Voyaging skills

Sixty-eight-year-old Eric Forsyth has done some sailing. In the past few years he has completed one circumnavigation, and a round-trip passage to Antarctica, and he is planning this spring to head out once again this time to Svalbard (Spitsbergen), the island group about five degrees north of Norway. He is hoping to end up in the Mediterranean sometime in November.

Forsyth was born in England, training as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot in the 1950s. He moved to Canada where he took a degree in electrical engineering. He met his wife there, a doctor, and soon they were recruited to work at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1960. Since they were living close to the Great South Bay they decided it was time to learn how to sail. They bought their first boat, a 16-foot daysailer, and after a few years purchased a 35-foot steel boat. They sold their house, quit their jobs, and, along with their one-year-old son, took off to the Caribbean for a couple of years. When they returned Forsyth went back to work at Brookhaven, and his wife opened a private practice. In 1974 he purchased Fiona, a 42-foot Westsail, as a bare hull and spent the next eight years and about 8,000 hours completing the boat to his liking, adding bulkheads and wiring the boat himself. It is aboard Fiona that Forsyth circumnavigated.

Forsyth is a tinkerer and a great believer in the idea that the sailor, especially the long-distance type, should be capable of fixing everything aboard. We wanted to know of some of his experiences and what advice he had to offer to other sailors contemplating long-distance sailing.

OV: What kind of mind set do you have to have before doing a long passage?

EF: Well there’s always a lot of improvising going on at sea when things break. You’re not always going to have the exact part to fix something, so you have to use your brain. You have to keep the boat serviceable with the parts you have aboard, which means that you have to have a reasonable amount of tools and reasonable spare parts. You also have to know how to make do. For example, when I made my first transatlantic passage as crew we had two freshwater pumps on the boat, and in the middle of the ocean the pump in the galley conked out. It had a leather washer that just wore out. The skipper came up with a plastic tube of toothpaste, and the diameter of that tube was the same as the inside diameter of the pump. He cut the threads off the toothpaste tube and installed it in the pump and it worked fine. Now, personally, I love fixing things and I have learned not to let problems fester. If there is something wrong I try to fix it because, if you leave it, it can become the first link in a chain of events that can lead to much bigger problems. You have to believe that anything on the boat is going to fall apart, and you either have to learn to live without it or fix it. I always try to have back-ups. You should try to carry two of everything that is reasonable. I met a guy in the South Pacific who had two dinghies and two outboards, and on the last trip to Antarctica we carried two dinghies and two outboards as well.

OV: Over the years what kind of problems have you had?

EF: All kinds of problems, including rigging failures. I’ve lost two headstays and lost a mast because of a broken shroud. Fiona has wire rigging, and rigging failures are a problem on long trips. You get fatigue on the rig, and I carry a Nicropress tool with variously sized fittings and spare thimbles, as well as enough wire so that I can replace any stay, including the backstay. On one of my trips the headstay broke in the middle of the Atlantic, and we had to cut another and rig it while underway. I also carry a sailmaker’s sewing machine and a back-up sail for each position on the cutter. My headsail is roller furling, but the staysail is hanked on. But I would never go to all roller furling. In a sense the staysail is like a backup for the genoa.Any special problems sailing to Antarctica?It was actually colder going down the Chilean Canal than it was in Antarctica. Fiona has a fiberglass hull so I was a little jumpy when we got into the ice, for if we got embayed with the wind setting us in we would be crushed. Fortunately that never happened. Also there are bergy bits that fall off larger icebergs that show very little above the surface, so the radar can’t pick them up. You have to have a man in the spreaders to keep an eye out. Fortunately our radar was able to pick out the leads in the ice, so that was good. The radar went down, too, and when we took it apart we saw that the wiring had come apart on the mother board. I always carry a 12-volt soldering iron, so we just soldered the wires back in place and put it back together. I am an engineer by training and have built things that are far more complicated than a boat. Another curious thing about Antarctica is that the charts are not as nearly as accurate as the fixes we got from the GPS Many of these charts were done 50 to 100 years ago, so there are discrepancies. I always relied on the GPS.

OV: How do you charge batteries?

EF: I have an alternator on the diesel [an 80-hp Perkins 4236] and have another 110-volt generator that I can belt up when necessary. I also charge the batteries from an alternator on the prop shaft that generates about five amps, so I have three ways of making certain that I have plenty of charge. On a modern boat, battery failure is pretty catastrophic, so I make sure to avoid that possibility. In the tropics I run my refrigeration basically from the charge off the prop shaft. It kicks in at about four-and-a-half knots and is a real life saver.

OV: Where is your favorite voyaging?

EF: Over the last few years I’ve come to like sailing in the high latitudes. I’ve spent enough time in the Caribbean and seen my share of blue water and sandy beaches. I really like voyaging to Labrador, and Chile was very interesting. Because of the effects of the Gulf Stream one is able to get farther north than one can farther south; that is why I’m heading off to Slavbard this summer. It’s situated at about 80° N. The furthest south I have gone is 64° 53′.

OV: How do you care for and feed your crew?

EF: I’ve had a lot of crew, ranging from novices to experienced sailors, and I have found that crews can be a problem when it comes to feeding. I’ve had guys who are allergic to flour, guys who keep kosher. My cooking is simple but substantial. I try to have two weeks of rotating meals with plenty of carbohydrates and protein. When you’re out at sea you’re mainly dependent on canned foods, and there’s a firm in Ohio, [Werling’s] that’s fantastic. They sell a wide selection of one-pound cans of food, and I always lay in some cases. One of my specialties is chili Spam. Now you know a lot of people who don’t sail much laugh when you mention Spam, but it’s great stuff. You can fry it, make sandwiches, make chili. Some people think that going sailing is an opportunity for gourmet meals, but the fact is that at sea you want to get the meal out of the way. You don’t want to have a lot of pans left for someone to clean. I do all the cooking at sea and the crew cleans up, and they really appreciate a one- or two-pan meal. Using all the pots while at anchor is one thing, but at sea it’s a mess. I have a four-burner propane, non-gimbaled stove that has deep fiddles to keep things in place. Alongside it I built a gimbaled table which is really useful. It has 12 pounds of lead at the bottom, and when you’re dishing out food it’s much more handy than a gimbaled stove.

OV: Was there anyone in particular that inspired you?

EF: When I moved to Long Island I hadn’t done much sailing, nor had I read much about it. I sort of drifted into it. Once I got involved in sailing I found the books by Eric Hiscock very helpful. After we got our first boat and took off to the Caribbean I often shudder to think how little I knew, but you’ve got to jump in the deep end.

OV: Any particular strategies for heavy weather?

EF: I don’t believe in sea anchors. They are too difficult to handle; the gear is too heavy. I try to keep moving, reefing down until I’m under bare poles. I never stop, although I have lain ahull a few times, but that only works up to a certain wind speed. I have hove to and I like that, but then again I choose the times to do that. I used to carry a storm trysail but I found it a pain, so now I have another small mainsail with a negative roach that sets loose-footed. If I think there will be some weather making up, I unship my cruising main and bend on the storm main. I have two sail tracks and an extra main halyard. It takes some time to do it but it’s worth the effort. I use a weatherfax to get my weather reports, and I also have a ham license so I pick up all the ham nets that give weather information. It works pretty well, and the only place there was sparse coverage was in Antarctica.

By Ocean Navigator