We set sail from the French island of Reunion on September 10th 1969. As I was doing my paper work and clearing our large schooner Shearwater out for a 2000 mile voyage to Durban, South Africa the Port Captain took me aside and told me to be on the lookout for a 300 foot freighter that was 10 days overdue? He mentioned that the ship had left Durban more than 3 weeks ago and was bound for Reunion but had never arrived? I casually took note of the information thinking, "fat chance of me ever locating a ship in the vast Indian ocean?"
It was about ten days later as we were broad reaching in force 6 trade winds that we sailed through some floating objects. Eric Puyjman was at the wheel and was a new member of our Shearwater family. We had signed him aboard several weeks before at the island of Mauritius. Eric was Dutch and his family had settled in Capetown when he was but a child. His bright red hair, freckles, and bean pole stature would make him always easy to fine in a crowd. He ate like a horse and although he appeared to have an inverted stomach, he couldn't wait to clean up my two kid's plates of leftovers at mealtime. Alice 8 and Ernie 10 (my kids) soon adopted Eric as their big brother.
Eric had joined a small sailboat in India that was skippered by a young Australian lad. The two of them had knocked about the Indian ocean for about four months. When they reached Mauritius the Aussie being short of funds, signed on as navigator on a small freighter for a round trip voyage to Durban and back. Eric's skipper had been gone almost two months when Eric spied our lovely 70' schooner tied to a wharf in the main port of Mauritius, Port Louis. Eric was tired of boat sitting and wanted to hitch a ride to Capetown. Being short of crew we welcomed him aboard, for a small fee that is. Ten dollars a day is what I tried to charge my crew to cover food costs.
Eric called our attention to the debris we were sailing through. On the lonely oceans we'd been traveling, seeing ANYTHING floating a thousand miles from nowhere is a big deal! A few pallets, some plastic containers, some large timbers etc. Really not much? It only lasted for a few minutes and we were able to maintain our direct line compass course to Durban without having to change course to avoid the flotsam?
About an hour later, dead ahead on the horizon was a small ship heading directly for us. To avoid from hitting each other we both changed course to starboard and passed port to port about 500 years apart. I noted the name of the ship and time of passing in my log. As the afternoon wore on, the watches changed and my son Ernie took the large teak wheel and assumed command of our 70 ton schooner blasting along at 9 knots with 2500 square feet of sail set into a fiery Indian ocean sunset.
About a week later we arrived in Durban. The buzz on the street and in all the newspapers was a story about the sinking of a ship and a survivor that had been found floating on a makeshift raft for 18 days. I paid little heed but as I read the article I noted the name of the ship that had rescued the lone survivor. It sounded familiar so I took out my log book and to my amazement it was the same ship we had altered course for half way across the Indian ocean. The article also noted the day and time an alert crew member spotted the man on the raft. I noted the time we had passed the ship and came to the conclusion that the ship had picked up the survivor about an hour AFTER passing us. This would have been very near the time in the afternoon that we were sailing through the debris? Wow! Had I been a bit more alert and perhaps gone aloft up the ratlines to the spreaders on the foremast with my binoculars, I might have discovered the man on the raft?
Now for the real shocker!!! As I continued to read the newspaper article I mentioned to Eric who was nearby, about the fact that had we been a bit more on the ball in the "look-out" department we might have discovered the lone survivor of the ship sinking. I then read to Eric the name of the survivor. There was a boisterous "HOLY SHIT" from Eric and then he exclaimed that the survivor was his skipper of the little sailboat he had sailed from India to Mauritius on and the man he was waiting for so they could sail on to Cape Town. We had sailed within a mile or two of Erics's captain who was near death floating on a raft and NEVER EVEN KNEW IT???