To the Centre of the Pacific

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Blog of Jack and Jude
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To the Centre of the Pacific

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A very long time ago, back in better times living life afloat with our two children, we still had to earn our Freedom Chips and would try just about anything legal to do that. Fixing marine toilets for the rich and famous being the worst. The best and most exciting came by chance, or maybe it was fate our meeting Harry Mead when a plea for help came over our amateur radio one hot sunny day in Malaysia.

Kingman Reef Operating Site

Base Camp –  One meter above sea – One thousand miles from Hawaii

For those who have never heard of Amateur Radio, or think it’s just about long-winded chats across the airwaves, a portion of Ham operators just want to contact as many countries as they can. And here’s the interesting part. There are just over three hundred countries in the world with a unique call sign. The last twenty being little more than a pile of rocks or sand in the middle of nowhere that are deemed a country simply by their sheer isolation. Mellish Reef is one, located 500 miles east of Bowen in the Coral Sea. Spratly Island is another, a pancake of sand 400 miles north of Borneo in the South China Sea. These rare call signs can only be reached when a team goes out to these very isolated spots and sets up a radio station.

Harry Mead wanted to do just that and he needed a ship to take his team 500 miles offshore with a captain able to find a bare pile of sand less than a person’s height. We’re talking 1978–No satellite navigation, inaccurate charts, no rescue possible. But Harry offered a year’s cruising money, and I felt we had the ship and crew that could do it, so I grabbed the deal.

I should mention that we had to sail from Sri Lanka to Sydney to meet Harry. A very long voyage across the Indian Ocean got us to Perth just as a powerful gale struck. A few weeks after that we crossed the Great Australian Bight in winter. Wow, we were battle hardened when we sailed through Sydney Heads to meet this dumpy elderly grey-haired gentleman beaming a welcoming smile. I thought, Crikey! We have to take this old goat hundreds of miles offshore! Fortunately, we discovered that Harry, while a little uncouth, was tough stuff, a man true to his word.

This story is not about our month-long journey to Mellish Reef taking four Amateur Radio operators, their gear plus base camp and two drums of petrol strapped to our foredeck. And it’s not about the next voyage Harry talked us into by saying, “Just name your price.” They’re both marvellous stories that one day I’ll tell. But this time I want to talk about the third DXpedition Harry organised for us which began halfway around the world from Australia.

Imagine a coral atoll in the making. There’s a ring rising out of great ocean depths, but only a small portion reaches the surface. The rest encircles a lagoon over 200 feet deep.

The night of April 7th 1981 is cool and clear, with the twin volcanic peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea finely etched by an intense curtain of starlight. At their base, where the sea greets these giants, is the tiny pleasure-boat harbour of Honakahou, carved from a river of solid lava. Banyandah lay at the dockside like a fine racehorse waiting in the gates while a child-like atmosphere of excitement and anticipation prevails as we lash into place the last baskets of papayas, pineapples, and stalks of bananas. A final tug on the ropes securing the drums of petrol, and we’re ready. The ship’s diesel engine roars into life, shattering the quiet loneliness of the basin. On board are Captain Jack at the sweet age of 36, Master mate Jude a luscious 35, Jason just 10 and Jerome 9. Also on board, George Carleton 37, a man who had never seen an ocean until that day, and Bill Boykin, ex-US navy, a grandfather at 63 with cancer in remission. Bill had been a great help in Honolulu, lending us his second car to round up all the new base camp equipment.

Bill and George wanted the honour of dropping the mooring lines and amid shouts of “Bon Voyage!”, “Safe journey!” Banyandah glided into the starry darkness.

Sweet, cool air brought the first hint of the trade winds. Each gust a little stronger, and when Banyandah’s lee rail dipped, we secured the engine and could finally relax. The boat’s Aries wind-vane steering device held a true course south while the lights of Hawaii’s Kona Coast diminished astern. Severed from civilization, the memory of months of toil and frustration melted away with the miles passing under our keel.

The smooth, fast movement of the boat, the black sky bright with stars, and the sea glowing with amazing bits of bioluminescence created a mood so perfect we could taste success in the air. We chatted the night away, George and Bill both refusing sleep for fear of losing the magic of the moment. Judith, the more practical one, helped our children get to bed, and then brewed a fresh pot of coffee for the night watch before turning in. Our normal routine split the long night hours into two watches, dusk to midnight, and midnight to dawn. During daylight hours, watches were more relaxed as the world’s commercial shipping has a better chance of seeing our tiny craft.

