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  • Crossing The Atlantic In A Garden Shack

    Although first published in 2015, this remarkable story has resurfaced again, and well, it's and amazing and unusual one...

    Across the Atlantic - in a garden shed: Most 84-year-olds would settle for a Saga cruise. But this ancient mariner had other ideas...
    ANTHONY SMITH made 40ft by 18ft raft with pipes and telegraph pole. Naming it the Antiki, he set sail from the Canary Islands at just 2 knots, the mission was to cross the Atlantic and reach Eleuthera in the Bahamas
    He and his crew of three spent more than two months on the voyage, but storms pushed them 700 miles off course to St Maarten in Caribbean. Aged adventurer completed final 23-day leg a year later with different crew
    By Anthony Smith for THE DAILY MAIL

    The storm that night had caused us to lose control, utterly and totally alarmingly, and collision with the reefs which lay off the Bahamas was a frightening certainty. Those same reefs had recently killed two men who had run into difficulty with their yacht, the coral’s exquisite shapes and forms — like razor-edged concrete — ripping the hull apart.
    Horribly aware of this, I dreaded what the reefs might do to the Antiki, the raft put together by our little crew of amateur ship-builders in the hope that it would take us across the Atlantic.

    Little more than a garden shed: Anthony Smith's 'daft' raft the Antiki measured just 40ft by 18ft

    At the age of 84, I had already survived many adventures: motor-cycling the length of Africa, canoeing down 2,000 miles of an Amazonian river and becoming the first Briton to fly a balloon across the Alps. Now, with those reefs looming straight ahead, I could only wonder at how, halfway through my ninth decade, I had ended up in this predicament. In fact, the raft idea — almost everyone said it sounded like ‘daft idea’ — could be traced back to my childhood when my father gave me a book called Two Survived. This was the true story of how, in 1940, a Merchant Navy ship named the Anglo-Saxon had been sunk by a German warship not far from the Canary Islands.

    Seven of the 41 men aboard survived to clamber into the only undamaged lifeboat, but after weeks afloat most could no longer face the extreme pain of starvation and thirst and had opted instead for suicide. Stepping over the side of their little craft, they made no attempt to swim or raise their heads above the water. After 70 days adrift, the boat finally ran aground on the tiny Bahamian island of Eleuthera: by then, the only survivors were two sailors aged 19 and 21.

    Setting sail: Crews of other vessels would constantly voice their concern at the Antiki's crawling pace

    Anthony's mission took him from the Canary Islands and across the Atlantic to Eleuthera in the Bahamas

    I had never forgotten this tale, and wondered what it had been like for them to be confronted by thousands of miles of nothingness, save sea. Even as advanced years came my way, and I began wearing a hearing aid and could no longer run for a bus or climb stairs, I remained intrigued by the idea of re-enacting the voyage endured by those two young survivors of the Anglo-Saxon. In this, I was encouraged by the thoughts of T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets, a series of poetic meditations on time. ‘Old men ought to be explorers,’ he wrote and I rejoiced when I read those words.

    The challenge was finding a crew who thought it would be a good idea to sail a raft across the Atlantic with a hard-of-hearing octogenarian. I was fortunate to be contacted by Dave Hildred, a 57-year-old civil engineer from Yorkshire who lived in the British Virgin Islands. A fan of the books I had written about my previous adventures, he had constructed his own boat and frequently sailed it around the West Indies. He not only agreed to become my sailing master, but also recruited his friends Andy Bainbridge and John Russell, a GP and a solicitor, as additional crew members.

    Since Andy was 56 and John 61, giving us a combined age of 258 years, we called our vessel Antiki, in acknowledgment of our longevity.

    Crew: Grey-haired sailors John Russell, Dave Hildred Andy Bainbridge and Anthony Smith

    We also wanted to bow humbly before the great Kon-Tiki, the raft in which six Scandinavians had sailed across the Pacific, from South America to the Polynesian islands, in 1947. We had a name and a sponsor, and now all that remained was for the four of us to build something none of us had ever built before — a craft good enough to sail the Atlantic and sufficiently steerable that we could navigate rather than go only where the wind blew us, like a piece of flotsam.

