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Transatlantic Adventures

The story of three remarkable voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back by Ahto Walter, a young Estonian, in a sailing boat under thirty feet long



GREAT VOYAGES IN LITTLE SHIPS - 5


Ahto Walter made three remarkable voyages across the Atlantic in a small yacht





































FROM ESTONIA TO AMERICA in a small yacht is a voyage so dangerous that few men would attempt it. Ahto Walter did so on three separate occasions. The first Ahto, as he named his boats, he bought for the equivalent of £15 and reconditioned. She was 29 feet long, with a beam of 9 feet and a draught of 5 ft. 6 in. Ahto’s companion on two of his voyages was Tom Olsen, a young American.




ALTHOUGH the number of men sailing the Seven Seas in small craft grows with every succeeding year, every venture is different, as every sailor varies in Ms methods and his boat. Among the younger generation the personality of an Estonian, Ahto Walter, stands out. His first name is that of the Finnish god of the seas. He likes to get off the beaten track, but when he is on it he welcomes an ocean race with a friendly rival. He does not sail single-handed, for he prefers congenial company. He does not wait for the weather, but goes out according to his own time-table and is ready to face whatever weather comes his way.


Sometimes he meets bad weather and his sailing companions have to endure much misery, but the boat reaches harbour safely. It is not possible for an ocean-cruising man to be overcautious; his way of life is such that he must take risks. Ahto Walter’s cruising ground is the North Atlantic Ocean and both his yachts have been under thirty feet overall. The only thing that stops him from sailing is ice, and he makes a point of leaving his home port, Tallinn (formerly Reval and now capital of Estonia), before that Baltic port freezes over. He is quite cheerful about leaving England in January to sail through the Bay of Biscay - a prospect that would fill most yachtsmen with concern - and he is a fine seaman. He is not much older than the young republic of Estonia, as he was born two years before the outbreak of the war of 1914-18.


The story of Ahto Walter’s sea exploits is thus a story of youth, and when we hear the old grumble that youth is soft and that the days of sail are past, it should be remembered that this young man sails small yachts across the Western Ocean in all winds, weathers and seasons. Further, Ahto is a sail-trained man experienced in square-rig, and is one of the sons of a sea-captain, so that heredity may be responsible for part of his success. A young American, Tom Olsen, his companion on several voyages, has collaborated with him in writing an account of his cruises.


The father of the Walter family was at one time captain of a Russian steamship that sailed from St. Petersburg - now Leningrad - to Vladivostok. He was afterwards commissioned to start a school of navigation in Estonia. He became a shipowner and took his sons on several voyages. He was an ideal father for boys who loved the sea, for he taught them sailing, bought them two small sailing boats and gave them every encouragement. After the revolution, when Estonia had separated from Russia, the father obtained the post of commander of the harbour at Tallinn. Ahto found high school irksome and preferred to ship before the mast in a four-masted sailing vessel in which his brother had a berth. Ahto had plenty of experience in this vessel, as she voyaged to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic to South America. Then he went into steam and varied his trips with studies ashore at a school of navigation. He worked in big cities on either side of the Atlantic. At one time he put in a spell at a high rate of pay as an apprentice to a steel-worker, catching red-hot rivets high above New York. He returned to Tallinn and, after having joined one of his brothers who owned a small schooner, he decided to buy a small boat of his own. This was in 1930, when he was only eighteen, but it must be remembered that he had packed more experience into his youth than many men have into a long life.


Outlay Only £15


Ahto Walter read a book by Alain Gerbault in which the French single-handed circumnavigator says that the sailing of small boats in deep water is more than difficult and impossible for the average sailor. Ahto felt that he could take a boat wherever there was water to float her, although he looked upon himself as an average sailor.


At first he planned to sail single-handed, as had Gerbault, and began his search for a boat. As his price-limit was the equivalent of £20, all boats seemed beyond his purse, and the only one possible at the price was a double-ended ketch that had been left by her owner to disintegrate in the mud. The owner had been a smuggler and had been caught so many times in the boat that she had become notorious. He had been obliged to give her up because all the coastguards could recognize her.


