The mission: Build a reed ship and sail it 12,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Rod McCurdy, SkillsUSA’s national high school president in 1989-90, temporarily left his position as Lucent Technologies London-based commercial director to help advance the theory of ancient shipbuilders sailing from South America to the Polynesian islands. Aboard the Viracocha II, his crew “encountered physical, human and natural challenges like none other,” McCurdy says of 75 days at sea.
Journal Entries and Photos by Rod McCurdy (pictured left)
What do I want to accomplish with the expedition? Why am I going?
Definitely it is the adventure. Each day can bring glory, danger, creatures from the depths, beauty, fury … but everyday, the unknowns are new. Right now, I’m not spiritual. I grew up Southern Baptist but have since resented the lack of choice and the rules it puts on you. I do believe all people should believe in something bigger than themselves. So, over the course of the expedition, will I become more spiritual? Another question!
Left 5:30 p.m. March 17. Tow boat began pulling us. First sail up, 11:48 p.m.
Awake 6:15 a.m. Got to act quick. Sail is pinned backward against the mast. Not only are the sails backed but we have drifted five miles and continue drifting toward a large point of rocks off the port side. There is not enough wind to get us off.
All this time I’ve been so optimistic. I really thought we could make it all the way to Australia. I still believe it, but not if we can’t get the boat to move. We still see land. … Came the decision to man the Zodiac (motorized boat) and tow us (away from the rocks). Not in clear yet, but on our way.
It is the calm of the water, the blue, the glaring sun, the motion of the swells, the gentle rocking of the boat … the laziness of time … these things are such a stark contrast to war, to fear, to the hustle of busy streets and the pressure of deadlines. Life is great.
Our boat is sinking. Just last night on watch, Stephan tells me this boat is in worse shape than (Phil Buck’s) Viracocha I when it reached Easter Island. This is relative — even if true, it doesn’t mean this boat can’t get to Australia. I believe we can get to Australia, but we will have to work for it.
Looks like we are moving 50 to 60 miles every 24 hours now. It is hard to draw a conclusion on exactly the rate at which we would reach Easter Island. We could arrive in a total of 40 days — I’m losing a sense for time and how much has passed and how much is in front of us.
Our power system continually deteriorates. The satellite phone is the only outside communication line, and its battery is low. We have no radar; we can’t be seen on someone else’s radar because we are a grass (nonmetallic) ship; no weather forecast — what are we steering into? The idea is that we have to take the weather as it comes — we really can’t maneuver well enough to steer around it anyway. Hopefully we will have a warning of a typhoon — but I don’t see how we could run from one either.
The sunrise was great — a light sprinkle produced a rainbow in front of us. You could actually see the end of the rainbow.
Loneliness; people around, but cut off. Cut off from the world around you, away from what comforts you.
But with all long and lasting experiences and achievements, one must outlast the lows, climb over the hurdles and persevere to the end. The days move a bit slow right now. Little projects sparsely mixed in with naps, quiet, and either writing, cooking, reading or reorganizing the already organized groceries or personal belongings. Time passes almost effortlessly and sometimes with a sense of little accomplishment.
We all are gathered around the table. Thom is just now gearing up to play the guitar. The Coleman lantern is putting off its three hours of light and heat. Inside the cabin, the wind is low. So it is quite cozy, though the never-ending rocking of the ocean is wearing on my nerves. The bow took its first wave on board today. The cabin is loosening and swaying more. The main sail has its grommets coming out — much more and it will need to be pulled down and repaired. It (Viracoha II) is a strong boat — a very strong boat — but its superstructure can only be weakened by the force of the Pacific. This is going to be one hell of a ride … Nothing is comfortable about it now, and I don’t see it getting any easier or better.
Highs and lows. It is days like this that I love being out here. Absolutely incredible. To have your tent, your domain, your doorstep open up to nearly 15,000 feet of the most beautiful color of water — nature beckoning at your welcome mat — is a treat that only the gods could create.
Finally, from the depths and from the rear of the boat, on the starboard side, rise a school of mahi mahi! Big, very big. Along the coast of Florida, we have small ones. These were upward of 75 lbs. and 5 feet long. The colors were absolutely stunning, the most neon blues, greens and yellows — even gold! They were like kings and queens, they were so majestic.
Sails are backed against the masts. All hands on deck. We pull, and pull, and pull on the main sail and hear the yard crack, but nothing breaks. Pull and pull on the mizzen sail … Crack! The yard of the middle is broken in half! We lowered it and moved the mizzen forward to allow for the main sail to be repaired and sew grommets.
This place is a disaster. Very unclean; dishes from last night everywhere. We are all tired, exhausted and starving after a whole day and night unable to eat.
Beautiful sunset. All colors. Great motivation after a very exhausting and frustrating day.
Amazing how in one day we can have a crisis, struggle and become dog tired, then almost want off the boat because of the pain in our hands, and eyes, and bodies and minds … Then the next three days are sunshine and perfect calm, and then my spirits are suddenly lifted, and I am so excited to be here. Ups and down, highs and lows — wow! Life at extremes!
Today is our 29th day at sea. We should arrive tomorrow in Easter Island according to our first predictions, and we are not even halfway yet … How life can be different than what we expect.
I’m washing my dishes on the starboard side, heading west. Sunset just in front of us. The colors are bright red and orange, fading into lighter shades until yellow, then greens, then the blues of heavens … It is moments like these that are surreal, nature’s gift … a masterpiece made, then wiped clean, except for the memories of the lucky few. No photograph could capture it.
