West Coast sailor Bert terHart wanted to sail in a similar fashion to the great explorers of yesteryear, like British Navy captains George Vancouver and James Cook, with only a sextant to guide him.
So, off he went with his sextant, and sailed right around the world by himself and without stopping — a feat that will most likely land him in the record books.
He left from Victoria, B.C., in early November 2019 and arrived back to home waters some months later, in mid-July 2020, during the middle of the pandemic, to tie the knot on his circumnavigation.
TerHart, 62, who works in computer programming, became the first person from North or South America to circumnavigate solo, non-stop around the great capes with only a sextant. He’s the ninth person to accomplish the feat in the world, he says.
There’s only a handful who have done the solo, non-stop world journey, including Robin Knox-Johnston, the first to do it in 1969, along with Bernard Moitessier and Chay Blyth.
That was his goal setting out with his Canadian-built Reliance 44, and it took him 265 days — longer than he planned, since the doldrums kept moving back and forth over top of him on the way back home — to go the 28,860 nm it took him to get around the globe.
During his journey, he made accurate fixes and found his way safely around all of the great capes including Cape Horn, was knocked down twice in bad weather, burying the top of his mast in the waves, and didn’t really enjoy himself sailing in higher latitudes in the dangerous southern ocean.
And, along the way, he was afraid that he might just starve to death.
The issue with the doldrums, where terHart found himself becalmed for days at a time, almost caused him to run out of food.
Before shoving off, he packed his boat with all the water he needed — rationed to a measly two litres per day — and all the food he need and that would fit down below — mounds of pasta, rice, some grains and many cans of various meats and veggies.
He did top up his water tanks with rain water twice on the trip, but only after the salt from the ocean that encrusted the hull and deck of his boat was washed away during the torrential downpour.
He feared that getting salt in the boat’s water tanks would ruin his drinking water, and he didn’t have a watermaker onboard to purify the ocean water and remove the salt. During rainstorms, he would set a bucket on deck to catch water for washing.
The married father of four, who lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., one of the Gulf Islands near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, had been planning the trip for some time but didn’t really commit to the adventure until the boat checked out, and the plans progressed.
Prior to leaving, he pulled the mast and all the standing rigging on his boat. Once the provisioning was done, he knew then that he was committed — and leaving.
But his progress was a little slower than he had planned. He thought heading out that he could be tucked back into a dock in Victoria after circling the globe in only 200 days.
He says other sailors have done the trip in about 180 days, so he was optimistic. “I hoped about 200 days but I thought that I would plan for more. I thought if I could do it in 210 days, that would be a good trip.”
The days, though, kept ticking by — and time certainly slowed down in the so-called doldrums, the Intertropical Convergence Zones located in mid-latitude areas of the planet where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge, and where wind is scarce.
TerHart said he realized part way along that he would run short of food, and decided to make arrangements to get some supplies while underway. He had email while sailing, and could reach family. His sister helped with logistics while he was at sea.
For his adventure and record attempt, terHart could not go into a dock which would be considered a stop, but could anchor if the weather became too much.
While at sea, his sister organized a small runabout to zip by and toss food on the boat’s deck while terHart was moving along in the waves.
“I realized quickly that I was running out of food,” he says in an interview some months after ending his long journey, and still trying to get his sleep patterns back on track. Sailing alone meant catnapping during the about nine months at sea, waking often to check the horizon for boat traffic, especially large commercial vessels that don’t often alter course for smaller recreational vessels.
“I totally underestimated how hungry I would be and I was afraid that this would become an issue,” he says.
Organizing a food drop on the fly was difficult enough, but became even more complicated during a pandemic, with countries shutting borders around the world, especially to a foreigner on a sailboat who wanted to visit from elsewhere.
These closed borders also made things a little tricky if terHart had trouble on the water, and had to go into a port for safety.
The food drop, after much negotiations, was done offshore and in international waters. terHart had to divert about 100 miles towards Rarotonga, part of the Cook Islands, while sailing in the south Pacific. He was some months from reaching home on Canada’s west coast. The tiny Pacific island is connected in governance with New Zealand.
New Zealand prided itself on its attempts to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic and, along with nearby Australia, has been one of the first countries to lift restrictions on residents, who returned to restaurants and shopping.
When the idea of a food drop was suggested to local government officials, “the first response (from New Zealand) was “no you can’t,” ” terHart recalled. On his travels, he went by “hundreds of cruising boats all locked down and trapped” by the pandemic.
“But they (his team) pulled out all of the stops, and even the (local) ministry of health was involved…they finally said we can do it but not with one of the ferries but with a small aluminium runabout. I just came zipping by.”
