Just Tom

The yacht log of sailor Jesse Bontecou brings to life the journey of venerable sailor and businessman Tom Watson, JR., and crew from Portugal, around Cape Horn, to Argentina.

Just Tom

With all the electronic gizmos of today giving us the ability to stay in constant contact, blog from the flying bridge, and file e-mails while crossing the equator, the simple skill of keeping a log seems to be eroding. sure, regulations require larger yachts to keep one for compliance and basic record-keeping, and many of us still maintain a log while on a long passage for navigational purposes, but the art of story-telling through the pages of a ship’s log could be going the way of the CD. Yet there’s something satisfying reading about past exploits, conquered oceans, and memorable experiences. The stained, weathered pages can transport you from the living-room sofa back to the sea. you smell the fragrant salt air, feel the heavy heat of summer doldrums, remember the boat gremlins that plagued your voyage and almost brought you to tears, and taste the simple, yet wonderful one-pot meal served at dusk before you were enveloped by the dark.

Here yachtsman Jesse Bontecou takes us with him down memory lane with his log from a voyage from Lisbon, around Cape Horn, to Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s 1985 and he has signed on board with the late tom Watson, JR., a veteran cruiser, former head of IBM, and ambassador to the U.S.S.R., who explored the world on various yachts, carrying the Palawan name. The experienced crew is sailing the recently launched Palawan VI —a 60-footer designed by Sparkman and Stephens and built by Abeking and Rasmussen. Although 1985 may seem like yesterday for some, it was a period where a written letter was still the preferred method of communication, cell phones were the size of footballs, you had to buy your music at the store, single sideband was the primary source of communication for ocean cruisers, and GPS remained in the catacombs of the defense department.

I got to Lisbon on Tuesday, September 26, and found Mac and Tom at the Ritz Hotel. After the all-night flight, I was ready for a bit of sleep and turned in until noon. Then off we went to the Explorer’s Club for a very pleasant lunch. We had a full tour of the building, which was fascinating. The most amazing deal is a huge wall map showing all the voyages of the early Portuguese explorers. By 1700 those guys had covered most of the world.

Tom plans to follow Magellan’s course as much as possible, and he seems to really like the idea of Cape Horn. We’ll see.

Saturday, September 29,
Lisbon
Still here. New skipper is getting organized. It seems that the old one is an alcoholic, and Tom does not feel he wants to make this kind of a passage with that situation, so Alden Cole arrived from Maine and is learning about the vessel. It looks like we will leave early Sunday and head for Madeira.

Sunday, September 30
0830.

We're off. Pedro, son of IBM guy here, is aboard to Madeira. No wind and the big Cat is roaring as we roll along at 8 knots. Saw gannets feeding. They dive from about 100 feet straight down and hit with hardly a splash.

1100. Fog. But with fathometers, radar, two sat navs and autopilot, so what? Course 232, engine off, good sailing, but a bit too close for comfortable going. We are averaging 7 knots.

Monday, October 1
At sea, wind is SW, 20 to 25 knots. Stowaway system seems to work well. We roll in the main at about 25 knots and the jib at 30, and then use the mizzen and staysail. We are standing two-hour watches and are off for eight, which is great. We see a few steamers, some birds, today no birds and so far two ships.

Wednesday, October 3
Anchored in Madeira at 0800. Cleaned boat inside and out— wind blowing at 25 knots so we rigged second anchor.

1600. All troops ashore but me, very pleasant with Tchaikovsky on the hi-fi, cold brew in hand and the town of Funchal spread up the hill astern. So far the trip has been good. Pedro is a drawback, but he leaves us here. The rest of us are very compatible, which is good, as we have 7,000-plus miles to go.

Tom now says we can go to the Falklands and the Horn. I sure hope so, but time and conditions will tell. The two-hour, oneman watches are not bad, and mean lots of time off. Although my bunk has not improved much—we’ll have to work on that. I have a whole stateroom to myself and lots of stowage.

Friday, October 5 0500.
All hands! Anchor dragging.

0730. Tom aboard at 0730. Pedro ashore and off we go. Tom was in a big rush and so got soaked stowing the anchor line, but the wind is abeam at 20 to 30 knots and we are making 8 to 9 knots heading for the Canaries and should be there around noon tomorrow.

Sunday, October 7,
Las Palmas, Gran Canarie

A very rolly voyage with lots of wind. We anchored about midnight. The harbor is very commercial and well planned. I am amazed at the amount of commercial traffic in and out of here.

