Near his home on the Indian River in Vero Beach, Al Grover sits at the helm of his Groverbuilt, a boat he built that is similar to the one in which he made the Atlantic crossing. MARK DOLAN PHOTO
Part-time Vero resident Al Grover is the first person to cross the Atlantic in an outboard
BY GREGORY ENNS
When it comes to choosing paths in life, Al Grover prefers to take the ones less traveled.
After enlisting in the Army in the waning days of World War II, he could have served out his time in the infantry. Instead, he became a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division and served during the post-war occupation of Japan.
Back home on Long Island after his military service, he could have taken over his father’s music business. Instead, he became a commercial fisherman and in 1950 opened a marina in Freeport.
The only thing predictable was marriage to Arti, who gave up her dream of becoming an artist to help Al run his marina, doing things like driving cross-country with him to deliver boats during their 55 years of marriage.
“We did crazy things, but that was Al,’’ Arti says. “There was nothing he couldn’t do. You’d tell him he couldn’t do it, and he’d do it. Somebody has been on his side all his life.’’
And instead of buying a sports car during his mid-life crisis, Al Grover set out to accomplish something that had never been done: Crossing the Atlantic in a small outboard.
There were numerous attempts, preparations and changed plans. And once the trip was finally under way in 1985, he’d endure a gale, a hurricane and even falling off the boat before reaching Lisbon and going down in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“The whole thing was hard to justify,’’ says Al, now 81, who with Arti spends winters in Vero Beach and summers on Long Island. “I had a good life and was comfortable. But after more than 30 years of going into the shop every day, I needed something different.’’
Inspired by the writings of Joshua Slocum, the first to sail solo around the world, and Sir Francis Chichester, the first to sail solo around the world by clipper route, Al began planning his trans-Atlantic voyage in the early 1980s. “It was in the back of my head and it got stronger and stronger,’’ he says. He was fascinated with how Chichester and Slocum lived on small rations of food, weathered storms and made daily life-and-death decisions.
“His life has been boats – it’s what he really loves,’’ says his son, Al Jr., who made part of the Atlantic crossing with him. “He just had this in his mind that he had to do it.’’
And Al Grover had just the boat in mind.
Since 1970, he had been building a fiberglass skiff called the Groverbuilt, which was based on the original design of the Verity skiff. Al had grown up around the Verity, a wood lapstrake boat, and knew her seaworthiness. The boat had a box keel so fishermen could run her up the beach in rough weather.
“I worked on them as a kid, and I felt they could carry the weight needed for the gasoline,’’ Al says. “It’s easy pushing, seaworthy and can carry a load – the three things you need.’’
Particularly, Al remembered the boats coming into harbor loaded down with 100-pound boxes of fish yet easily pushing through the water. And he was especially impressed by the tales of fishermen who had weathered a 1938 hurricane in a Verity. “They drifted and survived,’’ he says. “The boat actually drifted through the hurricane.’’
In creating the design for the Groverbuilt, Al found a 1926 Verity from the family of a Long Island fisherman who had died. Al bought the boat for $100 and retrieved his sunken purchase from a creek. He repaired and replaced the cedar planking. With the hull turned upside down, he spread layers of fiberglass cloth and worked resin over it to create the mold for the production boats.
With manufacturing operations at his marina in Freeport, he built the boat in two sizes, 26 feet and 28 feet. By the time he undertook his trans-Atlantic voyage, Al and his sons had produced some 150 Groverbuilts.
Al originally considered making the Atlantic crossing with the standard Volvo diesel inboard engine that came with the Groverbuilts. But when he learned that nobody had ever made the crossing in an outboard and he could set a world’s record, he came up with the idea of refitting the boat with outboards – twin 65 horsepower and a 9.9 auxiliary – that would supply him with ample backup power if one of the engines failed.
The brand of outboard to be used was a no-brainer. An Evinrude dealer since the early 1950s, Al had come to know and admire Ralph Evinrude, the son of Evinrude founder and outboard inventor Ole Evinrude. Al had met Ralph Evinrude through various boat shows over the years. He especially remembered the parties Evinrude would throw at the Waldorf Astoria, where Evinrude’s wife, the movie star Frances Langford, would entertain Evinrude dealers with her singing. [Evinrude and Langford, incidentally, lived in Jensen Beach.]
