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So Very Fortunate

"Jim Baillie made an extraordinary around-the-world journey in 1938-1940 on a 70-foot sailboat captained by a young Estonian named Ahto Walter. More than sixty years later, Ahto Walter’s name popped up on an Estonian website. Nobody believed Walter had finished that journey. In fact the site’s webmaster said that in the 1990s a crew from Walter’s homeland claimed to be the first Estonians to sail around the world. Colour film from Jim Baillie’s journey proved that Walter had earned the honour. The story ended up on Estonian national television and a footnote was corrected in Estonian maritime history. In 2018 Estonian documentary maker Jaanis Valk released a 90-minute film tracing Ahto Walter's life, called Ahto, Chasing the Dream."


At eighteen, Jim Baillie didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. When a buddy, Bill Macrae, offered him the chance to check out a trip around the world advertised in Yachting magazine, he jumped at the opportunity. They drove to New York to see this man.

"He looked us over, and we looked him over, and we found we were compatible so a few months later we were off."

The man was Ahto Walter and he had a tremendous influence on Jim. He was a superb sailor and, to Jim, a great man. He was only twenty-eight years old when they first met, but Walter had already sailed 28-foot boats, single-handedly, across the Atlantic Ocean four or five times.

Ahto Walter was born in Estonia into a sea-faring family. His father had been a skipper on a full-rigged ship and his four brothers were all sailors as well. Docked at the pier in Greenwich, Connecticut, was his 70-foot ketch named Ahto, which he and two others had sailed from Estonia to England, where it was fitted out, and then across to the United States. "I don’t know how he did it. He didn’t have any money." Jim and his friend paid one hundred dollars a month each for the eighteen months it would take them to circumnavigate the globe.

November 2, 1938 was a fine sunny day when they left Greenwich. Fourteen people were aboard Ahto, including the skipper’s wife, Margaret, their eighteen-month old son Teddy, plus a radio receiver, a movie camera (Bill Macrae’s film survives today) and twenty tons of canned goods, enough to take them halfway around the world. The boat flew under the Estonian flag and carried Estonian registration papers.

The voyage started out with a blast from the Atlantic. A terrible storm shook them on their way to Nassau. Jim remembers everybody getting sick, but everything working out fine. They picked up a bit of fresh food and water in Panama, the practice at every port of call, and then headed through the Canal to the Pacific Ocean to spend Christmas on Cocos Island off the west coast of Panama.

"When we were on Cocos Island, we did terrible things which we would never excuse today. We’d catch a shark, pull it on board, cut off its tail and then throw it back in to attract more sharks to start a feeding frenzy. I have movies of us doing another thing that would be shocking today. We went out in the outboard dinghy and, using a spear with a line attached, speared a manta ray and let it tow us around. Then we lifted it on the spinnaker pole. When we cut it loose, it was dead."

On the Galapagos Islands, their next stop, Jim is not proud to recount how the crew shot wild goats for pleasure. At least the goats were considered a pest. They had been introduced by early settlers and were overrunning the island, threatening some of the exotic species which had so impressed British naturalist Charles Darwin when he visited the Galapagos in 1835. Jim saw lots of marine iguanas, but none of the giant tortoises that give the islands their name.

He did meet the famous Angermeyer brothers there. They were four brothers and their wives and children who had left Germany in 1933 to avoid Hitler and to find a better life on the Islands. Many Angermeyers still live in the Galapagos today.

The routine on the ship was that everyone (except the skipper and his wife) took a turn on watch. There were three watches of four hours each. You worked four hours on, then eight off.

"You’d sail the boat when you were on, and when you were off during the day, you’d either chip paint or do maintenance. You had to be kept busy or you’d have trouble - you’d get cross with somebody else. It’s amazing how easily that can happen. We had a problem with our second mate. He was a sea lawyer, which means he thought he knew more than the skipper. You can’t have that. That’s the kiss of death."

The trouble began when Ahto tried to leave the Galapagos. Whenever you go into a new port, you have to clear in, and when you leave, clear out; in other words, show your papers to the immigration officials. Preparing to clear out, Jim and the skipper headed to shore in the dinghy to visit the commandante in charge of the island. The Galapagos were an outpost of Ecuador and the commandante could do pretty well what he wanted.

