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Cape Horn to port

Tony Gooch is bestowed the Cruising Club of America's Blue Water Medal for his 177-day solo circumnavigation

Tony Gooch set sail from his home port of Victoria, British Columbia, Sept. 28, 2002, and voyaged solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world, returning home 177 days later.

The 24,500-mile circumnavigation helped the Australian-born yachtsman garner the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal, presented in February at a dinner at the New York Yacht Club. Past recipients of the prestigious award, given annually since 1923 for meritorious seamanship and adventure, include such luminaries as Sir Francis Chichester, Eric Tabarly and Bernard Moitessier.

“It’s a great honor to get the Blue Water Medal,” says the 64-year-old Tony, adding that he considers many of the noted medal recipients his heroes and an inspiration for his own cruising.

The idea for the solo circumnavigation came while Tony and his wife, Coryn, were returning in 2001 from a summer voyage in Spitsbergen, a group of Norwegian Islands in the Arctic Ocean.

“We prefer sailing in the high latitudes, and the wilderness of the Southern Ocean holds a special attraction,” says Tony, who has logged more than 130,000 miles at sea. “I wanted to get down there one last time while I was still fit and healthy enough to handle hard sailing and still enjoy it.” The energetic Tony also is an avid tennis player.

Tony didn’t sail as a youth in Australia. He discovered the sport when he moved to Canada as a young man.

“When I was 23, I went for a walk-about and forgot to go home,” he quips. He landed in Toronto where he met his wife, Coryn, a devoted sailor, and soon grew keen on sailing himself. They bought a Lightning and joined the National Yacht Club in Toronto.

The couple moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they stepped up to a 29-foot Dufour Arpege named Maistral, the popular French-built sailboat. A few years later, in 1979, the couple modified the boat for cruising offshore and embarked on their first real voyage, from Toronto (having returned to the Lake Ontario city a few years earlier). The pair cruised through the New York canals to the Northeast United States, with stops in Connecticut and Maine. They lost a rudder in a hurricane and once were driven ashore — they also were hooked on cruising.

“That started us out on a lifestyle of working six months a year and sailing six months a year,” says Tony, who has since retired as a merger and acquisitions consultant.

The following year, in 1980, they sailed to the Chesapeake and Bermuda, then crossed the Atlantic where they left Maistral in Ireland for the winter. Over the next 15 years the couple would log 59,000 miles sailing throughout Europe and eventually back to the Pacific. By this time they had returned to the Pacific Northwest, settling in Victoria on Vancouver Island.

“It’s a great place to live,” says Tony. “Great cruising.”

High latitudes

Aboard Maistral, Tony and Coryn had sailed as far north as Alaska and as far south as Cape Horn. “After all that sailing in Maistral, we decided we’d like to see Antarctica,” says Tony.

Maistral was too small for the trip, so the couple set out to find a larger, more rugged vessel. After searching for six months, they found their ideal yacht, a 42-foot custom sloop built in 1988 by Dubbel & Jesse in Norderney, Germany. The aluminum cruiser was designed for long ocean passages, particularly in the high latitudes. She has three watertight bulkheads and tiller steering.

“She is probably best described as a pilothouse sloop built on traditional lines, with moderate overhangs, full keel and deep bilges,” says Tony. They named her Taonui, the Maori name for one of the large ocean birds found in New Zealand waters and around the Southern Ocean.

In 1996 they set sail from Germany, bound for Antarctica. The couple reached Mutton Cove at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island (on the Antarctica Peninsula), just 28 miles short of the Antarctic Circle. There was too much ice farther south to continue.

On the return voyage, while lying ahull as a storm passed, a wave slammed the 29-footer, knocking her down. The mast broke and Tony, who had just unclipped himself, was thrown overboard. Coryn scrambled on deck, tossed her husband a life ring, and hauled him back aboard. They cut away the rig and motored 200 miles to Argentina, eventually shipping Taonui to Lymington, England, for repair. It was probably their most serious mishap during many years of sailing.

“Not a good end to an exciting trip,” the couple wrote in their account of the adventure.

In subsequent years they sailed Taonui to Iceland, South Georgia and Spitsbergen. They liked the higher latitudes where the air was cool and there were few boats. Throughout their voyaging they have marveled at seabirds, whales and other wildlife. At anchor in one of the inner bays of Hornsund, on the Spitsbergen trip, they were “visited” by a curious polar bear. “[He] got quite a surprise when he slapped the side of our metal boat,” says Tony.

The voyage

While the couple typically cruised together, Tony also made several single-handed voyages. The longest was a 20,200-mile journey in Taonui from Cape Town, South Africa, to England via the southern capes, with stops in Hobart, Tasmania, and the Falklands. He says he enjoyed the challenge and shrugs off questions about loneliness or isolation while sailing solo. “Too busy sailing to be lonely,” he says.

At one point, he considered competing in the single-handed BOC Challenge but was discouraged when sailors with hefty sponsorship deals started getting involved. For Tony, it wasn’t about glory or money; he longed to make a non-stop solo circumnavigation.

The planning and preparation took more than a year. Since he was sailing under the guidelines of the World Sailing Speed Record Council, he could receive no assistance, use the engine only to charge batteries, and anchor only to effect repairs. Sailing from the Pacific Northwest would be a challenge, but Tony wanted to begin and finish his journey at home.

In his journal, Tony writes: “I crossed the starting line between our house and the lighthouse on Trial Island just before noon Sept. 28, 2002. I had on board enough food for eight months, and 210 cans of beer … a ration of one a day.”

He provisioned Taonui with canned and dried foods, including nuts and raisins, a two-month supply of fresh vegetables and eight large fruitcakes, baked by Coryn. Ample water, diesel and spare parts were obvious essentials.

