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Author Hal Roth was a cruising pioneer

Roth, who died at 81, chronicled the early days of Pacific cruising and other adventures in his books

Every time Hal and Margaret Roth set sail, Hal already knew the book he would write about their voyage. So it was in 1966 when, aboard the first of their yachts named Whisper, they cast off for a cruise from San Francisco.

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“His idea was for us to circumnavigate the Pacific,” Margaret Roth recalls. “It makes a good story, better than just wandering around.”

“Two on the Big Ocean” was followed by books that recorded, among other adventures, the couple’s cruises around Cape Horn, across the Mediterranean and around the world. They filmed their journeys, as well.

For his final book, Hal Roth — suffering from terminal lung cancer — chose a topic that at last required no voyage at all. “Handling Storms at Sea” was published by McGraw-Hill less than a month after he died at home in Easton, Md., at age 81 in late October.

Surprisingly, when the Roths met in San Francisco in 1959, neither was a sailor. She was from England, visiting a friend. He was originally from Cleveland, had quit school to join the Army Air Corps in World War II, later graduated from the University of California-Berkeley with a degree in journalism, studied photography under Ansel Adams, and became a freelance writer for national magazines.

Married in 1960, the Roths were living in San Francisco and had many friends who had sailboats, says Margaret Roth, 86. “We enjoyed this sailing, so we decided to learn to sail ourselves,” she says.

They chartered a boat in the West Indies for two weeks and pummeled the professional captain with questions. They followed up with a charter in Greece and actual sailing lessons in Scotland. In 1962, they bought a 35-foot steel sloop with a centerboard in Holland and shipped it to the States, prepared to begin serious sailing. But they found, she says, that the boat was too crowded below for cruising.

Living in Sausalito, Calif., now, they took a road trip north, looking for a new boat. Along the way, they fell in love with a fiberglass Spencer 35 in Seattle, bought a stock hull in Vancouver, finished it themselves, and sailed it home to California.

Roth’s first book — “Pathway In The Sky,” about the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada — was being published (it was 1965), and he was already mapping out his next project.

Circumnavigating the Pacific would prove to be the prototype for many of the Roths’ subsequent adventures. The scenes remain etched in Margaret’s memory. The first leg of that voyage, she recalls, was their first long passage — a straight shot from Sausalito to the Marquesas in the Southern Hemisphere in 23 days.

Electronic navigation having not yet been invented, the Roths had to rely on their skill with a sextant and dead reckoning. “Every day, you would take your sight and mark a little X on the chart,” she says. “You weren’t sure exactly where you were.”

But there was a reward for the effort that she says is lost to the GPS/plotter. After the anxiety, “approaching islands was exciting because the objective turned up exactly where you wanted to be.”

As two of the earlier cruisers to the Pacific, the Roths often were aboard the only yacht in the harbor. Indeed, Margaret says, their first landfall in the Marquesas was on an uninhabited island.

“These were all tall, volcanic, very green islands,” she says. “Then we went around to another bay, which had these most wonderful waterfalls — tall, volcanic cliffs covered in greenery and wonderful waterfalls coming down to the valley below.”

Although there were no fellow cruisers, there were friendly islanders living in huts with thatched roofs near the mist of the waterfalls. One man was a skilled carver from whom the Roths bought a ceremonial sword.

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The man delivered not only the sword, but fresh fruit and vegetables to the boat. It turned out he was suffering from a toothache, but he was in luck. A dentist had given the Roths a dental kit for their trip, and, Margaret says, Hal used it to perform emergency dental surgery.

They finally met other cruisers, aboard a dozen or so boats, when they reached Tahiti farther to the southwest. They were at that French island for Bastille Day, except it became Bastille Week, an unending celebration with competitions in dancing, rowing, javelin throwing and basket weaving.

In the Cook Islands, Whisper became a mail boat, filled with enormous packages for the next island on their itinerary. “We were worried, with our celestial navigation, we might miss [the tiny island] in the night,” Margaret says. But they arrived in daylight, and the mail got through.

In Samoa, where the “art form is talking and giving speeches,” they learned that the women were comfortable with baring their breasts, but not their knees. At a festival for the construction of a new church in the Wallis Islands, after the locals had demonstrated traditional dances, the Roths were asked to perform a dance of their own. Their version of the boogie-woogie seemed to please their hosts.

Heading north of the Equator, Whisper stopped at Guam, but the constant flights of United States bombers over their anchorage, and a good weather forecast, prompted the Roths to sail northwest toward Japan. The wind swung around, beating Whisper’s bow, but they sailed on.

Arriving in Kagoshima Bay, the Roths were in time to see a volcano erupt, littering the sea with pumice. As they worked their way north along the archipelago that is Japan, they were invited into private homes and shared meals aboard Whisper with new friends who were eager to practice speaking English. In their wake, they spawned a string of stories in local newspapers.

From Japan, Whisper sailed to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, across the Gulf of Alaska, along the coast of Canada and home, after passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. In all, the Roths had covered 18,538 miles in 19 months.

The couple would go on to sail many thousands more miles together, and Hal Roth would complete two single-handed circumnavigations in races, which he recorded in two more books. Including a compilation volume that contains three of his works, Roth added an even dozen books to the lore of the sea.

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.