The cruise of the Teddy
The larger-than-life adventures of a mad-cap Norwegian sailor make for an entertaining read – even if it leaves the reader slightly incredulous, writes Matt Vance.
Julie Tambs must have been a remarkable woman.
She is the silent heroine of the book The Cruise of the Teddy. A young woman who, in 1928 raised no protest when her husband Erling Tambs spent all his meagre capital on buying and provisioning an old Norwegian pilot cutter. They set sail from Norway on their honeymoon without navigation instruments and with one shilling and seven pence jingling in the skipper’s pocket.
The author of The Cruise of the Teddy, Erling Tambs was always the first to admit his mistakes, but it is Julie who endured them. When she found herself at the helm of Teddy charging through shoal water towards a lee shore and certain death because her husband was trying to find a light ship which could tell him where he was, she merely told him as long as they would die together she would not worry.
She seems to have said little when they put to sea after many weeks of hot weather in harbour, and found themselves taking on alarming amounts of water through carvel planked seams that opened up so much daylight was visible through them. Even more remarkable is that she tolerated the same thing happening again nine months later in Tahiti!
While all this calamity may not have been great seamanship, it certainly makes for a great story. Had Erling Tambs been full of the preparation and diligent conservatism of the modern cruiser, the book would have been as boring as bat shit. Indeed, the honesty of Erling in recounting his failures makes him more endearing to the reader, and it is this that catapults the author into the same league as Joshua Slocum or Johnny Wray. You put the book down feeling you have found a new daggy friend and can’t wait to relay his stories to anyone who will listen.
It was not only Julie Tambs who was remarkable. At Vigo, Spain the crew of two was increased by the gift of a bitch. ‘Spare Provisions’ was her name and there has never been a better name for a boat dog since.
By all accounts Spare Provisions was quite a character of a dog. She saved Erling’s life on one occasion and was indirectly
responsible for the admirable story of a wharf-side dogfight on the quay, into which Erling waded with fists flying to rescue its victim, only to find she was not Spare Provisions. For days after the crew of the Teddy could not look at him without laughing.
At Las Palmas in the Canary Islands the Teddy’s crew was increased again by the birth of Tony. At six weeks old he was heading to sea as the honorary first mate. If Julie Tambs was the silent heroine, it was Tony who was the hero of the book.
His tales of lost buckets, big fish and an ability to endear himself to all races and creeds are a lesson on how world peace might be achieved.
Occasionally luck would desert the crew of the Teddy and they would engage in a form of mortal combat. For some reason
they would nearly always get away with it. With a grossly swollen and infected arm, the end looked near on a voyage from
Samoa to New Zealand. Erling lay in a delirious fever in his bunk and casually mentioned to his wife that the Teddy was about to ‘sack the skipper.’ He followed this statement with simple instructions to Julie on how to bring the fore-halyard tackle into the cabin, attach it to his body, hoist away and at the appropriate moment, let go!
It is the humanity and not seamanship that is responsible for this book’s success. There is no-one the Tambs family meets on the four-year voyage that looks at them in anything other than level terms. That is saying a lot of the 1930s where the class system proliferated by the British Empire was rife. Itinerant and mostly unemployed, they would have been dismissed on land, yet their courage and likability seem to have won them only friendship.
This ability of the crew of the Teddy to bring out the best in those they came across is finely summed up in the tale of
the Governor of American Samoa who visited the Teddy in his immaculate white ducks. On finding Teddy alongside the wharf at low tide with no ladder handy, he proceeded, to his own delight, to slide down the newly-tarred shrouds to the deck, much to the horror of the crew.
This book is full of hard-won lessons. It is not just about sailing an old double-ender halfway around the world or how not
to approach navigation. Its spirit is bigger than that. It is about family, adversity, humour and a knack of getting away with it.
Although near disaster was a constant in their voyage, the crew of the Teddy never appeared to worry much before heading to sea, and once disaster had been averted they never seemed to dwell on it. Their life at sea had anchored them firmly in the ‘now’ which is something modern folk pay a fortune in therapist’s fees to fail at.