Voyage Of The Impala -August 2011

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Connor Wallace

In mid-May, Alfie Sanford’s 57-foot yawl Impala left Nantucket on a 3,500-mile voyage to Gibraltar, with five Nantucketers aboard, including 24-year-old Connor Wallace, making his second transatlantic crossing. Over the next 25 days, Wallace chronicled the Impala’s passage in a hand-written journal, and following his return on the last day of June, recounted how this trip differed from the first, and what both meant to him.

Impala passes through the Muskeget Channel on the first day of sailing.

Day 1 (May 12): Seven hours ago we were tied up at the fuel dock in Nantucket Harbor saying goodbye to our loved ones. A gale that had been blowing for four days out of the north remained in the harbor and gave us feelings of apprehension to leave, but after being delayed almost a week, we needed to go. I had been on the island since March working on Impala, but most of the crew just arrived. Our food stores are bulging from the storage lockers and the ice box is full with 300 pounds of ice. Onboard is Alfie (Sanford), the owner and master of Impala, who is a mentor to all, that I have been sailing with for eight years. Bill Frederick, a marine diesel mechanic on the island in the summer and Montana outdoorsman in the winter. Russell Bartlett, who is new to offshore sailing-he grew up a few years behind me racing 420s and Lasers in high school. Oliver LaFarge, a long-time friend of mine who has accompanied Alfie and I on many sailing adventures.

After putting two reefs in the mainsail we motored off the dock into the harbor and raised the main and staysail and sailed out of the main channel.

The wind blew out of the north at a steady 30 knots, which threw spray everywhere and soaked our foul-weather gear. We immediately found leaks in the main hatch and I came back to a wet bunk in the forepeak.

As we headed south through Muskeget Channel the sailing got more comfortable and some of the waves were deflected by Martha’s Vineyard and the shoals surrounding the outer islands. We waved good-bye to our last sight of land until Spain and began to settle in to our own schedule of time that we create on Impala. Two six-hour watches during the day and three four-hour watches at night. Oliver and Bill started the watch at 1 and Russell and I went below to settle into our bunks.

And so began the third Atlantic crossing of the Impala.

It took Sanford’s 57-foot yawl 25 days to cross 3,500 miles of ocean, and the captain and crew – except Bartlett and Frederick, who flew home from Barcelona – spent another three weeks in Spain and Italy before returning to Nantucket at the end of June. Impala stayed behind, up for sale, but not aggressively so. Sanford and Wallace plan to head back in the fall for more cruising around southern Europe.

The crossing was Wallace’s second and Sanford’s fourth: three on Impala and the first in 1977, on the 43-foot yawl Otias. It’s a voyage Wallace hopes to make again, and just like the first one, it’s one he will not soon forget.

“I still really love sailing. When you do a trip like this, you ask yourself if it’s worth it, would you do it again? It’s physically draining, and tough to keep going. You start to miss things like mom’s cooking, or having a computer. It confirmed the fact that I really love this, and can spend the rest of my life doing it,” said Wallace, 24, a 2004 graduate of Nantucket High School.

“All the cruising we’ve done, it’s basically been high-end cruising. A big trip like this only comes around so often. It’s a lot different than spending two months cruising around the Mediterranean, where you’re always near a port, you’re always having dinner out, there’s always a shower nearby. There are not that many amenities on Impala. This was a much more genuine and authentic experience.

“When I first went to Germany back in 2003 to see the boat, it didn’t really matter to me back then. I just wanted to go on an adventure. But from that point on, I came to appreciate what it means to bring something down to the bare minimum. It’s kind of like an old-timey experience. You read books about people sailing around the world back in the day, the freight vessels traveling around Cape Horn, and it makes you realize what you’re made of.”

Day 4 (May 15): Yesterday, we made 200 miles ... Then in the evening, just in time for dinner, the wind slackened and the waves quickly followed. We had our first formal meal together as a crew. Oliver prepared roast chicken, macaroni and cheese, warm challah bread, a salad, and even (Sanford’s daughter) Chloe’s handmade cupcakes! It was a feast and was great to see everyone happy to be eating. I scrubbed the dishes on the fantail in salt water and we watched the sunset as the wind disappeared even more... Although the engine is on, the calm weather is a pleasant change. We had a clear night with stars and I was able to begin familiariz- ing myself with the heavenly body above. We watched as the moon set into the horizon and not an hour later a spectacular sunrise in the east.”

