The sad death of Yarmouth’s Colin Smith, at the wonderful age of 96, took my mind back to the occasion when my East Cowes Sunday school teacher, Miss Hollis, told us a story about two heroic Island brothers who sailed the Atlantic in a 20-foot boat.
Colin and his brother Stan headed for England on August 18, 1949 in their tiny Nova Espero, which they had built themselves. Their adventure made headline news all around the world.
In those days there were no famous sponsors and they had to fund it themselves. There were no computers, their transistor radio didn’t work, they wore sports jackets and flannels and had Columbo-style raincoats. Our intrepid heroes didn’t even have lifejackets.
They made the voyage to Dartmouth in 43 days and were shocked by the media interest. When they finally arrived back in their home port of Yarmouth, the crowd was bigger than they now get for the Old Gaffers Festival. Everyone wanted to welcome home their very own super heroes.
I first met Colin 50 years after their epic voyage. He was 78 at the time and Stan had died 20 years earlier. I still can’t comprehend just how they did it. Nova Espero was only 20-foot long, with a reverse clinker pram dingy over the cockpit, to make it a little more suitable for such an unthinkable sea adventure.
The mayor of the Nova Scotia port gave them a hearty meal on the eve of their trip, but it was not a dream start. Colin said: “When we finally sailed out of the harbour into the first rolling Atlantic breakers, I was seasick and brought the whole lot up.”
They took a portable radio for time checks and from these they had hoped to get an accurate longitude. They couldn’t get a single station – and threw it overboard in disgust.
“It was just an adventure for us. We both came through the war and were full of life. We were confident in the boat we had built. If we were scared, at all, it was over the possibility of our own fallibility but we thought we could make it,” Colin said.
There were few luxuries. They did have sleeping bags but they leaked and soaked up water like blotting paper. Colin over-ordered on ship’s biscuits and they had storage problems. They only took 28 gallons of fresh water in a galvanised steel tank. Later they discovered it was about a quarter of what they should have taken.
“We had a Primus stove and with a headroom of three foot six inches we cooked with the stove between our knees and held on to the saucepan with one hand.”
Amazingly, they had not told any of their family on the Island they were making the voyage. They didn’t want to worry them. Some of the regular ships that crossed the Atlantic could not believe what they were seeing. Once, Colin was swept overboard, with no harness or lifejacket.
He added: “When I came up, it was the first time I’d seen our little boat on the Atlantic. Stan was looking for me and I can remember shouting how marvellous she looked from the sea. For several minutes I only saw our boat for a few seconds, then it disappeared in the waves. Then by some miracle she was right above me and I managed to hold on and climb aboard.”