This hulk - she was little more, as her masts were sprung and her rigging was in a poor state - was examined by Ahto and by his father. She changed hands for the equivalent of £15. Ahto and his father altered her from a ketch to a sloop, as Ahto preferred sloop rig. A new mast cost 4s. and the sum of 10s. was spent on canvas for sails. This sailcloth had once been used for sails on the spars of ships, and Ahto found it too heavy for his boat.


Kou, Ahto’s eldest brother, wanted to accompany him. At first this annoyed Ahto and he sailed off with some friends for a week in the rejuvenated boat. When he returned he agreed to ship his brother. They tried to get the Estonian Government interested in the venture, but the President told Ahto he would rather give him a gun so that the boy could shoot himself in his own country and enable his parents to bury him. The Estonian Yacht Club refused to allow them to fly the club burgee, not wishing to encourage “voluntary suicides”, and the harbour authorities at Tallinn refused to issue a certificate that the boat was seaworthy.


Ahto Walter’s high spirits refused to be dampened by salt water, and Kou was as full of pranks as his brother. The first joke was against them. They were boarded at their first port by the smuggler who had sold the boat to Ahto, and he became annoyed when he found they had no drink to sell him. They offered him methylated spirit, which he drank. To their surprise he appeared to enjoy the drink and thanked them for it.


The Ahto I, as the owner called his first boat, was 29 feet long, 9 feet beam and 5 ft. 6 in. draught; she was twenty-two years old when she sailed out of Tallinn on August 7,1930. Ahto found that she was unduly wet; the mast was too far forward and she was thus down by the head.


TAKING A SIGHT during Ahto Walter’s long Atlantic crossingThe first storm stove in two panes of the skylight on top of the cabin. Every sea that came aboard sent water into the cabin and soaked everything below: therefore the skylight had to be boarded up. As with most men who go to sea in small boats, the Walter brothers soon discovered that a leak on deck is in some ways as troublesome as a leaky hull. In its progress to the bilge, the sea water spoils everything it touches and thus destroys all comfort in a small cabin.


Their way of solving the dinghy problem, always acute in a small yacht, was to carry a collapsible boat. This was assembled outside Copenhagen. Ahto rowed ashore to buy stores, but as the shops were shut that day, returned with nothing. As the yacht was passing through the Skagerrak to enter the North Sea a storm blew the mainsail away, and the storm-sail set in place of it was too small to keep the yacht headed off shore. The two brothers set to work to make a mainsail out of what canvas they had aboard. A tin of paraffin had upset and their work was carried out in a haze of sickening fumes, but they stitched doggedly away and got the sail set in time to save the yacht.





TAKING A SIGHT during Ahto Walter’s long Atlantic crossing. From his earliest years Ahto had been acquiring considerable experience of the sea in the difficult conditions of the Baltic. To him the navigation of a small yacht over thousands of miles of open sea presented no difficulties in good weather.





Off the coast of Holland disaster nearly came in another way. They were becalmed for four days, and at night they slept after having lashed a lantern in the rigging. One night a steamer passed so close that they were rolled out of their bunks by her wash. They put in at Ramsgate (Kent), and the next stage of the cruise was pleasant yachting, for they made friends at every harbour that they entered on the south coast of England. The last port was Torquay (Devonshire), where a leak in the bow was repaired with a canvas patch. The repair was effected when the yacht was beached for scraping and painting the bottom.


By the middle of October all was ready for the first struggle with the Atlantic. In spite of a favourable weather report, local fishermen told them to defer sailing as bad weather was on the way, but the brothers laughed at the warning and sailed for Madeira. They avoided the Bay of Biscay by standing well away, but in the evening of the third day they met the storm that had been foretold.


