“Sea Trials: Around the World with Duct Tape and Bailing Wire” chronicles a family’s shipwreck and extraordinary voyage

A shipwreck, poisonous snakes, dengue fever and the prospect of undertaking a restoration in blistering heat and punishing rains would be enough to prompt most sailors to surrender and head for home.

But not the Wilcox family.

Parents Chuck and Dawn and their children, 13-year-old Garth and Linda, 10, set out from San Francisco in 1973 with a dream of sailing around the world on their 40-foot Maine Pinky sailboat, Vela. The fantasy runs hard aground just 13 months into the voyage when they shipwreck on a coral reef in Fiji, tearing a hole in the boat large enough to drive a car through.

Many sailors would have cut their losses and abandoned the voyage, but not the plucky Wilcoxes, as Bainbridge Island author Wendy Hinman recounts in her absorbing new book, “Sea Trials: Around the World with Duct Tape and Bailing Wire.”

In the days after the shipwreck, the Wilcoxes sell many critical pieces of gear from the boat — its radio, inflatable and hard dinghies, generator and electrical equipment, even the cushions — after being told the boat could not be salvaged. But after finding no buyers for the wrecked yacht, they decide to repair Vela and continue their circumnavigation, a grueling project that takes almost a year. That fateful decision would be questioned numerous times over the next four years as the family is beset with almost constant problems, from an engine that rarely works to a damaged rig, an ongoing cockroach infestation and an ever-tightening budget.

Author Wendy Hinman. Photo courtesy of Wendy Hinman

Hinman is married to Garth Wilcox, and readers of her 2012 book, “Tightwads on the Loose: A Seven Year Pacific Odyssey,” about the couple’s 34,000-mile voyage from Seattle to Japan and back, got a glimpse into what dauntless and resourceful explorers they are. “Sea Trials” shows the roots of that intrepidness in Wilcox, now a senior naval architect for Seattle firm Glosten. Just 14 years old when the family shipwrecked, the young Garth played a major role in the ship’s rebuild and stepped in as captain when his father reached his emotional limits.

Hinman brings the same meticulous research and attention to detail in her first book to “Sea Trials,” engagingly drawing readers into the daily trials and family dynamics that shaped the Wilcoxes’ taxing journey. The voyage was extraordinary for its time, relying on celestial navigation and taking them to places few tourists then visited — Sudan, Tonga, the Suez Canal shortly after its 1975 reopening — in an era when little information about long-distance cruising was available.

And while some of the family’s problems can be chalked up to poor decisions and a lack of resources — making a passage to Australia without storm sails, for example — they were also voyaging in a time before GPS, electronic navigation, cell phones and the myriad conveniences 21st century cruisers take for granted.

“Sea Trials” is a perfect accompaniment to summer cruising. Boaters will sympathize with the Wilcoxes as they deal with yet another equipment failure and cheer them on when they finally get to enjoy a rare bit of worry-free sightseeing in foreign countries. They’ll marvel at the family’s fortitude — and be thankful to be cruising in a vastly different time.

Read Three Sheets Northwest’s review of “Tightwads on the Loose.” 

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