Voyage of the Invader

by Louise Omwake Eckerson

Chapter 8

e learned from Invader’s example not to fight the sea, to be flexible, to bend with circumstances.  My reactions to life on Invader were a mixture of importance and power blended with a feeling of smallness and frailty.  I believe that the former attitude was a response to the grandeur and might of the ocean that inspires comparable human characteristics.  Man is a better person when he looks at something splendid for it is difficult to be mean in the presence of greatness.  One does not stare at the ocean and contemplate small things.  Even dark, stormy days possess magnificence that carries one’s thoughts beyond petty trivia.

Sometimes it is possible to see only as far as the rail of the ship, to miss the imposing expanse of sail because one is too near.  But when there are long stretches of unoccupied time on board, the greatness of nature penetrates consciousness and the greatness of human nature emerges.

Hundreds of times I have sat on the bow or stern of a freighter and viewed only the ocean before me.  It was exhilarating to turn completely away from man and what he had made and think and feel in terms of far horizons in time and space.  The ocean is one part of nature that always has been and always will be there, although it is constantly changing.  It glides, ripples, swells, and plunges in the same way it did when you were a tadpole.  It is blue, green, gray, and black to eyes of all geological ages.  It glitters when the sun shines, or glimmers in the moonlight, as it will do a thousand years from now.  The ocean has her moods—her gay and pensive moments.  She invites laughter when she dresses herself in a gown of sparkling sequins and again when miniature ballerinas in their white, fluffy tutus dance on top of her waves.  In her pensive moods, she walks sedately in a gray Quaker dress.

The Quaker lady was presiding one afternoon when I first made the acquaintance of The Prophet, and its author, Kahlil Gibran, in the quiet of my cabin.  As I read his essays on philosophical good sense, I was charmed by their freshness and delicacy of expression.  They offered appetizing food for thought in my private Quaker meeting.

Gilbran had studied the ocean’s temperament.  He read her pulse and personified her character.  To him the sea was a living force, and ships that sailed on her took on human attributes.  Gilbran’s allusions to sailing ships and the seas allowed me to temporarily forget deficiencies in food, safety, and comfort, and I would emerge from my cabin a more serene and wiser seafarer.

The deck of a schooner is more pleasant when light breezes displace high winds, but speed is essential and scant provisions in food always make time a factor in sailing craft.  It was enjoyable to drift along at four knots an hour—as we did for several days—but we knew that there would be days without food if we didn’t move faster.  I was happy not to be seasick on the more placid ocean, but seasick or not, we needed more wind to reach California before our galley shelves were empty.

After days of slow motion, the motion ceased altogether.  Our single motor turned over for the last time after valiantly trying to carry us out of a windless pocket.  It was broken for all time.

Life on a moving vessel is different from life on one that is becalmed.  In each case, the ship is a piece of steel and wood completely surrounded by water.  It is also true that movement provides little that is new for the eye to see or for the mind to contemplate.  However, one has the sense of accomplishing something, of going somewhere when wind fills the sails.  When the canvas sags, ship routine becomes disorganized.  The day’s activities lose their meaning, and interest in things nautical comes to a standstill.

The hours dragged as the gooneys waited for a pickup in the wind.  We were at its mercy and there was nothing to do but wait.  Had the weather been warm enough to tempt us to swim we might have disregarded the warning about sharks and passed the time moving in the water under our own power.  But there was no inducement to court such danger.  Finally, wind began to move the ship.

The 13th day homeward made news.  During the night, the ship’s generator went berserk and in its wake all electrical apparatus ceased to function.  SITA flashlights, which we all brought with us, had been used generously on deck and practically all of the batteries were dead.  A couple of kerosene lamps were hung on the starboard and port sides of the schooner, but there was no longer any differentiation by red and green lights to indicate to passing ships—had there been any—in which direction we were moving.  At night our cabins were Stygian black and we undressed by the Braille method.  One lantern was hung in the saloon, casting weird shadows, adding to the gloom rather than dispersing it.  We had electricity for only the tiny binnacle light over the compass at the helm.  The Invader was blacked out for the rest of the journey.

