Three remarkable craft made an unplanned rendezvous on the Antarctica Peninsula at Palmer Station in the summer of 1972. The 125′ American research vessel Hero and the 154′ ex-WW II minesweeper Calypso were both traditional wooden vessels while the 32′ steel sloop Ice Bird was the first small sailing yacht to visit the frozen continent.
Their three skippers–Peter Lenie, Jacques Cousteau, and Dr David Lewis (solo sailor and adventurer from Australia/NZ) were among the most experienced and daring in the world. They also represented the last generation of seafarers before modern technology revolutionized boat building and navigation.
Lewis was attempting the first solo circumnavigation of Antarctica. Departing from Sydney, Australia he encountered many storms, capsized twice and broke his mast 2,500 miles west of the Antarctic Peninsula. Continuing under jury rig, he covered 2.500 miles on short rations and suffering from frostbitten hands. He averaged 40 miles per day and after over 90 days at sea, he sailed in to Palmer and moored at the pier that served the American base, alongside Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso.
The Ice Bird was in a sorry state, but several of the crew of Americans at the base volunteered to assist with repairs. A skilled mechanic revived the dead engine and a welder repaired the hull, but without a replacement for the broken mast, the boat was still stranded at the bottom of the world.
When the annual supply ship arrived with a full load of cargo, secured with a pair of heavy hatch battens, the lumber was “requisitioned” for use in the temporary boatyard that was set up on the ice. The 15′ x 8″ x 4″ spruce timbers were scarfed together and trimmed down to create a sturdy new mast 23′ long. Since the original alumunium mast was 36′ long, the new rig used the reefed mainsail with a gunter spar to extend the peak.
Lewis even found a drum of yellow paint that would make his boat more visible. However, the yacht also needed many new parts, and was still not fit to continue the voyage. Fortunately, National Geographic wanted Lewis to write more about his research into the Polynesian navigation methods, and sent him a radio message. Lewis was able to return to civilization on the Lindblad Explorer—the first cruise ship to visit Antarctica–before the Ice Bird was lifted out on a rare calm day with the base’s mobile crane.
He returned eight months later on the British supply ship John Biscoe, with new sails, self-steering gear, and other vital equipment. After more frantic efforts, the yacht was ready for a sea trial by early December. On the trial, it was accompanied by a Zodiac inflatable crewed by Albert Giannini and Kent Yates as cameraman. He managed to frame one good shot with the glacier in the background.(It appeared in Lewis’ book of the voyage, Ice Bird, © 1975 but Yates was not credited.)
Lewis left Palmer station on 12 December but was immediately trapped in an ice field and had to be towed to open water by the Hero. He battled on across the South Atlantic, but capsized and dis-masted again at 45°S. He made a second jury rig with the spinnaker boom that also failed and was replaced with the boom, which lasted long enough to bring the battered boat into Cape Town, South Africa in March 1974.
This dashed his hopes of circumnavigation, so his son, Barry, sailed the yacht back to Sydney where it was later donated to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. It was recently overhauled and completely restored to show its condition in 1973 during the Antarctic voyage. It is on view in the new Powerhouse hall.
So consider this next time you see the words “world’s toughest race!” On his remarkable voyage at the age of 55, Lewis had no sponsors, no EPIRB, a broken radio, and no chance of rescue. He capsized multiple times and dis-masted twice in hurricane-force Antarctic storms, freezing weather and snow. With much help, he succeeded in repairing his boat in the most remote port on earth.
Lewis had many more adventures at sea, including the first ocean voyage of the Hokule’a, the Hawaiian replica of an ancient Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, navigating without instruments. Later, he wintered over in Antarctica on a 60′ yacht for several seasons with unruly crews. Then his interest turned to the North Pacific and Arctic regions and peoples.
He partnered with Dr. Mimi George, an anthropologist, sailor, and writer specialized in voyaging cultures, to study and unite some Eskimo families split for 40 years, some in Alaska, some in the Chukotka region of Russia’s Far East. All were divided by the Bering Sea and the Cold War.
I met them at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in the 1990’s when David gave a talk about that project. I was able to express my admiration of his achievements and thank him for inspiring me in 1962 with his first book “The Ship Would Not Travel Due West”
This short account barely skims the surface of one of his amazing voyages, of which there were many. He was married three times, enjoyed the company of many other women, who were usually described as “very intelligent and beautiful,” and continued to sail small craft singlehanded on long voyages into his 70’s. At the age of 85, he lost his sight while cruising up the Australian coast, but continued sailing with friends until shortly before he died in Tin Can Bay on the Great Sandy Strait in Queensland in 2002.
- Curiously, the Hero and the Calypso both have a strong connection with Washington state. The Calypso was launched in Lake Union, Washington in 1942 while the Hero ended its life as a derelict, sinking on Willapa Bay, Washington in 2017.
- The Calypso had also become a derelict in a Brittany boatyard, but in 2016 was finally shipped to Turkey where the lower cost of labor would enable a re-build. At the time I wrote this in Sept. 2017, the Calypso was damaged by a serious fire.
- Cousteau made a film of this adventure called “Voyage to the Edge of the World” that avoided showing both the Ice Bird and the Hero and depicted the French men as being alone on the ice.)
- Lewis was a daring sailor but cared little about the condition of the craft he sailed. Most of them experienced serious mishaps, from dis-masting to sinking.
- In the first OSTAR in 1960, he broke a shroud, lost his mast on the first day, but recovered to finish third.
- In 1963, the experimental wishbone mast on his 40′ catamaran only lasted a few days on the way to the Arctic.
- In 1971, the 39′ wooden fishing vessel he used to research Polynesian navigation sank when his son was returning it to New Zealand.
- In 2000, starting a trip to Micronesia carrying a precious native shell, the foremast ripped out of the deck of his 42′ junk-rigged yacht, which sank in sight of NZ coast.