Extracts from Merton Naydler's excellent book The Penance Way – The mystery of Puffin’s Atlantic voyage


Johnstone and a band of cronies were discussing the arrival at Falmouth of Robert Manry, a middle-aged American journalist who had just sailed the Atlantic single-handed in a small boat.  When the others went off to watch a boxing match on television, Johnstone sat musing at one end of the bar, his back against the wall, increasingly oblivious to the barmaid’s small talk as the germ of an idea swiftly took root, sprouted and blossomed…The Atlantic had been rowed he mused.  In 1896 two Norwegian oyster fishermen, Harbo and Samuelson, had rowed across [from New York] to the English Channel then down the Seine to Paris, wearing bowler hats, in a  boat called the Richard K Fox…They had taken some sixty days.

The twinned lines of thought, Manry and the Norwegians, were rapidly interfused with Johnstone’s own restless, adventurous spirit, constantly questing the satisfaction of excitement and novelty, preferably combined.

By the time his friends returned an hour later, he had made the decision to row the Atlantic, ‘downhill’ from west to east (the approximate direction of the prevailing winds and currents) and was promptly bet ten cigarettes by the incredulous that he would not even get as far as his first step, advertising in The Times for oarsmen.  Next morning he wrote out the advertisement and posted it, with a cheque: ‘Will five fortitudinous oarsmen over 28 join me and engage in second-ever transatlantic rowing voyage?’

He began to think that a crew of six would be a crowd for a voyage…

I began to think of a two-man trip as a desirable purity of idea: Go the penance way.’

[Johnstone’s] literary agent swiftly sold his story to both publishers and a national newspaper at a price sufficient to finance the building of the boat, a problem which had caused great worry.

Johnstone now gave Colin Mudie [the boat designer] the go-ahead, the two-man boat to be designed to take ten-foot oars, to have a freeboard of not less than sixteen inches and a beam of five and a half feet. It must be less than sixteen feet long, so as to be smaller than the Richard K. Fox. While he lay on his side under Mudie's desk, the latter darted around him with a tape measure to calculate the height and width of bunks and galley, while chairs pushed hither and thither indicated the galley’s position.
Drinking coffee under the desk, with Mudie peering at him through the kneehole, they talked excitedly about the tiny cabin, Johnstone leaning on one elbow and puzzling where Hoare would lie if they were both resting, or sheltering during a storm.

‘That 's the area you'll be living in,' Mudie stated to the reclining giant.

‘Fine. Can I get up now?’

‘ Isn't it a bit soon? You realise you're there for three months!’

Mudie made it abundantly clear that the boat he would design would not cater for novices, and that experience would be needed to row it.

In other words he has not pulled any design punches in making it easy to row just for the sake of helping us.  We must learn quickly!

The preliminary specification which was drawn up pos­tulated a boat intended for a passage under oars only with a crew of two in the North Atlantic from west to east during the summer months; weight would be saved everywhere as far as consistent with the intended voyage. The boat, fifteen feet six inches (4.68m) overall, thirteen feet six inches (4.08m) at the water-line, five feet six inches (1.66m) across and two feet six inches (75cm)

 
 

deep, would be shaped along traditional surf boat lines but with a fuller deck-line at the ends to increase their buoyancy and also the dryness of the boat in a head sea. So as to be extremely light and thus increase the power / weight ratio, it would be constructed of moulded mahogany plywood some three-eighths of an inch thick on oak and spruce structural members; the decks would be of laminated plywood of the same thickness, with beams only as required to stiffen the structure

The layout would provide a small cabin at the after end with two full-length berths extending in tunnels into the cockpit below the level of the thwarts. One berth would normally be used as a galley and for storage, but its con­tents would be capable of being folded away to allow the second berth to be used. A lifting hatch with flaps would augment the available headroom in the cabin.

In the cock­pit a single rowing position would be provided on the after thwart between the two berth feet boxes, with a double rowing position on the forward thwart, the position from which the boat would normally be rowed and which would be protected by a canvas hood fitted around the forward coamings. The depth at thwart-level would continue for­ward to the bows, with hatches allowing access to storage space beneath.

The space between the main foredeck and the thwart-level deck would also provide storage space for two buoyancy air bags, heavy warps and sea anchor. Hand-rails would be fitted not only to the decks but also to the hull, to facilitate righting the boat in the event of capsize. A flagstaff would be fitted to the aftdeck, at its peak a white, battery-operated light visible through 360 degrees. There would be three alternative positions for the rowlocks, and a trimming rudder connected by metal rods to a hinged tiller on the forward cabin bulkhead. Altogether, a comprehensive and formidably professional specification.

Designers will say, and sailors acknowledge, that no boat has ever been perfect for the job and that every boat is a compromise. The emphasis in the design of Johnston 's boat was on strength and safety: strength to withstand the storms and consequent seas which could be expected on the Atlantic in summertime, and safety in rowing from America to England, carrying two men and a ton of stores. The result was therefore, a strong, seaworthy, but tubby boat, with lines familiarly like those of a lifeboat: a mini­whaler. An integral aspect of the design was the position of the stores, which would be placed not only in the bilge but also in net lockers as high up as possible, to increase the metacentric height of the boat. The more weight that can be put aloft, the more sea-kindly the vessel's behaviour as the centre of gravity is lifted.

It was not long before the crew was immersed in visits to the builder at Cowes, in between long sessions with Mudie over such problems as buoyancy and stability. The tiny cabin would be a sealed unit and Johnstone asked what would happen if the boat went over with one man inside, and the other unable to help him through injury.

‘No trouble,’ advised Mudie, ‘just push the hatch open.’

Johnstone found himself hoping that in the event the designer proved to be right.

‘Also,’ added Mudie, ‘I think we must do this in trials: capsize her in a dock or somewhere and see what happens. But in practice in a seaway when you do get turned over, the boat will roll right over and come up again. This is tiresome for everyone concerned, of course.’

But better than stopping half-way in the upside down position, thought Johnstone.