At sea with an unlikely French hero

Jan/Feb 2004

Inquire of any random gathering of sailors if they are familiar with the exploits of Alain Gerbault, and more than likely, you will be facing blank stares. Sad but true, the story of Gerbault and Firecrest, his 39-foot cutter, are all but lost, eclipsed by more contemporary heroes. Yet during the 1920s and �30s Gerbault was an internationally acclaimed star, renowned for his prowess as a sailor and a world-champion tennis player.

Image Credit: From “In Quest of the Sun”

Born into an upper-middle-class French family, Gerbault first came to public recognition during World War I, as a flying ace in the French Flying Corps. It was at this time that he began reading books on sailing, most notably Jack London�s Cruise of the Snark. He became interested in the idea of crossing an ocean in a small boat.

�I decided at once,� he wrote, �that this was going to be my life, if I was lucky enough to get through the war.� After the war, he made a name for himself as the tennis champion of France. On a tour of England he saw Firecrest, a handsome yacht designed by Dixon Kemp. This was the boat he wanted.

So in 1923, Gerbault, a relative sailing neophyte, departed Gibraltar for New York, sailing the southern route � a well-known passage at the time, but one that rarely had been attempted by small-boat sailors. After a mind-numbing 101-day passage, he finally arrived in New York, becoming the first Frenchman to sail trans-Atlantic single-handed. For this achievement he received the French Legion of Honor and was the first recipient of the Cruising Club of America�s Blue Water Medal. He was an instant international hero, lionized and feted like a modern-day rock star.

Not satisfied with this exploit, Gerbault next decided to sail around the world, and he departed New York in the fall of 1923, returning to France in the fall of 1929 after a passage of more than 40,000 miles and 700 days at sea. He was actually trying to get to England in time to compete at Wimbledon. He didn�t make it.

Gerbault had become enamored with the South Pacific and returned there in a new boat named after himself. He died at age 47 in Timor in 1941 and is buried in Bora Bora. He wrote of his sailings. The book I quote is In Quest of the Sun, but there were others � all of which, sad to say, are out of print. They usually can be found, though, in the dark recesses of used bookstores, where they can be purchased for little money. (My first edition of In Quest of the Sun cost less than $5 at a used bookstore in Greenport, N.Y.) Since this is a navigation problem, let�s hear Gerbault speak about his particular concerns in this regard:

�My great difficulty on the Firecrest was to know the error of my chronometer in the constantly varying conditions of my voyage � At sea I was able to work out a series of temperature curves that enabled me to know approximately how my instruments were going. I sometimes amused myself by calculating the longitude by the distances from the moon to stars, a method no longer used at sea, but one which would have helped me to ascertain my position in the event of the chronometers stopping.

Let us join Gerbault aboard Firecrest as he makes his way from Panama to the Galapagos Islands. He is struggling in light winds and a north-setting current. The day in question is Dec. 18 (we will use the 2004 Nautical Almanac), and his DR is 3� 15� N, 87� 12� W. Height of eye is 10 feet, and the sextant has an index error of 1.8� on the arc. There is at this moment no chronometer error. Gerbault is making 5 knots, and he wants to check his longitude with a Sumner line. He decides to take an early morning shot of the sun�s upper limb, hoping to get an azimuth that will be as close to the Prime Vertical as possible. He takes his shot at 06:02:27 LMT.

A: What is GMT at the time of his shot? Gerbault gets an Hs of 2� 58.2�. B: What is his Ho? Using H.O. 249 Vol. 2, page 2, we see that the Hc is 2� 30�, d is �4, and Z is 113�, and in Table 5, we determine that the declination correction is �2�. C: What is Firecrest�s estimated position? D: What was the azimuth of the sun when he took the shot?  

By Ocean Navigator