by Graham Cox  
Donald Ridler & Erik the Red  
JRA Hall of Fame  
The voyage was also somewhat more  
his seal of approval, as well as some  
invaluable advice.  
Donald Ridler.  
precariously financed. When Donald set  
out, he had £20 in cash, £50 invested in  
stores (mostly porridge, corned beef,  
curry powder and rice), and a rainy day  
fund of £50 in traveller’s cheques.  
941 –  
The keel was of concrete, with  
stainless-steel reinforcing, and he  
took professional advice on the  
construction of this. The masts were  
Douglas Fir trees, planed smooth  
and smeared with linseed oil. Later,  
when the parrels rubbed the oil off,  
the masts developed deep cracks.  
The mast steps were cut from  
railway sleepers. Sails were made  
from unbleached cotton, that Donald  
bought cheaply, and were sewn on  
his mother’s sewing machine in the  
space of one week. Some of his  
blocks were old electrical insulators  
that he found on a rubbish tip,  
others cheap industrial pulleys with  
steel sheaves.  
In the northern spring of 1970, while Bill  
King was sailing Galway Blazer from  
Gibraltar to England, another junk-  
rigged yacht was setting out on the same  
passage in the opposite direction.  
Donald Ridler, aboard his small, home-  
built ketch, Erik the Red, was bound for  
the West Indies via Gibraltar.  
The boat had taken four years to build,  
in the back garden of his father’s rectory.  
A lot of time was spent scrounging  
materials or waiting for suitable weather.  
When it rained he had to cover the boat  
with sheets of plastic. He also hid it from  
view whenever his father had visitors, as  
he was rather ashamed of it.  
Unlike the dapper, retired naval  
commander, Donald was a child of the  
sixties, long-haired, bearded, attired in  
scruffy jeans, and something of a drop-  
out by his own admission, although he  
was an Oxford graduate and the son of a  
Unable to find or afford suitable timber  
for the frames, Donald sawed some of  
the boards into strips and glued them  
together. He had very few clamps (or  
other tools), so had to use Spanish  
windlasses to clamp the strips together.  
His only power tool was a small drill  
with a cutting attachment. In his book,  
entitled Erik the Red (which contains  
some excellent droll humour), Donald  
wrote, If the boat could have been built out of  
twigs, the birds in the village would have had  
Apart from having junk rig, their vessels  
were also very different. Galway Blazer,  
built by Souters, one of the best boat-  
building firms in England, had cost more  
than £14,000 and was superbly finished,  
right down to the last detail. She always  
looked sleek and uncluttered. Erik the  
Red, built with demolition timber and  
driftwood from nearby Chesil Beach, cost  
the astonishing sum of £165, plus another  
The boat had been designed by an  
American, John Rowland, some 20 years  
earlier, based on a traditional Cape Anne  
he could build on his budget that would  
still be seaworthy.  
He had no contact with Blondie Hasler,  
or others involved in junk rig in England  
at the time, but appears to have copied  
details from Chinese working junks.  
There is no doubt he could have  
It was a small boat by any  
standards, only 26 feet 10 inches LOA,  
made smaller still by its very large, open  
cockpit, leaving a cabin that was only 8  
feet by 5 feet, with 4 feet 6 inches of  
headroom. Donald changed the rig from  
bermudian ketch to junk ketch, with  
spars of the same height and in the same  
location as the originals, drawing a junk  
no nests.  
However, unlike many  
dreamers, he had a fine knack for  
knowing just how much he could get  
away with. Besides the glue, which cost  
more than the timber, he also used  
bronze Gripfast nails, so that the boat,  
despite its alarming, ramshackle  
appearance, was actually quite strong.  
An old shipwright, Ernie, who had  
retired to the village, came by and gave  
benefited from some advice.  
60 for anchors and other gear, and £30  
for navigation equipment. The majority  
of the wood was old, three-quarter inch  
instance, his sheets did not have enough  
drift, so that he had to sheet them to the  
windward rail, shifting them from side to  
side in the Chinese fashion. This might  
be acceptable on a working junk with a  
large crew, but it gave Donald many  
difficult moments. Reefing or gybing  
The boat looked a bit  
sail plan over the existing one.  
thought it would be fun to sail, and also  
rightly deduced that it was the only rig  
dilapidated and cluttered right from the  
start, something Donald cheerfully  
Erik the Red left Bridport in February,  
970, bound for points south. Donald  
his paraffin lantern. Luckily the mizzen  
absorbed most of the blow and Erik only  
suffered a small dent in the transom.  
