The Seasick Kinkajou and other Stories

c. 1989

    The sailing world is small.  While at any given moment there are many people out sailing, there are not many who make their boats their only home and sail the world more or less permanently.  Those who do are brought together by some simple choices.  They go east or west, mostly west; they leave South America or Africa to port or starboard.  Mostly they avoid the tropical storm seasons, and nobody sails much in Europe or New England or the southern capes during the various winters.  Sailors see each other one year on one side of the world and then perhaps two or three years later on the other.

    When Jill and I sailed into Suva in July 1985, we anchored next to Gus of the 55’ ketch DIOGENES.  I had last seen Gus in Darwin, Australia, in June 1981; and was next to see him in Horta, in the Azores, in June 1988.   A month before arriving in Suva, we had come across in Tonga a Canadian I had last seen in New Zealand in 1979.  And before that, in Bora-Bora, it was a Frenchman who had been in Port Sudan in May 1982.

    These encounters are one of the pleasures of this way of life.  Sailors catch up on where they have sailed since their last meeting, exchange information about ports they are coming from or heading to or perhaps about some new piece of equipment--a  half dozen years earlier  Gus had been one the first  to use a Bruce as his main anchor, something, partially because of his experience, I came to do myself (though I later switched to a Spade anchor)--and naturally, like all sailors everywhere, they gossip.  The gam is a time-honored tradition.

    The trouble with these irregular meetings is that they lead to fragmented gossip.  Part of a story is heard from one sailor in one port one year, and then another, perhaps conflicting part, from someone else in another port a year or two later.  Only gradually, over time, is something that may bear some resemblance to what might be called facts  pieced together. 

    Except for some changed names, the following three stories are true.

The Seasick Kinkajou

                       Fritz is German, but he looks like a Viking--not one of your fine, shining, blond Norse gods, but like a real Viking just back from the wars.  This is unjust, for Fritz is one of nature’s gentlemen and one of two singlehanders I have met who have boats with aft cabins.  What could a solo sailor possibly want with an aft cabin, I wondered.  A place to get away from himself?  The answer was that neither had started off alone, and neither was a singlehander by choice.

    Fritz had in fact left Europe five years earlier as part of a floating commune/menagerie:  five people, a giant German shepherd dog, and a kinkajou, all crammed into a 30’ ketch.  By the time I met him in Papeete, all but his girlfriend, Simone, and the animals were gone.  And Simone and the dog jumped ship there.  As much as I like Fritz, I cannot say that I blame them.

    When I first saw his boat, LIEDER, she was so covered with rust that I thought she was made of steel.  But she is of wood, and the rust came from bad fastenings.  Her teak deck was rotten.  She was slow and impossible to self-steer.

    Fritz had a sister living in Australia, and he was on his way to “leave the sea and work with the moo cows.”  Simone said that if he actually reached Australia, she would join him, but that she was not going to sail another mile in that boat.

    A For Sale sign appeared on LIEDER--the first of many with ever-decreasing prices I was to see on her in successive ports across the Pacific--but naturally no one was interested.  Finally his visa ran out, and the only way he could get to Australia was to sail.  So he went to sea in a rotten boat that would not steer itself and with a kinkajou that would not stand watches.

    Kinkajous look something like a cross between a raccoon and a monkey, with a long prehensile tail, large lustrous eyes, and soft brown fur.  They are intelligent, curious, and nocturnal.  This one had been aboard LIEDER since it was only a few weeks old.  Kinkajous manage rather well on boats, where they can leap around in the rigging and startle people.

    I like animals, but they present considerable problems on boats, particularly with regulations upon entering various ports, and Fritz knew that even if he managed to nurse LIEDER to Australia, he could not keep his pet.  So he was always looking for a place where he could set the kinkajou free.  That was one of the main  reasons he sailed to Suvarov, an uninhabited atoll in the northern Cook Islands.

    Fritz made no pretense of loving the sea, and at Suvarov he moved ashore and lived in the shack where the New Zealand hermit, Tom Neale, had lived.   He took the kinkajou with him in the hope that it would learn to fend for itself.  But the kinkajou was most definitely not interested.  The only home it had known was a boat, where meals of fresh fruit were provided regularly and could be washed down with a stolen sip of beer.