Even with the food drop, terHart knew he had to ration what remained of his stock. “I started counting calories and was down to 800 calories per day, which isn’t much.” He eventually made it home, but figures he lost about 25 pounds on the trip.
The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start, with terHart having to pull into San Francisco, only five days out of Victoria, after part of his windvane system blew off the boat. He also thought he was experiencing a fuel leak or problems with the fuel tanks, but later learned that he had overfilled them. Since he stopped, he had to begin his non-stop trip around the world again, this time from San Francisco.
“I thought that I couldn’t go on,” he says about the damage to his boat. “The wind vane blew right off the boat, but I did have a spare.”
He had the damaged wind vane repaired during the stop in northern California. The rest of the trip featured some minor equipment failures, but nothing that stopped him cold, or worried him enough to go into a dock.
He was also forced to use a smaller foresail, which slowed him up, along with the doldrums. He says the flogging of the sails and the stress on the rig worried him more while becalmed than when the rig was under pressure while the wind was blowing.
“The worst part is being becalmed,” he says, noting it lasted for about 50 days of the trip. “Ultimately, it’s very demanding. You have to keep on focusing on keeping the boat going.” And in the doldrums, storms can whistle through, with winds speeds going from five knots to 45 knots in 20 minutes, combined with hail and a passing thunderstorm.
Outside of the doldrums, the wind certainly blew in some places, like near the Falkland Islands, a series of islands in the Southern Atlantic near Argentina. There are some severe currents in the area, and a bad storm made things worse, says terHart.
“I was going to be stranded. The winds were gusting 75-80 knots,” he says. He ended up anchoring to let the wicked storm pass by, and then continued on.
The wind and waves in the Southern Ocean were no fun either, he says, noting he sometimes woke up mid-air after being thrown from his seabunk. He would strap myself into his bunk, so that he wouldn’t awake while flying about the cabin.
“It’s very dangerous,” he says of sailing in the Southern Ocean, where storms swirl around unimpeded or slowed by mountains or land masses.
He was knocked down twice in the Southern Ocean — in the southern Indian Ocean and south of Australia — in latitudes below 40 degrees south. The area is often referred by sailors as the “Roaring 40s”, the “Furious 50s” and the “Shrieking or Screaming 60s.”
TerHart says far fewer people have sailed around the world, especially solo and non-stop, than have climbed Mount Everest, because of the dangerous conditions, and being by yourself in the middle of the ocean, without any help for many miles.
“The number (of solo, non-stop circumnavigators) is so small because you have to be incredibly lucky,” he says. “It’s very dangerous. And very dangerous for a long time. I was lucky that the boat didn’t come apart.
“I was tossed five times…it’s most violent. You just wake up and you are airborne.” He added: “I was strapped down. I was pretty much nailed down to my bunk.” He hurt his back on one violent tossing, and “spent the next two days strapped to my bunk.”
He says during the months at sea he was alone but not lonely. There is a difference, he says. He maintained email contact with family and friends while at sea.
Ironically, when terHart contacted the World Sailing Speed Record Council about his plan to be the first person from North or South America to sail solo, non-stop around the world with a sextant, he says he was given the brush off.
“I contacted them before I left and they told me to go pound salt. We are not interested in some old guy.”
TerHart grew up sailing on inland lakes in Saskatchewan, and as an adult moved to the west coast and bought his first sailboat, which was 42 feet long. “I just jumped right in,” he says, avoiding the “two-foot-itis” of many sailors, who move up slowly in boat sizes.
He later bought his Reliance 44 to sail with his wife, and kids. “I wanted a boat that was comfortable for them and not me. Otherwise, no one would go sailing with me.”
He’s sailed around Vancouver Island many times and sailed north up the B.C. coast to Alaska five times.
He says he knew the boat before he left on his circumnavigation. “My plan for that boat was to sail around the west coast here and eventually head off with whoever wanted to go.” His solo adventure just got in the way, a little.
He wanted to sail like some of the great explorers because he liked the idea of the thrill of seeing land and navigating with only a sextant. “I wanted to experience what they experienced in other parts of the world.
“I knew that boat and that made me feel comfortable with the circumnavigation, but I also knew that I had to sail conservatively.”
Asked why to set out on his global journey, terHart says, like most sailors, he wanted to experience the thrill of going around Cape Horn, and some of the other great capes.
“To say it’s been a life-long dream, I don’t think is accurate. If I had a life-long dream it would be sailing in the South Pacific like normal people.”
And what comes next for this adventurer? He is planning to brush off his sextant and canoe across Canada in the summer of 2022, paddling along major river systems and portaging in some places, including across the mountains to get out of B.C. He is also writing a couple of books on his travels.