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Sailing to the Far Horizon

The Restless Journey and Tragic Sinking of a Tall Ship

Pamela Sisman Bitterman

Publication Year: 2004

The tall ship Sofia sank off New Zealand’s North Island in February 1982, stranding its crew on disabled life rafts for five days. They struggled to survive as any realistic hope of rescue dwindled. Just a few years earlier, Pamela Sisman Bitterman was a naïve swabbie looking for adventure, signing on with a sailing co-operative taking this sixty-year-old, 123-foot, three-masted gaff-topsail schooner around the globe. The aged Baltic trader had been rescued from a wooden boat graveyard in Sweden and reincarnated as a floating commune in the 1960s. By the time Sofia went down, Bitterman had become an able seaman, promoted first to bos’un and then acting first mate, immersing herself in this life of a tall ship sailor, world traveler, and survivor.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

The events in this book occurred nearly twenty-five years ago. That I am able to recount them in such vivid detail is due entirely to the faith that my parents had that I would someday commit the adventure to print. They preserved my letters, journals, photographs, and newspaper and magazine articles. My mother even transcribed the most worn and weather-beaten...


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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. 3-10

This tale is not ancient. It is just twenty-five years old, in fact. However, as part of the tradition of sailors whom it hopes to honor, its years number in the hundreds. And the legacy of the human spirit of which it strives to be worthy is timeless. Nonetheless, in the end, this is just my story...

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1. Joining the Sofia for Her Second Circumnavigation: Floating in Boston

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pp. 11-28

...“Ahoy, mates, hands off your cocks and on your socks!” This raunchy charge is the rude awakening delivered by our ever-ebullient skipper. Al though not an entirely appropriate command because women make up half the crew, we all leap from our bunks, infused with the captain’s enthusiasm. This morning we go to sea. Casting off from Boston’s tired old Lincoln...

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2. Into the Teeth of Hurricane Kendra: My Maiden Voyage

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pp. 29-49

I boarded the tall ship in Boston on August 20, 1978. We left the harbor bound for the Caribbean in the early dawn of October 25, marking the beginning of my maiden voyage aboard the Sofia. Those introductory months in port had proved interesting if not illuminating, productive without the benefit of certainty. I was there, but I did not yet belong. Had...

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3. Too Much Rum, Too Many Steel Drums: Too Long a Stay in the Windward Islands

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pp. 50-100

We had already spent nine long months in the Caribbean, and that period certainly was not what I’d anticipated or could have imagined—light years from it, actually. My initial stirrings of doubt and discomfort in Boston proved to be much more prophetic than I’d realized at the time. I was woefully incomplete in my new identity. At each new intersection I could have...

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4. Old World, Third World, Unspoiled World: The Dutch Antilles, Venezuela, the San Blas Archipelago

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pp. 101-127

Leaving the West Indies was therapeutic both for our ship and her dogged few remaining crew. We were a broken and battered vessel of foundering travelers amid islands full of affluent tourists and bitter locals. To this day,negative feelings checker my memories of this phase of our journey.It was apparent that the inhabitants of these Windward Islands had once...

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5. Great Escapes: The Trip Overland through Mexico and Central America

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pp. 128-144

I flew home from Panama, taking advantage of my proximity to family and one last stab at earning U.S. dollars before cutting loose from the Americas. For cruisers, crossing the Pacific represents establishing true autonomy. The symbolic umbilical cord that attaches us to secure lives,loving families, and valued careers is effectively severed by vast open ocean,...

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6. “¿Dónde Está American Embassy?”: What the Travel Brochures Don’t Tell You: Costa Rica, Panama, and the Galapagos

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pp. 145-170

The Sofia, as I had known her, was about to change. We were on an approach to the Panama Canal, a major world port accessible and liberally trafficked by travelers from around the world. Most of our recent communications with prospective new crew members dealt with the logistics of meeting the ship there for her much-touted South Pacific crossing. We were expect-...

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7. The World’s Longest Expanse of Uninterrupted Ocean: Crossing the South Pacific to the Marquesas

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pp. 171-200

For fifteen years my husband and I owned a fifty-foot brigantine. Our family spent the better part of this time living aboard her in a southern California marina. At the docks, we encountered hundreds of boaters coming and going; most either talking about, planning for, or actively engaging in cruising. The vast majority were of the talking and planning...

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8. The Most Beautiful Islands in the World: The Societies

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pp. 201-226

As I recall this next phase of the Sofia’s Pacific crossing, I am revisiting a magical period. Waves of sun-drenched images wash over me. This was an interlude forever set to music, a spell that swayed in gentle tempo with the blissful throngs that congregated in what the travelogues designate as “the most beautiful islands in the world.” The Sofia followed....

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9. Too Many Have Come before Us: The Cook Islands, the Samoas, and the Kingdom of Tonga

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pp. 227-256

Discussing in a neat critique the three remaining island groups that we visited is a formidable task. The Cooks and the Samoas stubbornly resist a single classification. The Kingdom of Tonga, on the other hand, was just that, a kingdom in and of itself that exuded security and comfort. It was a calm and lovely setting that allowed us to catch our breath follow-...

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10. Deep in the Doldrums: Crossing the Horse Latitudes to New Zealand

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pp. 257-267

The passage from Tonga to New Zealand marked a significant departure. We were leaving behind the dreamy magic of the South Pacific and its complementary complacency on board ship. The South Seas had lulled the crew of the Sofia into a euphoric sense of well-being. Amid those tranquil islands, the tall ship and her crew were kindred spirits, hull and hearts...

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11. Roll On, Deep and Dark Blue Ocean: The Mutiny and the Sofia’s Final Passage

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pp. 269-292

When we hit New Zealand, most of the crew scattered like shrapnel—escaping, distancing themselves from the residual frustration and crumbling solidarity that menaced the Sofia and her sailors on the long, slow passage from Tonga. Some stayed with the ship, either by choice or by necessity. As time wore on, this distinction became hazy. The Sofia and her crew validated...

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12. Off the North Cape: The Storm

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pp. 293-307

Although the Sofia survived the mutiny attempt intact, the attendant under-mining of her fragile social structure was irreparable. Wounds inflicted by long resentments and brooding angers left scars. A huge well of sadness filled the void created by the defeated and consequently disembarking crew. Those of us who stayed claimed a hollow victory. We’d won the bat-...

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13. Sinking: The Life Rafts

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pp. 308-326

Spinning, Evan gestures furiously toward the bow. I see panic on his face, but his words become absorbed by an inorganic groan so deep and all encompassing that it presses me to my knees. Craning my neck, I pivot toward the sound and confront a gargantuan wave hurdling the fore deck.In an instant the monster has nimbly snatched the heavily secured life raft...

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14. Coming Home

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pp. 327-340

We spend two disoriented days powering back to Wellington Harbor aboard the Russian vessel. Though we share not a shred of language with our hosts, the communication is clear. They give us everything. We are humbly grateful. A poor ship compared to so many we’ve seen, the sailors of the Vasili Perov, a cargo vessel hauling frozen fish, nonetheless provide us...

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pp. 341-345

Where do I begin and where do I end in committing to print the designs left forever on my soul by those with whom I sailed the Sofia? The people I knew during my travels all were part of a grand tale, and I will never completely forsake any one of them. But what actually happens afterward? Where do the players go? Are we hopelessly lost to one another when we...

Back Cover

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p. 364-364

E-ISBN-13: 9780299201937
E-ISBN-10: 0299201937
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299201906
Print-ISBN-10: 0299201902

Page Count: 362
Illustrations: 15 b/w photos, 2 maps, 1 diagram
Publication Year: 2004