A Whale of an Encounter

By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2001; Page F02

The last sound you want to hear when you're in a small sailboat in the open Atlantic is the whomp of a collision at the bow, followed by the jolt of a sudden stop.

There were three of us aboard the 32-foot sloop Kestrel -- on a voyage of almost 1,600 miles from the upper Chesapeake to Bermuda and back. On the sparkling afternoon of June 11, we were 200 miles west of the island on the return leg, gliding along at almost six knots under spinnaker with a rising wind and smooth rolling seas at our backs.

My husband, John Atkisson, and I were below decks working on dinner. Out in the cockpit, our friend John Rayburn had just been tracking a disturbance in the water off the starboard bow -- a school of fish, he thought.

Then we hit. The impact staggered us. We heard the raspy crunch of fiberglass flexing under stress, and a rumbling and bumping under the hull. Rayburn felt the stern rise two or three feet out of the water.

"Jesus Christ," I said. "Jesus Christ."

Looking beyond the stern, my husband beside me said softly, "It's a whale." He and Rayburn watched its huge back rise and slip away under our port quarter, its blowhole spitting. I then saw the dark mass broadside to us about 15 yards away in our wake. The mammal -- 32 to 35 feet long, by our estimate -- paused there for an instant and spouted a bushy plume of water. A postcard image of Leviathan. Then he (or she) was gone.

For two decades, my husband and I had cruised Kestrel around the Chesapeake, with a couple of offshore forays to New England. But he had long dreamed of testing our boat (and us) on a blue-water run. Finally, two years ago, he had geared up to make it happen, devoting nights and weekends to equipping the vessel and honing his skills. Aside from a lifelong love of sailing and a yen to "commune with the ancients," he was goaded in part by an awareness that he was about to become the age at which his own father had died.

In a spirit of what I like to call romantic abandon -- and the desire to see this dream-fulfillment business firsthand -- I climbed onboard. We'd had squalls, square waves, treacherous currents and other sources of discomfort, exhaustion or fright, to be sure. But those aspects made the pleasures all the sweeter by contrast: intense attunement to the rhythms of nature, a frolicsome escort of spotted dolphins, the diamond sparkle of bioluminescent plankton like a firmament on the night sea, the blessed plunge into the bunk after a punishing watch. We had settled into the surreal, adrenaline-injected, hair-trigger reverie of this kind of passagemaking, ready to be awed or threatened at the next slap of a wave.

So, in the instant of impact, an old familiar nightmare seemed to be coming around. Our first thought (we all agreed later) was that we had hit a massive shipping container of the sort that rolls off freighter decks in heavy seas. They lurk in growing numbers like unchartable metallic reefs just beneath the surface of ocean waters around the world. We were actually heartened to see it was a relatively soft and rounded beast, even one that must have outweighed our 12,000 pounds at least twofold and, we presumed, could have staved us on a whim.

My crew mates had already begun "the drill," inspecting for damage and the spine-chilling inrush of seawater. We had all manner of plugs, pumps, a life raft, and an emergency locator beacon that, if necessary, would trigger a rescue effort. We would not be needing any of that. No sign of a breach in the hull, not even a trickle, and we could steer. We gave thanks for our sturdy keel. We felt the onset of the sort of euphoria associated with getting shot at and missed.

I had been mesmerized by Herman Melville over the years, and had just finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick's gripping account of the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex by an infuriated 80-ton sperm whale -- the incident that inspired the climactic scenes of "Moby-Dick." My husband and I had also read of a notorious 1972 incident in which killer whales attacked and sank a schooner, leaving six people adrift in lifeboats for 38 days in the Pacific. Now (thrilled to be alive), we all felt a strange affection for this intelligent creature whose domain, after all, we had invaded with our fiberglass blade.

The whale that had swum in my imagination all my life had the abstract aura of a literary device -- the embodiment of implacable fate, the reality that hides beneath the surface of existence. Now the reality had surfaced, and it was anything but abstract. Kestrel's toilet was oddly difficult to flush. For several days, a dark material was extruded into the bowl with the seawater, like broken strands of licorice. Whale flesh had apparently jammed the intake valve in the port bow. Here was pungent, corporeal essence of whale.

