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The sea, to those who know it, is an element beloved yet full of menace. Few know this better than William A. Robinson, who has sailed the world's oceans for a quarter century in ships both small and large. Always he has felt the sea's challenge—and a large part of that challenge is what he calls the ultimate storm, the storm which he knew instinctively would some day, somewhere, test to the full his powers to survive.
In January 1952, aboard his ship Varua, Robinson and his family set forth on a voyage from Tahiti, his home, to the far southern reaches of the Pacific. The course of the voyage is shown on the map at right; its full history will appear this week in the book To the Great Southern Sea (Harcourt, Brace, $5). SI here presents the crowning incident of that voyage: Robinson's encounter, in the gale-swept Roaring Forties, with the ultimate storm
PART I: THE QUESTION
It is dangerous to generalize about the sea. No two ships are alike, nor is it possible to foretell, from the experience of one storm, the nature of the trials that may be encountered in the next. It is possible, in fact, to follow the sea for a lifetime without encountering a really great storm. I sailed for a quarter of a century and 100,000 miles without meeting one. Over the years there was the usual assortment of weather, good and bad. There were some close brushes with hurricanes, fortunately modest affairs as hurricanes go. But deep down I knew that I had never seen the ultimate in storms, when my ship and I would be put to the final great test. And deep down I always wondered how, when it happened, we would meet it. I have always believed it possible that in such an extremity conventional methods of riding it out in safety might fail and that the life of my ship might depend upon my fighting back in a manner I had never tried in a real emergency before.
We met our test in a vast expanse of gale-swept ocean, far to the southward in the Pacific, in 1952. It was a voyage that had begun in Tahiti, which has been my base of operations in recent years. For as long as I can remember, I had hoped some day to cross the southern ocean on the old sailing-ship track where the big square-riggers used to run their easting down to the Horn. None of my previous ships had been suitable, for I had no desire to make the voyage as a stunt; but with Varua, already proven by extensive voyaging, I now had the ship.
With me on the voyage were my small family: Ah You, who in all her 21 years had never been outside the barrier reef in Tahiti and who promised me a son during the voyage, and Piho, an irrepressible 11-year-old who had been given to me at the age of 7 by her parents in Raroia, a remote atoll in the Tuamotus. For crew there were big, dark, unquenchably good-natured Tino from Rapa, who has been with me for years, and Zizi, from Tahiti itself, who usually joined the ship as cook when we voyaged.
On January 2, 1952 we sailed out from under the great green mountains of Tahiti and watched the island fade slowly astern into the haze of distance. The plan was to sail south until we reached the great passage-making westerlies of the Roaring Forties. There we would run our easting down to the Patagonian coast, follow the Humboldt Current north, and the trade winds would take us home to Tahiti.
We touched briefly at lonely Rapa, the southern outpost of Oceania, and then sailed south another 1,000 miles, across the 30s, across the 40s, to the real Southern Sea of the square-riggers. There, instead of the renowned westerlies, we met ceaseless easterly gales that forced us still farther south—to latitude 50 and beyond, until we saw ice and turned north again still fighting head winds. In those far southern latitudes, alone in a stormy gray world where ships no longer sail, after beating doggedly against a succession of gales that were themselves worse than anything I had previously encountered, we met the ultimate storm.
We were 4,000 miles out of Tahiti at the time, about 1,000 miles west of Patagonia. We had worked safely out of the region where ice might be encountered. For one night and a day we sailed comfortably on our course with a freshening north wind, such a change from the relentless contrary gales we had been having that the perennial optimism of the sailor took over and we looked forward to the last thousand miles as something of a rest cure. Even when the wind whipped into the northeast in a heavy squall, with a rapidly falling barometer, we refused to feel concerned. The upper staysails were already safely stowed, so we carried on, nursing her through the heaviest gusts. At midnight it was apparent that we were in for another gale, so we took in the mainsail and jib.
We carried on into the early morning hours under fore and main staysail. The wind was building up steadily. I prepared myself for another northeast gale, like all the others that had gone before. Yet, as so often before, I wondered uneasily about the coming trial. Some day, somewhere, I might yet meet that extreme storm which I knew I had never met before. Might this be it? If it was, and we were faced with ultimate emergency conditions and conventional methods of riding it out failed, would the procedure I had long planned to use succeed?