>BRIAN “BJ” CALDWELL TALKS TO NEIL RUSCH IN CAPE TOWN
An Interview – from S.A. Yachting Magazine May 96 with permission —
HALFWAY THROUGH HIS CIRCUMNAVIGATION AND AN ATTEMPT TO BECOME THE YOUNGEST SAILOR TO HAVE CIRCLED THE GLOBE
¯What inspired you to undertake this attempt to become the youngest solo circumnavigator?¯
When I was nine years old I sailed with my family to the South Pacific. The intention was to circumnavigate the globe but we never left the Pacific, spending six years cruising there.
We returned to Hawaii, my folks to work and me to attend high school. After four days of school I decided the rat-race wasn’t for me and I had to find a way to get back to sailing. My dream was to be the youngest sailor to circumnavigate. I was 15 years old when I first went out to look for sponsors while at the same time doing yacht deliveries to build up my resume. The plan took four years and I was able to leave as soon as I graduated from high school.
¯Did you ever contemplate leaving school and setting sail earlier?¯
I wanted to go when I was fifteen, but getting it all together took four years. Ninety percent of a circumnavigation like this is achieved before departure and the actual sailing is ten per cent — it’s the fun part.
Looked at another way, if everything goes according to plan I will have sailed around the globe in one year. It took four years of preparation!
While it took longer than I would have liked to get going it did mean that when I finally did leave it was on the 100th anniversary of Joshua Slocum’s voyage. That means a lot to me.
¯How do Robin Lee Graham’s and Tanai Aebis’ achievements relate to what you are attempting?¯
Both Robin and Tanai took on crew at some stage during their circumnavigations. I am going all the way on my own. Lee Graham left when he was 16 and got back when he was 21. As long as I return before my 21st birthday on 17 December, 1996 I will qualify as the youngest sailor to solo circumnavigate. He left when he was younger, but it’s the return date which is the determining factor.
Lee Graham’s intention was never to claim a record; in fact going to sea for him was a means of running away from home. Tanai Aebi on the other hand was given an ultimatum by her father — go to college or sail around the world. My motivation has always been to do it strictly for the record.
¯It’s hard to believe, given your passion for the sea, that you are strictly on a mercenary mission.¯
The record does not mean all that much to me; it’s secondary to my real motivation which is being out here on the sea. But given my age I also had to go for the record. It is the means to an end. The project would not have come together without the record on which it all hangs. I would still be sitting ashore if it wasn’t for that. I’m riding two horses.
¯What’s been the most fulfilling part of the voyage to date?¯
Rounding Cape Agulhas, which was the most difficult part of the trip so far. Also the fact that I am out here. During the years of preparation there were many times I felt it wasn’t going to happen. Looking back now I can say with some confidence that if you try long and hard enough anything is possible. That’s what the trip should prove.
¯From your log I see you made several attempts to get around Agulhas.¯
The first time I was within 22 miles of Agulhas and I was hit by a south wester of about 35 to 40 knots. The waves were just overwhelming this boat. It was forecast to last another day or two so I returned to Mossel Bay to wait for a better weather-window rather than break something.
The second time I was 50 miles from Agulhas and there was a nasty forecast from Allister on the South African net — the high that was ridging round the Cape backed up and allowed a coastal low to come in. They said it might blow up to 50 knots. Again I returned to Mossel Bay and holed up.
The third time I had engine trouble and the conditions were too rough to work on it at sea so once again I went back. It seems the trend around here is either a full gale or nothing!
Finally we got a strong southeaster and it blew me right round Agulhas. I’ve learned you don’t take any chances round here. Some people say it is the most dangerous Cape in the world. Percentage-wise one is likely to encounter more gale-force wind round Cape Horn, but the likelihood of 20 metre waves round this coast is higher because of the Agulhas current.
¯You were rolled earlier on in the trip. Were there any other incidents which you felt might have scuttled your hopes?¯
I anticipated a roll-over, but I did not expect it so soon. I figured it would have happened here off South Africa. But the biggest scare was almost being run down by a ship off Durban. It was really close. I had the EPIRB in the cockpit with me. The fact that something else, other than Mother Nature, could stop me was hard to comprehend.
¯What has determined your route?¯
I have been going for the most direct route. This is not a pleasure cruise. I have a job to do and basically I have been going for speed and minimum risk. I would have loved to stop at places like Vanuatu and Fiji, but some other time.