    In November 2010, we started assembling our craft in Valle Gran Rey, on La Gomera, one of the most westerly of the Canary Islands. Measuring 40ft by 18ft, the Antiki had a base consisting of four big plastic pipes, each 2ft in diameter and weighing 1.25 tons, and 14 smaller cross-wise lengths in which all of our drinking water was contained. Above that, 640sq ft of wooden planking supported both the telegraph pole from which our single sail billowed, and our corrugated steel cabin — like a large garden shed — 14ft long and 8ft wide and tall.

    Alongside three bunks — I had my own, the others shared two in rotation — the cabin contained a computer, GPS and radio, all of which were powered by four solar panels, while the humans aboard were fuelled by 25 2ft-long boxes filled with food.

    After seven weeks, the Antiki was finally ready to sail. On January 14, 2011, a tow boat set us adrift a mile beyond the peaceful security of the harbour wall. We had no prior knowledge of the raft’s behaviour. Would it crab sideways or even gyrate? Miraculously, at whatever angle we set the sail, our apex pointed forwards as if some engine was driving us in that direction, albeit at around two knots, less than walking speed.

    This slow pace clearly puzzled the crews of other vessels. In the colossal emptiness in which we found ourselves living, our solar-powered navigational equipment would alert us to their far‑off presence, and sometimes they diverted towards us, a distant voice crackling over our radio.
    ‘Hello Antiki. We see you are travelling at two knots and must be in trouble. Perhaps we can help? ‘We are a raft, and two knots is our speed, but thank you for your concern,’ my crewmate Dave would reply, and they would revert to their original path at a rate which highlighted our own pathetic pace.

    At around 50 miles a day, it could be several months before we completed the 3,500-mile trip to Eleuthera in the Bahamas, and I surveyed our progress from what became known as the Captain’s Chair, casually filched from our rented apartment in La Gomera. After two weeks on the raft, a routine had been established. I thought it amazing that we could each be so matter-of-fact about our novel situation, brushing our teeth in standard fashion, washing clothes and hanging them up to dry, as if we’d always lived on board a flat and bouncing thing buoyed up by lots of pipes.

    Most luxuriously, the Antiki had two outside loos, or ‘heads’ as they are known to sailors. On a nice day it was most comforting, to sit there in the warmth, while having rarely exposed bits of oneself enjoying the sun, and know that life was good. But one day, hideously memorable for me, a rogue wave saw a golden opportunity. It saw a human body arranged more nakedly than normal. It took note of its inability to make a swift escape, with its body hamstrung by its lowered clothing. And then it struck — half-drowning me.
    For some reason, I was also the principal recipient of attacks by flying fish. These creatures glide several hundred yards through the air in their attempts to escape predators beneath the waves — but they are less than skilful aviators, judging by how often they blundered into our raft. Even when lying on my bunk, a favoured spot for me, I was once hit amidships.
    Such occasional intruders aside, the cabin had a homely kind of warmth and was a pleasant place to be when each day neared its end.
    Each evening, we gathered round to watch the sun go down, giving each sunset marks out of ten, and then inspected the ever-growing shoal of dorado fish that accompanied us for much of our voyage. Photographs make these metre-long creatures appear ugly, with bulbous foreheads above downturned mouths, but we thought them exquisite and were ludicrously proud that they had arrayed themselves to keep us company.
    Indeed, we were so afraid of inadvertently eating one of them that we never attempted to catch fish fresh from the ocean, preferring instead to open can after can of sardines, one of the many tinned extras with which we attempted to enliven a diet based on potatoes, pasta, rice and soya. Post-supper entertainment included playing cards and listening to old-time favourites like Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio. But for me, such conviviality ended when I began my watch between 9.30pm and midnight.