After this he hoisted an old biscuit tin to  
the masthead. It soon became a rusty  
eyesore but hopefully increased his  
radar image. It also gave a satisfying  
clang every time the boat rolled. He  
said it reminded him of the bells outside  
Eastern temples, intended to ward off  
evil spirits, and hoped it might provide  
a similar service.  
knew it was a bit early to leave, but  
Bridport Harbour proved a dangerous  
place to keep a boat in winter. Having  
already sailed as crew on a yacht  
delivery to Gibraltar, he was not entirely  
without experience, but he gained a  
great deal more over the next 10 days,  
tacking back and forth across Lyme Bay  
in a severe gale.  
He made it into  
Falmouth eventually, where he decided  
to take the Harbourmaster’s advice and  
wait until May before proceeding.  
When the northerlies freshened off the  
coast of Portugal, he began to  
experiment with ways of getting the  
boat to self-steer downwind. He had  
already discovered it would sail itself  
happily to windward, albeit very slowly,  
with the helm lashed. Off the wind, he  
eased the mizzen until the leech was  
pointing forwards and spilling some  
wind from the sail, then took the sheet  
to the tiller with shock cord on the  
opposite side.  
He was thrilled, nonetheless, to know  
that Erik the Red could withstand storm-  
force winds. The only problem had  
been the loss of his halyards due to  
weak mast strops on the upper blocks.  
He rigged temporary halyards with the  
lifts and carried on with reduced sail.  
Before he left again, he made sure he  
had spare halyards on both masts.  
Eric the Red - Plans and sections  
downwind became a bit of a nightmare.  
The topping lifts were also arranged in  
the Chinese style. They were not  
On such a short boat with two masts, it  
is difficult to gain sufficient drift,  
particularly on the forward mast, but  
using double sheets might have  
improved the handling of his sails.  
attached to the boom, but to the next  
batten up. The lowest sail panel was  
reefed by tying it up to the batten above,  
then the rest of the sail was reefed or  
furled into the lifts as usual. The theory  
behind this is that you can get the  
maximum sail area for a given mast  
height in light airs, but lift the sail up in  
rough weather to avoid breaking seas.  
In Falmouth he met the first of many  
ocean voyagers who gave him advice  
and assistance. On this occasion it was  
the legendary boatbuilder, designer and  
artist, Paul Erling Johnson, on his 28  
foot, engineless, gaff ketch, Venus II.  
Paul’s first Venus had been an ancient,  
clinker-planked fishing boat from the  
Shetland Islands: 18 foot LOA, which  
he’d sailed to Norway and across the  
Atlantic singlehanded. Originally an  
open boat, he had decked it and rigged  
it as a gaff ketch, largely with scavenged  
He discovered that he could make  
incremental adjustments to the course  
by tensioning or easing the mizzen  
His battens were bamboo, with thinner  
keep battens on the opposite side,  
originally tied together with twine. He  
soon reverted to the Chinese method of  
tying them together with wire. He used  
short batten parrels, with chopped  
plastic hose threaded onto them like  
beads, and very long Hong Kong  
parrels, with the lower end tied abaft  
amidships. He found it important to  
keep just the right amount of tension on  
these, so that only the parrel on the  
boom (or lowest batten, as Donald  
called it) had any strain on it. This  
allowed the sail to go up and down with  
minimum friction, provided there was  
no wind in the sail.  
Eventually he also set the  
mainsail this way and took its sheet to  
the tiller opposite the mizzen sheet.  
This was not particularly efficient, as  
both sails were spilling some of their  
wind, but the boat still managed to sail  
The boat had no engine or electrics, a  
paraffin lamp and stove, a sextant,  
wristwatch and transistor radio for time  
signals and entertainment. There was  
no self-steering device, but Donald soon  
developed novel, if not particularly  
efficient, ways to make the boat steer  
at 3 - 4 knots.  
This arrangement,  
however, did have other drawbacks, as  
he was soon to discover.  
