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One-Armed Irish Solo Sailor Nears Home in 3,500 Mile Transatlantic Challenge

30th June 2020
Garry Crothers in St Lucia.  After a challenging Transatlantic passage made necessary by the severe COVID-19 Lockdown in the Caribbean, the one-armed solo sailor is now within 500 miles of his home port of Derry Garry Crothers in St Lucia. After a challenging Transatlantic passage made necessary by the severe COVID-19 Lockdown in the Caribbean, the one-armed solo sailor is now within 500 miles of his home port of Derry Photo: Ken Curry

Garry Crothers (64), of Lough Swilly Yacht Club and Foyle Sailability, was making good progress this (Monday) morning, with a speed of 6.6 knots in the right direction on his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue, taking steady chunks out of the 500 miles which now remain between the one-armed solo sailor and his home port of Derry.

Having been left marooned and alone in the Dutch island of Sint Maarten after the coronavirus-cancellation of scheduled flights which were to bring his daughter Amy and regular shipmate Ken Curry out to help him sail home to Lough Foyle, he was faced with either shutting down in isolation for an indefinite period in the island - a hazardous proposition as his age makes him high risk in relation to the pandemic – or else making the mighty effort to sail home alone. This was despite his one-armed status as a result of a motorbike accident in 2007, and it would involve lone voyaging all the way from the sub-tropical Caribbean to the still distinctly chilly and stormy North Atlantic in the approaches to northwest Ireland.

Having departed on June 1st, his progress was closely monitored through the Ocean Cruising Club’s routing and tracking service being provided by OCC Vice Commodore Daria Blackwell and her husband, Rear Commodore Alex Blackwell, from their base at Port Aleria on Clew Bay in Mayo.

As well, his many friends in Lough Swilly YC and Foyle Sailability have been ready with advice on technical backup when any problems arise, the most recent being a day ago as Kind of Blue reached the edge of the unseasonably cold weather which we in Ireland have been feeling acutely. The Eberspacher heater wouldn’t start, but Ken Curry was immediately in touch with heater ace Cian McAllister on Foyleside, and Garry being no slouch on technical matters himself, they soon had welcome warmth filling the boat.

Garry Crothers’ Ovni 435 Kind of Blue on Lough FoyleHome waters. Garry Crothers’ Ovni 435 Kind of Blue on Lough Foyle. Photo: Peter Fallon

Yesterday the forecasts for the final approaches to Donegal were so bad for later this week that Garry for a while was contemplating making his final approach around the east of Ireland. But fortunately, the meteorological expectations are looking slightly more optimistic now, and while it isn’t going to be summery by any means, Plan A of coming in past Tory Island and Malin Head is back in place.

It’s a heroic feat of sailing which can be followed here on the OCC Tracking system here

An overview of the system reveals the number of ocean-voyaging boats which Daria and Alex Blackwell have been monitoring and helping for the past two months and more with a supportive dedication which made them our popular “Sailors of the Month” for May. Several of them are Irish boats which were heading for sanctuary in either the Azores or back home in Ireland, on voyages which became increasingly urgent as the COVID-19 Pandemic took hold in Central America, the Caribbean and the southern states of the US on such a scale that restrictions and potential infection could be in place for many months.

People go off on long ocean cruises and the live-aboard life for many reasons, but if asked to sum up why they pursue their carefree nomadic existence with such dedication and enthusiasm, they’ll say they do it to “get away from it all”.

By “all” they mean modern life in its most demanding and disagreeable forms of crowded schedules and busy cities and traffic jams, with the noise and being stuck in the grimy day-to-day rut – the lot, in fact. Yet the irony is that in order to achieve the cruising dream, the complete structure of the modern world has to be in place to make it possible. In other words, you can’t get away from it all, unless “all” is always there, and fully functional in the first place.

dream anchorage on an exotic islandGetting away from it all? Being securely anchored in a dream anchorage on an exotic island is usually ultimately dependent on the smooth functioning of global communication, health and travel systems

So although most people regard the sometimes difficult experience of modern air travel as a mixed blessing, the remote ocean cruisers rely on a worldwide airline network in order to effect occasional crew changes, and sometimes get themselves home to handle the inevitable extended family situations which arise from time to time.

Then too, like many others while they abhor the incessant babble of 24/7 communication, most of them prove to be remarkably sophisticated in using some very advanced communication systems to keep in touch when they want, which is at a time of their choosing. And equally, they rely on an advanced society ashore which will provide them with accurate weather predictions and competent technical services when they come into port, when they will of course immediately plug into shore power in order to keep their multiple on-board systems functioning.

Alex and Daria Blackwell of the Ocean Cruising ClubThe Good Shepherds – Alex and Daria Blackwell of the Ocean Cruising Club

In other words, when the going is good, they’re getting the best of both worlds, slotting into the nearest outlet of a modern society for complex services when required, and then freely sailing away to some palm-fringed lagoon when the need for escapism and the “simple” life overtakes them. It sounds idyllic, but it takes a lot of planning and dedication and a steady level of quiet vigilance and sound management – plus a very large helping of good seamanship and technical expertise - to keep such shows on the road, and no-one would begrudge the ocean wanderers their success in achieving the dream.

