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Pidgeon and the “Islander”

The first man to sail on a single-handed voyage of World circumnavigation since Captain Joshua Slocum’s exploit in 1895-98. Harry Pidgeon left Los Angeles in the Islander on November 18, 1921. His voyage lasted for nearly four years


PIDGEON’S 34-FEET YAWL, the Islander

PIDGEON’S 34-FEET YAWL, the Islander, was built by himself at a cost of about £250 for materials. Her trials were made off Catalina Island, near Los Angeles, where this photograph was taken. The Islander had a beam of 10 ft. 9 in. and a draught of 5 feet. Her iron keel weighed 1,250 lb. The yawl proved a splendid sea boat.

TO sail round the world single-handed is an extraordinary feat of navigation and requires remarkable courage and seamanship. Captain Joshua Slocum’s pioneer voyage is described in the chapter “Captain Slocum the Pioneer”. His courageous successor was Harry Pidgeon, who set out from Los Angeles on November 18, 1921.

During his voyage Pidgeon met Gerbault at Balboa, on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. Gerbault’s voyage is described in the chapter “Gerbault and the Firecrest”. The vessels and temperaments of the two circumnavigators were in marked contrast.

Neither Gerbault nor Pidgeon is a sailor by profession; but Pidgeon is as handy a man as Slocum was. He can use his hands to make and rig a boat. He was thus able to make his voyage at less expense and trouble than Gerbault, because Pidgeon did most of his fitting for himself and started with a new yacht. He tells the story of his adventures in his book Around the World Single-Handed. Whereas Gerbault began with an old racing cruiser and had to sew his way across the Atlantic for the first leg of his voyage, Pidgeon’s gear was new and strong, and at the end of the trip his little yawl the Islander was in seaworthy condition.

Born on a farm in the Middle West and not seeing the sea until he was a youth of eighteen, Pidgeon started from scratch so far as seamanship was concerned, and his first adventures were on fresh, not salt water. He and another young farmer went to Alaska one summer, cut planks out of a spruce tree and built a boat.

The small-boat microbe soon became active in Pidgeon’s blood. The next outbreak was a voyage down the River Mississippi in a boat that he had built. This trip occupied a year, and Pidgeon earned money by taking photographs and selling them. There followed some years as a photographer in the timber country of California while he saved every cent towards building a yacht to take him to sea.

Pidgeon’s problem was to find a seaworthy design which he could build without obtaining elaborate appliances or using methods which were beyond his powers as an amateur. He found what he wanted in a V-bottom type developed by Captain Thomas Fleming Day and designers on the staff of The Rudder. The advantage was that Pidgeon could build a yacht of this type without using a steam-box, as the flat sides and the ’midship section got over the difficulty of having to use bent or steamed frames.

He modified and altered the designs in some details according to his ideas and to the extent of his resources of cash and material. Nearly all the wood was Douglas fir or Oregon pine, the stem being oak. An iron keel weighing 1,250 lb. was bolted to the keel timbers. The Islander was 34 feet long, with a beam of 10 ft. 9 in. and a draught of 5 feet.


HARRY PIDGEON HEWING OUT KEEL TIMBERS for the Islander in 1917. The timbers were 8 in. wide and 12 in. thick; the longest measured 28 feet. They were cut to shape with saw and adze, and were bolted to the 1,250-lb. iron keel with large iron bolts.

Because of the design the hull was shallow, and to obtain head room in the cabin a coach-roof was built, the sides being carried aft to form the coamings for the cockpit, which was of the self-bailing type. This type of cockpit is water-tight, and any seawater which gets into it drains out through pipes leading through the hull. The 12-feet cabin contained two berths, lockers and a stove.

The vessel was yawl-rigged, and her total sail area of 633 square feet consisted of a jib (119 square feet), a mainsail (394 square feet), and a mizen (120 square feet). Pidgeon built a 9-feet dinghy, which he carried lashed to the top of the cabin when at sea. The Islander was built almost entirely by himself in eighteen months and cost about £250 for materials.