Like many sailors before him, he ran  
into a moderate easterly gale as he  
approached the Straits of Gibraltar and  
Donald left Falmouth on 10 May 1970,  
bound for Gibraltar. He was afflicted by  
calms in the first week, and was run  
down in the Bay of Biscay by a fishing  
boat, that did not see the weak glow of  
He named the boat Erik the Red because  
he came across a supply of cheap red  
paint. He was launched into Bridport  
Harbour in late December, 1969.  
lay ahull for 2 days.  
Erik the Red  
behaved impeccably, bobbing up and  
down and riding the breaking seas quite  
to shift the mainsheet to the other  
side, this was always a bit frantic.  
characters, sailing a fascinating  
collection of vessels - people such as  
Christian, a Swede with a derelict  
Brixham trawler, built for the salt-fish  
trade in Africa. He was an artist with  
very little money and he was refitting  
his boat with bits and pieces salvaged  
from other wrecks, most of which were  
on the harbour bottom. Anything you  
want, he said, it is down there. Donald  
and Erik the Red fitted perfectly into this  
crowd, a lifetime away from the smart  
yachts of the Solent.  
He always reefed the mainsail first, as  
he found this large sail, so far forward,  
had a tendency to depress the bow and  
make the boat round up. He usually  
just dropped one or two panels, but, if  
necessary, the boat would sail quite  
happily under full mizzen with just a  
scrap of the main up to assist in self-  
On this occasion it proved more  
traumatic than usual. When the boat  
gybed, the mainsail suffered a fan-up,  
the battens lying up along the mast.  
One of the drawbacks with easing the  
sails so far forward is that you cannot  
haul the sheets in without first  
spilling wind from the sail, as there is  
too much compression of the battens,  
which are liable to break. (Practical  
Junk Rig (PJR) specifically cautions  
against gybing in strong winds with  
slack sheets.)  
(This possibly makes a good argument  
for schooner rig, with the added  
advantage that the foresail can be used  
as an effective storm sail. It can also be  
argued that a small boat like Erik the Red  
is more efficient with one mast, but self-  
steering with the sail would have been  
challenging, if not impossible.)  
They departed Las Palmas for Barbados  
on 17 October. Erik had 30 gallons of  
water aboard, enough for 60 days he  
hoped. Besides porridge, corned beef  
and rice, Donald had a small quantity of  
fresh fruit and vegetables, and hoped to  
collect some flying fish, those obliging  
creatures which jump out of the sea and onto  
Donald then tried to round up to get  
the battens to come down again, but  
instead the whole sail blew up to the  
masthead. His system of tying the  
topping lifts to the second batten  
meant he did not have a tack  
Erik running  
Donald went on deck at dawn and  
checked the rig, raising more sail if  
conditions warranted it, prepared  
breakfast, did some exercises, made  
celestial navigation observations. In the  
your plate.  
In this he was to be  
He dropped anchor in  
downhaul fitted.  
It took some time  
disappointed. Apart from some tiny  
specimens, the only one he got, came  
aboard on the last night at sea and he  
Gibraltar 24 days out of Falmouth. It  
was a slow passage, he did not cook  
much en route and his navigation left  
something to be desired (he was still  
having trouble establishing longitude),  
but he was satisfied. Both skipper and  
boat had proved they were capable of  
making a singlehanded ocean passage.  
fishing with the boathook before he  
hooked one of the lifts and dragged the  
sail down. This was to be an ongoing  
problem, and Donald came to dread  
squalls and reefing downwind,  
especially at night.  
afternoons he read.  
He learned  
Shakespeare by heart and recited it to  
the birds. At dusk he cooked a curry  
and read by the light of his lamp for a  
couple of hours before turning in. These  
rituals helped him ward off lethargy,  
which he found to be a constant risk of  
singlehanded sailing.  
threw it back.  
Food was always  
carefully rationed as he had so little  
aboard. He did not find this depressing,  
however, noting that hunger sharpened  
his appreciation, and that eating  
sparingly was good for his health.  
He had intended to stop in Casablanca  
but missed it due to poor navigation.  
