Alone at Sea For 72 Days [41]

The true story of a German doctor who sails and paddles a 17 foot kayak across the Atlantic Ocean

By Dr Hannes Lindeman

This article first appeared in Life magazine on July 22, 1957.

1st Day, Oct 20, 1956.

“Hey, Hannes!” My friend Ruth’s hushed voice wakes me. I have been sleeping in the double canoe Tangaroa the night before sailing. The Canary Island harbour town of Las Palmas is still fast asleep.

Now Ruth is preparing breakfast for me. Fried eggs, sunny side up on an ocean of fat, to give me more energy before taking off. Meanwhile the sun comes up. All seems to be taken care of, although I know I could spend more days right here making improvements. Somewhere one has to draw the line.

I get into my foldboat and push off from the Tangaroa. As I begin paddling a few curious people watch me. My friends Jim, Ruth and Jutta are among them. I can well imagine what is going on in their hearts and minds. I do not feel too cheerful either. Out in the harbour I hoist my mainsail. The clouds above are floating Southwest. It is around 9 am and I can hear the honking of cars from the land. I am proceeding very slowly and so I start paddling again. As I leave the closed harbour the first gusts of wind sweep across my boat and spray begins to wet the sail.

2nd Day, Oct 21, 1956.

Several butterflies are flying over the ripples. I pull a grasshopper from the water. Will I be pulled out of the water this way one day? My splash cover begins to leak a bit. Water washing over my boat continuously has leaked through to my knees and they are wet under my oil skin.

At 9 am the torture starts. My skin must be oversensitive to waterproofing ingredients. My body feels as if hot tar has been poured over it. But I banish all thoughts of turning back. I must make it and I will.

Finally I have time to eat a quiet meal. Yesterday I didn’t eat anything except the hearty breakfast when I also drank twice the amount of liquid my stomach will ordinary hold. The body is a better water tank than most people know. So after 36 hrs I have eaten and drunk nothing because I want to dull my senses by fasting.

The second night is approaching. I am trying very hard to reduce all mental activity so that I can doze and renew my strength for the coming day. This is an art which I have to get used to. To doze while sitting — that anyone can do; but at the same time to keep the compass course — that is difficult. I have a hard time staying on course by working the rudder controls with my feet. I fall a bit deeper into sleep and dream for fractions of seconds.

3rd Day, 0Ct 22, 1956.

Yesterday I lost sight of land, now I am really alone. How long will my trip take? I am counting on 70 days.

After continuously handling wet articles and bailing out the boat, my fingertips are swollen and the skin very sensitive. By doing heavy work before my departure, I toughened the skin on my palms but I had forgotten the fingertips.

4th Day, Oct 23, 1956.

The weather is better. I hope to be able to dry my drenched clothes in the sun. At noon I begin my ‘hygiene hour’. I put a paddle across the cockpit and force myself out of the opening in the splash cover. I take off my paddling jacket, the oilskin pants, the short pants, the thick pullover and an undershirt. Everything is drenched. With a few clothes pins I fasten these articles on the shroud of the mizzenmast. What a superb feeling to have the sun warm my skin. I bail the water from the boat, let my seat cushion dry in the sun and then fix myself a good place to sit. After all my dry clothes are dusted with talcum powder I put them back on.

5th Day, Oct 24, 1956.

The night was agonising, and I know the ones to follow won’t be much better. Today it is cold. During the day I dream a lot. On land I am used to praying regularly, and here too I pray for alertness. Also prayers are a sort of sinking away in which the outside world is forgotten and man is strengthened.

6th Day, Oct 25, 1956.

In the morning I discover a bottle of orange juice which Jim had hidden in my boat. Later while making prick marks on a chart to log my course I find in the nautical almanac a picture of my three Tangaroa friends, with a cordial inscription: “Dear Hannes, keep going West. Your friendship meant a lot to us, Jim.”

A little later I look at the top of the mizzenmast and discover a grasshopper clinging to it. I worry about it: how can I feed it!

