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My Single-handed Circumnavigation of the Globe in the Smallest Catamaran in History
by Alan Butler 2012
The Amon–Re is a 26 foot Heavenly Twins Cruising Catamaran which I purchased in England while I was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force stationed in Germany. I took her, accompanied by my wife, Stella, from England, through the European waterways to Germany. After my retirement in 1980 we continued our journey through the inland waterways to the Mediterranean, joined by our daughter Kendal. Our total waterways travels took us 1790 kilometers, through 334 locks, on seven rivers, through five tunnels, down an incline plane, and across a number of aqueducts.
In the Mediterranean we found the South of France to be crowded and expensive, unlike the French interior, so we headed for Corsica which we found delightful and unspoiled by tourism, at that time. From there we went to the Balearic Islands. On this passage we experienced a full blown Force-10 Mistral and lay ahull for 42 hours. We had already experienced a Force-8 gale in the English Channel but after this storm I knew that Amon–Re could go anywhere. We next hopped along the coast of Spain to Gibraltar where I prepared for my solo Atlantic crossing.
Amon-Re on the marine railway for repairs. (Photo from the Butler collection)
The first leg of the crossing to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands took me two weeks, with four October gales. I was so tired of bad weather and I wondered, "What am I doing there?" After an eight day rest in Las Palmas I continued on to Barbados where I arrived a month later. This passage was entirely different to my expectations, being mostly light winds with some pleasant sailing. I arrived on December 15th and was met by my wife and son. Together we cruised the Grenadines for four months, after which Stella and Jim flew back to Canada leaving me with the task of getting Amon–Re from the Caribbean to Vancouver Island.
During our cruising in the West Indies, we met two other Heavenly Twins cruising catamarans. We had all made the Atlantic crossing that year. A few years later I was to meet one of them again in Brisbane Australia. This was the Aussie Tomcat, sailed by Tom and Sue Szerb.
My solo passage from Barbados to Panama was uneventful. I experienced a variety of sea conditions from calms to gales. The Caribbean was much rougher than what I had expected. After transiting the Panama Canal I had a 93–day non–stop passage home to Victoria British Columbia. I was becalmed numerous times on this passage, being an ‘El Nino’ year with weather patterns disrupted in the Pacific.
During this period I faced two major problems. The flexible water tanks leaked. I worked around this situation by filling up with rain water in the doldrums and had spare water containers so a water shortage did not become a serious problem. After that one of my forestays broke with 2,000 sailing miles yet to cross.
When I arrived home I still had an adequate basic food supply in the stores. My ‘luxury items’like cheese and pickles were long gone. I had also used up all my cake mixes before reaching home as well.
After my return I returned to work in Canada when, after three years, I decided to continue with my solo circumnavigation. On August 30, 1984 I set off from Victoria bound for Western Samoa in the South Pacific. This was a 62–day passage, the last half completed with a jury–rigged steering arrangement. The steel tiller had broken away from the rudder at the weld. I spent a month in Western Samoa where I had the steering gear repaired. I also visited the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson on the top of the mountain overlooking Apia harbour.
I then proceeded to Vavau, Tonga which are the northern–most group of the Tonga Archipelago. I spent a month there, and found the Tongan people to be friendly and welcoming. While there I attended a Tongan feast celebration for the opening of a church on one of the islands. The whole village attended and I was one of only three ‘palangi’ (white people) who attended. The food was delicious (Tongans are noted for their feasts). They truly lived up to their nickname of ‘The Friendly Islands’.
I stayed in Tonga longer than I had intended, and was still there at Christmas and I was talked into staying for the New Year celebrations. It was well into the cyclone season when I made my departure on the 5th of January. I headed for New Zealand where I arrived two weeks later (on the day that he first cyclone of the year devastated Fiji, and did some damage to some of the islands of Tonga.
I stayed in the Bay of Islands (in the very north of New Zealand for three months. I had a new mainsail made because I was weary of repairing the old one which was by that time on its last legs. I also had new spreader brackets made as one of the spreaders had broken away from the mast. I also beached Amon–Re to clean the bottom and to apply anti–fouling paint. I was able to put the boat on a mooring and to travel by bus to Auckland to be a tourist and visit friends.
I then headed across the Tasman Sea, which was a challenge, to Brisbane Australia. The steering cable broke three days before my arrival. So I rigged up a manual steering arrangement, a tiller extension over the top of the aft cabin to the center cockpit, using the tub from my telescopic whisker pole and a boat hook slotted down inside it. I spent an unpleasant three days manually steering Amon–Re for fourteen hours per day, mostly sitting in pouring rain. In Brisbane I installed a new steering system with the help of my son Jim who came to visit me for three weeks. I didn’t replace the holding bracket as the original one seemed to be alright. (This later proved to have been a mistake.) I spent a month in Brisbane enjoying mu son’s company. We visited Tom and Sue Szerb who sailed there is their own 26–foot Aussie Tomcat, another Heavenly Twins Catamaran. After seeing my son off to Canada I proceeded up the coast through the Great Barrier Reef.
