When Bert ter Hart raised Rarotonga after four months alone at sea since leaving the Falkland Islands, he was, of course, elated. After worrying about running out of food he was going to receive emergency provisions. He had finally put behind him the gales of the Roaring Forties, and he discovered his navigation was spot on. But there was something else, too, and it had everything to do with a deeper sense of purpose that compelled the 61-year-old from Gabriola, British Columbia, to become the first documented North American sailor to solo circumnavigate via the five great capes nonstop using only celestial navigation, and one of only a handful ever to do it.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the early explorers. How do you possibly experience what Bligh might have gone through looking for land and suddenly it’s there. I was after that experience,” ter Hart says. “You can’t duplicate the food, the clothing, the boat, the sail material. There’s nothing about sailing now that’s remotely connected, other than the act of sailing and the principles of it, to the people who first did it. But you can turn off the GPS, the calculator, the iPad, all that kind of stuff, pick up the sextant, a piece of paper, the tables and a watch, and have the exact same feeling that these guys would have had as to where the hell am I. You can very closely and intimately mimic their world using a sextant. You can’t do it any other way.”
With little fanfare, ter Hart left Victoria, British Columbia, on October 26, 2019, on Seaburban, his 1987 OCY 45. After an unscheduled 24-hour pit stop in San Francisco to assess what he feared was a ruptured fuel tank baffle (it wasn’t) and replace a lost vane for his Monitor self-steering system, he continued south to Cape Horn. Once past, he waited out an especially vicious storm in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands (though not going ashore), before continuing east through the Southern Ocean to round Cape Agulhas at the tip of South Africa, Cape Leeuwin at Australia, South East Cape at Tasmania, and finally South Cape at New Zealand. From there, he worked his way up the Pacific to return to his home on Gabriola Island on July 18, 2020, after 267 days alone at sea.
He sailed 28,860 miles, enduring prolonged and frustrating calms far more than he had expected, a broken halyard after passing New Zealand that he estimates cost him two weeks of time because it limited him to a smaller headsail, and a slower, harder-than-expected uphill slog through the Pacific—some 5,000 miles sailing at 60 degrees apparent—largely due to a storm off New Zealand that pushed him off his planned track. Along the way, he learned of a pandemic that was turning the world upside down.
It was not the culmination of a lifelong dream, though ter Hart has been drawn to the sea since childhood after his father circumnavigated as a sailor in the Dutch merchant marine. (It was his father’s later career as a surveyor in Saskatchewan, Canada, that inspired his fascination with mapping, charting and celestial navigation.) Rather, ter Hart wanted to follow in the wakes of early explorers, engage school students in oceanography and atmospheric sciences—about 2,500 students worldwide followed his trip and emailed him questions along the way—and make a point that accomplishing a goal is more a matter of overcoming excuses than real physical or logistical barriers.
“I wanted to motivate anyone of any age to step out their front door and seek adventure where they can find it and keep those dreams alive,” he says. And, because ter Hart is who he is, he chose to do something “incredibly hard. I didn’t want to do something easy. I chose to do something that was basically next to impossible. I’m not trying to exaggerate. The numbers bear out how hard it is to do. Not only did I choose to do it solo, but I chose to use celestial navigation.”
With a background in the Canadian Special Service Forces and many miles spent sailing the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, purposefully retracing the paths of great ocean explorers like Cook, Bligh and Vancouver, ter Hart approaches life with determination and self-discipline leavened by a sense of humor and wonder. He needed all of those character traits to get him around the globe alone.
The worst days were not storms, but rather the calms that bedeviled nearly 50 days of his trip.
“You’re not going anywhere, you’re still going through your food and your water and the boat is taking a terrific beating from the residual swell,” he says. “Mentally my worst moods were when I was becalmed. When it’s blowing a gale and it’s serious sailing, you’re focused on serious sailing. You’re physically, mentally and emotionally engaged.”
That said, he describes in his blog a terrible night near New Zealand when his Monitor self-steering couldn’t hold any kind of course in the violent seas and a rising gale. Knowing the conditions were forecast to worsen, he hove to and set an alarm to try to get some rest. “I was woken by a breaking wave smashing our starboard side, shredding part of the nav station companionway dodger and pouring after down the companionway hatch. It was time to do something. Anything but this,” he wrote.
“Dressed and outside predawn, the cockpit well swirling with water, I realized the Monitor need not steer. I can steer. I didn’t need to steer long, just long enough for the wind to shift to the southwest. Facing backwards to watch the waves catch us up, I stepped into the well and with water up to my knees, brought Seaburban’s stern to face the wind and whatever swell or wave came our way. Seven hours later, I stepped out and set the Monitor to steer a course due east. It’s OK to be scared shitless,” he wrote. “You just can’t be scared witless.”
Ironically, the only time he thought he might lose the boat was when he’d taken refuge in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, after rounding Cape Horn and facing an impending Southern Ocean hurricane. Because he’d left his heavy ground tackle behind to save weight, he had to cobble together something that would withstand 70-knot winds and wild chop in the harbor.