I bagged and refrigerated some of the stuff. Once safely back in my land life (where the entire trip now seems like a dream), I delivered the whale DNA to Jim Mead, director of the Smithsonian's Marine Mammal department. A laboratory analysis will reveal not only the species but other specifics such as sex, said Mead, who sports a white beard and has a life-size replica of a beaked whale head protruding from the wall above his roll-top desk in the bowels of the Museum of Natural History.

Mead had recently co-authored an exhaustive scientific paper on collisions between whales and large, fast motorized ships. There were grim descriptions of 58 incidents since the late 1800s: whales with propeller gashes, broken jaws, skull fractures who, in some cases, had been carried all the way into port impaled on a bow. Mead assured me that most sailboats move too slowly to do the animals significant harm. In any case, this was the first boat-whale encounter that had been reported directly to him. The Kestrel's log, with a record of latitude and longitude, time, sea state, weather and other details, photos of the boat's keel, and especially the promise of an "unquestioned identification" of the animal (most likely a sperm whale), Mead said, made this "the most well-documented whale collision in the world, that I know of." Our near-death experience would aid the quest to understand and better protect these majestic creatures.

There were some, though, who would harpoon us with cetacean irony. My sister Sharon e-mailed us a witty "notice of criminal and civil charges" allegedly filed by one Dick, Moby Jr., that cited our "failure to yield or even recognize the right of way. . . . Cheeze, it's the whole ocean!"

The Smithsonian's Charles Potter, who is to supervise the DNA analysis, eyed me sternly and said, "Shall we slap the cuffs on her now?" Mead explained: "You have transported pieces of a protected species into the country without a permit." Just kidding about the handcuffs, but seriously, before the lab can analyze the whale flesh, the researchers are obliged to clear it with three different federal agencies. I had to sign something called an "abandonment form," certifying my surrender of all "right, title and and interest in the above-described property."

We of the Kestrel had slammed hard up against the whale bureaucracy. I should have seen that coming.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


From Herrington Harbour Newsletter, Spring, 2005


HHN Slipholders Off to Ireland

Two-Year Atlantic Circle Begins


Crosshaven – in County Cork, Ireland – will likely be the first landfall for two Herrington Harbour North slip holders in June.

Kestrel, a highly modified and spit-polished Bristol 32, well known to HHN slipholders around G and H docks, will begin a planned two-year Atlantic Circle by carrying her skipper, John Atkisson, and neighboring slip holder Rupert Knowles across the North Atlantic over 3,000 nautical miles. With departure planned from Cape May about May 22nd (“on the full moon,” Atkisson says), the voyage is expected to take the two men roughly 30 days.

“We are skipping the Azores, going North instead, taking the great circle route from below the Grand Banks non-stop to Ireland,” said Atkisson, who with his wife Kathy in 2001 sailed Kestrel to Bermuda and back as a dry run for this year’s more ambitious crossing.

Knowles, who for two years has been watching Atkisson’s elaborate preparations from the deck of his own Sabre 35 in the slip next door, is a civilian Officer in Charge and Coach for the Naval Academy sailing program. Ironically, he notes, his accommodations aboard the 22-waterline, 32-foot overall Kestrel are “more luxurious than what I’m used to on a Navy 44.”

The two men’s wives – Kathy Atkisson and Delores Knowles – will fly to Ireland to meet the passage makers. Thereafter the Knowles couple will jump ship to travel in Europe, while the Atkissons sail on to Scotland, where they will spend the rest of the year cruising the Hebrides and environs.

After a winter on the hard in Great Britain, Kestrel will cruise the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal, until the fall of 2006, when she will jump out to the Atlantic Islands – Madeira, the Canaries, the Cape Verdes – to start the traditional Trade Wind route back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean in December. The Atkissons, who have been Herrington Harbour slip holders for 26 years, will cruise the Caribbean for the winter of 2007, working their way up the Antilles, through the Bahamas, and back home in time for the 2007 season on Chesapeake Bay.

