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Sailors tell of big adventure across the Atlantic with no GPS

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Arne Saugstad, left, Hauk Larsen Wahl, Morten Stodle and Erling Kagge at a reunion in 2021. The four travelled to Bermuda in the 1980s when they crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice without GPS. They remain great friends (Photograph supplied)

In 1983, four Norwegians rented a 35-foot yacht and set off for the Caribbean.

Bermuda was one of their ports of call.

Hauk Larsen Wahl and Morten Stodle recall how thrilled they were to find “this little dot on the map in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean” in their book, The Dream of the West Indies: Four young sailors brave a long-distance voyage before the time of GPS.

Mr Wahl, Mr Stodle and another sailor, Erling Kagge, were 20 years old at the time. Arne Saugstad was 18. None of them had experience sailing on the open sea. They packed a New Testament Bible, a sextant and charts, hoping that Mr Wahl’s year of military training would pay off.

On board was a huge supply of crispbreads gifted by Wasa, their Swedish sponsor, a collection of tiny Norwegian flags, two empty diaries and three SLR cameras.

“We did have, of course, parents who were nervous and trying to make sure that we were as prepared as possible, but I don't remember them trying to block us,” Mr Wahl said.

“We all had some sailing experience. The whole plan was to do a round trip – from Europe, across to the Caribbean and then on the way back, it's natural, because of the trade winds, to sail via Bermuda and the Azores and then back to Norway.”

Both he and Mr Kagge had sailed often with their parents as children and had experience on dinghies, windsurfers “and also some bigger 20ft, 30ft boats”.

Jeanette VI (Photograph supplied)

“We were experienced coastal sailors as teenagers and also did some regatta sailing but we'd never really done any offshore sailing where you're away from the coast for days,” Mr Wahl said.

“But we were old enough to make our own decisions. Several of us had already finished one year of military service so we were not living at home any more. I had this dream of doing this long-distance sailing trip. We didn't look at it as particularly dangerous at the time, just as an adventure.”

The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club gave free berth to Jeanette VI in 1984 (Photograph supplied)

Finding a boat was the most difficult part of their preparations. Eventually they rented Jeanette VI, “a beautiful Vindo 50 single master with aft cabin” from “a wealthy and cheerful travel agency owner”.

He allowed them to have her for roughly $3,500 for their nine-month journey if they agreed to serve as his crew for his own three-week trip in the Caribbean.

“We got a really good deal from this gentleman and he got to fulfil his dream, which was to sail his own boat in the Caribbean without bringing it there,” Mr Wahl said.

To save time, they had the boat transported from Oslo and they cast off from Lisbon in September of 1983.

Their first stop, in early October, was Madeira, before they sailed south in planned coincidence with the end of the hurricane season.

A party onboard Jeanette VI at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. From left: Bermudian Hartley Watlington, Norwegian sailor Erling Kagge, Bermudian Warren Brown Jr and a friend, Norwegian sailor Arne Saugstad and another friend (Photograph supplied)

Five months later, on March 23, they reached Bermuda.

“I'd never been to Bermuda. My father had been there on business some years before and he raved about Bermuda and how beautiful it was,” Mr Wahl said.

Low on funds, they made a successful appeal to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to keep their boat there for free.

“We gave the bartender one of the small traditional Norwegian flags that we had with us,” Mr Wahl said. “He hung the Norwegian flag in the bar; I think that bought us some free drinks.”

Authors Hauk Larsen Wahl and Morten Stodle wrote of the kindness they were shown by the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club during their visit to the island in 1984 (Photograph supplied)

The group met “some fantastic local people” during the two weeks they spent here – the late sailor and businessman Warren Brown and his family, Than Butterfield, Hartley Watlington and the late lawyer Nicholas Bayard Dill Jr and his wife Bitten, a Norwegian born not too far from where Mr Wahl grew up.

Erling Naess, a former chairman of the Anglo-Norness Shipping Company, was “a sporty” 82-year-old who had just won a tennis championship in his class in Bermuda.

Neither Mr Wahl nor his friends knew the Norwegian shipping magnate but contacted him on discovering he lived here.

“We were broke,” he said. “So we called him and said, ‘We’re here in Bermuda, but we have no cash. Is it possible to borrow some money from you?’”

Although Mr Naess was “very sceptical”, as his callers were obviously native Norwegians, he invited them to his home to “have lunch and talk”.

