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Across the Atlantic in a £1500 ferrocement schooner

Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from The Boat They Laughed At in which Max Liberson sets off across the Atlantic in his Schooner to prove she can make it

Of all the yachting books I have read, not one starts like The Boat They Laughed At, by the inimitable Max Liberson:

‘I tapped the large man on the shoulder, interrupting his current occupation which was hitting the security guard repeatedly on the head while he lay in the road. He turned and looked at me. At first he was somewhat at a loss for words. ‘I asked him, “Just what exactly do you think you are doing?” With this he lost his temper and shouted to his mate who was standing behind the security van they were robbing. “Shoot him!” To my horror, the other man had an automatic pistol in his left hand…’

This unusual opening paragraph sets the scene for a rollercoaster read. Max is down on his luck as a dispatch rider in London, but a set of curious chances leads him to a beamy, shallow-draughted ferrocement 42ft schooner, which he buys for the princely sum of £1,500.

His pals in the Essex mud laugh at the boat and, in response to a wind-up, Max decides to sail her to the Caribbean and back, which he promptly does against all the odds.

Max shows himself to be not only a warm-hearted human being, but also a seaman of considerable ingenuity and grit. His self-steering arrangements are an essay in the understanding of how a boat sails, while his ability to deal with dodgy wiring and his quick fix when his inner forestay falls down are exemplary.

We join Max homeward bound mid-Atlantic, with his engine having long since given up the ghost, hacking north across the trades from the Caribbean looking for westerlies. Read on, and ask yourself, as I did, if you really need to spend so much money on your adventures…

“Sometimes I would hoist the fisherman staysail. This delightful sail was a big square shape that went between the mast tops. It was very good in light winds, but I would always take it down at dusk – we were beginning to get hit by squalls and it could be catastrophic to get clobbered with it up.

It was a pig to get down as well, and quite often it would get caught and then I’d have another repair to do on it.

Life was very busy for me. I would snatch an hour or so of sleep, but there always seemed to be something that needed fixing, or a sail change, or adjustment to the steering that needed to be done. I also had the SSB receiving radio to play with. I’d been given the frequencies for the American weather forecast, but it was some kind of robot and very difficult to understand.

This radio also had AM on it and I could pick up lots of American stations, but mostly these seemed to be Christian evangelical stuff that got tedious very rapidly and had me more likely to question if there is a God rather than reaffirming my faith.

The most time I‘d ever spent alone had been the four-day trip between Porto Santo and Gran Canaria. Now after a period of weeks I found myself getting very emotional about insignificant things.

I began to dwell more and more on my past life, and the mistakes I had made seemed to become of greater magnitude than they had assumed before. I began to despise myself, and this went on for at least a week.

New awakening

Then one morning I had a moment of clarity – one of those realisations that make a big difference. I really got the fact that what had been done before was done, I could live a better life in the future and in the now, and gradually I calmed down and won the victory of feeling comfortable with myself and able to be by myself. It was a magic moment, and I think seldom experienced by many people today.

Our course became more north by west. I really wanted to go north-east but the only way possible was towards New York. If I’d had an engine or crew I would have gone in there, but as it was I gave it a miss – I had no money and plenty of food, and after a particularly savage rainstorm, our water tanks were full.

Max Liberson and Gloria on a mud berth at Battlesbridge in Essex. Photo: Graham Snook

Once we were about 150 miles north of Bermuda and after sailing for three weeks the wind got a bit of west in it, and at last we could point towards the UK. We were on our way!

A group of dorado joined us that night and I shone the torch on them. Either side of Gloria’ s bow they spread out like outriders escorting a queen.

I know they were just making use of Gloria as a stalking horse; the flying fish would take to the air when she got close, and the dorados would be waiting when they landed, but it seemed more magical than that. More like Valkyries bringing a fallen warrior to the halls of Valhalla. All I needed was a bit of Wagner.

That night it got cold enough to put on some clothes, and the next day the dorados were gone, as was the aquamarine colour of the sea; it was starting to go grey, but Gloria was in the groove and romping towards home, and she had found the blessed Gulf Stream with its 2-3 knots of favourable current.

I could not complain. I began to see whales quite frequently. I think they thought Gloria was one of them. She was travelling about the right speed and the black antifoul looked very whale-like.

I also started to pick up Herb, the famous weather router on the SSB radio. He was sending the yachts closest to me back down to Latitude 35, into light and variable winds, which is okay if you have a motor and plenty of diesel but no good for us.