“We’ll definitely come back here,” Atkisson said of the two Herrington Harbours. “We’ve sailed all over the Eastern seaboard, and these are still the best marinas we’ve seen anywhere.”

Rupert Knowles (left) and John Atkisson look over Kestrel’s bottom before Atlantic crossing.


."A Challenge That Put Wind In His Sails"----------------------------------------------------_------------------------------- -John Atkisson Took a Transatlantic Route to Post-Retirement Fulfillment

By Ken Ringle
The Washington Post
Monday, October 8, 2007



Atkisson and his sailboat Kestrel, which he guided to the British Isles and back.

(By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)


You can go directly to the article at "The Washington Post" by clicking here: "A Challenge That Put Wind in His Sails "


The first thing you need to understand about John Atkisson is that he doesn't think what he's done is any big deal.

It's a big deal to him, certainly. No one can sail a 32-foot sloop from Deale, Md., to the rockbound cliffs of Ireland and Scotland, weathering storms, tidal whirlpools and a mid-ocean collision, and then sail her down to Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands, back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and north toward home -- no one can do that without a pretty fair sense of accomplishment. Particularly at an age (he's 66) when most men won't even carry their own golf clubs.

But Atkisson, a burly, white-haired fellow who describes himself as a recovering lawyer, is well aware that others have made more impressive solo voyages. Joshua Slocum sailed alone around the world in the 1890s in a 37-foot yawl he'd virtually built himself. He was 54. The legendary Howard Blackburn in 1901 sailed a 25-foot sloop from Gloucester, Mass., to Portugal. He was only 41, but he had no fingers. He had frozen them off years earlier rowing a fishing dory 60 miles from the Grand Banks to Newfoundland through a snowstorm. Sir Francis Chichester was 66 in 1967 when he sailed his 54-foot ketch Gipsy Moth IV around the world in 228 days with just one stop. And he had terminal cancer.

So even with 12,000 offshore miles under his belt, Atkisson doesn't confuse himself with Columbus or Magellan. His white-hulled vessel Kestrel, a Bristol 32 built in 1974, simply became the "organizing principle" in his life when he retired from federal government attorneydom in 2005.

Explains Atkisson: "Wasn't it Pliny the Elder who said, 'If a man requires occupation, let him acquire a vessel'?"

These days, with satellite-based navigation, communication and weather forecasting, plus space-age composite hulls, sails and rigging, weekend sailors like Atkisson often circle the globe, though most do so on far larger and more modern boats. In fact, there's an entire industry built around the men and women who race huge, multi-million-dollar sailboats around the world single-handed. Some of them were at the massive United States Sailboat Show -- the world's largest for new sailboats -- in Annapolis this weekend.

Still, when he arrived in the Azores after being shaken like a BB in a beer can for nearly a month slamming into stormy headwinds during what was supposed to be a balmy Atlantic June, "we were in pretty special company," Atkisson admits. "The docks were filled with sailboats -- from 22 nations, by my count -- and every one had crossed an ocean to be there. There was only one other boat as small as Kestrel. Everybody congratulated us. That felt pretty good."I said, 'Hey, I really am living my dream. And at my age, my father had been dead for five years.' "

* * * * * *

The lure of an ocean voyage, Atkisson emphasized to a friend aboard Kestrel for the last day of his voyage, reaching north from Solomons Island, "is very definitely not'man against the elements.' That attitude can get you killed, because you're tiny out there and the sea can easily and casually erase you without a trace. I wanted to go with the elements. At every sunrise in the trade wind passage I silently and prayerfully asked the ocean for permission to be its guest that day."

And he must have felt, at least subconsciously, that mortality was a shipmate. He had wanted to sail alone on his first Atlantic crossing; his wife insisted he ship a younger friend as crew. That man, a retired policeman, had a minor heart attack amid the rough seas of the eastward passage and had to leave in the Azores. Atkisson continued alone to Ireland, where he fell in with "this wonderful little Irishman, just filled with joy," who jumped at an invitation to crew on Kestrel's return voyage. But before he could do so, he learned he had acute liver cancer. He died last December, as Atkisson sailed alone to Martinique.