The second day out I blew out the genoa sail in a squall. These things always seem to happen at night when it is pitch black. I took in the torn genoa and also lowered the mainsail. The weather had been miserable all day, drizzle with some torrential downpours, although the wind was mostly only north westerly Force 3 to 4. After the squall eased I put up the working jib. About an hour later another squall hit, and while taking down the jib I got hit in the eye with a flaying sheet which stunned me for a few seconds. I said, "To Hell with it!", and I streamed the new sea anchor that Tom and Sue had given me, changed into a dry track suit, and had a hot chocolate and cookies. Before turning in I checked my eye in the mirror and could see one brown eye and one grey eye. I also had a translucent blotch in the vision of my bad eye which worried me for a few days. I was very fortunate that the damage wasn’t permanent. The wind blew strong all night long. By mid–morning the wind was a full Force 8, but it eased up in the afternoon so I proceeded.
Amon–Re had been very comfortable bobbing around like a duck on the water, and I was able to get lots of rest. A few days later I arrived at Scawfell Island at the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef where I anchored for two days and had a good rest up.
I proceeded up inside the Barrier Reef stopping at Townsville where I spent ten days and replaced my solar panel. The original had stopped collecting a charge and could not be repaired. I moved on to Cairns where I spent an enjoyable three weeks. I got to know some of the trawler men who were based there, a rough and ready but good hearted bunch of guys. They normally don’t mix with the ‘yachties’ but they seemed to accept me. I spent my evenings with them and learned a lot about trawlers during my stay there.
Cooktown was my next port of call. This is where Captain James Cook careened and repaired HMS Endeavour after hitting the reef. It is now only a small community of around 800 people, a lot different from its early days as a rip roaring gold rush town of 30,000 people. A century ago it boasted 100 hotels. From Cooktown it was 400 miles of complete desolation to Cape York (the northern top of Australia). This stretch as strictly sailing, stopping to anchor every night as the reef closes to the shore and navigation has to be very accurate. There is one channel with beacons every 10, 15 or 20 miles apart. I didn’t see any other yachts in this 400 mile stretch, only a few trawlers. It is the isolation that makes it so beautiful.
Amon-RE under sail. (Photo from the Butler collection)
From Cape York it was on to Darwin, running through the Endeavour Strait with its extremely strong current. One has to pick the right time as the current often reaches 6 knots. I had a lovely run across the Gulf of Carpenteria (northern Australia) with easterly winds and south-easterly between Force 3 and Force 6. About 30 miles north of Darwin I went aground while rounding an island heading for the mainland. I was soon sitting there high and dry. Darwin has a large 27 foot tidal range at the Spring tides. I took advantage of this and scraped some of the barnacles off the bottom. A few hours later, as the tide rose, Amon–Re was floating so that I could proceed to Fanny Bay in Darwin harbour.
I sailed in, weaving my way through the 160 yachts at anchor as my engine wouldn’t start. Darwin is a lovely modern city of 50,000 people, most of it rebuilt after the disastrous Cyclone Tracy (280km winds) destroyed it on Christmas Day 1974. I spent a month there while I had my outboard motor repaired. I also replaced a frayed forestay. I beached Amon–Re and gave the bottom a really good cleaning although I didn’t paint it with anti–fouling paint this time. I met a lot of other ‘yachties’ there. Many of them were intending to make the Indian Ocean crossing. Some were going up through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean and many others heading on to South Africa. After a lot of consideration I made my final decision to my own route – around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Amon-Re interior. (Photo from Nauticapedia collection)
My progress was very slow for the first week after leaving Darwin. The winds in the Timor Sea were very light or non–existant and I only averaged 50 miles per day. Once in the Indian Ocean that changed, and I had many days of Force 5, 6 or 7 winds. The south easterly winds were on the quarter so I made good time , averaging 123 miles a day. I had a nasty wallop from a rogue wave that loomed up from the South, beam–on. I thought that Amon–Re was going to ride over it but the breakers on top of it hit hard. She shuddered and shook. Everything on the galley counter ended up on the floor, including a can of syrup. The lid came off the can and the syrup became mixed up with knives and forks, and sugar and powdered milk. A really good mess to clean up! My saloon hatch was also open and everything on the table got wet (charts, log book etc.). A few seconds later we were sailing along nicely as if nothing had happened.
My first stop in the Indian Ocean was Mauritius where I spent three weeks and had my tiller re–welded. It had broken, again, at the weld and I had travelled over 3,000 miles using a jury–rigged wooden tiller (the same arrangement that I had used in the Pacific) so that I was able to use the Autohelm. My stove also began to act up and it was obvious it needed replacement.
From Mauritius I had an uneventful two week passage to Durban South Africa where I spent three weeks cleaning the hull and painting anti–fouling on the bottom. I replaced the stove with a good second–hand one.
Leaving Durban I sailed non-stop to Barbados in the West Indies, a passage of 6,200 miles which took 54 days. Yachtsmen in South Africa were flabbergasted when they heard that I was going to take such a little catamaran around the Cape of Good Hope, non–stop and single–handed. Little did they realize that she was a lot safer and much more comfortable than most mono–hulls.
