VVT, Tahiti, and the ghost of the Bounty

Part 2: Braving the north Atlantic under sail


Performing religious rites

By Somasiri Devendra

Across the Atlantic – to the "Bermuda Triangle"

Reaching Gibraltar was easy, but leaving wasn’t. The "Globe" quotes Doster on the problem:

"We couldn’t get a spot of wind,’ he related, ‘and there we were, becalmed.’ The vessel’s kicker was out of order and we had to depend entirely on our sails. ‘The skipper of a big American freighter agreed to give us a tow, but when some of the seamen saw our crew and saw we were flying the Stars and Stripes they shouted down vile remarks about a union crew. We got the tow, all right, but we had not cleared the harbour when the hawser broke suddenly – close to the freighter’s after deck. It is my opinion that this hawser was cut.’ ‘We were four days drifting about the harbour before we could get a slant of wind to carry us out."

Finally, they were out of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic. I presume that Capt. Dan next headed for the Canary Island from where all sailing craft caught the trade winds that would take them westwards. "Trade winds" are expected to be steady and reliable. But one never can predict what happens at sea.

"Out in the Atlantic, Capt. Dan tried to stay with the trade winds and, for a while, made a good passage, although the brigantine never reached the 18- knot speed Robinson found one day in the Red Sea when he was coming out from Ceylon. The wind failed them in mid- ocean and for days on end they idled about."(Globe)

"Leaving Gibraltar June 8, they were 41 days reaching Hamilton, Bermuda. It was a slow passage with not enough wind stirring most of the time to ruffle a sail. The engine had gone out of commission, six months before. Capt. MacCuish had provisioned for 30 days believing that would be plenty. The first month slipped by, however, and America was still on the far horizon. The skipper then headed the craft for Bermuda, and rationed out the food and drinking water."

It was when the chips were down that the Capt. realized the moral strength of his crew.

"The Hindus cooperated by foregoing their daily habit of anointing their heads with fresh water in carrying out religious rites, and instead substituted salt water. It was a great sacrifice to them, but they knew their god would understand. That helped solve the water problem. The grub difficulties were much harder. Finally, they fell back on rice. The cook, Manian, knew rice inside and out. It became rice for breakfast, more rice for dinner and still more rice for supper".

" The trip was their first voyage west of the Suez Canal. They were baffled by the fogs encountered in crossing the Atlantic. They had experience light fogs in northern areas of the Indian Ocean, according to Pullai, but this fog was so thick that they felt as if ‘life was shutting’ its doors to them, and lifting them to another world amid the clouds.’ Capt. Mac Cuish’s presence reassured them there was little danger."

Perhaps their spiritual strength stemmed from their daily communications with god.

"The Hindus who belong to a high caste in Ceylon. held their weekly worship on Friday night, their Sunday, by the way. Friday evening, they would gather in the forepeak of the vessel, scooch around a lighted lamp, and chant their prayers of thanksgiving to Siva in a weird rite that was the more sincere in its emphasis".

Hornell, describing the Jaffna Thonis noted that the forepeak was considered a sort of temple where prayers were chanted on all important occasions with one crew member officiating as poosari. There was a small shrine, a stone quern for bashing coconuts and an occulus was nailed on at the bows when the ship was launched.

"Theirs was a long crawling hindered by lack of wind, days of endless calm when the Atlantic was like a mill pond, a mirrored surface without a sign of any breeze.’ (Gloucester Times)

"We were a painted brigantine on a painted ocean,’ said Sabaratnam, who speaks English fluently. The water became too rusty for drinking. The food became low. Capt. Dan headed for Bermuda, carrying every inch of sail to catch whispers of wind. Making up for Nantucket Light, with a soupy fog clinging low, the brigantine had a narrow escape from being cut down by a transatlantic liner. Capt. Dan blew blasts on his mouth foghorn and the crew in the yards, could see the towering masts and even the sides of the big liner and there was little they could do in the absence of wind. She cleared the brigantine by yards and went on her way without a sign of recognition."

