Once is enough by Miles Smeeton

A reflection by Nicholas Grainger, author of The Voyage of The Aegre

Miles Smeeton’s account of the 46ft ketch Tzu Hang somersaulting (pitch-poling)in the Southern Ocean in 1956 was a seminal text for both ocean voyagers and armchair adventurers of my generation in the 1960s-70

Book coer
Once is enough by Miles Smeeton

It was mandatory reading. Published in 1960, I’d read it, of course, well before setting out on The Aegre. A copy has been on my bookshelf for years since, but I just picked it out to refresh my memory, thinking that perhaps some of today’s readers may not be aware of it, and I should give it a plug.

Tzu Hang, a 46ft, H S ‘Uncle’ Rouse-designed ketch, was built in Hong Kong for  Col. Denis Swinburne and shipped to the UK in 1939, where she was laid up at Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex during World War II. After the war, Swinburne cruised her to Northern Ireland and the West Coast of Scotland before selling her to the Smeetons in 1951.

yacht in harbour
Tsu Hang date location and source unknown

In about 1952, Miles and Beryl Smeeton, after just one North Sea passage to Holland and back, set out across the Atlantic aboard Tsu Hang with their eleven-year-old daughter Clio. The West Indies, the Panama Canal, and then north to Vancouver. Three years later, they sailed south across the Pacific to New Zealand, and then Australia. With no self-steering in those days, Miles and Beryl largely steered watch on watch all the way. In case you haven’t realised, these were not ordinary people.

Now it was 1956, Clio was sent back to England to attend boarding school, while Miles and Beryl were to sail Tzu Hang back to the UK. They were not a couple to pass up a bit of adventure and decided to go via the westerlies of the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn, a course rarely followed by yachts in those days.

Thinking another hand might be helpful, they took on their good friend John Guzzwell, whom they had met in Canada, where he built a wonderful small yacht, Trekka. The two vessels had sailed in company to NZ. Now, Guzzwell grabbed the opportunity to make this grand Southern Ocean passage and laid up Trekka.

So it was that in 1956, they sailed from Melbourne, Australia, in midsummer, heading for the UK via Cape Horn. All went well until, in atrocious weather, they were pitchpoled and dismasted about 900 miles to the northwest of the Magellan Strait.

Guzzwell had been shooting cine film aboard Tzu Hang prior to this, a short clip is available here.

line drawings
Tzu Hang is pitchpoled in the Southern Ocean

Under jury rig, they headed northeast towards the west coast of South America, landing forty days later at Arauco Bay, Chile. They spent months repairing Tzu Hang with the help of John Guzzwell and the Chilean Navy. Guzzwell then left them to return to New Zealand and his Trekka to continue his own solo circumnavigation.

yacht paln view
Trekka

Miles and Berryl set off heading south again, this time hoping to pass through the Patagonian Channels and then head for the UK. But then, as if being pitch-poled wasn’t bad enough, another storm rolled Tzu Hang and dismasted her again. Well, I won’t go on. You’ll have to read the story yourself to find out how it all ended up. It’s an almost unbelievable tale. Certainly, once was enough.

But the voyage recounted in Once is enough is just one small incident in the lives of Miles and Beryl Smeeton, often regarded as the most accomplished travelling and adventuring couple of the 20th century. Miles wrote ten books about their adventures in addition to Once is enough, such as Sunrise to windward.

Sailing yacht
Sunrise to windward by Miles Smeeton

The drama in Once is enough, is typically understated and full of dry British humour between the lines. Beryl wrote two books despite saying her attempts at writing ended up reading like railway timetables.

But it’s professional writer and photographer Miles Clark who has captured the extraordinary drama of their lives in his book High Endeavours, published in 1991. It’s a gripping read, illustrated with nineteen (yes, 19) pages of maps.

Beryl was the irrepressible adventurer… in August 1937, Beryl began making plans for her most ambitious solo journey yet: a thousand-mile ride through the Patagonian Andes from the Straits of Magellan to Puerto Aisen... Yes, that was in 1937, while Miles had an early career in the Army, of which one of his senior officers wrote in a (sort of) reference, Miles has an extraordinary ability to get out of very tight scrapes that he should never have got into in the first place...

In 2003/4, I took a copy of High Endeavours with me on the Albatross Voyage, a circumnavigation from Scotland via Cape Horn, with adventurers John and Marie Christine Ridgway aboard their 56 ft ketch English Rose VI.

book cover
High Endeavours by Miles Clark Harper Collins 1991

Completely absorbed in the Smeeton’s latest adventure and crisis in the book, it was often a relief to me to go up on deck to take my watch in the Southern Ocean. However, aboard English Rose VI, we ourselves were badly pooped in heavy weather late one night in a similar location approaching Cape Horn. Sweeping in from astern, a massive wave knocked the helmsman flat, smashed into the doghouse, shifting it sideways, and poured below, taking out all our electrics.

Luckily, the helmsman was tied on and relatively uninjured, and English Rose surfaced gallantly, the right way up. We pumped her out, reinforced the doghouse with spare timber, rerouted the electrics and sailed on.

But sadly, the seawater got into the book binding of my copy of High Endeavours, and now the pages are falling out, somehow a fitting end for such a book.

But what happened to Tsu Hang?

Much later, in 1969, the Smeetons sold Tzu Hang to a friend, Bob Nance, and moved to Alberta, Canada. In 1982, Nance sold her, and later, she is reported to have been bought by a drug dealer who used her for smuggling marijuana from Colombia to the USA. It is also reported that in 1988, she was seized by US federal agents in the Virgin Islands, and in 1989, she sank at her moorings during Hurricane Hugo. In 1990, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she was destroyed by a bulldozer on a landfill, allegedly the day before the arrival of a man who had raised funds to rescue her.

Meanwhile, Miles and Beryl, back in Canada, founded the Cochrane Ecological Institute (CEI), which is dedicated to breeding endangered wildlife. They accomplished the first successful reintroduction of a North American extirpated carnivore back to its home range, the swift fox. Beryl Smeeton died in Cochrane in 1979, and Miles died in 1988, in Calgary, at the age of 83. Their daughter Clio continues to run the CEI.

It’s all quite a story. Miles, Beryl and Clio Smeeton, we salute you.

Some further reading

Books by Miles Smeeton

Books by Beryl Smeeton

Books by John Guzzwell

Wikipedia entry for the Smeetons.

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