— A QUARTER CENTURY 'OUT THERE'
we wanted to see how we and the boat would hold up." After all the hard years of preparation, setting out was sweet indeed: "As we left San Diego Bay on November 1, 1982, recalls Paul, "it was a perfect day; gentle breeze, warm and sunny. . . a fantastic start to our adventure." Within months, they experienced the low point of their entire sailing career. On the night of December 7 the vintage schooner was one of several dozen boats anchored off the beach at Cabo San Lucas when a violent gale descended, leaving at least 28 boats wrecked on shore or sunk. The most famous of them was sailor/mystic Bernard Moitessier's 40-ft steel ketch Joshua. White Cloud was one of the few that stayed put, but her survival was bittersweet, as the Mitchells realized that the dreams of so many other sailors had been crushed in a matter of hours. "That's probably the worst weather we've ever seen in all these years," explains Paul. "But, of course, we were anchored. At sea, the worst was probably a couple weeks earlier while sailing from Cabo to Mazatlan when a Gulf norther gale came up. That was a miserable couple of days. Ever since, all of our sailing has been in relatively good weather — we try to pick it." Compared to today, there were still relatively few boats out cruising in the early '80s, although the phenomenon of cruising under sail was definitely starting to boom, largely due to the abundance of production boats on the market. "There were a few upmarket cruisers back then," says Paul, "but they were few and far between. Most of the people cruising at that time were budget cruisers who lived on the hook."
fter a year and a half in Mexico and a season in Costa Rica, the Mitchells were ready to push on into the South Pacific, going first to the Galapagos, then to Pitcairn, and on to French Polynesia, where they spent a year, mostly between Tahiti and Bora Bora. (Back then a yearlong visa was easy to get.) The next two years were spent between Tonga — where they were essentially adopted by a wonderful local family — and Fiji, alternating seasons, and spending
six months in each country. "We love the warm, friendly people of Tonga, and Fiji is such a wonderful cruising ground. You could spend a lifetime sailing there and never see the same anchorage twice." In the fall of '88 they headed west to Vanuatu, then on toward Australia when their luck ran out. Paul explains: "As we were sailing over the north end of New Caledonia with about 25 knots of wind on the quarter, we were hit on the beam by a freak wave which lifted White Cloud up and dropped her on her beam ends, putting her spreaders and masts in the water. When she righted herself, her bilge was full of water, so we knew something had broken loose." At the time, the John
Paul and Susan look relaxed and well rested during their second stint in the remote Chagos Islands several years ago.
us out of the water. At that point she was still taking on a couple hundred gallons an hour. "We decided it was foolish to carry on. We were skirting the edge of hurricane season; it was blowing a gale between us and Australia, where we were headed; and there was a low formed just north of us." So the stranded sailors radioed friends in New Caledonia who had a large boat and asked to be rescued. Two days later, Harrison 'Smitty' Smith, an Alaskan fisherman, and Laurie Haight, arrived aboard Aqvavit
"We did whatever we could to repair the hull, but eventually sharks ran us out of the water. At that point she was still taking on a couple hundred gallons an hour." Alden thoroughbred was 58 years old. With no other option, they sailed on with three bilge pumps battling the seepage. Two or three days later they were able to take shelter behind a reef in the Coral Sea and soberly reassessed their situation. "We did whatever we could to repair the hull, but eventually sharks ran
and began offloading the Mitchell's possessions – including their precious sailmaking supplies. Later, the Ford family aboard Castanet arrived to complete the salvage operation, and they all sailed to Australia together, leaving White Cloud to her sad fate. Having successfully saved most of July, 2007 •
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The July 2007 issue of the West's premier sailing and marine magazine.