Smoothly powered by the steady trade-wind, George and Bill leaned back in the cockpit, peering up at the collage of stars while I told a swashbuckling tale of high-sea adventure. George then shocked us by revealing he’d left his landlocked state for the very first time that day. And had flown in an aircraft the first time and had seen an ocean for the first time. My head spun, thinking he’d kissed his wife and cuddled his kids that very morning and now was aboard my ship, heading deep into the world’s largest ocean. Little did I fathom the problems that would create.

At daybreak, Ka Lae, the most southern point of the United States, could just be seen through the haze, while the ship’s log held a steady six and a half knots. By 1000 hours, we had our last sight of land and then we were completely alone, a white dot at the centre of a blue disk.

Days merged into nights and back into day, each the same and yet quite different. We had time to study each cloud, each wind swell; we had time to talk or be alone with our private thoughts. We caught fish on our constantly trailing lure, mostly small bonito. But sometimes a powerful dolphin fish, a Mahi-mahi, would strike. This fine tasting fish of firm white flesh would battle with all its immense strength until, at last, hauled aboard flapping and jumping, changed its colour from yellow through green to an electric blue, until death turned it silver.

Each noon, after my celestial sight, I plotted our position on the chart. Each day, the tiny dot marking our position inched closer to the cross marked Kingman Reef as I plotted jumps of 136 miles, 138 miles, and, once, 144 miles. After seven full days of sailing, we were only 50 miles from our goal. The week had been perfect, fifteen-knot northeast winds, sunny days, starry nights, with no sightings of ships, airplanes, or other man-made objects.

Upon departure, we had set a course for the palm-clad islands of Palmyra, knowing that finding the man-high speck of Kingman after a one-thousand-mile ocean voyage would require perfect conditions and utmost navigation skills. But Kingman was the most in demand by Amateurs around the world, and by the halfway point, George had convinced me it required a fresh and eager group to do it justice and should come first. Altering course to make the attempt, a silent pray began running loudly around my head. Our last evening, alone on watch, that pray turned to doubt then fear as the sky darkened with approaching rain clouds.

Ocean currents are strange forces. For thousands of miles, they remain constant, flowing in one direction at a reliable rate. But upon approaching land, when the sea bottom suddenly rises, they become unpredictable. Making matters worse, somewhere in this area, we would leave one current and enter the world’s strangest current, the equatorial counter current. This narrow band of water defies all sense by moving directly opposite to the normal trade winds. Its northern limit shifts back and forth across the region at a whim of an unseen force, causing stress for all ship captains who sail this area. Normally, they’d give a very wide berth around Kingman, but my job was to find it safely.

When the wind freshened and swung ominously to the southeast, rain began to fall. It increased until my vision reduced to a scant twenty metres. But, heedlessly, Banyandah sailed on, blindly cutting through the water while closing the distance between us and one of this ocean’s worst navigational hazards. As the miles ticked off, I held my breath and prayed that my celestial sights were correct, and our luck would hold. Every few minutes, I poked my head above the spray dodger and peered into the rain and gloom, expecting to see that flash of white, signalling breakers ahead and destruction.

By 0400 hours, I’d had enough and dropped the headsail and mizzen. Like a sleepy kitten, quietly, the ship came into the wind, gently rocking in the swell. I awoke Judith and crawled into her bunk. “Wake me if the stars show,” I said, and immediately fell asleep.

Just before 0600, I’m up again. The storm has passed and the first tinges of pink lights the eastern horizon as Jude and I measured the angle between the horizon and our favourite navigational stars. Recording the exact time of each sight, my voice calling out “Mark,” must have woken George and Bill. Sleepy eyed, they crawled out of the stern cabin. After scanning the blank horizon, George said with his fake smile, “No trees in sight yet.” And we laughed at the Minnesotan’s usual way of greeting a new day at sea.

After quickly working out the star sights, they showed we were thirty miles before the danger that seemed so near in the rainy darkness. The current had worked its magic, but had set us away, instead of closer. The wind evaporated with the passing rain, leaving a calm sea and a bright, hot day. With little time to lose, under power we turned on a new heading, passing a slick area with rippling water on both sides; a convergence of currents trapping bits of floating plastic, a few discarded light bulbs, all alive with small crabs and tiny fish. All that morning I tracked the sun with my sextant; our chart becoming a mess of intersecting position lines, each a little closer to Kingman. By the time the sun reached its azimuth, we were very close, with conditions perfect for a landing.

At 1300 hours, I climbed our 14 m high mast and scanned the horizon. The flat, calm sea reached a sharp horizon devoid of life. At 1400, with supposedly only six miles to go, I climbed again. There! Just near the edge of our world, a splash of white against the expanse of blue showed for a moment and I couldn’t believe our luck. The breakers of Kingman Reef were in sight! At deck level, the rest of the crew jumped up and ran to the rail, but nothing could be seen. For the next hour, they strained for their first glimpse. Finally, with only two miles to go, George let out a whoop of delight. The rest happened fast. One moment a flat sea—the next, a long line of small breakers off our beam and the sea changed from deep blue to aquamarine. Coral heads seemed to rush up to meet us as we crossed the sunken reef. They were plainly visible even though our depth sounder recorded 75 feet.

