, although they went to Europe every summer, while he lived.

We're contemplating various names for the little boat, such as "La Manzanita" - the "Little Apple"- or "Connie and Madeline" after the Lynches of Lynch's Marina.

June 7

Arrived in Gibraltar around 2:00 this morning. The last day or so was motoring into headwinds, with our speed drastically reduced. Just before that we enjoyed twelve hours or so of sailing, with some under full sail. A moonlit night, lots of stars. The names and terms that filled my head were soothing music to me in their beauty, in their familiarity. Mainsail, mizzen, fisherman, staysail, flying jib, inner and outer jib, staysail. And then the stars: Cygnus with Deneb; Spica in Virgo; Scorpio with Antares and Shaula, the cat's eyes. Ophioccus clutching snakes, the Crow, the Arrow, the Dolphin. Arcturus in Bootes herding the two Bears; Aquila with Altair; Cassiopeia; Sagittarius aiming at Scorpio; and the faint shape of Capricorn the Goat. Draco writhing amongst the Bears; Hercules with his club; Ariadne's crown and Orpheus's lyre.

Here in Gibraltar my biological clock is way off kilter. We are in the shadow of the Rock itself. Its bright white limestone towers up, cluttered around by the town and the housing developments. I had ice cream and beer and tomorrow we can check the mail. Leslie got furious with David because he went in the pantry and ate the entire can of apricots she had been saving to make a celebratory cake, and Len had to mediate. I have been making a net bag after fashioning a net needle, inspired by the fishermen on Fayal.

June 8

Today we walked up to the top of the white rock of Gibraltar and looked down on gulls, across to Africa, north to the hills of Spain and east to the Mediterranean, to where the horizon blurred into haze. We came down and fed peanuts and geraniums to the famous Gibralter apes that have lived on the rock longer than anyone else.

Home on the "L'Amie" at the Marina the generator chugs and the same old tape plays on the tape deck. We're digesting another huge dinner with coffee and brandy. The moon is getting full. This town is full of soldiers, and full of women with babies. David told me, much to my relief, that he is in favor of having a baby. In doing this he fulfills the trust I put in him. I love him. But not yet. Just not yet. The tarot I just read was accurate: the past was the lovers upside down, yielding to temptation. The goal was the Reaper, the death, the abortion I still feel I must seek if necessary. The future was the chilly, powerful Priestess, the card of feminine wisdom. I know I cannot have a baby right now.

Last night I dreamed I saw Pam from the "Jens Juhl". She was dressed in white and she was pregnant, her belly round and glowing through her dress. Among a crowd of admirers I told her, "You look like a big, beautiful peach getting ripe!"

June 14

Arrived in Palma di Mallorca yesterday afternoon after four days of motoring through calms and headwinds. Palma is a big town, with plenty of tourists and yachts passing through. Last night we were treated to dinner out and introduced to the bars and restaurants. We ate strawberries and cream and Italian ice cream, gelato, in the Plaza Gomila, which was packed with people. We're docked in the middle of a big promenade, the Paseo Maritimo, near big blocks of restaurants, cafes, and ice cream parlors.

We hope to earn a little money here. I'm not sure how we will. David has started to plane away at a boom for our boat and I have been varnishing the tiller. It's wonderful and silly to be fussing over all the details of a sailboat when they're on such a small, manageable scale. We will paint the bottom of the boat with antifouling paint while it's still upside down on deck. We're continually prowling around scrap heaps and the corners of marinas to scrounge lumber and hardware.

The weather here is hot, dry and bright. It's pleasant early summer, and the yachts and vacationing Scandinavians are beginning to flock here, so there's interesting people-watching. Palma is like Miami Beach. Dirty water, many hotels. A nearby nightclub "entertains" us every night with blaring music starting at 11 pm, and there's a constant promenading parade of fashionable Europeans looking at the boats and their occupants. But the food is cheap and very good, there are many interesting boats, and its not that hard to get out of the city and away from it all.

June 16

Still in Palma. Today we arbitrarily painted a waterline on our boat and slapped on the first coat of free bottom paint. Strolled around after more beer and ice cream. Tonight the almost full moon rose, sneaking up on the city from the east, using the harbor entrance. I was sitting up in the crosstrees watching it all go by: a couple of boats motoring in, the constant stream of traffic on the Paseo syncopated by stoplights to the tune of screeching brakes, and a steady parade of promenaders sauntering by. Music from Tito's Night Club assailed us all. The guy was singing "Monkey See, Monkey Do". The cathedral and the hotels were all lit up, streets lit up, boats lit up, moon lit up. All the electric accompaniment to the moon was glowing away in a way which I was always urged to regard as beautiful but never could, any more that I can find the Empire State Building or the Grand Coulee Dam, or a suspension bridge, beautiful. Electric lightbulbs, familiar as they are, have never appealed to me. Instead I can remember being impressed by the lack of them. Once in New York City in 1965 during the Great Blackout, when mom took us kids up on the roof of our Brooklyn brownstone and the patches of light were few from where we were watching. Once in California, up near the top of King's Peak on the Pacific, camped for the night with a view of twenty to thirty miles all around us, and two, maybe three lights in all that night. It gave me a feeling of awe and satisfaction. Watching the sun set over the Atlantic on Hurricane Island from the top of the quarry cliffs with the crew there. Someone said, "It makes you feel kind of small, doesn't it?". It made me feel just the right size.

