Past Times

From The Shetland Times, Friday 7th October, 1960

Almost unnoticed, a little yacht sailed into Lerwick Harbour during the lunch hour on Saturday. Under headsail, mainsail an a big Genoa jib, she ran up towards the Bressay shore, then tacked across the harbour to tie up alongside the much larger Lerwick yacht “Loki”. A yellow flag fluttering in the breeze revealed the surprising fact that this little ship had come from a foreign port but it seemed incredible that the name in foot high letters on the canvas dodger round the cockpit should read “Cardinal Vertue” – this tiny craft had arrived from St. John’s Newfoundland.

For the second time this year, Dr David Lewis had crossed the Atlantic alone in a four ton, 25 foot boat. The soft spoken unassuming New Zealander, who now has a medical practice in East Ham, London, told a “Shetland Times” reporter that it had been “pretty rough most of the time.”

Dr Lewis bought the “Cardinal Vertue” two years ago and to qualify for entry for the Transatlantic race for single-handed sailors, he had to complete a preliminary ocean crossing alone. He chose to sail to Norway and arrived in Stavanger harbour one day last year when Mr Thomas Moncrieff was there in his yacht “Loki”. The doctor, fatigued through lack of sleep, was having a spot of bother in mooring his boat and Mr Moncrieff gave him a hand. They struck up a friendship and the doctor revealed his plans for the solo crossing from Plymouth to New York.

But Dr Lewis was more concerned with the return trip than with the outward one. What was the best and quickest route home after the race, bearing in mind that it would be late in the year before he started? He adopted Mr Moncrieff’s suggestion that he take the northern route, via Newfoundland, to Shetland. And as Dr Lewis was already planning  a Norwegian cruise for 1961, it suited his plans to leave “Cardinal Vertue” at Lerwick for the winter.

On the outward passage the doctor took 54 days and encountered six gales. He also lost a couple of days at the outset when the mast broke and he had to return to Plymouth. Nevertheless, he took third place in the race, a week behind the second man home.

In New York Dr Lewis was joined by Miss Fiona Grant, a South African of Scottish parentage, and she sailed with him on the fourteen-day voyage to St. John’s. She went back to London by air from Gandar and on 5th September the doctor set out alone once more, to sail to Shetland.

The early stages of the voyage were the worst. All told, the “Cardinal Vertue” weathered six gales – four of Force 8, one Force 9, and a memorable Force 10 in which the doctor hove-to for 12 hours. He was about 400 miles south of Greenland when the storm hit him. The sea anchor appeared to be absolutely ineffective in these conditions, with the sea completely white and heavy waves breaking over the vessel. “Yes, I was frightened,” said Dr Lewis. Despite the heavy weather, he found it rather less terrifying to be on deck than to remain below with the yacht completely at the mercy of the elements. He had been afraid on other occasions too but, he added, “You can’t stay in a state of terror for 26 days – you get used to it.”

Fortunately, the “Cardinal Vertue” had mainly following winds and even in gale conditions she was able to run before them. She carried nothing more than a headsail for much of the voyage and the doctor left her unattended for long stretches, steering being held by a wind vane acting on the rudder head. “I slept well at nights,” said Dr Lewis, “though this is not a good thing because of the danger of being run down by a steamer during the night.” His route was north of the shipping lanes, but occasionally he found himself on the fringes of shipping routes and twice he was able to signal passing Scandinavian ships and ask them to report his position to Lloyds.

On both outward and return passages, the doctor kept a lengthy daily record of his eating habits, and his physical and mental condition. He also persuaded all but one of his fellow competitors in the race to do likewise and he hopes that an analysis of the printed forms he devised in co-operation with a friend, will give  a picture of the behaviour of men in isolation. This information should prove useful in tackling problems connected with survival at sea.

Much of Doctor Lewis’ food was of an experimental nature too – packages of dehydrated meat, fruit and vegetables from the Government experimental factory in Aberdeen – “For which I received a bill,” he added ruefully! On the outward passage he made an elementary error – he did not allow enough additional drinking water to reconstitute the dehydrated food and he had to resort to collecting rainwater. But he did find that the stuff absorbed a good deal of moisture if opened and left on deck for a day before cooking. It was not the only thing that absorbed moisture – the whole cabin was damp when he arrived at Lerwick, his bedding was positively wet and his auxiliary engine and radio had long since given up the ghost after a valiant battle against corrosion! Books which he had borrowed from friends in America had to be dried out before they could be posted back again!

Running well north of Shetland to a point about half-way to Faroe, “Cardinal Vertue” tacked southward again as the long voyage neared its end. On Thursday of last week the doctor sighted the peaks of Foula – and then spent 23 hours completely becalmed. Early on Friday he passed through the Roost, rounded Sumburgh Head, and ran north for Lerwick.

After Custom’s formalities, the doctor came ashore to phone friends and relations and to have a good meal. He had had no food that day and no sleep for 24 hours through the necessity of keeping at the helm while he was close to land. But it was more difficult for him to find his land legs than his sea legs: “Everything is going up and down and the buildings seem to be falling over” he complained. It was Mr Moncrieff who suggested that the best way the doctor could get the rest he needed was to go for  cruise in the “Loki”. And five hours after crossing the Atlantic, the doctor was at sea again!
After a quiet night anchored in Catfirth Voe, the “Loki” returned to Lerwick and Dr Lewis declared that he felt much fitter. It was like being on an ocean liner after my boat,” he said.

On Monday, having handed the boat over to Mr Moncrieff, who will see that she is laid up at Hay’s dock for the winter, Dr Lewis prepared to travel to London, to resume his medical practice. Having weathered gales with winds up to 58 miles an hour, he never imagined that he would be delayed by a mere 45 m.p.h. gale on Monday afternoon – but the air service had to be cancelled and it was not until Tuesday evening that the doctor reached East Ham to take over from a colleague and neighbour who had been running he practice for many weeks.

Dr Lewis had kept something more extensive than a log of his voyages and plans to write a book. It will be of great interest to everyone in Shetland and we hope that, when he returns to Lerwick next June, he will be able to report that he has found a publisher.


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