July 24, 1979: Crossing the Atlantic in a 10-foot sailboat



In 1977, Gerry Spiess started building a 10ft plywood and fiberglass sailboat in his garage in White Bear Lake. Spiess, a technical instructor at 3M Co., had designed and built other boats and was an experienced sailor. He had traveled down the Mississippi River and crossed the Gulf of Mexico to South America. But two round-the-world attempts were scuttled by illness and bad weather.

Gerry Spiess

He designed the new boat, “Yankee Girl”, to set a world record as the smallest to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The 750-pound vessel was fitted with four sails (mainsail, two jibs and a spinnaker), a 14-foot aluminum mast, an autoguider mechanism, a VHF radio, navigation, a 4 horsepower, 60 gallon Evinrude outboard motor. fuel.

Soulless to see him go, Spiess sailed from Virginia Beach, Va. On June 1, 1979. The little sloop was loaded with provisions, including beef jerky that he and his wife, Sally, had prepared in their kitchen. To avoid boredom and loneliness on the 3,800 mile journey, he packed Mark Twain books and recordings of old radio shows. One of his regrets: He didn’t bring a good pillow.

In 54 days at sea, he survived close encounters with a passing ship, a school of whales and a spinning shark. Beaten at times by 20-foot waves and 40-knot winds, Yankee Girl was a point on the ocean, barely visible on radar. For a period of 17 days, he had no contact with the outside world. “If something had happened to me during this time,” he wrote later, “no one would have known what area of ​​this gigantic ocean I was in.

Thousands of supporters greeted Spiess upon his arrival in Falmouth, England.

“I’ve had a few bad times, but I’m absolutely delighted to have finally made it,” he told reporters. “I wouldn’t do it again, or advise anyone to do it.” The first two weeks were hell.

He didn’t do it again. Instead, two years later, the sailor from White Bear Lake boarded the Yankee Girl and set out to conquer the Pacific Ocean. He did the 7,800 mile crossing, from Long Beach, California, to Sydney, Australia, in 153 days. His sturdy little boat was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1984.

From the Minneapolis Star:

Gerry Spiess, back with Yankee Girl after crossing the Atlantic.

Gerry Spiess, back with Yankee Girl after crossing the Atlantic.


Minneapolis Star Staff Writers

Sally Spiess visited her husband, Gerry, early this morning.

It was no ordinary meeting.

Spiess, 39, of White Bear Lake, was on the verge of setting a world record crossing the Atlantic in a 10-foot boat, the smallest ever. Spiess appeared to be in good health, although he was swept overboard at the start of his journey.

Ms Spiess was in a pilot boat off the port of Falmouth, England, when she had her first glimpse of Gerry in 54 days. He set sail on June 1 from Virginia Beach, Virginia, aboard “Yankee Girl,” the boat he designed and built in his garage in White Bear Lake.

United Press International reported that Spiess edged out Yankee Girl near Falmouth’s imposing 40-foot pilot launch Link, to speak to his wife and parents, Louis and Jeanette Spiess of St. Paul.

Her mother looked down at Yankee Girl and said, “Let me congratulate you. Your housekeeping looks great, the boat looks neat and tidy – you must have had a good trip.

Spiess, sporting a beard after his long trip, gave a tired smile and said: “It’s only half. The first two weeks were hell.

Spiess said 20-foot waves hammered his boat, creating “valleys in the ocean that almost enveloped us.”

He said he was swept overboard one day at the start of the trip.

“I was saved by my lifeline. He held on. I gave a huge pull and managed to climb aboard Yankee Girl.

“It was a terrible half hour. I knew I had to get back to the boat. I never had any problems after that. What could have been worse? “

But Ms Spiess told The Star in a telephone interview that although she was concerned for her husband’s safety throughout the trip, “I was relieved that I knew the man who built this boat and the years of effort and study he devoted to its construction. I never saw myself as a potential widow.

He looks good, she said. “He’s grown a beard since I last saw him. He’s lost some weight – in fact he’s thinner than I’ve ever seen him.

“I’m sure he can’t wait to walk on dry land. His immediate request was for a steam room.

Plans for the future are “completely on hold at this point,” she said. “We will stay in England for a week to 10 days.

A flotilla of American-flagged, horn-blowing boats flocked around Spiess’ boat about a mile from shore at 11 a.m. today. The residents of Falmouth were preparing a gala reception for Spiess at the Royal Yacht Club.

Spiess designed his boat out of wood and fiberglass “for optimum carrying capacity for food and water,” his wife said. “He brought a lot of canned food, granola and beef jerky, which we made at home in our kitchen.

“He also took a lot of canned milk, dried fruits, and at first he could also take fresh fruits and vegetables. “

The six-foot-wide boat has a narrow berth, a small chart table, a small galley, and a four-horsepower back-up engine.

The boat has a self-steering mechanism that allows it to stay on course while it sleeps.

Ms Spiess, deputy branch manager at Analysts International Corp. in Edina, said the second worst moment of her husband’s trip occurred “last night, while he was in heavy shipping lanes. He has a radar reflector (to alert other craft of his presence), but last night he didn’t sleep. He wanted to get out of the maritime canal.

The final hours of Spiess’ voyage have been described by a British Coast Guard official as among the most dangerous on the journey, as the shipping lanes approaching England’s south coast are crowded with tankers and freighters. Visibility was only half a mile last night.

“He loves a challenge, and he’s dreamed of it for a long time,” said Bill Mezzano, a friend of Spiess who worked with him at 3M Co.

Spiess, 38, who had been a technical instructor at 3M, left the company earlier this year to prepare for the trip, Mezzano said.

“He’s not doing it for publicity, he’s not doing it for anyone other than himself,” Mezzano added.

Spiess avoided loneliness on his trip by taking several volumes of Mark Twain, a tape recorder and recordings of radio shows.

“I realized how unpleasant it was to go there alone,” Spiess said in 1970 after a sailing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. “There is nothing more lonely than a week or so at sea in a small boat. Some people may be alone for long periods of time, but I guess I’m not one of them.

The Spiesse, who have been married for almost 17 years, “have always sailed,” Ms. Spiess said. Spiess built four sailboats, three of his own design. He tried twice to go around the world. One trip was interrupted because of bad weather, the other because he fell ill.

Spiess left on his last trip with instructions for his wife not to worry until 90 days have passed. He predicted the crossing would take 60 days under favorable conditions.

The 1979 Guinness Book of World Records lists a 12-foot boat as the smallest before that to cross the Atlantic from west to east. This boat, the Nonoalca, commissioned by William Verity of the United States, went from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Tralee, Ireland in 66 days in 1966.



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