By Emmaneul and Maximilien Berque - Saint
Julien en Born - France
IN APRIL 2003, TWO 53-YEARS-OLD ADVENTURERS FROM THE LANDES
REGION OF FRANCE, EMMANUEL AND MAXIMILIEN BERQUE, MADE AN EXTRAORDINARY
ATLANTIC CROSSING ABOARD A TINY OUTRIGGER CANOE WITH NO DOCUMENTS
AN NO NAVIGATION INSTRUMENTS – A FABULOUS ASTRONOMICAL
EXPERIENCE. AFTER 27 DAYS SAILING AND 3000 MILES, THEY MADE
A PRECISE LANDFALL ON THE SMALL ISLAND THEY WERE AIMING FOR.
In 1995, we crossed the Atlantic aboard a small varnished
wooden boat, 4.25m long and rigged as a lugger. We had no radio,
electronics, EPIRP, liferaft or motor, (the latter being an
important detail). It was an very long voyage, from the French
coast to Miami and we visit about hundred islands. We reached
the USA just like the conquistadors in days gone by. We wanted
to do better.
A long time before Columbus or even the Vikings, about 3000
years ago, there were the Phoenicians and the Greeks in the Mediterranean
and the Maoris in the Pacific who had been everywhere in the Pacific.
How did they navigate without compass ? We have always been of
the opinion that in life, it is not enough to read history or
adventure books. There comes a moment when we wonder how we ourselves
would compare to these fabulous heroes from the past, without
We have been passionately interested in astro-navigation for
more than 30 years now, and wanted see how accurate a landfall
we could make after a long crossing without instruments.
We decide to do this aboard a small proa we had designed, a
reference to the famous Maoris who had to sail aboard enormous
heavy displacement catamarans, 20 to 30 meters long, sometimes
even longer… As for the rig, we chose a schooner/lugger
configuration as we needed the most original boat as possible…We
designed our prototype using a computer programme we wrote ourselves,
in BASIC programming language, that had take years to perfect.
We Then set about building in the loft of our old house in the
“Landes” region of France, using our basic woodworking
tools ! A year later, we had to knock part of a wall down to
get it out into the garden.
It weights 300 Kg and its main hull measures 6.5m, with a beam
of 80cm, 90cm deep and a draught of 30cm. The 5.5m x 35cm outrigger
is attached to the canoe by two flat cross-members in Finnish
fir an the whole is 3.6m wide. The two hulls are built in red
cedar, for the lightness and the boat is varnished for aesthetic
reasons. It is, in fact, completely covered with glass fibre,
inside and out, with no bubbles to mar the transparency! A crazy
amount of work! But although our outrigger canoe is small, it
is a real gem, and we are very proud of it.
As training, we lived aboard and sailed about around 500 miles
on the Bassin d’Arcachon, in the middle of December 1998,
when the temperature varied between –5°C and –10°C
! To raise some much-needed money for the trip we wrote the
story of our crossing aboard the 4m boat: “Les mutins
de la mer” published by Robert Laffont. We then continue
to perfect our astronomy an in July 2002, we set of at last!
From Contis, on the Landes coast to Lanzarote, we had terrible
weather an didn’t see the sun for 17 days! Along the Portuguese
coast, we had very strong winds, up to force 9 according to
some, and huge waves that we surfed from a practically vertical
take-off! Fortunately, we had instruments an charts for this
part of the trip. We understood that we could never go at the
speed of our much too uncomfortable little boat, which was nonetheless
capable of a 10 – 12 knot average, on a daily coastal
cruising basis. We had to recognise that we had made the classic
mistake to meet someone in Arrecife on a precise date that we
had to respect, which meant we could not choose our weather
conditions… The trip formed 1300 miles of extra, very
beneficial, testing and familiarised us with the basic speed
of the boat.
According to our previous southerly crossing, the theoretical
distance was around 3000 miles. By allowing for a more modest
average speed of 5 knots, and a 30° deviation from our course,
which lengthen the route 15%, it would take us about 29 days,
the period of one moon, to reach La Désirade island,
near Guadeloupe. This was a good target, only 3km by 10, which
we could recognise as we knew it already. We would therefore
to leave at the new moon so as to arrive at the next new moon
to be able to observe the stars well in the black sky…
On 31st March 2003, we set off from Arrecife in light weather,
convinced we were going to reach our objective. This crossing
was so well prepared over the last few years, that we set off
incredible quiet, as if we were just going to the cinema! For
30 days and two people, we embarked 90 litres of water, 16 Kg
of ‘gofio’, 8 Kg of sugar, 8 Kg of powdered milk,
30 bottles of Tabasco, 90 tins of sardines and 1,5 litres of
vinegar, plus salt and some pepper. That was all! ‘Gofio’
is a very cheap kind of flour, found in the Canaries, and is
made from pre-toasted maize which is then ground an can be mixed
with practically anything… We had no cooker aboard, as
it would have taken up too much space.