“I left with just two 50-foot shots of chain and the rode I used as a drogue. I had a lunch anchor and a kedge,” he says. Even with the engine in gear, the boat began to drag directly toward a local graveyard, a piece of grim irony he did not fail to notice. After calling harbor control and letting them know his situation, he deployed in desperation his last 50 feet of rode, which he’d kept back for an emergency. Then he spent the next hours taking bearings off of streetlights before finally breathing easy that he’d stopped dragging.
Though at times pushed to his limits, ter Hart also found moments of deep self-awareness and peace at sea. Similar to mystic-poet solo circumnavigator Bernard Moitessier, he profoundly connected to the natural world on display around him, often in his observations of an otherworldly sunset or night sky.
“Mother Nature is putting on a show for you, and you’re the only human there to witness it, and that’s an extraordinary feeling. I’ve described it as a very thin place; there’s not much between you and those things that are far greater than you. You’re connecting with nature in a way that’s impossible when there’s anybody else around,” he says. “It takes an awful lot to scrub off the trappings of humanity, and I think that’s possible when you’ve been at sea for a long time and the rest of humanity is thousands of miles away.”
Though he says it’s the hardest thing for people to relate to, being alone for nine months wasn’t difficult. “I didn’t struggle with it at all. There’s a fundamental difference between being alone and being lonely. I was alone, but I was never lonely.”
Within the first month, ter Hart’s SSB packed it up. He was left with an Iridium Go, essentially a WiFi hotspot, to receive GRIB files from which he’d interpret weather via PredictWind. He also had help from John Bullas—a neighbor and former meteorologist for Canada’s weather service—who, though he’d never sailed in his life, had access to weather that ter Hart didn’t and knew how to anticipate dangers like weather bombs.
He was intensely busy. He structured his days in advance, planning what needed to be done and when in terms of navigation (minimum two to three hours every day), boat maintenance (constant), and sleep (he never slept more than two hours at a time and rarely got more than four hours total in 24). “The workload cannot be underestimated,” he says. “I’d like to say I was super disciplined and was able to do it, but I’m not superhuman. I wasn’t completely diligent about sticking to those routines.”
What he didn’t anticipate was his appetite. He’d sailed about 18,000 miles on Seaburban over the years, including to the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands, and he’d provisioned according to those experiences, as well as research he had done on the calorie intake of other sailors who had circumnavigated. “I knew Volvo crews were eating 6,000 calories a day in the Southern Ocean. I thought I wouldn’t be as far south and it wouldn’t be as cold and I wouldn’t be working as hard as those racing crews. But as it turned out my appetite was enormous. I hadn’t planned for that. I realized quickly I was going to run out of food.”
He started strict rationing, at times getting as few as 800 calories a day. “I measured everything that I ate. I knew how many mini chocolate bars I had, so I would have one of those a day, and I had exactly 240 on board.”
Though he didn’t want to stop, by the time he was in the Pacific and had been forced north more quickly than he’d wanted due to the storm off New Zealand, his sister, Leah, suggested a stop in Rarotonga to resupply. By this time, the coronavirus pandemic had entered the equation, and Rarotonga had already closed its borders. But Leah worked with local authorities to come up with a plan that could accommodate their health and safety protocols. These officials delivered supplies to ter Hart offshore via a small boat, with a health minister on board to monitor the exchange. “It is easy to be jaded and cynical about the world,” ter Hart wrote in an open letter of thanks to Rarotonga. “I think you would be dead wrong if you were. I know it to be different. Rarotonga, the people who live and work there, and the government that oversees this incredibly beautiful island paradise are living, breathing proof.”
Bert ter Hart’s journey is one for the books, but it’s even more remarkable as it almost never happened. Before heading off for his five-capes adventure, ter Hart was at the top of Seaburban’s 52-foot mast, drilling a hole to install a tang to accommodate a new roller furler headstay for the Solent sail. The hole saw nicked the Amsteel spinnaker halyard inside the mast, to which his ascender was attached. In an instant, the halyard snapped, as did the line supporting the Prusik sling that was his backup. He fell backward, arms flailing towards the headstay, and though he managed to get one arm around it and squeeze it to his ribs, he plummeted to the deck. Airlifted to a trauma unit in Victoria, ter Hart had four fractured ribs and a collapsed lung, but his internal organs were intact, and he left the clinic that same day.
About five weeks later—three weeks behind schedule—he set sail. He could barely raise his arms overhead, and sleeping on his back was still untenable. But when he rounded Cape Horn some two months later, as he reflected on the sailors who had passed before him, he also seemed to acknowledge the brush with death and the imperative of the moment.
“I thought of all those who will come. Of those to whom this place will speak,” he wrote in his blog. “Of those who come not as freight but of their own doing, using their own wits and determination. To those I would say hurry. Make haste, not because this place will change, but you surely will.”
This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.