Harvard-Bound Doctor Fights Hunger, Storms

Public Health Student, Wife and Sons Sail by 48 Foot Ketch 10,000 Miles to Here

Thomas R. A. Davis came to Harvard the hard way.

Through storm and calm, for 10,000 miles, he sailed across two oceans. From Wellington, New Zealand to the Charles River, the Cook Islands' Chief Surgeon, his wife, two sons, and two crewmen lived for five months a cramped and uncomfortable life aboard a 48 foot ketch.

Davis arrived at the Harvard School of Public Health two months late. He should have been fined $10 for late registration, but wasn't. Instead the tardy student was greeted dockside by the dean of the Public Health School, Brig. Gen. James S. Simmons, and later was elected president of his class following a bibulous beer party for him in the School's staid lobby.

All honor was justified. Besides safely sailing 10,000 miles of ocean, Davis has accomplished these things: survived the worst gale to hit New Zealand waters in 30 years; become the first person ever to sail across the Pacific from New Zealand to Peru in mid-winter; and partly refuted or at least raised serious doubts of the validity of the Kon-Tiki theory, which at the time was called a major anthropoloical achievement.

But to Davis scientific achievement and adventure were secondary; the primary purpose of the trip was to get to Harvard--the cheapest way possible. Ever since he became a doctor, Davis has wanted to study at Harvard. His chance came when, at a medical meeting at Tahiti Island, Davis met Harold C. Coolidge '27, of the School of Public Health.

Invitation to Harvard

Coolidge said: "How would you like to come to Harvard?" Somewhat astounded, Davis replied: "You bet, but-I need money. If you get some, I'll sail to Boston." Coolidge thought Davis sincere, but didn't think anyone would actually sail to school.

After much frantic searching, Coolidge found Davis a fellowship--$3,000 from Burroughs Wellcome, a pharmactutical company.

But Davis left even before he knew he had the money. The New Zealand government gave him a non-too-generous $30 for the 10,000 mile journey; the rest of his life savings were invested in the boat. To get a crew, he placed an advertisement in New Zealand newspapers and the next day about 100 people offered to go, some even willing to pay as much at $2,000 for the opportunity. Davis finally selected Neil Arrow, a soldier-of-fortune who had spent much time at sea, and William Donovan, a ceramics student and friend of Arrow's.

Davis had bought his stubby, broad-beamed ketch a year before. Originally named the "Soubrette" (meaning "handmaiden"), it was rechristened by Davis the "Miru," who according to a Polynessian legend is the daughter of the Sun God. She had eight brothers, all of whom were commanded by the sun God to commit incest with her; other than her mother, Miru unfortunately was the only woman on the earth at the time. Miru produced the ancestors of the Polynessian race.

Tumbling Barometer

By May 31, Miru was ready to leave Wellington. That day things looked decidely ominous. Steady, sleeting rain sleeked the ship's deck, and the barometer tumbled to record low; by morning it read 28.40 inches. Despite the black, raining sky, Davis decided to set sail, and without salute or fanfare, the Miru put to sea in the middle of the South Pacific's winter. Never before had anyone ever sailed in mid-winter from New Zealand to America along the 40th latitude--the "roaring forties." It was something that just wasn't done.

Three days and 500 miles later the barometer steadied, clouds thickened, and the wind started cresting the sea. According to Arrow, winds were over 80 miles per hour, and that was a conservative estimate. Arrow, Donovan, and Davis managed to put out a sea anchor, but this parted after several hours. They poured over several gallons of oil to prevent the waves from breaking; the oil disappeared into the swirling ocean. The Miru sloshed around in the valleys of 35-foot waves; about every 20 minutes one would break, sending cascades of swirling water through the hatches, portholes, and into the cockpit. By nightfall, everything in the cabin was drenched, and water slopped above the cabin floor boards.

As wind and sea increased, work on deck became virtually impossible. Davis lashed down the tiller, and let the ketch stand alone. The crew and passengers spent the next four days in the Miru's cramped cabin. All the while, the Miru kicked and twisted, making sleep impossible; worse, the Davis' older son developed a bad case of measles.

After five days the storm abated; two days of calm and clear followed, and then came a new hurricane, wilder than the first. One breaker flooded the Miru's 17-year-old diesel engine, which operated the bilge pump. For two days, Arrow, Donovan, and Davis took turns in a bucket brigade, carting water from the cabin to the deck.

With a completely exhausted crew and two sick children, Davis decided to head to head for Rapa, a South Sea Island. The twenty-fifth day out, the approached the tiny island, and in a letter to friends, Mrs. Davis said they "nearly went mad. Our first reaction was to wash ourselves, the first bath in 26 days. We drank a toast to the destruction of the Roaring 40's, then promptly collapsed with the sudden reaction to the terrors we had been through."