As the storm increased they shortened sail, until they were reduced to the storm-sail, which the wind blew to pieces in an hour or two; then they began with a series of sea-anchors. The first sea-anchor lasted a night, the second soon went, so they put out a third. The decks were awash, two portholes were stove in and had to be repaired. Kou was swept overboard three times in one night, each time being saved by the life-line that the Walters always wore in bad weather. The seams opened out and the brothers had to pump almost continuously to keep the boat afloat; then it was discovered that the rudder was damaged.


The worst of the storm lasted for five days, but two more days passed before the sea subsided sufficiently to enable Kou to mend the rudder. Kou could not swim, but went overboard with a lifeline, while his younger brother stood guard with a knife lashed to a boathook to ward off sharks that were near the boat.


The brothers had no more bad weather except for a squall that knocked the Ahto I on her beam-ends and stripped most of the canvas off a German sailing ship which the brothers Were admiring at the moment.


Short Rations


After having put in at Madeira, the yacht went to Las Palmas, in the Canaries, where the brothers bought stores for the passage to Miami, Florida. They carried three fifty-gallons water-tanks and were supplied with ample water, but they made an error in their provisioning by not unpacking the cases of tinned goods which they had bought at Las Palmas. They had been five days at sea before they looked at the goods and found that most of the tins were rusty. Nearly all, except the tins of corned beef, had to be thrown into the sea. They painted the rest of the tins with oil in the hops of stopping the rust, and went on short rations.


When the discovery was made it was too late to return against the trade wind to Las Palmas, and even if they had done so it is doubtful whether they would have been compensated by the shopkeeper who had sold the provisions.


The Ahto I made a fast passage across the Atlantic for a yacht of her small size, and the brothers sighted the West Indian island of Haiti when they were eighteen days out from Las Palmas. Their luck and the wind then failed. For fifteen days the yacht was becalmed off the north coast of Haiti, sometimes drifting so close to the shore that the brothers could see people working in the fields. There was no harbour, the swell was heavy and the presence of sharks prevented them from trying to land in the flimsy dinghy, which had only a few inches freeboard. During this tedious fortnight they had to halve their rations of a tin of corned beef and half a pound of ship’s biscuit.


THE THREE VOYAGES of Ahto Walter from the Baltic Sea to North America and back



































THE THREE VOYAGES of Ahto Walter from the Baltic Sea to North America and back took him by way of the Canary Islands. On the first voyage the Ahto I stood well out of the Bay of Biscay to avoid unnecessary risks, a policy that her owner did not always adopt. The crossings from the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands to the West Indies took advantage of the trade wind.




When the wind arrived it came suddenly out of the north and all but drove the yacht ashore, but they clawed off and reached Miami, Florida, forty-three days out from Las Palmas, having eaten the last morsel of food before entering harbour. When they had recovered from the effect of the welcome they were given ashore, the brothers were almost at the end of their resources and discussed their situation. They were saved by the arrival of a British yachtsman, Peter Barber, who appeared with a young American, Tom Olsen. They wished to cruise to the Caribbean Sea, and a charter was arranged. All four men packed into the tiny Ahto.


The four adventurers left Miami on New Year’s Day, 1931, and accepted the offer of a tow out of harbour from an excursion boat, but the tow-rope parted and they went on to a shoal. They got off, but went aground again, this time for hours. After this, as it was growing dark, they anchored, but the morning dawned a dead calm, so they landed on an islet and raided some coco-nut palms. At Key West, in the south of Florida, they traded the coco-nuts for oranges, grape-fruit and bananas.


The adventurers had some new experiences in Havana, Cuba. They arrived without clearance papers and disregarded a signal from the quarantine station to stop. The yacht was put under arrest. The British consul intervened, and they were allowed to go ashore, where they had more trouble.


Tragedy Averted


They thought they were being cheated at a cafe, and paid part of the bill in Estonian money, an action that caused a disturbance. The next misadventure was more serious. Ahto Walter and Tom Olsen hired a taxicab and argued about the fare. Ahto struck the driver a blow, and ultimately found himself in a police-cell. He was let off with a fine. Meanwhile Kou and Barber had succeeded with the aid of the British Consul in getting the boat cleared, and the quartet sailed away.