Finally, after 41 days out of Gibraltar, or 80 days after leaving Crete, they reached Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, a British territory: a 21 square mile island located off the east coast of North America, 665 miles off North Carolina and is the north eastern corner of the infamous Bermuda Triangle and appears like a dot on a map. It was "a reception that Capt. Dan will never forget" says the "Gloucester Times" but we have few details. Nine days later "Florence C." sailed for home port Gloucester, and and picked up a wind that made up for the black days in the doldrums. "A steady shunt on the inner quarter had sent the brigantine scudding up from Bermuda nearly a week ahead of the expected time", said the "Globe" and the port was fascinated and excited by the strange ship. The "Globe" conveys the excitement:

" Like a chapter straight from….. Joseph Conrad, a picturesque crew of square- rigger sailors came reaching into port before a quartering breeze today aboard the 89-foot brigantine Florence C. Robinson – last windship of her kind, in all probability, that will ever cross the Western Ocean under canvass alone. Bringing a tale of storms, doldrums, thirst, short rations and near collision, the trim little brigantines company of seven – a grizzled old Gloucesterman, five turbaned, beskirted Ceylonese Hindus and a youthful, bearded American adventurer – tied up alongside a waterfront dock at noon, 50 days out of Gibraltar via Bermuda. The famous old fishing port, which has seen many a colorful arrival in its day, turned out, skippers, dorymen, tourists, for a sight that had not been seen in a hundred years, if then. Coast Guard lookouts flashed the word to town even as the vessel stood in the offing, her Hindus climbing the yards with a bare-footed agility that left the old- timers gasping in admiration."

Everyman and his wife were there to greet "Florence C.": Robinson and Florence, Capt. Dan’s wife, owners and sailors of the many craft in harbor. Capt. Dan and Doster hurried ashore to eat something other than rice, and the crew were more excited to reconnect with Robinson and celebrate the end of the six-month voyage than to go ashore.

"The Ceylonese, first of their race to touch Gloucester in many years, glanced casually at the shore. They were more interested in making the brigantine ship- shape and in seeing their old friend and skipper, Robinson. When he appeared, they greeted him with the exultant excitement of children, shouting greetings long before he was aboard. Robinson took them ashore to see a lobster pound and they stared in fascination. But, they were eager to back aboard their vessel".

Don Holm tells us how the crew celebrated the success of their work:

"There, the Florence C. Robinson, as the Annapooranyamal had been renamed, startled the natives when the Hindu crew flew kites from the deck to celebrate the safe passage."

Journey’s end

It was, in many ways, an end. Things had changed for Robinson which made him shelve the plans he had for the ship. As Don Holm says, "(the) beautiful full-rigged ship (he) had brought to Gloucester as a model (was) for designing and restoring classic old vessels." In his small yard, which he founded, he rounded up old-time New England craftsmen and they began turning out beautiful vessels such as Baltimore clippers, as well as trawlers for the fishing fleet. Florence C. was part of that dream. Even as she entered port, Robinson could not face the bitter truth that the dream was at an end. He told the "Globe" that the brigantine will "stay for a while" here, while she is being repainted and overhauled. He was not certain just when he will make a cruise in her, he said.

Then came World War II. And, as he would have known, his Yard itself was taken over and expanded for Navy vessels. Robinson had to put all his idealistic plans in cold storage. He says of the ship itself:

"I would have made the final break then and sailed back to Tahiti in Florence C. But personal reasons made that impossible. So my wonderful crew went back to Kaits , and Valvettiturai, and the brigantine was sent to the Pacific where she became a successful Papeete trading vessel."

A new beginning…

She reached port on 1st August, 1938. Four months later, on 22nd November she sailed out on her second voyage: this time for Tahiti. In between she was overhauled and readied, a new Captain chosen to deliver her to Tahiti, a new crew was signed on and she awaited her fate docked at the "Rocky Neck Railway" dock at Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The Ceylonese crew were yet on board. Capt. Dan did not sign on for the next trip and a new Captain was chosen, 22 year-old Sterling Hayden, and he set about engaging a crew. "When Captain Hayden arrived aboard the Robinson he met the Hindu crew that had brought her from Gibraltar. I was told that they did not meet his standards and were quickly dismissed." (Langley & Blake: Tahiti Bound ). It was thus that Thampipillai and the rest of "my wonderful crew went back to Kaits , and Valvettiturai".

The men from Ceylon who had crewed the ship were no longer aboard, but the Ceylonese ship, "…a tidy little vessel, built of honest workmanship and good hard-wood" was yet there, "or we’d not be here to tell the tale." (Cap’n Dan)

….a new Catain and a new crew.