From then on he determined to take the  
subject more seriously, and eventually  
became an extremely competent  
navigator. Most of the passage to Las  
Palmas passed uneventfully and he  
dropped anchor in that port on 26  
September, joining a zany bunch of  
fellow voyagers anchored in the outer  
They departed Gibraltar on 16  
September, bound for the Canary  
Islands. On the first night out, off Tarifa,  
Donald discovered the shortcomings of  
h i s d o w n w i n d s e l f - s t e e r i n g  
arrangements. Running wing and wing  
with the sheets tied to the tiller, he  
found he needed to reef in rising winds.  
That meant first gybing the mainsail in  
order to spill the wind from the sail.  
Because he had to let go of the tiller in  
the middle of the gybe and rush forward  
Once, in light airs when the boat hardly  
seemed to be moving, he jumped over  
the side and was alarmed to discover  
that he could barely swim back to the  
boat. After that he hove-to and lashed  
the tiller down when he swam. Later he  
gave up swimming or even washing in  
salt water, because he began to develop  
salt water sores on his skin.  
The winds were light at first and he saw  
ships every day for the first 7 days,  
which kept him on high alert, napping  
for short periods.  
Then the ships  
disappeared and he settled into a  
comfortable routine. He reefed most  
nights in case of squalls and went to  
bed, sailing happily without lights, since  
other, more experienced voyagers had  
told him there were no ships out there.  
Those were the days when the majority  
of ocean voyagers were memorable  
In unsettled weather, he set his alarm for  
every 2 hours, otherwise he left it for 4  
He would lie in his bunk,  
The weather became squally in the  
second half of the crossing, a common  
phenomenon on this passage, and from  
then on his nights became very trying.  
It was with considerable relief that he  
dropped anchor in Carlisle Bay,  
Barbados, after 31 days at sea. The  
waters of Carlisle Bay were so clear,  
with the bottom looming up, that he  
feared he would run aground until he  
saw some of his cruising friends from  
Las Palmas anchored up ahead of him.  
Erik the Red sailed from Antigua  
on 14 June 1971. Amusingly,  
listening to the boat rushing through the  
seas, sounding like a rocket-ship  
blasting through space. Through the  
hatch, he watched the moon and stars  
wheeling across the sky.  
Donald though he’d left on the  
7th: somewhere along the way  
he’d lost a whole week! This was  
t o c a u s e s o m e n a v i g a t i o n  
problems as he approached  
Bermuda, but initially, with the  
sun high overhead in the tropical  
summer, he did not notice any  
differences between his DR and  
celestial fixes.  
Sometimes the boat would suffer an  
accidental gybe and he would have to  
scramble on deck, untangle everything  
and re-set the self-steering lines. This  
inevitably meant sail repairs, as the  
sheets would tear the leech of the sails,  
but, having junk rig, he could usually  
keep sailing until dawn. Eventually he  
tied rope between the batten ends, as an  
external bolt rope, which helped  
support the luff and leech.  
After a pleasant few weeks in Barbados,  
enjoying the company of hospitable  
locals and other voyagers, he began to  
think about what came next. Most of  
the other voyagers were in no hurry to  
go anywhere, having spent a lifetime  
dreaming of the West Indies, but Donald  
astonished them by declaring he  
intended to sail back to England. The  
trip out had been just too easy, he  
He broke a batten on the first day  
out, once again as a result of  
sheeting his sails out beyond 90°  
Erik careened  
for self-steering purposes.  
continued to experiment with the  
best arrangement for self-steering, this  
time setting both sails to leeward but  
running the mainsheet to the windward  
charts of this reef-beset island, but  
tacked in by eye, lamenting how  
reluctant Erik was to come about when  
on starboard tack.  
Erik covered 1,000 miles in the first 11  
days, and then had a spell of 120-mile  
days. The boat had a fast, quick roll  
which he found exhausting, but  
eventually he realized he could go a few  
degrees off a dead run and the rolling  
stopped. More troubling, was that the  
masts began to move about, loosening  
their wedges and banging around. The  
noise almost drove him crazy until he  
jammed an old chisel into the mainmast  
side of the tiller.  
It worked, but if  
possible he preferred to lash the tiller.  
Bermuda was far too expensive for  
penniless ocean vagabonds, despite the  
generous assistance of a local tourist  
operator, and he left after one week. He  
headed north, looking for the Westerlies,  
and in order to skirt around the Azores  
High that lay on the direct route.  