We still had some perishable food in the refrigerator when power went off.  None was spoiled, however, for we ate it without forcing, saving canned food until later.  But we no longer had any place to cool our beer! And henceforth, the electrically controlled bilge pump had to be operated by hand.  Ironically, on this “pleasure cruise” we had a small taste of wartime restrictions and inconveniences.  Three months later war became a fact.

Shortly after we set sail from Kauai there were rumors that food would not be plentiful, but the first few days gave no signs of fewer or smaller tasty dishes from Ben’s galley.  After the setbacks we had experienced, a food shortage just couldn’t happen.  Certainly Jack had learned from previous faulty planning and, with Ben’s counsel, had supplied our pantry bountifully for the return trip.  In this instance money and intent were involved, not lack of advice from Ben.

The rumors did not go away, and on the fifth day breakfast began to give evidence of rationing.  Invader breakfasts had been generous to match the appetites of husky young men who spent their days working in the open air.  Fruit, eggs, pancakes, and coffee had been served with no limit on the pancakes.  Understandable, after August 15th, the breakfast call “come and get it” did not bring the same hearty response as before.  From that day forward breakfast consisted of coffee and two doughnuts.

The news was received calmly, with good-natured joking.  Although none of us was seasick and all possessed healthy morning appetites, we uttered few complaints.  Jack had ordered food to cover a journey of fifteen days in the face of predictions that it would take no less than three weeks to carry us home.  Ben was not responsible and he stretched the supplies as best he could.  I could be happy on coffee and doughnuts, but I knew that the men would miss their pile of pancakes.  However, they dieted with good grace and we saved the galley boys a big breakfast chore!

Each succeeding meal gave signs of shorter rations and second portions were no longer offered.  Previously, at lunch and dinner, Ben placed serving dishes on the table and each person took what he wanted and passed them down the line.  From then until the end of the trip, food in the serving dishes was jealously watched and reputations stood or fell on how much each Invader had on his plate.  Seldom did one serving dish make the rounds of the table, because the first to help themselves took more than their portion.  It became important just where Ben decided to place the serving dish on the table.  Not much was said, but every eye eagerly watched the amount of food as it dwindled and judged how much would be left for him.  Hunger did not improve morale, and soon complaints were heard that Watch II was getting more to eat than Watch I, because Watch II had befriended Ben as a member.

Word spread that a foursome met for beer each afternoon and fried potatoes that they had snitched from the pantry.  This gave rise to criticism because the potatoes belonged to all of the crew.  The incident was trivial, but it represented the tense feelings aboard the Invader.  Everyone was hungry and resented any unfair division of the limited food supplies.  We began to speculate on how many days we would be at sea and what forthcoming days would bring.

A little stale candy, left over from pre-sailing days in California, suddenly became hoarded tidbits.  At the same time, Carl’s professed dislike of candy passed the tolerance point and grew into an active desire for it.  From then on we rationed our small pieces of chocolate between the two of us.  As with the beer, we planned in advance when we would eat them and discretely did so in secrecy.  At this time we had the good fortune to make a cigarette trade for a box of crackers.  No doubt others on board were guarding their personal hoards in the same way.  Rumors were rife: doughnuts were disappearing from the galley and someone was seen eating a raw potato.

Of the two us, Carl was the more generous.  One evening when eight of us topsides decided to have some beer, Carl volunteered to go below and bring up our beer cans.  He returned with the beer and also our box of crackers and, like a genial host, passed them around.  The box came back to us sadly depleted of its contents.  I confess that my plan for the crackers did not involve six other people, but Carl’s idea was the more laudable.