By crossing the Atlantic, Al hoped to fulfill Ole Evinrude’s dream of retracing the path of the Vikings, Ole’s ancestors, back to Norway via Greenland and Iceland.
“Our whole business was convincing customers how good and dependable their engines were,’’ Al says. “When I set out to do it, I told people it would be good for business. But really, I was out of my mind.’’
A similar attempt using an escort vessel had been made in the 1950s, but failed because the boat was picked up by the escort vessel in heavy seas. Why hadn’t others tried the crossing in an outboard?
“In an outboard, fuel consumption is much higher than diesel so you have to carry a lot more fuel,’’ Al says. “In the 1980s, outboards were a questionable engine for a long haul, so most people did not want to do it with outboards. It was not considered a long haul heavy-duty engine.’’
Al’s dream of crossing the Atlantic was an effort – and an obsession – that would bring him to the brink of many things. It especially caused friction in his marriage.
“I fought it all the way,’’ Arti, 76, says. “I didn’t think it was safe, and I said, ‘No way.’ ’’
Without her knowledge, Al recruited a navigator and made a run up to Nova Scotia in the Groverbuilt and, with virtually no planning or provisions, was going to make the crossing. He called Arti to let her know.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it right,’ ’’ Arti recalls telling him. “Come back here and let’s make sure you have everything you need.’ ’’
One other demand she made: the navigator would be replaced by one of their sons, Al Jr., who would ensure that Pop didn’t take too many risks. Al Jr., 28 at the time and single, was game for the crossing.
Arti’s commitment to help Al with the trip was solid. In 1984, she traveled with him on commercial flights that took them through Greenland and Iceland to trace a possible northern route that would enable him to island hop, refueling along the way and making landfall in Ireland. But the trip made Al realize that island hopping would offer no advantage because there were no facilities for refueling.
In the summer of 1985, the plan was close to being executed. Al outfitted two boats, with the idea that they would make the crossing together.
For the crossing, Al made a few modifications. He built a pilothouse 10 inches lower to reduce wind resistance and enclosed it in an unbreakable and watertight plastic called Lexan. He added extra foam and watertight compartments in the bilges and other crevices. Then he committed himself. He painted Trans Atlantic on the hulls.
Electronics included a Raytheon loran and radar, satellite navigator, depth finder, two VHF radios and a single sideband radio, which would enable him to communicate with the Coast Guard at Governors Island, N.Y., and to make nightly calls home to Arti.
A snorkel system was rigged so that in case the engines were submerged they would continue to run. To conserve gasoline, only one engine would run at a time.
Eighteen aluminum fuel tanks, holding a total of 615 gallons, were on board, each individually grounded and vented. Six were in the cabin and the others in the bilges of cockpit, which was covered by a plywood platform and canvas tarp. For extra buoyancy, Al secured two 150-gallon rubberized fuel tanks pumped with air between the platform and the tarp. In case of a rollover, he hoped the extra buoyancy would help right the boat.
A second tarp – Arti’s idea – was stretched over the first canvas, absorbing some of the shock and forcing water off the boat as waves crashed over the stern.
Provisions included 100 gallons of water and 120 packets of meals that were the precursors of MREs. There was no head. Emergency equipment included a life raft with an emergency beacon and Narwale survival suits.
The voyage was ill-fated from the start. While the two boats were being trailered to Nova Scotia, one of the trucks jackknifed and flipped in a ravine, causing so much damage that the boat had to be left behind.
The accident proved fortuitous, for they learned at sea that the boats would have never stayed together. Having the one boat also eliminated going north, since they would be better able to depend on heavier boat traffic on the southern route to the Azores to save them if they got into trouble.
Father and son launched the boat at Pictou, Nova Scotia. Once in the water and loaded with 4,400 pounds of fuel, the boat had just 10 inches of freeboard. Nevertheless, they headed for their departure point – the island of St. Pierre, off Newfoundland’s south coast.
While at St. Pierre, they met a sea captain, Claude, who was making the Atlantic crossing the next day in his 55-foot ketch, and the two set a schedule to stay in touch.
As they left the next day, Aug. 1, 1985, weather conditions seemed ideal. But by nightfall the personality of the Atlantic had changed. Seemingly without warning, they found themselves in the midst of a gale.