I experienced three gales rounding South Africa which lived up to its reputation as the ‘Cape of Storms’. First was a North Easter which was no trouble at all as I was running with it. This was followed by a South Westerly. I used the locally recommended procedure and headed inshore, and rode it out using a sea anchor over the stern. Amon–Re was very comfortable about a mile off the shore, the land affording a bit of a lee. Outside the 100 fathom line, which is only five to ten miles off shore, there are monstrous waves when the strong Agulhas current is opposed by a South Westerly gale. As the gale subsided I headed out to take advantage of the Current and was swept along having two consecutive daily runs of 182 miles and 194 miles. I could hardly believe it!
I was becalmed on the Agulhas Bank which is at the southern part of South Africa. The next gale was a South Easter between Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope. Here again it was no real problem for me as I was running with it. The waves were not too big, although every once in a while I would have some 20 to 25 footers. I think this was when the wave patterns got into phase with each other because they didn’t last very long. I did broach on one large wave and Amon–Re slithered sideways down the back of it, but the next wave picked her up and put her back on course again. My Autohelm 3000 did all the steering, and I may add, did a marvelous job, allowing me to get lots of rest if not sleep. I also had my little storm jib boomed out to prevent it from backing which worked very well.
A couple of hundred miles north of Capetown I found the sailing that dreams are made of – a gentle following sea with a following Force 3 or 4 breeze. I boomed out both genoas and just sleighed along like that for weeks. I managed 120 miles per day. Being a catamaran there was no rolling motion. I was going to stop over at St. Helena but I was disappointed when the outboard motor would not run. It was in the evening when I passed three miles off the island. I did not want to chance entering a strange harbour in the dark with no engine so I continued on to Barbados.
This completed my solo circum–navigation (Barbados to Barbados). According to Nobby Clarke (who kept the records for Guinness Superlatives Ltd.) this was the first catamaran and smallest multihull to circumnavigate single–handed.
After Barbados, where I spent three weeks, it was on to Panama again. This was a lovely voyage with a nice following breeze of Force 3 to 6. This was unlike my previous passage which I bettered by two days. It was after Panama that I had my long and arduous trek of 95 days home (non–stop). My run from Panama was a bit hair–raising on one day when I experienced a full Force 10. I had streamed a sea anchor and was running under bare poles. The wind was extremely violent and the seas were very steep (around 20 feet). I was crossing a relatively shallow bank of 95 meters depth which dropped off to 3,000 meters. This created the really nasty sea, and provided the only time that Amon–Re took on water over the after cabin. It wasn’t much but some did swill over and into the cockpit. When the storm abated I hauled in the remains of my sea anchor. The bag had been torn right off, the four small lines holding the hoop had parted.
The first five days out of Panama I moved like a train averaging 130 miles per day, but that was where my good runs ended. I was becalmed a great deal and on one stretch I only made 420 miles in 21 days. At the halfway mark I had yet another steering failure. This time it was the bracket (that I should have replaced in Australia) that held the teleflex cable. As I was unable to make repairs I had to jury rig, once again, with the tiller extension over the aft cabin top for the remaining 2,850 miles. I blew out my large genoa in a squall and this slowed me down in light airs, as did the goose-necked barnacles firmly anchored on the hulls. I went over the side four times when becalmed scraping off the growth. The day after I finished I saw four white-tipped sharks cruising around the stern, so that put an end to my hull cleaning.
Other issues encountered on this passage included:
- My last bottle of gas for the stove ran out ten days before my arrival in Victoria. (It should have lasted another month) so I had no hot meals, or hot drinks or cabin heat for the remainder of the passage.
- My short wave radio receiver quit a few days later. I really missed the radio as it played all day long. It was right in the middle of the World Cup Soccer playoffs and I had been keeping a record of all the results. It really annoyed me.
The last ten days were a bit miserable, but I was able to manage. I could have headed east to San Francisco which was 500 miles away when I had 1200 miles to go to Victoria. But I decided to press on and arrived home on June 24, 1986 with about one week of food left.
I found that the sea will quickly find the weaknesses of the mariner and the vessel. It seems that the weaknesses in Amon-– was in her steering system that just did not hold up. If I was going to make the voyage again the only changes I would make are:
- Have a duel steering system independent of each other;
- Replace the outboard engine with a 7hp Yanmar diesel;
- Install in heavy duty flexible water tanks.
All these issues have been resolved in later versions of the Heavenly Twins class.
Alan butler in the cockpit of Amon-Re. (Photo from the Butler collection)
A quick check through my log books show that in the seven years that I owned the Amon–Re we have been through fifteen gales of Force 8 or more, two of which were Force 10. Amon–Re is a well proven and fantastic little sea boat for which I thank her designer Pat Patterson.
To quote from this article please cite:
Butler, Alan (2012) The First Catamaran and Smallest Multi–hull Singlehanded Circumnavigation. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Amon-Re_Butler_Account.php
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