After her launch, Pidgeon tested her and then settled down to the study of navigation. He decided to take the sun as his guide and to eliminate stellar work. His instruments comprised a sextant, two compasses, a patent log, and two watches, one for Greenwich time and the other for ship’s time. He did not use logarithm tables, as is the practice of British navigators, but tables which enabled him to establish longitude by chronometer by another method. He had the usual parallel rules, protractor and dividers for chart work, but he lacked charts and pilot books for some waters.

He determined to sail to Hawaii to get experience, and reached Honolulu in twenty-six days, feeling tired of single-handed sailing. During the passage he experimented until he found the balance of sail that would keep the Islander on her course while he was asleep. In the early days he found that working out his longitude in the cabin was too much for a man not immune from sea-sickness, and he relied upon a noon sight for latitude.

The stores problem was vital, and Pidgeon made no mistakes. His water-carrying capacity was 100 gallons. He reckoned to use half a gallon a day, so that even if he were ever at sea for six whole months between two ports he could not die of thirst.

His previous adventures had taught him much about rationing, so that his victualling was excellent. He burned wood in his stove, and never had any trouble with that. He had a small hand mill to grind the wheat and corn which he used instead of bread and ship’s biscuits. He stored beans, peas, rice, dried fruits, and sugar in moisture-proof containers, thus solving the mildew problem.

Beginner’s Luck

Pidgeon carried an adequate quantity of bacon and, although he had tinned salmon, milk and fruit, he always used these as little as possible, preferring native food when he could get it. He ate native fruit and vegetables, as well as potatoes and onions.

He had good luck at the start. He sailed out of Los Angeles before a fair wind and got south in time to escape the worst storm on the coast for years. The going, however, was rough. Once he gybed and was stunned by a reefing cleat which struck him behind the ear. The gale became so strong that he furled all sail except the storm jib, which he hauled flat amidships, lashing his tiller and letting the Islander blow before the wind. This storm lasted for three days, but Pidgeon always managed to cook on his wood-burning stove. Scarcely had he set all his sails when the last of the storm burst so violently that he lowered everything and the yacht ran before the squalls under bare poles at about 6 knots. Thus he entered the Doldrums.

In the Doldrums he cut his sleep short so that he could be ever on the alert to make the most of the squalls that breezed up between the calms. Once he made only a mile in twenty-four hours. At another time he swam round his becalmed yacht with a dolphin for company. Then at last he crept south to the region of the southeast trades and anchored in the Bay of Taiohae, in the island of Nukuhiva, one of the Marquesas, forty-two days out from Los Angeles.

The Islander beached for repainting

BEACHED FOR REPAINTING on Prince of Wales Island, in the Torres Strait, between Australia and New Guinea. Here Pidgeon cleaned the Islander’s hull and gave her a coat of copper paint. The yacht’s deep keel gave her a good list when beached. Her dinghy, 9 feet in length, is seen alongside.

Pidgeon spent four months in the Marquesas. The Islander was not copper-sheathed, but was protected by anti-fouling paint against marine growths. At intervals, therefore, the bottom had to be examined and repainted. Because of her deep keel she took a fair list when beached, enabling Pidgeon to get at either side alternately.

Nukuhiva is notorious for the nau-nau fly, and Pidgeon did not escape the unwelcome attentions of these insects. They are much smaller than mosquitoes, and do not warn by their shrillings. Their bites are extremely irritating. The flies had bitten Pidgeon so severely that he had an abscess on one arm. The other arm was sore and swollen from a sailing mishap. Therefore the task of scrubbing and painting the Islander was a hard one.

Not having a chart of the Tuamotus, or Low Archipelago, a group of low-lying coral islands between the Marquesas and Tahiti, Pidgeon had to rely on the information given to him by the masters of trading schooners and on a track chart of the Pacific; but he managed to tie up at the wharf at Takaroa without coming to grief. The wreck of a sailing ship was piled on the reef, where it had been blown by the hurricane of 1906, and this enabled Pidgeon to identify the island. He did not stay long, but sailed for Tahiti, finding plenty of wind during the passage.

After a cruise among the Society Islands, of which Tahiti is the chief, Pidgeon’s next passage was to Samoa. From there he sailed to Fiji, but broke his boom during a squall. He repaired it by nailing strips of boards round the two broken parts and lashing rope round so that the boom lasted for the passage to Fiji. Here he made a new boom, had the Islander hauled out of the water on a slip and cleaned and painted his ship again.