"First, he asked us for a bribe, which we weren’t about to pay. Then he said we didn’t have the right papers, so we’d have to go to Ecuador to clear out. We said we weren’t going to do that either. On that, he became quite obstreperous. He wore a gun on his hip and, just to prove that he was a pretty tough boy, he took it out and shot a dog, just like that, to make sure we knew his gun worked. Then he suggested again we pay the money."

"The skipper was firm. ‘We’re not going to pay.’"

"The commandante said, ‘I’ll keep him as a hostage,’ pointing to me. Then he said to the skipper, ‘You bring back the ship’s papers and we’ll exchange him for the papers.’

Another impossibility. You can’t go anywhere without ship’s papers.

"So I stayed in the little hut on shore for a few hours. I was never afraid. I had absolute faith in the skipper. He came back with a set of papers and gave them to the commandante. The commandante then said, ‘Okay, tonight I’ll send an armed guard to escort you to Ecuador.’"

Jim and the skipper went back to Ahto with no intention of taking on an extra passenger. When dusk came, they started up the outboard on the dinghy and did a few circles around the boat as if they were going to shore to pick up the guard. The motor made quite a racket and was a good diversion as the crew began hauling up the anchor by hand. (They couldn’t use the anchor winch because it made such a tremendous noise.) As soon as they were clear, they "skidoodled" out of there.

"Nothing happened. We got away. Somehow or other the skipper had two sets of papers, one in Estonian and one in English. He’d handed over the Estonian ones."

This is where the sea lawyer gets into the picture. "He said what we’d done was terrible, that we shouldn’t have taken off, but gone to Ecuador instead. Then he threatened to turn us into the US Consul in Tahiti and have the skipper arrested."

Other than the second mate’s ominous rumblings, the trip to Tahiti, with a stop at the Marquesas, was beautiful. It was twenty-one days, downwind, with the spinnaker out the whole way - a sailor’s dream.

The second mate was true to his word. Ahto and its crew were held up for several days in Tahiti. While a court reviewed the charges, Jim and Bill took in island culture. Tahiti had been ruled by France since 1842 and felt very French, very free and easy. There were hardly any cars or trucks on the island, just the odd ancient ramshackle bus and a lot of bicycles, and of course Polynesian girls in sarongs. Not a lot of exotic beauties, as Jim remembers. "The only reason they were beautiful was because you had spent three weeks or more at sea and they were warm and a different sex."

The charges were eventually dropped. The second mate and two of his cohorts were let go and Ahto set off once again.

They toured a number of islands in Polynesia, ending up in Samoa. "That’s quite a spot, a very small place with a huge harbour. There was nothing in it when we got there. A cruise ship would come in once in a while, then the local people would paddle out with carvings and stuff for people to buy. The main thing there was the two huge radio towers for the American fleet."

Fiji and New Caledonia were next before they moored in Sydney, Australia for repairs and provisions. "We hauled her out. We had a lot of marine growth on the bottom." They weren’t allowed to scrape the boat down there, but they did replace their rotten old mizzen mast (it had been a "bit soggy" when they left), buy a new mainsail, pick up three Australians (two of them girls, to balance out the crew) and purchase the latest charts to take them through the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s east coast.

On their way, they stopped in Brisbane for a day, anchoring way up the Brisbane River. "There were a lot of tanneries. Everything went into the river. The odour was shocking. It stank to high heaven. Brisbane itself wasn’t bad, but downstream was terrible."

Bearing north, they approached the Reef. "We’d sail all day and night. There were a lot of lights and markers so you wouldn’t come to grief." And of course they had their new charts, correct and up-to-date.

It was night. Jim was at the wheel. "We were following the recommended route and were supposed to see a light and leave it to starboard. It was a very bright, moonlit night, with a lot of cloud coming across the moon. First you’d see a white patch and then a dark patch."

"All of a sudden, I said, ‘God, look up there.’"

Jim called for the skipper immediately. By the time he was topside and barked, "Hard to port," it was too late.

