One more trip, one more story

On sea or land, Harold Stephens sees what there is to see

THE DAILY PROGRESS, CHARLOTTESVILE, VA, MARCH 1, 1988

By DAVID A. MAURER, Daily Progress staff writer

People passing by the Singapore shipyard would stop and stare with bemused delight at the cement hull that was taking shape.

Many of them read the large words scribbled on four pieces of cardboard bailed to a nearby pole.

“Schooner Third Sea under construction,” the top sign read. “This is a boat. It is a cement boat. Yes, it will float! No more questions, please.”

Few people heeded the request but, in 1975, more than two years after Harold Stephens started construction on the ferro-cement boat, he proved it would float. After having it outfitted in Thailand, he spent the next 18 years sailing the 71-foot schooner from one end of the Pacific Ocean to the other.

Stephens sailed where he wanted to, when he wanted to. He took time to watch the sun cast golden rays across still waters and listen to the of evening prayers drifting out to him from a mosque in Malaysia.

He dealt with pirates on the high seas and he numbers cannibals among his friends. Whether he was hacking through a jungle looking for an ancient ruin or diving into cobalt blue water to search for treasure, he shared his adventures with readers.

“People come up to me and say, ‘You're really lucky, you're a writer, and you can do this,’” said Stephens, who has written more than a dozen books and works for the Bangkok Post newspaper.

“Or they’ll say, 'I wish I had the money to do this.' What I tell people is you really don't need a lot of money. All you need is the determination and that's it. I built the Third Sea with practically no money.

“I had to devise a way of doing it, and a lot of times I’d be up half the night writing stories selling them to magazines to buy paint and other supplies to keep going. You have to make it happen, but too often we make excuses and keep putting off our dreams by saying, ‘Someday I'll do it.’”

Stephens' most recent book, “The Last Voyage: The Story of Schooner Third Sea,” is a lively account of the building and the voyages of the writer's dream boat.

On Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, Stephens will present a slide show on his travels and discuss his book and the building of his boat. A book signing will follow.

While growing up on a farm near the small town of Bridgeville, Pa., the only connection Stephens had with the sea was through the books he read. One book in particular, 'The Cruise of the Snark” by Jack London, had a lasting effect on him.

Stephens was 12 years old when he read London's account of how he built and sailed a ketch to the South Pacific.

He said reading London's book was like driving spikes through his heart and the only way he could heal the wounds was to follow the Writer's footsteps to the South Pacific.

After leaving home, Stephens did a hitch with the U.S. Marine Corps, but the flame of his Sailing dream was still burning bright.

Once while on guard duty he paced out his imaginary ship in the sand.

After Stephens was discharged, he attended Georgetown University.

After graduation, he taught for a time at Emerson Institute, a college preparatory school. Although he enjoyed teaching, the sea had a stronger pull.

“I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to go to the South Pacific,” Stephens said. “In 1960,1 got on a cargo ship in Panama and made my way to Tahiti.

“Before I left Panama, a guy had told me not to bother to go to Tahiti because it was ruined. It might have been ruined for him, but I fell in love with the place immediately.

“When I got there they were just starting to build the airfield and they had six yachts moored in the harbor. When I returned 20 years later in my schooner, they had 430 boats registered there.

“Now, when I find myself wanting to tell people not to go to Tahiti because it's not what it once was, I catch myself and think about that guy in Panama. If you've always dreamed about going to Tahiti, by all means go.”

However, the days when a person could build a lean-to near the beach and live off the fat of the land are long gone.

Stephens' advice is to take plenty of money, because the cheapest lodging a person can find today in Tahiti is a bed in a dormitory for $60 a day.

When Stephens was building Third Sea in the early '70s, prices in the South Pacific were a fraction of what they are today. Still, he had to use his imagination and all the Yankee ingenuity he could muster to bring his boat into reality.

Stephens heard about ferro-cement boat construction while researching a story in for Argosy magazine. The story was about a Canadian adventurer named Stan Rayner who had turned the rotting hull of an abandoned boat into a trading schooner.

After two years of hard work, Rayner said, his only regret was that he didn't build his boat out of concrete.

At first, Stephens thought he was joking, but he soon found out that Rayner was completely serious.

Intrigued, Stephens began delving into the study of the concrete ships. He learned that the first one, a rowboat, was built in Switzerland in 1848 and is still in use.

After procuring plans and learning how to build a hull out of cement, wire mesh and small-diameter reinforcing rods, Stephens started to look around for a building site.

“To my surprise I found ferro-cement boats under construction in most large ports such as Taipei, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore,” Stephens said.

