Small Boat, Big Adventure

Avoiding the Atlantic by crossing the pond(s). Small boat sailor Stephen Ladd sailed 18,000 miles from Florida to Argentina avoiding the ocean wherever possible. He tells our editor Dick Durham how he did it.

If your open boat is easy to capsize, what do you do? Deck it over with a cabin.

If she only draws six inches, should you put to sea? Yes, but only if there’s no local ditch available.

OK, so what if the ditch is too narrow to tack in? Dismast and row.

And if it’s too shallow to dip the oars? Abandon ship, roll up your trousers, and tow her by hand.

So far so good, but what about rapids, dams, or flood barriers? Portage her via road using pick-up trucks.

In this fashion, intrepid explorer, Stephen Ladd, 68, spent five years covering 18,000 miles and visiting 25 different countries.

The boat, Thurston, named after a dearly departed pet cat, was a 1985 Sea Pearl, a 21 ft ketch based on a Francis Herreshoff design.

To reef her in a blow, Stephen simply rolled the mainsail around the shroudless mast which was stepped in a rotating slot. To navigate he used the computer terminals in cyber cafes to download Google Earth maps. To cook, Stephen used a pressure cooker on a gas stove.

It was a love of snorkelling that led to Stephen and his girlfriend, Ginny’s fascination with shoal waters and in 2009 they dumped their jobs in a Washington State city planning office and set off from the Florida Keys in their $3,000 US craft.

For Stephen, Thurston, was the height of luxury in terms of accommodation as he had already spent three years gunk-holing from 1990-93 in Squeak, a 12ft boat. 

After skirting the coast of Cuba they hopped across the Yucatan Channel to Mexico and by the time they reached Belize such was the maritime bonding aboard their cockleshell of a boat, that the pair got married.

Their second major leg took in Honduras, where they hauled Thurston out for maintenance, sheltering her beneath the hull of a large catamaran to keep the rain off! The next stop was Nicaragua, where they met a sailor who had fought for the Sandinistas until they lost, then he joined the Contras!

A low point came in Costa Rica where the couple were robbed at knifepoint, however, the couple remained optimistic. “But on the whole being in a boat like ours we attracted attention wherever we went and people came forward to help, offer accommodation, food and always to talk, talk, talk,” Stephen told Ocean Sailor.

By the time they reached Panama they could no longer resist purchasing a 2HP outboard engine: the first time Thurston had been motorised.

“I like the idea of being a purist,” Stephen said, “and I made sure I was at the oars for two hours a day for exercise, but the boat did not go well to windward and so on very long stretches of waterway where we had headwinds it became hard work.”

The couple had a sea anchor which they deployed only once during a 25-knot gale with eight-foot waves. They once left the double-ended hull, which had a pretty sheer, a too high cabin and a lofty rig for her size, at anchor during a storm and were taken ashore by lobster boat men until the heavy weather passed.

They lived on $17,000 US a year – slightly less than 50 dollars a day.

“We are minimalists, and although people see us as purists, we are pragmatic purists,” said Stephen, “and not here to make life a challenge deliberately.”

It was on this part of the journey that Ginny found out she was expecting the couple’s first child. 

They sailed on through Colombia and Venezuela eventually accessing the River Orinoco where they were joined by giant ant-eaters and via a remote stream they dropped down into the Negro River at Manaus: The grand terminal of the Amazon Basin.

They then climbed another tributary south through Bolivia and after a fruit truck gave them portage they entered the world’s largest swamp, the Mato Grosso.

“I had spent a lot of time making my own chart – 40 hours in fact – of this, using Google Earth maps,” said Stephen, “there is very little land and no official charts available for what is a 200 by 200-mile swamp. It was like going through a maze with flowers dotted over it, even small trees and a lot of rotting vegetation, with lakes embodied in it.”

Eventually, they floated down the Paraguay River to Argentina starting to make a return via other rivers and stopping en route to have their first child, a baby boy, George.

A few months later Ginny returned home with baby George leaving Stephen to sail on his own. The solo journey was largely successful until, when in the Dominican Republic, disaster struck. 

“I misjudged getting across a swell,” he said, “I spotted a break which looked like it should work from the outside to get ashore but the swell was heavier – 10 feet – than I thought and Thurston was thrown onto coral heads just four feet below the surface and breaking through in the bottom of each trough.”

The boat was dismasted, the sails shredded, the rowing station washed away and the outboard engine swamped as she somersaulted.

“I sold her to a guy on the beach for $ 700 US, who said he’d fix her up and then I hitch-hiked to the airport,” Stephen added with a fatalism typical of the man.

There’s another son in the family now, Bowie, aged five, but Stephen is not done with adventuring yet. He learned to sail as a 16-year-old growing up in Washington State on Hobie Cats in Puget Sound.

Now he’s building his own multi-hull version: A 30ft proa to explore the Great Lakes of America with. He eventually hopes to sail her across the ocean he avoided for all those years: the Atlantic.

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