Seven years on the seas

Warren Gerard November 12 1979

Seven years on the seas

Warren Gerard November 12 1979

Seven years on the seas


Warren Gerard

They were sailing in the Indian Ocean. The sea was calm, the current fast and the winds friendly on this warm December morning. The weather was so good that Winston Bushnell, a miner from Sudbury, Ontario, had decided not to make port on the east side of South Africa. Instead, he decided to round the Cape of Good Hope. Two hours later he was doubting that decision. A thick black line had split sea and sky on the horizon. Soon his 31-foot home-made ketch, Dove, was pitching and rolling and a vicious wind was lashing the tops of waves into stinging spray. Bushnell took warning. He set a storm jib and put out two sea anchors. Below, his wife, Carolynne, and their two daughters, Leslie and Kim, readied themselves behind a battened-down hatch. There was apprehension. In the cockpit, at the tiller, Bushnell had secured himself into a harness, fastening a 60-foot line to it.

He would need it. Suddenly, the

incredible storm was upon them. The winds gusted up to 40 and 50 knots. The first big wave hit. It was not one wave but three that had raced, tripped over each other and formed one 60-foot towering nightmare. This was a freak wave. It ran right over the Dove, rolling it over 360 degrees like a terrifying fairground ride. Inside the cabin, Carolynne recalls, “It was almost like being in a spin dryer.” The wave destroyed everything on the deck. Two masts were shattered. The hatch cover was gone. The grab rails had disappeared.

“I came up on the end of the 60-foot line,” Bushnell recalls. “I swam back to the boat pulling the hatch cover with me. I lashed the hatch cover back on and cut the broken masts loose so they wouldn’t stove a hole in the boat. The freak wave hit so hard that it flattened the sea for about 15 minutes and I had time to get all this done. I was crawling around on the deck and the spray was hitting me like sand. It was tearing my skin off. I got the hatch cover latched on and I ripped off three fingernails I was

working so frantically. I didn’t even notice it. Then I sat down and I watched the sea build up again.”

The second freak wave, another 60footer, hit the Dove an hour later, rolling her over another full 360 degrees. The hatch cover stayed, but Bushnell was swept overboard again. The line saved him once more, but “I was freezing to death.” Meanwhile, Carolynne had broken two ribs. Kim had a deep cut in her head. Bushnell, near exhaustion, swam back to the Dove. He had only one thought in mind. That was to pump out the boat. As soon as they finished the third freak wave hit. Over she went 360 degrees again. This time a porthole blew out. Bushnell nailed something over it to stop the flow of water. They pumped. Another wave hit and the boat rolled another 360 degrees. Another porthole blew out and Bushnell fixed that.

Another wave might have done it. But there were no more. Dove was disabled. The engine wasn’t running. The Bushnells were adrift in the Indian Ocean. “I was thinking it was me who got the family into this and I couldn’t see any way I was going to get them out of it,” Bushnell recalls. But he did. The worst of the storm lasted eight hours that day and for the next three days it weakened to gale force. Bushnell jerry-rigged a mast and sail. They covered 800 miles in five days that way. They prayed that they would be seen. They did see a fishing boat, but when Bushnell fired a distress flare it got under way at full speed and left them. He thinks the crew was fishing illegally. On the following day, another vessel, taking notice of their flare, picked up the Bushnells, fed them, gave them fuel, and escorted them to a safe bay. When the seas calmed they made their way around the Cape.

Bushnell is spinning his yarn in the comfortable living room of his mother-

in-law’s home in Sudbury. It was certainly the most frightening experience of the family’s seven-year, 38,000-mile voyage around the world in a boat that was built in a backyard. The Bushnells—Winston, 42, Carolynne, 37, Kim, 17, Leslie, 15, and Steven, who was born in South Africa and now is almost two years old—returned home in August. An exotic fantasy had been fulfilled.

It took them to places most people only dream about—obscure, untouched, deserted islands: the South Pacific storied by James Michener, Africa, South America. They lived on about $3,000 a year and when Bushnell ran out of money he stopped in such places as Samoa, South Africa and New Zealand, to work as a boat builder, carpenter and mechanic. The girls received their schooling during layovers and from Ontario ministry of education correspondence courses.

There were drawbacks. “The most important thing in life to me is my personal freedom, but you pay heavily for this sometimes,” says Bushnell. “When you take off on a trip like this one— which we plan to do again—you drop all insurance policies, you have no hospitalization, you have no old age pension to look forward to. You have no security along those lines. You gamble on good health. You don’t know where your next job is coming from. So you pay for it, but it’s well worth it. I’ve got 60 years on earth. Anything over that is gravy. I would rather spend my lifetime playing around, and if something happens, if I get sick or I can’t play any more, well, what the heck!”

