Voyage of the Invader

by Louise Omwake Eckerson

Chapter 1—We Set Sail

t was spring of 1941.  WWII was only something that concerned Europe and Asia.  And I?  I was a psychology teacher in a small New Jersey College.  I had spent five summers traveling on twelve-passenger freighters and had become addicted to unexpected adventure and was looking for further adventures.  Then I found the Student International Travel Association (SITA).

Reading the SITA promises grabbed my attention, held me captive, and sold me on a July voyage “under sail to Hawaii.”  For $450—covering all expenses including $50 for a single cabin—I would steer the schooner, work in the galley, visit four Hawaiian Islands, and savor the Pacific Ocean and Polynesian culture under sun, moon, and stars.  The next day I mailed my check for $25 to reserve Cabin 1 for the July 10 sailing from California.  The schooner would be my home for two months.

For the next three months I dreamed of sailing ships.  I was to have an adventure to top all adventures.  A schooner would be more beautiful and more exotic than a freighter.  Finally in July, six of us, all strangers, met in New York on the Pacemaker and started our trek by rail across the continent.  We arrived at the harbor in Newport Beach, California, ready to embark the next day.  We met Jack, the owner, and the other 13 crewmen and saw our schooner, the Invader.

There she was, 136 feet of gleaming white schooner with new sails furled over her booms.  Although her topmasts had been removed when her racing days ended at middle age, the Invader still retained the freshness of youth.  Yet, even without her wings spread, the Invader was a streamlined beauty, a promise of adventurous days afloat, the excitement of wind and wave alternating with lazy relaxation.

Jack told us the Invader had a distinguished pedigree.  Built in 1905, she was purchased in her prime by John Barrymore and subsequently owned by Hollywood’s Joseph Schenk.  The Invader became a movie star when Douglas Fairbanks, in the role of Robinson Crusoe, dived off her stern and swam to one of the Hawaiian Islands.  She had moved among the elite.  However, my dreams aboard ship didn’t reveal how many illustrious persons had occupied my cabin.  No glamorous ghosts returned.

The Invader in days past, indulged in races that brought her silver loving cups.  She set a record for annual yacht races from Los Angeles to Honolulu, winning in ten days and nine hours.  That was the heyday of the Invader.

Proud of her recent cosmetic uplift, she revealed herself at dock’s distance to be a schooner of incomparable loveliness, known by movie moguls and the world’s yachtsmen for her graceful lines and seafaring record.  To us, prospective deck hands who were familiar with only paper schooners, she was a most handsome ship.  It seemed a miracle that we were to have the good fortune to sail her across the ocean into tropical waters, to tie her up in Hawaiian harbors, to return to her as our home each night.  Only days before, I was standing behind a classroom desk discussing mundane matters related to psychology.  In the days to come, I would stand behind the Invader’s wheel and know that this was no dream, no wishful thinking but a dream come true.

The Good Will, docked alongside The Invader, sailed with 21 experienced men.

The Invader sailed with no able-bodied seamen on board.

The passenger-crew list tallied twelve men and eight girls.  Most of us were strangers to each another.  Separately, we had seen the SITA advertisement and individually responded to the lure of moonlight sailing, palm trees, and tropical flowers.  We were not a bunch of travel novices.  Most of us had traveled to foreign countries by conventional means and were paying our way out of hard-earned and limited bank accounts.  We were putting winter vocations behind us for a couple of months to take on galley chores, watches at the helm, and deck duty. 

We were to sail as a working crew.  Jack, the founder of SITA as well as owner of the Invader, explained that he signed us on the ship as “crew” to avoid the inspection required of ships carrying passengers.  We paid our fares, but if any questions were asked about our status, we were instructed to say that it was a cooperative club enterprise and we, as members, were sharing expenses.

An occupational roll call revealed a French horn player in the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra; a Dartmouth College film library director; a legal secretary; teachers of physical education, chemistry, consumer education, and psychology; and six students.  A “mystery man” was believed to be in real estate.  Geographically, we represented New England and the Middle Atlantic, South, Middle West, and Western states.  Our ages ranged from 17 to 50ish. 

The SITA brochure mentioned a captain, first mate, engineer, cook, and deck hand.  When we reached the dock we found that only a cook and engineer had been hired.  Ed, the chemistry teacher, would be the first mate.  The deck hands were to be the sixteen of us.  But we had no captain.  Jack approached skippers of nearby schooners.  One had to remain with his ship.  Another said he was afraid of skirts!  So we waited, day after day for news from Jack that we had a licensed captain.  Little hopes trickled down to us and slithered away.  Finally, on the sixth day, Jack announced that all necessary repairs had been made and we were ready to sail.  He would navigate the ship!