The first day, we were becalmed and spend the first night
hove-to off Fuerteventura. Fortunately, the north-easterly wind
got up, and we began the second night under a clear sky, heading
south west with the wind dead aft and the sails goose-winged,
at 10 – 15 knots. Not for long, as the sky clouded over
in the middle of the night and we could only pick out the odd
star. Steering at that speed with no compass is dangerous and
much too wet. We decided to reduce sail; if we want to go far,
we would have to look after our little boat… The next
day, the islands were well below the horizon and we were out
at sea with an immense desert ahead of us and no compass, watch,
log, sextant or GPS, no radio, charts or books, not even a guide
to the stars ! Just like 3000 years ago. But aboard a 300 Kg
boat !!! We had planned to head south west for about 10 days
to reach the warmth further south. On the third day, we were
already exhausted. The wind was blowing at a constant force
5 – 6 and the sea had quickly become rougher. Short, steep
swells, from different directions were horribly uncomfortable
aboard our ridiculous little boat. It was completely impossible
to stand up on the netting. We had great difficulty sleeping
as the boat’s movement were very lively. As we didn’t
have a watch, we also had problems managing our watch and rest
periods. We were forced to sail slowly, as otherwise the boat
shipped lots of water and we only had old oilskins which we
tapped up at the bottom to stop our leg getting too wet.
During the day, we steered south west by keeping the sun at
45° on the port quarter in the morning an 45° on the
starboard bow in the afternoon. At night the Pole star obviously
helped us a lot. When we could see it, as it is always true
north, it gave us the azimuth of all the other stars in the
sky. In fact, only the stars which were quit low on the horizon
were useful. Those that were too high gave us a direction which
was too imprecise. Before leaving, we had learned by heart all
the stars on the celestial equator, as they rise exactly in
the east and set exactly in the west. At the beginning of the
night, the west is indicated by setting of Orion’s belt,
then Betelgeuse in Orion, then it is the turn of Procyon in
Canis Minor, followed by Alphard in Hydra, then Regulus and
Denebola in Leo, then, at the end of the night, Spica in Virgo
and Arcturus in the Ploughman at daybreak… The night always
started badly, we only managed to find the right stars a long
time after sunset, and at daybreak it is the same thing, but
in reverse: all the stars disappeared for a long time –
how long ? – before we could see the sun! We therefore
tried to steer straight by following the direction of the wind
or the waves. To indicate the wind direction accurately, we
fitted a wind vane on each mast. On the fifth day, the helm
became very stiff and we realised that the rudder blade had
swung up, the pin was broken. We had to heave-to in a force
6 – 7 and a very rough sea. I had to tie myself on and
get into the water to repair it; the boat was moving about dangerously
and could easily have crushed my hand… and the hospital
was a long way off!
To my surprise, the water was beautiful warm. From that day
onwards, we decided to heave-to every day for about an hour,
around the solar midday, when the sun was too high in its zenith
for steering, to relax a little, dry out, swim and also to film
and take photographs. We were not in a race and it was important
for us to arrive in good health… On 7th April we caught
sight of the Southern Cross. When it is vertical, during approximately
an hour per night, the Cross measures approximately 6°.
This gave us an idea of the angles we observed. As it lower
star Accrux was approximately 4°, we could deduce that we
were at about 22° latitude. We had passed the Tropic! But
after thee first week, the weather worsened and the sky became
more and more cloudy. The wind blew constantly at force 5 –
6, which was a lot for our small, 300 Kg boat… On 9th
April, two butterflies flew past, way out at sea! We had to
stop every night, now, as we could not see the stars, and rarely
saw the sun during the day. We tried hard to stay at the helm,
but as morale was not high, we often ended up crammed into the
Micromegas tiny, damp locker in our heavy weather gear, with
the very real impression that we were going to suffocate. Aboard
this boat, there is only one ‘berth’, a trapezium
of plywood, 1,7m long, 40cm wide at the shoulders and 20cm at
the foot. So for two people…!
At dawn, we got under way again as brstas we could, undercanvassed
and furious at not being able to sail faster. We argued which
each other and with the sea, which was ugly and foamed horribly.
It was so bad that we found hard to believe we were not in shallow
waters with a lot of current – in the middle of Atlantic
! Moreover, this made us laugh out loud: certain writers recount
that the Maoris could see land just by reading the surface of
the water! They obviously hadn’t been there to see if
it was true! From time to time we caught a big dolphin fish,
which improved morale and gave us the impression we could survive
this hell. We hate as much as we could raw, then kept the rest
in salted vinegar. The wind now headed us and backed further
and further to the north west.
Emmanuel and Maximilien BERQUE
A very long 3 to 5m swell, with occasional bigger series,
arrive from America; this worried us and we wondered what was
happening on the other side of the Atlantic, as we had no radio
to listen the weather forecast on… But we took the opportunity
to sail further south, hopping that the next day would bring
an improvement. On deck, we shouted ‘Accept your concept’
as one, to encourage ourselves or sang songs from ‘The
Three penny Opera’ at the top of our voices. When then
found ourselves in another cloudy area, where we hardly saw
the sun all day long, and it was quit dark. Fortunately, in
the morning, we could nevertheless make out a vague glow which
showed us where east was; when we caught sight of it, we noted
the direction of the wind and the waves and for the rest of
the day tried not to zigzag too much whilst hoping that the
wind would not change direction. Moreover we had more confidence
in the residual swell, as it changed direction more slowly than
Finally, toward the tenth day, we started to steer more west.
