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The clerk at Tortola could not decipher my signature, so I spelled out my name. Standing alongside was the skipper of a small sloop also waiting to clear into the British part of the Virgin Islands. He looked from me to the chartered diesel trawler anchored offshore and exclaimed: "The man from Finisterre aboard a stinkpot! Now I've seen everything."
My transition was a long time in the making. Even prior to Finisterre's third Bermuda Race victory in 1960 she and I had mentally retired from competition, but I knew that I could never retire from the sea, the feeling of being on and of the water. As a result, I began to fill a large manila envelope labeled PROJECT HOME AFLOAT with notes, sketches and clippings. Soon it became apparent that what I sought was a marine conveyance, seaworthy, easy to handle and with range enough to undertake extended passages—at the same time one that offered creature comforts comparable to a small bungalow on the shore. Thus there wasn't any choice for me except to consider a hull driven wholly by mechanical means—a powerboat, to use a term at first nasty in its connotations.
In pursuit of knowledge, partially of self, I chartered a 36-foot Grand Banks cruiser in the Virgin Islands. Before my charter was half over, I realized that I had managed to squeeze in more skin diving, reading, eating, sleeping, sunbathing and just plain contemplating the universe than I had in the last two seasons aboard Finisterre. Days began with a dawn plunge over the side and ended with a last look round at the stars from the upper deck. Meals were lazy affairs under an awning on the back porch—pardon, in the after cockpit. Without difficulty, I convinced myself that my cynical sailing cronies had it all wrong: turning to a powerboat was not a time of life but a way of life.
Half the pleasure of building a boat is fussing over the details that make it personal. As Finisterre had exactly mirrored my wishes and needs 15 years earlier, so I wished Sans Terre—which can be translated "free from the land"—to represent what I wanted for the cruising I had in mind. My first premise was to keep my boat as small as possible. The hull form and general layout developed by the designers of trawlers adapted itself very well to my notions: a forward cabin sleeping two with its own hanging locker, head and shower; a deckhouse containing the navigational and electrical center as well as the lower steering station, a galley—comparable to a small ranch house kitchen—with a dining banquette that would convert into a berth as short-term accommodations for one or two guests; and an after cabin that would also qualify as a study/office. The engines and auxiliary equipment would live under the deckhouse, and atop would be the most desirable feature of the whole layout—a flying bridge wide open to wind and sun.
While I wanted total simplicity on deck—no varnished surfaces and no brass to polish—I saw no reason why my little ship shouldn't be pretty spiffy below: bright colors to contrast with the warmth of natural wood, antique delft tiles around the cabin fireplace, imaginative bathroom fixtures. Plus a few photographs and half-models as a nostalgic reminder of past vessels. By day my stateroom would be a sitting room /study, opening into the after cockpit, so both could form part of the usable living space. By night the sofa would convert into a bunk. A system of sliding doors would enable the occupants of the after cabin and the deckhouse to share the after head/shower with mutual privacy.
The only problem was that I didn't know anything about hull design. I had plenty of theories about the icing but didn't know how to bake the cake or even what kind of pan to put it in. My experience with offshore powerboats had mainly been aboard the hottest of hot rods. I shuddered at the memory of pounding into head seas with a force to shatter crockery below, of sickening rolls that seemed to be going right on around when the wind was on the beam. Yet the trawler I chartered in the Virgin Islands had exhibited none of these characteristics. Thus I came to the final link in the long chain of groping: why not select a stock hull, a vessel with most of the bugs eliminated by trial and modify the interior to my own specifications?
I made inquiries to American Marine, Ltd., which builds Grand Banks cruisers in Hong Kong. This is a family enterprise begun in 1958 by Robert J. Newton, who had spent most of his life in the Orient. Blueprints and specifications indicated their 42-footer might be altered to give me everything I wanted. The standard model complete with twin 120-horse-power Ford diesel engines would cost $44,410, and layout changes could be made almost at will so long as the structural bulkheads remained as designed. This was agreeable to me, as it not only divided the interior as I wanted but provided three hull compartments that could be made individually watertight, each with its own bilge pump for additional safety.
Standard tanks held 660 gallons of fuel against an estimated consumption of 5.5 gallons an hour at cruising rpm. At nine knots this translates to approximately 1,200 miles, which could be appreciably stretched by going slower or almost doubled by running on one engine. There was readily accessible space below for auxiliary equipment, such as a 110-volt generator, refrigeration compressor, freshwater maker, automatic-pilot drive unit and other items that seemed to contribute to the good life afloat. All interior joiner work could be of teak, a wood almost as common as pine in the Orient.
Our correspondence culminated with me writing I would come to Hong Kong during construction if American Marine was willing to work with me on the modifications and extras I wanted. It was.
The result was the vessel shown in detail on these pages, my new Sans Terre, which slid down the ways a few months ago wreathed in the smoke of burning joss sticks and a froth of champagne, thus combining the best of two worlds. I expect it to be symbolic. For I do not consider I have thrown in the yachting sponge—I have merely widened my scope. Home is where the keel is.