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(June 28, 2001, Gazette)

Engineering student
crosses the Atlantic

By Susen Johnson

Jennifer Smith, at the helm
Ms. Smith in her gear: “When you’re alone, you wear a survival suit to keep warm and a harness locked into the safety line around the boat. Because if you’re there for a four-hour shift and you fall over at the beginning of it, nobody’s going to know you’re gone until the end, and then there’s no way anybody could find you.”

How did you spend your summer vacation? Jennifer Smith didn’t kick back at the beach, she spent her vacation sailing from Newfoundland to the Azores Islands.

Ms. Smith, a Term 7 undergraduate engineering student, crewed last July on a 38-foot yacht from Manuels, Newfoundland, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Azores Islands — the “halfway point” for transatlantic travel between Europe and the North America. The 1,130 mile transatlantic voyage took eight days and nights. She then sailed for two weeks from island to island before flying home to St. John’s to return in time for school.

From an avid sailing family, Ms. Smith explained how her exciting trip came about. “We used to sail a fair bit in the summers, as a family, but I’d never done anything open sea. It’s just a totally different experience.”

The engineering student travelled with her father, Harold Smith, who had crewed a transatlantic voyage once previously and dreamed of taking his own boat across. Joining them were friends Peter Crocker, John Small, and Billy Goodyear, who had varying degrees of experience sailing.

Jennifer Smith with her father, Harold Smith
Jennifer Smith and her father, Harold Smith, keep the tradition alive in Horta, Faial, Azores, where the wall outside the yacht club is decorated with the logos of all the yachts that make it there, for luck.

So what was it like being the only female on the boat?

“A couple of guys were joking around, saying ‘You’re going to be the only woman on the boat, I guess you’ll be doing all the cooking and cleaning,’” Ms. Smith reported. “But I was like, ‘No way, that’s what Billy’s for.’

Ms. Smith told of how her father supported her one night when a crew member tried to make an issue of her gender by insisting she go below during rough seas. “Dad’s really good with that, so he drew the line,” she said. “I mean, I knew the boat better than they did; I pretty much grew up on it.”

Otherwise, she said, it was happy sails for the duration. “The weather was pretty good. We had two days with confused seas, and one of our crew members got tossed and threw his back out. He didn’t move for two days. But then it got better: we went from survival suits to swimsuits.”

Flores, the Azores
First sight of land: Flores, the Azores.

As a result of the injury, Ms. Smith explained, the crew had to manage the boat in two-hour shifts, tied on for safety and alone in the dark. “I liked that a lot, actually. You’re there in the pitch black with no light whatsoever and all the stars, and in the trail behind the boat there’s phosphorescence, so it sparkles. It was wild, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In addition to the spectacular scenery waiting in the Azores, Ms. Smith said the journey itself held many visual treats. “We saw pothead whales, porpoise and dolphins, and turtles,” she related. “You stand on the boat and you look around and it’s water for six nautical miles in all directions.”

So what did she learn from her amazing experience?

“There’s one thing I didn’t realize: when you’re sailing coastal, you always have a forecast: you know the wind, the waves, what it’s going to be like for the next few days. But there’s no forecast for the middle of the Atlantic.”

Ms. Smith explained how a Burlington, Ontario, native named Herb Hilgenberg volunteers his time to collect and disseminate information to boats in mid-Atlantic. “He’s this retired guy who searches the Web to find the latest weather information. “Every night he tells everybody where to go and if bad weather’s coming he routes them a different way. He’s awesome.”


The Ghost, so named for the sense Mr. Smith has that his father and grandfather always travel with him.

A sailing enthusiast threatened by a violent storm during a trip to
the Virgin Islands in 1982, Hilgenberg devotes his retirement to using ham radio to brief mariners crossing the Atlantic. He is licensed by Industry Canada, and communicates with an average of 50 vessels per day, seven days a week. His detailed and accurate forecasts have earned the trust of mariners throughout the world.

In addition to her happy memories and renewed sense of her own abilities, Ms. Smith got an unexpected benefit from her journey. She became eligible for membership in the international organization, Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) — a right reserved solely for those few who skipper or crew a cross-Atlantic sail of 1,000 miles or more, non-stop, port-to-port, in a sailing yacht of less than seventy feet. There are just over 1500 members internationally.

As for the future, Ms. Smith said she plans to keep up with her sailing after she finishes her engineering education. “I can’t wait to have my own boat,” she said. “It’ll be the first thing I buy when I finish school and get out working.”

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