Sailing by the stars

An Irishwoman’s Diary: An artist who followed his dream to sea

‘He overhauled his boat, circumnavigated Ireland and told his ever-supportive elderly father he was going to sail around the world.’ Above, an image from artist Pete Hogan’s beautifully self-illustrated ship’s log-cum-autobiography

‘He overhauled his boat, circumnavigated Ireland and told his ever-supportive elderly father he was going to sail around the world.’ Above, an image from artist Pete Hogan’s beautifully self-illustrated ship’s log-cum-autobiography

Mon, May 27, 2013, 01:01

Obsessions . . . what would we do without them? “For some people it is sex, drugs and rock and roll,” observes artist Pete Hogan, while for others it is a determination to become famous or infamous, responsible or rich. Then there are those who “get lost in the shuffle”. But for him it has always been simply boats, boats and boats. And so when his emigrant life of business suits in Montreal no longer felt comfortable, he shed his skin, drove across the prairies and built his own sailing craft in Vancouver.

It was the early 1980s, a time when, as he recalls, “Greenpeace had just been founded, Bob Geldof had just had his first hit” and Ireland was a “waste land”. This graduate of Cistercian College, Roscrea, Trinity College Dublin and Vancouver College of Art had just one dream – to become another Robin Knox-Johnston or Eric Tabarly and sail off into the sunset. Except, as he recounts in his beautifully self-illustrated ship’s log-cum-autobiography, it didn’t work out like that.

Molly B , after Molly Bloom, was the name of his 30ft (9m) Tahiti ketch, which took him without engine down the coast of California, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to the Aran islands. There were a few incidents en route, which he downplays in typically sparse style. After an enormous pancake breakfast at sea while approaching southern California, for instance, he dozed off and his boat ran up onshore.

His guardian angels were an abalone diver named Jon and his helper Ray, who pulled the Molly B free of rocks, while a US Coast guard helicopter winched down two bilge pumps in a blaze of light and flashing strobes and roaring rotors and whining turbines.

Navigating across the Atlantic by the stars and sextant in those days before GPS, he fell overboard some 400 miles south of Newfoundland. Hauling himself back in over the gunwale, he “lit the stove, ignored the sailing and had a hot chocolate and a post mortem”.

He wintered in Achill, Co Mayo, where he attempted to become “an Irish amalgam of Paul Gauguin, James Joyce and Andy Warhol”. Then he overhauled his boat, circumnavigated Ireland and told his ever-supportive elderly father he was going to sail around the world. And he did. Early on, he berthed in Gibraltar where his weatherbeaten boat looked a little out of place among gleaming hulls, including Robert “media mogul” Maxwell’s Lady Ghisla in e . On the remote Tristan da Cunha, he was treated as if he was a Falklands invader. In Australia, the drug-busters took his food and turned his cabin upside down.

Many would have made more of the dramatic parting of man and boat, after so many adventures together. With typical understatement, Hogan’s extraordinary rescue by the good ship, MV Concordia , takes up one very brief chapter in The Log of the Molly B . The east German captain felt he had earned himself “two chances at heaven” for it was the second time he had picked up a castaway.

Radio officer
One wonders if there was a radio officer on board the Concordia , for such people are cut from the same sailcloth as Hogan. Take John (Jack) O’Sullivan from Shrule, Co Mayo, who first went to sea on a ship bound for west Africa in 1943.

In 1945, his ship broke down when with a convoy which came under attack from two U-boats in the Atlantic, but they survived. “We figured out luck was on our side as our engine trouble had made us a straggler . . .” he told Irish colleague Colman O’Shaughnessy, in a new anthology on the lives of the “Marconi men”.

The Long Silence Falls: the Life and Times of the Merchant Radio Officer 1900-2000 records how an entire profession has been destroyed by the technology it helped to develop. Without pioneering wireless, nobody would have been saved from the Titanic , and the fate of the liner might never have been known.

And here’s one in the book’s invaluable appendix for table quiz masters: the Ti tanic was not the first ship to send an SOS. The first documented SOS was sent two years earlier by a ship aground on the isles of Scilly on April 18th, 1910. Its name was Minnehaha .