7th Day, Oct 26, 1956.

This first week I have lived exclusively from canned food in order to lighten the boat. The only un-canned food I have is garlic and a few oranges. This morning I take a ration of evaporated milk and late at night a ration of beer with a tin of peas, adding to this is a few slices of garlic. Milk and beer are foods as well as liquids and minimise the psychological effects of starvation.

8th Day, Oct 27, 1956.

The sun is beating against my aft sail relentless. I sprinkle the canvas with salt water and afterwards feel better in its shade. Today for the first time I see some small fish underneath my boat. The underwater part of the boat is painted red. Small fish are attracted by shadows and I don’t know yet whether large fish, especially sharks, will avoid the red colour.

9th Day, Oct 28, 1956.

The trade wind increases in strength. Too much spray and too many breakers come over the splash cover but I can no more avoid these in a foldboat than a motorcycle driver can avoid dust.

The noon sighting shows that I am on the 26th degree of latitude, almost 150 miles south of Las Palmas. While I am putting the sextant back into its waterproof bag a dolphin bites on the fishing line which I have hung from the outrigger paddle. I kill it with a knife. First I consume the blood, then the liver and the roe. Then I eat part of the meat and save the rest for tomorrow. I have saved a whole day’s ration.

The waves have become bigger. The wooden frame of the foldboat bends with each wave.

10th Day, Oct 29, 1956.

The wind grew stronger last night and now it is blowing from the North East at 30 knots. My outrigger — a paddle with half an inner tube fastened to it, slipped a little last night and in the early morning hours a breaker moved it completely out of place. With sails down I force myself out of the splash cover, readjust my course and then lie down flat over the outrigger. Suddenly an enormous wall rears up right in front of me. Then it crashes over me. I gasp for air several times but then the giant wave has disappeared. By lying on top of the outrigger I had avoided capsizing but the boat is full of water. I get a pot and bail, then use a sponge to take care of the rest.

In the evening I hit some rain squalls and collect about three quarts in the splash cover. I drink one quart immediately and pour the rest into an aluminium container.

13th Day, Nov 1, 1956.

I have an adverse wind. For some unknown reason I cannot wind my watch any more. However my chronometer is still in good order. Then a bad squall comes out of the Southwest and breaks my boom. I can repair it easily but the sail no longer fits well. Why do I call it a boom? It’s such a simple stick, no thicker than a finger!

14th Day, Nov 2, 1956.

I have used the sea anchor — an open canvas sack that drags below the surface — steadily since yesterday to keep the boat on course. But using the sea anchor makes the larger breakers run pitilessly over the boat even when it isn’t storming.

Around noon the wind becomes calmer. While I take my hygiene hour a small iridescent dolphin tries to find some protection in the boat’s shadow. It Is being chased by three larger brothers, each about one and a half yards long. They must have had some fun in this chase because they suddenly start to beat my boat with their tails.

18th Day, Nov 6, 1956.

Finally the wind abates and the first trade wind clouds appear in the sky. I take out all wet things and put them on the deck to dry. After this work I sit down again comfortably and feel my pulse: in the sun and after this exertion my pulse beats 48 per minute, in the last two nights it was 34.

I am optimistic. I am making plans for a new sea voyage or dreaming about my pet idea of starting a farm in the tropics. During the first two weeks I felt I would need a woman in that farmhouse. But now I don’t think any more about marriage. I even want to do my baking myself, alone. Ah, the baking. I think a lot about food, mostly about sweets and, like all North Germans, about cake with whipped cream.

22nd Day, Nov 10, 1956.

Now I am in the tropics, for I crossed the Tropic of Cancer last night. The big gusts of wind are still fierce. They ruffle the surface of each wave, blast it, hit it again, turn it upside down and finally turn the whole sea into an inferno. Showers repeatedly race over the water and create whirlpools of all sizes. It’s just as if I were running barefoot over cobblestones, and I feel sorry for my rubber boat.

