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A preschooler’s education for an ocean sailing life

2019 January 1

This will seem strange, coming from the publisher of a magazine whose trademark is pixel-perfect digital photographs reproduced in vivid color, but there are times when grainy black-and-white film photography can be better than high-tech imagery at conveying the drama of sailing in fraught conditions.

I write this fresh from twice watching a 10-minute strip of film from a movie made on an 85-foot schooner sailing around Cape Horn in 1936. The film is not just black and white, it’s dark all over, poor quality even by early 20th-century standards. But its images—seawater mountains described by the narrator as 60 feet high overtaking the schooner, the vessel plunging into the abyss of the troughs, then struggling to reclimb the mountains, waves sweeping the decks, two helmsmen in oilskins and sou’westers wrestling the wheel—are thrilling. The gloomy light adds to the drama, suggesting the grimness of the challenge facing sailors in a freezing gale on the roughest water on Earth.

This survival sailing, however, takes up only a few minutes of the film. The rest of it is about a sailing experience that looks, for lack of a better word, delightful. If there is a better word, it would be “charming.” It’s mostly about two adorable children, a 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother, and their life on the schooner during a voyage from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to San Francisco.

The children were free spirits who had the run of the massively rigged two-masted pilot schooner built in 1883. They climbed aloft, using the ratlines or shinnying up a halyard. With the schooner heeled, they pulled themselves up the windward side of the foresail with a line from aloft and hung from reef points. They scooted out on the long bowsprit as it rose and fell over a lively sea. All of this with the southern reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans rolling in the film’s background.

A reader sent me a link to the film posted as a YouTube video. I had never seen it before, but when I read the title, which included the schooner’s name, Wander Bird, I knew what it was about—the story that made Commodore Tompkins a legend.

Warwick “Commodore” Tompkins was the little boy in the film. The schooner Wander Bird was owned by his father, Warwick Tompkins Sr., and the child nicknamed Commodore and his sister Ann grew up on the boat. Before he was old enough to go to kindergarten, Commodore had crossed the Atlantic Ocean 13 times.

Commodore went on to make a name for himself as a racing sailor and a respected authority on all things sailing, but to this day he is defined by that childhood voyage around Cape Horn on Wander Bird

Warwick Sr. made the film of the Cape Horn adventure and wrote a book about it titled Fifty South to Fifty South that included photos of the skylarking children. These chronicles helped support his family (and his old schooner) and brought a measure of fame to the kids. 

Commodore today is a famous sailor on the cusp of his 86th birthday, but his adult achievements, however impressive, have never been able to eclipse the compelling story of his childhood at sea. 

Before mentioning those later accomplishments in a long, admiring profile published by Sports Illustrated, Coles Phinizy wrote, “At the age of four he was cavorting aloft with the insouciance of a gibbon, climbing Wander Bird’s shrouds, swinging off and riding a halyard to the deck.” A story posted online in 2017 by Kimball Livingston started with an anecdote about Commodore following his father up the rigging of the schooner to a point high above the deck—as a 2-year-old.

If not for the frequent journalistic retelling of the Wander Bird story, it might well be dismissed as a myth, so out of sync is it with the risk-averse culture of these times that so highly values security and comfort.

Even in the 1930s, when Warwick Sr. went on the lecture circuit with his film and book, questions were raised suggesting it was irresponsible to have small children romping around on a sailing vessel without life jackets or tethers. Some audience members were reported to have said a photo of the boy on a perch 65 feet above the deck must have been faked. Some thought the movie was inappropriate for school audiences because the kids’ sailing antics would have been a dangerous example for young school children. Years later, when Commodore presented his own programs featuring the film he would also encounter disapproving comments about the absence of life vests.

His answer: “We were raised on the ship. We had balance and self-confidence. It’s hanging on that keeps you alive.”

It’s hard to imagine those little sailing athletes wearing five-pound cork life vests and trussed up in improvised harnesses (in the 1930s you didn’t go down to the local West Marine store to buy a yachting safety harness), but even if they had been, their experience would have been eyebrow-raising by today’s standards.

Wander Bird’s “wrong way” east-to-west Cape Horn rounding was a brutal, perilous voyage. Warwick Sr. wrote that the waters between latitude 50 south in the Atlantic to 50 south in the Pacific were “the hardest 1,000 miles in any ocean.” Actually, for him and his family and crew, they were the hardest 2,300 miles—the schooner was driven back again and again by storms so severe it had to heave to in what Beaufort called a “tempest,” the next worst wind at sea to a hurricane.

Consider how fortunate Commodore was to have had that experience. He became a professional mariner and had numerous encounters with angry seas, but what better preparation could there have been than what he experienced as a preschooler?

To see the Wander Bird film, Google “Kap Horn umrunden,” or click here. The YouTube posting came from a German source, but the narration by Warwick Sr. is in English.