A “norther”, which lasted for five days, damaged the yacht. A sea threw her on her beam ends and another sea filled the mainsail as the boat was lying over and broke the boom, besides carrying away the hatch cover. The yacht had to lie to a sea-anchor for two days, and drifted a long distance out of her course.


Olsen left the yacht at Grand Cayman (an island south of Cuba), and the three remaining yachtsmen sailed to Belize, capital of British Honduras. Thence they went to Key West and up to New York, where Kou decided to stay. Ahto wanted to enter for the transatlantic yacht race from Newport (Rhode Island) to Plymouth (Devonshire), but his yacht was too small to be accepted. He decided that he would race, nevertheless, to see what she would do.


With Peter Barber as shipmate, he sailed for Plymouth, driving the boat hard. A tragedy was narrowly avoided. Barber, who had not put on his life-line, was swept overboard by a sea one rough day. He was wearing oilskins and an overcoat. Ahto managed to get to him and throw him a line, but could not pull him aboard because of his weight. A sea swept him back into the yacht. The boat, which was not strong enough to stand the strain of ocean racing, sprang a leak, and Ahto could not carry full sail because of her condition. She arrived at Plymouth, and went on to the Isle of Wight, where Ahto sold her for £200.


Ahto Walter and his shipmates kept an anxious lookout for the first sight of Haiti As soon as he had returned to Tallinn, Ahto began looking for another boat. He found one 27 feet overall, 8 ft. 2 in. beam and 6 feet draught. He called her Ahto II, and she proved a drier sea-boat than the first one. Although she was slightly smaller, her greater draught gave more headroom in the cabin. She was sloop-rigged, as had been the first Ahto.


With his elder brother Uku as crew, Ahto sailed from Tallinn on November 1, 1931, and met a young man at Copenhagen who wanted to join him. The new member of the ship’s company did not stay. He left the yacht at Rotterdam, and his place was taken by Jay, another brother of Ahto. They arrived at Cowes (Isle of Wight) in December, where they met Peter Barber. Barber had bought a cutter called the Enterprise, and was fitting her out for an ocean cruise with two friends. The yachts met a few weeks later at Falmouth (Cornwall), where Uku Walter transferred from the Ahto II to the Enterprise.





LAND AHEAD. After having sailed for eighteen days across nearly 3,000 miles of open sea from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, Ahto Walter and his shipmates kept an anxious lookout for the first sight of Haiti in the West Indies. When Haiti was sighted the wind fell and the Ahto I was becalmed for fifteen days within sight of land.





The Ahto II sailed from Falmouth in the middle of January, with a fair wind. Ahto had been told by the Cornish fishermen that bad weather was coming, and before he had gone far he found that they were right. He shortened sail, but did not heave-to. One day the Ahto II logged 200 miles from noon to noon, overtaking cargo steamers as she swooped along from sea to sea. It was dangerous sailing, which required an iron nerve and a sure hand at the tiller, but Ahto and Jay made no mistakes. They had the reward of a quick crossing of the Bay of Biscay.


They stopped at Vigo in north-west Spain. Ahto planned to make the passage from Vigo to Miami in forty-five days, including a call at St. Vincent, in the Cape Verde Islands, for a hot bath. He carried out his plan, sailing the 5,000 miles in forty-four days. At one period the yacht sailed with the helm lashed for ten days; this left the brothers free to paint her above and below deck.


From Miami the yacht cruised to New York, where an Estonian, Verner Sooman, joined them for the passage back to Europe. They sailed in July 1932 and crossed to the Scillies in twenty days from New York, but it took them seventeen more days to reach London. They made the New York to London run without stopping until they moored off Billingsgate. Not liking the smell of fish, they decided to go above Westminster Bridge. They were told that the yacht would clear the bridge but, by the time they reached it, the tide had risen and it was too late to stop. The mast was broken near the top; so they shortened it by six feet and altered the mainsail and the rigging. Despite this jury rig, the yacht sailed the thousand miles to Tallinn in eight days, taking the Kiel Canal route.


