DESPERATE VOYAGE: John Caldwell’s Catastrophic Introduction to Bluewater Sailing

Desperate Voyage cover

I have met several comically unprepared bluewater sailors over the years, both in person and in the pages of classic cruising accounts like this one, but there are none can top John Caldwell. It is tempting to dismiss the title of this book of his as provocative hyperbole, like some Interweb click-bait headline, but really it is not. If anything it is understatement, and a more accurate title might run something like Insanely Desperate and Foolish Voyage.

Unlike most of us Caldwell did not come to ocean sailing through romantic aspiration, but through rank expediency. Having served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, he found himself stranded in Panama at war’s end with no obvious way to get back to his new wife Mary in Australia, whom he had met and hastily married during his wartime wanderings. And in fact it wasn’t originally his idea to sail across the Pacific in a small boat. He got that from his cell mate after he was arrested for trying to stowaway on a ship bound for Indonesia.

Together the two men bought a 29-foot cutter, Pagan, sight unseen, but Caldwell’s partner bailed on the scheme as soon as they had a chance to inspect the boat. Caldwell badly wanted a replacement companion, as he knew nothing of sailing himself, but could find none, so after studying a book on the subject he set out on his own in May of 1946.

Pagan interior plan

His description of his chaotic departure from Panama, accomplished without any practice beforehand, has no real parallel in the literature of our sport:

I took up the anchor, heaved back on the folds of the chain to clear them, and made to lay the anchor beside its hawsehole. The deck tilted ever so slightly–I stubbed against the traveler. My foot slipped. I went over, back first, clawing upward. I was under in a second, dragged by the anchor. I dropped it, and groped to the surface.

When I could see again, Pagan was a length away, sliding eagerly on toward the moored yachts. The anchor chain was rattling through the hawse.

The chain drew taut as the anchor bit in, and Pagan’s bow fell off, sailing in a long circle around the anchor. I struck out toward her. She passed within a span of a buoy, slid very close to a near yacht, then fell away noticeably down tide. The anchor was dragging. Beyond, to where she drifted, were boats, moored closely bow and stern.

I broke into a hard swim, head down. I didn’t look up, I pounded at the water. When I looked Pagan had fallen farther away. Then, what she did stopped me short.

She struck a buoy, or rather glanced off it, and turned directly toward me. I swung aside; the curl under her forefoot slapped me gently. When the chain plates came up I took a grip on them and pulled myself over the rail, onto the decks.

I pushed the tiller down and she swerved cleanly away, making for a clear spot where I wanted to stop her and relax a minute.

Then she fetched up with a jolt to the end of her chain, and twisted, doubling back toward the cluster of boats. In a panic I cut the engine and wished I hadn’t. The anchor, I asked. Will it hold?

Pagan dragged back and back. The boats loomed. I thought of the engine–I was deciding to go below and crank it. We slid past a mooring, then past the first of the boats. Then I remembered the sails.

I leaped along the deck to the mast and dragged down on the mainsail halyard. The heavy white canvas whipped and rustled while it climbed–then it filled, bellied out, and by its force slacked off the sheets. I ran to the tiller. Pagan was moving, in fact she was scudding before a quartering wind on the starboard side. I jiggled the tiller to clear the boats.

Quite suddenly, I forgot everything I had learned about sails from the book. I froze as it were, and sat searching in the rigging for the logical thing to do. I was confused, I guess, by the sudden speed and my inability to reason with it. Just then Pagan came to the chain end. She stopped where she was for a moment, strained mightily, then jibed. The heavy boom flew across with a swoosh from the starboard to port side. I saw it coming and ducked, or I would have been knocked sprawling in the harbor. I ran forward, broke the anchor loose, and drew it on deck.

I heaved on the sheets and Pagan fell of on the port tack, reached up to the wind, and skidded out of the yacht anchorage and into the main steamer channel. By now the pier was peopled with sailormen out early for the day’s cruise. These “harbor circumnavigators” practice a hard scrutiny of all things of the sea. A few had seen my glaring amateurism. I wanted to redeem myself by a seamanly show as I crowded into the wind, making for the open sea.

I stepped lightly forward and hoisted the staysail and sheeted it flat. I hurried back to the tiller, to tend my course. In a minute I stepped up and sent the jib fluttering into the rigging. Pagan took on a more balanced feature in her looks, in her pull, and in her angle on the wind. She sped along at what I judged to be about five knots.

