My Destiny as a Sailor
publication in Blue Water Sailing, Fall 2009,
During his last single-handed ocean passage,
Yves Gélinas, aged 69, reflects back on his destiny as a sailor
just sailed out of Porto Santo in the Madeira archipelago,
headed for St-Martin in the West Indies. This passage marks the
term of a seven summer cruise in Europe on this Alberg 30 I
acquired in 1973 and named Jean-du-Sud from a song by the
great poet and folk-signer Gilles Vigneault, who grew up in
Natashquan, a small isolated village on the St. Lawrence Lower
North Shore. The song Jean-du-Sud was inspired by his father, a
fisherman who in prohibition days, would sail alone to St-Pierre
and when he came back, it was not fish that made his boat float
I painted the name
Jean-du-Sud on the hull as should be, but could not add a
hailing port, incapable to decide on any, as during those past
35 years, we did not linger in port. I did not add the
miles we sailed together but they could total a hundred
thousand: three return trips between Québec and the West Indies,
one passage across the Atlantic, a few across the Channel, a
cruise to Sweden, return to Québec single-handed with a big
detour around the world, through the Southern Ocean and around
Cape Horn. Once back on this side of the ocean, I cruised
in the St. Lawrence River and gulf, in Maine, around Newport,
Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, along the East Coast between
Halifax and Annapolis, then to Georgian Bay. To mark the
twenty years of my voyage around the world, I sailed across the
North Atlantic to Ireland, England and France and during seven
summers, cruised the French canals, towards Holland, across the
North Sea to the Caledonian Canal, Hebrides, Wales, Isles of
Scilly, South Brittany, up the Gironde to Bordeaux, across Bay
of Biscay to the rias of Galicia, Portugal, Spain, into the Med,
to Corsica, Sardinia and Italy.
I thought I would sail
Jean-du-Sud back home to Québec just before I would feel
too old to do it and last summer I sensed this moment was near.
I turned westwards, sailed back to Gibraltar via Minorca,
Majorca and Ibiza, then crossed to Porto Santo. A few days
ago, as I was getting ready to sail across the Atlantic, I
celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday and came to believe this will
probably be my last single-handed ocean passage.
This brought me to
reflect on my destiny as a sailor. What was the force that
made me devote the major part of my adult life to this passion?
What made me set aside a successful career in theatre and movie
making to go sailing? Truly, all I can say is that this
force was overwhelming and explain how it imposed itself on me.
Had I been born on the
seashore, such an attraction would be easy to figure, but that
is not the case. Born in Montréal, I spent my childhood
summers in Oka, on Lake of Two Mountains, but that water was
fresh and I had no notion of the sea or ocean sailing.
However, I remember a dream I had when I was six or seven,
finding a little toy sailboat blown ashore by the wind; this
dream was so powerful that when I woke up, I immediately ran to
the shore and more than sixty years later, my sad disappointment
in not finding it and realizing it had been only a dream is
still a vivid memory.
My father owned a Snipe
that died when I was nine or ten, its centerboard trunk rotted
away, albeit not before it allowed me to discover that a boat
could be sailed across and even up the wind. When I was a
teenager, he acquired a 35’ powerboat on which we cruised up the
Ottawa River, through the Rideau Canal to Kingston and the
Thousand Islands, down the St. Lawrence.
I did not make the
connection between cruising and sailing until I was twenty: a
friend who owned a small gaff yawl he wintered in Shelburne, on
Lake Champlain, invited me to sail it back to its summer mooring
in Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River. During that three
day trip, we were unable to start its old Acadia engine and
reached Saint-Jean under sail alone. I discovered that it
was possible to travel with one’s floating home blown by the
wind and from then on, I devoured all the books and magazines
about sailing I could find, in English as well as French.
was studying at a theatre school in Montréal, had my summers
free and offered my services as crew to boat owners I knew.
I found a berth aboard L’Airelle, a 40 ft ketch, for a
cruise down the St. Lawrence River. This was in the early
sixties, when hulls were wood, sails cotton and running rigging
sisal. The owner of L’Airelle was an actor who had
been able to have this boat built thanks to a lucrative
advertising contract that came to an end. The following summer,
he had to work. Knowing a wooden boat must be launched to
prevent its seams drying up and opening, I offered him to cover
all expenses of the season with three other friends and sail his
boat. So on my second sailing season, I found myself in command
of a 40 ft ketch.
sailed down the St. Lawrence, crossed the Gulf to Magdalen
Islands and sailed around Prince Edward Island through
Northumberland Strait. Same situation the following
summer; we sailed L’Airelle to the French islands of
St-Pierre et Miquelon, off Newfoundland and back through Bras
d’Or lakes in Nova-Scotia.
