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Sailing With a Master Mariner

Among the many heroes revered by sailors is Sir Francis Chichester, who sailed solo around the world aboard his famous 54-foot ketch Gypsy Moth, above, in 1966. Almost a decade earlier, John Guzzwell accomplished the same feat aboard a boat less than half that size.
Each of us grows up honoring a few heroes who establish our standards in life. As remote as these men or women may be in distance or time, their image inspires us to stand a little straighter, work a little harder, and generally mind our manners in case, somehow, they were to learn that we have not taken ourselves and our standards seriously enough. In my case, as a young sailor on Long Island in the early ‘60s, there were several names that I and my friends held in awe because of their accomplishments. Rod and Olin Stephens were two—both great yacht designers, fine sailors, and admirable men. Among racing sailors there was Paul Elvstrom; to this day the only athlete to win four consecutive Olympic gold medals in sailing.

As for cruising sailors, for a boy who aspired to be a writer there were a number of sailor-authors to look up to—Joshua Slocum, of course, and Alfred F. Loomis and Carleton Mitchell. And there was also Miles Smeeton, whose book Once is Enough caused a sensation when it appeared in 1959. When you thought of Smeeton, you also thought of his astonishing wife, Beryl—one of the 20th century’s greatest adventurers—and of their shipmate, the sailor-carpenter John Guzzwell, who was with them in one of the great adventures and near-disasters in pleasure sailing history.

Recently reissued with a new, thoughtful introduction by Jonathan Raban, Once is Enough is a wonderful book, right up there in my top-10 list. Its success is due in part to Miles Smeeton’s style and character. With the subtlety, humor, grace, humility, and quiet self-confidence that are often lacking in modern-day sailing narratives, he describes what it is like to sail a very long distance with fine companions across the lonely Southern Ocean—that vast range of salt water and, occasionally, ice that is as close to the wilderness as any part of the deep sea can be. It is a bleak place. Even that cranky loner Francis Chichester was uncomfortable in the Southern Ocean, which he characterized as "a great void" that "made for intense loneliness, and a feeling of hopelessness." But for the crew of Tzu Hang, the Smeeton’s 46-foot ketch, coming around from Australia, bound for England, it was, if not home, at least a place where they could make a home. The ease of relations among these three people was (and is in the text of the book) sublime.

Smeeton's captivating opus—one of the true gems of ocean adventuring literature—is once again in print.
Smeeton came late to sailing, but he knew the sea well and never tired of its quick changes. He also knew how people are under stress (he had been a career army officer) and never tired of human quirks, either. While he could be enchanted by both the sea and people, he knew himself well enough to suspect that enchantment has its limitations. Perhaps you will understand what I mean if I quote him. Here he is about a thousand miles west of the Horn, as Tzu Hang runs before a gale:

"The sea was a wonderful sight. It was as different from an ordinary rough sea as a winter’s landscape is from a summer one, and the thing that impressed me most was that its general aspect was white....I had seen it before, but this moving surface, driving low across a sea all lined and furrowed with white, this was something new to me, and something frightening, and I felt exhilarated with the atmosphere of strife. I have felt this feeling before on a mountain, or in battle, and I should have been warned. It is apt to mean trouble."

I’ve said that Once is Enough caused a sensation because of Miles Smeeton’s qualities as a seaman and a writer. That is only half of its appeal. The second half is the amazing story he tells. A few hours after he had those nervous feelings, a wave whose violence is beyond description, and that includes the adjective appalling, picked up the stern of the heavy-displacement 46-footer and somersaulted her as easily as a child flipping a bathtub toy. Tzu Hang eventually popped up with nothing left above the deck—no masts, no cabin trunk, and no hatch covers either. Smeeton and Guzzwell, who had been off watch below, half-swam, half-staggered on deck and began a frantic search for Beryl, who had been at the helm. They finally spotted her high up on another wave, blood pouring down her face and yet (as Smeeton writes), "She looked unafraid, and I believe that she was smiling."

When they hauled her back aboard, Beryl was badly damaged, with battered ribs and broken vertebrae, but once she had coughed out the sea water she firmly announced, "I know where the buckets are," and off they went on the race for survival. (Once is Enough may be read as a 200-page love letter to this remarkable individual, whom a friend described as "A gutsy, independent woman who refused to conform to anything." For more about her and Miles, read Miles Clark’s terrific dual biography, High Endeavours.)

