Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from Letters from the Lost Soul: A Five Year Voyage of Discovery and Adventure by Robert B Lipkin

The author of Letters from the Lost Soul Robert B Lipkin (better known as Bob Bitchin) has certainly done his time in deep water and shoal, much of it in his 42-ton ketch Lost Soul with his partner, Jody, and a variety of crew.

Bob is also the guy who set up the well-known Latitudes and Attitudes magazine in the US. He’s a resourceful and enthusiastic sailor, but what sets him apart from the crowd is his ironic view of his own considerable achievements and his unique turn of phrase. Reading his book Letters from the Lost Soul: A Five Year Voyage of Discovery and Adventure is a rare treat.

We join him and his crew as they tackle a spectacular reef passage in the far Pacific. Then, after catching our breath, a second extract sees him once again running an impossible current through mind-numbing surf into a reef-strewn Mexican haven that then turns downright nasty on him. Somehow, the Lost Soul survives.

Extract from Letters from the Lost Soul

Here we sat. The boat was rocking, the pass had waves breaking across the opening, and there was a storm on the way that would have us going straight into it for 750 miles to our next stop. This was the final exam of sailing.

Young Luke and I jumped into the dinghy and fought our way through the waves to the pass to check it out again. It was gushing through the pass at about 7-8 knots, with large breakers across the front and a lot of very shallow coral heads on the inside. The winds would be blowing at 45-50 knots on our beam if we tried to go through.

We took the dinghy to the other side of the island to see if we could anchor, but the waves from the south-east storm were still breaking at about 15ft there.

So these were our choices on this final exam we were facing. We could:

  • Stay where we were and get thrown on the reef, and die;
  • Try to get through a 30ft wide hole in a reef with a 6-8 knot outward current, large breakers on the outside, and shallows on the inside with a 40-knot crosswind, and die;
  • Anchor on the south side to hide from the north-wester, and get thrown on the reef by a 15ft south swell, and die; or,
  • Sail into a full gale off our nose for three or four days, and wish we were dead.

We decided to opt for door number 2. I tied some weights from a weight belt (Jody’s idea) to a line and knotted it at 9ft. Then Luke and I jumped back in the dinghy and fought our way back into the pass.

We tested it and decided if we could stay between the coral heads at the back side of the pass, after getting through the breakers and not get blown into the reef by the beam wind, we could make it. I went back to the boat, instructed the crew what to do if/when we hit the reef, took two Xanax, said a small prayer (first time in years!), and we hauled anchor.

A squall appeared on the horizon as we started into position, but by then we were committed. As we approached the pass, I tested to see how high I could rev the engine safely, and going into the seas and winds I could get her up to 8 knots.

With Joel hanging tight on the spreaders, Luke on the bow pulpit, Jody on the video camera and a sweating, nervous captain behind the wheel, we turned into the pass. I almost swallowed my tongue as the current swept the bow away from the entrance like King Kong picked up Fay Wray. I fought for control and got her back headed into what now looked like too small a slip with very fast running water and a surfers’ paradise in front of it. We caught a wave that was breaking and I wondered if it would wash us up onto the reef, but it didn’t.

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Even though we were doing close to 8 knots, when we started into the pass it looked like we were standing still. The current just rushed through, and once in the entrance of the pass it looked like we had 6-8ft on either side of the boat to where it was about a foot deep. As we got about 100 yards into the pass, it narrowed even more, but it was 20ft deep under us.

There was no turning back, so I just kept it pointed straight as I could. The beam wind kept pushing us to starboard, and soon we were within two or three feet of the reef. The outward current was running at about 7.5 knots; you could have crawled faster than we were moving and the water looked about deep enough to stand in, but the depth sounder said 10ft.

Robert ‘Bob Bitchin’ Lipkin at the helm of Lost Soul

We dodged between coral heads and now Jody was relaying messages since the howling wind made it impossible to hear. Then, all at once, we were in the clear and deep water of the lagoon. I looked behind me and the pass looked like it was about 12ft wide. Getting out will be another story. I guess if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

We stayed in Mopelia for about five days and fell in love with the place. The locals adopted us as extended family and showed us around the motu, took us fishing, lobstering, and showed us how to get heart of palm for salads. We laid on mile-long virgin white sand beaches in clear, blue waters and watched the storm waves break on the outer reef. We explored motus and visited small bird islands. We picked up tern eggs for our breakfast and literally lived off the land.

A Mexican pass

The 54-mile crossing from Lighthouse Reef to Xcalak in Mexico took us all of five and a half hours. But it got fun as we approached the 75ft wide pass into the reef at Xcalak. The 20-knot winds that pushed us there also built up some 10-15ft seas, and they were breaking as we entered through that little bitty hole in the reef they laughingly called a pass.