“By then we had used up pretty much all the cash,” Mr Wahl said.

With no money for the bus they were forced to take a taxi, and stick Mr Naess and his wife Elisabeth with the bill.

As a show of good faith, they gave the multimillionaire a packet of crackers from the free stash supplied by Wasa.

“He was a kind man, a good sport. He and his wife were really nice people and I guess we came across as honest chaps. We ended up borrowing $500 from him that we paid back six months later. I think he was completely shocked when he got the money.”

The sailors with wealthy Norwegian shipowner Erling Naess at his home. He loaned them $500 and they gave him a packet of Wasa crispbread in return. The money was repaid six months later (Photograph supplied)

It was in keeping with the kindness they experienced during their entire stay here, he added.

“We were just completely amazed by the hospitality. We were 20-year-old guys and I guess we came across as innocent. Maybe people were curious as to why we were there so early because it was still March, wintertime, and I think most boats come in May or June, later in the season.”

The group left Bermuda on April 7 and experienced “a really nasty storm” between England and the Azores where their boat was “thrown to her side with the mast parallel to the sea” and “a freak wave” tore off the hatch covering the opening to the forward bunk leaving the cabin “like an indoor swimming pool”.

“We probably made the mistake of leaving too early,” said Mr Wahl.

A month later, they reached Norway to the delight of family and friends.

Mr Wahl returned to Bermuda in December of 1984 to visit some of the people he had met and to watch sailors training for the America’s Cup.

Hauk Larsen Wahl in Bermuda in December 1984 (Photograph supplied)

The following year, Mr Kagge sailed to Antarctica with Warren Brown on his yacht War Baby.

“I do want to go back to Bermuda with my wife, maybe with our kids, sometime,” said Mr Wahl, who earned a degree in petroleum engineering after his great adventure.

He then travelled the world with work and is now living in Houston, Texas, where he works in shipping and is “an active sailor, windsurfer and dinghy sailor”.

Much of the text in The Dream of the West Indies was taken from the diaries he and Mr Stødle kept on their journey.

“We brought those diaries out, wiped the dust off and started reading and we thought, ‘Man, we’ve got to have these stories in a book so that our kids can read it,” he said. “So we ended up basically, without much editing, writing this book; more or less what we had written in the diary supplemented by our memories.”

The book was written in Norwegian and translated by Mr Wahl “with my wife's help”.

Both versions are available for sale on Amazon in hardback, paperback and as a Kindle e-book.

Attention has come following an interview by a newspaper in Norway and an article in popular sailing magazine, Yachting World.

“But the motivation was, let's make a book out of these two diaries and our memories so that our kids can have something they can read about their adventurous parents,” Mr Wahl said.

Looking back, he is “surprised by the courage” they all had to “just cast off and sail”.

“There was no GPS at the time. We only had navigational maps and charts. We had a compass, of course, on the boat but the way we managed to know where we were when we were out in the ocean for two weeks was with a sextant. I had taken a course in celestial navigation when I was in the military in Norway and had to teach the other guys how to use it and do the calculations. So we navigated with very old fashioned equipment. That's how we found our way.”

Also amazing is just how unafraid they were to “explore, meet people” and ask for whatever they needed but did not have.

“We had an extremely low budget for the whole trip. So whenever we went into a town and we saw or heard there was a cruise ship that had some Norwegian connection we put on nice clothes, contacted the ship and [asked if we could] come on board and if they had any out-of-date food or drinks that they couldn’t give to passengers.”

On every occasion they walked away with “a cooler full of food and nothing was out of date”.

“We were amazed how kind people were. I think we had almost no bad experiences meeting local people; we were very lucky. Sometimes I read it and am like, ‘Is that me? Really? I did all this stuff?’

“As you age you become more cautious; your willingness to take risks is reduced – at least in my case. You just kind of go the more safe route with career and family.”

Mr Wahl added: “But back then we were broke and had this fantastic adventure – twice across the Atlantic. We got to see fantastic islands like Bermuda and met a lot of people, many of whom we still keep in touch with. But definitely a reunion in Bermuda, it needs to happen.”

• For more about The Dream of the West Indies, visit www.transatlantic.no. The book is also available on Amazon

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Published January 12, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated January 12, 2023 at 8:25 am)

Sailors tell of big adventure across the Atlantic with no GPS

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