Moreover, while still 100 miles from Ireland, Atkisson had been down below fixing breakfast when he heard "what every solo sailor most dreads -- the sound of diesel engines nearby." He leaped to the cockpit to see Kestrel heading straight for the port side of a 150-foot steel fishing trawler that was westbound on autopilot, with no one at the wheel. Kestrel's own autopilot, set to a compass course, was blindly guiding the sloop to disaster. Atkisson couldn't disengage it in time. He still hears the "loud clang of steel and the sickening sound of fiberglass being crushed."

The impact crumpled Kestrel's bow dramatically, mangling her pulpit railing and almost wiping out the stainless steel headstay that supports the mast. The trawler crew, brought on deck by the collision, stood by while Atkisson raced below to search out what he was certain would be a hole in the hull, gushing with all the chill water of the Irish Sea. Astonishingly, there wasn't even a crack below. Kestrel sailed to Crosshaven, Ireland, wounded but under her own power.

Plenty of sailors would have sworn off the sea right then. Atkisson's maritime addiction, however, is more pronounced. Hooked on sailing as a boy in San Francisco, he spent his boating years there mostly racing. But when he moved to Washington in the mid-'70s and acquired Kestrel, he switched to cruising, preferring to test his seamanship against his own limits and those of the watery world. With his wife, author and former Washington Post science writer Kathy Sawyer, he had explored the prodigious shoreline of the Chesapeake, glorying in leafy, heron-stalked anchorages and skinny-dips in the misty mornings.

Gradually over the years they expanded their cruising range in Kestrel, adding voyages up the coast to New England and off the coast to Bermuda. Gradually but systematically Atkisson upgraded his sturdy little boat with things like redundant navigational systems, self-steering systems, cabin reinforcement and extra sails. Repeatedly he resisted the siren's call of larger, more modern vessels in favor of keeping one whose every nut, bolt and cranny he knew with the intimacy of the seagoing engineer and craftsman he had taught himself to be.

But blue-water voyaging was never far from his mind. "I always wanted to cross an ocean," he says. This was particularly true as he neared the age of his father's death: "I don't want to die thinking of a lot things I never got around to doing."

* * * * * *

On July 8, 2005, 24 hours after her argument with the trawler, Kestrel was safely docked in Crosshaven, where she would get a nose job. Atkisson flew back to Washington for 10 months to ponder how two vessels sailing blind could find and run into each other on an otherwise empty ocean. And to contemplate darker possibilities: Had Kestrel been 100 yards farther along on her course, the trawler would have cut her in two.

Undaunted, he flew back to Ireland in May 2006 and embarked for Dublin, where Sawyer joined him for a seven-week sailing tour of Ireland, Scotland and the Hebrides. It was something of a pilgrimage for both, descended as they are from Ulster Scots plus, he says, "whatever contribution was made by marauding Vikings."

During those weeks they sailed 986 miles through 10-knot tidal rips and 18-foot tides, dodged 40-knot ferries and looming freighters, withstood draconian wind shifts and enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery they'd ever experienced. When they returned to Crosshaven, Sawyer flew home to work on a book project. Atkisson stocked up the boat to sail to Spain.

The most memorable aspect of his trip down the Iberian coast, better even than the beautiful, festive cities of La Coru¿a, Spain, and Lagos, Portugal, was "the wonderful welcome I received everywhere, in part because I'm a former drunk."

Mariners, he notes, have always been notorious boozers, and a goodly number are now on the mend. In every port city in the world some sort of 12-step meeting is underway almost any day. "And if you land in another country and don't know anyone, that's a great place to meet people," Atkisson says. Perfect strangers took him into their homes, fed him meals, lent him cars and committed other kindnesses beyond number.

"I think my voyage had real meaning for them," he said. "It seemed to reassure them you can accomplish something difficult . . . with your life even after many years wasted as a barfly. And, of course," he said after a pause, "it represented that to me, too."

But there was also the mystical kinship with the wind and sea that no sailor can ever adequately explain. Atkisson puzzled over the richness of the cobalt hue of the deep ocean. He awoke in wonder in mid-Atlantic at the dust on his deck from Sahara sandstorms a thousand miles to the east. And he delighted in the accuracy of the classic transatlantic sailing instruction as old as Columbus: From the Canary Islands sail south until the butter melts, then turn right.

