Global friends

Memories of wind, waves, and far-away places tend to fade away. But still vibrant are fond memories of the friendship between two men that endured a circumnavigation of the globea friendship that was stronger than ever when they returned two years after starting out. “The start of this story is the start of our friendship,” said Tom Rodenhouse, who, along with his friend Dave Miller, sailed a Valiant 40 sloop, Morning Winds, on a west-around circumnavigation.

“The end of the story is that we’re still sailing together, and Dave has lately been trying to get me to take off on a cruise around South America, including heading right down to Cape Horn,” said Rodenhouse. “In between all that is the story of a dream of adventure that we shared. That dream initially got us started, and it kept our families and friends believing in us when we were tens of thousands of miles away. And it kept us going when, toward the end, we were both mentally and physically exhausted. It was 31,000 miles,” recalled Rodenhouse, now 48. “That’s a really long distance considering that for most of it you don’t even go as fast as you can pedal a bicycle. That’s a lot of time to work on a relationship, as well.”

Rodenhouse and Miller had known each other for about 10 years back home in Michigan from the commonality of church, family friendships, and schools, and because each owned a small business in the automotive repair fieldRodenhouse a body shop and Miller a gasoline-pump repair service. Living near Lake Michigan, they got the bug to go sailing and bought, as partners, their Valiant 40 sailboat.

But they figure they never got to know each other so well as when they first took off by themselves, headed east on the Great Lakes toward the New York State Barge Canal system. “There were a lot of stresses involved, particularly with dealing with the departure from our families,” he recalled. “While we were very lucky to have wives that would allow us to do this sort of thing, and that’s a whole story in itself, there were still all kinds of situations involving our kids, some of which we didn’t even know about.” For example, Rodenhouse for a long time had no idea of the situation in which his high-school-aged daughter found herselfwith teachers, parents, and her peers making rather harsh judgements about her family life prompted by the fact that her father had taken off on some sort of sailing trip. And Rodenhouse said he could only imagine what his wife was really thinking as she settled into the reality of tending to both family and family business by herself, as her husband sailed farther and farther away on a personal adventure.

But for Rodenhouse and Miller such worries seemed to slip farther and farther behind as each day went by and they made their way down the eastern seaboard. They continued on to the Panama Canal and then headed west across the Pacific, stopping first at the Galapagos Islands before the long run to the Marquesas. From there they followed the traditional Jimmy Cornell-type route: around the north of Australia and onward across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.

“We purposely mapped out what we knew would be a two-year voyage,” said Rodenhouse. “We knew we wanted to go the somewhat harder route around the tip of Africa. I know that some people tend to take much longer with these voyages, and others choose to avoid South Africa and head into the Mediterranean.” Rodenhouse said a reward for sailors who choose to work their way around South Africa can be the subsequent encounters with both St. Helena and Ascension Island in the Atlantic. These, particularly St. Helena, are ideal destinations simply because of their remoteness. They are not accessible by plane, and only occasional ships make calls there, so they are perfect for sailors. The inhabitants seem truly interested in interacting with those who arrive by boat.

“The islands themselves are absolutely fascinating, especially St. Helena with its Napoleonic history, and you can go there without feeling like just another tourist,” said Rodenhouse. “They were among the best places we visited.”

Advice to others

Looking back on his circumnavigation, Rodenhouse said he has a number of continuing thoughts and impressions to pass on to others who are contemplating a circumnavigation themselves. Some are simply shared boating experiences, while others are more humanistic considerations. “Two years is a long time,” he said. “There’s a limit to how long a person can take off on an adventure. By the time we got to South Africa we were both tired out and ready to get back home, but we still had another 8,000 miles to sail. After a while, the magic of sailing sort of wears off and you are left only with the appeal of new destinations, and the closer you get toward the end, even the destinations become stepping stones toward getting home.”

Sometimes there’s no wind. Rodenhouse cautions that it’s not all great sailing: “Be prepared for long periods of motoring, especially when crossing near the equator,” he said. “Our Valiant carried fuel for 1,500 miles of motoring, and we needed it. There were times when we had to motor for days on end, sometimes four or five days straight. Those days can drive you crazy, and the whole voyage can seem meaningless and tedious when you are just motoring for day after day.” Rodenhouse said he and Miller put about 2,000 hours of engine time on their diesel during two years of voyaging but rarely had to do any mechanical work except routine maintenance.

A good morale booster is to stay in touch with folks back home. “The trip may become tedious at times, but to your friends back home it’s still a grand adventure,” Rodenhouse said. “We found that, if we called home and folks could tell we were feeling kind of burnt out, they would go out of their way to encourage us and bring us back to the grand picture of what we were doing, of our original mission. People would even send us faxes of encouragement. We could tell they were vicariously experiencing the trip through us.”