Coryn stayed in Victoria and kept daily contact with her husband through SailMail, sending messages of encouragement and weather reports. He sent back daily updates, which she posted on to keep friends and family members abreast of his eastward voyage. The site was discovered by the public and drew some 600 hits a day. Cruising Club of America member Bill Whitney, a Washington resident who nominated Tony for the medal, was among those who followed Tony’s progress.

“People got hooked on it,” says Tony.

When Tony spotted a wandering albatross at 42 degrees south, he knew he was back in the Southern Ocean, among his favorite areas in the world.

“The Southern Ocean is one of the few remaining areas of wilderness that’s relatively untouched by man,” says Tony, a member of the Sierra Club of British Columbia, and supporter of campaigns to save the albatross. “The birds of the Southern Ocean are absolutely lovely to watch. It’s vastly different than other oceans.”

On Nov. 18, Tony was at 47 degrees south with 1,080 miles to go to Cape Horn when the barometer dropped from 1,008 to 990 in 15 hours. “The Chilean weatherfax showed a large low moving northeast that would give strong southeast and then southerly winds for some time,” he says. “I decided to lie to the drogue and let it all go by, rather than sail close-hauled into such strong winds.”

Taonui was knocked flat while Tony was setting the drogue. He later found about an inch of water behind the nav station, which entered through an open dorade vent. But it did the trick. Deployed from the stern, the drogue slowed the boat to about 1.5 knots — a “great defense system,” says Tony. He spent 39 hours streaming the drogue until the barometer rose to 1,000 and the wind shifted to the southwest.

Tony reached the Horn around Nov. 26 — 7,457 miles and 58 days after leaving Victoria. Winds were 20 to 25 knots from the west, and skies were clear.

“The word awesome is totally appropriate for this place, known to the sailors of old as ‘the Uttermost South.’ I was lucky enough to see it in bright sunshine, with smooth seas and a dusting of new snow on the hills of nearby islands,” Tony writes.

He saw his first of many icebergs Nov. 29. “The radar seemed to see the large icebergs quite well but did not always see the growlers, though fortunately there didn’t seem to be too many of these,” says Tony. “Sometimes the icebergs were so numerous that there were always one or more on the screen. This cut down on sleep time, as I couldn’t be sure that the radar alarm was from a berg that I had seen or a new one that the radar had just detected.”

Cyclone worries

Sleep management is perhaps the most crucial aspect of single-handed distance sailing. “You can’t get tired or you’ll screw up,” says Tony. He slept at regular intervals whenever weather and sea conditions allowed. While in busy shipping lanes, he didn’t sleep at all. In the more remote areas, Tony managed to sleep four or five hours at a time, Taonui self-steering by means of the Monitor windvane or the Simrad AP 2000 electric/hydraulic autopilot.

Tony recalls hearing a loud bang Jan. 7. He scrambled on deck in time to see the wind generator fall into the sea, a victim of metal fatigue and strong winds. He later found out that the generator likely had damaged the radar dome when it fell. (The radar stopped working three weeks before he arrived home.)

Tony covered 9,553 miles between Cape Horn and the Snares Islands southwest of New Zealand in 63 days, passing below Australia’s Cape Leeuwin around Jan. 15. He was looking forward to the final leg across the Pacific. “Although the Southern Ocean holds a compelling fascination, it is hard work, and I was ready to head north,” Tony writes.

He decided to head directly for Victoria rather than sailing 2,000 miles east before turning north, as planned. On Feb. 6, at 36 degrees south, 166 degrees west, Tony started to worry about cyclone Dovi, which had developed around 18 degrees south, 163 degrees west.

“With a double reefed main and staysail, I hung on to as much easting as possible, as Dovi continued to move south-southwest and I sailed north,” writes Tony.

Tony evaded the cyclone, then was frustrated for five days by the typical light winds behind the storm. The weather system returned to normal and, “[Taonui] romped along on a broad reach under full main and asymmetrical chute making 7 knots,” writes Tony. “It was great for the morale to be moving again.”

On Feb. 15 Tony made the south edge of French Polynesia and would pass the Cook Islands throughout the next day, with 2,500 miles to Hawaii. He crossed the equator Feb. 27 and was into clean, clear northeast winds. From the Hawaiian Islands, Tony would be able to sail a rhumb line course to Victoria.

On March 19th, a violent squall brought 50-plus knot winds just seven days from home. “Taonui rounded up and at the same time a larger wave hit her broadside,” Tony writes. “The boom dug into the water, and the forward motion was such that the boom snapped at the vang. I was in the cockpit and watched it all happen is if in slow motion. A sickening sight and feeling.”

“You expect gear failure. The real trick is to repair,” he says.

Fortunately he had brought a precut and drilled angle bar to fix a broken boom, but he had to wait out the storm to effect repairs. After being pounded for two days, Tony was finally able to make the repair.

It was a stiff beat up the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On March 24, a few miles from Victoria, the wind died. Tony took down the sails and waited until dawn. The next morning, some 30 boats came out to welcome him. He struggled with a light southeast wind and an ebbing tide, finally reaching the finish line at 11 a.m. Coryn jumped on board, and the local Coast Guard Auxiliary towed Taonui to the yacht club. Tony had sailed for 177 days, at an average of 137 miles a day.

When he’s not cruising, Tony presents slide shows and lectures to clubs and organizations, and audits a marine biology class at a local college. He advises aspiring cruisers to keep it simple and choose a moderate-sized boat that is easy to handle. He encourages others to take their dream voyages. “Go now; go sooner,” he says.

Last summer, he and Coryn sailed to Alaska, where they left Taonui awaiting their next voyage.