¯Social interaction with people and communities must have suffered as a consequence?¯
At the islands and here, yes, but with other sailors who I’ve met in several ports along the way there are more lasting relationships which develop. It is tough coming into port, meeting someone you like and then saying goodbye the next day. One meets so many people and you tell them you will come back, but I can’t be sure, I don’t know what’s over the horizon.
¯One of the things which held Robin Lee Graham up was meeting his wife during the trip. Have you heard any siren songs along the way?¯
I have met a few people, but to quote from the movie Heat which I have just seen, “Don’t get involved in something you can’t walk away from at a moment’s notice if you feel the heat around the corner.” I cannot commit myself at this point, other than to that which I am doing. I’m too young and I have too many things I want to do. I have to remember that and wear a blindfold in port (laughs).
It was lovebirds which stopped Lee Graham and Aebi, not obstacles in the course — storms or going on the rocks — it was meeting someone else. I don’t think I will have that problem, but we will have to see.
¯Even the most determined sailors inevitably have to swallow the anchor and settle down someday. Do you foresee that day?¯
It’s a long way off. Settling down for me would be cruising the South Pacific on a nice heavy boat, writing and going to all the nice places. I don’t ever see myself living in a house. I will always be on a boat. The writing which I do is always done at sea. The two seem to go hand in hand for me. I have a rough draft of the trip so far which I hope to complete for a book eventually.
¯There’s also the psychological side to what you are doing and the fact that, for instance, Robin Lee Graham seems not to have had a happy life subsequent to his voyage.¯
I heard he tried to commit suicide recently. I don’t know if there is any merit to that report. I read his book and I was left feeling sorry for him. In my case the more I sail the more I love it. I would find it hard to answer if you asked me what do I miss. Right at this moment what I am doing satisfies all my wishes. I am living my dream. I am very happy.
¯You are spending long periods of time alone at sea, 34 days to Vanuatu, 40 days to Cocos Keeling. Do you relish being alone?¯
I don’t know if it is me or other people, but I feel the solitude aspect is over-done. I am never aware of it. I’ve always got too much to do — watching the weather, sailing the boat, navigating, cooking, reading and my love for writing. In fact the longer the passage the better I feel. I can adjust. It’s the coast hopping and the short passages which are in a way disruptive.
My longest passage was 4400 miles from Vanuatu to Cocos Keeling which took 40 days. I wanted to go on all the way to Mauritius without stopping, but I did not have enough stores and water on a 26 footer.
¯That aside, has the Contessa 26 been a good boat to have tackled this trip in?¯
Mai (Miti) Vavau is very well built. She’s small, but great for what I’m doing. Ideally a thirty-footer would be better because I could go faster.
¯Have you ambitions of doing the BOC Challenge, or something similar?¯
For sure. This trip is the first step on a tall ladder. After this I intend going for the youngest non-stop circumnavigation and maybe one day the Vendee Globe Challenge. Each voyage builds my experience and convinces sponsors that I am a good bet.
¯Who amongst solo sailors gains most respect from you?¯
Mike Plant was my hero. I hope he is watching over me right now. I believe he died because of a lack of sponsorship, just being American. Mike started a little late, in his 30s, early 40s. Having made an early start I believe I have an edge on him. I hope to carry through what he started. Here’s my scrapbook of sailing heroes — Autissier, Gautier, Auguin……
¯I see you include Bernard Moitissier, a non-racer.¯
I have personally met Robin Knox-Johnston, but if there had been any choice I would rather have met Moitissier.
¯You are at the halfway point — does it feel to you that now you are on the way home?¯
Cape Town is my halfway point, but to me it’s a hell of lot more than half way, it’s over the hump. Percentage-wise the hardest part of the trip is over and done with. But having said, that any ocean can be bad.
I went up Table Mountain the other day. It was quite a moment, a time to reflect on the Indian Ocean crossing and all the blood, sweat and tears it had taken to arrive at that point up there on the mountain. I could also look out across the Atlantic Ocean and the path ahead.
BRIAN CALDWELLS ROUTE
Honolulu, Hawaii 1 June 1995 departure
Vanuatu 3400 nautical miles, 34 days
Cocos Keeling 4400 nautical miles, 40 days
Mauritius 2300 nautical miles, 20 days
Durban 1500 nautical miles, 18 days
Hele On Back
Last modified: Saturday 6/1/96 1249 HSTCopyright © 1996, SA Yachting / HoloHolo Internet Publishing, all