23rd Day, Nov 11, 1956.

It’s a Sunday. I’m thinking of the coffee and cake they are having now at home. In my ears the church bells from the village where I was born are ringing.

Suddenly a school of filefish appears. With a quick scoop I catch one by the head. While eating the raw fish I notice blood has started to ooze from my gums — a warning to begin taking vitamin tablets. An abscess has formed on my thigh from a boil which had been there. To get relief I give myself an injection of penicillin.

26th Day, Nov 14, 1956.

I put some fresh bait on my fishing fine. A little later a dolphin bites and begins to struggle. But what is this? I notice some other dolphins nearby getting uneasy. They huddle together near the port side. Only three yards ahead — a shark. It doesn’t dare approach the boat. I quickly pull the dolphin in and kill it with my knife. The shark must have noticed the struggling fish and nosily come to see what it was all about. Now the shark is lolling behind my boat. It is about four yards long and quite a grown up specimen. Its weight probably is double my boat, including provisions and myself. But when I notice that the shark seems more timid than I, I feel safe.

27th Day, Nov 15, 1956.

A lone whale wallows nearby but I cannot see him clearly because of the high waves. Then I hear some loud noises. I look around and see a big spray of water like a fountain. After this the whale takes a deep breath and dives straight down into the depths, its tail flapping high in the air.

Suddenly I meet a second shark approaching the foldboat from aft. I estimate its length as only three yards. It lifts its little pig like eyes up to me. Not being too keen on its presence, I watch closely until its head is within about two feet of my seat and with all my strength I strike it on the head with my paddle. Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to affect it in the least. After a while it swims away.

30th Day, Nov 18, 1956.

Ever growing darkness with thunder and lightning and cold spray. The night around me seems very cruel. Every few minutes I have to use my flashlight to look at my compass. I feel worn out and empty.

My knee has been bothering me. I am afraid it may be infected. Just below the kneecap it is becoming quite swollen. I take a ready-filled syringe and inject some penicillin into it.

At last the storm is over. This afternoon a bottle comes floating toward me. Covered with barnacles and crabs it must have been in the water for weeks. I catch the crabs immediately, chewing them very well so that the hard shell won’t injure my mucous membrane.

This afternoon I spot a ‘sea serpent’. It snorts quietly to stern. First I think the noise is caused by the rushing wave but then I distinctly see the monster gliding up and down through the waves. Its body is black. Then I notice its fins. It is four small whales, or maybe porpoises, swimming one after another.

I must get some sleep tonight. I know that without sleep I cannot get through another storm. But there is great danger of capsizing when I fall asleep.

31st Day, Nov 19, 1956.

It seemed as if the day would never begin. All through the night there were showers, gust of winds, thunder and lightning, and I had to scoop the water out of the boat. Then just as I had feared, I lost the rudder! I had become so accustomed to steering with my feet that I barely noticed in my drowsy state that the steering cable was working stiffly. Suddenly it went slack and I immediately awoke.

At last Daylight comes. My boat is floating in a very bad position with the sea anchor out. It is leaning too much, which means more water over the deck. And my hands are really in bad shape.

The canvas cover seems to be speaking to me: “Now come, be sensible and lie down. Leave that and let the others do something — you don’t need to do everything alone.” My senses have changed in a peculiar way. It isn’t only that I speak to myself — to the sails or to the outrigger — but also I hear sounds around me which seem to come from human beings.

32nd Day, Nov 20, 1956.

I wait for the storm to abate before I put on the extra rudder I have with me.

Holding a new rudder pin between my toes and with the spare rudder blade fastened to my right wrist, I get into the water fully clothed. The water is luke-warm and the waves swell up to five yards high. I cling to the stern with my left arm and begin to change the rudder blade to my left hand. Suddenly a big wave tears it from me. Like lightning I dive after it and luckily catch hold of the long string attached to the blade. A narrow escape!

On my next try I have better results. With my right hand I insert the rudder pin and fasten it.