“We got our brains beat out,’’ Al Jr recalls. “The winds came with such powerful force. Waves were 10- or 12-footers. When it’s hitting you, you feel like somebody is throwing concrete against the boat.’’
Thirty-six hours later, they were out of the gale, and Al Jr. wanted to turn back. “At that point, I was ready to get off the boat. I was beat up, and I figured we wouldn’t finish this thing in a good way.’’
Al says he might have given into son’s wishes but for one thing. “It would have meant going against the wind,’’ he says. “With the prevailing westerly winds, everything was pushing us toward Europe.’’
They had no choice but to continue, each taking two-hour watches while the other slept. The only places to sit or sleep on the boat were the captain’s seat – a wooden bench – and a narrow space below where they could sandwich themselves between gas tanks and sleep. “There was 15, 16 inches distance between the tanks,’’ Al Jr. says. “You’d wedge yourself in there to sleep. Sometimes your shoulder would get caught.’’
Because the compartments below had to be watertight, the living area wafted with gasoline, the precious commodity they had to conserve to ensure their crossing. By keeping the speed at around six knots, they could achieve a fuel efficiency of two gallons per hour.
While they passed several freight ships during the trip, they only encountered one yacht, the Mysticol out of Stonington, Conn. In radio conversations, the crew told Al they were afraid they would have to make a rescue. The two boats pulled up close to each other, and one crew member videotaped the encounter. Al told the Mysticol crew he was trying to set the world record for a crossing by outboard.
“He said where are you from and what are you doing?’’ Al recalls of his conversation with a crewman. “And then he told me they thought they were going to have to do a rescue because they thought we were a lifeboat.’’
The 12th day out, with seas rolling and Al Jr. going below to get some shut eye, Al Sr. walked to the stern – unwisely, without a lifeline – to put the auxiliary engine down. While trying to force it down, he flipped overboard. The boat continued on.
“I heard the splash and I jumped up and saw that he had gone overboard,’’ Al Jr. recalls. “I put the boat in neutral. He had to swim back to the boat because it was drifting. He’d get 10 feet from the boat, but then a wave would come and slide him away 100 feet or so. I’d say for a good 10 or 12 minutes he was swimming as fast as he could.”
He finally caught up with the boat and was pulled aboard. But they were far from being out of danger.
Throughout their trip, they had received constant reassurances from Claude, the captain they met in St. Pierre, about the weather and the Trans Atlantic’s ability to handle anything that came its way. But about the 19th day out, they could sense concern in his voice. “He indicated there was a storm coming and it wasn’t going to be okay,’’ Al Jr. says. “The tone in his voice made us realize we were in a bad position.’’
They were about to get hit by Hurricane Claudette.
Al had a friend based at Governors Island who monitored Atlantic traffic for the Coast Guard. Al says abandoning ship and getting rescued was never an option. “I wouldn’t have abandoned that boat unless she was sinking,’’ he says.
With the weather particularly bad one night – waves were more than 25 feet and winds of more than 75 knots – Al feared the worst.
“I told Al I didn’t think we’d survive the night and we’d kind of said goodbye,’’ Al recalls. “He didn’t like that.’’
Recalls Al Jr.: “There was a period when my Pop said to me, ‘I guess we better get ready,’ meaning the boat was going to come unglued and we weren’t going to make it. He said, ‘I think we’re done.’ ’’
But Al Jr. told his dad his wasn’t through living. “When I was up he was down and when he was down I was up. We just supported each other and it worked.’’
Throughout most of the storm, they shut the engines down and drifted, running with the waves. A small steadying sail helped to keep the bow running down wind.
Through part of the storm, they were out of radio contact because of drained voltage. During the absence of radio contact, many feared the worst.
But eventually the seas grew calmer and they realized that maybe they’d survive after all. Al credits the buoyancy of the boat – it floated atop the waves like a bobber on a fishing line – with their success in making it through the hurricane. “Rather than having tremendous resistance and fighting the waves it just went with them,” Al says.
But Al Jr. credits his dad’s optimism and intuitive ability to adapt to any situation for their survival.