Then there were the sea creatures, about which Atkisson apologizes for sounding "a little touchy-feely."
"I saw some really beautiful dorado, really big ones, trailing the boat, and they would have been really tasty. I love dorado. But I said to myself, hey, it's their ocean. They're keeping me company. I'm going to leave them alone."

Sixteen days into the 25-day passage he spent nine hours rolling around in a greasy bilge fixing a maverick oil leak and rewiring his engine. He had to run the diesel periodically to charge his batteries for power to run his navigation lights and the radio with which he received weather forecasts and entertained his friends ashore with e-mails of his adventure.

He stole what sleep he could between regular scans of the horizon ("It takes 24 minutes for a fast ship to come down on you from when it's first visible") and had his radar rigged with a beefed-up alarm to wake him if anything unseen showed up. He saw trawlers in his dreams, but in the whole ocean passage west never once glimpsed a single other vessel.

He had left the dock in Tenerife on Dec. 1, 2006. On Christmas Eve he arrived in Martinique and was met by Sawyer and their cat Beacon for a shoreside breather and a leisurely four-month cruise through the Caribbean, the Intracoastal Waterway, and home.

* * * * * *

After nearly surfing at an almost unbelievable 7.7 knots . . . in clear skies and moderate seas and big moon at night, 20 knots of East Northeast winds at the stern, and temperature about 82 degrees, there is serious question whether I will be content, when this is all over, to go back to . . . Washington. . . . I do begin to understand, though, why Bernard Moitessier after circumnavigating in the first single-handed Around-the-World Race, instead of sailing to the finish line port to claim his honors, just kept going, and going, and going. It is beautiful to a spiritual dimension out here . . .

The magnificent 625-square-foot tri-radial spinnaker is up . . . pulling Kestrel toward Martinique at just under 6 knots in only 8 knots of wind. Not bad for an old broad. Skies are blue, seas are moderate, and the weather promises more of the same for four days. . . .

Was it difficult getting up the chute when I was alone? Yes. Will it be difficult getting it down, being that I am alone? Yes. Is it madness to be flying a chute when in the middle of the North Atlantic alone? Yes. Next question?

* * * * * *

Back at his home on Capitol Hill, Atkisson has been surprised and strangely moved by how closely friends and acquaintances followed his voyage, which he documented through e-mails and letters and on his Website and how much it seems to mean to them. He realizes now he's been sailing, in a way, for all those who never leave the dock.

Almost every sailor dreams of crossing an ocean someday, he notes, but by age 64 the dream for him was an imperative -- one of these days you're going to wake up dead. "And at 66 I've done it, which puts me in a very exclusive little club," Atkisson says. "Am I proud of that? Hell, yes!"

But he also continued sailing, he says, for Adrian O'Donovan, his Irish friend who died of liver cancer."He was a little tiny guy, like a leprechaun, really. He was the first person I met on the dock in Crosshaven, and against all the odds he was almost exactly my age, and like me had hit the bottle hard for many years before giving it up.

"But what was really extraordinary about him is that boozers like me tend to be moody and get down on ourselves, even after we stop drinking. Adrian found delight in everything. He lived in a little tiny house and had a little tiny boat, had almost no money and had seen very little of the world. But he saw everything in positive terms, particularly messing about in boats. One day when I was feeling down, he looked at me with this big grin, hit me on the knee and exclaimed, 'Johnno, isn't it great we can do this stuff?!' And that put everything in perspective."

Atkisson mounted Adrian's motto on Kestrel's radio during the voyage. He says it's there to stay.----

Note from Mr. Atkisson: Adrian O’Donovan was not “a little tiny guy, like a leprechaun . . . who had seen very little of the world.” He was well over six feet tall and had no leprechaun-like qualities that I know of, save for an impish grin, rather as though he was enjoying a private joke. And he had traveled extensively by the time he died. Another crew, Welshman Martin Morgan, who was aboard Kestrel from Lagos, Portugal, to Madeira, is just over 5 feet tall (although a giant among sailors), which may account for the confusion.