During his stay in Fiji, Pidgeon nearly came to grief. He was waiting in the islands for the end of the hurricane season when there came a warning of a hurricane. Pidgeon was recommended to sail to a comparatively safe cove, but ran aground, so that the Islander was left on a ledge by the falling tide. He managed to get her afloat on the next tide, but his anchor was fouled, and he had to slip the anchor chain and buoy it, recovering his anchor later. The hurricane missed Fiji, so that Pidgeon had all his trouble for nothing; he did not grumble about that as he was too thankful that a storm had not arisen when his yacht was on the ledge.

After the end of the hurricane season, Pidgeon sailed for the New Hebrides and then for Port Moresby, New Guinea. Here he was in danger because of his lack of charts. The keel of the Islander grated on coral, but Pidgeon managed to sail off the reef and get into Port Moresby. Again the Islander had a narrow escape. Pidgeon was ashore one evening and returned to the beach when a gale was blowing offshore.

To his alarm he could not see the Islander. Search was made in a launch, and not until daybreak was the truant seen. The stock of her anchor had broken, and she had drifted clear of a reef until the broken anchor had caught on the reef and held. On another occasion Pidgeon brought up alongside a native ketch and took the ketch skipper’s word that there were 9 feet of water. The tide fell and the swell bumped the keel of the Islander on the bottom. Pidgeon hurriedly set his sails, weighed his anchor and managed to claw off into deeper water.


PIDGEON’S VOYAGE ROUND THE WORLD started at Los Angeles (extreme right of this map, above) on November 18, 1921. Forty-two days later the Islander dropped anchor off Nukuhiva, one of the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. Pidgeon sailed to the Society Islands, Samoa and Fiji, where his yacht nearly came to grief. After the hurricane season Pidgeon made for Port Moresby, New Guinea, where he was endangered through lack of charts. The course through the Torres Strait to Timor, and across the Indian Ocean to Durban formed the next part of the voyage. Then, following approximately Slocum’s track, Pidgeon reached the Panama Canal. The most difficult and tedious part of the voyage was from Balboa to Los Angeles, but Pidgeon arrived there safely on October 31, 1925.


When Pidgeon reached Thursday Island to refit, he debated whether to go south to Australia or to return to Los Angeles by way of South Africa and the Panama Canal. He decided on the latter plan. He sailed to Ku-pang, in the island of Timor, and then to Christmas Island, where he encountered a steamer called the Islander.

He reached the Cocos-Keeling Islands soon after the 40-feet ketch had left on her voyage from Shanghai to Denmark. This ketch was built by a Chinese shipwright and was sailed by a party of young Danes employed by a cable company. She made a good voyage to Denmark, where she was afterwards bought by an American yachtsman, De Witt Wells. She was wrecked near Cape Breton after her owner and his crew had sailed her across the North Atlantic by way of Iceland.

At the island of Rodriguez Pidgeon had news of the Shanghai again, and also of the feat of the two boats of the Trevessa, whose heroic adventures are described in the chapter “Heroes of the Trevessa”. Captain Foster’s boat reached Rodriguez after having sailed more than 1,500 miles across the Indian Ocean.

Pidgeon took a pilot at Rodriguez. When he decided to sail he found that the pilot had let go both anchors so that they fouled the deep-sea cable. After unavailing efforts to free the anchors, Pidgeon had to saw through the anchor chains. At his next port, Mauritius, he gave a lecture and obtained more than enough cash to pay for new anchors. He put the Islander on a slip and repainted her.

The Islander underwent repairs at Capetown

AT CAPETOWN, IN TABLE BAY, the Islander underwent repairs to her rudder and part of her keel, which had been damaged when she was driven ashore over some rocks. Her total sail area was 633 feet. The cabin was 12 feet long; the sides of the coach-roof were carried aft to form the coamings of the cockpit.

His next port was Durban, South Africa, where he berthed just before Christmas. He did well with lantern lectures and when he sailed for Capetown he was in funds. His passage to the Cape was a rough one, and he was hove-to for two days. His storm jib split, and he took the sail in and put out his sea anchor, but this was too small and light; he had an anxious time mending the sail, but finished the work and set the jib, and was able to draw off-shore.

