Alone through the Roaring Forties
Often referred to both as a madman and a heroic adventurer, Argentina’s Vito Dumas nevertheless presented a welcome ray of sunshine in a world wracked by war. Matt Vance tells his story. Photos supplied.
Soon after he set the staysail somewhere in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Chile, solo sailor Vito Dumas turned to find a woman’s slipper floating on the sea. It was pink silk, with a pom-pom in a darker shade, and the only evidence he had seen of humanity in 2,500 nautical miles.
It had been two months since Dumas’ last landfall and he instantly built a romance around the slipper.
“From its appearance, it must have belonged to an elegant lady, a little foot, barely size four,” he wrote. “However did she lose it? Headlong flight? Shipwreck? Lovers’ tiff? A scene – or a moment’s hesitation? Like the assorted litter of a battlefield, this small object had been swept away in the vast ocean. It was strangely touching…”
Dumas, through a combination of stargazing sensitivity and hardiness, would become the first solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe via the Southern Ocean and pass south of the three great capes, Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn, along the way.
Dumas’ route was largely dictated by WWII: any other would have led him into waters bloodied by naval battles. He left a record of his voyage in a wonderful book, Alone Through the Roaring Forties.
Via its 171 pages and seven black-and-white photographs he describes confronting the ocean with a 31-foot, double-ended ketch called Lehg II and not much else. His toolkit consisted of one screwdriver, which he dropped overboard.
He had no self-steering gear – it had yet to be invented – and no radio: in wartime being found with a radio could place you under suspicion as a spy.
Dumas’s desire to sail solo was not due to a chip on his shoulder, nor an urge to avoid society. In fact, his sociability is what makes his record of the voyage stand out.
On the day of his departure from Buenos Aires, for example, he indulged in a manicure and broke down in tears in front of his well-wishers. A month later he showed the grittier side of his personality.
Somewhere between South America and South Africa, he came to the conclusion that he would have to amputate his monstrously swollen and infected arm with an axe. Fortunately, before he could lift the axe he passed out on his bunk.
Hours later he awoke with a three-inch hole in his arm and a pool of pus and blood. The limb had begun to heal itself. He recorded his relief in true sailor understatement: “As I moved my arm it felt lighter. Thank God!”
Dumas’ congeniality was irrepressible. He held conversations with voices in the rigging, had a short, intense affair with a woman of means in Cape Town, and out on the water developed a touching friendship.
“I then made a surprising discovery,” he writes. “There was a fly aboard. Where could it have come from? Was it hatched aboard? As a good host I offered it some sugar; it buzzed around then perched on my hand.” In good weather Dumas let the fly out for exercise on deck. The quirky relationship lasted for weeks before it vanished in the course of a Southern Ocean storm.
Immediately below the Indian Ocean, Dumas got the hiding of his life. “Lehg II was sailing in a roaring, majestic inferno. The waves exceeded 40 to 50 feet, stood up like walls and rushed along at great speed.
When I was in the trough I could hardly believe that the boat would rise again instead of going to the bottom in 1,500 fathoms.” He responded with the only help at hand: rum and brandy, which he “took down like water.”
After the adventures of the Indian Ocean, Wellington became his second port of call where he was promptly adopted as an honorary son by the Meadows family. When he set sail again bound for Chile it was with warm memories and copies of a Wellington newspaper, The Evening Post, stuffed into his clothes to insulate him from the cold.
The final hurdle for Dumas and Lehg II was Cape Horn. Strangely, he chose the depths of the southern hemisphere winter to attempt this, something eschewed even by modern sailors.
He awaited his chance at the port of Valparaiso on Chile’s Pacific coast and it was there that some old salts had told him that midwinter could sometimes be the calmest time around the Horn; in taking their advice he ignored other voices of doom on the wharves and in the drinking houses.
The harbourmaster even asked him to leave his log books behind so his story could be told after the Horn claimed him. He refused and headed south.
He rounded the great cape in typically rough weather; well aware many sailors had been lost there. As if to remind him of the dangers, the roiling sea launched him clear across the cabin of Lehg II and broke his nose. He was too far south to sight the cape and too far gone to care.
Amazingly, though, he managed to go around relatively unscathed and spent the next month sailing north to Buenos Aires. Along the way he mistakenly put Lehg II ashore 200 nautical miles from home, but with the help of some local fishermen managed to get the boat off the beach and carry on.
Dumas’ reception in Buenos Aires was spectacular. With the world at war and Argentina in the depths of economic depression, his voyage was a national inspiration. He was acclaimed as an Argentinian hero, featured on a postage stamp and had a tango named after him.
In a world gone mad, Dumas was a good man, soft as a silk slipper and as tough as an axe, who had circumnavigated a lonely, fearsome ocean.