Kingman Reed first appeared as a heap of brilliant yellow-white sand, sterile and completely devoid of vegetation, a result of thousands, maybe millions, of years of the sea crashing against the outer barrier and washing the broken bits of coral and dead shells into a pile. Excitement ran high as we toured the area in the cay’s lee, taking soundings for anchoring.

It was then that we met the first evidence of Kingman’s wildness. Even though the depth sounder recorded a steady bottom, it lay over two hundred feet deep! And it ran the same depth right up to the perpendicular cliff of reef. At a quarter mile off, I said another prayer as I lowered the anchor down into the blue, paying out every inch of chain and warp while shaking my head as it slithered over the bow rollers to disappear from sight. Anchored Kingman Reef—954 nautical miles logged.

The cay seemed to grow smaller instead of bigger as we approached in our tinny and soon we saw its sides were not the long gentle slope of smooth sand first seen, but steep as if an immense pile of plate-sized clam shells had been dumped from a truck. So steep, only by crawling on all fours, could we reach the top, where my heart sank even further when I saw that this forsaken pile of shells went barely a couple of metres before tumbling down into the sea again.

We walked the full length of the cay, all 75 m of it. Mangled bits of wire and remains of a vertical antenna marked the spot of the last DXpedition, probably Kingman’s last human visitors. On the northwest end, nature had scalloped out a hollow flat area about three metres square, backed by a near-vertical wall of shells and coral rubble. It looked tailor made for the smaller of our two tents. The lagoon, only two feet away, its only threat. Was this high or low tide? A quick look at the debris line showed it nearly high. I mentioned that swells might sweep the hollow if the sea got nasty. George grinned like a painted clown and commented that he didn’t mind getting his feet wet as long as he stayed on air. And so, we set up the smaller tent there, a move which later proved to be a key to our success.

Tropical night comes quickly, the fiery reds and oranges of twilight short-lived. Soon it became impossible, even dangerous, to carry on in the half-light, and reluctantly we returned to Banyandah. Once “home,” Judith prepared a celebration landfall and birthday dinner, for we had landed on April 15th, her birthday. Our boys set up a special dining table in the cockpit and laid-out our “at anchor” crockery, and then, helped by a wee-drop of fine wine, we rode a massive wave of euphoria that night.

At dawn the next morning, the boat came alive as we began the back-breaking job of hauling equipment ashore. We unloaded each item into one of three piles: power, tent, or antenna. By mid-morning the bulk of it was there, and Bill and George started assembling the beam antennas while I lugged generator supplies to the top of the ridge and established the power plant. For a while, Jason and Jerome ran little errands, but soon boredom set in, and they disappeared down the cay, running from one pile of flotsam to another, combing the most untouched beach in the world.

Raw Nature at Kingman

They returned, dragging a large pink fishing float and a long barnacle-encrusted length of bamboo. Thirty minutes later, they raised Old Glory, fluttering proudly from its bamboo staff supported at the surf line by a pile of dead coral boulders. Little did we know storms were to snap that staff like a match stick three times before we left!

With noon approaching, the day became alarmingly hot and airless. And our ankles became swollen, turning black and blue by many painful jabs from the saucer-shaped shells. We cautioned each other about heat exhaustion, but DX fever was growing inside of us. The multiband antenna we stood up on the low-tide coral shelf. The other pole held both the six-meter beam and another multiband antenna. Raising it became a hellish job, and moments of near-disaster ticked passed before our sons finally secured the last stay. After that, coaxial cable and power were hooked up to the two stations, and George checked for minimum reflective power. Everything looked fine.

At 0057Z April 17th, George made the first contact using the call sign AD0S/KH5/K. A huge grin spread across his face as he spoke with his lifelong friend Mike AF0T, back in Bremer, Minnesota. Mike surely deserved that first contact as the unseen member of our team whose cheerful encouragement and traffic patches eased the loneliness of the thousands of miles.

After Mike, first come, first served. Immediately, the pileup swelled into a gigantic opening day beast, and George’s eyes bulged with the onslaught of decibels. The last Kingman group had not lasted long, and no one was going to miss this chance. George lit a fresh cigarette, let out a deep sigh, and called, “QRZ, Kingman Reef calling.”

We had never planned our onshore operation. Plans and schedules seldom work out when you are at a really rare and hard-to-get place. We just knew George would be the king DXer. It was obvious; Bill had never beaten his way through a pileup of stations before and had come along to help. And although I had been on a few really large DXpeditions, I had always been too busy running supplies, maintaining equipment, and minding the boat to do much operating.