He felt that crossing the  
On this homeward passage, he decided  
to sleep in the day and stay awake all  
night, due to being close to shipping  
Atlantic in the Westerlies would be more  
of a test.  
However, first of all he had to get some  
money together so off he went looking  
for work in the charter fleet. He worked  
for a month in Grenada, made a few  
memorable friends but found the  
lanes all the way.  
The first week  
provided easy sailing with steady beam  
winds, but then they ran into squalls.  
One of these damaged the main and he  
lowered all of it except for the top  
panels. Erik continued sailing at the  
same speed but was much easier on the  
helm, with less tendency to depress the  
Donald soon settled back into his ocean  
routines. Although his logbooks were  
just ordinary exercise books, arising, he  
said, from the English law of Not Taking  
Things Too Seriously, he was a good  
navigator by this stage and kept an  
accurate record. At night he listened to  
the radio and read, looking out every 15  
minutes. He kept the lamp burning all  
night, in the cabin, ready for immediate  
deployment on deck if needed. When  
he was sleepy he used an alarm to make  
sure he kept to his regular lookout.  
Donald was initially enchanted with the  
voyage, looking about him with a keen  
eye, hoping for interesting sights, sea  
monsters perhaps, or at least the odd  
whale or sea-bird. Mostly, though, he  
just saw an empty ocean and fell to  
musing. What a strange feeling it is to sail  
a small boat alone in the middle of an ocean!  
It is a feeling of such unreality. The boat  
himself seems to have purpose enough but  
what of you? What are you doing here  
being carried endlessly over surging waves  
in a world of nothingness?  
political atmosphere oppressive.  
then sailed to English Harbour on  
Antigua, where he worked for 6 months.  
The political climate on Antigua was  
much the same as Grenada, but the  
charter boat fleet of English Harbour,  
existed in a world of its own. In the end  
he decided it was too close-knit, riven  
with rivalries, affairs and feuds. He was  
glad when he’d made enough money to  
set sail once again.  
They arrived in Bermuda on 29 June,  
discovering that they were 9 miles out in  
longitude due to his error with the date.  
Apart from the broken batten, a broken  
halyard and a near collision with a  
whale (he was alerted by the whale  
slapping its tail on the water), it had  
been an uneventful passage. He had no  
rust. He then used methylated spirits  
in a tin until he began to run out of  
that. Later in the voyage, after he left  
Horta for England, he resorted to  
using candles, then just the candle  
incessant boat handling. One night he  
fell asleep and had a close shave with a  
ship. Despite the lively motion and  
tiredness, however, he completed a  
temporary repair of his gunwale which  
was showing signs of opening up.  
Things were getting desperate. He was  
down to using candles for light and  
cooking, making a lamp out of a candle  
in a glass jar, although it was too weak  
to alert other ships to his presence. The  
mainsail was in bad shape. He had to  
lash several battens together to take out  
the top three panels, which made the  
boat sail even more slowly.  
Unsettled weather continued, with  
As his food supplies dwindled he ate  
less and less, foregoing breakfast  
winds gusting to Force 6.  
Erik ran  
along at 3 knots, buffeted by large,  
confused seas, and Donald began to  
cast a jaundiced eye over his vessel.  
He noted that the boat always  
appeared to be extremely untidy,  
above and below. He took, rather too  
enthusiastically at times, to throwing  
things overboard. He looked around  
at his rough workmanship and felt, he  
wrote, that they were riding on the  
He might have been  
somewhat hungry when he arrived in  
Horta on 3 August, but he was well-  
looked after here by the legendary  
Henriques and his son, Peter, at Café  
Sport. He loved Horta, but the risk of  
autumn gales and dwindling funds sent  
him back to sea on 20 August, on the  
last 1,600 mile leg, which turned out,  
surprisingly, to be the longest passage of  
the voyage.  
It took 6 days to sail from Fastnet to the  
Isles of Scilly. They passed the Lizard  
after 31 days at sea, but it took another 3  
days, battling strong spring tides, to get  
into Falmouth. He ran completely out  
of food and fuel and had to resort to  
using amphetamine pills to stay awake.  
