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Alan Butler – World Record Circumnavigator & Single-handed Sailor
by John M. MacFarlane 2012
Alan Butler reflecting on his great record setting voyage in 2012 (Photo from Nauticapedia collection)
Would you be surprised to learn that the World Record for the smallest single-handed catamaran circumnavigation of the globe was achieved by a Duncan British Columbia resident ? That person is Alan Butler, a quiet-spoken self-confident man retired to a patio home. He and his wife Mildred are both highly competent and experienced sailors. Alan holds the sailing records which he achieved quite incidentally to his desire to see the world from a small boat.
In June 1991 I met Alan Butler aboard his 26 foot catamaran Amon–Re in Sidney BC after his return to the west coast and I managed to catch up to him this Fall at his home to get the details. In this vessel, in 1989, he was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Record as having sailed the smallest catamaran to make a circumnavigation and solo catamaran circumnavigation. Total miles logged – 33,847.
Inside the Main Saloon of the Amon–Re (Photo from Nauticapedia collection)
The vessel is a neat little ship, ruggedly built and capable of being sailed single-handed. She was designed by Pat Patterson (as a Heavenly Twins 26 class) and built at Porth Leven Cornwall and registered in Falmouth UK. She was powered only with a Mercury 25hp outboard in 1989 once his voyage had been completed.
Butler, now 78, doesn’t own the boat anymore, having sold it fifteen years ago after relocating from Pender Island to the Cowichan Valley. His eyes sparkle when he recalls the details of the voyage, all the time modestly exclaiming that it was "Really nothing special." although in an unguarded moment he recalls, "You’re like you’re in your own little world. It’s something different. It’s a great experience."
Butler took delivery of his new Heavenly Twins in 1979 and made his leisurely way with family through the European canal system down to the Mediterranean. They cruised the Western Med. during 1980, a mostly idyllic experience, but vividly remember 42 hours spent lying hove to in a force 10 Mistral en route to The Baleric Islands from Corsica. Butler says, "We had already experienced a Force 8 gale in the English Channel, but after this I knew that Amon-Re could go anywhere".
Butler was born in 1933 in Yorkshire, England. As a boy he was influenced by a movie with a naval theme and by the John Masefield poem Sea Fever that inspired him to attend the London Nautical & technical Grammar school. At age 17 he entered the British Merchant service as a Deck Apprentice in the Turnbull Scott Line. With time at the King Edward VII Nautical College He visited numerous countries around the world in the five and a half years in the Merchant Navy, as well as learning valuable navigation skills.
He emigrated to Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force working mainly in aerial photography. He explains that the time at sea in the navy can be difficult for a family man and he intended to find another life that would allow him to be at home. He served twenty–five years in the RCAF, stationed in Ottawa, Cold Lake Alberta, Winnipeg, Comox and in Sardinia and Germany.
While stationed in Germany with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Butler bought the Amon-Re in England. "It was love at first sight", he says. He sailed it through the waterways of Europe from England to Germany, accompanied by his first wife, Stella. They kept the boat at a marina on the Rhine River. After Butler’s retirement in 1980, he and Stella were joined by daughter Kendal and they sailed the waterways of Europe and he transited to the Mediterranean for cruising. After a Force 10 Mistral off the Balearic Islands he knew that she handled well in heavy weather and could probably take almost anything.
After hopping along the coast of Spain to Gibraltar, Butler prepared for his solo Atlantic crossing. Kendal had returned to Canada by that time and Stella went back to England. He travelled Barbados to Barbados via the Panama Canal 1980-86. Butler eventually rendezvoused with Stella and their son Jim again in Barbados. The three of them cruised the Grenadines for four months before Stella and Jim flew back to Canada. "I had the task of bringing the boat back," said Butler.