36th Day, Nov 24, 1956.

All the birds are around again. It’s a very tired wind and the sails are almost still so I take the aft sail down. Then I see a big black box about half a sea mile away. It must be a ship.

I wave with my hand that I am all right. Perhaps they do not see me — I am too far away from them. Then they make a turn on around my boat, and after a while I can distinguish faces on the bridge. The crew looks down curiously. A young blonde officer springs onto the main deck and asks me through a megaphone:

“Won’t you come aboard?”

Before I even think it over I answer, “No thank you.”

“Do you want anything to eat?”

“No thank you very much”

“What is your name?”

I tell him and ask for my exact position. He gives orders to the bridge to reckon it and asks me more questions: “Where are you from?”

“From Las Palmas, 36 days at sea with course for St Thomas.”

“Would you like us to tell the yacht club in St Thomas to expect you?”

“That would be very kind of you.”

He gives me my position: 36º28″ longitude and 20º16″ latitude. This checks with my reckoning and I am now about halfway across. Then, incredulously, he asks again if I really don’t want anything to eat?

“No, thank you.”

The freighter then goes on its way, the captain shouting down from the bridge “Good luck.” I thank him. He starts up the ship very carefully so as not to endanger my boat. At the stern I see the Dutch flag. It is the Blitar from Rotterdam.

48th Day, Dec 6, 1956.

Stiff breezes have blown from all sides for five days. I notice it by the reactions my body, which is constantly wet. Every joint on my body, my knees, elbow and shoulders, not to mention my behind, is aching with pain — a perfect barometer.

49th Day, Dec 7, 1956.

I wanted to sail all night long but couldn’t, I was so tired. Again I heard voices, so I answered and spoke to everything as if to friends: “Where is the knife?”, “Not here”, “Come on, here is some work for you.” Or, to the outrigger when it kept the sea from shoving us off balance: “Bravo, you managed it.”

51st Day, Dec 9, 1956.

A few days ago one of the filefish bit me on the right hand as I was removing the arrow of my spear gun from it. The wound has not healed, and today a small abscess has broken out.

I keep thinking of food. When I pass Philipsburg (Netherlands West Indies) I will stop at a quiet place and do some shopping: white bread, butter, Swiss cheese and ham, and for dessert applesauce, biscuits and chocolate. I prefer cream cakes but you don’t find such things in the tropics.

53rd Day, Dec 11, 1956.

A large patch of Sargasso weed floats past me. At this latitude it could only have come from the Antilles. But I mustn’t build false hopes. My longitude measurements are rather rough but I think they are reliable.

55th Day, Dec 13, 1956.

The rudder again is worn out so I have to devote all my attention to keeping on course in this strong wind. Here is a big breaker coming from aft — I am almost drowned, gasping for air. I am pushed ahead 10, 15 yards, and then with a hard thump I sit down.

With a sponge I slowly soak the water up. Toward dusk I see a red light, a little later a green, then both together. At first I cannot make out what it could be, but now I see: it’s a ship. She is making a straight line for me. It looks as if she wants to run me down. I have my paddle and flashlight ready. But she passes about 50 yards away.

56th Day, Dec 14, 1956.

I sailed the night through. I don’t remember when I last slept. All I know is that today I am very tired — very, very tired. Then a tropical bird greets me and I shout “Hurrah!” He is surely the first American I’ve seen on the trip. I just need something like this to cheer me up.

Suddenly on my port side I see a huge tanker. Like the first one I met, it comes from behind — unnoticed. What do they want? I wave to them, as much as to say, “Go away, everything is all right here.” Then I see a man with a megaphone calling to me and I think I hear him saying, “My dear Lindemann, don’t be so obstinate!” But the sea is so high and rough I cannot understand anything more he says. It must have been my imagination again playing tricks.

The tanker circles me and comes alongside again. A young officer makes a despairing gesture — is there nothing he can do to help? With a laugh I wave a ‘No.’ The ship slips past me, the backwash swirling and splashing over my boat.

