An older crew, a raft and an Atlantic voyage

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In the United Kingdom they call the over-65 crowd OAPs - old-age pensioners - and that's what 85-year-old Anthony Smith asked for when he advertised for crew to help him plan and undertake the trans-Atlantic rafting voyage he recently finished.

The rafters sailed 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to St. Martin in 66 days.

Smith's three crewmembers weren't nearly as long in the tooth as he - no bona fide OAPs responded to the 2005 ad in London's Daily Telegraph - but they weren't spring chickens, either: David Hildred, 57, a civil engineer from the British Virgin Islands; Andrew Bainbridge, 56, a general practitioner from Alberta, Canada; and John Russell, 61, a lawyer from Gloucestershire, U.K.

They and Smith, a London author, science writer and adventurer, made landfall April 6 in the Caribbean at Simpson Bay on St. Martin, 66 days after setting out from the Canary Islands on the 40-foot raft An-Tiki. Though home-built and designed, the raft - and its crew - proved sturdy enough to sail the 3,000 miles.

"The raft itself worked superbly," says Smith, who is from St. Martin and fulfilled a 50-year-old dream to build a raft and sail it across the Atlantic. The old-age pensioner did very well, too. "I'm very happy to be around at 85."

He won't be relegated to the back seat to read the map while the younger bucks drive. He's already thinking about a second voyage for the An-Tiki - in November after hurricane season. Meanwhile, the raft remains on the hard on St. Martin.

A sailboat could have made the passage in three weeks, but An-Tiki, which sails only downwind with its single square sail, ran headlong into three low-pressure systems pushing east from the United States. "All we could do was drop sail and put out our sea anchor," Russell said a day before heading home to his wife and U.K. law practice. "Once we were like that for five days. We were going backward. That was a little disconcerting. We lost 20 to 30 miles while that was happening."

Smith says the raft can sail as much as 30 degrees off straight downwind, which afforded the crew some flexibility. Once they dove far enough south and picked up the trade winds, it was just a matter of riding the swells west. Nonetheless, the lows forced them to change their destination from the Bahamas to St. Martin, which lies farther south and east.

Three days into the passage, An-Tiki's twin rudders snapped, but instead of turning back Smith deployed the backup steering - a jury-rigged 25-foot steering oar at the stern and four stout daggerboards, one at each corner of the raft, which steer it to port or starboard as different ones are lowered. The daggerboards, or "guaras" in Spanish, were borrowed from ancient Peruvian raft designs.

The crew (from left): John Russell, 61, David Hildred, 57, Andrew Bainbridge, 56, and 85-year-old Anthony Smith

The backup steering saved the day. "You could steer within a degree of what you wanted," says Robin Batchelor, the project director.

"It possibly worked better than the rudders would have," Smith agrees.

Despite the delays, the raft averaged 2.1 knots. "On good days we made 3 knots - 70- or 80-mile days," Russell says. On a typical day the raft made 50 miles - "not very fast," he says.

An-Tiki's design was a collaboration. "We designed it as a democracy," Smith says. "We all chipped in with ideas."

The hull consists of four 39-foot, 2-foot-

diameter polyethylene water-supply pipes laid out to give the raft an 18-foot beam. Crosshatched on top of those pipes are 14 smaller-diameter pipes, seven of which were filled with drinking water. The pipes, capped at the ends, give the raft buoyancy. Wooden "saddles" at each end keep the pipes aligned, and all of them are lashed to each other with strap webbing tightened with metal ratchets.

The deck is 1-by-6-foot timbers lashed to the pipes with rope. The mast is a 33-foot tapered telegraph pole with an 18-foot yard and a 400-square-foot square polyester sail. The "cabin" is a Quonset-like hut of corrugated stainless steel fixed to a wood frame. The whole thing was "amazingly stable," Smith says. Coffee mugs didn't slide off the table and books stayed on shelves.

An-Tiki rode the waves like a cork and took very little water over the deck, Smith says, especially after it left the low-pressure zone and started riding the big swells in the trade winds. "I don't think we were wet at all the last three weeks," he says.

Inside, An-Tiki is fitted with four bunks, a gas stove and oven, a nav station and electronics - an EPIRB, VHF radio, GPS, a satellite phone and a tracking beacon to send An-Tiki's position back home. Electricity is provided by four solar panels, a wind generator and a backup manual generator.

Smith put the whole raft - unassembled - into a 40-foot container in England and shipped it to the Canary Islands, where he, his crew and a team of volunteers assembled it over three months and fitted it out for the Jan. 30 departure.

The cost of the project was about $100,000, and part of that came from money Smith received as compensation for an accident midway into planning for the voyage. A van backed into him on a sidewalk, leaving him with a leg held together with metal pins. He still can't walk without a cane, but that didn't stop him from moving ahead with the project. In fact, he says, it encouraged him because now he had seed money to make it happen.

"Anthony was not very agile during the 12 weeks we spent building the raft," Batchelor says. "[The adventure] has done an enormous amount of good for him." He's actually moving around better now. "It's added a few years to his life."

The idea of building a raft to sail across the Atlantic had been percolating in Smith's mind since the 1950s, when he read about Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki voyages on the Pacific. Smith read extensively about that expedition and 50 others, yet neither he nor his crew had experience building a raft or sailing one, although Hildred and Bainbridge are veteran offshore cruising sailors.

The team didn't have time to sea-trial what they had created. "We didn't know how it would sail," Russell says. "All we knew for sure was it would float."

Russell says the novelty of An-Tiki's design had given him pause, but not enough to scare him off. "I had wanted at some point to sail across the Atlantic, but I was thinking in more conventional terms," he says. "But this opportunity was too good to miss. It seemed a fantastic adventure, which is what it was, really."

In a summation on his website (www.gasballoon.com/antiki) of why he finally decided to do this, Smith writes that he wanted "to show that older persons are capable of undertaking what are considered dangerous - wrongly in our opinion - and adventurous projects that are normally left to younger persons to fulfill." He says he is using the exploit to raise money for WaterAid (www.wateraid.org/uk) a non-profit organization that is developing clean water supplies in 26 countries.

A graduate in zoology from Oxford, Smith has been a science correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and he authored the bestselling book "The Body" (800,000 copies sold), which later became the television series "Intimate Universe: The Human Body." He is an avid balloonist who crossed the Alps in a balloon and led a balloon expedition from Zanzibar to East Africa.

He has written for natural history programs on television and radio, and explored ancient irrigation tunnels in Iran, where he discovered a species of blind white fish that is named after him. Having done all that, Smith says he isn't ready to spend his time puttering in the garden.

"This was our maiden voyage," he says. "We learned from it and we can learn more."

He plans to tweak An-Tiki's rig to improve sailing performance before undertaking a second voyage. "With a few improvements, we can do much better," he says.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.