Humble Kiwi gets home at last

In the southern summer of 1999-2000, with the America’s Cup preliminary races in full swing, fleets of remarkable luxury yachts arrived from overseas. And there were scores of family-sized yachts as well. But a humble, 20-foot bilge keeler called La Joca, homeported in Southampton, England, took the cake as far as I was concerned.

I tracked down the sloop’s owner in the boat club bar, a shaggy-maned and lanky fellow named Shane Pittams, who was slaking his considerable thirst with a pint of ale. I discovered he was a Kiwi, who, after a long overland journey, was marooned in the U.K. with a yen to go home. Because he’d grown up racing sailboats as a youngster on Waitamata Harbor (where the America’s Cup yachts were presently facing off) he thought he might have a go at sailing to New Zealand, though it had been full 25 years since he’d been on the water. The “500-quid” boat was all he could afford.

The voyage took far longer than expected. “I went the wrong way around,” Pittams told me. “I wasn’t game to sail across the Atlantic. Besides, there didn’t seem much to see that way. Instead, I sailed down the Red Sea to India. I didn’t know how to navigate when I left England. In the Med I didn’t have any charts except for some Michelin road maps and an atlas in German.”

I offered another shout of Red Lion ale and asked him describe more of his unorthodox adventures.

He said he had rebuilt a good deal of his little vessel before departing England. Frames were replaced, mast step and chain plates reinforced; he had installed a robust ring frame, which would serve him well in the Mediterranean when he was rolled numerous times during a winter storm. Through the process, he gained confidence in his rebuilt boat: “She had a strong rig. She was also fairly well-equipped with the things that you need on a boat – gimbaled two-burner stove, curtains, cutlery, navigation lights, and outboard bracket.”

He pub-crawled through the canals of France and set off to Corsica and eventually fetched Malta. “The tourist bureaus gave out big handfuls of pamphlets, some with maps. With the GPS and the fact that there is no tide in the Med, I found them fairly adequate.”

During an intended crossing from Malta to Crete, Pittams ran into what was later described as the worst storm to hit the Mediterranean in 25 years; in Greece it brought down olive trees, wiped out crops, and sank a good deal of the fishing fleet. After being rolled, Pittams resorted to some emergency procedures:

“After I dropped the main, I hanked the storm jib onto the anchor chain and threw out 200 feet with the storm jib connected up to it. I also had two jerry cans full of water out on lines. I tied my folding bicycle on a 40-foot rode and threw that out too. All of them hung off the bow to try to keep into the wind. We were like that for two days, during which time I drifted back 50 miles toward Sicily.”

Shane Pittams eventually made it to Greece, stayed a few months, and then negotiated the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. Eventually he arrived in Sri Lanka a few months later. Along the way a yachtsman returning to Europe provided him with a set of charts, and he learned to navigate using a sextant. But he was plagued with headwinds, mechanical problems (with his many outboard engines), and calm conditions. He survived long passages at sea on home-baked bread and canned food, mostly peaches, sardines, and condensed milk.

Pittams journeyed slowly southeast across the Pacific with stops at Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Palau, and the Micronesian archipelago.

When he sailed into Auckland, he had been gone from Southampton for four years.

By Ocean Navigator