Sanford first saw Impala rounding Brant Point in 1955, when she was based out of Edgartown and he was just 13. It would be another three decades before he’d make her his own, after rediscovering the vessel in San Diego, Calif., and bring her back to Nantucket. Designed by Sparkman and Stephens and built by the renowned German boatyard Abeking and Rasmussen in 1954, the sturdy yawl now has nearly 70,000 miles of sailing under her keel in the Atlantic, Canada, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Europe.

“I was thinking about getting a big boat, and she’s a big boat to me. There were a lot of coincidences, I ended up buying her, and brought her to Nantucket in 1986,” said Sanford, who with his brother Edward started building Alerion Class sloops – cold-molded replicas of Nathanael Herreshoff’s personal boat Alerion III – on the island in 1977, opening at the time the only wooden-boat production shop in the United States. They built 20 Alerions on the island over the next six years, stopping in 1983. In 1996, Sanford and Matt Rives, an employee of the original operation, started building Alerions again, which Rives continues to this day. Sanford, 68, retired from boat-building in 2001, and now spends most of his time sailing. He recently oversaw construction of a new boat, the 40-foot Starry Night, which Wallace helped build at Pease Boat Works in Chatham, Mass.

Impala’s first Atlantic crossing was in 2001 – from Nantucket to Ireland – with several Nantucket teens aboard as crew, including Jeremy Pochman and Jareb Keltz. In 2006, Sanford brought the boat back from Europe with Wallace and Pochman – who is now ReMain Nantucket founder Wendy Schmidt’s sailing manager – aboard. The remaining crew was made up of Rick Wood, the first bartender at the Ships Inn; and two octogenarians.

But it was three years earlier that Wallace first set foot on Impala.

“Eight years ago, when I was 16 years old, I walked into Logan Airport looking for an older gentleman, that I had just met once before, to fly with to Hamburg, Germany to begin an adventure kids dream about. I was full of anticipation, questions racing around in my head, but too nervous to ask any,” Wallace remembered.

“I first met Alfie after being recommended to him as a sailor from my high-school sailing coaches Nick Judson and Jeremy, and as a good person from his girlfriend Sandi, who was my father’s business landlord. We made an appointment to have lunch a month before the trip started where he outlined the itinerary. We were to fly to Germany, meet his sailboat, then sail to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, and back to Germany. We eventually got to Germany and to the small town of Arnis where Impala lay. I didn’t know what to expect and at the time it wouldn’t have made any difference to me what kind of boat Impala was. The fact that she is a classic wooden ocean racer and had contended with the most famous yachts of her day meant nothing to me. But I learned. And over the next eight years as I learned this, I learned many other things. Alfie soon became my mentor, and I like to say that he taught me everything he knows,” Wallace said.

“I grew up a lot that first trip. I gained self-confidence and an appreciation for a dying breed of sailboats. I was welcomed into the world of cruising and as a young kid took advantage of everything around me. If we sailed to a town with a mountain behind it, I climbed that mountain. If the wind increased, I shot up to the foredeck like a mountain goat and took in a reef. When we lay at anchor, I did flips off the bow and swam into shore. If I was challenged in any way, I pushed myself to exceed any expectations. I grew mentally and physically stronger and the calluses on my hands took on the appearance of leather. It was the year before many of these countries adopted the European Union and we were able to experience their excitement and sometimes resentment to a drastic cultural and societal change.

“When the trip was over, we had sailed 3,500 miles and spent two full months exploring countries I would never have been able to locate on a map before. I felt proud, strong and very fortunate. At our last dinner that summer, I raised a toast to Alfie, ‘You are the smartest man and the best sailor I have ever met. Thank you for this opportunity.’ Later that night, as we walked back to Impala anxious to fly home for school, Alfie invited me to join him the next summer. My reply was that I would sail with him as long as he would have me. Since that time we have sailed over 15,000 miles and visited 18 countries. I got my captain’s license at the age of 19 after already logging 365 days at sea.”