As she approached the sand bar on the rim of the channel I put the helm well down, as it explained in the book, to bring her about. She turned jerkily up to he wind, luffed her sails for a brief moment, but fell back on port tack.

When she had gained sufficient speed, I thrust the helm again to leeward. She rounded into the wind, faltered, and fell off the same as before.

Again I resumed speed on the tack. Then suddenly, and almost imperceptibly, Pagan eased to a noiseless halt. She swayed smoothly as though balanced on a wire, except that she was heeled at an unseamanly angle.

I doused all sail, started the engine, put her full astern. No response. I stumbled to the bow, plunged from the low deck into the shallow water and fitted my shoulder against the stem. I lunged at it–again and again. I rested a few minutes, watching the falling tide as I did, wondering how long before I would be high and dry! And in view of the Yacht Cub!

I climbed to the deck, wilting as I climbed, cursing the bar with everything I could lay my tongue to. Then it came. The wake of an outbound steamer passed under her, wafted her high, then dropped her roughly on the sandy bottom. I gave the engine full throttle astern, leaped over the bows, and in a moment of joyous strength, aided by a surge of wake, shoved her free.

I dragged myself over the bows and struggle across the sail-strewn decks to the tiller. I moved Pagan into mid-channel, and taking no more chances with the sails I headed her outbound to the wide gulf, where there was sea room for my experiments.

When Panama saw me last, the decks were flowing their overload of sails and sheets into the water, the boom jerked from side to side, and halyards flew at loose ends in the rigging–but for all that, Pagan rode happily out to sea.

And from there, believe it or not, it only gets worse. Within a very short time Caldwell also loses his anchor and replaces it with a canvas bag filled with tools, destroys his mainsail on his first attempt at reefing, and is shipwrecked on the Perlas Islands just off Panama. And later, when he finally does make it out into the open ocean, the mishaps keep piling on. He again falls overboard, taking a sail with him, and only barely manages to get back aboard. He also, in a moment of manly vanity, decides to boat a massive shark he has hooked on his fishing line.

First, I naively tried to lift him by direct pull, but only budged him scantily. He weighed hundreds of pounds. I fastened the main halyard to the gaff hook fitted in his gill and with desperate heaves dragged him an inch at a time over the transom, into the cockpit. What a monster. His head lay in the cockpit and his tail hung over the stern. He stirred faintly. I took the hatchet and buried in his spine to end his tremors. A spurt of blood sprayed over me.

At the same moment the big body quivered violently. I heard a resounding scuffle and saw my tiller, splintered loose at the rudderpost, go flying into the sea.

All hell broke loose around me. The great shark came completely to life, threw himself in wild assault. With great sweeps of his tail and butts of his head he swept my legs from under me, almost knocking me overboard.

The great tail was pounding up and down like a sledgehammer, splintering, slamming, erasing. The gas-tank hatch disintegrated in a flash and the brazed copper tank went flat, spilling its load into the bilge. I clung to the rail, horror-stricken. The cockpit coaming rumbled, shattered, and flew at me, and if I hadn’t ducked it would have gone down my throat.

In the meantime the hatchway sliding door had been popped through to the cabin floor and rear porthole cracked. The bottom of the cockpit was giving way. Pagan was bouncing as though pounded by great fist blows.

I darted as close as I dared, grabbed up my hatchet, and chopped away at the heaving spine. Again he set to beting with sinuous motions. The partition between the engine compartment and cockpit screamed and split away. The cockpit deck itself broke through, and gasoline drums rumbled into the engine compartment, and the shark lay head down on the motor. I jumped in and struck again, burying the blade, and burying it again.

The destruction went on.

Pagan was being blasted apart before my eyes. I hacked with the hatchet like a wild woodcutter. I opened gashes in the head, and in the back. I had chopped his dorsal fin half away. Still he mauled my boat. I was afraid he would work his way into the cabin and rip it down and endanger the mast. I struck the harder. I went after him like a madman–blood bespattered and desperate.

He mangled the engine with side movement of his head, bending the spark plugs down and tearing the wiring away. He fell beside the motor, threw himself around athwartships, and lying on the propeller shaft throbbed until it bent out of line. I was terrified lest he should work his way against the ribbing and smash the hull open. I lay on my side atop the engine, eased close, and notched a great hole in his stomach and lower jaw.

