From Maine to Spain on Galatea

Transatlantic voyagers Michael Olcott, George Laff and Charlie Olcott (at left; left to right), and their skipper “Bud” O’Brien (above). Photo courtesy Susan Olcott

“How to move. When to move. If you had to think about it, you weren’t going on the boat.” The boat was Galatea – a 38-foot steel-hulled yawl that was sailed across the Atlantic in the summer of 1964 – and the remembrance is courtesy of Charlie Olcott, one of Galatea’s crew, recalling the sentiments of her formidable skipper, Frederic S. “Bud” O’Brien.

Bud was a former U.S. Navy navigator during World War II and a lifelong sailor. As a boy, all summer long and in rain or shine, he could be found in his daysailer plying the shoreline, creeks and inlets of southern Maine. It wasn’t long before, on bigger boats, he earned the reputation as a highly skilled and demanding sailor.

Bud had wanted to sail across the Atlantic for many years, but his mother made him swear that he wouldn’t do it until she passed away. Over time, it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen soon (she ended up living to be 104). So, in 1963, Bud gathered a crew and kept asking until his mom relented. The resulting voyage to the Med was so successful that he decided to repeat it the following year.

Bud’s transatlantic crew in 1964 comprised two of Bud’s nephews – brothers Michael and Charlie Olcott (18 and 17, respectively) – and George Laff, the son of a family friend. That summer Bud readied the crew by sailing in and out of York Harbor for a week, and provisioned the boat with enough food for at least two transatlantic crossings. “There were hams hanging all over the place,” said Charlie, “and cans of food stuffed everywhere, including the bilge. We looked like gypsies.” Then, on June 28, the crew set off from York Harbor. They traveled down the Maine coast, through the Cape Cod Canal and past Nantucket Lightship. “Then we were gone,” Charlie said.

Charlie had cruised up and down the Maine coast with Uncle Bud, but had never been offshore. He’d also never been seasick . . . until that trip. “I was sicker than I ever could have imagined,” he said. After his first bout with mal de mer, he was fine for the rest of the trip. That is, until his brother Michael made breakfast. “I couldn’t stand the smell of oatmeal, and Mike knew it,” Charlie said. “I could tell when I smelled oatmeal that he was going to be snarky for the rest of the day. I’d go on deck until the whole thing cleared out.”

Although they had some big swells, Uncle Bud remarked that the first 12 days provided some of the best sailing he’d ever experienced. “It was clear, dry and absolutely magnificent,” Charlie said. One of his favorite memories was when they hit a calm stretch and decided to shut everything down to save power. “With no wind, we spent a couple of days jumping overboard in the middle of the ocean.”

When they finally reached the Azores, their first landfall in two weeks, Uncle Bud was such a superb navigator that earlier that day he’d announced, “At 8:15 p.m. tonight, you’ll see Horta [in Faial] off the port side of the boat,” recalled Charlie. “And he was dead right.” When they finally dropped the anchor it was nearly midnight, and pitch black. But dolphins had escorted them there, leaping next to Galatea’s bow and creating phosphorescence.

While in the Azores, they watched native islanders kill whales with harpoons thrown from small dories. Once the iron struck its target, the whalers stayed out at sea for several days until the whale died. Then they’d row it back to shore and cut it up. To this day, Charlie still has a whale tooth he brought back from the Azores.

When the crew of Galatea finally left, the locals threw them a farewell party. It ended with a flourish as Galatea was being sailed out of the harbor, during which all four crewmembers jumped overboard and steered the boat by moving between lines being dragged behind her.

If sailing from York Harbor to the Azores was the best sailing Bud had ever seen, the sailing from the Azores through the Strait of Gibraltar was some of the worst, with heavy rain, strong winds and large seas. For four consecutive days, under deeply reefed jib and main, the boat was awash with waves that broke over the bow. Everything below was wet, and sleep was nearly impossible.

The journey between the Azores and Gibraltar that was planned for nine days ended up taking 14. They passed through the heavily trafficked – and narrow – Strait of Gibraltar in the middle of the night. In Gibraltar they befriended the head of the port, who was delighted to serve as their tour guide. The U.S. Navy had a base there, where the crew of Galatea spent three or four days. Charlie was eager to try out his high school Spanish – particularly with the lovely local girls. But, he quickly realized that Portuguese was an entirely different language. Nonetheless, they enjoyed carousing with the Navy folks there. He had his first rum and Coke while at the base . . . and maybe a few more afterwards, he recalled.

Another fond memory was watching the local fishing fleet catch sardines offshore. They would bring them back and cook them over a fire on the beach and drink cold beer. “Those were the best sardines I’ve ever had,” Charlie said.

After that, they headed along the coast of Spain. They finished their sailing trip on the Island of Mallorca. While there, they toured the island and dined on paella full of local seafood at a tiny dockside tavern – flavors Charlie said he can taste to this day.

He also remembers something less savory: He was looking forward to using facilities that were a bit less cramped than those aboard their boat, but when he reached for the toilet paper someone had decided to put a live eel in the toilet paper roll.

After that, they bedded down the Galatea for the winter and flew home, stopping in Madrid and Lisbon, and then on to Boston and up to Maine. Not long after the crew returned that August, the Cruising Club of America (CCA) announced that Bud had won that year’s Parkinson Award – bestowed on any member of the CCA who makes a transoceanic passage in his or her own yacht, predominantly under sail, without being in an organized race. Bud’s mother was very pleased and proud – so much so that she gave her blessing for future trips.

Freelance writer Susan Olcott, a resident of Brunswick, Maine, has conducted experiments aboard lobster boats while getting her M.S. in Marine Science, planned and led snorkeling and kayaking trips in San Diego for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, accompanied kids on bike tours in Europe and the U.S., taught biology to military personnel in Sardinia, Italy, and published essays about all these adventures.