THE INDESTRUCTIBLE TOM MCNALLY
Fire destroyed one boat. He built another and shipped it to St. Johns Newfoundland. His passion: to beat Hugo Vilhen across the Atlantic in the smallest boat. Violent storms ripped his sails and he had to be rescued. In 1992 he tried again out of southern Portugal only to be rammed by a freighter. Twice he approached the Canary Islands to make repairs and to provision and twice violent storms pushed him hundreds of miles off course. Undaunted, Tom McNally persevered towards his objective... to cross the Atlantic in the smallest boat ever. 113 days later, aboard “VERAHUGH”, all of five feet, 4 ½ inches on deck, without fresh water and without food, he reached Puerto Rico, his dream fulfilled.
Tom McNally, a native of Liverpool, England and with a heavy cockney accent, learned to love the sea from an early age. He scraped up enough money to buy his first boat, a 17 foot six inch twin keel day boat which he christened “ANISOR which, when enunciated as Tom points out sounds like “AN EYE SORE”. With absolutely no sailing experience, Tom headed for the West Indies but ended up in Recife, Brazil, much the wiser. In the following years, he next made four straightforward crossings of the Atlantic, three with friends aboard a 34’ Rival and another aboard a slightly smaller boat.
Next, Tom built “VERA”, 12’6” on deck, at his home in Liverpool. In it he sailed to the Canary Islands then on to Anguila, in the West Indies. Dismasted part way across, adrift on the long Atlantic swells, he came up with the “A” frame design that he built into his record setting boat.
In 1983 he built “BIG C”. 6’9” on deck and sailed her from St. Johns, Newfoundland towards England. High winds blew out his sails and he drifted for two weeks until, off the southern coast of Ireland, the “Yuri Kostikov”, a large Russian trawler came to his rescue. The radioman had picked up a message he understood to read “look out for six men in a boat” since the original message received, “Look out for a man in a six foot boat” was simply unreasonable. In high seas and winds gusting at over thirty five knots, the trawler found McNally and positioned itself to leeward. Within seconds, Tom found himself blown under the trawler’s towering stern. One of the idling propellers gashed his boat. Tethered to the mast, Tom struggled to bring his boat alongside the trawler. Using hand signals he got the Russian crew to pass him heavy lines that he ran around under the hull and around the keel pf his small boat. Meanwhile, a tender that had been lowered to assist in the operation, approached, hit Tom and quickly separated.
With heavy ropes secured around the keel and the trawlers heavy boom rigged outboard, the Russians tensed the lines and “BIG-C” leaped clear of the ocean. The jerk caused Tom to lose his hold around the mast, slip and drop, to hang suspended by the ten-foot rope tied to “Big-C’s” mast. As he cleared the sea, his pants, pockets filled with water, slipped off. Twenty-five foot seas tossed the trawler about and in turn Tom, holding on for his life, swung in wild fifteen foot circles beneath “BIG-C”. Tom looked down at the icy churning ocean. It was clear his only chance was to hang on. The crew hesitated to swing the gyrating boat closer for fear that Tom would smash into the hull. Minutes passed and Tom, wet and cold, tried time and again to catch lines thrown to him. The boom operator swung Tom and his boat towards a husky Russian sailor hanging on an upper deck who grabbed Tom, upside down, in a bear hug, and brought him aboard. Minutes later “BIG-C” rested on deck. Shaken, naked, half frozen and thankful to be alive, he embraced his saviors. They in turn bantered and laughed. Tom, perplexed, failed to catch on until one of the crew leaned over and said, “English men not too beeg.”
Tom is from Liverpool and much of the hometown hero. He abandoned a career as a teacher to pursue a life at sea. “VERAHUGH” was lovingly named for his mother Vera and his father Hugh. He proudly tells all within earshot that he’s known locally as “the crazy sailor” and proudly includes it when signing fan mail and photos. His hero is Hugo Vilhen, midget solo sailor out of Homestead, Florida, who in his five foot six inch boat held the trans-Atlantic crossing record for the smallest boat. Tom prepared to go after this record.
Early in 1992 he built a 5’ 2 inch boat in the second story of a small shop. Virtually complete, he had but to slip it through a window, lower it to the ground, and fasten the keel. Late one night, the shop caught fire. The flames caused the floor to collapse and his almost ready-for-sea boat fell to the ground, his hopes to cross the Atlantic destroyed beyond repair.
Undismayed, he immediately began to build “VERAHUGH-PRIDE OF MERSEYSIDE”, close by the banks of the Mersey River. Ever short of funds, he found a discarded wardrobe that became the backbone for his new boat. He laid foam on the outside walls, molded it to the shape he wanted and then covered the foam with fiberglass. Once the fiberglass set, he dug out the foam and between the wardrobe and the outer hull, he built storage cabinets accessed by a series of small ports. Within months his vessel was ready. As a hatch he used the door to a washing machine, the type that has a plastic bubble.
Contrary winds out of Liverpool and the heavy traffic in the Channel convinced Tom McNally that he’d be better off sailing from the continent. He shipped “VERAHUGH” to Lisbon and traveled overland to meet her. A bus dropped him off on Margino Road from where he could see the boat basin across eight lanes of traffic and several railroad tracks. Confused with traffic approaching from the left, opposite to that in England, Tom looked the wrong way and got hit by a van, landing in a heap alongside the road. The driver stopped, verified that Tom was alive and sped away. Tom, bloodied, hurt, his clothes torn, worked his way across the busy highways to this boat where the press anxiously awaited his scheduled arrival. He quickly became a celebrity among the sailing community.