DRYING THE SAILS of the Ahto I Ahto’s brother and the other young Estonian joined the Estonian Navy, and Ahto prepared for yet another voyage. The shortened mast was replaced by one 40 feet high, which was four feet more than the original mast. With Jay’s help, Ahto cut down a young spruce tree on his grandfather’s estate and made the mast. The work pleased him, as he had been asked to pay £30 for a new mast in London. Then he installed a five horse-power auxiliary motor.


Two young journalists asked to sail on the next voyage, and Ahto Walter came to an arrangement with them. He had to wait for Tom Olsen, who sailed in a steamer from the United States, to join him. Olsen arrived, and the yacht sailed towards the end of November in bitterly cold weather, putting in at several places for shelter.





DRYING THE SAILS of the Ahto I alongside a jetty after a wet passage. The sails, on which so much depends, must be stored dry to prevent the formation of mildew. In comparison with the length of the yacht and her low freeboard, the mast is exceptionally high. Ahto Walter prefers to carry extra sail to give the vessel a faster speed when more orthodox yachtsmen would reef.





At Kiel the arms and ammunition in the yacht, intended for use during a hunting trip in Africa, aroused the suspicions of the German authorities. When the four men went ashore they entered, by mistake, a Communist club, where the members thought they were Russians sailing round the world on a propaganda mission. Ahto therefore decided to leave Kiel before matters became complicated. They found the Kiel Canal colder than the Baltic, but at last they reached the North Sea where they had to beat against wind, rain and snow to reach Lowestoft (Suffolk). They spent Christmas Day, 1932, anchored in a fog in the Thames Estuary, and managed to creep up to the Pool on Boxing Day. In the New Year they sailed to the Solent to prepare their little vessel for the difficult passage across the Bay of Biscay.


The Ahto II began the passage well equipped. She had a wireless set, an engine, a lighting set and four strong young men. She was crowded, however, and the weight of the stores made her sluggish. On the first night in the Channel she shipped water over her stern.


Ewald, one of the journalists, suffered from sea-sickness and became weak as it continued. When the yacht was near Ushant and three men were at work wiring the binnacle lamp, Ewald went overboard. He had not fixed his life-line properly, and the task of picking him up was difficult. Ahto made a bight in the sheet and managed to heave it over Ewald’s head: when they hauled him aboard he was unconscious. Artificial respiration was applied and Ewald was restored to consciousness, but he became delirious. It was not possible to land him at a French port immediately because of the state of the weather, and a long fight with the sea began. All sail had to be furled and a sea-anchor put out, but the yacht fell off broadside to the seas and they had to rig a storm-sail. Eventually they managed to put in at Groix, an island off the French coast, and when Ewald’s condition had improved they sailed to Lorient on the mainland.


When the wind became favourable, the Ahto II returned to the Bay of Biscay and more bad weather. Rudy, the other journalist, was not an experienced helmsman, and twice the little yacht broached-to when running before the gale; Ewald was still too weak to help to work the boat. When the yacht reached Vigo, Ewald left for Estonia.


The next ports were Funchal, Madeira, and then Las Palmas, where Ahto intended to replenish stores. Remembering his previous experience with bad food, he took particular care to inspect the goods before he bought them.


Instead of sailing across the Atlantic to America, Ahto turned southwards to the African coast and visited various ports, meeting Peter Barber in his cutter, Enterprise, at Dakar (West Africa). They met again at Bathurst (Gambia), where Rudy found an Estonian steamer in which he sailed for home. Barber enlisted one of this steamship’s crew as a hand to help him sail to America, for he and Ahto intended to race to New York in the two yachts. Before the race they made a hunting trip up the Gambia River in the Ahto II, Bill, the young Estonian seaman, proving an asset.


The race across the Atlantic started from Bathurst, with Sandy Hook as the finishing line. Ahto and Tom, in the Ahto II, reached Sandy Hook in fifty days, four days before Barber and Biil arrived in the Enterprise. During the race the contestants had their share of adventures.