The first really bad blow started up and I struggled to get sail off and get Gloria steering on course. I just about had it sorted, when we fell off a wave and all the electrics went off.

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There was only 30 minutes before nightfall, and I had nothing: no lights or navigation instruments.

Leaving Gloria to herself I dashed below. I knew there was a common negative connection on the engine; my first thought was that it had come off. I reached under the engine to check it and found that it was arcing out. I managed to get it disconnected and then put a multi-metre on the engine. I found that the engine was showing 12.65V! I expected any moment to have to deal with a fire.

Nothing I did seemed to make any difference to the current in the engine. I got out a pair of snips in the end and cut the whole wiring loom. That did it. Then I started rewiring the boat. Lights first, then the navigation and so on.

It was a good job Gloria knew which way to go.

Reduced speed

We were getting bashed about a bit, but when I did get topside we were on course and doing 7 knots, so I left well alone and went to get some food and rest.

The wind kept blowing. Twenty-four hours later I thought it freshened, but when I checked the GPS we were only doing 5.5 knots. I was really tired and put the discrepancy down to exhaustion, so I went below to try and rest.

Down below Gloria’s saloon was an eclectic mix of found objects and home-made equipment. Photo: Graham Snook

At first light I noticed a long orange sea monster following the boat! Once a bit of common sense crept into my thinking I had a good look and realised there was something around the skeg. The wind dropped down and I was able to hook up the ‘monster’. It was a long-lost liferaft drogue and rope – a real sod to get aboard.

I was having trouble hearing Herb properly but I thought he said that after the strong blow we’d had the wind would go north-west for a few days, then go back to south-west and blow again, which is exactly what happened.

On 19 June I heard Herb telling a yacht called Bear to get the hell north above Lat 42 as fast as possible. We were in Lat 41, so what was the choice? Go south and prolong the blow or go north and hope?

We went north and 24 hours later the wind started to howl. I was reducing sail, the barometer was dropping fast, the waves were getting really big, but the thing that was making life nasty was a swell from somewhere else running at an angle to the swell driven by the wind.

Our speed was generating a big wake making the waves break. I needed to find a way to get Gloria to steer herself and slow down. She was on the point of broaching and I was rapidly running out of energy. I started letting ropes out over the stern. As each one reached its end, I tied another to it. Once I had all the ropes out I tied off the tiller and went forward to drop the sails, hoping the drag astern would keep her running before the wind.

It did at first, but then a massive wave loomed out of the darkness and she just turned into it. I had not clipped on and was in between the two masts on the lee side. As the wall of water reared up I realised I had screwed up badly and I was going to pay.

When we went horizontal I would be washed overboard. But it did not happen, good old Gloria assumed a nice lean, then because she was 14ft wide but only drew 5ft 7in she was pushed sideways. I saw the huge pressure wave building up like a bow wave on the lee side, hardly any water came aboard, but a lump of concrete capping rail landed at my foot!

I got the sails down, the ropes were keeping Gloria slightly off the wind, so it seemed to me the safest course of action was to shut up the companionway and stay below.

And that’s what I did, as big waves came thundering in. The water found every weak spot and soon the whole inside was running wet, but apart from filling up the cockpit and getting past the companionway boards, the waves did not do a lot of damage, or so I thought.

About four hours later, I felt the wind easing, Climbing out I got my first sight of the massive swell that was running, but the wind had definitely dropped down a notch or two. I put up the working jib and the staysail. Once the sheet was made off to the tiller and Gloria was steering herself, I started to recover the trailing ropes.

It took an awful lot of work to get the ropes in. I was sweating and my muscles were on fire by the time the cockpit was filled up with the stuff. I set to coiling it all down and stowing it. My right arm was aching and it felt like I had pulled a muscle. It needed resting – some chance!

I got some sleep, maybe a couple of hours, then coming up I saw the staysail drop to the deck. The inner forestay had gone. This was really bad news, because I needed the staysail to steer. The mast fitting had pulled out. I had to repair it, and looking around the spares locker I found a short bit of rigging wire with an eye at each end just long enough to go around the mast twice.

I rooted around until I found a handful of shackles, then sorted out my bosun’s chair.  This was connected to a four-part tackle.

My next problem was my arm with its pulled muscle. If the rolling boat bashed me against the mast and I lost my grip, there was no one to help me. I waited for daylight, and then it was time. I got up there fast, the repair worked well and less than an hour later we were back under sail. Gloria was once more steering herself. ”


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