After a happy time in Capetown Pidgeon set out for St. Helena, but was stranded before he had gone far. The wind was light and he could not get off the land. On the third night out, when he thought he was farther off the shore, he turned in and was awakened by the shock of the Islander taking the ground. While he was sleeping the wind had changed and blown the yacht ashore. No single-hander can fight sleep and, although the shift of wind was a stroke of misfortune, Pidgeon realized that luck had not deserted him. The Islander had blown ashore on a patch of sand between rocks and had floated over some rocks, although they had damaged part of her keel and rudder.

Ready aid was forthcoming and the Islander was towed off. She returned to Capetown, where Pidgeon repaired the damage in three days. His account of the kindness with which he was treated in South Africa is a tribute to the sportsmanship of the South Africans. He says that when she left for the second and last time she was in better condition than when she had set out from Los Angeles. He followed Slocum’s track to St. Helena.

Pidgeon sailed on his lonely way and touched at Ascension Island. One night he had a fright. He awoke to find water over the cabin floor, and thought his yacht was sinking. A lantern had fallen against the tap of the water cask, and had turned on the water. Fortunately he woke up in time to save most of the water.

Even more alarming was an encounter with a steamer in a fresh breeze at night. The vessel saw the Islander, and as the officers thought the little vessel was in distress they ran alongside and bumped into her with a force that awoke Pidgeon. He fell into the cockpit, and was hit over the head by the end of a rope which his zealous rescuers had thrown down. Before Pidgeon had made it clear to the officers that all he wanted was sea-room and not assistance, the Islander was carried against the side of the ship. The Islander was damaged fore and aft, her bowsprit and mizen rigging were broken, and thus her sailing qualities were impaired. Pidgeon repaired the damage as best he could, and slowly made his way to Trinidad, where he fitted a new bowsprit and made good the damage done by the steamer.

Pacific Waters Again

Next lie sailed to Cristobal (Panama), his chief anxiety being to avoid “rescuing” steamships. At Cristobal Pidgeon encountered another problem, which was how to get through the Panama Canal to Balboa. A tug would have cost him £1 an hour, and as yachts are not allowed to sail through he was in a dilemma. The solution was an outboard motor which was lent to him by a friend.

The Islander passed the first set of locks at Gatun, but then the outboard motor failed, so Pidgeon sailed to the next lock, where he was met by his friend. The friend got the outboard going, and at length the yacht reached Balboa. Here Pidgeon met Gerbault.

With birds and fish for his only companions Pidgeon slowly forged ahead. Eighty-five days out from Balboa he reached Los Angeles Harbour, on October 31, 1925, fit and cheerful, with the Islander in good condition.

Neither Slocum nor Pidgeon, nor even Gerbault had an auxiliary motor. Slocum lived before the time of the efficient motor engine. Gerbault wanted to achieve the voyage without such aid, and Pidgeon states that he could not afford one and also that he was no mechanic. Each of the three yachts went ashore and, but for fine weather and good luck, would have broken up. Slocum was stranded because he hugged the shore too closely one night to avoid an adverse current, and Pidgeon and Gerbault were asleep at the time of their mishaps.

It is impossible for any single-hander to keep a constant look-out, as no man can go without sleep for long periods. This question of look-out is the greatest drawback to single-handed ocean cruising. However courageous a seaman and however efficient a navigator, the single-hander has to sleep, and when he is asleep his vessel is not under control.

The single-handed circumnavigator does not look for trouble, but avoids foul winds and hurricanes as much as possible and has the patience to wait months for favourable weather.

All three single-handers, Slocum, Pidgeon and Gerbault, went north of Australia, although Slocum ventured as far south as Melbourne, where he came to the conclusion that it was better to return to Sydney and go north of the continent than to be obliged to encounter the westerly winds that prevail south of Australia.

ANCHORED IN PAOPAO BAY, Moorea Island, near Tahiti. The strange peaks of Moorea are visible from Papeete, where Pidgeon spent about four months. He sailed the Islander across to Paopao Bay when he continued his journey to Samoa.

You can read more on “Captain Slocum the Pioneer”, “The First Voyage Round the World”, and “Gerbault and the Firecrest” on this website.