In 1967, I purchased a
24 ft fibreglass sloop and had it delivered to Prince Edward
Island, where I was acting in a play in Charlottetown. I
had just married and made my honeymoon aboard the boat.
But after a few years, I saw that despite honest efforts on her
part, the mother of my two daughters was unhappy at sea and
would never follow me there. Seeing myself stuck at home
for the rest of my life, I started feeling symptoms of a
stomach ulcer which I could attenuate with medication, but the
required dose kept increasing to the point that my pharmacist
felt obligated to warn me against abuse. I am convinced
that had I not reacted as I did, I would now be dead, killed by
cancer or a similar stress related disease. I found myself
compelled to make a wrenching decision and after seven years,
bring this marriage to an end.
I also ended my career
in acting and movie making, realizing that achievement in arts
required all of one’s energies and thoughts and I had only this
thing in mind: sailing. The many books on spirituality I
read agreed on one point: to attain inner peace, you must free
yourself from your desires and there are two ways to do that:
either you forget about them or make them come true ; I knew I
could never forget that passion.
It seemed I needed a
boat in this incarnation and my lending bank inadvertently gave
it to me. I had partnered with my brother in purchasing Jean-du-Sud
and sailed south to the West Indies the following winter.
My brother joined me twice for a few weeks, but I used the boat
much more than he did so after one year, he offered me to buy
his share at cost or sell the boat. Having already
borrowed my half, I knew I could hardly afford the whole boat; I
nevertheless contacted my bank manager, describing my financial
and professional situation exactly as it was, without any
embellishment. To my great surprise, he agreed, providing
my brother underwrite the loan. With both our signatures
on the contract I became the sole owner.
A sail back to the West
Indies for a season of charter allowed me to make part of the
monthly payments. I had another credit card debt and the
banker suggested consolidating both with a new loan. I
signed where asked, but did not realize that the loan
underwritten by my brother got paid by this new one, which
carried only my signature.
Second voyage to the
West Indies, second charter season which was even less lucrative
than the first. Since I could not repay the bank, I decided to
put the boat up for sale, hoping I would have some money left to
buy a smaller boat, or I would go to India take care of my soul.
But I had become attached to Jean-du-Sud and was asking
more than the price paid two years earlier. At the end of
the summer, not having found my price, I asked the bank manager
permission to head back to the West Indies for a third charter
season, after which I would come back in early Spring to sell
the boat. He answered : “OK, but before you go, we will
take a legal lien on the boat and an insurance, because the
current loan carries only your signature. I do not have
time to take care of it now, I am leaving for a vacation. Come
back in three weeks.”
I still believed that
if I did not pay back this loan, my brother would have to do it.
In essence the banker told me that if I left with the boat
before the end of his vacation, my borrowing money in the future
could be harder. Could I live with that? What would
you have done in my place?
I was a good boy and
believe it or not, still hesitated, trying to appease my bad
conscience. I heard about a person who had just come back
from the Sri Aurobindo ashram and had known the Mother. I
seeked her advice, trusting she would be correctly inspired.
During our conversation, it appeared that if I really wanted to
take care of my soul, I could do it more effectively on my boat.
To be sure, she suggested to resort to this antique Chinese
technique called Yi King which, according to Étienne Perrot,
author of the French version, “allows man to penetrate the
enigma of his destiny and brings us beyond any theology or
philosophic system, to a degree of limpid depth where the eye of
the heart contemplates the evidence of truth”. I
forgot the details, but I clearly remember being amazed; to each
question, the answer provided by the combination of hexagrams
left absolutely no ambiguity: Leave! Go ahead! Fear
nothing! This is your way!
From then on, to
sublimate the anguish of losing Jean-du-Sud in case it
would be repossessed, I attempted to convince myself that it was
lent to me for as long as I would need it and if it was taken
away from me, it would mean I no longer required it. I still
As much as I enjoy
sailing, I do not appreciate being riveted to a tiller and early
on, I attempted to find a way of convincing a boat to steer
itself. On my first, I built a self-steering gear inspired
by Blondie Hasler, with vertical vane and servo-pendulum linked
to the tiller; this gear allowed to make my first single-handed
passage between Percé and Magdalen Islands. Immediately
after I purchased my current Jean-du-Sud, I built another
self-steering gear, with auxiliary rudder driven by a horizontal
axis vane. It steered through three voyages to the West
Indies, one trans-Atlantic passage and a cruise to Sweden.
It maintained an approximate heading, but I was not happy with
its performance downwind and in heavy weather, the nemesis of
any such gear.
my return from Sweden, I found work in the St-Malo area, in
Brittany, in a yard that built small aluminium centerboarders
for sailing schools. I saw I could take advantage of the
resources of this yard to reinforce Jean-du-Sud and
prepare it for a great challenge: sailing back to Québec
single-handed and non-stop; but I would not sail directly, I
would make a big detour around the world, through the Southern
Ocean and around Cape Horn.