Just off Rapa another gale swept the waters, and Davis, unwilling to risk taking the narrow passageway into Rapa Harbor, anchored a mile off-shore. In the Miru's dingy, Arrow attempted to row to shore, but was swamped 400 yards away from land. With the dinghy's rope between his teeth, he started swimming for shore--until he saw a sizeable group of sharks starting to swim in the same direction. He frantically bailed out the boat, and made the beach a few yards ahead of the sharks.

Rapa Adventure

Dripping wet and bleary-eyed, he started to walk to the town, when he met a group of natives, all eagerly running toward the beach. He asked one what had happened. The native signaled that the French meterologist on the island had received a radio message saying that a New Zealand yacht, the Miru, had founded in a hurricane off Rapa. The French government announced that it would take one-half of any salvage from the Miru, and the island's natives would get the other half. That, he said, was why everyone was going to the beach; wreckage was sure to drift in soon. Arrow discreetly pointed toward a white-hulled yacht with a New Zealand flag flying from the stern, and suggested that the Miru hadn't broken up yet. Somewhat downcast, the native called his fellows back. Later the island meterologist informed Davis that several ships, some larger than the Miru had been lost in the hurricane--the worst in 30 years. Hungry, but ignorant of the Rapa language, Arrow and Donovan indicated later that day their desire for fish-spearing equipment to the on-looking natives by a series of spearing motions. The natives nodded sagely and returned shortly with a group of demure, young women.

After restocking, the Miru headed for Callao, Peru, 4,250 miles away. It was now mid-July--the south Pacific's January. The average temperature was around 35 degrees. About half way across, Davis rationed food for the adults because supplies were slowly diminishing. Their situation become desperate. Davis, Donovan, and Arrow found that there was not enough energy in rationed food to keep them going. Apathy and lassitude set in.

Arrow kept what he called a "morale chart" on the trip across. The graph plunged deepest during this period. In desperation, they decided to spear some of the naively happy purpoises that lounged alongside. Arrow spent an afternoon fashioning a spear, and when finished, looked over the side for a purpoise. He discovered that they had gone; the crew never saw another purpoise for the rest of the trip.

Just off the Peruvian coastline, they were foodless, save for some beef. "I've sailed before, so the hurricane didn't worry me," says Arrow, "but I've never been really hungry. I was quite frightened." To make things worse a cloud layer, hovering off the Peruvian coast, put visibility at just about zero. Davis couldn't solve the food problem, but, being a competent navigator, he was not seriously handicapped by the lack of visibility. About 100 miles out, the engine sputtered; Davis investigated, and found that there was no diesel oil left. To op-operate the engine he emptied the stove of kerosene, using that instead of diesel fuel. On docking all piled off for their first full meal in 41 days.

The trans-Pacific voyage has provided anthropologists with a counter-thesis to the Kon-Tiki theory. By venturing from Peru to the Polynesian Islands by a powerless raft, the Kon-Tiki group attempted to prove that the Polynesians are descendants of the Peruvians. Davis maintains the contrary. He says that there are similarities in culture, but contends that a Polynesian Chief sailed to Peru, perhaps over the same route used by Davis. The chief and his associates traveled along the Peruvian coast, picking up the culture, and transplanted it in Polynesia. This thesis is in almost direct contradiction to the much-hailed Kon-Tiki version, but some anthropologist now believe Davis' winter voyage has pushed Kon-Tiki into little more than a good adventure story.

America: Land of Confusion

The trip from Callao to Balboa, Panama, through the Canal to Colon proved eventless. The Carribean, then in the middle of the September hurrican season, was placid. The boat's first stop was Key West, then Miami. Here they had their first run-in with two American institutions: the press and tumbling bureacracy.

The press frightened the crew, so much so that they dreaded the prospect of Boston photographers and reporters with their incessant "one more please" and questions about their state of finance. All along the way, United States Immigration Authorities fold them to obtain their visas "at the next part." This continued until they got to Miami. There they were told they could not enter the country without a visa. So they would have to go outside the country, to Bermuda or Cuba, and receive visas. Not enthusiastic about this proposition, Mr. and Mrs. Davis and the two crewmen dickered with Immigration until finally a sympathetic official informed Washington of their plight, and Washington approved their entrance.

This done they set sail for Boston, via the Gulf Stream. But off Florida, a bitter north caster slammed into the Stream, making progress just about impossible. Davis headed westward to the Inland Waterway. The average depth of the waterway is eight feet; the Miru's draft is eight feet. These two factors caused 13 groundings on the way, one of which left the Miru high and dry until a new tide.

From the Inland Waterway, the Miru hauled out to sea, out in through the Cape Cod Canal, and five months after leaving Wellington, stood off Boston Harbor at dusk on November 2. It was night when she reached the Upper Harbor; her New Zealand flag, tattered and discolored, was unrecognizable. A dimunitive police boat greeted Miru, and escorted her to her temporary berth on the Charles.

For the next year, until Davis receives his Master's degree at Commencement he won't too much of the Miru. Davis hopes to return to the 15 South Pacific islands, scattered over 500,000 square miles, that he is medically responsible for. And Miru, he says, will take him home