    For three days he did not venture from the shack, and when Fritz carried him outside and set him down beneath a palm tree, he ran back inside and hid in a corner.  This place wasn’t moving the way his home always had, and he didn’t like it one bit.  For seven weeks Fritz debated whether to leave the kinkajou behind.  But when the LIEDER upped anchor, her full crew was back aboard.

    I last saw Fritz in Suva in September 1979. He told me that he was  beginning to fear that he was doomed to sail ever westward in a boat he could not sell and that would not sink, and with a beast he could not keep and would not abandon.  The cyclone season was near.  The “moo cows” were waiting in Australia.  Simone had written and said that she was still ready to join him when--or if--he got there.  My departing image was of him brooding over a glass of Fiji Bitter at the yacht club.

    A year later a letter in unfamiliar handwriting caught up with me in, I think, Port Vila, where I was recovering from a minor shipwreck.  It was postmarked Adelaide, Australia, and was from Fritz.  He had managed to find a girl brave, or desperate, enough to sail LIEDER with him to Australia.  They had had a terrible passage.  The Tasman had not been kind to them, but then the Tasman is often unkind.  Two full gales had opened LIEDER’s already working seams.  They barely managed to reach Sydney Heads.  Fritz wrote that he hadn’t really cared at that moment what happened next.  If the LIEDER sank on the spot and the quarantine officials ordered the kinkajou to be put to death, so be it.

    But Australia is a friendly place, often as hospitable as her surrounding seas are not, and once there everything came right for Fritz.  For a while anyway.  Fritz was actually able, after replacing a few planks and painting over the rust marks, to sell LIEDER for $10,000.  While I am pleased for Fritz, I must admit that I would be curious to see the buyer.

    With the kinkajou, Fritz fared as well.  When the Sydney Zoo agreed to take him, Fritz seemed to be free.  Simone rejoined him, and together they were traveling around Australia, using his sister’s farm as a home base.

    Fritz wrote that there was a female kinkajou in some other Australian zoo and that possibly his, which was a male, would be taken there for breeding purposes.  I felt quite honored to know the only kinkajou in the world to make outcalls.

    There the story rested, until the day I picked up a newspaper one morning at the Darwin Sailing Club.  A photograph of Fritz covered the front page.  He and Simone were fugitives from justice.  The charge:  kinkajou napping.

    For the next two weeks I rowed ashore early each morning, eager for more news.  Not until the authorities captured the outlaws was I willing to leave for Bali.

    The story that came out through the newspapers was that on their way back from picking apples in Tasmania, Fritz and Simone stopped to visit the kinkajou.  They were dismayed to find him languishing.  His fur was scraggly; his normally huge eyes were sunken and lusterless; he was without energy or appetite and to all appearances was dying.  The zoo veterinarians did not know what was wrong.

    At the sight of Fritz and Simone, the kinkajou rallied briefly; but when, after three daily visits, he resumed his decline, Fritz and Simone decided upon desperate measures, and the next day, when they were left alone with the animal, Fritz stuffed him inside his shirt and smuggled him out of the zoo.

    The three fugitives made their way to the Queensland coast where a friend had a sailboat.  Once on the boat, as Fritz hoped, the kinkajou rapidly recovered.  At a pretrial hearing after their arrest, Fritz was quoted as saying that the kinkajou showed improvement almost from the moment they pushed off from the shore.

    Of course, it could have been many things--being around Fritz and Simone again, a different diet (somehow I doubt the zoo staff thought to give him an occasional sip of beer)--but I prefer to believe with Fritz that it was the smell of the salt air and the bobbing motion of the boat, the sound of the wind in the rigging and perhaps the call of the open sea.  Fritz testified that the sight of the depressed kinkajou in the zoo had reminded him of how he himself had often felt during the long years he had struggled to get a boat and free of Europe.

    I am disdainful of people who turn dogs and cats into children, but in this case the evidence seems strong:  Other kinkajous are nocturnal creatures of the Ecuadorean jungle; this one had become a sailor.

    Certainly Fritz and Simone thought so.  They made an agreement with the authorities, who were quite reasonable in the face of pro-kinkajou public opinion.  They could keep the kinkajou if they took him out of Australia.