It was Dottie’s birthday that brought all hands into concerted action, a happy interlude in which cooperation was the keynote.  Not so in every aspect of Invader routine.  Nine days before we reached the continent, the crew called a meeting to request that Jack set our course for San Francisco, which we could reach on our southeastern tack about two days sooner than Newport, south of Los Angeles.  Jack made no promises but said that he would sail for the northern port—if the winds would carry him there.  A couple of days more proved that he was not taking advantage of the winds to steer to the nearest port, that he was determined to take his ship to the Newport dock from which we had sailed.  Meals were getting slim and it was Ben’s prediction that they would taper off day by day.  We were hungry and our stomachs prompted us to act.

We were guilty of a small time mutiny on the high seas.  Watch II, supervised by Ed, began to steer for San Francisco while Watch I, although admitted to the secret and collaborators at heart, was steering under Jack’s watchful eye and continued to point the Invader toward Newport.  What unnautical discipline we exhibited! For three days the dual course made us lose time on the Pacific.  This could not continue and Watch II was well aware of it.  But we hoped that our zigzag path on the chart would eventually prove to Jack that the northern port would bring us closer to food and solid ground—and baths.  Our strategy did not work.  Jack began to hover near the helm when his watchmen were not at the wheel.  As long as he remained near, it was necessary to follow the course he had set.

In the dark this sabotage was not easy to cover up.  One evening, I was at the helm and despite vigilance I could not see who was approaching.  Mouse-like, Jack was suddenly at my side when the point of the compass was playing around a northern latitude.  Jack’s suspicions were confirmed.  The next night he asked to have the “privilege” of taking my midnight watch “because few such opportunities will remain to me before I sell the ship.” It was a pleasure to relinquish the late hour chore, and I knew that he would remain with me if I insisted on steering. The conspiracy continued until Vic, the engineer, lost patience with our amateur method of getting closer to food.  Before dinner on the sixth day from land, Vic, reinforced by his bottle, proposed to the second watch that with our backing he would threaten Jack with maritime court action if he did not take us as speedily as possible to the nearest port.  As an able-bodied seaman, Vic was the only one on board who knew what he could sue for.  Vic readily got our support and our blessing.  Immediately he went up on deck and in forceful language confronted Jack with the alternatives.  When the first watch sat down to dinner that evening, Jack casually informed them that early that morning he had decided to set the course for San Francisco.

My notes record: “No sooner had the decision been made than we were becalmed, and here we are in the middle of the Pacific, motionless, without a motor, and with food for only several days.”

Ben cooking on deck

Cooking on deck

That afternoon brought another disappointment.  For some days we had been without sugar, and it was decided to convert into cake the chocolate bars contributed by Ginny when she left us in Kauai.  Helen was in the galley helping Ben melt the candy when a shout went up.  A calamity had occurred! The butane used for cooking had given out.

We soon learned why we were out of cooking fuel.  Ben had ordered two tanks of butane to be delivered to the ship, but Jack had returned one as “unnecessary.” Ben’s troubles were multiplied.  Ben, Ed, and the boys went to work to devise a makeshift stove.  A large oil drum was the raw material out of which a wood stove was constructed.  A hole was cut in the top and another in the side to received fuel.  Wood was collected from somewhere and the stove began to function.  Ben became the nursemaid who tenderly encouraged the fire to produce one hot dish per meal and boil one kettle of water for tea or coffee.  By dinnertime, mess was “come and get it” on deck.

Whatever formality had existed in the Invader’s saloon now disappeared for all time.  There were no tables or chairs on deck.  The line formed on the starboard side, and all crewmen queued up with a bowl in one hand and a mug in the other.  There was no longer any way to heat water for dishwashing, and the chores of the galley were suddenly reduced again.  The system consisted of removing the almost invisible waste that we left and dunking the bowls and mugs in salt water.  No attempt was made to wipe the dishes that were placed in a large wooden box to await the next mess on deck.

We were a strange sight as we gathered for meals.  The weather was cool and the deck did not offer any sheltered nooks.  In heavy sweaters we lined up for our portions and then dispersed to find what comfort we could in a lifeboat, up against a ventilator, or on the companionway.  There was little merriment.