He jumped spasmodically. I moved after him, lost in the bloody, death-dealing strokes. I cut his eye completely out and opened a hole in his gill to his shorn dorsal fin; still he lashed like a whip.

I sidled closer, drawing my legs up so that I could fit into the confined space, and turned more on my side to apply all my strength. Aiming for his nose–a supposed Achilles heel–I laid it open bone and all, as far back as his front teeth. Still he throbbed dangerously. Moving closer–inches from him–I hacked into his vital organs.

I was so far gone I was hardly nicking him. But it suddenly didn’t matter; he gaped at the mouth and lay still. I lay for a long time beside him, watching him, hoping he wouldn’t move, because if he had, I would have been in his way and too tired to shift. Everything about me was either smashed or coated red. I was caked with blood.

But here’s the thing about John Caldwell: in addition to owning up to his incompetence, unvarnished and without shame, he shows us also in a mostly offhand manner how resourceful and clever he can be. Not only does he manage to rebuild Pagan alone and unaided on a deserted beach after wrecking her in the Perlas, he also manages to repair all the terrible damage done by the shark while underway at sea. Even better, he improves his boat by adding a watertight bulkhead aft.

And of course not all his wounds were self-inflicted. For example, given the state of weather prediction in those days, we cannot really fault him for taking a direct hit from a major hurricane west of the Marquesas.

Pagan painting

Artist’s rendition of Pagan in extremis

Caldwell’s complete description of the storm and how he weathered it occupies two full chapters and is far too long to quote here, but again is worth the price of admission alone. The most salient points concern the swamping of Pagan and the loss of her mast.

This time the sea hurtled over the starboard quarter; she had been turned half around by the force of the sea blows. At the same moment a resounding snap of solid timber impinged on every sense of my body, froze me, stopped me short. The mast! I could tell by the feel of the wounded boat.

I knew what a broken thirty-five foot spar could mean. I staggered faultily toward the companionway. Something heavy pounded her by the stern. Another heavy sea had hit her. Just then–and exceedingly quick–the stout little doors dissolved in a sheet of gray. With black suddenness a lump of water shot at me. In the wink of an eye I was sledge-hammered back the full length of the cabin, rolling, twisting. When I stopped falling I was under the foredeck, sitting waist deep in rushing water, surrounded in dark.

What is most interesting, from a technical point of view, is that Caldwell’s experience of his dismasting is unlike any other I’ve ever heard or read about. Where normally the mast comes down on its own, and the boat’s crew is immediately concerned with cutting away the wreckage so it can float free of the boat without poking holes in it, Caldwell must cut down his mast with a hatchet, as the broken spar is somehow still held aloft by its standing rigging and is waving about dangerously overhead. Then, once it is in the water alongside the boat, he simply leaves it there and is not at all worried about it harming the hull. In fact, the debris seems to ease the boat’s motion in the terrible seas.

Pagan rig before and after

When finally the storm passes, Caldwell re-rigs his boat as best he can. He cannot re-step his mast, but he does not discard it and sails onward, very slowly, with the mast strapped alongside the hull, as he reckons he will need it to fully restore his rig once he reaches land.

The other very interesting point is that in his mad panic to bail out the boat after it is swamped during the storm he foolishly discards many items critical to his survival.

I filled and poured for endless hours. There was no consciousness directing my work–I bailed blindly and dumbly and unfeelingly. In fear of further swampings, and in completest indifference, I jettisoned anything and everything that came to hand. My mattress went by the board; also blankets, tools, dishes, canned food, coconuts, clothes, water breakers, sails–all that encumbered my bailing.

I was fighting for my life in hip-deep water, lightening my boat. Any moment I expected her to dip her stern into a sea and go under. I was fighting to lighten her before that sea came–if it was to come. There was no such thing as bailing just water alone, I bailed whatever I scooped up in the bucket; and I scooped and bailed till it was an effort to lift even the empty bucket.

Taking stock of his situation afterwards he discovers his provisions are reduced to just four gallons of water, a bottle of ketchup, two unlabeled cans of food, and one coconut. His sextant is destroyed, his charts and compass are gone, and he is left to navigate by memory the rest of the way across the Pacific.

