Ocean Sailor Magazine

Sailors Stories

Bligh’s nightmare voyage relived

4,000 nm in an open boat.

And he volunteered!

Dick Durham talks to David Wilkinson

To be forced at flintlock point to leave your ship and sail 4,000 miles of Pacific Ocean in a longboat with gunnels just eight inches above the sea is an act of survival.

To make the same voyage voluntarily is an act, some would say, of madness. Yet that is what David Wilkinson, a 56-year-old financial advisor and three others did in Don McIntyre’s first ever re-creation of William Bligh’s 18th Century voyage from Tonga to West Timor.

Bligh had suffered the greatest indignity of any shipmaster: a mutiny, when acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian seized control of HMS Bounty following arguments over Bligh’s flogging of crew, who had succumbed to the delights of the womenfolk in Tahiti, while loading breadfruit at that idyllic island.

At least two films, one starring Marlon Brando, the other Mel Gibson, have been made about this contentious story, but until 2010, no sailor had ever experienced Bligh’s gruelling voyage first hand.

‘The whole episode for me was about fear, of controlling it, trying to understand it, and hopefully, coming through the other side with knowledge of it,’ said David, who, as a money man had been dubbed a ‘master of the universe,’ but who learned, ‘I wasn’t the master of anything, I felt incredibly vulnerable.’

He had joined three others, Australian adventurer and ocean sailor, Don McIntyre the skipper, naval architect, David Pryce, and first-time sailor, Chris Wilde, aged 18, from the UK.

Onboard they had the same rations which Bligh had shared with his crew of 18: water, bully beef, ship’s biscuits and raisins. Admittedly they only had to share between four, but the diet saw Don alone, lose 18 kilos.

‘It was a ship’s biscuit for breakfast, a palm-full of raisins for lunch and a chunk of corned beef for dinner,’ said David.

They had no charts, but a GPS tracker was sealed into a locker to record their track.

Unlike, Bligh, who stopped at four islands, for victuals, the Bounty recreation boat stopped only at two: Tofua, where they visited the cave where one of Bligh’s crew, John Norton, was stoned to death by natives; and Restoration Island off northern Queensland, Australia, where they ate the same dish as Bligh: cooked sea birds and vegetables.

In-between came moments of sheer terror as well as mind-numbing boredom. 

Of the former were the four knockdowns the boat suffered in gale-force winds. The masts were, momentarily, horizontal with the sea and they had to bail for their lives.

From this came one of David’s lessons in handling fear:

‘By the fourth knockdown, we were all laughing…we were starting to believe we were invincible.’

Then came the days of calm: ‘Just the clonk, clonk, clonk of the rig in the swell and the intense heat…it was sheer torture.’

There was a strange dynamic between the crew. Don, who was raising money for a Motor Neurone Disease charity, and who had received sponsorship from a Scotch whisky distiller to make a documentary of the voyage, wanted to create some tension and drama to his ‘doco’ as he described it.

One morning David overheard Don mention to David Pryce that he was going to stop the raisin ration, as he believed his crew were not suffering as badly as Bligh and his men had. ‘We are a bunch of pussies, compared to Bligh,’ he said. He was hoping the new short rations would cause his own mutiny which he would then capture on film, but when David told him it was a great idea, Don’s ‘doco’ drama row was thwarted. 

Each morning, for the next three days, to prove more to himself than anyone else, David refused his ration of sea biscuit.

‘I told Don that I would rather be a master in my own game, than a pawn in his and I have never, ever felt so liberated,’ said David.

One night, David was on the tiller when he heard the naval architect scream: ‘Breaking waves.’ There, ahead in the gloom, just 150 metres away was a booming line of surf on some coral reef. They tacked just in time and ran along the edge of the surf. ‘We were two minutes from death,’ said Don, who did not need to fabricate this drama, even though it wasn’t on camera.

At other times, there, in what seemed the middle of the ocean, was the sand passing beneath their hull just thigh-deep.

As fatigue and malnourishment set in, the crew started to hallucinate, setting themselves new tasks like cycling around the world, so much did they hunger for terra firma.

When eventually, after 47 days, they arrived in Kupang, David said: ‘I thought I would get off feeling like a man, but in fact, I felt incredibly humble.’

He had learned one thing about fear: ‘It is all in the head.’

David bought the first K50, Seneca, and plans a circumnavigation as well as long-distance cruises in the South China Sea from his base in Hong Kong with his wife, two daughters and pet dog, Max. After my experiences on the expedition I knew I needed a strongly built yacht that was designed to cross oceans and provide safety and comfort for the crew. I wanted to be able to sail short handed with all sail control lines leading to a deep well protected cockpit. I had no intention of repeating the privations experienced on the Bounty boat, so comfort and the luxuries now available, such as air conditioning, water maker and refrigeration were also high up my list. Seneca ticks all those boxes and more. 

He added: ‘I also wanted a yacht that turns heads when arriving at the marina. Life is too short to own an ugly boat!’

*A second Bligh voyage was re-enacted in 2017 by a Channel 4 TV crew which had a mother ship following the longboat. The skipper of the boat, Anthony Middleton, an instructor in the Special Boat Squadron, said: ‘Mentally speaking it was the hardest thing I have ever done.’

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