The fun continued as we were surfing through this little hole in a 42-ton boat. Now that was exciting, especially as we watched the depth meter read 30-20-15-10, and, well, you get the picture. I don’t know if I was the biggest wreck, or my crew, who stood transfixed waiting for the crash.

It didn’t come, at least not yet. We made the pass and turned north into the lagoon trying to find a place to anchor, but the depth sounder must have been wrong. It couldn’t really be just 8ft in here, could it? Well, actually no, it wasn’t. It was 6ft, and we draw 8ft!

You got it. We went up on the reef. Grounded out. For the first time in over 55,000 miles of sailing, I grounded. They say you haven’t been cruising till you’ve done it. I guess now I can say I was cruising! For the next hour, the six of us, and Bill from a Catalina 38 called Marauder, worked at getting the 42-ton Lost Soul off the bottom. We were jammed hard. First, we tried to back her off, then to go forward. We attached a line to the top of our halyard and tried to pull her over.

Lipkin started cruising the world in his 68ft staysail ketch Lost Soul
in 1990

We took our storm hook and set it 300ft into the deeper water, and tried to kedge off. Finally, we tried all of the above, raised all of our sails and pushed with the two dinghies. We did it! Damn, did we feel good as we set our hook and invited Bill and his lady over for some chilli, wine, and talk about getting large boats off shallow bottoms. It really brought the crew together. It’s times like that which make you feel alive.

But the next day was the real ‘E’ ticket ride. The wind had whipped up to over 40 knots and the seas were breaking well over the reef. Inside, it started to get lumpy, and we were just a foot off the bottom. As the swell grew and we started to bounce on the bottom, we had only one chance, and that was to get out of there and head up to Chinchorro Bank, a reef about 40 miles north.

We headed toward the place where we entered the reef the day before. The winds were blowing at about 40 knots and the seas had kicked up. But it wasn’t the seas that bothered me. It was the surf. Full-on 18ft breaking waves in the narrow pass.

We lined up the hole in the reef with the lighthouse and headed out into the pass. As we hit it, a wave broke over the whole boat, filling our aft stateroom with sea water, as we had left the aft hatch open. Who expected waves this big? I plunged the throttle to full, pushing it up to 2,500rpm. Usually that would mean 9.5 knots, but we were standing still.

The seas were high and close, and the boat sea-horsed up and down as they continued to break over us. The depth sounder read from a high of 28ft to a low of 6ft. We managed to keep from bottoming out but I don’t know how. It took the longest 20 minutes of my life to get through the surf and out into the sea.

Bob gets a moment for reflection aboard Lost Soul

Everyone was high as we broke out of the surf and into the open sea. We looked back over what we’d just come through. Unbelievable is all we could say, but the Lost Soul did it, and we were all pretty proud of her, as we set sail and beat to Chinchorro Reef, where we motored over the 9-10ft bottom and set our hook behind the reef.

We felt we’d seen it all that day. Of course, reality made us take a second look a while later when we put on our snorkel gear and looked under the boat. It’s hard to imagine a 42-ton boat riding just 10-12in above the sea floor. That’s all there was under us for the night, but by now we just accepted it.

The sea gods were not through with us yet. In order to thoroughly trounce us, they decided to give us a full gale at anchor with our silly few inches under us. By morning, we were bouncing on the bottom again. In three days, my boat had seen more bottom than a toilet seat!

We didn’t stand a chance in the shallow water so we decided to make the 102-mile crossing to Cozumel with the gale blowing off our butts. They say sailing downwind is fun, but in over 55,000 miles I haven’t seen enough to know. Anyway, we headed carefully out of the anchorage. The water went from 8.5ft to 9 and when it hit 13 we were feeling pretty good. We were doing about 5 knots under hare poles. We were almost out.

Bob and partner, Jody

Out of luck

Crash! All of a sudden the boat stopped dead in her tracks. No warning, nothing. Just one second the depth sounder said 11ft, then the next she was buzzing five! Five feet! We had hit a coral head and hit it hard. The boat came to a shuddering halt and people fell all over the decks as they tried to hold themselves up.

On the bow, our lookouts were more surprised than I was. They couldn’t see the brain coral we’d hit. The 40-knot wind behind us was pushing us up on the coral and the boat heeled to a sickening degree. I slammed it into reverse, gave it full throttle and somehow we came off.

Once into deep water, Woody jumped overboard. With the seas boiling and the gale blowing he dove down and assessed the damage. A chunk was knocked out of the bottom front of the keel but other than that it looked okay. The rudder was untouched.

Woody climbed aboard; we hoisted a double-reefed mainsail and turned toward our destination, some 100 miles off. It was 0800. Already, we’d had a hell of a day, but we averaged nine knots for the crossing. As it got dark we headed for the lee of the island so we could get some rest. We were beat.

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