Why Bligh still stands tall
Posted on 01 August 2010
Written by Peter Swanson
When modern-day adventurers sailed in William Bligh's wake, they got more than they bargained for.
Forty-eight days after setting out from Tonga, four sailors led by Australian adventurer Don McIntyre made landfall in Timor in the East Indies in their 25-foot boat, successfully retracing the epic 1789 open-boat voyage of Lt. William Bligh.
Though the crew didn't experience the level of fear and suffering that characterized Bligh's remarkable passage, successfully transiting thousands of ocean miles in an open boat - with limited rations - is quite an accomplishment.
Bligh's 3,700-nautical-mile voyage got under way after HMS Bounty mutineer and ringleader Fletcher Christian set him and 18 loyal crewmen adrift in a 23-foot ship's launch. McIntyre and his crew, who completed their voyage June 15, were out for adventure and to raise money for a good cause.
As the "Talisker Bounty Boat" expedition approached its final destination, McIntyre summed up the experience in a blog entry: "We chose to do this, and no matter what we did to make things a little harder on ourselves, we could never honestly get to the same levels of deprivation and fear they had every minute of their voyage."
Replicating one of the most famous small-boat passages in maritime history is certainly not an easy task, but the original voyage was the stuff of nightmares. Nonetheless, Bligh reached safety at a Dutch colony 47 days after the mutiny, having navigated the entire distance with only an octant, a sextant, a couple of pocket watches, very little food and no charts. After natives killed one of his men during an early foraging stop, Bligh resolved to stay at sea until he and his men had passed a series of islands known for fierce and cannibalistic warriors.
McIntyre's Bounty Boat expedition was sponsored by Talisker Distillery, maker of Talisker Scotch whisky. Aside from setting out to replicate the historic voyage, the expedition sought to raise money for the Sheffield Institute Foundation for Motor Neurone Disease, which is working to find a cure for such illnesses as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The Bounty Boat crew took sensible precautions, such as equipping their 25-footer with a life raft, an EPIRB and electronic navigation equipment. However, the safety and navigation gear was initially stowed away so the voyage would remain as true as possible to the original. The provisions were roughly equivalent to those on Bligh's boat, including hardtack and canned beef (instead of salt pork), water, rum and wine. According to one news report, the crew also packed nuts, raisins and muesli bars, and planned to supplement the on-board provisions with fresh fish and fruit or coconuts gathered along the way.
The expedition set off April 29 from the island of Tofua. By May 4, extreme circumstances had already forced McIntyre to break out the electronics. He and his crew were sailing downwind at night - most of the voyage was downwind in the trades - in a 25- to 30-knot breeze and 12- to 16-foot seas. One of the crew hollered, "Breakers dead ahead!" That got McIntyre's attention, as he wrote in the voyage's blog a couple of days later.
"I grabbed for the emergency GPS/chart plotter, as this was very serious with no idea where the reef line would go. Within minutes I had it up and running, but it seemed like forever. It showed us still on the reef line, but it was only another 300 meters [328 yards] to the edge and we would sail clear, which is what we did. This really made us realize what Bligh had done. Was this nuts or what? ... We all agreed that if Quilter had not seen the surf it would all have been over in much less than two minutes - it was that close!"
The next day gale-force winds knocked down the boat, and the crew got a taste of what it must have been like for Bligh and his men. Unlike the modern-day Bounty Boat, Bligh's little craft had a mere 9 inches of freeboard because of the weight of 18 men. McIntyre's boat is based on an 18th century whaleboat and is not an exact replica of the heavier displacement Bounty launch. He says building an exact replica would have been too costly. The bottom line, however, is that the lighter vessel McIntyre purchased would be easier to capsize, but it would also be more comfortable for four than the original would have been for 18. This is particularly true considering the photos on the expedition blog site that show the crew of three asleep in a canvas cuddy.
After the ordeal on the reef, Bounty Boat rounded up into the lee of an island off Fiji called Nai Gai, not far from where Bligh's crew was forced to row for their lives to escape a pursuing Fijian canoe.
"This morning I woke after a five-hour sleep to see what a beautiful island we are at," McIntyre wrote in his blog entry posted May 6. "We pulled the anchor, rowed ashore and tied a line to a coconut tree. We've been trying to catch fish all day, get some more drinking coconuts and have rigged the sails to trees to catch water, but no rain yet. We have a fire ready for the fish. Everyone is very lethargic, no energy, but we have some repairs to make and reorganization before we set off."
By June 1, the Bounty Boat crew had reached Restoration Island off Australia for another rest and a session with reporters from the television news program "60 Minutes." The boat had covered about 2,400 nautical miles, with another 1,400 to go. McIntyre suffered from kidney stones much of the way, and the boat had barely missed running into a section of the Great Barrier Reef in broad daylight.
A seaworthy boat
For different perspectives on the voyage, Soundings interviewed some sailors with Pacific or open-boat experience. Modern sailors, they say, could never replicate the factors that made Bligh's accomplishment so noteworthy. Forgetting for a moment contemporary safety and navigation gear, Bligh's boat was packed with 18 starving men and he couldn't stop anywhere to rest until they reached Australia.
"On a regular basis, open boats are blown offshore from the Galapagos and South America and their crews have survived for impressive distances, so that speaks well for the fact that it is not impossible," says Phineas Sprague Jr., owner of Portland Yacht Services in Maine. Back in the 1970s, a 23-year-old Sprague sailed in the wake of Lt. Bligh in an Alden schooner named Mariah and he navigated with a sextant. Sprague says he relished sailing around the world when he was "young and invincible."
