Quotes in italics are taken from Johnstone’s journal


On Sunday May 22nd 1966, two white oars dipped into the Atlantic breakers and an incredible journey was underway: the first attempt of the twentieth century to row across the Atlantic.  David Johnstone and John Hoare left Virginia Beach to cheering crowds, the little boat carrying a ton of food, water, and equipment.  Before Puffin lay 3,000 miles of hard rowing, severe storms, and some of the most vicious waters on earth. 

Further north, in Cape Cod, John Ridgeway and Chay Blyth were also preparing to row the Atlantic in an attempt to beat Puffin.  David Johnstone, who had first come up with the idea, and who had rejected Ridgway when he had been looking for a rowing partner, had written ‘We felt the idea was our own and we should have first go at it and we could challenge anybody next year…anybody who wants to can have a whack then, but let’s have our go first.  We thought of the idea.’

In the first week of the voyage Puffin narrowly escaped being blown out of the water, having strayed into a U.S. Navy gunnery range. In a week when 300 miles was the expected distance, only 20 miles were covered due to adverse currents, thick fog and an easterly wind.  Even worse, a week's supply of food had been used up. 

Four weeks then passed and there was no sighting of Puffin until the American steamship Ashley Lykes reported seeing the small orange craft, just 990 miles east of Boston.

Having started their journey with food and supplies to last 65 days, 51 days had passed and 2,000 miles of treacherous sea still lay ahead.  Food was occupying their minds.

Johnstone’s journal entry for July 4th reads: ‘I saw a freighter passing our stern… “Do you need anything?” shouted a khaki-clad man on the bridge, and waved.  I waved back, yelling, “ We could do with some food,” while John then shouted, “What is our position?”’ He lunged on, turned and lunged back at full speed. “The sod, he's not stopping and it's the 4th of July, too!” I said.  He raced away into the gathering mist.  We looked after him, thinking he was stopping, then seeing his bow wake had not lessened. He was the first human being and the first human voice other than our own, that we had seen or heard since the 9th June… “What the hell did he slow down and ask what we needed if he wasn't going to stop?” said John.’

At 2.00 am on July 25th theBenghazi of the Fred Olsen Line (who have kindly helped sponsor this 2006 crossing) encountered Puffin‘”Whatever can they think, a rowing-boat turning up in the middle of the night in mid-ocean like this,” I said.  The bridge shouted, “Is there anything else?”  “Yes,” I yelled, “Can you let us have some food?”  “What do you need?”  “Everything.”  There was a pause.  “Would you like to come aboard?”  A ladder was already hanging down the side to the water level.  “We’d like to but we mustn’t – it would be breaking our rules,” said John. After a brief exchange down came the much-needed food, including two loaves, fruit, tinned milk, two packets of tea, fish balls, fish cakes, a box of Carr's assorted English tea creams, marmalade, margarine, 1,200 cigarettes, paraffin and water.

The entry for August 10th (Day 82) states that the water situation was critical, with only a gallon of fresh water left, after which they would be relying on tablets.  The boat was being battered by NNE-N winds, and Johnstone and Hoare spent all day stuck in the tiny cabin with no progress being made.  In the darkness that night a small freighter drove straight past them at 20 knots only 20 metres away, so close that John Hoare was hit by spray from the bow wave.  The experience gave them both a serious fright.

The following day, having consumed only a cup of tea, four dextrose tablets and three vitaminised food tablets, they chanced upon an American Coast Guard vessel WPG 33

 

 
 

Desperate for food they were prepared to board her if necessary to negotiate proper provisioning, but they were offered ‘bounteous American generosity’.  They also learned that England had won the World Cup.

It might be thought that spending so much time alone on such a small vessel would cause problems between them, but on 29th August Johnstone wrote:  Our 100th day at sea…. We have now scored one victory over the pundits who said we would be at each other’s throats all day.  We find more and more to talk about and the range of subjects is endless.

The following day Johnstone wrote at length of their determination to continue rowing into November if necessary, as long as they could pick up enough food from passing ships.  But it was not to be.

The last entry on Saturday 3rd September (Day 106) again stated that there was no rowing due to Force 2 NNW winds.  Having met no boats since WPG 33 they were by now reduced to eating corned beef with hard tack biscuits for their main meal.  It is assumed that they died that day or the next, when Hurricane Faith, with winds of Force 8-12 and waves over 30ft high, struck the little boat.

On the afternoon of 14th October 1966 the port lookout on Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Chaudière reported an unidentified object three miles off the warship’s port bow.  The warship's captain ordered engines to be slowed and Chaudière steamed gently within fifty yards of the white upturned hull of a small plywood rowing boat.  Divers reported no signs of life and so the tiny boat was lifted aboard.  Among the items retrieved was a notebook written on waterproof paper.  It was Johnstone’s journal, and identified the wrecked craft as Puffin. There was no sign of the men.

In The Penance Way, an account of the Puffin’s voyage, Merton Naydler wrote: ‘The handwritten pages of Johnstone’s Journal…disclose heroism of an epic order.  How, after ninety days at sea in their tiny cramped vessel, Johnstone and Hoare viewed with equanimity the prospect of another sixty cooped days in the minute boat.  How, given opportunity after opportunity to surrender without shame, the thougt of surrender at no time entered their heads.  How they endured with uncomplaining fortitude the agonies of seasickness, the wrack of gale after Atlantic gale battering their tiny craft, the suffering of hunger and the almost certainty of the extinction which finally overcame them.’ 

As for the manner of their deaths, Naydler wrote:  ‘What happened to Puffin can only be imagined. The probability is that with one of the men on deck and the other sheltering in the tiny cabin, and therefore unattached to the boat by his life-harness, the mountainous cross-seas and hurricane-strength winds capsized the tiny vessel…With water flooding in as she was tossed violently upside-down among battering waves the height of a five-storey building, the man in the cabin must have forced the hatch downwards to fight his way into the ocean, hoping to cling to the handrails on the upturned hull, and right the boat.  The strength of the sea and the wind’s violence would afford him no ghost of a chance and he must surely have been immediately swept away; the man on deck would also have been pitched into the raging sea, unable, because of the sheer weight of water, to reach the boat, until his lifeline snapped, and the relentless ocean dispassionately embraced its challengers.’

Naydler concluded his book by saying: ‘Johnstone and Hoare’s attempt was not worthless.  Their courageous behaviour constitutes an epic in the history of man’s unending struggle against the sea, brilliantly exemplifying the eternal spirit of human adventure.’

But the last words must go to Hoare and Johnstone. ‘If we don't have a go, we shall live the rest of our lives wondering if we might have made it – and knowing that only fear persuaded us from the attempt.’


More about David Johnstone
More about John Hoare