Thursday, August 29, 2013

Translatlantic Voyage in a Liberian Dugout Canoe

Hannes Lindemann, 84, holds copy of Life magazine featuring his transatlantic kayak voyage
Hannes Lindemann in 2006, at the age of 84. He holds a copy of Life magazine, which featured him on the cover following his 1956-57 transatlantic solo voyage in a folding kayak. (Click to enlarge.) 
Dr. Hannes Lindemann is well-known to historically-minded kayakers for his east-to-west solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a folding kayak in 1956-57. Less famous is his similar solo crossing just one year previous in a dugout canoe. We'll focus on Lindemann's dugout journey here; we'll address his kayak voyage, along with some other transoceanic kayak adventures, in a future post.

Lindemann, a German physician, was working in a Liberian plantation clinic for the Firestone Rubber Company in the mid-1950s when he began to solidify his long-held dream of a solo Atlantic crossing. He had previously met Alain Bombard, a Frenchman who had crossed the Atlantic in an inflatable raft in 1952 to test his theory that it was possible to survive "shipwreck" situations without fresh water by obtaining fluids from fish and drinking limited amounts of sea water. Bombard claimed that his voyage was completed under just those conditions, but Lindemann was skeptical, and he decided to test Bombard's theory.

After some unsuccessful attempts to have a dugout canoe built for him by local Liberian labor, Lindemann purchased a used canoe in questionable condition. It measured 23.5 feet LOA, with a beam of 29.9 inches, and it "had holes in the stern and bow, and in the bottom where it had lain on the ground. Also fungus growth had softened the wood somewhat," he wrote in Alone at Sea. But Lindemann thought the mahogany hull still essentially sound, and determined to repair its deficiencies. He named it Liberia II, the original Liberia being the first boat that he had attempted to have built for him locally, but which was accidentally burned.

Like Tilikum, Captain John Voss's ocean-crossing dugout canoe, Liberia II was a far cry from the original native design once Lindemann was done preparing it for sea. Lindemann planed the bottom of the hull flat, sheathed it with fiberglass, and attached a external keel 11.5 feet long and 5.1" deep and containing 250 lb. of lead. He "spanned her width with bent lengths of iron" (by which I assume he refers to internal frames), added fiberglass-covered plywood decks with a cockpit opening near the stern, and bulkheads enclosing watertight containers in the ends. On the exterior, he installed 10-inch thick cork sponsons near the waterline to reduce rolling. He writes that at this stage, the canoe "resembled the pirogues of the Carib Indians." Upon launching, the boat proved top-heavy, which Lindemann attempted to correct by the addition of bagged sand as internal ballast.

Lindemann's description of his rig is sketchy and confusing. It was apparently a sloop, with an ironwood mast that was stiff enough to "run even in the Gulf of Guinea without a backstay." Depending upon the point of sail, Lindemann had two mainsails from which to choose, a squaresail and a gaff, both of nine square yards, and a jib of three square yards. The boom, which was made of "rare red camwood, which warps even less than mahogany," could be rotated to reef the gaff mainsail. A rudder, controlled with cables, could be steered with either the hands via a tiller or by foot.

A 3-horsepower outboard engine was ruined when the boat capsized at the dock before the start of the voyage. Lindemann jettisoned the engine but made no other modifications to improve the boat's stability before setting off from Liberia in February, 1955.

This first voyage was a dismal failure. The boat proved unstable and prone to excessive rolling, and the rudder was too small to control it with the wind abeam. Apparently having forgotten to bring his antimalarial drugs, Lindemann was struck by a recurrence of malaria while underway and tossed most of his provisions overboard during a hallucinatory fit. The trip ended in Ghana just 17 days after it had begun.

Undeterred, Lindemann shipped the boat to Hamburg where he had a shipyard replace the internal ballast with additional external ballast, build a larger rudder, and add "a four-inch wide plank … around the cockpit so that I could sit there in comfort." It's unclear to me if this plank constituted a cockpit combing or a narrow cockpit seat. He then shipped the boat to Oporto and set off again in May on his second transatlantic attempt in four months.

Although his first attempt had demonstrated to him in just two and a half weeks that drinking salt-water was damaging to his health, Lindemann decided to resume the experiment. His daily liquid ration now consisted of seven ounces of sea water and "almost a quart and a half of other liquids [including evaporated milk and mineral water mixed with red wine]. By the second day edemata [i.e., edema, the accumulation of liquids between the cells] had developed, which soon extended up to my knees."

This second attempt was no more successful than the first. The rudder broke two days after a stop in Morocco; Lindemann determined that the new rudder design was too large, and he cut it down and reinstalled it. He lost it altogether shortly thereafter, along with both of his sea anchors. Steering with a paddle for 14 days, he made landfall in Villa Cisneros, in Spanish West Africa.

Lindemann wrote:
"During that time, my daily intake of sea water had been ten and a half fluid ounces, which I swallowed in doses of one and three-fourths fluid ounces six times a day, and now my feet and legs were swollen in spite of rest and exercises. I had proved to myself that there is no advantage to drinking salt water; it can, in fact, weaken a sailor's physical condition at a time when he needs all his strength."
Although this seems obvious now, this may be judging with the benefit of hindsight and the advantage of modern knowledge gained from experiments like those of Lindemann himself. On the other hand, I believe that the unhealthful effects of drinking saltwater had been recognized by sailors for millennia, though perhaps not scientifically demonstrated until after Bombard had promulgated his theory.

Lindemann shipped Liberia II from Villa Cisneros to Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, where he again had a shipyard greatly enlarge the rudder and massively reinforce it. He also had made new sails and a canvas spray cover with an iron frame. Shipping a spare mast and oar, he relaunched in October.