On the fifth day before landing there was no coffee at 8 a.m.  That was the day we began a two-meal schedule with breakfast at 10 a.m.  and dinner at 4.  Two hours without morning coffee produced some grim looking faces, and those who didn’t like oatmeal sans sugar were not completely happy at 10.  What Ben saved for those lean days was nourishing and filling but not very appetizing.  For the next five days our meals consisted of oatmeal, corn meal mush, boiled rice, and beans with small dabs of jelly, apricots, raisins, pineapple, and cocoanut for dessert.  I lost over ten pounds and Ed looked as if he had lost at least twenty.

One ship came into view during the early days of diminishing food rations.  The ship signaled to us, but no one on board the Invader could read the message.  At least we had the comfort of knowing that one captain had seen us and might report our existence when he reached port.

Marvin and Stan, mending the distress flag

Marvin and Stan, mending
the “distress” flag

That ship was the only one we saw up to that time on our two-way voyage.  We let it disappear over the horizon with some regrets, vowing that we would signal the next one.  The next one came three days before we landed.  Far off we saw it heading our way, and against Jack’s orders, the men raised our ensign upside down, denoting distress.  There it waved, but fog that surrounded us made us as indistinct to the approaching ship as it was to us.  Jack was at the wheel warning us that we were signaling on our own responsibility.  As the distant vessel passed us, we noticed that our ensign was on the far side of the sail and could not be seen by the other ship even on a clear day.  Jack had turned the Invader, concealing our call for help.

After that demonstration and before Vic’s threat of maritime court action, I wrote in my brown book: “Few groups meeting this situation would accept the inevitable as cheerfully as this crowd.  Restraint and courtesy continue to mark the gentlemen and even Jack, who is regarded as a scoundrel by all, is treated with consideration and politeness.  He alone is responsible by negligence, ignorance, and greed for many of the mishaps, and still he bobs up smiling and joking as though he, too, just happened to be caught in this net of SITA adventure.  In spite of Jack’s announcement that we would go to San Francisco, there is still the belief that he is heading for Newport or some other small port where officials won’t ask questions.  This crew is courteous to the point of being spineless.  Why don’t we force action to be in accord with promises? Throughout the entire trip we have let Jack have his way.  He has gambled with everything material and psychological and he has almost won.  This summer has probably brought him a profit, and he knows that it is human nature to forget the unpleasant after it has passed, and he will never see us again.”

Ben pulled a morale-building surprise on us the day before arriving in San Francisco.  He had saved enough of a variety of food to give us a real dinner in the saloon.  Shrimps appeared accompanied by vegetables and dessert—a veritable banquet that elicited cheers and promoted well-being.  That was almost the last bite we had until thirty hours later and it was deeply appreciated.

A fifty-mile gale greeted us on that last night out and provided the most exciting sailing of the trip.  It was thrilling; it was frightening.  I stayed on deck holding fast to the rail on the companionway and watched our now experienced seamen furl the mains’l to cut down our speed.  Marvin went aloft to untangle something in the rigging, and I wondered if he had the strength in that strong wind to hold on as the rolling ship swung him out over the water and back in regular rhythm.  That was the most formidable test our crew had met.  They were equal to the occasion.  The wind was roaring past, taking us with it.  We seemed to be flying through the water with our gunwales cutting the surface, the waves breaking over our deck.  The deck was slippery and the schooner was never on an even keel.  If one of our crew had slipped overboard that night, there would have been no way to rescue him.