This year’s trip was a different experience. After all the ensuing open-water sailing, including the previous crossing, Wallace largely knew what to expect.

“I had a lot more confidence this trip. I wouldn’t say I was scared the first trip, but I was apprehensive. I didn’t know if I would enjoy it, or get sick. I think I knew this time I would enjoy it. With more confidence I could relax more, let it soak in and live in the moment, rather than worry about how far along we are. On the first trip, I plotted our course every day, probably to assure myself we were getting somewhere. This trip, I wasn’t so concerned about it.”

Day 5 (May 16): The clouds parted, to reveal a mostly full moon, and a pure silver ocean reflected in the moonlight. Soon, the wind built out of the southeast to Force 2 and Impala sprang to life, driven by our massive new genoa and began to gallop over the smooth rolling waves. This all began two minutes before our watch was supposed to end but in our excite- ment, we forgot to wake the next watch ... This morning has been warm, clear air, light winds and lazy rolling waves. We’ve been mostly sailing between 3-7 knots. The water temperature is now at 74 degrees F and another swim is tempting me. I cannot get enough of the ocean. At this point we are 600 miles out from Nantucket with roughly 2,600 miles to Gibraltar. I am in no rush.

Day 7 (May 18): Today, Alfie gave us our first celestial navigation lesson. We got familiar with the sextant, reading the sun’s angle and going through the arithmetic. Just as last time, I am conformable with the practice of the instrument, but the theory and math are slower to come. It is an art that needs to be done consistently in order to be fully understood, and in this day and age, consistency is the problem. GPS has made the sextant unfortunately useless. I am going to stick with it, though, because I think it is a knowledge worth keeping alive.

On Sanford’s first Atlantic crossing, Otias was not equipped with the latest high-tech navigational aids. In fact, she didn’t even have a depth-sounder or a speedometer. It was a different way to sail. Impala isn’t tricked out with a tremendous amount of electronics either, but she’s the space shuttle compared to Otias.

“That trip in 1977, we had no radio communication whatsoever, and consequently no communication with shore. All navigation was celestial. We had a radio receiver to receive time signals, which is crucial to celestial navigation, and a compass, but that was it,” Sanford said.

“Impala has a GPS, sailing instruments, an iridium telephone so we were always 10 digits away from anyone we wanted to talk to, and the AIS (Automatic Identification System), another modern device to track approaching ships electronically that has completely changed sailing. It’s a very different deal.

“You get a very different mental situation having all these things, knowing where you are, knowing where ships are, and knowing any time you want you can call mommy back home. Technology has taken away about 50 percent of the emotional impact of being offshore,” he said.

“You do have the isolation, but it’s a different kind of isolation. It’s not as real as it used to be. Just knowing where you are is a tremendous crutch. Back in the old says, when you made landfall, when land appeared where you hoped it might, or more or less where you hoped it might, it was a tremendous accomplishment. You don’t get that from looking at a GPS screen.”

Wallace called the Impala’s master a mentor and a father-figure, but Sanford was quick to deflect the compliments, and stress, “I’m not a pied piper out to take Nantucket kids on adventures, but I’ve got a boat that requires crew, so I’m always looking for crew. Usually the young ones are the ones who have the time and independence to do it, so they become disproportionately large numbers of the crew. They’re taking advantage of me, because I’ve got a boat, and giving them the opportunity to do it. They learn how to sail, and it means something to them in their lives, and I get a crew out of it. It’s a mutually-beneficial arrangement.”

Sanford praised the Impala’s crew this voyage for making it one of the smoothest he’s taken.

“This trip, I was the old man. These guys were so good they sailed me across the Atlantic. It was an easy trip for me because these guys were so good. They did all the work. I usually fill in for the weak members of the team, but this team didn’t have any weak members,” he said.

“What I look for in these crews is somebody who knows how to sail a small boat, to steer, knows what the wind is, and I want them to have a good attitude. That’s all that really matters.”

“Alfie got a lot of sleep on this trip. I remember the first trip, he’d be down below, so tuned into the boat. It talks to him, tells him when something’s different. He’d come up to make sure things were OK. This time, he stayed down below,” Wallace said.