Our captain Jack was literally a Jack-of-all-trades. With bold self-confidence and a daring spirit, he was an adventurer. We learned his life had been a patchwork that changed with season and mood. He had many abilities but he had never concentrated his efforts to achieve the level of success, which, I believe, he was capable. His varied experiences included work for a Master’s degree, chauffeuring, singing his way through European nightclubs, gambling, and living on his bridge winnings. He had guided summer tourists on European trips as they hiked, cycled, traveled rivers in kayaks, etc. On our trip he was the genial entertainer and song leader with his guitar and accordion.

Jack, was a physically small man in his late 30s or early 40s. Though average in appearance, he sought the limelight. When there was fair sailing he was good company, sounding off on his hobbies, his philosophy and day dreams. He harbored ideas about reincarnation and mystical concepts, and longed for an audience that would be receptive to his views. Once he confessed his desire to become a minister who would be free from orthodox commitments. He wanted to stand up and proclaim his odd assortment of beliefs, and he didn’t want the contradiction that private conversation threatened. Jack had the potential to meet challenges and conquer obstacles but he wasn’t content to live within a limited orbit. He believed in the maxim, “when great issues are at state, great risks are warranted.” For the excitement of the risk, he could produce the issue.

The usual chronology of planning and acting was reversed in Jack’s mind. He advertised a cruise to Hawaii and then purchased the Invader. He filled the schooner’s bunks and then looked for a skipper. He hired a cook and engineer but relied on his own judgment in purchasing food and motor fuel.

As we waited on shore, there was whispering among us. What did Jack know about navigation? What experience could he claim in changing tack to harness the wind? What did he know about the requirements of a sea going vessel? To most of us he was a stranger. Several had been with him on European trips but none had known him in the role of skipper. A meeting was called to demand a professional captain but we lacked a spokesman. Finally, long and lean Haven spoke for us. He had joined the crew to record the voyage in movies. He said he knew something about Jack’s wanderings “half way around the world on a 40-foot yacht.” He instilled in us a limited degree of confidence. Since all of us were chafing at the bit to end our six-day wait, a little assurance of Jack’s capabilities went a long, long way. We, too, were adventurers. A three-month dream and a 3,000-mile trek across the continent weighted the scales in Jack’s favor. We wanted to believe that he understood navigation. We were easily convinced. We came out of the meeting ready to unfurl the sails and try the wings of the crew as well as the ship’s.

Our evening departure on July 10 did not even cause a ripple in Newport’s news. There was no one at the dock to wish us a bon voyage. The skippers, who had declined the invitation to captain us, were sitting on their schooners watching us sail. They had seen many ships and crews in their day but I’ll bet they had never before witnessed such a green crew take out a schooner with the intent of sailing her 2400 miles to a mere dot on the map. What those skippers didn’t know was that a stout collective courage and resourcefulness in the Invader’s crew kept close company with a colossal, nautical ignorance. None of us knew how little knowledge everyone else had about ropes, maps, winds, and storms. On previous ocean trips it had never occurred to me to question the qualifications and experience of the captain and crew. Now I wondered—just a little—but dismissed the thought. This was part of the adventure I was seeking.

The painters (ropes) were pulled on deck. Gradually we moved away from the dock as the one good Hall-Scot motor came to life. The other motor was dead. It was quiet on board and quiet on the piece of California we were leaving. We edged silently away from Newport and out to sea. It was a momentous occasion, an awe-inspiring experience loaded with hopes and imaginings. We were a score of Columbuses setting out to discover the spices of life. This was an event to make the emotions soar, a time for lightheartedness. We had no ties, no tedious problems to solve. Crossing the Pacific under sail was a beautiful new idea to all of us. It held no reminders of former associations. The unknown was to become our memory. It held the essence of romance.

Why then were my hopes restrained, my imaginings blocked? I seemed to be waiting for the appropriate emotional reaction. July was here; the moment had arrived. Calmly and casually, along with nineteen other adventurers, I searched for the stars that would guide us.

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Voyage of the Invader Chapter Index

Introduction  Chapter 1  Chapter 2  Chapter 3  Chapter 4  Chapter 5  Chapter 6  Chapter 7  Chapter 8

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