Yet behind its successful achievement, there is this need for a functioning, efficient and civilized society in each port they visit, particularly when it’s a major port and they’re checking-into a new jurisdiction. For several decades now this has been the case in much of the world, so much so with long-distance cruising boats being made welcome almost everywhere that pessimists began to feel that it was maybe just all too good to be true.

If we wait long enough, the pessimistic view will eventually be fulfilled, even if only for a limited period. And the adverse effect of the global COVID-19 lockdowns on many ocean cruising projects has been a classic case in point, underlining the ultimate fragility of the civilised world system on which the free pursuit of the voyaging dream depended.

Thus boats in the Caribbean which had a global circumnavigation in mind immediately had their dream cut off by the virulent shut-down of Central America and the Panama Canal with it. The area has been so badly hit that the system may take years to return to anything remotely approaching normal. Yet then they found that the friendly Caribbean itself was no longer friendly, with fearful little island nations imposing lockdowns which made any free cruising impossible. And while it was an option to try laying the boat up locally and get one of the rapidly-reducing flights home to Europe, these options soon closed off, and the only choice was to sail home Transatlantic unless you were prepared to spend an undefined time – probably many months – in virtual isolation while discovering that an island Paradises can become an island Hell.

Bill Forde’s Beneteau 44cc Cajucito at East Ferry in Cork Harbour Bill Forde’s Beneteau 44cc Cajucito at East Ferry in Cork Harbour in 2016 with preparations under way for extensive ocean voyaging. She is now securely laid up for the pandemic period in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific. Photo: Bill Forde

Bill Forde of Cork Harbour

For those who had got well into the Pacific, the circumstances were even more extreme. Either you got yourself very quickly to a larger island with proper boatyard or cyclone-proof marina facilities (if such a thing exists) and then managed to fly home, or else you were a stranger in an increasingly strange land, facing virtual solitary confinement for an alarmingly indefinite period.

Very quickly, the traditional and formerly almost quaint view that there’s no place like home became the motto for many of the ocean cruising community. The way that COVID-19 is spreading, erupting alarmingly just when over-confident authorities had declared it conquered, made any longterm cruising plans impossible, as rumours circulated about serious yet hidden outbreaks at some of the most popular world cruising areas.

Being alone or with a few chosen shipmates wandering among remote islands no longer seemed a special private delight. On the contrary, it became hyper-vulnerable isolation, your fate a matter of indifference to officials whose first and virtually continuous concern was with the well-being of their own community and nation, with a new range of rigidly obeyed and implemented hyper-strict regulations imposed from on high.

Sensing that this was on the way, experienced voyager Bill Forde of Cork – who sailed away into the wide blue yonder with his Beneteau 44cc Cajucito in 2016 such that she is now in the southwest Pacific – made the arrangements to lay up his boat in a proper boatyard in the well-run French territory of New Caledonia in a timely manner, and flew home to Ireland.

Bill Forde of Cajucito Bill Forde of Cajucito got himself safely home to Ireland ahead of lockdown after finding a secure location for his boat in New Caledonia

island-hopping aboard Cajucito in pre-pandemic daysWhen the good times rolled – island-hopping aboard Cajucito in pre-pandemic days. Photo: Bill Forde

It wasn’t quite a “last helicopter out of Saigon” experience, but subsequent communication with friends who missed getting away have confirmed that an imposed and confined stay of indeterminate length in New Caledonia reduces the island’s charms to just about zero. However, Bill does hope that with the close attention and care the French give to their overseas territories, he will be able to rejoin Cajucito in September.

Another Irish voyager came within the Blackwell’s OCC Atlantic remit - this was Eamonn Washington from Wexford, with his Amel Super Maramu 53 ketch Travel Bug. He has been at the long-distance sailing for years now, but his exit from the Caribbean was brisk as the pandemic loomed – he sailed single-handed down the islands to Martinique to pick up two crew, then they went swiftly to Guadeloupe for two more, then with five on board Travel Bug headed rapidly for Ireland, and having checked in at Castletownbere close ahead of a gale, the boat is now in peace and seclusion in Lawrence Cove.

Eamonn Washington’s Amel Super Maramu 53 Travel Bug Eamonn Washington’s Amel Super Maramu 53 Travel Bug is now safely back in Ireland after an efficient sail from the Caribbean

Both Ireland and the Azores became highly-desirable destinations with everything in the Caribbean starting to shut down completely, and many followed the track of the Quinlan-Owens family from Galway Bay as they struggled from Antigua on their 39ft ketch Danu of Galway with light winds – often from ahead – to reach the Azores, where the pandemic was being kept well under control to the point of local eradication. When they finally arrived, thanks to what Vera describes with refreshing candour as a bit of the “Galway Gab,” Danu became the first boat in Horta to be given complete pratique to sail freely among the now Covid-free islands.

While light winds plagued Danu in the final stages of reaching the promised land, this doesn’t seem too likely a scenario for Garry Crothers and Kind of Blue as they close in one the familiar coast of Donegal. But in the current very unsettled spell of weather, all things are possible. Yet even if calm does arrive unexpectedly, they’ve enough fuel on board to motor the rest of the way. But whatever way they get there, there’ll be the father and mother of a welcome when Kind of Blue comes up the Foyle and into her home port to complete a really remarkable achievement.

Kind of Blue in an island berthThe dream on hold……Kind of Blue in an island berth. For now, the dream is on hold as Garry Crothers brings her home to Ireland and refuge from rampant COVID-19

Published in Cruising
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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