Finally I went below to my bunk wondering just how strong our ship was.  From there it seemed that the gale would rock her too far over on the port side for her to right herself again.  I held my breath every time my bunk rose up at an alarming angle and the portholes plunged down into the ocean.  Each time there would follow a compensatory pull in the opposite direction as the portholes rose from the water and the Invader rolled to starboard.  Below deck, sounds of the storm were magnified, and it seemed as if our lifeboats were being torn away and the masts were falling.  When orders were given it was necessary to shout above the roar of the wind, which gave the impression below that a crisis had occurred and this might be the end.  Several times I staggered to the door expecting to find other Invaders reacting to the fear of disaster.  But the hall was empty—everyone not on duty was apparently in their bunk.  That gave me the courage to return to my cabin and try to sleep.  It was a violent night and there was little chance to sleep, but I finally did so and awoke to see the sun shinning.

The waves on our foredeck had soaked our limited wood supply and there was no way to boil water for coffee in the morning.  A couple little pieces of apricot were breakfast and we began to wait for land and food.  In my imagination I saw a gleaming white tub in which I would luxuriate in fresh warm water for the first time in two months, then clean towels and sheets.  As our schooner was slowly wafted by gentle breezes toward the Golden Gate Bridge, I could almost forget the past two months in my anticipation of civilization.

Last Morning

Last morning on the Invader

The only supplies left on board were toilet paper and soap.  We had no food, nor anything to cook with in the event a fish suddenly hurled itself on deck.  We had no motor to propel us if the wind died down, no generator to give us lights if night should fall before we docked.  There was nothing to hold us or our thoughts on the Invader’s deck a minute longer than was necessary.  The women began to dig out dresses for the great occasion.  We should arrive in San Francisco shortly before noon, in good time to order a steak at the city’s best restaurant.  We packed our baggage and dressed in traveling clothes.

It was a calm, collected crew that saw California appear in the distance and grow larger.  One might have expected us to become animated and sing and joke boisterously in view of the prospects before us.  But our long trip must have dulled our spirits and curbed our enthusiasm.

Gradually the line on the horizon grew in three dimensions.  Buildings became distantly distinct in the clear atmosphere and appeared as clean and white and toylike as those of Casa Blanca, the first foreign city I had ever approached by water.  The sun was shining a rare bright welcome, and the Golden Gate city seemed to reflect the greeting.  The sun that had struggled so hard to befriend us knew that we were entering the harbor and showered her hospitality upon us.  But there would be no one to meet us, as there had been no one to bid us farewell when we left.

With a solid piece of land in sight, something inside me said: “This is supposed to be the end of a marvelous voyage.  People will envy you your adventurous experience before the mast and your visit to the Hawaiian Islands.  Your friends will say ’How wonderful’ at the mention of a schooner and you behind the wheel.  Has it been wonderful?” I wanted to feel able to respond with the expected positive answer—to declare with enthusiasm, “Yes, it was a wonderful summer.” There had been beauty, thrills, and friendships that I would treasure.  There has been novelty, surprises, and discoveries in human nature.  The voyage had been loaded with new experiences and certainly such a vacation was unusual.  But I could not emote the longed-for adjective “wonderful.” So accustomed was I to reporting facts, to maintaining intellectual and emotional integrity, and so inept at dramatizing and exaggerating the basic truth, that I foresaw a dismal disappointment in the eyes of those who would expect cheery superlatives.

As we drifted slowly toward the San Francisco harbor, I was wondering what the others on board were thinking.  Perhaps their empty stomachs evoked similar reconstructions of the past two months.  They walked deliberately, moved lazily, spoke little, and with no animation.  It was a period of dull suspense following long drawn out questioning and anxiety.  It was not a climax, not a peak of anticipation with forgetfulness of the recent past.  We were still too close to the past to look forward to other than elementary physical needs.  Our trip had probably been romantic in the sense that war is romantic.  It held periods of excitement and stress, and it was different in every aspect from life at home.  It was a contest of man against nature—and against one man.  Therefore, perhaps it was romantic, broadly speaking.  At no time did our drama scale the heights of heroism, privation, or pain that war entails.  We faced no real tragedy and felt only the warnings of disaster.