Now I must make sure that my little boat does not get swamped by the tanker’s undertow. It was the Eaglesdale from London. Meeting them cheered me up. After all, it’s nice to know that there is somebody near to help even when I didn’t accept help. Now I ask myself, Should I have accepted help? Give up after 55 days at sea? Under no circumstances!

57th Day, Dec 15, 1956.

Last night was like being in hell!

I begin to sing but something inside me stops me. One thing I know: I must put the boat into a boathouse — I must get it in somewhere. And then get out of it! And then lie down beside it — to sleep. Sleep, nothing but sleep.

Am I swimming — what? The shock wakes me up. Before I know what is happening the breakers are over me.

I must bail, I will bail — then why don’t I do it? I am invited to a hunting party — a black servant calls for me and I sit comfortably in a sort of a ricksha. (to Lindemann’s mind, fuzzy after weeks alone, the boat’s black rubber outrigger turns into a little African boy and he and the ‘boy’ have long conversations).

“Boy, where are we going?” I ask him anxiously.

“Take it easy, we have to go through the surf”, the boy answers and, as we hurtle along, everything is full of water.

“Boy, where are your employers living?”

“In the West”, he answers.

Something is working in me.

“West?” This word I know. Ah, I have it, the compass. I look at the compass. I am far off course. I look at the boy to the left. No, he went off. This time a black horse is there and it carries the boat.

At dawn quite a storm develops. Towering waves shoot to such a height that I say in disbelief, “No, such waves simply do not exist!” But immediately I add, “I’ll make it yet — I’m bound to succeed!”

As if to prove my conviction, I look into the sky and see a frigate bird. It must be from America. By my figuring I am still about 400 sea miles east of the Caribbean islands. But as these dark frigate birds rarely fly that far from their nests, I must be mistaken. It might mean land in four days!

Feeling more comfortable in the twilight hours, I throw out my sea anchor. I am slumped over, the splash cover is over my head and my rubber yachting shoes are unlaced so that I can quickly kick them off in case the craft is overturned. The stars tell me it must be about 9 pm. Suddenly a huge wall rises on my right and I know nothing more. Am I dead? No, I am gasping for breath. I am capsized in the water. I beat the sea with my hands. The overturned hull is high over the water. It is slippery. My mouth tastes salty. Finally I grasp the outrigger. The storm does not subside. The waves are the same rumbling, roaring and thundering, as before, merciless. In the sea my body feels bitter cold. Then I am on top of the hull my right hand grasping the paddle to the outrigger, the left clinging to the gunwale of the boat. The wind is hurling over the hull. It is terribly cold.

It is just about midnight. I realise that I must wait until daybreak before attempting to right my boat. The stiff wind chills me to the bone. I slide back into the warm water.

58th Day, Dec 16, 1956.

Now after midnight the cold is even more bitter. I must think back to the church of my village where I was born. Why? I don’t know. Then I kick against something hard with my feet. This frightens me and I scramble frantically up onto the hull.

At last I see the dawn. I cannot wait any longer and must turn the boat over. I fasten a long rope to the outrigger and am able to manage it.

The bottom part of the mizzenmast is broken. The sea anchor is lost. I climb into the boat, sit down in water and take stock of what is left.

All the canned food which I had saved up so carefully has gone except for 11 tins of milk in a bag tied to the mast. Out comes the waterproof flashlight. It still works. Two photo-bags and my two Leica cameras are gone, even though they were tied to the boat. Water has gotten into the other photo-bags and the sextant is damaged. All spare parts for the boat, my night glasses, all my toilet articles — all these things are now at the bottom of the ocean or floating away somewhere.

The sails are all tangled up. I can’t possibly see how I will ever set them again. What’s happened to the chronometer? It’s full of water, impossible to use. My good knife is gone; only a blunt curved one remains. But I am alive and well. So what more do I want?

59th Day, Dec 17, 1956.

