Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey

Book Review

Erik the Red
The Atlantic Alone in a Homemade Boat
by Donald Riddler

Erik the Red is a story of an Oxford graduate, born in Old Trafford, England; who built a small boat of 26 feet from largely scrap materials and successfully sailed it across the Atlantic Ocean and back.

After some pleasurable experiences around boats and the sea during his formative years, Riddler left University seemingly unsure of what to do with his life. He proceeded to do a number of jobs " satisfy myself that I knew how life really went on." He moved with his parents to Dorset, and worked for a short while for a farmer who "...eventually and inevitably gave... the sack." At this stage he had £250 in the bank and of his father's garden said: "It seemed a convenient place to build a boat."

The boat was to be a 27foot Ketch designed by T. Rowland of Maine. The hull form was that of a Cape Anne Dory (the lines are reproduced in the book, and show Riddler's modifications to the design of the rig). This design was modified to cope with the limitations of the timber used - mostly from salvage merchants, or driftwood from the beach, and resources available: a Junk rig was used in place of the Ketch rig as this was easier to build cheaply. The boat was built on a framework of railway sleepers in the garden of the rectory which Riddler's parents inhabited (his Father was a member of the Clergy), and Riddler recounts with an apparent fondness the chattering of his neighbours about this plastic-sheet clad building site inadequately hidden from prying eyes.

(click to enlarge)

After the trials of the building, including a troublesome ferro-cement keel, which at first burst, it's mould; Erik the Red was ready to enter the sea. Erik the Red's time at harbour was not a happy time, a combination of poor harbour design features causing damage to his rubbing strake before ever he left harbour. On the first trial run, the boat ran heavily against piling with a reporter from a local paper on board, the second trial run saw Erik badly battered by a storm in the English Channel, and a rescue operation begun; unsurprisingly as Erik was at sea for ten days before finally finding shelter in the far south west of England in Falmouth.

After these experiences, Riddler left Erik temporarily and crewed on two trips moving boats about Europe's Atlantic seaboard, these provided invaluable experience for him. Riddler's next voyage was down to Gibraltar, and here again Erik was allowed to rest while his master crewed for another yacht. While there Erik's paint was spoiled by oil, and his dinghy destroyed. Riddler acquired such a tub as would make a Bolger Brick look a graceful and distinguished craft, to replace the dinghy, and played cat and mouse games with officious policemen at Sancti Petri in order to renew the antifouling on Erik. Riddler writes of the dinghy "I could take two passengers if no one breathed. The two passengers were too scared to breathe."

Then it was time to move on again, to Morocco and on, out into the wide Atlantic. Here Riddler's book changes somewhat in style. The first chapters having been filled with the minutiae of building, or the social interactions in port, or the difficulties of sailing in busy waters with limited knowledge or equipment. In the vastness of the Atlantic, Riddler's writing becomes more expansive, in the gaps between the words one can almost hear the sound of the wind in the rigging and the waves rushing by. The tale of his trip across the Atlantic is very much one of battling to encourage Erik to steer himself, and to maintain sanity and physical condition in an extremely limited space frequently rocked by squalls.

On the 18th of November Riddler landed on Barbados and once more found himself in a busy dockside world with more characters to be added to the lists of those encountered in Gibraltar as he cruised from Barbados to Grenada and on to Antigua. There, at English Harbour, Riddler found work as an electrical engineer, which allowed him to save up for his return voyage to England. On the 14th of June 1971, Riddler sailed regretfully from English Harbour heading for Bermuda. One hour into the voyage one of the battens in his sail broke, but was sistered and Erik made Bermuda without any great dramas, save for making the port of Hamilton through a seaway cut through coral without a chart.

On the 5th of July, Erik the Red was at sea again, although becalmed off St George's. As he sailed to the Azores, Riddler had to keep a constant look out to avoid collisions - the danger he feared most on the voyage. He had been told to avoid the Merchant Navy as a career and as he remarks: "I seemed to be spending my time now avoiding the Merchant Navy".

As the shipping lanes were cleared the winds became unsure and the Barometer "came alive". At one stage Riddler writes that "...50 miles in a day would be good going, and this was not always in the right direction." this was when the wind would drive Erik out of the Gulf Stream, and Riddler would struggle North again to find it. Eventually, he limped into port in Horta in Fayal, where he repaired sails and rigging. However, as money became short, Riddler was forced onwards on the last leg of his journey, which was to be his longest.

Riddler was plagued initially by light Westerly winds, and then by stronger winds heading him. Finally, he reached the latitude of the Lizard Point in SouthEast England and dropped sail to wait for the prevailing winds. Here Riddler had several close encounters, twice with Tunny fishing boats, and in a fog off Cork, with a Tanker. The weather continued to play games with Riddler as he became increasingly desperate with supplies of food and fuel rapidly diminishing. On the 21st of September Riddler made Falmouth, but misjudged wind and tide and was swept out again before managing to drop anchor; for which mistake he spent a further three days at sea. On the 23rd of September he finally dropped anchor in Falmouth harbour. Riddler had arrived back in England with only two Oxo cubes left for sustenance.

Following his return, Erik the Red was displayed at the Boat Show before being transferred to the then Exeter Maritime Museum. The Exeter Maritime Museum closed a few years ago, some of the items being moved to a new Museum in the East of the country. I am reliable informed that Erik the Red is currently in a warehouse in Scotland. Where, I do not know. But I hope to find out.

Donald Riddler is certainly an interesting character and writes an interesting and accessible text. This is well illustrated by plates of the boat under construction and at various locations around the world. To augment both text and plates are a healthy selection of diagrams and charts showing details of the boat and places visited. Most interesting are, perhaps, the reproductions of the lines drawings of the boat. There is also an interesting appendix giving details of the construction of the lead keel which may be of interest to anyone considering a ferro cement approach to construction, be it the hull or, as in this case, just the keel.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in home made boats, particularly those building to a budget, as it is a great inspiration both in terms of what may be achieved on a limited budget, but also how it may be achieved. However, I wish you luck in procuring a copy, as the book is long out of print!

Take Care

Alistair Wasey