Stranded in Panama after the war, John Caldwell took a 20ft boat solo across the Pacific in a desperate bid to re-join his new bride in Australia. But first, he had to teach himself how to sail...

I had a book, How to Sail. Every day I went through it and memorised names and mentally practiced the ritual of getting under sail. The armchair sailors in the yacht club lounge – with their yachting caps on – were ready to guffaw ‘saltily’ at every move that didn’t conform to their dainty code.

I unfurled the sails, let the halyards free, and ran the sheets out. I coaxed the engine into motion, and in a moment Pagan was free, moving slowly ahead. I lashed the tiller, and sprang to the bow to ready the anchor in case I needed it. It was tangled with its chain, which was strewn across the fore scuttle.

I took up the anchor, heaved back on the folds of chain to clear them, and made to lay the anchor beside its hawse hole. The deck tilted ever so slightly – I stumbled against the traveller. My foot slipped. I went over, back first, clawing upward. I was under in a second, dragged by the anchor. I dropped it, and groped to the surface.

Pagan was a length away, sliding eagerly on towards the moored yachts.The anchor chain was rattling through the hawse. The chain drew taut as the anchor bit in, and Pagan’s bow fell off, sailing in a long circle around the anchor. I struck out toward her. She passed within a span of a buoy, slid very close to a nearby yacht, then fell away again.

I broke into a hard swim, head down. I didn’t look up, I pounded at the water. When I looked, Pagan had fallen even farther away. Then, what she did stopped me short.

She struck a buoy, and turned directly towards me. I swung aside; the curl under her forefoot slapped me gently. When the chainplates came up I took a grip and pulled myself onto the decks.

Then she fetched up with a jolt to the end of her chain, and twisted, doubling back toward the cluster of boats. In a panic I cut the engine and wished I hadn’t. The anchor, I asked. Will it hold?

I leaped along the deck to the mast and dragged down on the mainsail halyard. The heavy white canvas whipped and rustled while it climbed – then it filled, bellied out, and by its force slacked off the sheets. I ran to the tiller. Pagan was moving, in fact she was scudding before a quartering wind on the starboard side.

‘ The armchair sailors in the yacht club lounge were ready to guffaw ‘saltily’ at every move that didn’t conform to their code’

I was confused by the sudden speed and my inability to reason with it. Just then Pagan came to the chain end. She stopped where she was for a moment, strained mightily, then gybed. The heavy boom flew across with a swoosh from starboard to port. I saw it coming and ducked, or I would have been knocked sprawling into the harbour. I ran forward, broke the anchor loose, and drew it on deck.

By now the pier was peopled with sailormen out early for the day’s cruise. These harbour circumnavigators practice a hard scrutiny of all things of the sea. A few had seen my glaring amateurism. I wanted to redeem myself by a seamanly show as I made for the open sea. I stepped lightly forward and hoisted the staysail and sheeted it flat. I hurried back to the tiller, to tend my course. In a minute I stepped up and sent the jib fluttering into the rigging. Pagan took on a more balanced feature in her looks, in her pull, and in her angle on the wind. She sped along at what I judged to be about five knots. As she approached the sand bar on the rim of the channel I put the helm well down, as it explained in the book, to bring her about. She turned jerkily up to the wind, luffed her sails for a brief moment, but fell back on the port tack.

When she had gained sufficient speed, I thrust the helm again to leeward. She rounded into the wind, faltered and fell off same as before. Again I resumed speed on the tack. Then suddenly, and almost imperceptibly Pagan eased to a noiseless halt. She swayed smoothly as though balanced on a wire, except that she was heeled at an unseamanly angle. I doused all sail, started the engine, put her full astern. No response. I stumbled to the

bow, plunged from the low deck into the shallow water and fitted my shoulder against the stem. I lunged at it again and again. I rested a few minutes, watching the falling tide as I did, wondering how long before I would be high and dry. And in full view of the yacht club.

I climbed to the deck cursing the harbour bar with everything I could lay my tongue to. Then it came, the wake of an outbound steamer passed under her, wafted her high, then dropped her roughly on the sandy bottom. I leaped over the bows, and shoved her free. I dragged myself back aboard and struggled to the tiller.

When Panama saw me last the decks were flowing their overload of sails and sheets into the water, the boom jerked from side to side and halyards flew at loose ends in the rigging.

But we were on our way out to sea.


– Excerpt from the book, Desperate Voyage, by John Caldwell