"The sun is brutal and water is an important thing," says Sprague, speaking as the voyage was getting under way. "If it's any kind of a decent whaleboat, it's going to make 4 knots. Those boats are imminently seaworthy, and the wind's on its tail, and there's a current that's going to push it, too, and there are islands to get behind if a front comes through. I imagine if the thing swamps, they can bail it out."
While sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef, Sprague says, he noticed the depths listed on the British Admiralty chart were based on soundings taken nearly 200 years earlier by Bligh's open-boat crew. "Bligh was such a good navigator, he was discovering the world as he was rescuing himself," Sprague says. "And he knew how to navigate and no one else on the boat did. That keeps people in line."
South African Anthony Steward is the only person ever to circumnavigate the globe in an open boat. Steward, now 46 and chief of global operations for The Moorings, began his three-year adventure at the age of 27, setting off in a 19-foot fiberglass "trailer sailer." His longest leg was 3,200 nautical miles and it ended when he rolled her over Providence Reef at the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. Steward had to swim 700 yards while bleeding and fighting off sharks with a rigging knife. After recovering, he returned to Cerf Island, repaired the boat and finished his circumnavigation.
Steward has met McIntyre and admires his seamanship skills. He says his own route around the world covered the same waters as Bligh's voyage. "The first part, I think, will be pretty easy sailing, from Tonga to Vanuatu," Steward predicted at the start of the voyage. "From Vanuatu to the coast of Australia, that's going to be a hell of a challenge. That sea can get really rough. That's where they're going to be stretched, if anywhere."
Steward says this was the ideal time of year for the passage, with trade winds from behind and hurricane season six months away. Weather-wise, at least, the timing of the mutiny had been lucky for Bligh, a figure whom Steward greatly admires.
"I don't want to be disparaging, but I just hope [McIntyre's voyage] doesn't detract from what Bligh achieved," he says. "If they really re-enacted what William Bligh and his crew went through, fine, but I don't think they ever could. A 23-foot boat, the number of people, the lack of food and water, the freeboard - 9 inches of freeboard to cross the sea from Vanuatu to Australia. I don't think modern human beings could do it; they'd set off the bloody EPIRB. Modern man is too soft. Can you imagine 18 people in a boat like that? They wouldn't even be able to stretch out or lie down. I promise you that makes a huge difference to any voyager."
As if to make Steward's point, one of the Bounty Boat crew threatened to desert on the last day before the expedition departed its Fijian island refuge. David Wilkinson, a British investment adviser, complained about the quantity and quality of the boat's rations and other privations. In the end, Wilkinson decided "he had to finish this thing," McIntyre wrote in a May 10 blog posting.
By the time the boat reached Restoration Island, Wilkinson was again threatening to jump ship. His disgust for canned corned beef continued to be a problem and he was publicly criticized in blogs by the captain and crew for his attitude. Wilkinson himself admitted suffering from mood swings, but nevertheless stayed with the boat when it embarked from Restoration Island.
Homage to endurance
Last year, a Dutch novelist and adventurer sailed a 21-foot sloop - again, an open boat - from Haiti to Florida to spotlight conditions that have forced so many Haitians to try to escape to the United States on dangerously overcrowded sailing vessels with no engines. A story of Geert van der Kolk's Sipriz expedition in the October 2009 issue of Soundings described the terror he and his crew felt during the rough 90-mile passage to Great Inagua in the Bahamas. The crew of three Haitians prayed out loud in Creole for salvation, while van der Kolk and two American friends tried to buoy their spirits by singing Jimmy Buffet songs.
Despite the white-knuckle experiences aboard Sipriz and now Bounty Boat, van der Kolk agrees with Steward's assessment. "I don't think it is possible to truly reconstruct the intensity of desperate voyages like Bligh's, or the Haitian migrants'. The Bounty Boat has modern safety and navigation equipment and uses it, as we did on the Sipriz," he says.
However, van der Kolk praises the Bounty Boat expedition as an "adventure with a cause," and notes that his father was killed by Parkinson's, one of the diseases being researched by the Sheffield Institute.
"Unlike Thor Heyerdahl [Kon-Tiki], Tim Severin [Brendan Voyage], and Aragorn Dick-Read [Gli Gli Carib Canoe Project], the Bounty Boat crew does not have to prove that the journey ... is possible. Bligh already did that, just like many poor Haitian migrants have shown that it is possible to reach Florida in small open boats," van der Kolk says. "I guess our expeditions are more than anything a homage to the courage, endurance and seamanship of the sailors who preceded us. It's an attempt to measure up."
Sprague says he likes the fact that the Bounty Boat expedition is drawing attention to one of the finest moments in British seamanship, comparing it to the American close call in space that gave us the line, "Houston, we've a problem!"
"It was sort of like the Apollo disaster, where something really bad is turned upside down and turns out all right," Sprague says. "I think there's rightful pride [in] what Bligh accomplished in such an astonishing way."
John Rousmaniere, author of the "Annapolis Book of Seamanship" and other maritime titles, agrees with that assessment. "People can sail that route again, but even in a small boat with the same rations, I wonder if anybody can do much more than honor Bligh's extraordinary achievement," he says. "That doesn't necessarily mean this effort is a stunt. One of the most astonishing and exemplary events in the history of leadership and small-boat sailing, Bligh's voyage deserves to be honored from time to time. And there are always lessons to be learned."
To read more about the Talisker Bounty Boat voyage, visit bountyboat.blogspot.com and www.taliskerbountyboat.com.
See related stories:
- The Bounty Boat skipper and crew
- Adversity brought out the best in Bligh
This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.