Go with a good boat. “It’s best to go with a boat with a good track record. Find a boat that’s been used by others for similar voyages. You have to have some peace of mind that the boat’s not going to fall apart. That way when something breaks you know it’s not going to be the end of the world. I learned a lot along the way about boats where things were always going wrong and something was always broken. I learned that that kind of situation just leads to a constant state of mental stress. There’s enough to deal with on a long voyage. You need to have confidence that the boat will get you there.”

Go to school before departure. “Advance education is really important,” said Rodenhouse. “We went to seminars for navigation and medical training put on by Ocean Navigator, and we tried to get as much advance radio knowledge as we could. Nowadays one might include training in the use of an on-board computer for communications as well. This aspect is really important because communication is really a significant aspect of the trip. The two most important types of communication are staying in touch with home and getting in touch with your next port of call.” Another important area for advance training is for boat systems, he added. “This wasn’t so important for us since we were both knowledgeable about mechanical systems to begin withespecially Dave being a natural engine mechanic. But a sailor has to know his or her boat, and if it means going to class or to school to get that knowledge then that’s what’s necessary.” Patience is an essential skill. “You have to be able to really flow along with things,” he explained. “This is true both at sea and in port. Before this trip I was probably the most impatient person in the world. I was always upset with things or with people when things didn’t happen on time. But I’ve since learned to be patient. Sitting on a flat ocean for three days with no wind can teach you patience. Dealing with some slow customs offices in foreign countries can really teach you patience. When you learn that some things are just not going to go your way, and that you have no control, you are learning the patience of a voyager.”

Agree on a routine. One of the primary aspects of Rodenhouse’s daily routine was nighttime watch-keeping, with three-hour watches kept from 1900 until 0700 and a more relaxed and accommodating schedule during the day. Rodenhouse said they tended to eat an evening meal together each day but kept their own meal schedules otherwise.

Go with DC

Have a strategy for electricity. Here Rodenhouse feels that he and Miller made a mistake in not outfitting their vessel with an alternate means of generating DC electricity for storage batteries. “If I was doing it again I’d make sure that everything was DC powered so that it could run off batteries, and I’d make sure we had means of charging batteries without always having to resort to engine power,” he explained. “I’d definitely have a DC-powered refrigerator and watermaker and all the electronics, of course. When you are hard pressed for fuel and the wind is favorable you sure don’t want to have to run your engine a couple of times a day to charge batteries.” Although he complains about long stretches of calms, through which Morning Winds often had to motor, Rodenhouse stresses that much more often the wind was great and 90% of the time it was from abaft the beam on their route. “For us, Rodenhouse said, “there were times when we could reel off close to 200 miles in a day in perfect windfar more wind than we neededand we still had to run our engine twice a day to charge batteries. That became rather frustrating.”

Have the necessary luxury of not steering. Rodenhouse feels that one of the best decisions they made, aside from choice of boat perhaps, was choice of autopilot. He and Miller had their boat fitted at the factory with an Alpha Marine 3000 electric autopilot (DC-powered, of course) which was connected directly to the rudderpost steering quadrant belowdeck. “This machine was incredible,” said Rodenhouse. “It worked endlessly and in all conditions. It lasted 20,000 miles before its motor burned out, and since we had a spare motor, as the manufacturer had suggested, it took us about three hours one afternoon to get it up and running again. If I was doing this trip again, I’d get the exact same autopilot or one just like it. We used this electric autopilot in the roughest conditions, and mostly going downwind, sometimes in conditions so rough that we took shelter in the cabin, and it just kept on cranking away.”

It helps to be a people person. “A great deal of voyaging around the world involves mingling with fellow voyagers,” said Rodenhouse. “Most of the people you meet, or at least most of those with whom you form relationships, are your fellow voyagers. In fact, looking back on it, I’d say that’s the best part. I can count at least four people around the world whom I can call new friends because of this trip. Fellow sailors are right there happy to get to know you. The bad part is that many of the relationships you form with fellow sailors are only going to last for a couple of weeks until you head back out onto the ocean. Sometimes it’s tough to deal with that, because sometimes you know you’ll never be able to keep in touch and that you’ll never see those people again.”

Rodenhouse lists enough new sailor friends around the world to warrant a second circumnavigation. But he is not sure that another such globe-girdling sail is in his future, especially if his wife is unwilling to give up her life on shore. Although he and Miller sold their boat at the end of their voyage, Miller has lately been hankering to do it again, according to Rodenhouse.

“He keeps mentioning this expedition around South America from a west-to-east direction, including a rounding of Cape Horn or at least going through the Straits of Magellan,” said Rodenhouse with a laugh. “I don’t really know if I’m up for that. I keep telling him that we ought to just take a boat out to the Bahamas. It’s much warmer and less work, and it involves less time away from home.”

By Ocean Navigator