Phil is taking inventory of our food. Obviously, given we are 30-something days into the voyage and not even halfway yet, we couldn’t have prepared enough food, though it’s close, I think. For sure it will get bland from here on out — rice, pasta, lemon juice … We have about two or three cups of sugar (one or two days supply). I really can’t believe we will soon be on rations.
At 4:45 a.m. I awake to the rustling of Phil near my bunk and also to the sound of howling winds! Phil says, “This could be the storm that has been overdue.” I had already thought that, and his reassurance didn’t help calm my slight fear.
At 12:50 p.m. today we hit the 90th parallel. We are halfway to Easter Island! Today is our fifth-week anniversary. We are now in one of the most remote places in the world.
The Pacific gets it name from Magellan, who in 1519 sailed across the Pacific using the trade winds — three months, 20 days — no land except a few sand atolls inhabited. Not one storm; he called it Pacific because it was so passive and calm. How fooled he was. He died shortly after that voyage.
We’ve been weaving a mine field today of rain clouds; some we’ve missed, some we’ve skirted and others we’ve stepped into with both feet! It is eerie to be on watch alone in darkness. With a very accustomed eye, you can see the light, faded black/gray of the horizon, and then, scanning across, you can see the dense, black blotches signifying a squall. You are helpless as you steer, only hoping that they miss you, rather than you miss them.
A sunfish — to the bow of the boat I ran! One of my life’s dreams is to swim with one, even more so than a whale shark! There it is, a sunfish! I throw on my fins, grab mask and snorkel, and head to the water’s edge. The sunfish approached us, swimming a wide circle around us 3 meters away at first, then slowly closing in … After swimming and sometimes pausing, just drifting/floating beside me, I gently reached out and touched his back — just a second as to not scare him. Skin felt like coarse sandpaper, though a beautiful, weird and unique ocean wonder! This was a life dream of an experience! Wow!
The spirits are starting to dwindle. I am on the edge of frustration, but I know we will get there. Yep, will need 60 days at least. Never would we have predicted that. Never.
One of the problems we have is that the wind hasn’t stopped but is blowing from the wrong direction. So, rather than drift … we are constantly fighting to hold ground, and try to gain a mile or so a day. Awful.
We have a week of supplies left, and afterwards it will be pasta, rice and salt, and whatever fish we can catch — which we saw not a one today. My estimate is at least 20 days more to Easter Island.
I know I’ve grown in the last weeks, from simple things to more complex. I finally got my sea legs. … Also, I have a new appreciation for time and patience, and have developed a longing to read and truly understand the world I live in — not just pay a quarter and ride, looking out of windows. It is the journey, not the destination.
Some of the crew are considering leaving the expedition upon reaching Easter Island. Dad always told me to finish what you start, and I have always done that. I believe it is that point of extra effort — when you are ready to walk away from something tiring, grueling, and emotionally and physically draining — that character is built. I’ve got to stay in for the fight.
I’ve seen three or four softball-size buoys float by and am thinking how littered the ocean is. Now, more of them! It is a fish! A porcupine fish! It has a horn owl’s face and the head of a frog … beautiful.
SALA Y GOMEZ!! I awakened at 8:30 a.m. and saw my first glimpse of the lights off the starboard bow. My first feeling was happiness that we actually achieved something. Second was happiness that indeed we could sail a course, and we were not lost at sea. In the midst of all the challenges and problems, Sala Y Gomez has stepped forward from the horizon, encouraging us to stay strong. That we will do. In the end, through perseverance, patience and dedication, things come together.
Although Easter Island is not our final destination, the past 3,000-plus miles have been fought with all our hearts and minds, and literally blood and sweat, not to mention the layers of skin, headaches and bruises, as well as interpersonal challenges and no luxury.
A MARLIN!! A marlin, marlin, marlin!! A marlin, we landed a marlin!!!!
Tenth week anniversary! We are tired, frustrated and hungry. The boat is nasty right now. The port side lists hard, and this accentuates the rocking motion significantly. The satellite phone is hit or miss, and the electrical system is shoddy and only supports the phone and video recorder, assuming people peddle the generator every day.
There is no telling how far this boat will go. Things are starting to fall apart, though we have plans to fix them on Easter Island.
Excluding the peas and potatoes, we have 10 kg. of starches — rice, beans and pasta. We have seven days of rations left and could stretch them to 10 days.
The expedition is over on Easter Island. The boat is too far gone to withstand the potential storms we could face, and we can’t, professionally, risk our own lives because of the risk to our potential rescuers. The port side is too low, and the masts are weakening due to the wet reeds. If we faced a Force 10 storm, 30-foot seas would likely kill us. So, with this, we are now on our last days. It has been an honor, privilege and blessing to be here. I thank God, whomever he might be, for giving me this opportunity.
One thing I’ve learned is that storms pass. Rough seas, heavy rain and winds — all end in calm. When a storm comes, prepare yourself and ride it out — it will pass. Could this be the lesson in patience I’d looked for in this expedition?
LAND, LAND, LAND! We are 31 miles away.
It is a happy moment. Standing on a rickety platform, though one that is symbolic of loyalty and patience, a friend … a teetering boat in front of you… one made of all natural materials. Bamboo, wood, ropes — a reed boat. One of the world’s most isolated islands, and one of the most mysterious places in the world, just to your right, the lights leading you in, almost tempting you to come. The sparkling of the phosphorescents stirring in the vortexes created by the rudder, leaving a glittery trail behind the boat. How many people in our time have been on a reed boat? There have been more astronauts than crew members on a reed boat.