The storm howls, the sea roars, I am dead tired. During the night my whole body shook.Air — air — at last! Again I have capsized. I am up to my neck in water. My hands slip off the hull. I grab hold and right the boat. Now I am back in it again, sitting in the water. It’s not cold except when I move, and then the cold water penetrates my body.

63rd Day, Dec 21, 1956.

At times I feel half dead. There is simply nothing more here — no thoughts, only the infinite stillness in the hellish storm. It’s unbelievable but I know my boat will not fail me. This foldboat is now the strongest part of me, stronger than the breakers; it degrades the sea, and the sea knows it.

Why don’t I treat myself to a tin of milk? I would still have nine left. On a sudden impulse I grab a tin, dig at it with the curved knife and suck the milk out. After I have emptied it I feel ashamed of my weakness.

66th Day, Dec 24, 1956.

How long have I sailed without sleeping? It’s many days and God knows how many nights. Or is it already weeks? It must be Christmas Eve! And here flying to me is my Christmas present: land swallows, real land swallows! They are squealing and quarrelling, just as they always do. Now I will sing a Christmas carol! “O du froehliche, o du selige.…” My feet feel no more resistance against the rudder lines. The rudder is broken off! So I must paddle and steer with the paddle. And that on Christmas Eve!

I have rheumatism in my upper arm so I keep changing the paddle every few seconds. Dusk has now set in. Finally, a streak of light In the sky. At last, these may be the lights of Saint John’s in Antigua. If true, then I should be there by the morning. I will eat toffee, nothing else, all day long.

Suddenly the African is there again: “Where are we going this time?” “To the West”, he says.

68th Day, Dec 26, 1956.

I still do not see any land. A dismal feeling oppresses me: is it possible I have passed the Antilles without noticing them? I wouldn’t be the first who has missed them. Lord help me, there must be land somewhere near.

70th Day, Dec 28, 1956.

Today is my birthday. But why should I think about it? All I can think about is cake.

71st Day, Dec 29, 1956.

For three weeks I have sat in wet clothes and 21 nights I have sat in water. About noon I see a shadows of a cloud before me on the horizon. Hurrah! It’s an island. But three hours later my little island has disappeared behind a bank of clouds.

72nd Day, Dec 30, 1956.

Finally the island emerges, bare and rocky with yet another larger island in the North. I see another shadow looming in the background. From the configuration of land I know now that I am heading for the Philipsburg harbour in St Martin.

A shower and then some heavy rainfalls. At last I sail into the harbour of Philipsburg. What a sight! Such complete peace! Such quiet! All about me I see the vivid green of the tropics, with red roofs and coloured houses in between.

It is late afternoon. I paddle my craft near the pier. A few fugitives from the shower are huddled together there. I have arrived! I must get out. My knees are weak and trembling, as I have not stood up for 72 days. I pull the stern out of the water, again stumbling, then falling down. Finally I succeed in pulling the bow farther inland.

I try to go to the stern to push the boat, but I cannot walk straight. I fall again. By then a few good-hearted onlookers have come over from the pier and they carry the boat inland.

It is still raining. The men ask me where I come from. “From Las Palmas”, is my taut reply. A voice calls over from the pier. I stumble there. It is a police officer, asking for my papers. I show my passport and give him a brief explanation.

I stagger back to the boat and roll up the sails. Then I go with several of the natives to the hotel, taking along the most necessary things — movie camera, log book, personal documents and fresh underwear. Already I feel safer on my feet.

After a shower I get coffee and cake. It is coconut cake, and I eat three hand-sized pieces. It tastes excellent. Then the manager brings a steak. Too bad it is not a big American-sized one, but it tastes wonderful.

I lie on the bed in my room and try to sleep. The terrific tension of the past weeks shows its effects now. I just cannot fall asleep. At midnight I give up and leave the silence of my hotel room and go down to the beach. I sit down near the boat for a while. There I can hear the ocean waves. After all these weeks the sound is strangely comforting to my ears.