Undoubtedly, George was a novice, the new boy, the country operator, but he had a desire so indomitable that I knew nothing would stop him, and nothing did. After those first few moments of hesitation, he sat in his chair making contact after contact nonstop, giving a new country to over three thousand stations before collapsing on the floor of the tent, ending forty-eight gruelling hours without sleep. He awoke three hours later when I came ashore with fresh coffee, a hot meal, and a fresh supply of petrol. A couple of hoarse comments passed between us, and after a sip of coffee and a new smoke, he’s calling, “CQ—hello CQ.” Back on air, his breakfast untouched and growing cold beside the rig.

Yes, Kingman was a tough one. Tougher than Mellish or Spratly. With a precarious foothold and unpredictable weather changing from sunshine and trade winds to storms that hit quickly after building across many miles of open ocean.

The most frightening of these storms struck our first night ashore. The day had been quiet, but as the sun set, a breeze sprang up from the clear night sky. At first, we felt a cooling relief, but it soon jumped in gusts to 35 knots. As it increased, so did the tide until just at high water, the horizon darkened with the advance of brooding black thunder-heads and the real storm began. The wind howled past gale force, and the sea went crazy. Frightening waves crashed over the barrier reef and pounded against our puny coral rock barricade. Salt-laden spume flew against the tent sides and was forced through by the torrent of rain. Inside the tent became a horror scene. Gear got drenched and pools of water formed at our feet. At the storm’s fullest fury, it forced us to support the tent with our bodies. The harsh lighting showed our strain and fright as each man expected to be catapulted into the nearby lagoon by the next blast or breaker. Fortunately, the storm passed shortly after midnight and I set off in the tinny for my bed aboard Banyandah. Jude, bless her, stood on our foredeck, a casting coil in one hand, a guiding torch in the other.

Considering that Kingman was one of the most difficult DX locations in the world, everything went amazingly well, even though George’s Autek filter shorted out during the first night’s storm, as did his brand new Dentron linear amplifier. US operators proved the easiest to work as long as we worked each district fairly. Japan and European operators were frantic and sometimes unruly, while the South American operators got their share politely. And our cobbers from down under were the same: call sign, name, signal report, and 73, all at a rate of two-a-minute.

1981 Kingman Reef QSL card

15,000 QSL Cards exchanged to confirm contact with Kingman Reef

We logged nearly fifteen thousand QSOs, that’s ham talk for a contact. The last recorded at 1457Z April 22nd, five days and fourteen hours after we began. Not surprisingly, it was between George and Mike AF0T, with a “job well done.” And it had been a job well done. George had logged 66% of the total contacts. His beam heading had never moved, and a whopping 80% of his contacts were North Americans. The breakdown per area: North America 74%, Japan 15%, VK/ZL 4%, and the rest of the world 7%.

We shut down in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, extremely happy and proud of our combined efforts. Sitting by the door of the tent, we watched the dawn break over the stark beauty of Kingman and felt an immense bond of comradeship. We planned to spend one day breaking camp and repacking the boat, and sail the following day for Palmyra Atoll. That would allow us enough time to be established at Palmyra for the weekend.

Victory Last Morning

Five days and fourteen hours living on a pile of clam shells

And that’s just what we did. After the last box came aboard at midday, George and Bill collapsed. They woke briefly for dinner and then hit the sack once more to sleep the night through. Pre-dawn Thursday, the hundreds of kilos of anchor and chain slowly rose from the ocean depths, needing three hours of coaxing by the ship’s anchor winch. At first light, we were under sail and heading for Palmyra Atoll, the next DX stop on our marathon run across the wide Pacific Ocean.

A portion of this Blog appeared in the May 1982 issue of US magazine 73

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Around the World in in a Homemade Boat



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To the Centre of the Pacific — 2 Comments

  1. Jack & Jude,
    I have enjoyed reading your Log on Kingman Reef-what an adventure.
    As a sailorman I have circumnavigated Australia and most of Tasmania, however your exploits leave me dumfounded. The only comparable couple I have followed over the years are Lyn & Larry Pardy on their yacht Serrafin also home built.
    You are inspirations to all of us who wish we had followed your example and escaped the rat race.

    Fair Winds & Following Seas
    Richard Orr

    • Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful comments and your praise for our exploits. But, we are just ordinary folk who took advantage of opportunities. That said, we worked long hours, often every day, for months to reach goals that were eminently worth the effort.
      When looking back, life is short, and so, to have personal achievements to go with memories of varied lands and cultures, and the wonder of living life upon the sea, is simply grand.

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