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Slogging to Windward
by Chuck Merrell chuck@boatdesign.com

September 2000

IF there’s any hierarchy in the looseie, goosie world of do-it-yourself boatbuilding, the top spot probably belongs to those stalwart folks who, without ever having done it before, take on a boat project, actually finish it then jump in and make a significant voyage. ("Significant", by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean crossing an ocean, it can also be a father and son launching the dinghy they built in the garage together-sometimes those are the most significant voyages.)

So a couple days ago I was pickup trucking my way into the boatyard, trying to keep my take out Chicken Katsu’ on the seat and off the floor when a familiar figure stepped out from between two boats. I Slam on brakes, Katsu hits the deck, but I’m not upset because said figure turns out to be Jack Harding and I haven’t seen him since he got back from Hawaii. Jack spent ten years or so working on his Flicka that he bought in bare hull and put together in this yard and point of friendly pride used my boat shop through some of the project.

After completing a shakedown cruise through the San Juan’s, Jack then brought the boat back, equipped it for offshore and blue water. In April 1999 with his friend Don set off from San Diego and made it to Hilo, 2400 miles away in the respectable time of 22 days given the voyage was made in a boat with an 18-ft. waterline.

O.k., the intent of this month’s column is not to tell you all about Jack’s voyage. He’s done that by publishing the log of the trip on the Flicka Sailboat Home Page (The URL of which I’ve listed at the end of this column). Jack’s a good writer and humorous at times, so take a minute or two to read the seventeen pages and you can, in spirit anyway, go with him and Don as they go "awending" halfway across the Pacific.

The one thing I did want to do this month, though, was talk a bit about Harry Pidgeon, the quintessential backyard boatbuilder in an effort to establish a high-water mark that we "Weekend Wally’s" might want to shoot for. This seems to be a good time to tell about Harry’s life on the eve of the 2000 Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival. Maybe you think this doesn’t apply if at the moment you’re only building something small but one never knows. Keeping a dream or two on the back burner is an admission that here’s always tomorrow-besides, I think that every movement needs a patron saint, so herewith I place Harry Pidgeon’s name in nomination. Do I hear a second?




The Neil Armstrong of the day was of course Joshua Slocum, because he was the first to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. Everyone always remembers firsts, but seconds, regardless of their quality are seldom household names, and that was true of Harry Pidgeon the second to girdle the globe alone-not once, but twice and half again. And, in my opinion, was a more interesting man than Slocum, probably more level headed and wholesome too. People who knew him have written that he was a humble, but intensely determined person, especially as he got older.

Born to the farm in Iowa in 1869, Harry never saw salt water until he was 18 when he left home and taking the "Go West!" advice, winding up in California, then to Alaska and again back to the family farm. There he built several boats including a houseboat, in which he floated the Mississippi for a year before returning to California to live, where he eventually became a photographer.

Even though he settled in the perfect climate of Southern California, he yearned to sail to islands, far, far away. The catalyst, so the tale goes, was when he saw and fell in love with the "build-it-yourself" plans for a design called Seagoer, which was fundamentally a stretched version of Thomas Fleming Day’s famous Sea Bird. Sea Bird was such a great success that Rudder commissioned the Naval Architect Frederick William Goeller, Jr. to draw a larger version, which became Seagoer.

islander.gif (9574 bytes)

Pidgeon ordered the plans (cost from Rudder: two dollars) found a rent-free space on the shore near the Los Angeles harbor (close to a lumber yard and hardware dealer) and nearing the age of fifty, built the 34-ft. yawl in 18 months. I estimate that he worked 7 days a week at least ten hours a day. This would add up to five or six thousand man-hours, which seems a reasonable building time for a motivated individual. Among designers today, there is a bit of controversy about the Seagoer design. Most don’t think much of either the design characteristics or the hydrostatics. Most of the details of the hull are known, but not the specific displacement. If that were available, better judgements could be drawn and the probable performance figured, but as far as I know, nobody has taken the time to redraw the lines to derive the numbers. One of these days, I’ll probably do it when I have the time and then will write a follow up piece.

Pidgeon said that the boat cost him $1,000.00 for materials in1918/1920, which in today’s dollars would amount to about $9630.00 according to the Consumer Price Index-a lot of money for a working man to save in those years.

When he finished the boat, launched and moved aboard, he taught himself navigation from books in the San Pedro Library and perfected his new skill on short coastal cruises and a shakedown cruise to Hawaii, and finally in November 1921 dropped the dock lines, leaving LA for the South Pacific. He cruised through the South Seas, crossed the Indian Ocean and weathered the Cape of Good Hope. It took him four years and 27,000 miles. He was among the first to experiment with dried foods as he cruised: He used a C-clamp to force out the juice, which he would drink, and then store the fruit. His most difficult part of the voyage was the last and the longest-85 days off the West Coast of Central America from Panama to California, but about noon on October 31, 1925, he was at the dock in Los Angeles harbor. He was awarded the Cruising Club of America’s third Blue Water Medal.

In the late twenties and early thirties among other things, he wrote his book, Around the World Single-Handed. In there he said: "My voyage was not taken for the joy of sailing alone. It was my way of seeing some interesting parts of the world . . . I avoided adventure as much as possible. Just the same, any landsman who builds his own vessel and sails it alone around the world will meet with some adventures, so I shall offer no apology for my own voyage. Those days were the freest and happiest of my life. The Islander is seaworthy as ever, and the future may find her sailing over seas as beautiful as she did the past."

After the book was finished and published, Pidgeon and Islander did circumnavigate again in the year’s 1932/1937. He married for the first time, during World War II and in 1947 he and his bride, Margaret, set sail on still another circumnavigation. They reached Hog Island in the South Pacific’s New Hebrides in the old Islander, but while taking refuge, Islander was driven ashore and wrecked by a hurricane.

They returned to Los Angeles, and friends helped Harry build a Sea Bird. He named her Lakemba, after a man who befriended him in New Zealand. Sadly before he could set off again, Harry died of the complications of old age and pneumonia on April 10, 1954, at the age of 85.


So, that’s the story of Harry Pidgeon and Islander.

If you want to sail to Hawaii with Jack Harding via Rapport’s log, go to:


https://home.att.net/~seagypsy/index.html   Then select "Captain Jack’s T-Wharf" and select "S/V Rapport's San Diego Hawaii Log". Jack says, "The web developer calls me "Captain Jack" and all attempts to discourage him have met with failure. Also, what the hell is a T-wharf?"

Next month, I’ll change pace back to my usual, expected, grouchy, Andy Rooneyesque, dysfunctional self and find something to bitch about and disassemble verbally, but until then, stay tuned for a first report and some pictures from Port Townsend and the Wooden Boat Festival.

Chuck Merrell


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