The two yachts left Bathurst, capital of Gambia Colony, on May 17, 1933, on a tropical afternoon, with no one but a few natives to see them off. The heat was almost overpowering as the yachts ran down the Gambia River with the tide. They were glad to leave the river mouth and reach the open sea.


At first the Enterprise took the lead, and at sunset Ahto saw his rival a quarter of a mile off his starboard bow. At noon the following day both vessels hove-to as some necessary repairs had to be done to sails and rigging. Peter Barber had found it necessary to sew up some seams in the Enterprise’s mainsail, as these had opened during the night. Ahto Walter took the opportunity to repair the topping lift of the Ahto II.


While these repairs were being effected the two yachts exchanged long-distance conversation by foghorn signals and other means. Bill, the young Estonian hand in the Enterprise, had to be kept awake by the foghorn while he was steering.


Six days out of Bathurst they ran into a calm, which lasted for two and a half days. The calm was broken by a capricious breeze.


After a final consultation, during which the rivals compared positions and exchanged information, they decided to start the race in real earnest.


SITTING ASTRIDE THE CROSSTREES Ahto Walter attends to gear aloftThe Enterprise went ahead, but she was quickly overhauled by the Ahto II. By nightfall the Estonian yacht was a mile ahead of her adversary. The next morning the Ahto II had left the Enterprise below the horizon.


In the ensuing calm both Ahto Walter and Tom Olsen were ill. In addition, Ahto was suffering from a severe toothache. He persuaded Tom to extract the offending tooth with a pair of pliers. The operation took the best part of an hour.





SITTING ASTRIDE THE CROSSTREES, Ahto Walter attends to gear aloft while the yacht is sailing. The helmsman must take especial care to keep his vessel steady or she will gybe. The sail would then swing over and throw the man aloft from his position astride the crosstrees. The success of an Atlantic crossing largely depends upon the yacht’s gear being kept in constant good repair.





Despite the relief afforded by the tooth extraction, Ahto was still feeling poorly, and he found that both Tom and himself had developed high temperatures. They drifted inert during the five days of the calm, and had favourable winds afterwards. It was weeks before they had fully recovered.


In an attempt to discover the cause of their illness, Ahto remembered that he had replenished one of his water-tanks from water of the port of Bathurst, instead of taking the precaution of filling the tank with water from a British cruiser that was in the harbour. Ahto decided to use this possibly contaminated water in future for cooking purposes only. They next overhauled their store of provisions, throwing overboard any tins that appeared to have rusted through. This made them short of meat. An added calamity was the condition of the other food. The spaghetti had bred some form of insect, and whenever they opened a tin of rice clouds of moths flew out. But the rice, when boiled, was tolerable, in spite of the moths.


Squalls and calms alternated. The rain squalls were welcome, as they provided Ahto and Tom with an opportunity of taking shower-baths. On June 20 the Ahto II ran into a calm in the Sargasso Sea, that mysterious region in mid-Atlantic where floating masses of seaweed and quantities of driftwood are congregated.


As stated in the chapter The Menace of the Derelict, the Sargasso Sea, besides being a tract of seaweed, is the final resting place of many derelict sailing ships, which have remained there because there is no current to take them out again.


During their enforced idleness, the voyagers at first made up for lost sleep. Then they did various odd jobs in the yacht. Tom Olsen took the radio to pieces and reassembled it, to good effect.


When they entered the Gulf Stream they had to exercise especial care. To take full advantage of the stream’s northward flow, it was necessary to stay in the faster currents. But there was constant danger of squalls, which threatened to carry away the mast.

After forty-eight days at sea they sighted the coast of New Jersey, and on the fiftieth day out of Bathurst they came abreast of Sandy Hook, four days ahead of their rivals.


[From part 19 & part 20, published 16 & 23 June 1936]



You can read more on “Gerbault and the Firecrest”, “Great Voyages in Little Ships” and “Supreme Feats of Navigation” on this website.