I read many accounts of
sailors who had attempted that route and all (except Moitessier)
had problems with their self-steering gear, which often forced
them to interrupt or abandon their voyage. I had already
designed and built two; since I wanted to go non-stop, I needed
an absolutely dependable gear and started to work on a new
foolproof design. After a year spent almost full-time on
design and experimentation, I still had not found a solution I
was satisfied with and I remember having this thought (I could
have written prayer): “I have been searching long enough, I
should now find something! A few hours later, while
fiddling with a piece of wire bent first in the shape of a
horizontal crank, then a vertical Z, I found what I had been
searching for: how to transform with a single moving part, the
vertical movement of a connecting rod coming from the vane, into
the rotation of the servo-pendulum stock that cancels itself as
it tilts laterally under the force of water flowing past the
did all the improvements on my boat that did not require money:
I took the engine out, built a new stronger mast capable of
resisting a knock-down, reinforced the hull and cabin top.
But I also needed new rigging, new sails and other equipment I
could not fabricate myself, so I flew back to Québec and
attempted to raise the money I needed.
As I wrote earlier,
before I became a full-time sailor, I worked as an actor and
filmmaker, so decided to relate this voyage on film.
Digital equipment not being developed yet, I would shoot 16 mm
film with sound recorded separately on a tape recorder. I
naïvely believed that the money I would find to make the film
could also cover the trip expenses. I was brutally brought
back down to reality: nautical tradition in Québec being what it
was, when I told people I planned to sail a 30 ft boat alone
non-stop around the world, I was already deemed a lunatic. When
I added I wanted to shoot a 16 mm feature-length film while I
sailed… Even on land, a film made by a single person both
behind and in front of the camera had never been done!
I worked at it doggedly
and finally convinced a producer he would not lose his shirt.
In exchange of daily reports transmitted from the boat, received
in Montréal by a very skilled Ham operator, relayed by phone
patch to a radio station network and broadcast in Québec, I
could pay for sails, provisioning and other equipment.
After three years of
hard work, I left Saint-Malo Sept. 1, 1981. I did not make the
circumnavigation non-stop; I was capsized and dismasted in the
Southern Pacific Ocean, reached the Chatham Islands under jury
rig, spliced the mast, refitted and completed the voyage,
arriving in Gaspé May 9, 1983, having sailed 28000 miles in 282
days. With Jean-du-Sud Around the World, the 100
minute film I shot won the Palme d’Or at the La Rochelle Sailing
Film Festival twice, for Part One - St-Malo-Chatham - in 1983
and Part Two - Chatham-Gaspé - in ’85, a total of 9 awards
(5 Gold) in 7 festivals; it was broadcast on TV in 11 countries,
reproduced in a few thousand videocassettes, now on DVD[*].
Many viewers consider it the finest sailing film they have seen.
Hoping to profit
financially from the invention of my self-steering gear, I had
consulted the files at the patent office in Paris and found it
could indeed be patented. But I made the mistake of not
doing it right away as I wanted to test it first. The test was
conclusive: in 28000 miles, I never had to steer by hand, the
gear I designed steering a precise course on all points of sail
through all forces of wind or states of sea. After my return, I
contacted nautical hardware manufacturers and received quite a
shock: electric autopilots were just appearing on the market and
there was no interest left for self-steering gears. Since
there was no longer any demand for my invention, no need to
waste money on a patent. A few years later however, articles
appeared in sailing magazines, saying that autopilots were not
dependable, needed a fair amount of electric power and after
all, there may still be a demand for self-steering gears.
Since I did not have a patent I could sell, I had to exploit my
invention myself. The market already offered a good number of
self-steering gears and I would never have made the effort of
adding mine if I was not deeply convinced it was better than
others in elegance, strength and performance, especially
downwind in light air. To evoke the demanding test I submitted
it to, I named it CapeHorn.
My academic background
being theatre arts, I knew little about fabrication and owned no
other tools than those I carried aboard Jean-du-Sud.
I learned by sub-contracting and then spying in shops to find
out what kind of tooling was needed and how it was operated.
One day, a customer who wanted to close shop and take off
sailing offered to trade a lathe for a self-steering gear.
Friends taught me how to work it and gradually, I was able to
set up my own manufacturing shop.
At that same time, I
became deeply attracted to a woman named Céline. To avoid
making the same mistake twice, I invited her aboard Jean-du-Sud
before I allowed myself to fall in love. If she eventually
did the same and agreed to marry me, it was not on account of my
wealth, as all income was re-invested in tooling and advertising
and I could not pay myself any salary. Fortunately, Céline
trusted me and assumed the daily expenses.