“Anybody would be able to do what we’ve done if they had the proper training from Alfie, and the motivation. I just happened to be one of those kids. I was really fortunate.”

Sanford prefers a five-person crew for open-water sailing: “Four plus me, that’s a very good-sized crew. The watch becomes two people, the helmsman and someone to take care of the sails. Offshore, you need two sets, so that becomes four. I prefer not to stand watch, but take in the overall view. I’ve done long passages with three, but that cuts down on the safety margin. It’s not as important at sea, but it is when you are coming in to land. A lot of mistakes happen when people get tired.”

Day9(May20):...We had a large pod of dolphins inspect us on different occasions. At first, you would sight one way off, wondering if it as in fact a dolphin. Then in unison, 10 would sprint clear of the water and head straight for the boat. They stayed with us, looping in and around each other for 10 minutes or so, then sprint off past the horizon ...

We crossed our thousand-mile mark today, signifying one-third of our trip. It’s been four days since we all bathed and I catch a whiff of my odor every now and then ...The semi-doldrum conditions we’ve been in for the last few days could get on my nerves if it keeps up, but for now I am happy for the nice weather and calm seas. It is not the most favorable conditions, but it is so god-damn beautiful out here it’s hard to complain. As I stared at the horizon today I realized the difference between this trip and our transatlantic trip in 2006, which is that I am not as anxious in anticipation of our arrival on the other side ... I am more in tune with the moment. It’s a good feeling.

Being in tune with the moment was to a large part what this trip was about for Wallace. He had more time to reflect on his surroundings. Keeping the night watch, when the weather is calm, “you soak it all in. A lot of time at night, you’re reflecting on how beautiful the environment is, the twinkling of stars on the water, the moon shining through the clouds, dolphins swimming through phosphorescence, creating green tunnels everywhere. It really makes you appreciate the environment you live in, how little we think about these things in everyday life. One night we were talking about light travel, light speed, and started to philosophize about extraterrestrial life, how the stars have this little twinkle, and they are 400,000 times the size of our own sun,” Wallace said.

“You’re surrounded by the ocean, this massive force, which is really hard to conceive, but fun to think about. Here on Nantucket, you can look at the stars, but are surrounded by all this comfort.”

Day 11 (May 22): The winds have held since yesterday and our boat speed was above 8 knots for over 24 hours. We went 193 miles through the water and 171 toward Gibraltar when you account for current and course ... We are at 48 degrees longitude and have made 1,500 miles since Nantucket with less than 1,900 miles to go. If we keep this speed, we expect to reach our halfway point by tomorrow evening ..Back in the cockpit, Alfie gives me the helm, a little reward for a job well done. There are stars overhead, but dark clouds in front above the horizon, concealing it. ...You can not make out the face of your watch partner, but you see his outline and know he’s there. Every now and then he’ll say, “Boy she’s really charging now.” And she is. Impala is prancing over the waves as her name would imply. This is her Serengeti and she is leading her pack across the open plain.

Day 16 (May 27): Around 8 a.m. a cloud was sighted just off the leeward bow. It was slight at first but grew more distinctive, and slowly an outline was made. Land? Yes! Well, maybe. That’s how it starts. One swears he sees land then others think they are just seeing things. Then you’re all looking and thinking about it so hard, you start seeing land popping up all over the horizon. But then there’s something that makes it unmistakable. Maybe it’s when you can see the faint outline start and finish at the sea. Making landfall by sailboat allows you the leisure of taking it in slowly and observing the subtle changes it goes through. . .

Then, you find yourself a half-mile off the shore in the lee. The wind has died and the air feels warm. You glide past the coast at a crawl, picking out cars, horses, hand-built stone walls separating the fields. It’s stunning . . . After two weeks of the same flat, blue, shape-shifting horizon, your little world has come upon a foreign land.