0800. We are summoned to shore, but Tom wants us to have breakfast first. Moved into the dock, dropped bow anchor and backed in. Tom did a masterful job. R&R for the rest of the day. Big shopping spree planned. The deal is we need 20-plus cases of beer. Tom says okay, but he is sure there is not enough room. I bet we can do it.

Wednesday, October 10,
Las Palmas

Still hazy, hot, and muggy. Lots of boat work to be done. The Fischer Panda generator is not working, so Tom says out she goes. We gave it to a large powerboat.

Thursday, October 11
Tom is rearing to go. Me too, but not into 30 to 40 knots of wind dead ahead!

Friday, October 12
Still here! Skipper aboard recuperating from our departure party Benny put on last night. Shrimp, avocado, mussels, and fillet of sole, simply superb, plus six bottles of wine.

Saturday, October 13
0700.
Skipper up, off we go, no time to eat or nothing! I don't know what the rush is after six days here. I can't see what an hour more or less would do. No wind and very rolly. Almost got sick. Skipper now says Cape Verde Islands will be the next stop as with Magellan. This is about 700 miles down the road. 1620. Motor off, yah hoo!

Monday, October 15,
23.33N 19.35W

Worked sights, powered all day and all night. The highlight of the day was catching a 10-pound tuna. Big excitement and excellent eating.

Tuesday, October 16,
20.34N 22.04W

Powered all night and all day. Flat calm. Took salt showers on the foredeck. Ben cut my hair, I cut his. I did a good job. He really messed me up according to Mac. Luckily, I can't see it as it is all behind me. The girls in the Cape Verde Islands will be overcome.

Wednesday, October 17,
Bahai del Palmeira

Day 21 into this adventure and we are still speaking and working well together. Anchored and went to bed for a very quiet night.

After experiencing six rather forlorn days in the dusty and desolate Cape Verde Islands to refuel and provision, Palawan’s crew eagerly returned to sea and turned her bow south to put some miles under her keel.

Friday, October 26,
08.20N 26.42W

Cloudy and squally looking, but not much wind. We are four days out. I do miss Gayle [Bontecou's wife], home and all, but the experience is great, and I am having the time of my life. We seem to be ahead of schedule, so Tom is now talking Montevideo, Uruguay. I'd rather stay at sea, but I'm sure I'll be in the minority if it comes to a vote. Maybe the SE trades will come with this rain. I sure hope so.

Saturday, October 27,
05.0N 27.40W

Big squall line, increasing winds, off with Genoa. Wind at 30 knots and we are doing 8.5 knots. Very pleasant except it's raining like hell.

Sunday, October 28
03N 31.26W

Staysail and full main all day and very squally with 20- to 30-knot winds, and at 0200 a 45-knot squall hit. We saw a tanker to starboard. Good sailing and partly sunny, and we are making good time.

Monday, October 29,
01.50N 31.26W

Super day. Transferred 120 gallons of fuel from the deck to the main tank and we seem to be riding better with not so much roll. After all we moved 840 pounds about 12 feet lower in the boat.

Big celebration. We have two neophytes on board, Ben and Alden, who have never crossed the equator before. So King Neptune came aboard at 1830 and we hove-to in his honor, while we turned the two men into shellbacks like the rest of us.

Tuesday, October 30,
01.05S 32.0W

Right now we are hard on the wind as the SE trades are blowing too much south and not enough east. So at 1400 we tacked to get away from land and are now heading east. We are out one week today with about two more to go to Montevideo. Wind 30 knots with moderate seas.

Wednesday, October 31,
03.37 South 33.19W

Wow! What a night. Mizzen, staysail, and engine, leaping and surging, but we need to get east and this is the way to do it. Very active below and very wet on deck. Wind up 25 to 30 knots. Hard on it.

Thursday, November 1,
06.00S 33.19W

This makes three days of this shit. Motor sailing at 200 mag right into it. Rough, rolly, and wet. Why doesn't the SE trade blow more east? We're still getting set toward Brazil. Thank God for the dog house. We seem to spend our time tucked in a corner to stay dry.

Saturday, November 3,
12.0S 34.15W

Super day, shut down motor last night and have sailed since. Altered course to 215 and that brought the wind abeam. Today is just like the book says it's supposed to be. I just hope it lasts for eight more days, and we should be in Montevideo. Just a magnificent night, huge moon, soft breeze, smooth sea, and a cool beer. What else can one ask for?

Tuesday, November 6,
19.0S 38.14W

This is day 15 at sea and no problems at all so far. Tom and Alden seem to have a truce going at the moment. Alden was considering leaving at Montevideo, but I think now he will stay. I hope so, as he is good at his job.