Saint Christopher was smiling on us when we were about seven miles from the mainland.  Then his smile froze for the day.  The happy-go-lucky breeze had retired to play elsewhere, leaving us stranded on a millpond.  There we remained in tantalizing proximity to land, all dressed up.  It was two o’clock in the afternoon, an ideal time to be fishing in the harbor, and no doubt those ashore looking through their binoculars thought they saw a pretty little schooner on a pleasant afternoon jaunt.

For three hours we made efforts to attract attention to our becalmed state.  Marvin improvised a homemade foghorn by pumping a handle back and forth and producing mournful wails inappropriate to a sunny afternoon.  Bud and George stood on the bow displaying our upside down ensign in the direction of every boat that came near us.  Smoke flares were sent up, and still no one gave signs of noticing us.  It was no compensation to us that the Invader probably presented a lovely picture to distant eyes as her white sails caught the sun.

Finally towed into port by Coast Guard

After several hours of futile flag waving, horn blowing, and smoke signals, two of our men decided to set out in the row boat and row seven miles for help.  The constant Invader luck attended their initial effort—an oar was lost, the boat tipped over, and water had to be bailed out.  A man fell overboard!  Finally they set off with the appreciated donation of one hoarded chocolate bar and a package of cigarettes.  They were still within earshot, however, when the Invader made her distress known to a pilot boat, a smart little sailing yacht with a motor.  The pilot boat was escorting an ocean liner out to sea, but we received a promise of a tow to land on its return.  The yacht did return and the pilot came aboard the Invader.

Immediately, our crewmen, so reticent on the islands to talk about our bad luck on the first crossing of the Pacific, told the story of our present predicament.  They said we were out of food.  That seemed to warm the cockles of the pilot’s heart, and he volunteered to bring on deck some fish that he and his crew had just caught.  That generous offer brought out the saga of the cooking fuel and wood stove.  The demise of the twin motor was added.  The sympathetic pilot was convinced that we were in trouble.

In a few minutes we were being towed toward the Golden Gate.  A little later, a U.S. Coast Guard launch observed our lack of power and took over the job.  What a pathetic ending to our trans-Pacific cruise! With all odds against her, the Invader had taken us to Hawaii and had brought us safely home—or almost home—and then on the last short lap she had to have assistance.  To our credit, or discredit, we left the Invader without a word of farewell to Jack.

The following day, the San Francisco Chronicle, heralded our arrival with a full page spread—well worth the price of twenty-five hamburgers.  Shouted the Chronicle’s headlines, “Invader’s Young Crew Too Hungry to be Romantic.  Besides, the Boys All Needed Shaves.”


It was early morning on December 7, 1941, when four of us ended a reunion that began the night before in the Hawaiian Room of New York’s Lexington Hotel.  Carl, Van, June, and I had met to exchange pictures and memories of our summer’s trip to the Pacific islands.  June surprised us with her announcement, “As soon as I can book passage on the Matson Line,” she said, “I’m going back to Hawaii and marry the radio announcer I met there.” June’s plans were made and her happiness was real.  A three-day romance in Hilo had been no transitory affair.  Later that day, Hawaii was bombed.  Several days later I received a letter from June.  Hawaii was in flames—June’s private world was in ashes.


~ Finis ~

It can be assumed that after December 7, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines called upon many of the Invader’s crew to serve their country.  The sailing yacht Invader was a testing ground on which those men proved their strength.  It is hoped that their Invader experience helped them become veterans of World War II.

Fifty-six years later, I wonder why the Invader was so-named.  To me she signified nothing more sinister than a ship of sails, like a great white seagull with wings still spread, alighting on the ocean waves.  She served us well under adverse circumstances.  What went wrong was due to human frailty.  What her adventurous crew experienced on her deck made good copy for the front pages of papers in Hilo, Honolulu, and Kiaua on Kawaii, and for stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, The World Telegram (New York City), and The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.).  Due to the timing of our trip and Jack’s German background, he was investigated—to my knowledge—by the U.S. Naval Intelligence, the F.B.I., and the Coast Guard.

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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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