    I tried to get in touch with Fritz and Simone, but they had already bought a small sloop and sailed for New Caledonia.

    I expect that when they went to sea, the smallest crew member was also the happiest.

The Disappearing Tri

    Jeff may be the only authentic member of the Hell’s Angels trying to circumnavigate.  Ever since he made the mistake of replacing his girlfriend with a satnav, there has been doubt as to whether he will make it in time.

    When I limped into Papeete in January 1979 in my open boat in a storm, Jeff rowed out and insisted that I come over to his 45’ trimaran, WIZZZ, for a hot meal.  The tattoos covering his arms and the psychedelic paint job covering WHIZZZ put me off, but I went and was pleasantly surprised.

    WHIZZZ’s mast lay crumpled on the deck, but below she was clean and comfortable.  The exterior paint was Jeff’s; the pleasant interior was Susan’s.  This is not to say that he was the sailor and his girlfriend the cook/housekeeper.  She was the one who knew how to use a sextant, and she had worked in a sailmaker’s loft and was recutting the mainsail to fit the new mast, which Jeff was making smaller from the fallen one.  Susan also had common sense.  There is a kind of reverse cliche in which big, tough men are really gentle underneath.  Jeff certainly was big, with a huge beer belly, and he certainly looked tough, with his tattoos and scars from various falls and brawls.  He may have been gentle.  I never knew him well enough to judge.  He was certainly outwardly friendly and likable in port, but no one ever accused him of thinking or planning ahead.

    WHIZZZ  had the defects of big, roomy trimarans in that she put a lot of strain on her rig and ground tackle.  Thus, the smaller mast; thus her incorrigible habit of dragging anchor.

    Boats tend to move across the Pacific together  between the cyclone seasons, so much so that sailors come to think of themselves as belonging to the Class of ‘79 or the Class of ‘82.  Those of us in the Class of ‘79 quickly learned not to anchor close to WHIZZZ.  That year I was sailing CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE and with her 10” draft  I could anchor in water so shallow that no one could reach us, but one night in Apia, WHIZZZ came close.  The next night she dragged past in the opposite direction, ending up in the mud when Jeff was unable to run his engine because he had a fishing line caught around the prop.

    It was increasingly obvious that Jeff and Susan were not getting along.  In Vava’u, Tonga, matters came to a conclusion, with Jeff rowing happily out to WHIZZZ one day with a box marked satnav, crowing that “with this, I don’t need her anymore.”  And Susan bitterly complaining ashore at the Paradise Hotel, “After all the work I’ve put into that boat, the bastard kicks me out.  Well, he’ll find that the satnav won’t feed the cat.”  As we were to see, there were other things the satnav couldn’t do.

    In a few weeks Susan caught a ride on a boat sailing for Hawaii.  Jeff, complete with satnav, a cat named Tri, a bigger anchor, and a length of heavier chain bought in Fiji, sailed for New Zealand.

    What happened next was not entirely Jeff’s fault.  With justification, New Zealanders have been called the overachievers of sailing.  No other population of 4 million has produced so many world-class designers, sailors, sailmakers, and boatbuilders.  But for some odd reason peculiar to their national psyche, New Zealanders continued to use old-fashioned fisherman anchors long after the rest of the world had turned to CQR’s and Bruces.   Consequently Kiwi boats dragged a lot.  The wind often blows hard around New Zealand.  Local sailors expected to drag, and one night at Great Barrier Island in 40 knot gusts one of them did--right into WHIZZZ, which, remarkably, with her new ground tackle had not, until then, dragged herself.

    The two boats banged together, the Kiwi’s stern against one of WHIZZZ’s bows.  Jeff did the reasonable thing, really the only thing he could do.  He let out more chain.  The wind pushed  WHIZZZ back from the other boat, but before she could get under way, another gust hit and the New Zealander dragged down on WHIZZZ again.  Jeff let out more chain.  The New Zealander could not get clear.  The boats crunched again.  Jeff let out more chain and then still more.  And then  he watched in amazement as the end of the chain rattled up through the hawse hole and disappeared into the muddy water.  Both boats ended up on the shore.  WHIZZZ took the worst of the damage.