In ten more days we would have to take more care with our course.
It was imperative that we succeed, as otherwise we would be
taken for pretentious and irresponsible sailors when we returned.
The water was delicious warm now and swimming cheered us up,
however we were very careful, as last time we were followed
by enormous swordfishes hours on end. The sky remained covered,
and we became horribly depressed about the success of our experience.
We wondered if we were going to arrive a long way from Guadeloupe
– where an when? On the 16th day, at about half-way point,
we were nevertheless quite happy. It was time to throw the bottle
entrusted to us by the children in our village into the sea.
Then we carried on, sitting still and cross-legged constantly,
at the helm on this impossible little boat… In addition
we were more and more under-canvassed so as not get too wet.
We cracked up, miserably: ‘We’re like a 2 CV, we
don’t go fast, but we’ll get there in the end…’
We had no more illusions; it was going to take more than 30
days at this rate. On the 19th day, the sky seemed to clear
a little; there was blue sky and small clouds. That night we
caught sight of the Southern Cross, but not for long enough.
We thought that we must be on about the same latitude as Guadeloupe.
In the afternoon, the weather worsened. We weathered a few squalls
and the sky became completely obscure, which made for some good
photographs. We were so disgusted with the cloud-covered sky
that we ran before the wind all night an tried desperately to
sleep in our horrible little hell-hole. All night we had squalls
and strong winds. We kept on repeating ‘Next week, things
will be better’ as if it was our leitmotiv. The sky had
to clear !
On the 21st night, we glimpsed the Cross again, with, just
below, the too stars of the Fly. They seemed to be in right
position, and we celebrate this during our daily stop, we opened
the only bottle of wine on board. The Basque captain of a cargo
had given us it when we left. The weather was improving now,
the sea was finally calming down, and there was a light south-easterly
breeze. However, the problem was the skin on our backsides was
becoming more and more inflamed, as in shorts, we were constantly
sitting in the water whilst steering. The nights were very difficult,
there were still a lot of clouds and more often than not, we
stopped so as to avoid errors in our course.
On the 23rd day, we told ourselves there was only a week left.
The sea was very smooth and Max succeed in finding a sail magic
trim we didn’t understand, but which worked with this
very light almost southerly breeze. The Micromegas 3 sailed
at 2 – 3 knots with the helm lashed; it was wonderful.
We could at last sleep a little, and we where dry. We took the
advantage of this opportunity to treat our backsides with sardine
oil. At daybreak, we set the sails gooswinged and sailed at
around 5 knots. The wind seemed to turn more northerly. We had
had enough. Our solitude was unending. With no compass steering
in straight line demanded enormous care. We were fed up. ‘When
are we to arrive? Where are we going to arrive?’ or ‘Will
we see the Cross tonight?’ We were now completely obsessed
by these three questions. The wind died down again and we succeed
in rigging our ‘automatic pilot’ again: helm lashed,
mainsail trimmed perpendicular and the foresail almost aback!
During the night of the 25 April – the 25th day –
the sky cleared just at the right moment and we observed the
Cross and the Fly. Fantastic! The too upper stars of the Fly
seemed to be half a way between Accrux and the horizon. We appeared
to be on the same latitude as La Désirade! We must arrive
soon, but when? We have spent so much time hove-to!
On the 26th April, we had a fine weather all day with an easterly
wind; we were sailing goosewinged at 5 to 8 knots. But in the
evening, the sky covered over again, as it had done nearly every
evening, and we were berserk again because we lost our precise
course during the long twilight. We hadn’t been lucky
up until now; we had seen very few clear sunrises and sunsets…
After the solar noon, the day became horribly gloomy and squalls
hit us. That night we hove-to again so as not to sail the wrong
Fortunately, things improved towards the end of the day and
even though we didn’t see the sunset clearly, the night
was quit starry and we stood all our watches.
SUNDAY, 27 APRIL, 27TH DAY. (Extract from the logbook):
The day looks promising. The sea is calmer. We are continuing
under foresail and storm jib, sheeted flat, just in case…
Toward midday we lie to the sea anchor and relax, swim, take
photographs and film. A real bath. Delightful! We get under
again. About an hour later, suddenly, Max at the helm says:
‘There is something on the horizon. It’s not a cloud,
it’s an island !!!’ I quickly find the binoculars.
It really is an island. LAND !!! But which island? It is long
and flat. We set course directly for and hoist full sails…
We recognise La Désirade. We have arrived. We succeeded.
We were right.
In 27 days, the two of us consumed: 65 tins of sardines, 8
Kg of gofio, 4 Kg of powdered milk, 2 Kg of sugar, 49 litres
of water and 30 bottles of Tabasco.
Emmanuel et/ou Maximilien BERQUE
Place de la Mairie
Saint Julien en Born 40170
mail : firstname.lastname@example.org