“I found the best place to build was in Singapore, because of lower material costs. To cut down on labor costs I rented a big house, hired a cook and put out the word that if Peace Corps volunteers who were visiting Singapore would help me with the boat I would provide them with a place to sleep and meals.

“On weekends, I would have as many as 35 people helping me. I figured just building the hull took about 4,500 man-hours, but my expenses were greatly reduced because most of the labor came from unpaid volunteers.”

After the hull was completed and an engine installed, Stephens motored Third Sea 1,000 miles up the -South China Sea to the Gulf of Thailand.

Once there, he employed several Thai carpenters at $2 each per day to help him finish the schooner. C

The carpenters took nearly three tons of teak and fashioned decking, rails, banisters, ladders, doors and even door stops.

When the Third Sea was finally completed in 1976 it was not only beautiful, but tough plough to withstand the adventures Stephens was keen on finding.

“It was an incredible adventure, a delightful thing,” said Stephens, who is marred and has three sons in college in California. “One of the things I wanted to do was visit all the World War II sites, which we did.

“We found airfields in the jungles with airplanes that still had gasoline in their tanks. I found the HMS Repulse hat was sunk of the coast of Malaysia a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“We dove on it in 180 feet of water and brought up the name plate, which we turned over to a museum in England More than 500 men went down when the Japanese sank her, along with the HMS Prince of Wales.”

Stephens also sailed some of the great rivers of Asia, like the Chao Phraya in Thailand and the Rejang River in Borneo.

“In Borneo, I would go into the long houses and see shrunken heads hanging from the rafters,” Stephens said. There's still head-hunters in places like that.

“We were up in the New Hebrides and I learned that a man I knew and his wife were in jail for eating their infant baby. It was their custom, and they only had to serve two weeks,

“Those islands are absolutely primitive. I heard about a missionary who was missing and when I talked to somebody about where I might find him I was told, 'Oh, he belly full up,' meaning the cannibals had eaten him,”

Not all of Stephens’ adventures have taken place on the high seas and remote islands. During 1966 and 1967 he and Al Podel made the longest recorded motor trip around the world in a Toyota Land Cruiser.

Stephens and Podel co-wrote a book about the 42,000-mile adventure, “Who Needs A Road.” Their trip set a record that still stands and probably won't be broken any time soon.

“In the wor1d we have today you couldn't make the around-the-world trip Al and I went on back in the '60s,” Stephens said.

“The conditions in the world have never been worse as far as closed borders and closed off countries are concerned.

“Marco Polo had an easier time of it. You can't even drive through Central America anymore, what with the little individual countries making their crossings tough and people blowing up the roads.

“Traveling through Afghanistan is impossible and you would never get near Algeria today. It’s a drastically different and more hostile world today than it was 20 years ago.”

The world has certainly changed since Stephens left his teaching job and hitched a ride on a cargo ship to Tahiti. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the waters and on the beautifully lush islands that dot the South Pacific.

“When I first started traveling through the South Pacific in the early '60s, the islands were really pristine," Stephens said. "Now the ocean is filled with unbelievable pollution and every single island you go to is littered with debris.

"I'm talking about plastics of every description and just plain garbage. You can see this junk piled up on the beaches on the windward side of every island you come across.

"I remember once when I was making a nap and got called up on deck by my crew because they had spotted a reef. Then we noticed the reef was bobbing as we got closer we saw it was a trail of rubbish about 10 feet wide that stretched for miles."

Stephens said the pollution in Bangkok is so bad that after he's there for just a couple of days his lungs start to ache. What's worse, he no longer has the Third Sea to take him and his wife away from it all.

A few years ago, Stephens was visiting his sons in the United States and had left Third Sea moored in Ke'ehi Lagoon off the Hawaiian island of Oahu. While he was gone, one of the worst typhoons of this century hit the island and sent her to the bottom.

Currently, Stephens is building his second dream boat in Singapore. This one is also being constructed with the ferro-cement technique but, instead of being a sailing ship, it's an ocean-going trawler called the Argo Explorer.

“I want to better explore Asian rivers like the Yangtze and the Mekong and the trawler will allow me to do this,' Stephens said.

“I was in a big rush with my first boat, but I'm taking my time with this one.”

At the age of 70, Stephens talks like a man whose life has only begun. He's still filled with curiosity and the need to find out what's around the next bend.

“A lot of people tag me as an adventurer, but I don't care for the term,” Stephens said,

“The word adventurer has the connotation that I do these things for publicity.

“I don't. I go to these places and do these things because I want to do it or see something. Right now I want to go to Sumatra because I want to explore an old trading port I heard was there.

“The reason why I like Southeast Asia over Europe is there are still a lot of places to explore. I'm planning a trip down the Mekong River right now.”