"That Tzu Hang survived was due largely to Guzzwell’s quick and able carpentry....After 87 days at sea, he and the Smeetons got her to Chile."
And survive they did. It may have helped that the vessel’s name combined a word for the Chinese goddess who protects seafarers with another that indicates a family or community. But what made the difference was the third member of the crew, and here we come to John Guzzwell. That Tzu Hang survived was due very largely to Guzzwell’s quick and able carpentry, which he employed to seal off the cabins and produced new spars. After 87 days at sea he and the Smeetons got her to Chile, where they rebuilt her. Guzzwell went back to his own boat, and the rest of the Smeetons’ story has more dramas that you can read about in Once is Enough.

Guzzwell was raised in the English Channel island of Jersey, but was taken off to a Nazi detention camp when the Germans occupied the island during the war. On his return he trained as a joiner, or cabinetmaker. His family emigrated to South Africa and he eventually ended up in British Columbia. There, at the age of 25, he built his first boat, a 21-foot yawl called Trekka, which he sailed alone around the world between 1955 and 1959, with time off for the unlucky passage with the Smeetons. His feat won him the Blue Water Medal, presented by the Cruising Club of America to the greatest of the great cruising sailors. (His book Trekka Round the World is also back in print.)

Guzzwell became a professional boat builder specializing in cold-molded wooden construction. Among his products were his 46-footer, Treasure, which he built single-handed in England and, more recently, a 30-foot light-displacement racing sloop, Endangered Species. These boats are well used. He sailed Treasure to Japan and back several years ago, returning via the Aleutian Islands. As for the little racer, John was in his late sixties when he raced her single-handed to Hawaii in 1998.

Sailor, adventurer, and boatbuilder, Guzzwell guides his 30-foot sloop Endangered Species over the wintry waters near his Pacific Northwest home.
Guzzwell now lives near Seattle, WA. Before heading there to give a seminar in early February, I telephoned him to talk about Tzu Hang and the Smeetons, and to say that I hoped to visit. When he invited me for a sail, the date was made.

When I arrived at Poulsbo on a chilly late morning, Endangered Species was bobbing at her mooring off the Guzzwells’ house and Treasure lay at a friend’s pier. I got tours of both boats, which their builder showed off with the calm, proud delight of a craftsman who also uses his products and finds them right. There is no arrogance, clutter, or excess show to either the man or his boats. The vessel’s charm is understated but obvious in the ways they exude ability, ease, and simple comfort, with an occasional touch of finery to further brighten their environment. At one point John mentioned how satisfying it has been to him—"how sweet" were his actual words—that so many sailors have taken the time and care to do things right with their vessels, as he has with his, so they are not distracted from the direct experience of dealing with the sea.

He had indeed built these boats as he had made his circumnavigation—single-handed. He even turned over the hull of the 46-footer with no assistance other than a hoist. "It’s easy," he said. "It's because they’re laminated. With cold-molded construction all the pieces are small. All I had to do was put them together."

After lunch came the sail. We rowed out to Endangered Species, hanked on the jib, got the sails up, and were off. First we ran downwind through a patch of sunlight up the bay in the direction of the snowy Olympic mountain range, then we beat down-bay against a gusty moderate breeze that brought the boat to full life. The talk was as easy and slow as the sloop was quick. We had superb scenery, delightful sailing, a Thermos of tea, and some cookies. In the midst of it all, the schedule of ferries back to Seattle slipped out of my head.

With its powerful sail plan and minimalist features, Guzzwell's Endangered Species mimics an Open 60 at 30 feet.
After we finally returned to the mooring and got the covers on the sails, John invited me below to look at her construction. Anybody who has not inspected a well-built laminated wooden boat is missing a treat, for the good ones are as graceful as a fine cabinet and as strong as a stone house. This one’s hull is five layers of red cedar, which means she needs few frames, which, also laminated, seem remarkably small. They only element with a feel of massiveness is the mast step that ties all the little pieces together as it stretches under the cabin sole from the forward cabin back to the companionway. The towering mast, which supports an immense modern racing sail plan (complete with masthead asymmetrical spinnaker), is a wonder of old techniques married to cutting-edge technology: a long, narrow spruce rectangle reinforced with inlays of carbon fiber.

As we stepped into the dinghy I recalled one curious feature about this high-class boat with her sophisticated rig—the jib had hanks. "Why don’t you use a roller furler?" I asked. "Wouldn’t that make it a little easier when you’re racing; setting chutes and all?"

A twinkle came into John’s eye. "It might be easier," he said, "but I don’t like it. It gets in the way of the direct experience." At that he took the oars and rowed us back to shore.

Suggested Reading:

The Value of Leadership Offshore by John Rousmaniere

The Making of a True Master Mariner by Dan Dickison

The Hope the Sport Brings by John Rousmaniere

Buying Guide: Liferafts

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