CRASH! We went roaring up on a reef, spinnaker out, downwind, almost at high tide, so we were well up. This was about four o’clock in the morning, still dark.

What had happened was that they had altered the main channel from one side of a reef to the other, and hadn’t marked it on the chart, so we went plunk up the middle.

When daylight came and the tide subsided, we were pounding like heck on the reef, so the skipper opened the sea cock (a drainage valve) and let water in to sink her so she wouldn’t pound so much. Looking over the side, you could see bits of the false keel floating away, wood going here and there.

We settled her down, and when the tide went out completely, we were hard aground. So we dumped the ballast, more than eighteen tons of sand and boulders, overboard, leaving a great big pile of Estonia sitting on X-reef.

All this time, the waves were crashing over the stern and we were bouncing all over the place. The masts were shaking and the boat was shaking. A Japanese freighter was going by, so we hoisted an American flag upside down (an international distress signal) because we thought no one would recognize the Estonian flag. The Japanese ship just kept on going by.

The next ship that came by was the British cargo ship, Tresillian. She hove to and we put the skipper’s wife, his son Teddy and the two Australian girls on board. They were hesitant about getting off the ship, but we said, ‘See you tomorrow’ and they sailed away. We were to meet them about sixty miles away on Thursday Island, off the top of Cape York Peninsula.

That night, we dumped the anchor way out over the stern, using as much line as we had. By this time, the wind was calming down and the waves weren’t pounding us as hard. We were waiting for high tide so we could kedge her off, which means you winch the boat toward the stern where the anchor is.

"After we pumped her out, she started to bounce. The anchor was holding, then all of a sudden, the line went dead. ‘Oh God,’ I thought, ‘we’ve pulled the anchor out.’ But she was free. The skipper had cut the line with an axe. He wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. So we left the anchor and got away."

With no ballast, Ahto rolled like a cork, but they made it safely to Thursday Island. The whole incident had taken about twenty-four hours. They put Ahto up on a sand beach at high tide and rolled her over a bit to inspect the damage. "It wasn’t too bad," Jim remembers, though they would have to get her into dry dock sooner or later. Surabaya, Java, was the closest, weeks away. Fortunately, they didn’t run into any foul weather or heavy seas.

By now it was late in the summer of 1939. They hadn’t heard anything about what was going on in Europe. Their next stop was Makasar in the Celebes, part of the Dutch East Indies. (Today the Celebes is called Sulawesi and is part of Indonesia. Makasar is Ujung Pandang.) That was the first time they heard anything on the radio. "People were quite upset and we wondered what the hell was going on." It was the invasion of Poland.

"There had been two German cargo boats in the harbour. One morning, we saw these two ships up and skidoodle out, without their cargo. Then we sailed for Surabaya."

Ahto entered the port on September 3, 1939, the day England declared war on Germany. The Dutch port authorities didn’t know what to do with them.

"We were an Estonian boat, with an Estonian skipper, an English first mate, two Canadians, three Australians, a Tahitian and some Americans. They made us stay at anchor. At first, we could only go ashore for mail or food, then after the first day, they relaxed and we could do whatever we wanted, so we went into dry dock."

They stayed in Java for three weeks. As far as the War went, "we were halfway around the world, but the first mate said, ‘I’m going.’ The English girl went with him on a cargo boat to Singapore and then home. One Australian girl also left. The rest of us stayed on board."

That still left two women in the crew, the other Australian girl and the skipper’s wife. Normally, women weren’t favoured on ships at sea, but this was a very small boat and Ahto Walter wanted to keep his wife happy, as well as remain consistent with the practices of Irving Johnson, another skipper who had circumnavigated the world.

"We were emulating Johnson and he would not sail without three or four girls on board, for the simple reason it kept the boys calmed down. You can get pretty rough. Your language gets terrible. You look pretty sloppy. You get some females on board and it helps. On a 70-foot boat with fourteen people, everybody knows where everybody else is and exactly what they’re doing all the time. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s pretty cosy."

Shipboard romances were no secret.

