Waiting for Jacob

7 June 2019, 9:00 .a.m.

At latitude 17 degrees south of the equator, Cairns, Australia is located well within the tropical belt. So it should be warm and sunny here as we await the arrival of Jacob Adoram in his 28’ ocean rowing boat after an 11-month, nonstop, singlehanded, 7,100-mile voyage from Seattle, WA. The boat, named Emerson, was Eric’s final project before he retired and closed Sponberg Yacht Design in 2015.

But this is almost winter in the Southern Hemisphere—21 June is the winter solstice—and although daytime temperatures in Cairns reach the mid-70s, it is raining hard. More to the point, the wind is strong, and having survived a harrowing entrance through one of the passes of the Great Barrier Reef, Jacob has taken up a mooring buoy at Flynn Reef awaiting calmer conditions to proceed to the Cairns marina, a mere 30 miles away. Oh, and there’s one other glitch holding him up. The Australian Border Force has informed him that if he arrives too soon, they will smack him with a $5,000 fine. More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, having left Corroboree safely berthed in Port Bundaberg, Eric and I have driven through 900 miles of Queensland sugar cane country to be on the dock cheering when Jacob touches land. Also on hand will be members of his family who have flown in from Texas, the owners of Schooner Creek Boat Works in Portland Oregon where Emerson was built, the press and other well-wishers. The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard—an amazing organization in no way affiliated with the Border Force mentioned above—has gone all out to provide information and support, including an escort boat to guide Jacob safely for the last 10 miles to shore.

I wrote in a recent post that sailing is as much mental as physical, if not more so, and the mental effort of rowing across the Pacific Ocean boggles my mind. How do you do that? How do you spend 330+ days alone in a carbon fiber capsule enduring every conceivable weather condition from being tossed by wind and waves to being totally becalmed? How do you keep up your confidence, stick to your purpose, maintain your emotional equilibrium? Some days the wind speeded Jacob along. Other times it pushed him sideways. Sometimes it set him backward by a hundred miles. This was not a straight course, by any means, and he rowed. Rowed!

Above all, though Emerson has state-of-the-art navigation and communications technology, including weather routing, the bottom line for Jacob, as for us and our cruising friends, is the knowledge that if disaster strikes far from shore, you are on your own. But that’s just it. Eric and I are never “on our own.” We have each other, while Jacob has done it solo. We stand in awe of him.

And I stand in awe of my husband, because although this is unquestionably Jacob’s triumph, he would not have achieved it without an incredibly seaworthy boat beneath, above and all around him. Having longed for years to tackle the challenges of an ocean rowboat design, the commission was a dream come true for Eric, and he spent nine months of concentrated effort on the project. If you have the least notion that being a yacht designer is nothing more than drawing pretty lines on paper, please take the time to read Eric’s design brief on Emerson published in Professional Boatbuilder in 2016: https://www.ericwsponberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Design-Brief-Ocean-Rowboat-PBB161.pdf You may not understand every technical detail, but you will appreciate the magnitude of genius—I mean that!—in my husband’s brain.

7 June 2019, 1:00 p.m.

Thanks to constant tracking updates, we can see that Jacob has left Flynn Reef. Despite the rain, a short weather window has opened that may allow him to proceed to an anchorage closer to shore. There he must wait again to satisfy Australia Border Force requirements that every vessel arriving in Australia must provide at least 96 hours advance notice. We emailed such a notice for Corroboree before leaving New Caledonia; a French sailboat that failed to do so was fined $20,000. Because strong winds pushed Jacob to the Great Barrier Reef sooner than expected, his notification to the authorities three days ago was not considered sufficient time. However, out of the goodness of their hearts, they are allowing him to make “safety stops” until he can step ashore legally tomorrow, 8 June.

Tonight we meet with Jacob’s family and other members of his support team to finalize plans. They are: father Greg, sister Cindy and her husband Chip, cousin David Michna, the team coordinator, and Angela Haber, a friend and marketing professional from Orlando who is handling media relations. Terry Spurrier, the flotilla commander of the Coast Guard in Cairns, has invited the family to accompany them on the escort vessel, and the owners of Schooner Creek Boat Works, Kevin and Shauna Flanigan, have chartered a sport fishing boat and invited Angela, Eric and me to join them. The owner of that vessel, Daniel McCarthy, with his local knowledge and contacts, has become an invaluable intermediary with the Australian authorities and media.

Tomorrow morning we will be ready to go. It is amazing that after a year underway for Jacob and two and a half years for us, we have arrived in Australia only 16 days apart. And while Emerson was Eric’s last yacht design commission, Corroboree, as you may recall, was his first. To have these two boats cross paths on the other side of the world is special beyond words.

8 June 2019, 12:00 noon

We learned this morning that on leaving Flynn Reef yesterday Jacob was unable to reach his targeted anchorage east of Cairns due to adverse winds. He ended up in another bay about 8 miles to the north where he remained overnight. Now the relentless southeast wind will not allow him to row back to Cairns. Fortunately, there is a small marina northwest of Cairns, at a town with the delightfully improbable name of Yorkeys Knob, only 4.5 miles away. So in a flurry of phone calls and emails, it is arranged that the Coast Guard vessel with Jacob’s family aboard will escort Emerson there, while the rest of us will rendezvous by car at Yorkneys Knob. There we can watch Emerson’s approach from the hill above town, then drive down to the dock to greet him.

