Annapolis is a passing-through kind of
town for long-distance cruisers heading north in the spring
and south in the autumn. I have followed eagerly their comings
and goings over the years as they drop the hook for a spell in
Spa Creek, where I berth my pocket-cruiser sailboat.
As a local cruiser and day sailor locked inside the ample
borders of Chesapeake Bay, I long have envied that nautical
freedom to go hither and yon on a self-sustaining basis. The
cruisers proudly fly their national flags as a signal to
fellow compatriots, creating a kind of international flavor
that permeates the gathering. And then suddenly they're all
Such a voyager rolled into Spa Creek in late 1998 aboard
the 31-foot, 9-inch steel Tahiti ketch, La Chica. Unlike the
others who stay for short periods, single-hander Paul Thompson
stayed through last winter. I have come to know him because
his borrowed base of fund-raising operations is just
downstairs from my base of operations.
En route to Annapolis by way of Trinidad, Key West and the
ICW, Thompson and his second wife stopped in Washington, D.C.,
where she jumped ship and went home to Switzerland. He
continued on alone and wound up in Annapolis.
The difference with Thompson is that he's nearly 100
percent deaf, which has in a way helped him find sponsors and
raise funds to support a planned solo circumnavigation. He
wants to prove to other handicapped persons like himself what
can be accomplished regardless of physical limitations, and
people responded to the plan.
He had hoped to depart in early July for the Azores en
route to Cape Town, South Africa, and beyond, returning to
Annapolis in two years. But the ambitious plans of world
cruisers oft go astray, and Thompson's epic voyage has been
postponed. He returned to his native South Africa in May to
undergo emergency ear surgery with a chance of restoring 80
percent of the hearing in one ear. Before the reversal of his
voyaging plans, I had a chance to chat with him and help in a
small way by providing some cruising books and locating a
donor or two.
"Being alone at sea is a place where there is no pressure
to communicate," he explained while tied up at Pier 4. "Out
there, alone in the open ocean, I am not frustrated by trying
to figure out what people are saying to me. Also, I love the
lifestyle and the sense of freedom. If you don't like a place,
you just raise the anchor and sail somewhere else. You have
the satisfaction of a job well done at the end of a voyage."
Thompson, 43, is a South African who was inspired in his
youth by a world cruiser who arrived in Cape Town on a
double-ender much like a Tahiti ketch, a heavy-weather design
by John Hanna, who also was deaf.
"I used to hang around the docks and got to know that
cruiser and his boat before he left," he recalls. "I never saw
him again, but I promised myself then and there that I was
going to have a boat like that when I grew up, even if I had
to build it myself, which is what I had to do."
Thompson communicates by fax, e-mail and a laptop. He is an
expert lip reader and can be understood because he learned to
speak before he became totally deaf, a result of childhood
measles. He has picked up odd marine jobs around town and
knows his way around computers, as well. His land base of
operations is at HLS Enterprises, and Harvey L. Stein,
president, is a major sponsor and, in fact, paid his airfare
back home for the emergency procedure.
"My 34-year-old son is a cerebral palsy quadriplegic, so I
understand the world of the disabled," says Stein, who met
Thompson through a friend, David Hoffberger of H&C
Communication Services in Annapolis, another sponsor. "My wife
and I invited Paul to live with us last winter when his boat
was frozen in solid at a mooring, and we got to know him quite
well. He is a fine example of someone successfully meeting the
challenges of the world, and he just happens to be
Before turning to boatbuilding, Thompson worked with
computers on all levels from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s.
He joined South African yacht designer Angelo Lavranos as a
draftsman, which gave him the inspiration to build his own
boat. Thompson decided he must build a Tahiti ketch of steel
for world voyaging. (He has done three trans-Atlantics, and
spent the mid-1990s cruising the Caribbean, picking up
maritime and computer jobs as he went along.)
"Wood was too expensive, and steel was cheaper and much
stronger for my purpose," he says. "I had no building
experience whatever, not even making a kitchen cabinet. I had
to learn everything as I went along - welding, carpentry,
mechanics, electrical systems. You name it."
The hull was lofted on the concrete floor of a stable and
built around a piece of steel 6 by 12 inches in sections and
16 feet long that formed the keel. The interior took 2-1/2
years to finish and was patterned after his ex-wife's wishes.
La Chica is 27 feet, 6 inches on the waterline with a
10-foot, 3-inch beam. She draws 5 feet and displaces 17,500
pounds with 4,500 pounds of ballast. Her main mast is steel,
her mizzen aluminum. Power is by a 22-hp Vetus M3.10 diesel.
This is his first boat and it took four years to build - off
and on from 1989 to 1993. His then-wife said she would not
cruise with him unless he made the interior "homey." So he
installed an enclosed head aft, a forward V-bunk and settees.
The marriage failed and the interior was a mistake he has
learned to live with.
"What offshore cruiser needs an enclosed head?" he asks,
saying it's a waste of space that would have been better used
by a navigation station. "I should have a double bunk as the
main settee and no bunk at all in the forward cabin, which
would be better for storage and a work station."
Originally, he had a cutter rig, but the boat carried too
much weather helm on a reach, and the Monitor windvane could
not steer her.
"I cut 10 feet off the boom and installed a mizzen in St.
Martin in 1995, making her a ketch not very different from
Hanna's original design," he says. "She still has a
gaff-rigged main with a high peak and sports over 650 square
feet of sail. She has averaged over 4.5 knots over 14,000 sea
miles, all of it in superb comfort owing to her truly lovely
motion, except downwind when she rolls 30 degrees from side to
"As a boy, I sailed around the buoys in Cape Town because
there's no place to go cruising," he says. "You know, South
Africa is a tiny nation, but it has produced four Around Alone
sailors. I look around here, and I see more yachts in
Annapolis than are in the whole of South Africa."
Within 60 miles of leaving Cape Town in a sailboat, you are
in the southeast trades, says Thompson, and there's no turning
back unless you want to beat your way home in 25-knot
headwinds with vicious cross-swells that cause the boat to
corkscrew. "So I just sailed on to the first landfall, St.
Helena Island, which happens to be 1,450 miles away. And I
kept on going."
Committed sponsors, donors and supporters include West
Marine (406 EPIRB), Trimble (Galaxy C Inmarsat C terminal),
Jim Allsopp of North Sails (repair of dodger and new sails),
New England Ropes (line, halyards and sheets at cost),
Aquasignal (navigation lights), Furuno (radar repair),
Forespar (spinnaker pole), Dave van de Spuy of Chesapeake
Rigging, Ralph Meima (Burgess wood finishing products), and
Annapolis Marine Electronics. Also Gallaudet University,
Alexander Graham Bell Association, Rhonda Rose
(communications), and Julie Simpson (Martimus Sport clothing).
La Chica meanwhile has been hauled and stored at the U.S.
Naval Station in Annapolis, awaiting Thompson's return in a
year for the solo circumnavigation.
Jack Sherwood is a senior writer for Soundings, based in