Hugo Vihlen was a
$23,000-a-year pilot for Delta Air Lines when he decided a few years ago—for no
reason he has adequately explained—to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the smallest
boat ever used for such a purpose. His vessel, called April Fool and measuring
precisely 5'11?" from stem to stern, was less than half the length of
Robert Manry's Tinkerbelle, the previously smallest craft to make the
The voyage is
described by Vihlen in a diary he kept and which is now published as a book,
April Fool (Follett, $5.95). The book jacket suggests the reader may appreciate
Vihlen's feat the more by imagining sailing the Atlantic in "your bathtub
with a mast and a three horsepower outboard motor...." Certainly the
photographs that accompany the story are no help; they make April Fool look as
though she has been cleaved in half—or thirds, as if perhaps both bow and stern
Vihlen had not
sailed for 18 years when he decided on his trip, and so when the plywood and
fiber-glass boat was launched he kept making elementary mistakes—things like
getting hit by the boom. When he asked people for advice or help, he was
usually advised not to go. His first attempt was aborted when—after getting two
months' leave from Delta and crating his vessel off to North Africa—he got hung
up in official red tape, design deficiencies and by the African inshore winds.
When he gave up, the Delta company magazine commented: "Rub a dub dub,
Hugo's tub was a flub."
But Hugo Vihlen
is nothing if not determined. He shipped his boat home to Florida, where he
made extensive modifications, learned a good deal more about African coastal
winds, and re-embarked from Casablanca the following March. This time he
cleared the coast, caught the trade winds and—in spite of idiosyncrasies in his
vessel like not being able to sail any closer to the wind than 90 degrees—made
the 4,480-mile trip to Florida in 85 days.
The trip was
predictably wretched. He was forced to sleep on his back with knees bent in his
5-foot cabin, and to set his alarm for two-hour intervals so he could keep
adjusting his steering. It was also boring, but his health stayed good, his
only complaint being a sore arm from steering.
When he finally
reached the waters off Florida and was picked up by the Coast Guard, he was
astonished to find himself a hero. The state appointed him a commodore,
Astronaut Walt Cunningham sent his congratulations, and so did President
Johnson. A whale was named after him.
And Delta Air
Lines suspended him for being late getting back from vacation.