Bay Tripper
Paul Thompson is not your typical cruising sailor

By Jack Sherwood, Senior Writer
Thompson built La Chica, his 31-foot, 9-inch Tahiti steel ketch.


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 gone.

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 handicapped."

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 side.

"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 Annapolis.

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