June 18

It's been arranged that Mary, Dave's ten year old daughter, will fly from New York to Barcelona by July 8. We're still in Palma. David and I slapped four coats of bottom paint, two coats of topsides paint, and so far two out of six coats of varnish on our boat. It's gleaming like some relic from Mystic Seaport. We walked around the Club del Mar Marina this afternoon, looking for a day or two's labor. No definite offers. Scrubbed "L'Amie"'s decks this morning. Now we're loafing on the bunk, clean from a fresh water shower, belly full of tea and fresh bread and Danish honey, wearing new clean shorts from the Marina's dumpster. Enjoying the amenities while we're able.

June 20

Yesterday David and I took the bus out to Deia, poet Robert Graves' territory. His book "The White Goddess" is the only book I brought with me on this voyage. It's as thick as a Bible, and just as obscure, full of myths and legends and poetry. Deia is a beautiful old village surrounded by white cliffs. We then hiked to Soller and took the electric train back to Palma. We've been doing a little rigging maintenance on "L'Amie" with two rolls of new line that Len bought, replacing foresail sheets and halyards, and parts of the bow net, learning how to longsplice. This evening we caught a rat in the pantry, a big, black healthy Gibraltar rat with a shiny coat.

June 23

Yesterday and today David has been working at the Club Del Mar for 800 pesetas an hour, woodworking on an old Scottish trawler yacht, the "Ubris". Today it's raining for the first time since we arrived. I am making myself gloomy listening to music and trying to write poems inspired by the White Goddess, like Robert Graves. There is nothing on my mind anymore except poems and babies and saving the world.

June 27

It's raining outside this evening and I am bored. Today and day before yesterday I worked as a maid for $5. an hour cleaning a yacht at Club del Mar. Today we flipped the little boat over on deck to reveal its innards. Lots of work to do on it in the next week or two. We filled it part way with buckets of water to swell up. The rain is also helping at the moment. The boat has been out of the water for who knows how long and will leak like a sieve until her planks swell up, but wont sink completely due to being fitted out with copper flotation tanks. David finished working but we have two other possible jobs to look into and we're not quite so desperate for money anymore. Yesterday we were tipped off to the fact that some one at the fancy marina was throwing out an old staysail, so we nabbed it. It's huge and in good condition. We will be able to get a mainsail, jib and tent out of it, with any luck. Also abandoned were a good sized awning and several lengths of line. Our heap of material possessions is growing at an alarming rate. We have a mosquito net, an anchor that isn't big enough, and $270.00. Tomorrow we're going to buy charts, the next move towards making our getaway.

July 8

There's a little copper plate in the stern of our boat that says: VIKKELINS BAT BYGGER # 844 Spedalen St. PR GRIMSTAD. Not sure what it means, but Grimstad is a town in Norway. Today our boat, which has come to be known as "La Manzanita", was launched off of the "L'Amie" into the greasy gray waters of Palma harbor. The two of us, plus Len and Leslie, were able to do the job with minimal damage to both boats. "La Manzanita" is tied alongside, bobbing up and down madly in the northeast breeze. It makes me seasick to look at her! But she is gleaming with varnish and new paint and is a delight to the eye. White hull paint, cream colored inside, with blue trim.

David left this morning for Barcelona to get Mary. They're expected here tomorrow night! For the past week and a half we have been working fairly hard to earn our keep on "L'Amie", plus putting in early morning, evening and siesta time hours on "Manzanita". David has been employed at the marinas. An American couple and their baby were here for about a week entertaining and annoying us with their antics. She has just made her debut into the world of "sleeping with guys for money".

Palma is turning out to be an OK place to stay as far as availability of work goes, and they say there's plenty of work in the winter too. Boat work, work for David, that is. But stuff for me too. But we must get out of here for awhile. It's too loud and dirty. We'll go to Menorca or Andraitz or round the northeast side of the island or to that little island south of here, Cabrera. We're really going to do it! Exciting and terrifying. The boat is so pretty. I'm going to go take another look at it. Hardly leaking either. We're hoping the leaks will become even fewer in the next week as she swells up.

July 10

Mary arrived yesterday and it's great to see her. She is pale and a bit pudgy but full of smiles, with her big blue eyes and her shock of blonde hair just like her Dad's. This morning we went out for the first row in "Manzanita", the three of us, Mary at the tiller. We just went around the flat calm harbor. Rowing the boat is possible but tiring for one person, and easy with two. Mary brought a camera, so there will be some sort of record of the next few months. We're delighted that she is here and that she's willing to tolerate our strange schemes. We're about to be set adrift in the western Mediterranean.

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