Watching for Jacob atop Yorkeys Knob. L-R: Eric, Chad Stewart, Shauna Flanigan, Rayleen and Daniel McCarthy, Angela Haber, Kevin Flanigan
The view from Yorkeys Knob. The larger Coast Guard vessel is sheltering Emerson from windward while the tow boat stands by.

Now Jacob is underway for the final stretch. Daniel McCarthy’s wife, Rayleen, and Chad Stewart, a friend of Jacob’s from Minneapolis, have joined us, and we can see Emerson and the bright yellow Coast Guard boat from our vantage point on the hill. Despite 8’ waves, 20-25 knots of wind, and a misting, overcast sky, the situation looks promising. Emerson appears to be making progress, and the Coast Guard vessel is maintaining a position to windward to provide Jacob with as much shelter as possible. A smaller Coast Guard tow boat stands by. For a time it even seems blue sky might poke through. Then the overcast returns, and though the wind has dropped a bit and the whitecaps diminished, we can see through the binoculars that both vessels are rocking. We can make out Jacob rowing with one oar only, trying to turn the vessel toward the marina entrance a mile away. Not a good sign; the wind is pushing him too fast northward. He might have to anchor again and await a calm. Nevertheless, still hopeful, we drive down to the marina to await further news.

Emerson attempting to reach the marina at Yorkeys Knob

8 June 2019, 3:15 p.m.

Daniel has just been alerted by phone by the Coast Guard that Jacob will not reach the marina and will aim instead for Trinity Beach, a sandy stretch a mile to the northwest. Our group, along with the media people, jump in our cars and dash for the site. It isn’t a direct route, and following the reporters through twists, turns and roundabouts at a speed that is probably higher than legal, we feel like paparazzi ourselves.

We arrive just in time to see Emerson plunging in the surf with its bow touching the shore, and Jacob and a crowd of men, women and children—all passersby—throwing themselves into the effort of stabilizing the craft. None of them had known this was about to happen, but when they saw the Coast Guard boat and grasped that an unusual situation was underway, they went to work. As Jacob jumped out, some strode into the surf to help him control the boat while others took a line ashore. Jacob told us later that when he first stepped from the cockpit he fell into the water, hardly surprising after 11 wobbly months at sea.

Emerson lands at Trinity Beach. Jacob is at the stern, beneath his yellow quarantine flag.
A crowd of onlookers rushed to help.
With his feet on (almost) dry land, Jacob is interviewed by the press.

Yet far from being a bearded skeleton, he looks fit and remarkably calm. That’s even more amazing, because—and this is something none of us on shore had known—when he went to pull up his anchor four hours earlier, he discovered it was irretrievably snagged on the bottom. He had to cast off and leave it behind. If he didn’t make the marina, he could not anchor again, and if he had to be towed in, the records he was seeking might be invalidated. It was make or break to land on Trinity Beach. Now, having set foot on dry land, there can be no challenge to his accomplishment.

Nevertheless, it is still a dangerous situation with Emerson bucking in the surf. With the Coast Guard vessel unable to enter the shallow water, they quickly send in the small tow boat, and a lifeguard paddles out on her surfboard to bring them a line from Emerson’s stern. Jacob dives back into the cockpit, and while he and Emerson are towed to the marina dock, we drive back, obeying the speed limits this time.

A lifeguard played a vital role by taking a line from Emerson’s stern out to the tow boat. Thank you, ma’am!
The Coast Guard tow boat brings Emerson safely to the dock.

8 June 2019, 5:00 p.m.

After Emerson is cleared by the Border Force and Biosecurity, we are allowed to join Jacob, his family and the media on the dock. Eric and Kevin, as designer and builder of the boat, have already been interviewed. Eric just might show up on Aussie television! A celebration dinner at the marina restaurant follows. Jacob’s choice for his first meal ashore? Steak and more steak. We’re guessing his next priorities, when he and his family return to their lodgings, will be a hot shower and a long sleep.

L-R: Eric, Jacob’s father Greg, sister Cindy, brother-in-law Chip
Jacob’s cousin, David Michna, coordinator of the support team
Designer and rower–mission accomplished!
Shauna and Kevin Flanigan, owners of Schooner Creek Boat Works where Emerson was built
Eric and Terry Spurrier, flotilla commander, Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Cairns
The best naval architect in the world and his record-setting ocean rowboat
8 June 2019, a day we will never forget

We can’t begin to thank the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard for their skill and diligence. We are warmed to the heart by the response of the people on Trinity Beach who pitched in to help. It is a joy to meet Jacob’s family and friends, Kevin and Shauna, Daniel and Rayleen. It is a privilege to know Jacob and to be part of the dream—now, a reality.

He did it, he did it, he did it! Good on ya, mate! Welcome to Oz!

Jacob’s hands after owing 7,145 miles