Gabriola Island sailor Bert ter Hart returned last week from sailing around the world, navigating with only a sextant and compass. (Photos courtesy Bert ter Hart)

Gabriola man sails solo around the world, navigating with sextant and compass

Bert ter Hart and his Seaburban sailboat made it back to Vancouver Island last weekend

In their sixties, most people don’t set out alone to sail around the world, but Bert ter Hart, from Gabriola, has become the first North American to do so using a sextant and compass.

Just 300 people have sailed solo around the world, compared to about 600 who have flown in space and about 6,000 who have climbed Mount Everest.

“To complete a non-stop solo navigation is really, really hard,” ter Hart said. “Of course you have to be incredibly lucky for the boat to actually survive and stay in one piece.”

Ter Hart set out Oct. 26, going south and then east, rounded the five southern great capes, starting with Cape Horn, and returned to Victoria on July 18. He sailed 52,000 kilometres in a boat that isn’t a cutting-edge-technology yacht, but an OCY 45 christened SV Seaburban, built in Ontario in 1987, that he purchased in 2007.

“It’s a family cruiser,” ter Hart said. “It’s what you pile four kids in and go for a weekend. It’s a little bit like taking an RV on the Paris-to-Dakkar Rally. You can do it, but it’s not highly recommended, so I sailed very conservatively so I wouldn’t sail the boat to bits. It’s a fantastic boat, but you can break anything.”

Ter Hart was forced into San Francisco on Nov. 5 to repair steering gear damaged by a gale that pounded the craft the second day of his voyage, but upon resuming his journey Nov. 6, ter Hart did not touch land again until he returned to Victoria.

The journey required nine months’ non-perishable food provisions, water and fuel for the boat’s small auxiliary motor, which he ran for just 200km out of the entire voyage.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were always the same: oatmeal for breakfast, sometimes with nuts or granola, lunch was a tin of tuna and dinner was pasta, rice or quinoa, canned vegetables and dried or smoked meat. Feta cheese and yogurt were part of the diet early on and he had chocolate bars and dried fruit for snacks. Fortunately, ter Hart said, he’s not a fussy eater.

He had water for eight months at two litres per day, but was able to replenish about 180L in a single rainstorm east of New Zealand.

“It was a huge torrential downpour … it came off the back of the boom like a fire hose. I had a collapsible Coleman camping water jug. There was a little spout on it and I was fumbling around with a funnel … I just went below and cut a great big hole in it and I just held it up and … then I would just pour it down into the tank.”

The rain came down so hard it “flattened” the normal swell of the sea.

“A layer of fresh water sits overtop of the ocean … it changes the physical properties of the water column enough that it completely flattens the sea state,” ter Hart said. “So you have this very odd-looking sea that’s as smooth as glass.”

His food and water held out, but his appetite was much bigger than he estimated it would be.

“In the southern ocean, where it’s very cold, the work rate is so high because you’re up all the time [with] the sail handling,” he said. “There’s a change in the weather every four hours, which means that there’s a major sail change every four hours. Either you’re reefing or un-reefing or changing jibs or you’re changing course, so you’ve got to be outside working … if I miss a wind shift then it’s really dangerous and I can’t allow it to happen because if I did I literally might not be here. I’m not exaggerating. The sea state is so wild you always have to have the boat oriented to the waves. You can’t make a mistake in getting the boat in the wrong place at the wrong time because it’s easy to roll the boat over.”

It can be worse when there’s no wind at all. Ter Hart was becalmed for a total of 52 days, which he estimated put him 10,000km behind his estimated schedule.

No wind doesn’t mean calm seas. A sailboat is propelled by wind, but the pressure of wind against its sails helps maintain its stability, especially in heavy seas. Once while becalmed ter Hart and the Seaburban were pounded by huge swells. He could see and hear the boat’s hull shake and quiver as the craft was slammed and rolled from side to side. After about six hours of such punishment ter Hart texted his sister to say he didn’t know how much more he and the boat could withstand.

The SV Seaburban never stopped other than to anchor near Stanley, Falkland Islands, when he wasn’t able to clear a shallow bank and had to shelter from a storm.

RELATED: Victoria-based solo-sailor breaks record for oldest person to sail around the world unassisted

The winds blew at about 180km/h even in the anchorage. Steering gear was damaged again, but impossible to repair under the conditions.

Serious injury can bring an abrupt end to a voyage. Ter Hart started the trip three weeks after he had fallen about 15 metres from near the top of the boat’s mast and fractured three ribs and collapsed a lung, but he also injured his back during the voyage.

“I was lying down for two and a half days, strapped into my bunk, because I was thrown from the front of the cockpit to the back of the cockpit when the boat just went for a complete lurch and I wasn’t hanging on,” he said. “There’s a stainless steel guard that protects the compass and I hit that and it folded me over backwards … you’re covered in bruises almost all the time because you’re being thrown around the boat … it takes a moment’s inattention and then you’re just gone.”

Navigating with a sextant, which measures angles from astronomical objects, proved extremely difficult aboard Seaburban as it was bucked by five-metre swells that obscured the horizon.

“It’s the equivalent of, say, you have one horse galloping one way and the other foot on another horse, hopefully galloping the same way, and you have one hand tied behind your back while your best friend is kicking you in the ass while you’re trying to use the sextant,” he said.

Then he’d go below and try to calculate and mark his position on a chart with a pencil. Navigation in the Southern Ocean, he said, consumed about three hours each day. Sometimes he would slow or stop the boat to reduce navigational uncertainty.

Ter Hart said he has a true admiration and fascination with early explorers who didn’t have access to modern technology and materials.

“You can get very close to the same experience they had…” he said. “[Capt. James Cook] had exactly the same route that I had coming to North America. He had to go straight north from Hawaii and then he had to make a hard right and ended up in Nootka, which is exactly the track I was on because we had the same weather … doing it with a sextant you can get awfully darn close to reliving what their experiences were at sea. You’re every bit as lost as they were until you see land.”

Ter Hart is now dealing with the abrupt transition from the rigours of nine months of pitching seas in extremely harsh, cold conditions in complete isolation to being on solid land, trying to relearn how to sleep a full night through and having comforts of home that include cookies, ice cream and Netflix.

Physically and mentally he said he is still on the boat.

RELATED: After 7 years and 14 countries, sailing family finds home

“It’s surreal. I look at my track, which I’ve done once because it’s too frightening,” ter Hart said. “It’s amazing because the closest person to you for the majority of the trip is on the International Space Station because they’re only [200] miles straight up, but land is 3,500 miles away … you’re completely and totally isolated and you’re doing it in the most extreme oceanic environment … I look at where I was and I’m just shaking my head. Looking back it seems like an impossibility that I actually achieved it.”

Ter Hart is contemplating his next venture, this time on land, following the path of explorers who helped chart Canada, and as they did, navigating with a sextant.

Learn more about ter Hart’s voyage by visiting www.the5capes.com/#boat, the Gabriola Power and Sail Squadron’s website at https://powersquadron.gabriola.org/bert.html and on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/the5capes/.

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