Skip to main content

Nine-year voyage ends short of goal

A solo circumnavigator loses the main mast of his ketch and must be rescued off California

A solo circumnavigator loses the main mast of his ketch and must be rescued off California

William Cameron Peterson, in the ninth year of a meandering circumnavigation, was reading a book in the pilothouse of his 40-foot ketch when some rotten wood put a premature end to his journey.

Sailing north at night along the old Pacific clipper route to San Francisco, Peterson first heard the bang of his rigging letting go as the bowsprit of the 48-year-old Newporter snapped off. It was 9 p.m. May 9, and the yacht Kamera now had only its inner forestay supporting the main mast. Then as the boat pitched in 12-foot waves, the 6-foot wooden bowsprit with its bow pulpit attached tore out the inner forestay, allowing the main mast to fall.

After first leaning against the mizzenmast, the main mast — with all its rigging — soon crashed to the deck where, Peterson recalls, it “was doing the horizontal mambo.” In the mayhem, Kamera’s life raft was knocked overboard, and a 10-foot hard dinghy was damaged, says Peterson, who is 56. “I got a flashlight and put it between my teeth, and got an axe and some cable cutters and did some work,” he says.

The ketch had been sailing on a starboard tack for 38 days since leaving Panama May 1. On this night the second day of 25- to 35-knot winds, Peterson had a double reef in the mainsail and was flying a small headsail, with the boat’s wind vane steering nicely 800 miles off California, he says. Having heard the crash of his rig and hesitating, Peterson then climbed on deck with his tools, and began chopping and cutting.

“When I got the mast finally off the deck it acts like a battering ram,” because some of the stays were still attached to the boat, Peterson says. “I got it off after three hours of work, and I went below and checked the bilges, and I was taking on quite a bit of water.”

With the mast gone, Peterson had lost most of his communications, including his single sideband and VHF radios. His GPS antenna was gone, as well. “I figured I was probably dead,” he says.

Kamera was leaking badly, and if she sank Peterson would put on his dive gear. “[But] I didn’t want to start playing bob-in-the-water.” At 1 a.m. he triggered his EPIRB. The good news, he says, was that the test light indicated the 5-year-old beacon was working.

His signal was received by the Coast Guard Regional Command Center in Alameda, Calif., which dispatched a merchant vessel, a C-130 aircraft and the Navy missile destroyer Chung-Hoon.

Peterson’s voyage in Kamera had begun Nov. 1, 1996 — his fourth major voyage in the last 26 years. The third ended short of a circumnavigation when, having erred in his celestial navigation calculations, he ran that 34-foot wooden sailboat onto a reef in Tonga and ripped out the bottom. He had rebuilt and lived aboard the boat, named Kama, for 12 years.

Peterson next bought Kamera, a derelict, for $1 and lived aboard for four years before beginning a circumnavigation that he says touched an atlas-full of exotic ports, from Fiji and New Zealand to the Gilberts, the Marianas, the Cooks and the Carolines. On his second trip to Australia he sailed the Great Barrier Reef, then “got to see the orangutans and gibbons with Dyak Indians.” He spent six months to a year in some places and got jobs doing boat repairs for cruisers in Micronesia, New Zealand and Australia.

“[Cruising is] one of the freest lifestyles I’ve found, and I love the ocean,” says the sailor, who first became intrigued with Asia as a U.S. Army Ranger stationed in Korea and Japan. He sprang from an unlikely nautical home on a cattle ranch in California’s Sonoma County, the son of a career Army officer. But he found that the sea, not the service, was for him soon after he enlisted, he says.

Yet more than once he says the sea has “tried to kill me.” One memorable instance was a winter hurricane in Cabo San Lucas, Baja, Mexico, where in 1990 he had been anchored for some time. When newly arrived snowbird cruisers tried to anchor too close, Peterson would ask them to move — a gesture that, while perhaps offensive to some, may have saved his boat, according to authors Lin and Larry Pardey. In their book “The Capable Cruiser,” the veteran cruising couple note that while 27 boats were blown ashore, most of them destroyed by the sudden storm, Peterson survived aboard Kama because of the way he had placed his three anchors and his practice of driving neighbors away. Peterson says he had to crawl during the storm to go forward on Kama’s deck. “You could play a tune on all my anchor lines. It was exciting,” he says.

Peterson says he also survived Hurricane Ivan last year in Florida, but losing his mast in the middle of the Pacific was apparently more than he could take. After activating his EPIRB on Kamera (He translates the name in Polynesian and French to mean “of the sea”) he pondered rigging a lateen sail from his mizzenmast and sailing downwind to Hawaii. Then he made breakfast and coffee, and at 10 a.m. May 10, he spotted the Coast Guard C-130. He had rigged a portable VHF antenna and heard that the Navy also was on the way. The Chung-Hoon arrived and launched a small boat, and Peterson was given time to collect his belongings before he abandoned Kamera at noon. Among the items he salvaged were souvenirs of his travels, his photographs, carvings and ship’s logs.

Peterson praised the Navy sailors, who gave him a royal treatment aboard their ship. Kamera, built in 1957 in Costa Mesa, Calif., and painted cream with dark green trim and a beige deck, was left to sink. “She was a pretty nice boat. She treated me very well,” Peterson says. But he has no plans to return to the sea. Two days before the mast fell, he had crossed his outbound track — completing his circumnavigation — and he was a week and a half from making it back to San Francisco, where he started.

“I’ve used up a lot of luck,” he says. “I’m finished with the sea.”