    It was with a feeling of weariness that, Oates-like in the Antarctic, I bid the others farewell, but this disappeared the instant I stepped beyond the cabin door. The night was always brighter than expected, with the stars each adding their mite of illumination to that outside world, and every plop, splash and unknown noise became more intriguing when arriving from a pitch-black sea.
    As for a whale’s snort, even that was frightening, with its distance from the raft so utterly unknown. Yet, as with children half-longing to be terrified, I goose-pimpled at the sound before feeling privileged to have heard it.
    Clouds were also much improved at night. Then, they were enchanting extras to the mix of moon and stars rather than day-time spoilsports preventing the sun’s splendour from travelling to the ground — but we were always alert to the heavenly changes of which they were part.
    The night was always brighter than expected, with the stars each adding their mite of illumination to that outside world, and every plop, splash and unknown noise became more intriguing when arriving from a pitch-black sea. As for a whale’s snort, even that was frightening, with its distance from the raft so utterly unknown
    On one occasion mid-Atlantic, the cotton-wool puffs of randomly scattered cumulus heralded a savage downpour of the kind which overturn yachts. It vanished as suddenly as it had begun and left us unharmed, but it was a reminder of who or what was truly in control.

    On another occasion, in March, wind changes sent us into reverse, pushing us backwards over areas of ocean we had already crossed. It was a fortnight before we were back where we had started from and my crew members began worrying that they might lose their jobs if they returned home later than promised. Dave was under additional pressure from his wife, who was unhappy that he was away for so long, and he suggested we should divert to the Leewards, some 800 miles closer to us than the Bahamas. That way, we could still claim to have crossed the Atlantic — and be home much earlier.

    I fantasised about pushing him overboard, or otherwise shutting him up. Get another wife, I muttered to myself. Find another job. Twice-married and twice-divorced myself, I didn’t see why his problems should erode my long-held desire to reach Eleuthera, but it was three against one.Wearily and sadly, I agreed that we should head for the small Leeward island of St Martin.

    After 66 days and 2,478 miles at sea, we were greeted there by crowds of people all shouting and whooping congratulations in our direction. The enormous journey from one side of the Atlantic to the other had been concluded and Antiki was at rest — but I did not truly welcome all the merriment.

    I still hankered for Eleuthera and my intended destination was pushed more firmly to the front of my mind when the TV companies and publishing house with whom I had signed broadcasting and book deals insisted my project was only half achieved. Money would not be available from their coffers until I reached Eleuthera. Everest, in short, still had to be climbed in full.

    That attempt had to wait until April 2012. My original crew having vanished homeward, I’d needed time to find replacements, some more obviously suited to the journey ahead than others. I had no qualms about Bruno Sellmer, a Brazilian who 30 years previously had been with me on that trip down a tributary of the Amazon. Neither was I worried about Alison Porteous, a highly resourceful camera-person who had filmed in many war zones — but I did often wonder why I had invited along my 62-year-old godson Nigel Gallaher and his American wife, Leigh.

    Although both were keen sailors, Nigel suffered extreme sea-sickness and Leigh clearly loved her home comforts. Before departure, I asked what she might miss most on the raft. A dishwasher was her answer.

    On this second voyage, there were more big cruise ships to be seen, multi-decked, multi-swimming-pooled, multi-everything that money could buy. Sometimes they came closer to inspect us, their loudspeaker systems informing the ‘guests’ of our curious presence, much as whales might be sighted and then mentioned. As they sheared off, I wondered if Leigh might have liked to join them, but our crew remained intact until, after 23 days of sailing on this second leg, the longed-for island of Eleuthera became disturbingly visible.

    ‘Disturbingly’, because of the aforementioned storm which threatened to hurl us against its surrounding reefs on the night we drew near. The wind was so strong that we were unable to manoeuvre our flapping sail, so we had no way of steering. It was up to the fates to do with us as they wished. ‘One more minute!’ I yelled, and then we hit it, the wind propelling us across those living rocks with jerky leaps and bounds and distinctly angry grating noises from below. On and on it went, until suddenly there was great calm.
    We were free! The surrounding waves, now diminished by that great length and width of coral, formed almost a caress and there was land ahead, lovely sandy land. The people of Eleuthera were overjoyed to see us and the next day I was escorted to the spot where the heels of those skin-and-bone mariners had been those 72 years beforehand.

    T. S. Eliot wrote that old men ought to be explorers, and I will be for ever grateful to the Antiki for helping me be just that, continuing my lifelong search for what he called ‘intensity’ — adding experience, encountering novelty and treasuring the planet in endless different ways.
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