The Captain and the crew were young, non-Asian, full of high spirits and adventure. The story of that voyage has been meticulously documented in Tahiti Bound, in the words of Langely who was on the crew. It is full of youth and adventure and is in total contrast to the captains and crew on the last voyage. Perhaps it was the new skipper who set the tone: a 22-year old who had circumnavigated the world and who was to become a famous figure after this trip. If ever there was a man to upstage Robinson, it was he. Perhaps the story of the voyage should begin with him, and here is a very abbreviated description of him.

"At the time he assumed command Hayden was a seasoned sailor. Born March 26, 1916, was adopted at age 9, dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and worked as mate on a schooner, a fisherman on the Grand Banks, ran a charter yacht, served as a fireman on a steamer and skippered a trading schooner in the Caribbean.

In 1937 he served as mate on a world cruise of the schooner Yankee. After sailing around the world several times, he was awarded his first command at age 22: skippering the Florence C. Robinson 7,700 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Tahiti in 1938.

He became a famous name not long after. In 1938 his photo was taken at a Fishermen’s Race appeared on the cover of a magazine prompting Paramount Pictures to sign him up on contract for seven-years.After two films he left Hollywood to fight in World War II.

He enlisted in the army, broke his ankle during training, joined the U.S.Marine Corps as a private under an assumed name, was commissioned and transferred as an undercover agent to the Office of Strategic Services. Sailed supplies from Italy to Yugoslav partisans and parachuted into fascist Croatia to establish air crew rescue teams in enemy-occupied territory. He was decorated for gallantry in action in the Balkans and Mediterranean; for parachuting behind enemy lines, and awarded the Order of Merit from Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito. He returned to Hollywood in 1945.

Hayden’s great admiration for the bravery of the Communist partisans led to a brief membership in the Communist Party from 1946. At the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hayden had to testify publicly but later repudiated his cooperation as obtained under blackmail

Hayden is credited with 59 films from 1941-1982, among which were: The Asphalt Jungle (1950);  Johnny Guitar (1954); , Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); The Godfather(1972); The Long Goodbye (1973) and 1900 (1976). He starred alongside John Payne, Dorothy Lamour, Frank Sinatra and Gloria Grahame; and worked with Directors John Huston, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola; Robert Altman; and Bernardo Bertolucci. 

He was described as: "Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, with a distinctive ‘rapid-fire’ baritone, he had a commanding screen presence." Paramount had, early in his career, dubbed him "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God." However, Hayden often professed distaste for film acting, saying he did it mainly to pay for his ships and voyages.

In 1958, after a bitter divorce Hayden was awarded custody of his children. He defied a court order and sailed to Tahiti with all four children: "I’d had it," he said. "One way or another, I felt that I had sold out – or failed – at almost everything in my whole life. It was either turn things around or hang myself."

In November 1960 he said he was a "sailor or writer" rather than an actor. He wrote two acclaimed books: an autobiography, Wanderer ("An impressive writer. Like Fitzgerald, Hayden is a romantic. His writing about the sea evokes echoes of Conrad and McFee, of London and Galsworthy…Beautifully done.") and a novel, Voyage (("Solid, masterful writing that ranks the author with some of the giants of literature."). In the early 1960s, in his autobiography, Wanderer, he asks himself:

‘Why did you never write? Why, instead, did you grovel along, through the endless months and years, as a motion‑picture actor? What held you to it, to something you so vehemently professed to despise? Could it be that you secretly liked it—that the big dough and the big house and the high life meant more than the aura you spun for those around you to see?

" ‘Hayden’s wild,’ they said. ‘He’s kind of nuts—but you’ve got to hand it to him. He doesn’t give a damn about the loot or the stardom or things like that—something to do with his seafaring, or maybe what he went through in the war .Hayden was married three times, appeared in a documentary of his life, Pharos of Chaos (1983) and died of prostate cancer in 1986, aged 70."

With such a man at the helm, anything could have happened. He set about signing on a crew of eleven, including himself. Ages ranged from 22 to 30, a mix of experienced sailors, friends and part time sailors in search of adventure. Larry O’Toole, Donald J.Langley (Cook), Art Hansen (First Mate), Dick Hemingway, Emil Huddy, Bill Butler, Bill Shepard, Eddie Ruggles, Ned Watson and Ken Butler. They had varying degrees of sailing experience, only the Captain knew how to navigate!

Unlike the first this voyage is well-documented – by the ship’s cook! – and one can not only trace the ship from port to port but also pick up a lot of information about the ship itself.

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