A heart sick lover’s voyage to Australia

Sept/Oct 2001

At the conclusion of WW II, merchant mariner John Caldwell was in dire circumstances. His wife was in Australia and he was stuck in Panama with no prospect of finding a ship to get to her. He tried stowing away on a ship but was caught. Indefatigable and in love, Caldwell decided to sail a small sailboat more than 8,000 miles to get to his bride. The fact that he had never sailed before and knew nothing of navigation or small boat seamanship didn’t stand in his way. He found a 28-foot wooden sailboat named Pagan and with two kittens – appropriately named Flotsam and Jetsam – set off across the Pacific Ocean.

After a series misadventures he finally succeeded in reaching his wife on the shores of Australia. The book he gave to us recounting this adventure is Desperate Voyage and can still be found in select used book stores, although it is out of print. It’s a story filled with self-deprecating good humor and joy. Caldwell went on to build a boat and, with his wife and two sons, settled on Palm Island, a small island in the Caribbean, where they would operate a resort.

I met Caldwell on Palm Island in 1991, and even though he was in his late 60s, he was as fit as a college athlete. Short and broad with a low center of gravity, he neither smoked nor drank liquor and believed in the curative powers of eating raw garlic, which I must admit made our interview something of a chore; there was no way to get upwind of him.

Here’s what he had to say of his navigation: “Navigation was done wholly by the sun. On several occasions I experimented with the moon and stars, obtaining a dusk or dawn fix with simultaneous sextant readings on two bodies. In the end I found it needless work and stuck to the simple sun method.

“The slow speed of Pagan was ideal for navigating totally by the sun. I soon narrowed my daily navigation down to less than an hour’s work. At noon I took what is called a noon sight or meridian altitude of the sun. This established my latitude or distance north or south of the equator. I used only the sextant with a few figures, added and subtracted to come to a hasty, accurate computation. In the afternoon – about 3:30 or 4:00 – I took another shot of the sun. From this I determined a line of position. Simply by estimating my latitude, according to distance and direction traveled from noon, and applying it to the line, I had my position. Anybody can do it!”

So we will try. Pagan is inching slowly across the Pacific away from the Central American coast under a clear blue sky. The cats are busy on the foredeck eating the remains of a Jack that Caldwell caught that morning. He is relaxing on deck thinking of his wife and preparing to take some sights. We will use the 2001 Nautical Almanac and the month is July. The height of eye is 6 feet and the index error is 2′ off the arc. All shots are of the sun’s lower limb. All times are in GMT. Good luck and have fun.

On July 22, Caldwell prepared for LAN. He estimates his DR as 07° 45′ N by 92° 30′ W.

A: What time in GMT is LAN?

B: At noon HS is 77° 21.3′. What is the latitude?

C: What is the EP as result of the DR and noon sight?

D: Caldwell steers a course of 250° T for 7 hours at 4.5 knots. What will his new position be if you extend a running fix and advance the EP?  

By Ocean Navigator