He made the solo passage from Barbados to Panama and then went 93 days non–stop through the Panama Canal and back to Victoria. For the next three years, Butler cruised his boat through the waters of the Gulf Islands before deciding to conduct some unfinished business. "I thought I might as well take off and do the other half of the world," said Butler. "After my divorce was finalized, I took off by myself from Victoria in 1984 and got back in 1986. A year and 10 months I was gone." Western Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius, South Africa,Barbados, Panama were the only places where I made landfall. It was a good holiday. The longest trip by myself was 96 days."
Whales, sharks, squid, porpoises and even a giant sea turtle encountered in the Pacific were companions for Butler along the way. "It was just a glassy sea," he said. "I wasn’t going anywhere. All of a sudden a huge turtle banged up against the boat."
Despite all he went through, it was easy for Butler to summarize his trip in one sentence. "The ocean will all too soon find the weaknesses of the mariner or his vessel," he pointed out. Surprisingly Butler claims that there were few misadventures and that it was "Pretty routine." But on reflection he says that the voyage brought out one weakness in the boat. The design of the steering system caused headaches on at least four occasions when he needed to jury rig a tiller during heavy weather at sea. The linkage to the wheel broke repeatedly and had to be repaired – an annoying and dangerous weakness in an otherwise very successful vessel. Other issues included leaking flexible water tanks, a broken spreader, the need for a new main sail and Autohelm repaired in New Zealand, replacement of a stove in Durban, South Africa, and a radio receiver that quit one week from home.
At 0900 he took a morning sight which gave him a position line. At noon he took another sight for latitude. This gave him a fixed position for the day. Alan carried two chronometers, two sextants, and a Nautical almanac. He had no electronic navigational aids. At noon he took another sun sight for calculating his latitude and fixed his position for the day. He says that 100 sea miles per day was considered good progress. It was an El Nino year so he was frequently becalmed. For distraction he listened to the BBC and the Voice of America on short wave to stay in touch. His big luxury was a drink at "happy hour"
He carried provisions for 100 days at a time. He fished and was able to vary his diet with his catches. At 0600 local time he had a breakfast of coffee and hot porridge. He also cooked pancakes and ate tinned meat. At 1700 he had supper which typically consisted of half a can of meat, half a can of fruit, half a can of vegetable or he would fry up a fish if he had caught one. He lost weight with his diet, and in spite of carrying some luxury foods he found many of them unconsumed at the end of the voyage.
From Gibraltar to Las Palmas [Canary Islands], he was in four October gales. He spent one week in Las Palmas then proceeded to Barbados. The Atlantic crossing was a lot quieter than what he expected. He continued on via the Panama Canal, arriving at Vancouver Island after a further 93 days at sea. Then after a spell of work, to replenish funds, he departed in 1984 to Samoa, in the South Pacific, Tonga, New Zealand, Brisbane, Darwin, Mauritius and Durban, with a return to Barbados on 3rd February 1986.
He recalls that in Durban, South Africa, while preparing for the last 6,200 mile non–stop part of his voyage back to Barbados, some of the local sailing types "were flabbergasted when they heard I was going to take such a little catamaran of all things around the Cape. Little did they realize that she is a lot safer and much more comfortable than most monohulls."
The Amon–Re (Stern View) (Photo from Nauticapedia collection)
Butler met Mildred, his second wife, after he returned, and they’ve been married 22 years. The Amon–Re continued to sail in coastal B.C. waters for several years before Butler sold it. He and Mildred owned a sloop, the Breanne, for cruising but now even that boat has been sold. Not having a boat hasn’t generated the withdrawal symptoms Butler thought it might. "Mildred and I still like to go around marinas and look at the boats," he said.
The Amon–Re (Photo from Nauticapedia collection)
He says he’s a seaman first and foremost, not a "yachtie". Butler has been honoured as a member of the Slocum Society and is in their elite Golden Circle which requires completion of a solo-circumnavigation. He seems now to be content to reflect upon a wonderful life experience.
Read his first hand account of the voyage by clicking on this link: My Account of the First Catamaran and Smallest Multihull to Circumnavigate the Globe Single–handed.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2012) Alan Butler - World Record Circumnavigator & Single-handed Sailor. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Butler_Alan.php
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