In Falmouth they were met by family,  
friends and the press. Erik and Donald  
became briefly famous, appearing at the  
London Boat Show. Few people could  
have voyaged so far and so successfully  
Erik in the Azores  
In Antigua he had made a new suit of  
sails from an old cotton genoa that was  
given to him. They were better than the  
original bed-sheet sails but now they,  
too, began to suffer from hard usage.  
He tied lines between the after batten  
ends of both sails to take weight off the  
Erik immediately ran into a NE gale, and  
then was beset by squally, variable  
winds. In one vicious squall he cut the  
mainsheet to stop the boat being  
overwhelmed (once again, his ungainly  
mainsheet system proved to be  
dangerously inefficient). They made  
good 480 miles in the first 10 days and  
then had a run of 400 miles before SW  
winds for four days, before the wind  
went into the east and stayed there.  
N o n e t h e l e s s , h e d i d d o z e o ff  
occasionally and had a couple of scares.  
with so few resources.  
But Donald  
refused to take the attention seriously.  
He gave the boat to Exeter Maritime  
On 12 July they ran into strong  
westerlies and driving rain. The cabin  
was soon soaked, as Donald had to  
leave a small gap open in the hatch,  
which was his only source of  
ventilation. Erik ran on under 2 panels  
of the mizzen plus a tiny portion of the  
main to maintain self-steering.  
He also noted how hard it is to work on  
a junk sail at sea. PJR recommends  
lowering the sail bundle to the deck  
and, if necessary, removing a few of the  
battens, but Donald concluded that the  
best way to work on it was to hoist it,  
although sewing can then become  
precarious. He decided that next time  
he would take an office stapler and just  
staple temporary patches on.  
Donald awoke one morning to the  
sound of a dog barking. It sounded  
almost overhead and he leapt on deck  
to discover a large trawler alongside,  
attempting to salvage Erik. When he  
made his appearance they withdrew  
somewhat ungraciously.  
These days, whenever he went on deck,  
he tied himself to a rope that he kept  
attached to the mast, with the end in the  
cockpit. At least he could still prepare  
meals, as his galley had a large  
gimbaled shelf on which he placed  
stove, pots, cups etc.  
The stoves,  
Squalls and fickle winds kept driving  
them south out of the Gulf Stream.  
Their daily average fell from 80 miles to  
The SE wind drove Erik up to the coast  
of Ireland near Fastnet Rock, where he  
was almost run down by a passenger  
liner in misty drizzle.  
however, were causing him escalating  
dramas. He broke the pricker in his  
Primus and reverted to using a solid-  
fuel stove, until it crumbled away from  
0 and he became exhausted from  
Erik’s Mizzen Sail  
real Chinese junk), then set off on a  
circumnavigation of the world.  
Erik was seen in Darwin, Australia,  
s o m e y e a r s l a t e r b y f e l l o w  
Englishman, Colin Martin. He was  
sitting in the cockpit, reading.  
had a very long beard, a dark tan,  
and was wearing just a pair of old  
shorts. He told Colin about sailing  
across the Pacific using rudimentary  
Polynesian navigation methods, with  
a ‘chart’ made out of sticks, stones  
and string. He slept in a hammock  
(at least in Darwin, which is hot even  
in winter) and seemed to have only a  
few possessions.  
He left for Bali the next day, rounded  
the Cape of Good Hope the  
following summer and was wrecked  
in the Cape Verde Islands in 1977.  
Still engineless, Erik was becalmed  
and drifted onto the rocks, a sad end  
for a gallant vessel that had almost  
crossed her outward track and  
circumnavigated the world.  
The book cover has the best colour picture  
of Erik  
Unfortunately, Donald did not  
publish any material about this later  
voyage (his logbooks may have been  
destroyed in the shipwreck) and the  
details of his subsequent life are  
Museum and quietly retired from the  
When he left the West Indies, he said he  
was sailing home to complete the  
voyage, rather than drift endlessly on  
Note: All quotes in this article are taken  
from Donald Ridler’s book, Erik the Red,  
published by William Kimber, London,  
across tropical seas.  
He envisaged  
moving on to new challenges, now that  
he had the confidence to tackle them.  
However, just a couple of years later, he  
retrieved Erik from the museum, built a  
large cabin aft, over much of the open  
cockpit (which made the boat look like a  
[“Erik the Red” can be  
downloaded in  
PDF format  
from the JRA library]