    With commendable tenacity Jeff  built a new boat.  Well, sort of a new boat.  From the wreckage of WHIZZZ he salvaged enough for a 32’ tri, which he named WHIZZ.

    Two years later under circumstances of which I have no knowledge, he put the boat on a reef in Indonesia, where he rebuilt again.

    At last report he was hurrying nervously toward Durban, South Africa, in a 24’ tri called WIZ.  

A Bad Beginning

    Gresham’s law states that when two forms of currency are in circulation, the lesser drives the better out of circulation.  If, for example, gold coins and paper money are both in use in a given  economy, people will hoard the gold and spend the paper.  The law is meant to apply to economics, but it seems to me that in many spheres of human activity the lesser drives the better out of circulation.

    A commonly accepted list of the greatest living British sailors would include those men and women who are most famous.   They are famous not necessarily because of their sailing achievements or because they best exemplify courage and endurance and the other qualities the British like to believe they possess and for which they like to be admired, but because  they are best at raising money and obtaining sponsorship and have the loudest PR agents.  The English give lip service to the solitary man struggling modestly against the odds, but they don’t honor him much in the flesh.  Or rather, his achievements are lost in the din of press releases about the sponsored few.  England, of course, is not the only country where this happens.  On none of the lists would you find the name of the man I believe exemplifies the finest in the British seafaring tradition.  Spencer Griff is so modest he probably wouldn’t even include himself.

    Of the English-speaking countries, England has the strongest class system, where class often means simply that several hundred years ago one of your ancestors was a successful brigand.  Spencer was not born into the British yachting establishment.   He was born into working class Birmingham in the 1920’s.  He read books and he dreamed of sailing.

    Spencer became a mechanic like his father, working for an automobile manufacturer.  During the Second World War he was called into the Royal Air Force to work on airplanes.  He married during the war and had two children.  In 1970 his wife died.  He was almost 50 years old.  His children were grown.  And he was no closer to sailing the world than he had been as a child dreaming beside the gray Irish Sea.  He knew that it was then or never.  He quit his job and sold his modest house and rented a barn from a farmer he knew and started to build a boat.  He had never sailed in his life.

    Spencer was good with tools.  He bought plans for a 34’ fiberglass sloop, and two years later SOLITUDE was trucked to Bristol and launched.  Spencer had about $1,000 left in the world.  He knew that the longer he remained in England, the more money would trickle away, so although it was late February, he set sail for Barbados.  He made it--even if he did so on the bounce.

    Spencer taught himself celestial navigation, as I did; but I guess that I read more of the book before I left on my first voyage.  On the other hand, I do not possess the ability to build a boat and so had more time to read.  Spencer would be the first to tell others not to follow his example, both in inexperience in navigation and sailing and in leaving with so little money, although  everyone is inexperienced in the beginning, and the only way to learn to sail is by sailing.

    When he left England, Spencer  had used the sextant once to  bring the sun down to the chimneys of Birmingham, and he knew only how to work noon sights for latitude.   Before one decries this too much, it should be remembered that most of the great voyages of exploration were made without the ability to do more.   And of course, in this age of GPS, many go to sea who can’t even do as much.   Sailing to the latitude of Barbados and then due west is not bad seamanship no matter how you find your position.  Besides, Spencer planned to read more of the navigation text while under way.   He did not count on being so seasick that he could not read, and he did not remember that on March 21 the sun would cross the equator, after which he would have to add rather than subtract, its declination to its altitude to obtain his latitude.

    Day after day in late March, the sun moved farther north.  Day after day, the error became greater.  A more experienced and less seasick navigator would have realized what was wrong.  But Spencer thought only that he was being set north by a current.  Day after day he compensated for the set by steering south of west.

    On the night of April 12, he was thrown from his bunk as SOLITUDE went aground.  From the deck it appeared that she had done so in mid-ocean.  Land was nowhere to be seen.  Gingerly Spencer backed her off under power.  Although the night was clear and he remained at the helm, in an hour he was aground again.

    For two days and nights, SOLITUDE bounced off one invisible obstruction after another.  Spencer could not decide if he had been set too far north of Barbados by the current or had overcompensated and sailed too far south.

