Manila, March 23, 1966, dawned clear and quiet. My crew and I had been working feverishly during the past ten weeks preparing for this great day. All was ready. Siboney, alongside the main quay at the Manila Yacht Club, was ready to sail, fully stocked for a month at sea. My Commodores flag flew proudly on the starboard spreader. At noon my China Sea crew gathered around the club bar, surrounded by friends and family, for a last round of bull shots.

At 1:30 pm we cast off amidst tears and hurrahs. Wood chips still sprinkled the deck, a sign of last minute touches by Cadion, my faithful master carpenter and friend. A strong southeast breeze quickly cleared the deck of all debris as a press helicopter recorded our departure for Hong Kong. Aboard we had #1 Cooky, Eric Neale, who had honed his cooking skills while imprisoned 39 months during World War II by the Japanese at Santo Tomas prison in Manila. Our Spiritual Advisor, Jack Duys, a sailing buddy from my Cuba days, had as his main job the ample lubrication of the crew, yet he really shined when, in the midst of a major crisis, he helped pull the crew through with a spirit-lifting quip.

Dick McEwen was our navigator. He’d brought along his sextant, together with a ton of books. Lastly we had Dick Bartlett III aboard, young and strong, our foredeck ape. Only problem was that Dick had his eardrums blown out by a mortar when fighting with the Green Berets in Vietnam. Months before, in a rage, he’d jumped off as crew on his fathers 70 foot Sparkman and Stevens yawl, swam over and begged us to let him join the crew of Siboney. In that race to Hermana Mayor Island, his father, frustrated with the lack of wind, had turned on the engine. Disqualified, this allowed Siboney to win line honors. With no foresail reefing and an inventory of seven headsails, we needed a real grunt up in the bow. Taught by the Army to lip read, I would shine my flashlight on my lips from the helm to order sail changes. Dicky, on the bow, always understood every word. Along for the ride to Hermana Mayor was my Cuban friend, Leandro Vazquez.

We’d sailed a couple of hours ahead of Trident, a 45 foot Dutch built steel ketch skippered by my competitor, in both business and around the race course, Jon van Bloemen. Around midnight, now out in the China Sea, Trident was hot in our wake. Both of us anchored off Hermana Mayor Island early in the afternoon of March 24 to be welcomed ashore by Beny Toda, owner of the isle. Both crews joined in for a swim, a sumptuous bar-b-q on the beach, and a James Bond movie in his outdoor theatre.

At nine thirty the next morning we both motored away as the wind was nil. Within an hour, Trident called on the VHF radio to halt for they had lost all of the engine oil. Since we had planned to sail in tandem, we headed back to Hermana Mayor while they solved their problem. It was at that moment that we noticed that our chronometer, set in a tidy padded box and which I had spent months calibrating, had stopped. Dick fiddled with it until it was once again in motion. Trident, via VHF, provided the new time signal. As we had lost all confidence in the ship’s timepiece, Dick Mc Ewen set Dicky’s Green Beret special as a backup ship’s clock.

Off once again for Hong Kong, Trident led the way. At sunset March 27 a fix on Jupiter and Sirius yielded a position of 19º49’N, 117º14’ E. As night fell wind and seas picked up. Trident disappeared from sight, a blessing, since sailing two dissimilar boats in tandem is a tedious chore. By three a.m. we were down to jib and jib staysail yet still doing 5 knots by the ship’s log, trailed astern. By sundown March 28 we had sailed at least 100 NM since our last fix.

Ahead lay Pratas Reef, an infamous low-lying atoll. I was sure we were well south of it, unless the current took us north. Imbedded into my sub-conscience was the story of the US destroyer Frank Knox. In 1965 it had run right up on Pratas Reef at sixteen knots on a night very similar to what we had now. At 3 a.m. I could smell the reef, that unmistakable odor of exposed coral covered with seaweed. Intermittent rain reduced visibility to zero. I stuck by the helm all night, my hair on end. When the wind dropped we started the engine. Next time we looked at the log it had stopped. When we hauled up the rotor we found it covered with weed. Now, besides no star fixes we had lost our distance fix. We must be in the China Sea triangle!

Hong Kong lay about one hundred miles to the West. The hard line Chinese communist government rewarded fishermen and the like who brought in foreign flag boats who had strayed into prohibited waters. The entrance channel for all shipping into Hong Kong was but thirty miles wide, on a line running east out of the harbor entrance. Wang-Lang light and radio beacon sat on a high hill at its very entrance. Encased in two plastic bags, I tuned our small portable radio direction finder to the Wang-Lang radio beacon frequency and found it bore 330º. We had to head North until it bears West.

Rain continued to pour down, the wind non-existent. On a trip below I heard an unusual noise out of the engine and quickly shut it down. When I checked I found it out of oil. I removed the motor box, refilled the engine with oil and searched for the source of the leak. Unable to locate it, I decided to start the engine in hopes it would then show. And did it show! The fan belt had cut through one of the high-pressure oil lines. Oil shot onto the fan belt to be spread throughout the cabin. Our new bright red foul weather gear that we had hoped would impress the Brits at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club looked like something out of a machine shop rag heap.

Once Wang-Lang beacon bore 280º, we motored in. At 1220 we spotted the Chinese coastline and by 1800 Siboney was secured to a mooring within the Club perimeter. A nice lady in her sanpan rowed us ashore where we were warmly welcomed and quickly shown to the Royal Hong Kong bar.

 © William A. Butler 2004