Day 17 (May 28): ...I admit I wanted to stop at Horta (one the of the islands in the Azores) for a few days, and I’m positive everyone but Alfie shared similar feelings . ... With its vol- cano shrouded in clouds, we sailed by Pico, with São Jorge close on the other side, creating the São Jorge Canal, and out past Terceira with a course of 105 degrees for Point Sagres, Portugal. One-thousand miles of ocean separate us from Gibraltar. I haven’t felt land-sick until being so close to it today. Perhaps it would have been better to have given the islands a wider berth. It is too much of a tease. Hopefully I’ll be back some day.

While he would have liked to make landfall in the Azores after so many days at sea, Wallace acknowledged the need to press on, and eagerly anticipated arriving in Gibraltar. With one Atlantic crossing under his belt, he was better acclimated to being on the open water for such long stretches.

“I’m definitely more used to it. I don’t know if it’s tough, but it’s definitely an adjustment. It’s not like you forget about land, but you’re so focused on the task at hand, you force yourself to adjust and get comfortable. If you don’t, it’s hard to focus on what’s around you.”

Day 24 (June 4): Last evening, before the sun went down, Alfie and I crossed tracks with my first Atlantic crossing in 2006 just a couple miles off the weather-roughed Point Sagres, Portugal, and made our proper landfall since Nantucket 24 days and 3,300 miles ago. The epic coast came into view with the vertical brown cliffs and signifying white school of navigation perched atop the face, paying respects to Henry the Navigator. Lagos appeared around the corner and brought back memories from when I was 19, taking two months off school, quitting the swimming team to sail across the Atlantic on Impala for the first time.

When Oliver and I came back on watch the lights from Lagos stunned our eyes and gave us quite a show, something we were certainly not used to ...

We made it. We are in Europe, across a vast ocean of changing blues, headwinds, playful dolphins, kamikaze freight ships, always in motion, even when still. We all gave ourselves a pat on our backs, and Alfie blew three toots on the air horn.

... We have about 100 miles to Gibraltar. We expect to be there tomorrow, now in the afternoon, but Neptune is not making it easy for us.

The Impala left Nantucket in a gale, and arrived in Gibraltar under less than favorable sailing conditions.

“I was sleeping up in the forepeak, the most uncomfortable part of the boat when the bow is launching out of 15-foot waves. It was the first time in the trip I really felt like we were putting strain on the boat, beating her up. The waves and current were such that we put up a second yankee, kind of like a storm-sail, pushing it, which helped our progress, which we needed,” Wallace said.

“It was very dramatic leaving Nantucket. That was exciting, and we sort of had a repeat performance on the other end,” Sanford said. “The wind turned east, and it was blowing about the same, 30-35 knots, and we were beating to windward. The boat’s departure and arrival were dramatic and exciting, a nice counterpoint to the middle of the trip, which was very much a routine. All your planning, all your techniques are to avoid incident, and we managed to do that.”

Gibraltar, June 8: Originally, we expected to arrive in Gibraltar Saturday evening, the fourth day of June, but as the winds increased that night to 30 knots in the east and the current began to run with it, we knew that would not be likely.

... The amount of shipping traffic coming in and out of the straits was astonishing. I could spot 15 ships at any given time. Container ships 1,400 feet long, oil tankers, bulk carri- ers, car carriers, supply vessels, tow-boats pulling unidentified objects. It was so congested we were limited to a narrow stretch of water along the Spanish coast...

A military helicopter buzzed overhead, hovered over the Impala, then whizzed over to Tarifa like a bee searching for pollen, then flew over to the mountains in Africa, searching. Two more helicopters were seen patrolling the area. Then, from the Atlantic, appeared two U.S. destroyers, an aircraft carrier and behind it a cruiser and oil-supply vessel. They made their way through the straits and I felt a strange sense of pride. The flotilla slipped through the straits with a commanding presence and then disappeared. Where to? Libya, Egypt? Suez perhaps? We continued on ... ... Gibraltar Rock loomed behind the Spanish hills, giving a presence of rough prominence. Many ships made their way into the small bay on the west side and as we got closer, noticed 50-plus ships of all kinds sitting at anchor, waiting to load, unload or for their next orders.

It was a maze and we weaved between them as we worked closer and began to make out the landscape of Gibraltar. The cackle of gulls was heard overhead and a single cloud sat about the rock. The town is mostly on the northern coast with little outcroppings wrapping around it. Two large lighthouses protect Europa Point and the Pillars of Hercules ...