Many sailors came by to meet Tom while he loaded his boat for the long crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Late one afternoon, two heavy set men who had obviously been drinking walked out on the pier to gape at the miniature ocean going cruiser “VERAHUGH” and the “crazy sailor”. With Tom looking the other way, one of the men suddenly leaped aboard and let himself down through the hatch. Within seconds the second man jumped on the deck and hung on to the mast and sang out in Portuguese. Before Tom could react, the boat tipped over, water poured into the hatch and the boat sank. The man in the hatch struggled to escape but his jacket had caught on the hatch. Under water, bubbles oozed from his nose. Tom leaped into the water, climber aboard ‘VERAHUGH”, grabbed the man by the arms and pulled him out. With the help of his friends, the intruder was hauled up to the finger pier and revived. “VERAHUGH” meanwhile, oozed bubbles from its resting place on the bottom. All electrical devices and stores, soaked in salt water, lay ruined.
Undaunted, Tom raised his mini-cruiser and once again prepared his little vessel for sea. Winds off Lisbon were unfavorable and he followed suggestions to have his boat trucked to southern Portugal. Violent storms lashed the areas throughout December 1992. Twenty foot tides made navigation hazardous. And, to make matters worse, the local police, the Portuguese Guardia Fiscal in the small fishing port of Sagres, just West of Cape St. Vincent, would not grant him permission to sail in an unquestionably unseaworthy craft. Family and friends insisted he return to England for the holidays but Tom refused. He wanted to sail in 1992 to commemorate the crossing by Columbus on his Voyage of Discovery. He had 10 days to set sail.
Christmas eve found Tom alone, inside a borrowed fish locker decorated with tiny bits of tinsel, home-made pudding, several rats, and Ernie Shackleton as company. Ernie Shackleton was Tom’s pet hermit crab that had stayed with Tom during several years. A good luck omen, Tom would resort to discussing his dilemmas with Ernie, always a very patient listener.
Tom was stuck in Sagres. Local officials refused to allow him to sail until he could produce ownership documentation, which he didn’t have since it was not required in England for a vessel of his size. The Guardia kept a watch on his boat continuously. On December 27, when the wind shifted to the east, he decided this was the moment to dash out into the Atlantic. Tom placed two bags of unusable gear on the dock and asked the Guardia to watch his belongings while he tested his boat. He would be right back, Tom told him.
A day later he found himself in the middle of the vessel separation traffic lanes for shipping approaching and leaving the Mediterranean from the North. With his flashlight and VHF radio he contacted an endless line of ships until his water soaked electrics gave out. At that moment, a mammoth freighter approached dead on. He signaled with his light but was unable to radio. He rowed frantically. The freighter came upon his tiny craft. The bow wave flung him away from the hull but the suction of the hull brought him back in. “VERAHUGH” bumped along the side of the towering vessel while Tom attempted to fend off with his paddle. Afraid he was going to be sucked in by the propellers he tried to seal himself in by closing the hatch only to find that his harness, clamped to the mast, prevented the hatch from closing tightly. When he whipped off his harness, the side of the ship tore it loose. As the stern passed, “VERAHUGH” was left holed and half full of water. Shivering and shaken, Tom pumped all night. A day later, out of the shipping lanes, he found he was unable to reach the damage from either the inside of outside. He would have to put into port for repairs. Even worse, Ernie Shackleton was gone, lost while he frantically bailed. Now he was truly alone.
Winds faired out of the North and pushed him towards the Canary Islands. Two weeks later he approached Sta. Cruz on the island of Tenerife. While in the process of making his final approach, a violent storm surged from the south. Through six rough days and nights Tom struggled to keep his tiny craft on course. Shortly after midnight on the sixth day, Tom found himself off the harbor of Funchal in Madeira. Fifty feet off the breakwater, the wind died and he rowed. He measured headway in inches. On the 2nd of February, 1993, he set foot once again on land.
He repaired the crack in the hull and set sail anew for the Canary Islands. Days later another violent storm surged from the North which pushed him down towards the Cape Verde Islands. He checked his dead reckoning and sextant positions with a weekly GPS fix. Both confirmed he had been pushed down to 14 degrees North, much lower than his planned course to Puerto Rico. Unable to sail any closer than 80 degrees to the wind with his twin jibs and no main, Tom worked his way North in a series of steps as the wind shifted from South to East. His water maker failed and to stay alive he continued to drink its salt laden product. On May he drifted under El Morro and into San Juan Harbor, 113 days out of Sagres, 25 pounds lighter, his kidneys near failure.
Embraced by all in Puerto Rico and showered with hospitality he prepared “VERAHUGH” for its final leg: to Ft. Lauderdale. His track, winds permitting, would take him south of Great Inagua, on to the Great Bahama Bank and then up the Gulf Stream to Florida. His future plans: to marry the love of his life, Edna, and settle down... until, of course, there is another record to break . While “VERAHUGH” was hauled at the San Juan Bay Marina he lovingly studied her lines and said to me, “You know, mate, I could take 8 inches off her and....”
by William A. Butler