Because of the War, Ahto had to change her course. Originally they had planned to cut through the Suez Canal and go home via the Mediterranean Sea. Now, they would travel around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. From Java, they went to Cocos Keeling Island to top up their fresh water before the long stretch across the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles. Again, they were downwind and had beautiful sailing. After the Seychelles, they visited the French islands of Rodriguez and Mauritius.

"Mauritius was the first thing we’d seen of war. The cargo boats were all sandbagged up with their guns in the stern. And between Mauritius and Cape Town (South Africa), an oil tanker called Africa Shell was sunk (by the German pocket battleship, Graf Spee, on November 15, 1939). This was the first time we had heard of anything going down. We painted a great big Estonian flag on the side of the boat, because Estonia was neutral at the time. We knew Graf Spee was floating around somewhere, but we never saw a darn thing. We were very fortunate."

Graf Spee sank another merchant vessel off the west coast of South Africa on December 3, 1939, before heading to South America where she was eventually damaged in the Battle of the River Platte and scuttled December 17, 1939.

Ahto and her crew spent Christmas 1939 in Cape Town where, once again, they hauled out the boat. Taking on more provisions, they headed up the west coast of Africa to Lagos, Nigeria. From Lagos, they headed directly across the Atlantic Ocean to Dominica, West Indies. This was their longest uninterrupted stretch of thirty-six days. Again fortune was on their side.

Palm Beach, Florida was their first landfall in the United States. They hauled Ahto up one more time and cleaned her up before heading back to Greenwich, Connecticut. Even though America wasn’t in the War yet, they saw two or three American battleships doing manoeuvres on their way home.

On May 2, 1940, exactly a year-and-a-half after their departure, they docked in Greenwich. "It felt pretty nice to be home. We were not glad it was over, but we knew the War was on and we had to sign up pretty quickly and that was that."

Faithful Servant

"Joan Davison lived to help others, most notably her family. Growing up in Northampton, England before WWII she recounts a family tragedy that left an indelible mark on her life: the death of her younger sister Margaret. Joan went on to marry and raise one son who went into the ministry. She continued to be of service to those she loved until the day she died."

Margaret was so much like my mother. She saw the sunny side of things. She never complained. She was an excellent student. You had to be clever to get into grammar school and she was. Who knows what she would have accomplished? Growing up as we did, with our parents working, she was just as self-reliant as I was. So if she had a headache, she would just come home from school, get an Aspro (Aspirin) and lie down until it passed off. The thing was she had a lot of headaches and terrible nosebleeds. We started to worry.

They had regular medical examinations at her school and my mother went into the doctor and told him about Margaret’s headaches. He said, "Oh well, she just doesn’t want to do her homework." It wasn’t that at all. She always did it.

By the summer she was thirteen, Margaret and I had grown much closer. The difference in our ages didn’t seem as great. Eric had become my steady boyfriend and I was allowed to go away with him. We took Margaret with us, my father driving us to a boarding house he knew in Skegness. She was very pale and the headaches continued but she always found the energy to be fun.

When we came back, my parents called in another specialist. He said she had kidney trouble. That was the first time anybody had mentioned her kidneys. He started to treat her at a nursing home near to home, and for the first little while, she got a lot better. Then one day he said to us, "I’m sorry, she’s not getting better like she ought to. I shall have to have her in hospital in London."

My parents stayed in London while Margaret was in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. I was left at home to tend the shop the best I could. I remember going to bed at night, not being able to sleep. I used to fall asleep reading, my head slumped over my book, the light still on. One night my parents rang up on the telephone and I said, "I can’t stand it. I’m coming to London."

We knew we were going to lose her. I don’t think she was in the hospital more than two weeks. We just went there every day to be with her. My dear sister died on December 14, 1934. She was only thirteen-and-a-half. She died at eleven o’clock in the morning because the hospital phoned us early and said she hadn’t long to live and we all went up. I can see that hospital clock, the hands at eleven.

We were all there, but my mother was actually at Margaret’s bedside. My mother said Margaret’s face absolutely lit up when she died. She was so peaceful. Mother said, "After seeing Margaret die, I will never be afraid to die."

My mother couldn’t bear to have her cremated, so we buried her in a family grave in Northampton.

We were all terribly, terribly upset.

I think losing Margaret changed our lives, irrevocably.

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