    Sometime during that terrible ordeal, SOLITUDE hit hard enough to crack her hull.  As in many English built boats, SOLITUDE’s bilge pump is operated from the cockpit.  Spencer is fair skinned and mostly bald.  Working the bilge pump handle for hours beneath the tropical sun in a desperate effort to keep SOLITUDE afloat, Spencer soon suffered from sunstroke.  On the third day, he knew he was becoming delirious.  When a faint outline of land appeared on the horizon, he steered the sloop toward it even though he believed it to be an hallucination.  Only when he felt the keel again touch did he trust his senses.

    Spencer has no coherent memories of what happened next.  He thinks he recalls some people paddling out to him in a kind of dugout canoe.  Then he was in a barn, something like the one in which he had labored for two years creating SOLITUDE, but this one was a maternity hospital in which he was the only male patient.  During the daytime bats hung upside down from the roof, but he assumed they were another hallucination.  When he had rested enough to know that the bats were real, a man wearing a uniform indicated that he should write where he came from and how he happened to be there.

    No one spoke English or any other language that Spencer could recognize.  He was given a pencil and some paper, and he wrote how he had made an error in navigation of 50 miles and ended up going aground repeatedly on St. Lucia, as in the quiet of the hospital he concluded he must have done, before finally making it here to Barbados.  The uniformed man could not read what Spencer had written, but he smiled and took the report.  Everyone smiled at Spencer.  Everyone treated him very gently.  Everyone acted as though he were mad, which Spencer reflected, he more or less had been when he reached shore.

    A week passed before he awoke from an afternoon nap to find a priest sitting beside his bed.  The priest said, “How are you feeling, Mr. Griff?”

    The English words brought tears to Spencer’s eyes.  But he wondered aloud, “How did you know my name?”

    The priest lifted some sheets of paper he had been reading.  “Your report.  The officials brought it to me to translate.”

    “Then you know what happened.  How I went aground at St. Lucia..”  And all the pent-up feelings and words poured out.

    The priest listened attentively, if uneasily, to Spencer’s monologue, until finally he interrupted.  “Yes.  Yes.  I’ve read all that.  But you have not told me yet how your are feeling now, Mr. Griff.”

    “Why I’m fine.  Fine.  Rested.  Fed.  But I am a bit worried about my boat.”

    “Your boat is fine.  The navy towed it to a mooring in the river.”  The priest hesitated for a moment.  “I don’t want to upset you, Mr. Griff, but there is something you should know.  You are not in Barbados.”


    “No.  And you did not run aground on St. Lucia.”


    “No.  You went aground on the Amazon delta.  You are in Brazil.”

    Missing your first landfall by a thousand miles would have stopped most sailors, but Spencer kept on.  He diligently studied the navigation text before he left Brazil.  He managed to find work at boatyards along the way, and he made it back to England a little more than three years from the wintry day he had sailed from Bristol.  A year after his return, he set off again.  This time he made an epic voyage nonstop via the great capes.  I think he was the first man to complete solo circumnavigations in both directions.

    Monetarily, Spencer Griff is a poor man.  He is in England now, working at a boatyard, trying to save enough to make another voyage--if not all the way around a third time, he hopes at least to escape to someplace warm.

    Many obvious lessons could be drawn from Spencer Griff, among them that if you teach yourself seamanship, you had better have a good teacher; and that perseverance can take you a long way.   But I think his experience also says something about the nature of fame and fortune.  I think Spencer quietly wanted them  both, that he hoped for the wealth that has followed a few well-publicized voyages and that he longed for acceptance by an establishment from which he had been excluded by birth.  If you seek fame and fortune now--and perhaps it was ever thus--the first thing you need is not to be a good sailor; I can name at least two world-famous “sailors” who are barely competent.  The first thing you need is a PR man.  The second is a newspaper or television contract.  And the third is a radio transmitter so you can keep in touch with the first two.

    Spencer Griff’s achievements are greater than those of many people who have found fame.  He is the better driven out of circulation by the lesser, the genuine overshadowed by the strident.  To me Spencer Griff is England’s greatest living sailor, although he would be embarrassed to hear me say so.  In our day he is too modest for his own good.