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Home > Mallorca Lifestyle > Crossing the AtlantIc a Deux, 1957 – By Femke Young

Crossing the AtlantIc a Deux, 1957 – By Femke Young

The adventure of the ” JAN BRASS “, a clinker built, 32 ft.  Ketch with a mirror transom.

We dropped anchor in the small, then harbour, of Formentera. It was the end of June ’57. She was flying an American flag. It was quite the event!! For the locals and for us Argonauts, a group of French students, the forerunner of Club Med. I was chef du centre and monitrice de voile. I was on a summer holiday from my studies at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

The Captain, later I’ll refer to him as Fred, since we ended up getting married, though obviously that was much later (well actually only a little), invited my crew on board for a Pernod. Being French we obviously couldn’t say “Non”!

That evening we met up again after dinner . He’d come ashore for a special reason: he needed a crew. We were speaking English having studied in America as a Dutch exchange student. But enough about how we met. Most importantly he asked me if I wanted to crew for him and sail around the world since his present crew could only go as far as Gibraltar. Flattered and obviously excited, I said yes, and the rest as they say, is history.

And what a history it is. We immediately fell in love, and he asked me to marry him. His mother actually insisted we get married before the crossing. Such faith….! So we got married in Tangier, at the American Consulate, by a Swiss minister and with 2 witnesses.

Having docked in Tangier, we were immediately “surrounded” by a bunch of locals, who kept pointing at our Moroccan flag. It had one point too many in the star…you can guess the rest.

One of our neighbours was Edward Allcard, a single-handed sailor and one of our witnesses. He had been docked there for a week, when a boat to his left was blown up and fairly soon after the one to his right went up as well. He expected to be next. The French had put limpet mines under the two boats. They were arms-runners to Algiers, which was in full rebellion against the French. It was time for a fast exit!

We next met up again in Casablanca. Once we found it that was.  We we spent hours looking for it. It
was shrouded in fog, and shooting the sun put us in the middle of the Sahara, and we were definitely still bobbing around. Something was definitely up with the equipment! We took the sextant to an optometrist, hoping he could figure out the problem, which HAD to be the sextant. Back on board we told Edward, and he asked to see the map: it turns out it was an old Napoleonic map, the 0 Meridian went through Paris!!! Did we feel stupid!! We quickly ran to retrieve said sextant. The guy insisted he needed to fix it…hmmmm…we were clearly just in time.

On to Agadir, which shortly after suffered a major earthquake, and dreadfully the whole town was flattened. Fortunately we were well on our way to the Canaries, and we thanked our lucky stars. These ones were where they were meant to be!

In Las Palmas we took a two week break and loaded the Jan Brass with whatever it would take to get us across: plenty of food, water and fuel. Paraffin for the icebox, and butano to cook with. The essentials. We had an extra set of sails made in Holland, and shipped to Tangier. Also a sturdier doghouse. Though I was sure I wouldn’t be sending Fred to it too often!

Finally we set sail for the long haul, my first Atlantic crossing adventure – 30 October 1957. 62 whole years ago! And it still feels like yesterday… But I digress.

No sooner had we left the harbour when one of the twin stay -sails’ boom broke. Not the perfect start we were hoping for, but we quickly lashed it together and it did the trick. Amazingly it lasted all the way. The stars really had redeemed themselves.

The first 12 days were uneventful. We were out of contact with land, but we knew that would happen as our radio signal was not strong enough. We did have WW somewhere in Washington, D.C. to give us the correct time so we could continue to shoot the sun, with non-Napoleonic maps this time. I still blush at the thought of that. And we had an Almanac to show the amount of drifting. We had a log book out and did our dead reckoning.

And then it happened: catastrophe! Our automatic pilot broke down: the brushes could not
handle the heavy Northern swell and burned out. That meant 3 hrs on, 3 hrs off for the rest of the trip. Not quite what we’d hoped for.

Becalmed for 5 days, we were horribly hot, had absolutely no shade, and kept having to hose down the deck to feel even vaguely human. But luckily we still made head way as there was enough current to push us. Despite the temptation there was absolutely no way were we going overboard to cool off!!

We had a little Jap-engine to charge our electricity, which we’d lashed to either side of the boat to keep it in the middle of the deck and the boat balanced. The icebox was running on paraffin with a wick floating in it. This of course did not last either. But it was nothing compared to the demise of that auto pilot.

What followed was exhausting, but an adventure like no other. At one point we paralleled a large freighter in the middle of the night, although there was not supposed to be any traffic (13 th parallel). We shined a VERY strong light all over our sails and as I am still here to tell the story all these decades later, you know he got out of the way!!

The wind had finally picked up, and we eventually made landfall late in the afternoon in Barbados. And what a sight to behold it was!! It was the 26th Nov 1957. We sailed to the other side and picked out the harbour. We were too tired to try to find the entrance, there were so many green and red lights and our sleep deprived brains just couldn’t handle it at that point. So near but still so far. So we hove to and drifted till day light. As soon as the sun came up we dropped anchor and went ashore to SLEEP.

Fred sleepwalked that night and tried to start the engine. He must have been truly exhausted. Other than that our first night on land was uneventful.

A few days later we set of for Antigua, and Nelson’s Harbour, where we met MR. Nicholson who had already asked us to charter for him. We did so for six months. But that’s another story…

How did we entertain ourselves for 27 days? We sang to each other, I made up supper menus, and cooked them with no gimbles. We looked at the clouds, followed the sun and the stars and started our life’s adventure together.