The list of things that Caldwell was reduced to eating during his 48-day survival drift of some 1,000 miles to Fiji truly is  appalling. It includes Vaseline, boric acid, engine oil, face cream, shoe leather, toothpaste, and a chamois cloth. His hunger was utterly unreasoning, as is evident in his description of what happens when he does lay hands on more appropriate food.

Crazed by the thought of food, but more crazed because I had food in my hands, I tore the [bird’s] head from [its] body in one motion. Thrusting the pulsing stump into my mouth, I drank every particle of its life-giving blood. I was an animal who had made a kill; and as the animal will, I went at it tooth and claw. When it no longer yielded a drop, I bit the delicate neck off and chewed it up, bone and all.

Before I could stop myself, the greater part of the bird was gone. Even then I couldn’t stop. I bit wolfishly into the mass of feather, tearing at what met the tooth; whether it was bone or feather didn’t matter. Not one bone of the fowl’s body escaped the mill of my teeth. Each one I smashed to fine splinters and ground to pulp and swallowed.

I ate his feet as I found them. Skin and all went down. When I came to the head, I ate everything “but the eyebrows.” His bill chewed like gristle. I plucked the larger feathers from the skin and started gnawing at the down. It resisted like a blanket, but it filled the emptiness and cheated the devils of hunger. When it was gone I wished there had been more.

A man with instincts like this is bound to survive.

And when at last Pagan was driven on to a reef and wrecked for good at the Fijian island of Tuvutha, it was the broken mast that ultimately saved our hero’s life, as this is what Caldwell clung to as he was washed ashore.

Thank God he thought to keep it!

And ultimately, of course, our hero was also at last reunited with his wife in Australia, and his book has a very happy ending.

Family at Sea cover

But what is truly remarkable about John Caldwell is that none of this persuaded him he shouldn’t go sailing again. There are some wanna-be bluewater sailors whose inaugural ordeals easily convince them they should abandon their dream, and there are others whose appetites seem only to be whetted by fear and inconvenience. Caldwell was certainly among the latter. He and his bride set off cruising together with their two sons in 1954 aboard a 36-foot ketch (as is documented in Caldwell’s only other book, Family at Sea) and then again on a 46-foot ketch, Outward Bound, in 1958. The Caldwells sailed Outward Bound halfway around the world from Australia to the Caribbean and finally settled in the Grenadines, where they remade tiny Prune Island, just east of Union Island, into a small homespun resort they renamed Palm Island, which they ran happily with their children for some 30 years before John finally passed away in 1998.

Palm Island

Palm Island as it appears today

And meanwhile this fine book of his, with its understated title, has been continuously in print ever since it was first published in 1949 and remains a fitting testament to a remarkable sailor and the first voyage he made.

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5 Responses
  1. jim Simons

    Amazing how this story suddenly takes a turn to the personal. Astonished with his incompetence I was amazed that this was the family that basically created the Palm Island resort, an island we visited on a Gulfstar 50, 35 years ago. Beautiful place with pink coral beaches. Wish I had known the story of his sailing adventures back then. Thanks charlie.

  2. Patrick Childress

    Fritz Seyfarth
    Fritz Seyfarth is an old Caribbean hang about who has written a number of booklets. I don’t recall if it is in “Tales of the Caribbean” or “Mavericks In Paradise/Pirates of the Virgin Islands”, that Seyfarth describes how the book “Desperate Voyage”, written by his old friend John Caldwell, came about. The basic story of sailing from Panama to Australia to meet up with his bride is true. When first submitted to a publisher, they liked John’s writing style and the romantic notion of the book. The problem was there was nothing very exciting that happened. The publisher returned the manuscript asking John if he could “remember” some exciting events. John rewrote the work adding some hair raising situations. The publisher liked the revised version tremendously and asked John to rewrite again and try to “remember” what else happened. After a number of rewrites, adding more “recollections”
    the book was an exciting tale that the publisher was anxious to print. Certainly, this is where Tristian Jones got his inspiration.

  3. Carol Humphrys

    I just found a first edition of Family at Sea in a used bookstore on Maui. While reading it I started poking around on the internet about this intriguing John Caldwell guy and came upon your hilarious review of Desperate Voyage, which I will be sure to read next. I love your blog- I’m stuck on land but dream of these adventures.

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