After five years of
living in privation, three important nautical magazines,
Cruising World in America, Voiles et Voiliers in
France and Yachting Monthly in England, almost
simultaneously published an article on self-steering and, for
the first time, CapeHorn figured among others, acquiring its
legitimate market positioning. Demand increasing, I could
afford to hire my nephew Eric Sicotte to take charge of
twenty years later, the CapeHorn Self-Steering gear provides us
both with a comfortable income, while still allowing me to move
the sales office aboard Jean-du-Sud during summer months
thanks to new means of communication such as Wi-Fi, HF radio and
satellite, marketing self-steering gears being mostly a matter
of answering E-Mails. But I still have to exhibit at boat
shows; to sail Jean-du-Sud back home from Europe, I had
planned to leave Gibraltar in mid-October, after the Annapolis
show, and sail directly across the Atlantic, arriving in St.
Martin in late November, in time to catch a plane to the Paris
boat show. But a website I consulted predicted three or
four “named storms”, two “hurricanes” and one “severe hurricane”
during the months of October and November. I also read an
article in Cruising World written by Don Street, owner of
the famous centennial yawl Iolaire, in which he advised
against making the passage before December, the hurricane season
now being one month longer and the trade wind not establishing
itself until December, due to recent global warming related
climate changes. I happened to stumble unto him at the Annapolis
Show and explained my predicament. His answer was: “If I
were you, I would sail from Gibraltar to Porto Santo, leave my
boat there and sail across the Atlantic in January. I
followed his advice and left Porto Santo January 22. I may
have escaped a hurricane, but I was rolled brutally as I found a
trade wind constantly blowing between 25 and 35 knots, with a
corresponding sea made worse by a northerly swell blown up by
winter storms in the North Atlantic. In a typical passage,
you get days of rough weather, but there is normally a majority
of days when sailing is agreeable. I had no such day and
could not carry a full mainsail more than 24 hours during the
When I sailed back to
Saint-Malo in September 2001, twenty years after I left for the
circumnavigation, people I had known there did not recognize me.
Yet, after a few minutes, they said my boat had not changed,
confirming that fibreglass ages better than man. I received
another proof during this passage, as when manoeuvring on the
foredeck, I took the precaution of wearing a harness much more
often than I used to earlier, not only on account of the brutal
roll, but because I felt I was no longer as agile as I used to
be. Nevertheless, manoeuvring my boat is quite a bit
easier with the genoa furler and a second headstay parallel to
the furler. I no longer have to change jibs and when off
the wind, I merely roll the genoa to adapt its surface to wind
The radar installed 10
years ago, as well as the new AIS receiver added in Porto Santo
before I left, reduced the risk of collision appreciably.
During the circumnavigation, I had to rely mostly on luck, on my
masthead running light, and on the vigilance of the watch
officer on the bridge of nearby ships, but now, with the radar
on watchman mode sounding an alarm when a ship is detected, I
can sleep better at night But I did not find AIS to
be reliable: I sighted three small freighters between Porto
Santo and the Canaries, its alarm did not sound and they did not
show on screen. I called them by VHF to ask if they had an
AIS transmitter, but got no answer. The two ships I saw
between the Canaries and St. Martin also went undetected, to the
point that I doubted the unit was working. But it finally
detected one 30 miles away the day before I made my landfall.
I conclude that many ships are still without a transponder and
if AIS complements radar, it does not replace it.
Before I left for the
circumnavigation, I wrote that I had never been happier than
when I was alone on my boat. I was single and had not met
Céline; it is in her company that for the past 20 years, I have
been happiest, especially when we sail together, as she is never
any farther than 30 feet! We made the passage across the
North Atlantic to Ireland together and I was disappointed with
her decision not to make the return trip, convinced that this
tropical passage down the trades would be the apex of our seven
summer cruise through Europe. I must now admit she was
right: those heavy seas and incessant roll could have disgusted
her with sailing forever.
covered 3018 miles in 21 days, 6 hours, averaging 142 miles a
day, a very respectable performance for a 30 ft boat, which
demonstrates beyond doubt that I had all the wind I needed.
I made the promise of never again crossing the Atlantic in
January, but this is of little consequence since it will be my
After it sailed up the
coast, Jean-du-Sud will pick up its mooring in front of
my house in Oka and will at last find its home port. It
will still sail coastwise, but I doubt it will cross an ocean
again, unless one of my four grandchildren is seduced as I was
by the call of the sea. Luring them into the joys of
sailing is my mission for the coming years.
Suite : Biographical