Wednesday, July 09, 2008

From the Archives

From August, 2005

It was the end of the voyage of a lifetime for William Cameron Peterson, alone on a sailboat out in the far Pacific a dark night earlier this month, homeward bound for San Francisco.

Peterson heard a crash, "like the shot of a cannon, like a crack of thunder,'' he said. The bowsprit of his boat had failed, and the stays that held the 60-foot-tall mainmast let go. The mast fell, and suddenly his boat, with everything he owned aboard, was crippled, wallowing in the sea, out of control.

"You figure, 'This is it. This is the end of my life,' " he said. The wrecked mast was smashing on the deck, the standing and the running rigging was a tangle of lines and wires, and parts of the gear were smashing into the hull.

The boat was 40 feet long and 46 years old, a wooden vessel rigged as a ketch, with a big main mast and a smaller one aft. Peterson had sailed aboard the boat, which was named Kamera, on a voyage that had taken almost nine years. And now, he thought, the voyage was about to kill him.

Peterson, who is staying at his sister's house in Santa Rosa, leans forward to tell of his long adventure. He is a lean man, 5 feet, 4 inches tall, with pale blue eyes, a beard going gray and a ponytail. He is 56 years old, a grandfather, who grew up a country kid from Sonoma County and learned to love the sea. He has been sailing for 25 years, off and on.

This trip was the dream of his life -- "something I always wanted to do, to sail around the world in my own boat," he said.

He sailed from Petaluma, down the little Petaluma River and San Pablo Bay, clearing the Golden Gate on Nov. 1, 1996. He turned left and sailed down the long California coast to Mexico, then set a course for the islands of the Pacific: the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, the islands west to the far horizons of the world. He stopped when he wanted, sometimes for months. He took jobs -- honest work, he said, to pay expenses. The years went by.

Now it was June 10, 2005, a Friday. Homeward bound, two weeks to go. He was at 28 degrees north latitude, 131 degrees west longitude, 800 miles south and west of San Diego. He was sailing west by north, a long reach from Panama, beating to windward. Once he got to San Francisco, he planned to head east for the Golden Gate, a voyage plan that looked "like a hook,'' he said. The route of the clipper ships, he called it.

Peterson was in the wheelhouse when the bowsprit failed. He figured the starboard whisker stay, which holds the bowsprit to the hull, had broken, setting off a chain reaction, and the pretty white boat was a ruin and probably doomed.

He knew he had to clear away the tangle. The engine would not start, and he had to go out on the deck with an ax, a knife and a flashlight in his teeth. Time had stopped for him, he said.

"There was no such thing as time," he said. "It had ceased to exist.

"I knew that if I went out there on deck, I could die; I could fall overboard. The mast was banging around, 60 feet of metal. It could break my bones. I could get tangled in the rigging, get whacked by a block or tackle, the boom was crashing around. The rails were smashed. I could slip into the ocean. I couldn't work with a life jacket on.

"The emergency dingy was smashed. There were no sails and no engine.

"I knew that if I went out there, I could die, but if I did nothing, I would die for sure. You can't sit there and cringe. You just go ahead and do it.''

Peterson's radio antenna was gone with the wrecked mast. All he could do was to activate his emergency signal, a device called an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacons), a device he bought in New Zealand. It sends out a distress signal with the boat's position.

Peterson didn't know if the signal went out informing others of his circumstance because the device made no sound. If the emergency signal worked and if someone heard him, he was all right. If not, perhaps he could make a jury rig and try for Hawaii, more than 1,000 miles west. He figured the chances were 50-50 for that, "a long shot,'' he said.

The U.S. Coast Guard heard him. The next morning, Peterson saw a C-130 Coast Guard plane -- "the best plane I ever saw,'' he said. The crew told him through his handheld, short-range radio that a U.S. Navy destroyer was nearby, and sure enough, at midmorning, the Chung-Hoon, a new destroyer named for a hero of World War II, steamed over the horizon.

They picked him up, helped him with his gear, saved his logbook and his pictures, and left his little boat behind. "I made a deal with Poseidon,'' Peterson said. "He could have my boat if I had my life.''

Peterson, who had served in the Army, loved the Navy. "They were wonderful; they made me an honorary member of the crew, took care of me,'' he said. "They were sailors. And they saved my ass.''

A Coast Guard helicopter met the ship at sea and flew Peterson to San Diego, where he told his story.

"I never heard anything like it,'' said Robert Lanier, Coast Guard petty officer.

Until the end, Peterson said, the voyage was a dream. Sometimes he sailed alone, sometimes with an Englishwoman named Jackie Pring. Sometimes he took charters, cruising sailors, travelers, people on their own in the ports of the world.

He gets a dreamy look in his eyes, remembering little bays in Mexico, the Marquesas Islands and the Chagos Archipelago -- "no cars, no people, no houses, white sand beaches,'' he said. He went to Australia, to Bali, to Borneo to see the ring-tailed monkeys, to the Komodo Islands to see the dragons, to Thailand to the Maldives, to Madagascar, South Africa, to St. Helena -- the British isle where Napoleon Bonaparte died -- and across the South Atlantic to Brazil.

Peterson stopped and worked sometimes: Once, he spent a year in Florida. He tied the boat up and drove a big-rig truck. He spent a hurricane season on the island of Tobago and loved it. He sailed up the Mississippi and hated it. "Too many big ships, dirty, awful river,'' he said.

He went to Honduras, the Rio Dolce in Guatemala. His favorite place was Kosrae Island in the Federated States of Micronesia. "An emerald on a blue background,'' he said. He has passports to show for all this: exotic stamps and visas. He's been there, done that.

Now that he lost his boat, he's broke. "Flat, stone broke,'' he said. He can't stay with his sister forever. "I'm completely homeless. I just don't have my shopping cart yet.''

Would he do it again? Peterson pauses, looks into the middle distance. "I can't say whether I would or not.''

Would he go to sea again? "I don't really know,'' he said. "I'm probably addicted to the sea. It's a love-hate affair. I love to hate it, and I hate to love it."

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