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Paean to Those Who Go It Alone : Museums: The Singlehanded Sailors Hall of Fame honors the adventurers who sail the seas unaided.

Charles Hillinger's America

December 16, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

NEWPORT, R.I. — Four years after her husband drowned in a boating accident off England's Dorset Coast, Ann Davison set out to conquer the same savage sea. Sailing her 23-foot sloop, Felicity Ann, Davison became the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone. That was in 1952.

Naomi James, a 29-year-old farmer's daughter from New Zealand, was the first woman to sail around the world alone. Leaving England Sept. 9, 1977, she spent 272 days at sea. West of Cape Horn, her 53-foot sloop, Empress Crusader, capsized. James righted the boat and sailed on.

Kay Cottee, a 34-year-old Australian, is the only woman to sail alone and nonstop around the world. Her trip took 190 days in a boat she built herself. She started her voyage in Sydney and ended there June 5, 1988.

These are the three daring women enshrined with 24 intrepid men in the Singlehanded Sailors Hall of Fame at Newport's Museum of Yachting.

Sailing alone, continent to continent, across oceans and around the world, may be the greatest of adventures. It's one person against the sea, against all odds. At any time, each of these men and women could have been lost in a storm, tossed overboard, capsized and drowned, or died alone from sickness or injury.

What compels them?

"Curiosity, adventure, romance, escapism, pursuit of beauty and truth, all of that," according to Davison.

For the late Joshua Slocum, who sailed around the world alone, the explanation was less lofty: "What else was there for an old sailor to do?"

Slocum left Boston in his 36-foot converted oyster boat, Spray, on April 24, 1895, and returned to the same harbor June 27, 1898, after sailing alone 46,000 miles.

He was the first to be inducted into the Singlehanded Sailors Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986 in an old mule barn at historic Ft. Adams in Newport.

The Hall of Fame is filled with charts, a world map showing the routes of many of the voyagers, log books, boat models, photographs, artifacts and books written about these great solo adventures.

The 28-foot sloop Bris, the boat built by Sven Lundin, Sweden's famed single-handed sailor, is on exhibit here. A Hall of Fame member, Lundin sailed the boat here from Sweden and then donated it to the Museum of Yachting.

"There are not that many things left to do these days where a person is so dependent upon himself or herself, where he or she can have such a great sense of achievement," said Murray Davis, 62, an Australian editor of several sailing publications and one of the founders of the Hall of Fame. He is chairman of the international committee that selects sailors to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Davis held up a model of the wind vane developed by British World War II hero Lt. Col. Blondie Hasler. "This simple rig revolutionized single-handed sailing, enabling people to sleep while keeping their boats on course," he explained.

Hasler, who also is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, proposed the first Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. There were five contestants, including Hasler, in the 1960 race from Plymouth, England, to New York City. Sir Francis Chichester won.

Chichester, who died in 1972, is the best known of the single-handed sailors. At age 30, he embarked on a solo seaplane flight around the world from Sydney, Australia, but crashed in Japan. His injuries, including 13 broken bones, left him an invalid for the next five years.

When he was 52, Chichester took up sailing. He set out alone from Plymouth Aug. 23, 1966, and nine months later returned to England. For his record-breaking, 28,500-mile voyage around the world on the Gipsy Moth IV, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and honored with a special British postage stamp.

Chichester is one of nine British single-handed sailors in the Hall of Fame. Also honored are seven French sailors, five Americans, two New Zealanders and one each from Australia, Sweden, Canada and Argentina.

Robin Knox-Johnston, a Briton, is enshrined for being the first person to sail nonstop around the world in 1968 and 1969, a feat he accomplished in 313 days on his homemade boat, Suhaili. Harry Pidgeon of Los Angeles is one of the five Americans in this Hall of Fame. He is the only person to complete two solo circumnavigations, both aboard his 35-foot yawl, Islander. The first sailing began in 1921 when Pidgeon was 53; the second in 1932, when he was 64.

Another courageous American remembered here is Gloucester, Mass., fisherman Howard Blackburn. Separated from his fishing schooner during a blizzard in 1883 and without food or water, he rowed with fingers frozen around his oar handles for five days before reaching land. Both his hands and most of his toes were amputated.

Yet, in 1889 and 1891, Blackburn crossed the Atlantic alone in his sloop, Great Republic.

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