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LIFE after Raft

LIFE after Raft

"It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them…”
—Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Six months ago, I interviewed David Hildred—Trellis Bay resident, adventurer, and civil engineer—about his forthcoming transatlantic raft trip with his childhood hero—the adventurer and author Anthony Smith—along with two other crew, Dr. Andrew Bainbridge and John Russell.
A lot has happened since we first spoke—raft construction and launching, countless global newspaper articles, flying fish landings, rudders breaking, whale sightings, backwards sailing, April Fool’s jokes, plankton collection, a change of course, a poisonous sea slug visit, an 85th birthday for Anthony Smith, thousands of dollars raised for WaterAid, life-changing revelations—all culminating in the successful excursion across the Atlantic. These events were recorded as they unfolded on the An-Tiki website blog, and I devotedly followed them, so I was thrilled to have a second chance to converse with a very chilled out yet energized David when he returned to the BVI after his voyage.  


David and I discussed the four goals that the An-Tiki voyage had set out to achieve. First, the journey raised about $16,000 for WaterAid, a non-profit organization that provides potable water to those who lack a proper supply—not as much as they’d hoped to collect, but a start. Second, the crew collected plankton samples for the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), as promised. Third, the trip certainly showed that age is irrelevant when it comes to adventure; Anthony Smith turned 85 while the An-Tiki was at sea.
The last goal, to reach the same beach that the survivors of the Anglo Saxon had landed on in the Bahamas, has been postponed. “We still have 800 miles to the Bahamas; some of us just ran out of time,” Dave said. But, the fact that they didn’t reach that beach, Eleuthera, has only given Anthony Smith a new project. “[The raft] is perfectly capable of doing another trip,” said Dave, “so, why not? We all said we’d get on a raft with the same people at the drop of a hat,” but he speculated that Anthony might choose a different crew—possibly “three young people or three women.” He predicted that the next voyage, from St Maarten to the Bahamas, would be “a shorter trip, but a harder trip" due to weather. “You get these frontal systems, and you get winds that are going to take you towards Hispaniola and Puerto Rico or maybe out into the Atlantic,” so Dave proposed changes could be made to make An-Tiki even more manoeuvrable. “I think with modification to the rig—we had a downwind sail—but if we had a conventional fore and aft rig we could actually get it to sail into wind, which would be amazing.”  He mentioned that the raft with its current rigging could still make it to the Bahamas but would require frequent deployment of the sea anchor.
After helping to construct the raft and then spending 67 days afloat on the vessel, Dave got to know her pretty well, saying she “had a very good character.” He was pleased that, in addition to the original four goals the expedition had set out to achieve, they’d added the revival of the raft as a seafaring vessel to their list of accomplishments. “Why not sail a raft?” Dave asked. “Not terribly fast, I agree, but you know what? That’s kind of fun.” Rafts, Dave said, tend to be seen as “something you make from bits of the vessel that is sinking beneath you…or tree trunks beside the river to float down the river to safety,” but the An-Tiki proved that a raft “is just another form of construction.” In his opinion, the An-Tiki “was incredibly strong—stronger than any conventional fibreglass boat.” Both Dave and Anthony Smith have a history of travelling in unconventional methods of transportation, including gas balloons and dugout canoes, and all four crewmembers enjoyed the slow-paced journey across the Atlantic. “We learned a lot about the sea around us in the way that you don’t on a yacht because you’re far more closely linked to it.”
The only complaints Dave had about the raft’s equipment were the more modern, technological aspects. He said he sometimes “resented a little the modern communications” which were different from his previous Atlantic crossing. For that crossing, he said, “I cast off, and I went, and I could not communicate with anybody until I got to the other side,” a situation that Dave found very appealing. During An-Tiki’s voyage, though, “the phone was going off a couple times a day,” Dave said, in addition to emails, blog posts and comments which occasionally detracted from the solitude of the ocean. On the other hand, he said he realized “that it was important for our family, friends and followers to be a part of this adventure.”
Other modern gadgets enriched the journey. Dave took with him a small speaker and his iPod which was full of comedies, plays and music. The crew would spend an occasional evening listening to Jeeves & Wooster, Yes, Minister, or Yes, Prime Minister, Dave told me. During night watch, David would listen to Agatha Christie murder mysteries or Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. “It’s great when you’ve got all the stars above you,” he said.
Since his return, David misses the simplicity of life aboard the raft. “I don’t know what reality is at the moment—here nor there. Every so often, I think, ‘Which do I prefer?’ If I could take my wife with me, I think I’d prefer the raft,” Dave said. “There’s no stress on a raft,” he said. He seemed extremely relaxed but also reminded me of a distracted schoolboy, daydreaming about adventures and expeditions. According to another daydreaming raft explorer, Huck Finn, “there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” I think David Hildred would agree.


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