“His ability to switch into a new direction always saved him from disaster or an unwinnable situation,’’ Al Jr. says. ”He always had he ability to say, ‘Okay, this isn’t working, let’s switch gears.’ He goes full blast in one direction and then can make a hard right.’’
“He’s the only guy I’d ever consider doing that with, and I’d never do it again.’’
With the hurricane over, Al and Al Jr. had just one minor challenge getting to the Azores. They had no detailed charts and had lost their position. Once his VHF radio and the boat’s power system recharged, Al was able to reach the captain of a 150-foot Portuguese fishing boat, who met up with them and gave them a true course to Flores.
When they reached Flores with less than 60 gallons of gas, Al Jr. immediately jumped ship, refusing to reboard the boat, and spent the next few weeks living on the beach until a plane ticket arrived that would take him to Portugal. To this day, he doesn’t remember many parts of the trip and believes he suffered from post-traumatic stress.
“I’d lay down and I couldn’t remember whether I was on a boat or vacation,’’ he recalls. “I couldn’t even remember my name initially. I made the decision to get off at Flores and never get on that boat again.”
After making the 1,500-mile trip from St. Pierre to Flores, Al Sr. wasn’t so sure of continuing the trip himself and making the nearly 1,000-mile run from the Azores to Portugal. “I called Arti and said, ‘I’m finished. Al’s gone and I’m dead [tired]. I can’t go on.’’
But surprisingly, instead of agreeing with his decision to end the voyage, Arti urged him to continue. “She said, ‘You have to finish,’ ‘’ Al recalls. “She realized that if I came home then I’d be a beaten man.’’
Arti dispatched their next son, Dante, to the Azores to complete the trip with Al. The trans-Atlantic crossing may have been the dream of Al Jr. and Sr., but it wasn’t something Dante wanted a part of.
“I knew before the trip he was crazy,’’ Dante says. “But she said you gotta go and help your father.”
Claude, the sea captain, met up with Al in Flores. Al traveled onto Horta, on the island of Faial, and filled up with 600 gallons and met up with Dante. They then traveled to Ponta Delgada on San Miguel before making the run to Lisbon.
As Dante boarded the boat, fortunes change. The trip from the Azores to Lisbon was totally uneventful. Water on many days was water-skiing flat.
The father and son made landfall at Lisbon on the night of Sept. 3, 1985, with a small party, including the Evinrude distributor for Spain and Portugal, greeting them.
In all, they logged nearly 3,000 miles over 33 days, 26 of them at sea. The voyage was entirely free of mechanical problems, with two-thirds of the trip being powered solely by the 9.9 kicker. Above all, the Groverbuilt Trans Atlantic proved she could weather some of the worst the Atlantic had to offer.
Over the next few days, Al Jr. and Arti met up with Al and Dante in Portugal.
As sort of a victory tour, they had the boat trucked to Barcelona, where the Evinrude distributor put the boat in his showroom as a promotion.
Back home, Freeport celebrated Al Grover Day, and Al received a letter from President Reagan congratulating him on the voyage. The confirmation from Guinness came after Al’s article about the voyage appeared in MotorBoating magazine. The following summer Al and Arti returned to Europe, along with their two daughters, Joanne and Andrea, and Arti’s sister, Jennie Izzo. Al’s intention was to take the boat through the various passages through Spain, France and Holland until they’d reach Norway and Ole Evinrude’s birthplace. Al drove the boat while the others traveled by car.
When they reached Oslo, they put the boat on a truck that took it to the farm where Ole Evinrude was born. The farm was named Evinrude, Norwegian for “good earth.” Ole, who was actually born Ole Olsen, apparently had taken the name Evinrude from the farm while coming through Ellis Island.
“We arrived at his birthplace with his company’s motors as the first outboard to cross the Atlantic and giving him honor,’’ Al says.
For five years, in snow and sun and storms, the boat sat out on the Evinrude farm. Then, in 1990, Al had the local Evinrude dealer send it back to him, with the dealer taking the engines for payment as transportation.
While driving over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge after visiting Al’s mother in New Jersey, Al spied below a container ship going under the bridge. And there, in the middle of several containers, he saw the little Trans Atlantic. It was as if fate had brought him to that very spot to greet the boat as it completed another Atlantic crossing.
