Challenges Publié le 17 décembre 2019

The Legend of Vito Dumas: The Wave Tamer

Decades ago, a man set sail towards the unknown. No radio. No compass. No life raft. Only courage, and his desire to spread his message.

Vito Dumas had invested all his money in buying a 1918 sailing boat. The Lehg I had been stored in a shipyard for years, doomed to give heat in wood-burning stoves. It had become the sailboat in which he would accomplish his first feat: Connecting Buenos Aires with Europe, sailing from Arcachon, France. 

This experience was just the beginning. In a period in which Literature, Sports and Science was flourishing in Argentina, Vito felt inspired to take big risks and embark on a journey that would earn the admiration of the greatest sailors: Circumnavigating the world 

A Communion with Nature 

Solo sailing enabled Vito to commune with nature and his inner self in a way he hadn’t experienced with any other activity. Coming from a modest family, he had to quit school and work from a very early age.  

Vito had his fist experience in the open seas when he unsuccessfully tried to swim across the La Plata River, not one or two…but six times. Later, he learnt self-taught how to sail. He knew little about sailing, but he had plenty of courage. Those who have known him say he had a sixth developed sense of authentic seafarer, from catching the winds, leading the way, to experiencing the rhythm set by the water. 

The arrangements 

Ten years had passed since the last time he had sailed. It was a huge risk. Considering the complications of an adventurer at that time and the lack of technological support. For the odyssey, he knew he needed to recover his sailboat, the Lehg II, which he had to sell for financial reasons.  

On one occasion, Vito was going through a storm when the Lehg II received a huge blow. It had been so strong that he rolled until he found himself sitting on the top of the camareta. For a few long seconds, the masts of the sailboat pointed to the bottom of the sea, and her keel, to the sky. He was in a dead-end prison, in a coffin. Suddenly, the sky. “I looked at the sea and I smiled. (…). I was not in a coffin anymore. I found myself on deck. Nothing else mattered. I could fight. With joyful eyes and my heart full of hope, owner of all my capacities and strength, I thank her with all my heart”. In that experience, his faith in the sailboat was confirmed. 

The Lehg II was equipped with a stove and lamps of kerosene. He stocked the sailboat with cans of cocoa, rice, chickpeas, yerba mate, corned beef, chocolate bars, sugar, tobacco, biscuits, 400 liters of drinking water, among other goods. He also carried a first aid kit, with doses of vitamins and glucose for lack of calories.  

The Ulterior Motive 

Some sailors are not only driven by the blowing of the wind. Vito’s philosophy was his main motivation. His desire to spread his message to prove material things aren’t a limitation when it comes to meeting great challenges 

Before he set sail, in 1942, he said: “In this materialistic era, I’m assuming a romantic challenge, to set an example to young people”. It was a bad time to sail (without an engine) and with no other company than your dreams and your nightmares. While the world was shaken by war and destruction, the lone navigator fulfilled his dream of courage and adventure. Vito’s feast proved that while a breath of terror swept the world, not all was lost. There were still dreamers, romantics and visionaries.  

The trip took place in four phases, calling at some ports: He left from Montevideo to Cape Town, then Wellington, New Zealand, through monsoon zones, sailing 104 days with waves 18 meters high. From there to Valparaiso, Chile, through the Pacific Ocean. Then, he sailed across Cape Horn, the union of the two oceans, through the Route of Death, to Mar del Plata, until he reached Buenos Aires. It took him a year and 36 days to achieve the goal. 

Unforeseen events 

He had set sail with a slash in one of his fingers, which had been downplayed. After a few days, it became a serious infection that spread to his shoulder. He knew that, in order to get assistance, he had to sail for no less than 30 days. So, dizzy from the fever, he made a final decision: he was cutting off his sick arm. However, he fell asleep, and when he woke up, he noticed he was no longer in pain. His finger had burst, bathing him in serum and pus. The infection was over. 

However, that was not the only situation that took his breath away. Amidst World War II, he had to take some precautions. He carried no radio so as not to be confused as a spy. However, it hadn’t prevented him from being intercepted by a Nazi submarine, which assumed Vito was a spy ship of the Allies. No one knows what could have happened if it hadn’t been for an Argentinian soldier, who had enlisted because of being son of Germans. He exclaimed looking at the captain: “That man is Vito Dumas!” 

The Impossible Route: A Roar of a Wild Animal  

The mystery of the Impossible Route was lying ahead. A route that surrounds Antarctica and that had killed many sailors. Also known as Roaring Forties, for the strong westerly winds found in the Southern Hemisphere, generally between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees. Vito Dumas sailed through hell.  

After 104 days in the high seas and 7,400 nautical miles, he reached Wellington. There, he was received as a hero. Starved, dehydrated and with scurvy, but he had crossed the Impossible Route.  

Cape Horn 

From Wellington to Valparaiso the crossing was less hectic. After 72 days and 5,200 miles of navigation Vito arrived. The Lehg II needed reparations: he had yet to cross the fearsome Cape Horn.  

In one of his books, Alone Through The Roaring Forties, he describes the crossing: “I am on the road to death. The wind and the sea are strong. My lamp has extinguished, a strong blow throws me against a bulkhead”. He had broken his septum. Then he added: “I have paid my price cheaply for such daring”. 

The wind howled as it cut itself against the icebergs. On his walnut shell, he faced hard storms, strong waves and implacable winds. After 437 days since he had set sails in Montevideo, he arrived in Buenos Aires. Starved, beaten, with his clothes torn to shreds but a triumphant smile. Loud crowds squeezed in the docks while Vito Dumas was being escorted by a caravan of boats. Everyone wanted to witness the moment the sailor stepped on firm ground in his homeland. He had made it.