Thursday, December 31, 2009

'Islander' and Harry Pidgeon (1869-1954)

The age in which Harry Pidgeon was brought up was vastly different to that of today. There were no TVs or radios, and certainly there were no GPS navigational aids, only sextants and unreliable timepieces. Even in 1917 when Harry started building ‘Islander’, his 34’ engineless yawl, there were but few small working vessels equipped with gasoline internal combustion engines. Almost all coastal craft relied upon sails to harness the power of the wind to convey them and their cargoes from port to port.

Harry was born in Henry County, Iowa, the second son of Isaac Marion Pidgeon, Jr and his wife, Mary Ables who died when Harry was a toddler. Isaac married again, and Harry shared home at his father’s farm with twelve siblings. Life on the farm did not satisfy Harry, and at the age of twenty-seven he left home to fend for himself. He went to Alaska where he collected specimens for American museums, and there he and a friend built a small boat. Later in Minneapolis he constructed a raft-like, live-aboard vessel that he took downstream on the currents of the Mississippi to Port Eads where the delta enters the Gulf of Mexico.

Adventure on the water became an irresistible calling that could not be ignored as he tried to settle in Los Angeles while earning his keep as a photographer. Chancing upon the sailing magazine, ‘Rudder’, he was enthralled with the lines of a 34’ ‘Seagoer’ yawl drawn by Frederick William Goeller. She was an extended version of Thomas Fleming Day’s famous 27’ ‘Sea Bird’. This boat promised to be a fast, seaworthy vessel. She could easily be handled by a lone sailor; furthermore, she could be made to steer herself by the trim of her sails. After eighteen months of intensive labour she was ready for launching from the beach where Harry had built her. He lived aboard her for thirty years, despite the fact that she lacked full standing headroom. Costing just over a thousand dollars, she proved to be more than excellent value! Frugally furnished, she was fitted with a wood-burning stove that Harry used for cooking his food and heating his boat. He did not drink alcohol or smoke, and by adopting a minimal lifestyle he could manage on a dollar a day.

He set sail in November, 1921 for the South Seas islands, and by the time he reached Samoa, he knew he would continue westwards towards the setting sun. Over a period of four richly satisfying years he circumnavigated the world. By doing so, he became the second yachtsman to accomplish the feat - Joshua Slocum was the first. He never hurried, preferring to stop wherever he found a welcome. His laidback style was the proper way to cruise – the leisurely way, taking in the sights, the sounds and the tastes - always learning about the cultures of the people he met. His book, ‘Around the World Single-Handed’, eloquently described his remarkable voyage that ended on 31st October, 1925. Unlike Slocum, his route took him through the Panama Canal instead of the Strait of Megellan. On arrival at Los Angeles, after a tough final leg, he was astonished at the reception he received. His popularity and fame ensured ready audiences wherever he went. He would tell of his adventures and arrange displays of fascinating photographs he had taken at exotic locations such as the Marquesas Islands and the Cocas Islands.

Not content with one circumnavigation, he did it all again; setting out in 1932 from Long Island, returning in 1937 to Prince’s Bend; thereby at the age of 69, becoming the first man to circumnavigate the Globe twice on his own. Six-and-half years later in May, 1944, the life-long bachelor surprised everybody by marrying Margaret Gardner, a lady he had known in Connecticut. Harry’s luck ran out in July 1947 when sailing with Margaret and another woman from Los Angeles. His beloved ‘Islander’ was wrecked on a reef at Espiritu Santo during a hurricane. That put paid to a third circumnavigation attempt, but a number of friends raised enough money to buy a 27’ part-built ‘Sea Bird’ hull that Harry completed in 1951. He named his new boat, ‘Lakemba’ after a fellow who had helped him in New Zealand. He and Margaret occasionally sailed her to Catalina Island, but in February, 1954, he became seriously ill, and he was unwillingly taken from his boat to hospital where he died at the age of 85.


Details of ‘Islander’
Class Seagoer class yawl designed by Frederick William Goeller, Jr.
LOA 34’
LWL 27’ 6”
Beam 10’ 10”
Tonnage 12
Sail Area, sq ft 635
Rig Gaff Yawl
Construction Wood: Oak, Douglas Fir and Oregon Pine

Voyages etc

1917-8 Construction of Islander on a mud flat of Los Angeles, CA.
1918-20 Explored Southern California Coast and Islands then sailed to Hawaii.
1921-5 Completed Solo Circumnavigation in 1,441 days, 17 hours and 30 minutes- via "Out and Back" Route (Around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Panama Canal).
1925 Awarded 3rd Blue Water Medal in history of the Cruising Club of America
1928 Raced Islander from New London, CT, USA to Bermuda (Winning his class)
1932-7 Completed second Solo Circumnavigation (2 yrs, 10 months)
1947 Departed for Hawaii attempting third circumnavigation with wife Margaret, Islander shipwrecked on the rocks of Hog Harbor, New Hebrides during this attempt.
The Book: Around the World Single-handed – There are several second-hand copies at Amazon UK.

Voyages of Harry Pidgeon


The Loser said...

Dear Bill,

It was wonderful to read your blog about my Great Uncle Harry Pidgeon. I am thrilled when a sailing man remembers him. My great aunt was his wife, Margaret Dexter Gardner. Harry had been friends with my great-grandparents, Captain Blanchard Gardner and Annie Wood (Purdy) Gardner and was a beloved man in our family before and after their marriage. (My father adored the man.)

I am researching his life with the intent of writing a biography and have set up a website I hope you'll visit.

If there is anything you would like to further share about him, I would be thrilled to hear from you. If you knew him or someone in your family did, that would be especially welcome to know.

On my website you and your readers will find a link to the University of Riverside's Photography Museum which has a collection of over 1500 of his glass negatives from his trips. (I was given their permission to use some of the photos I have on my site.)

Almost 400 of these wonderful shots are on-line, available for viewing by the public, and my site has the links and instructions on how to get there. The Museum is also looking for volunteers who might be interested in helping to scan the remaining photos in the collection, so if your readers wish to, they should contact them.

Again, thanks for keeping Harry's memory alive and well. He was an inspiration to so many of us and was way ahead of his time 'living simply' and 'green'.
Elizabeth Madrigal, grandniece of Captain Harry and Margaret Pidgeon

William Serjeant said...

Thank you Elizabeth. In response to your valued comment I have sent you an email. Wishing you all the best with your research for a biography of Harry.

Unknown said...

Hi Elizabeth.. My former wife,Jana .. and I lived in on the Carmel Highlands property of the late Edward Weston. My wife being the Edward's granddaughter . Our west deck looked over the decks of the Kraig, a Harry Pidgeon design. Near exact to the measurements of the Islander . Edwards son Neil Weston built this from the beginning to end.. all the pieces even the blocks and the keel layer in lead. Most people don't know Neil Weston was such master carpenter ... His own design of lath was featured in Fine Woodwork Magazine ..
My project is to locate the Kraig.. I feel it will be easy to fine with proper path of search. I will initially work with the sources of Wooden Boat publications.. by running a 'search' for the Kraig hull with pictures like the ones I'll send to you . I'm wondering how you are... and how your own work is going . Truly your's , Canyon Haverfield