ATLANTIC CROSSING, 1998
by Aurelia Neutrino,
Reprinted from Tribeca Trib, Feb. 1999
©1999, Aurelia Neutrino
August 13, 1998. A light fog partially obscured the off-lying rocks of the coast of Ireland, the first land the four of us had seen since saying goodbye to the coast of Newfoundland 60 days before. I was having a very hard time believing I was really there, not just in some strange dream back in Newfoundland. And even as I counted the minutes until I could phone New York and talk to my kids, I was crying because the trip-a 10-year dream-was over. We had done something never before attempted, crossed the North Atlantic in a raft made of scrap and recycled materials.
Our raft, Son of Town Hall, was built on Pier 25, in lower Manhattan, with logs from the Hudson River as its backbone, and most of the rest from the streets and dumpsters of the city. Launched in the spring of '93, it was tied up for the next two years beside our paddlewheel raft, the Town Hall (still anchored next to Pier 25), while we continued to build. My husband and I, along with various friends, had lived on rafts built from scrap for most of the last 20 years, raising and educating five children while earning our living as artists, sign painters and musicians.
Now we wanted to take around the world our demonstration that, if you let go of "how it's been done before," and creatively recycle yourself and whatever materials are at hand, you can live any dream you can imagine.
In June of '98, after years of testing, redesigning and rebuilding while sailing along the coast from New York to Maine, and a very successful crossing from Maine to Newfoundland in the summer of '97, we set out once more. Our first danger was icebergs, which were numerous close to the coast, and frequently concealed by fog. We were not afraid of running into one; since we float on logs and foam, we could not sink. But icebergs frequently roll, and we could suddenly have found ourselves beneath one. Moved by the same currents and light winds that were driving us, one of them stayed in sight for over 24 hours.
This experience only heightened our feeling of not getting anywhere. Two weeks after leaving, we were still on the Grand Banks, only a little over 200 miles from Newfoundland. Plagued by calms and adverse winds, we felt that we would never make it to Europe. But finally the wind came up and setting all sails, we started to make progress to the east.
All too soon, we were facing our first big gale. As the waves built to 20 feet, all of us were terrified. I feared that the raft would not continue to steer itself properly in the waves, but instead turn broadside and roll over. We took our turns at the helm, with the tiller lashed in place, but ready for quick release if necessary. Tethered to the vessel with safety harness, and wearing my lifejacket, I gripped the edge of the deck and watched wave after wave pass under the stern. Soon it became evident that the raft would handle these waves just as it had smaller ones - self-correcting its position and never even beginning to turn sideways. The sea towered above the stern and each wave looked as though it would surely break right over us, but the amazing buoyancy provided by the foam in the hull simply lifted the raft up and over the top. It was like a roller coaster ride, alternately aiming up toward the sky and down into the trough of the next wave. In the aftermath of the storm, huge waves were coming at us from different angles. Facing a two hour night watch, I felt a deep dread, because not being able to see the waves coming, as they hit from all directions, freaked me out. I said a prayer of desperation, "If only I could have some light." A few minutes later there was a break in the clouds. A full moon shone on the water and there was so much reflection that I could see every wave that came at me. I just sat up there and cried, overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude. After weeks at sea, life settled into the daily routine of watch keeping,preparing meals (trying to find new and exciting ways of serving pasta, rice and canned vegetables), making necessary repairs, and trying to get enough sleep. We got used to the incessant motion of the vessel, but constantly bracing ourselves took a toll on our energy level. Each of us went through our own fears; Poppa thought he would die at sea, Rodger feared he would not be strong enough to face the unknown hardships, and Ed thought he would go crazy from the slow speed and lack of progress.
One perfectly calm, beautiful day I suddenly was overwhelmed by a feeling of being trapped, that my life was not in my own hands and there was nothing I could do about it. I had never had that feeling before and I became hysterical. It lasted about half an hour. The guys were very supportive, and talked me back to reality. Freighters, which we sighted daily, were happy to pass on messages to our friends and family back in the States, and, on three separate occasions, the captain asked if we needed anything, and generously resupplied us with gasoline, diesel fuel and oil, and fresh food-fruit, vegetables, bread.
We had enough rice and water to survive far longer than the time we were at sea, but meals were a highlight of our days, and the fresh supplies were a godsend.
Slowly the miles passed by, until finally we were closing the coast of Ireland, escorted by Irish Fisheries Patrol vessels and helicopters, reporters and photographers, as well as local well wishers in every type of vessel. As we entered the harbor,the people in the small boats all around us were applauding and cheering. On shore, we were treated as heroes; children and adults stopped us on the street for our autograph or to have their picture taken with us. It was an overwhelming experience, victorious yet at the same time deeply humbling.
The raft is now in France. As we prepare to continue our around-the world voyage, we know that many obstacles lie ahead. But we remain undaunted. After all, almost no one believed that Son of Town Hall could make it across the Atlantic, either.
Son of Town Hall at anchor in Ireland following the crossing
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