Lindemann (right) examining the rudder of Liberia II following the voyage. Click the photo to view tantalizingly brief film footage of the boat being unloaded from a freighter. Also included is brief footage that Lindemann shot at sea, including glimpses of the boat's rig. The dugout shown under construction in the clip is almost certainly not Liberia II, which Lindemann bought second-hand.
For the next 18 days, Lindemann satisfied his fluid needs entirely from the juice of the apples and oranges he consumed. After discarding the remaining rotting fruit, he "switched to a daily liquid intake of fourteen ounces of evaporated milk and a mixture of one and a half pints of mineral water and a bit less than a half pint of red wine." He ate a raw onion daily which, he says, contained enough vitamins to prevent scurvy. He also ate a can of meat and six mouthfuls of honey daily, some other canned rations which are not clearly listed in his account, and frequently caught fish and ate them raw.

Although his boat was still far from perfect, this time it was good enough. "My narrow canoe rolled and yawed so badly that I usually took in the gaff sail and went under square sail at night." Following a tortuous voyage, Lindemann landed in St. Croix some time between December 29 and 31 (the account is unclear). He recuperated for ten days, then embarked again and sailed through a vicious storm to Haiti, thus completing his intended voyage, in a roundabout way, from the first Negro republic in the Old World (Liberia) to the first one in the New World.

UPDATE: Many thanks to T.G. ''Woody'' Witte for the link to the film footage. Mr. Witte tell us that he plans a voyage from California to Hawaii in a Klepper Aerius II, like the boat Lindemann used in his next voyage across the Atlantic (see Mr. Witte's comment, below). We kinda hope he's putting us on, but if he's really determined to carry through with it, we wish him as much luck and success as Dr. Lindemann enjoyed. Don't forget your sunscreen, Woody.


  1. I suppose sponsons were a natural choice if he had previous experience elsewhere with a Klepper but the natural thing to do was surely to add one or two outriggers. No ballast or keel then needed, he could have zipped across the Atlantic.

    1. Lindemann did add a single outrigger to his Klepper on his next voyage. Although he didn't say so in his account "Alone at Sea," it could well have been due to lessons learned on his dugout voyage.

  2. Thanks for the post.
    And looking forward to others on the topic.
    I am also wondering if you will be writing about the Sierra Sagrada, another trans-atlantic dugout voyage.

  3. Wolfgang: I'm not familiar with the Sierra Sagrada voyage. Guest post?

  4. Bob,
    Glad to accommodate. The story is told in The Voyage of the Sierra Sagrada: Across the Atlantic in a Canoe. Amazon shows at least one copy for sale. The short version of this particular adventure is that Francis Brenton, the author of the book was contracted by the Chicago Field Museuam to acquire a dugout canoe from South America for the Museum's collection. Frank bought two dugouts, turned them into a catamaran and sailed them back up to the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi and back to Chicago. Since the Field Museum only needed one canoe, Frank used the other one to launch on his next adventure which was to transport a balloon across the Atlantic from Chicago by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Once in Africa, Frank tried to cross the Atlantic back to America in the balloon which he had transported from Chicago. That attempt failed, and in a way, the crossing of the Atlantic in a dugout was only a sidebar to what he saw as the real adventure, namely the crossing of the Atlantic by balloon. The book has some three dozen photographs of various parts of the adventure.
    I got my copy of the book at Ralph Frese's Chicagoland Canoe Base. Ralph was a collector of canoes and kayaks and hoped to establish a museum of the canoe. I got to know Ralph because he had a Greenland kayak in his collection and I wanted to study it. The dugout that Francis Benton had used to cross the Atlantic was in Ralph's collection and he had it sitting out back of his shop. At the time, I wasn't much interested in dugouts or I would have taken some photos of the Francis Benton's dugout, but here we are, almost two decades later. Ralph Frese is dead, his dream of the museum of the canoe unrealized and his half of the Sierra Sagrada off to who knows where.
    But if you can email me, I will write up a little more detailed report and scan some of the photos from the book and send them to you so you can post them. boats at wolfgangbrinck dot com

  5. tg ''woody'' witteOctober 13, 2013 at 4:14 AM

    here' s some pics/video of the Liberia III,,the quasi dugout he used on his first successful trans-atlantic crossing:
    FYI: i have been a fan of his since first i read that Life magazine article back in '56,,,,it fueled my imagination so much ,that i worked my buns off for a year delivering newspapers to save the $350 needed to purchase the same Klepper Aerius II Lindemann used. It hangs from garage rafters awaiting a planned solo crossing of the Pacific from Point Arena to Hawaii {one of the last items on my bucket list:>)}....OBTW is Hannes still with us???

    1. Woody: thanks very much for the link. It's interesting the see the canoe, even if it's only partial views.The footage of a dugout under construction couldn't be Liberia II, since he bought that canoe second-hand, but I presume it was included to show the method of construction of a roughly similar hull.
      Hannes is apparently still alive: at least, the Wikipedia article about him doesn't indicate otherwise.
      I am sorry that I will not encourage you on your Pacific crossing plans. Of course I don't know you or your abilities, and if you attempt it, I wish you all the luck in the world. But I recommend that you begin with a LOT of serious alongshore kayak-camping to get your feet (and your bum) wet. I do a certain amount of canoe-camping in relatively benign conditions (compared to the open ocean), and it's plenty of fun, still encompasses enough excitement for my taste, and provides sufficient bragging rights and ego gratification for this soon-to-be-old fart.