They set sail in August, 1972, from Little Current on Manitoulin Island, making their way one step ahead of the cold weather, through the Great Lakes to Chicago and south from there along

the Illinois River and into the great Mississippi. They didn’t tell friends they were planning to sail around the world just in case they had to turn tail and head home. “We told people that if we didn’t like it we could come back up the East Coast, but we never really had any second thoughts.”

They spent Christmas in Miami, then sailed across to the Bahamas, through the Caribbean Sea and south to Colombia and back north to the Gulf of Darién and San Bias Islands off the north coast of Panama. It was there that Bushnell witnessed a bizarre death among the San Blasian Indians.

They are small people. The women wear gold rings on all their fingers and beads around their wrists and ankles. They paint a black stripe down the centre of their noses to make them look larger. No white people are allowed on their islands after dark. At night they sleep in hammocks and when they die they are buried in them along with their possessions. Their graves are holes in the ground and their graveyards are built like villages.

“All the houses, everything is there, although no one lives there, but they use it. They walk through it. They plant vegetables there. They reap the harvest that’s growing there. The man was killed directly from where we were anchored. We could see it right there, 200 feet away. He must have been in a coma or something, and they buried him, but he was alive and he came to in the grave. There was enough air in there and just a few boards and stuff over the hole and some soil on top. He pulled it in and was climbing out when one of the natives saw him. He thought it was a ghost and went totally mad. He just grabbed his machete and killed him— chopped him to pieces.”

A friend, who was on board Dove with Bushnell, went ashore to investigate. The native explained a ghost had emerged from the grave. “So John [the friend’s name was John Mann] put everything back in the hole, chopped fingers, everything, and he covered it over. The next day, when the village elders went to check, it was covered in and I guess they figured the fellow was making up the whole thing.”

The Bushnells moved on. They sailed through the Panama Canal and on to Cocos Island about 500 miles off the west coast of Colombia. It is a lush, enchanted island of waterfalls and jungles, about four miles in diameter, 1,100 feet high, and occupied by wild pigs, goats and deer, surrounded by sharkinfested waters. In fact, these are waters where the sharks go to mate. Legend has it that treasure is buried on Cocos. The Bushnells spent two weeks searching for it, but found none.

While there, on this uninhabited is-

land, they decided to stock up on meat, and Winston with his .303-calibre rifle shot at a huge black and white pig. “I was at point-blank range. I fired and I missed him. I couldn’t believe it. If we got the pig we planned to stay for another week and smoke it.”

But missing that pig might have saved the Bushnells’ lives. “I was mad and I said, ‘To heck with it, we’ll leave and head for Galápagos,’ and when I pulled anchor I cut through 2V2 strands of anchor rope. I’ve had a good fairy sitting on my shoulders all my life. I figure I was meant to miss that pig. If I had stayed onshore I would have lost my boat. And we would have been lost on a deserted island.”

During the voyage of the Dove the Bushnells saw and experienced things most other people only read about. Sailing in the Pacific, outside the shipping lanes and jet streams, they were alone in the world. Some areas of the ocean were lit up with phosphorescence, balls of fire flying through the water, illuminating the fish in their path. And above them, always, the incredible panoply of stars. They thought their own thoughts.

But the most rewarding experience, Bushnell found, was making friends, especially with native people. “We would carry a very low profile. We’d go and we’d talk to them a little bit, then we’d go back to the boat. If they came by we’d wave to them. It takes a few days for them to warm up to you.

“And then we would invite them on board. We found one of the nicest things we could do for these natives was to make them a great big bloomin’ box of popcorn. They think this is amazing. They’ve never seen it and they love it. We tried to offer them things but with no bartering involved. We never asked for anything in return. If you try to do people favors it is always repaid back to you a hundred times more. The next day these natives would come loaded up with fruit and vegetables to repay us.”

Now, the family lives in a small apartment in Sudbury, and Bushnell has found a job as a mechanic at a mine in Elliot Lake, about 100 miles to the west of Sudbury. He commutes to Sudbury on weekends until he finds a house in Elliot Lake. He has bought a car and clothes, an expense, he says, that would have otherwise kept the family on the high seas for another year. He plans to stay in Elliot Lake about four years, until the girls have finished their educations and made some decisions about their lives.

Meanwhile, Bushnell hopes to sell the Dove for about $20,000 and build another boat, this one a 40-footer, then in four years start out again. This time as a permanent way of life. And “to show the world to our son.”