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Donkin on Sailing

June 2008 – Pete Goss Mystery trip to Australia

Pete Goss with Spirit of Mystery

“Feel the wood on this chart table,” says Pete Goss as he brushes away the sawdust on his new boat. It brings a tingle to the fingertips, like touching the bones of history through timbers saturated with the sounds and sweat of naval battle.

The table is made from wood taken from HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar. Elsewhere in the cabin there is timber from the Cutty Sark and the SS Great Britain.

“We’re taking our maritime history with us,” says Goss as he spreads out a chart of the world, unveiling his latest project – retracing the passage of what he believes was one of the boldest sea voyages in the annals of sailing.

It’s nearly eight years since Goss was last in the headlines after the loss of his futuristically-designed catamaran Team Philips, abandoned in heavy seas before a no-holds-barred round the world race in 2001, simply described as “The Race.”

For Philips, the loss was every sponsor’s nightmare and a chastening experience for all involved. Little wonder then, that in this latest venture Goss has avoided the kind of PR razzamatazz and expectations surrounding the team Philips episode.

In the intervening years he has done a few ocean races and some polar expeditioning, accompanying Charles Dunstone, chief executive of Carphone Warehouse, among others, to the North Pole.

That was before he began researching the story of seven Cornishmen who decided in 1854 over a few pints of beer in their local pub to sail to Australia. The seven, all Newlyn men, related by blood or marriage, were living in straightened times during one of the periodic downturns in the local economy.

They were all shareholders in a Cornish lugger, the Mystery, one of the hardy fishing boats that worked out of Cornwall in those days. One of them suggested selling the boat to pay for their passage but the most experienced seaman among them, Captain Richard Nicholls, offered to skipper them there on their own boat.

The luggers were strong boats, built to handle heavy weather, but the idea of taking such a small boat – just 37ft long – on a voyage across the perilous southern ocean was unheard of at the time.

“It was a big deal for Cornwall,” says Goss who reminds me that the voyage pre-dated by forty years that of Joshua Slocum – whose round the world adventure on his 37 ft long sloop-rigged fishing boat, the Spray that left Boston in 1895, still captures the imagination of modern-day sailors.

Spirit of Mystery

Now Goss plans to sail in the wake of Mystery on a replica of the original. There is much of the Slocum mentality in this latest venture. Working from original designs with Chris Rees, a local boat builder and designer, Goss and the build-team have built the boat – much of it using local oak – from scratch in just 10 months. Named Spirit of Mystery, it goes in to the water for the first time today (June 21) .

The four-month 11,800-mile voyage from Newlyn to Melbourne will start in October with a break for Christmas in Capetown – also a stopover for the original Mystery. Goss is taking a crew of four, including his eldest son, Eliot, who will be 14 by the time they start.

“It’s going to be quite an adventure,” says Eliot tracing the chart with his father. “Better than staring out of a classroom window,” says Goss who plans with other crew members – brother Andy and brother-in-law Mark Maidment - to make sure that his son keeps up with his studies. “If not, then he’ll be getting one great lesson in the university of life,” he says.

The only concessions to modern designs on the new boat are water tight bulkheads and heavier ballast in order to right the boat should she role. There is also an engine that will not be used for the voyage. Instead the team has created two great oars to row themselves out of harbour.

“Originally we said no engine, no toilet and no electrics, but we want to use the boat after the voyage and to retro-fit an engine would be difficult. We need electrics for legal requirements such as masthead lights but inside we shall use oil lamps and all our navigation will be done by the stars, using sextant readings as they did on the Mystery. The toilet is there at the insistence of Tracey and Libby, my wife and daughter, thinking of life after the voyage,” says Goss.

“Ultimately we aim to carry on round the world with the boat, doing the things we have wanted to do for a long time.”

Other concessions are diet and clothing. “No salt pork and no oil skins. We’ll be wearing Musto foul weather gear and can cook on a gas stove. We are, however, installing a coke-fuelled stove just as they had on the original boat. I expect we’ll light it no more than once a week to work as dehumidifier.”

The original Mystery made good time and reached Melbourne in just four months, but not without overcoming some treacherous seas as Cpt Nicholl’s log made clear at the time. Here is the entry for March 5, 1855: “Strong gale, shipping a great quantity of water. 1 pm: very heavy wind and rain. 6 pm: a complete hurricane; brought the ship hard to wind and riding to raft (a kind of sea anchor).”

The next day he adds: “A terrific gale of wind – heaviest so far experienced. Our gallant little boat rides the mountains of sea remarkably well. Not shipping any water, dry decks fore and aft. I am confident she is making better weather than a great many ships would, if here.”

No-one should underestimate the boldness of this recreated voyage. Yes, the new boat carries modern life rafts and an emergency positioning beacon. But Goss is confident that he has built an extremely seaworthy boat.

He knows the power of Southern ocean storms. In the 1996-97 Vendée Globe single-handed round- the-world race, he turned back and sailed upwind to save a capsized fellow competitor, Raphaël Dinelli - a feat that earned him the Légion d'Honneur and a lasting friendship with Dinelli.

Ironically the original Mystery crew never did find gold and five came back to Cornwall. Captain Nicholls died on dry land, run down on a London street by a handsome-cab driver. Who says worse things happen at sea?

See also: Sailing in the Lofoten islands

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