Following in the Footsteps of Adventurers and Eccentrics

Harry Pidgeon's Islander. Something about this guy sounds familiar.

Harry Pidgeon's Islander. Something about this guy seems familiar.

In the annals of boat building and recreational sailing, Joshua Slocum looms large. He nearly invented the pass-time by rebuilding, from the keel up, his 36-foot boat, Spray, and sailing around the world single-handed. His tale of adventure, appropriately titled, Sailing Alone Around the World, made many of us into armchair sailors.

But for the true patron saint of amateur boat building, I nominate Harry Pidgeon, an ex-farmer and self taught builder who became the second man to sail alone around the world. He was, and remains, less famous than our beloved Captain Slocum. But Pidgeon’s story, more than Slocum’s, resonates with those of us who want to build a boat and sail the seas but don’t know the difference between a tiller and a transom. Pidgeon allowed even the most unskilled sailors and ham-handed builders to believe that adventure was theirs for the taking.

Slocum’s achievement is remarkable, but he was also an experienced sailor long before he built his boat. “The wonderful sea charmed me from the first,” he wrote. “At the age of eight I had already been afloat along with other boys on the bay, with chances greatly in favor of being drowned.” His first job was a cook on a fishing schooner—though the crew mutinied after the first meal. “The next step toward the goal of happiness found me before the mast in a full-rigged ship bound on a foreign voyage. Thus I came ‘over the bows,’ and not in through the cabin windows, to the command of a ship.” He spent the first half of his life sailing to foreign ports and learning everything there is to know about the seas.

He built Spray only when his profession changed and there was no room for tall masted sailing ships. He tried to turn his back on the ocean but, he lamented, “what was there for an old sailor to do? I was born in the breezes, and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else.” Today, he would be encouraged to earn a community college degree in computer programming. But in that era, he simply decided to build his own boat and use his lifetime of experience for his own pleasure. He wasn’t trying something new; he was going home.

In contrast, Pidgeon, by his own account, grew up as a landlocked Midwesterner. “My love of the sea did not come from early association,” he wrote in Around the World Single-handed, “for I was born on a farm in Iowa and did not see salt water until I went to California, when I was eighteen years of age.” Nor can he claim a genetic predisposition. “So far as I know, none of my ancestors ever followed the sea,” he added for good measure.

His knowledge of boat building was also limited. When he set about building his boat, the Islander, he had built nothing more complex than a canvas canoe, which he sailed in Alaska, and a small flatboat, which he floated down the Mississippi. These Huckleberry Finn-esque adventures were impressive their own right (they are more than I can boast, certainly), but they do not compete with Slocum’s many years of experience at the helm of seagoing ships. By any measure, he was a novice sailor and builder.

Yet, like me, he didn’t let practical problems or rational thought get in his way. He moved to California, made money as a photographer, and started looking for a boat he could build. If he were alive today, he’d be cruising the Internet in his off hours and pestering people on forums, but in the first years of the twentieth century, he kept up with the sailing periodicals. And like today’s amateurs, he was looking for something that he could build without too much difficulty or expense. “About this time I came across the plan of a boat that seemed to be very seaworthy and, in addition, was not too large for one man to handle. Moreover, the construction of it did not seem too difficult for my limited knowledge of shipbuilding.” This sounds like me talking about my Pocket Cruiser, but Pidgeon was discussing a “V-bottom or Sea Bird boat” designed by Captain Thomas Fleming Day and yacht designers on the staff of Rudder Magazine.

Like my craft, it was designed for the amateur builder in mind. “The reason for using the V-bottom was that it was easier for the amateur builder to lay down and construct.” Furthermore, all the information he needed to build his craft was conveniently contained in a booklet titled How to Build a Cruising Yawl. How many of his boat building decedents were seduced by books and plans with equally friendly titles?

“So I decided to build my long-dreamed-of ship and go on a voyage to the isles of the sea,” he concluded, while failing to mention at this point in the narrative that he had never sailed on the open ocean. But those of us with similar dreams understand that this is only a minor barrier, one that will resolve itself, somehow, in time.

First things first. It’s time to build. Today’s builders retire to garages and carports; in the early twentieth century, Pidgeon was able to build his boat directly on the beach. “I went down to the shore of the Los Angeles Harbor, located a vacant lot, and began the actual work of construction.” Like me, he made concessions for cost and inexperience. Instead of steam bending the boat’s planks (steamed boards bend more easily and hold their shape when dry), he simply forced them around the curved hull. A professional boat builder examining his work was incredulous, but his approach worked.

Working in the open, he encountered a great many back seat boat builders. “There was a beachcomber living in a shack near by, who used to come and tell me that the keel of my boat was cut away too much forward,” Pidgeon recalled. This particular expert said he was going to build his own 50-foot boat and sail to Africa to hunt lions. But it sounded like he was too busy dissecting Pidgeon’s mistakes to make any progress of his own. I think I’ve already come across several people like this.

He knew others viewed him as eccentric. It didn’t help that another man was building his own boat nearby—in which he planned, as Pidgeon wrote, “to transport a colony of his followers to Liberia.” The boat’s size, the man explained, depended on the number of donations he received. “The donations seemed to keep coming in, for as my boat took shape, his grew into a structure two stories high, with windows alow and aloft, and a stove pipe appeared through a broken pane.”

“No doubt as my boat was rising from the heap of timbers on the sand it was often taken for another of those freaks,” he wrote, somewhat uncharitably. Maybe he knew that this man’s dream and his own differed more in quantity than quality. Sometimes, it’s best not to see ourselves reflected in others.

But here’s the remarkable thing: Pidgeon finishes his boat, gets it in the water and does, indeed, explore the “isles of the sea.” He learns the art of sailing by first wandering to nearby Catalina Island (“the island of romance,” as I recall) then sets sail for Hawaii. Well, since he’s in the neighborhood, why not go to the South Pacific? One thing leads to another and he eventually circumnavigates the globe. Then, for good measure, he does it again—all in a boat he built from plans in a magazine.

I don’t have plans to go around the world, or even far from shore. But I see myself when I read about Pidgeon’s determination to follow his dreams and trust that the right skills will arrive at the right moment. Sober consideration of pros and cons is not the stuff of backyard boat builders, especially those of us who, like Pidgeon, arrive with a head full of romantic ideas and no practical knowledge. But to the amazement and irritation of those who are inclined to critique out plans and question our sanity, we sometimes succeed anyway, or have a good time trying.

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3 Responses to Following in the Footsteps of Adventurers and Eccentrics

  1. oldsalt1942 says:

    It’s JOSHUA Slocum, not Joseph.

  2. Paul Boyer says:

    Ouch! Good catch. Thanks for the correction and keep your red pencil handy. I might make another mistake 🙂

  3. I’m a fan of Joshua Slocum, but I’ve never heard of Harry Pidgeon. Looks like an interesting guy. Thanks.

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