Soon, we had our colors flying over the transom and Impala looked crisp for her first arrival in 25 days. Our log reads 3,595 miles through the water. We came into Queens Bay Marina, on the west side. The marina is lined with four-story luxury apartments and hotels with restaurants lining the dock tailored to the yachtsmen ... The smell and noise consumed and filled in around us and after clearing customs, we jumped on to the dock and nearly fell over. It was strange to walk just the length of the dock and the crew’s first destination were the showers. Before that, and as Alfie dealt with the customs official, a cele- bration was in order. As ranking crew on the boat, Oliver handed me a bottle of champagne, to which Oliver, Bill, Russell and I toasted each other and Impala for getting us here safely. When Alfie returned, another toast was had, and we headed to the showers before they closed for the night. .

It took some time to physically readjust to dry land.

“Oliver had good way of describing it. He said it had the feeling of jumping on a trampoline for a few hours, and when you get off, the land is still bouncing underneath you,” Wallace said. “When I jumped down from the boat, on to hard ground, everything changed at that point. It was definitely much more emotional for me the first time. Then, when we got to Antigua, it was really crazy. It felt like walking out of the wilderness into the real world. I didn’t get that so much this time, but I definitely felt something when we got to Gibraltar, with all these container ships anchored out in front of the harbor, and the wall of high-end condominiums. It was the exact opposite of the life we’d been living, the exact opposite of any life I’ve ever lived.

“The thing that’s hard to get over is the speed at which everything moves. We’d been sailing at six knots at most, which seems like a lot to us. Sailing, everything goes by so slow. Sometimes you’ll sight a lighthouse, go off watch, and four hours later it’s still there. When you are in the middle of the ocean, you have our own world, you own time, your own schedule. It gives you a chance to really absorb your surroundings, and not take anything for granted.”

Staying in Europe – the Impala made stops

in Barcelona and Menorca, Spain; Porto Liscia, Sardinia; and Bonifacio, Corsica, among other ports – for several weeks before flying home was the perfect way to decompress and absorb the experience of the crossing, Wallace said. And while the crew truly became like family during the voyage, it was also nice to spend some time on his own.

“It was great to get to a new place, be on my own, and experience it on my own. When you get there, you’re still a crew, and much more of a family now than when you left, but you get the urge to get out on your own. Just absorbing it, having alone time was really special.”

Now that he’s back on Nantucket, and has had some time to reflect on the trip, it’s only solidified what he already knew.

“It kind of teaches you who you are, what people are capable of, and self-sustainability. It’s a really humbling experience to know that these hands made the ship move. A ship doesn’t want to move anywhere. It just wants to float, but you’re making it move,” said Wallace, who since his first crossing has graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, worked for Community Sailing and for the past two winters has been restoring his own boat, a 21-foot Herreshoff Fish Class, in addition to working for Sanford on Starry Night, his Alerion and getting Impala ready for the most recent crossing.

“It gives you more of an inner self-confidence, kind of a euphoric feeling when you first get on land. It’s land-fever, a combination of feeling different inside, proud, confident, empowered, like you can do anything. Because you have been, the whole time.”

So what’s next for the Impala?

“She is for sale. I wanted a smaller boat to retire on. When she sells, she sells. In the mean-time, she’s the world’s greatest sailboat, and I own her, and I’m going to have fun on her. She’s a live-aboard boat. She should be out on the ocean sailing, not on a mooring,” said Sanford, who along with Wallace already has tickets to return to Europe in the fall for more cruising.

“The reason we went to the Mediterranean, is that I’ve got a bunch of grandchildren, and I’m not really allowed to go sailing in the summer anymore,” he continued with a laugh. “The idea was to take her someplace where the weather was good enough to sail spring and fall.”

“We’ll keep it up as long as it’s fun. I’d like to take the boat further east to the Adriatic, to Venice and the Dalmatian Coast, maybe further east to Greece, and when that gets exhausted or ceases to work well, I’ll bring her home. You may see her again in my hand. In the meantime, maybe somebody will come by and buy her.” 

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