Thursday, November 8,
24.13S 42.09W

Yesterday was too rough to write, but it was exciting. I had the 0200 to 0400 watch and nice sailing. At 1100 I came on watch to haul in a very big dolphin we ate for supper and froze the other half. Then the radar showed a whole bunch of stuff ahead. We could see about one and a half miles in the fog and drizzle. All of a sudden there was what looked like a Greek temple ahead. All I could see were the columns holding it up. But then it turned into an oil platform, and for the next four hours, we passed by platforms, supply boats, tankers, anchor buoys, and a small fishing boat that Tom says brings the girls out.

It is still cloudy, but not raining. Broad reaching with all sail doing 8 knots. We have 960 miles to go and should make it in by next Monday or Tuesday.

Friday, November 9,
27.48S 44.01W

Thunder squalls with 40 knots of wind, biggish seas and generally not very relaxing. All hatches down and safety belts required on deck. But we have made great time and averaged 8 knots for the last 40 hours.

Saturday, November 10,
29.07S 47.08W

Bright and sunny, wind 30-40 knots. Here we hove-to in the middle of no place. The wind is dead ahead and blowing hard with large seas. We put up the staysail, backed to weather with a chunk of mizzen, and here we sit very comfortably. It looks like we are making 2 knots leeway, but happily.

For the next five days, Palawan VI encountered a variety of conditions, from variable, shifting winds, to a lot of motoring. They arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay on Thursday, November 15 at 1130. For several days the crew tended to the boat, took some R and R, and toured the capital city. They provisioned and used Watson’s IBM connections to speed up the visa-application process, reducing the red-tape affair from five days to 12 hours. The day before Thanksgiving they set out for Puerto Madryn, Argentina, the gateway to the wildlife sanctuary on Peninsula Valdés, arriving five days later. The weather along the way was wet and chilly, sprinkled with a few squalls, including 60-knot winds.

Wednesday, November 28,
Puerto Madryn, Argentina

We took on water, but it is impossible for us to get fuel here. Tom and Ben went ashore for groceries, but no beer. We have eight cases left, so I guess we'll make it for a few days. I got up around 0500 for a personal drain on deck. While up there, I heard what sounded like a rifle shot, maybe a .22. I looked around, but didn't see anyone blasting at us, so I went back to bed. About a half hour later, Tom got us all up with the news that the dinghy was sinking. So we hauled her aboard to find a small hole in the portside tube, out of the same, and into the starboard tube, and out of the same. No question, we were shot. Later we found a dent in the outboard also. I guess someone didn't care for Yankees. However when we moved into the dock, they were very helpful.

On the way to the Strait of Magellan, the weather and conditions began to live up to their harsh notoriety with squalls producing winds of 60 knots. The passage consisted of heaving-to, motoring, and sailing hard on it, and the first rig failure when a U-bolt that secures the main sheet to the boom gave up. The crew shook it off and continued toward Cape Horn. Although Watson made sure he took a picture and sent it to Ted Hood, the noted yacht designer as well as the engineer of the spar system on board.

Wednesday, December 5
Headed for the Horn
We made it safely through the Strait and headed for the Cape. We have been motor sailing all day into 30 to 50 knots with hard snow squalls mixed with hail. It is now 2000 and Cape Horn is about five miles ahead. Still blowing a good 30 to 40, big Pacific swells whacking into us. We have the Horn abeam at 2115! We hove-to so we could take pictures.

The Chilean Navy contacted us on the VHF and was very friendly and helpful, even if a bit confused by our action. “You are there to look at the Horn?” they asked.

After rounding Cape Horn, a monumental occasion for any sailor, Palawan VI’s bow headed toward Porto Torro, the southernmost town in the world. The next leg took them through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, Argentina.

Saturday, December 8,
Ushuaia, Argentina

Tied up at 1400, the trip is over with 7,638 nautical miles behind us.

_And with the same matter-of-fact approach that these intrepid sailors embraced this voyage, Jesse Bontecou signed off Palawan VI’s log, and settled in for a long journey home. Watson continued his adventures on Palawan VI, and later built Palawan VII, a Little Harbor 75. He was a recipient of the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal, having sailed farther up the Northern coast of Greenland than any non-military ship had done at the time. He actively sailed until his death in 1993 at the age of 79.

Jesse Bontecou enjoyed a few other adventures with Watson, but also actively sails his Concordia Yawl, Harrier, that he purchased from C. Raymond Hunt in 1956. He currently lives in Millbrook, New York._