“Arti was sleeping and I woke her and told her, ‘There goes my boat,’ ’’ Al says. They got the name of the ship, Atlantic Queen, and indeed got the call the next day that the Trans Atlantic was ready to be picked up.
THE BIGGEST COINCIDENCE
But that wasn’t the only coincidence that came after the voyage. The biggest occurred in Vero Beach last year.
Arti was taking sculpting classes at the Vero Beach Museum of Art with sculptor George Paxton. Arti shared an article about Al’s trans-Atlantic trip with Paxton, whose wife, Sharon, would also learn of the voyage.
A few weeks later, Sharon Paxton was out on the 23-foot Wellcraft owned by Dr. Peter Ross, a retired dentist living at The Moorings in Vero Beach. They began talking about boat travels, and Sharon brought up Al’s trip.
“She said, you now there’s a lady in my [husband’s] art class whose husband set some kind of record in an outboard,’’ Ross recalls. “And I said, ‘I bet I know who it is.’ ’’
Ross had been the navigator on the Mysticol, the motor yacht that encountered the Trans Atlantic during the crossing. He had never forgotten the image of the little boat he and his crew had come upon in the middle of the Atlantic 22 years earlier. “What a coincidence,’’ Ross says.
“I had come up to the bridge of the boat and I saw this little boat,’’ Ross says. “We looked over to see what it was because it looked like a life raft, and low and behold it was Al Grover.’’
When Ross learned that Al was living in Vero Beach, he called him. Ross invited Al to give a talk about the trip during a monthly lecture in January at The Moorings’ yacht club.
Ross also gave the tape of the encounter from 22 years before to Al. And today, thanks to Al’s daughter, Andrea, who posted it on YouTube, the video can be seen worldwide.
PLACE OF HONOR
Today, the boat in which Al Grover made his historic crossing sits in front of the Long Island Marine Education Center in Freeport.
Al still runs another Groverbuilt, a 28-footer, that he simply calls The Groverbuilt. “The better builders don’t put names on boats,’’ he says.
“I didn’t want to give it a name, so that when people see me coming, I want them to say, ‘Here comes The Groverbuilt.’ ’’
And in Long Island, where Al is known as Capt. Al, Groverbuilts remain something of a legend. With just 150 of them manufactured, Al believes that nearly all of them are running or capable of running because of their sturdiness. And indeed, on the Web site noreast.com, 79 pages of testimonials run on about the Groverbuilt.
“Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, I don’t think you can find a vessel as seaworthy or versatile as a Grover,’’ Mako Matt, the moderator, says in an entry.
“These were excellent sea boats and [I] never doubted the fact that I would get home safely, and usually with fish,’’ a scribe known as Basavant says in another entry.
Adds captainlarry84: “Some of my best trips were on a 26 Grover.’’
Ironically, Al and his sons quit manufacturing the Groverbuilt the same year he made the crossing. “The boys didn’t want to do it and I think I was ready to quit,’’ Al says. “We probably could have capitalized on it [with the trip] but I didn’t.’’
Today, when Al Grover makes his annual trek down to Florida, Dante, who runs the family marina in Freeport, has an employee pull Al’s Groverbuilt down in a trailer. In the summer, the boat follows Al back up to Freeport so he can use it for fishing and cruising. In Vero Beach, Al keeps The Groverbuilt tied up at his neighbor’s dock on the Indian River Lagoon, along with a 16-foot Garvey work boat Al built about five years ago.
A LUCKY GUY
With winds blowing at close to 20 knots and Dante on board as crew – and without the tension and strife that accompany many such father/son undertakings – Al deftly maneuvers The Groverbuilt away from the dock as if the river is flatwater calm. He takes her out for a spin to show her lines. “A pretty boat is like a beautiful woman,’’ he says. “It has to have a lot of curves.’’
He returns just as easily as he left without so much as a tap against the dock. Arti has lunch on and is tending her tomato garden at their beachfront home. Dante and his family are down visiting, having just returned from Disney World the day before. Al Grover’s life has settled into a predictable, but blissful, routine.
“I got it out of my system, and I’ve become pretty conservative,’’ Al says of the lessons he learned from the trans- Atlantic trip. “When you survive something like that hurricane, you have a much greater appreciation for being alive. At my age, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’’