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Fathers’ Day and Cape Horn

Caption: Father and Son, sailing on Balaton, 1958; Golden Globe Race 2018 Course;  “Puffin” sailing. Know your ropes or else....;  Ocean fashion in sun...;  ...and in freezing weather;  Arrived alive!;  Just for fun....

Father’s Day and Cape Horn

Olga Vállay Szokolay

The first time I heard the name “Kopár Pityu” was about three quarters of a century ago.  My best friend, Bessy, a pre-teen at the time, had a crush on him at Balatonalmádi, where he grew up and she spent her summers at her family’s summerhouse.  I have no recollection if her admiration was ever reciprocated or just a starry-eyed fantasy, and since they both passed away, there is nobody to ask.  By the age when lasting decisions were made, they both had interests elsewhere and married others.  Both, however, had their first son born in 1953.

A few years ago, I received an invitation to the Library of the New York, NY Hungarian House to a lecture by István Kopár, Solo Circumnavigator of the World.  Indeed, as a former sailor myself, I was interested.  I wondered how anyone can last months offshore on a sailboat when I could not wait to walk on solid ground after a claustrophobic long weekend of sailing decades ago.

The family name being rather rare, it was no surprise that István, of course, was “Pityu’s” son.

István junior was born in 1953 in Budapest, Hungary, a landlocked country, then behind the Iron Curtain.  Although he grew up in the suburbs of the capital, his family’s ties to Balatonalmádi, at the northwest corner of Lake Balaton, acquainted him with sailing at an early age.  He became infatuated with it and knew he wanted to sail all his life.  Prior to attending college, he joined the Hungarian merchant marine to learn about the sea.

The younger Kopár holds multiple Bachelor of Science degrees: in Maritime Studies from the Technical University, and in Economics from the College of Economics/Foreign Trade of Budapest. Following in his father’s footsteps, he worked 25 years for the Hungarian shipping company MAHART and traveled to well over 100 countries: he lost count.  He had worked as a naval officer, sailing racer and instructor.  In the 1980s he started his own marina/charter operation and sailing school in Europe.

In 1994, he moved to the United States and became a naturalized citizen in 2000.  Here he served as one of the operational managers of the biggest vessel-recovery company from 2000 to 2010.  He has taught at Sea School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and is a trainer of instructors for U.S. Sailing.  He is also a USCG (Coast Guard) licensed commercial captain.  Though this is all very impressive, there is nothing unique about it.

During 1990-1991, however, István did his first solo one-stop circumnavigation of the globe, which, to the present day is his proudest feat.  By then, he had 13 years of sea sailing behind him; but he had yet to realize how different solo sailing was.  He built his own 9.5 meter (31 feet) long boat, Salammbó, for the voyage.  Due to his shoestring budget, he sailed without a GPS, autopilot, radar, water-maker or any heating device.  He had to rely on the use of a sextant and manual chart plotting for determining his course, and receiving the weather forecasts in Morse code.  As first Hungarian ever, he sailed four months and 18 days without landing, making a 30-day stop for repairs and re-stocking the pantry.  Kopár recounted his adventures of this journey and his life in his book “Kihivás” (Challenge).  After his safe return, Salammbó was exhibited at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain, alongside a replica of the Santa Maria and the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery.

The first international non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race was the Golden Globe, held in 1968-69.  Of the nine skippers who started, only one finished: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.  The race, as a would-be tradition, thus came to a halt and had a Cinderella-like sleep for 50 years.  On its golden anniversary in 2018, however, it was rekindled with 18 contestants starting off.

Since his first solo circumnavigation, Kopár István participated in and won several other international races, including one with a Hungarian crew and flag. He was determined to enter – and hopefully finish - the 2018 Golden Globe race, with the private agenda of spreading his father’s ashes at Cape Horn, which is considered the Mount Everest of the sea.  It is the southernmost of the capes, closest to Antarctica.  Winds produce a characteristic funnel-like effect and huge waves there; it snows, it’s freezing cold, temperatures are about 3 degrees Celsius (less than 38 degrees Fahrenheit) even in the cabin, for weeks. Everything is damp.  In the old days at the English pubs, if a guy wore two earrings and was permitted to put his feet on the table, it meant that he had rounded Cape Horn.

Theoretically, modern-day equipment could have made the sailing easier, but the rules of the Golden Globe 2018 race limited the use of technical gear to those that existed 50 years earlier. Thus, István was left with resources similar to those he had 28 years before, aboard Salammbó

The 18 boats started off from Les Sables d’Olonne, France, on July 1, 2018. This time the 65-year-old Kopár sailed his 32-foot (9.8 meter) boat Puffin, a restored and refitted Tradewind 35. During most of the trip, luck seemed to evade him.  Due to a window left open, soon after the start, the vessel partially capsized, allowing some 3-400 liters of water to enter the boat with the threat of sinking it, and it damaged his autopilot equipment, a must for solo sailing.  This curtailed his resting time, often robbing him of sleep for days.  His mechanical wind-gauge, antenna and mast-light were sheared off by birds, his speedometers by fish.

Under the circumstances, changing clothes often must wait for days, even weeks.  Clothing must provide protection in extreme heat as well as extreme cold.  Food and water must be carefully chosen and rationed to last the duration of the voyage: in this case, over eight-and-a-half months!

István was well equipped with food; upon arrival back he still had some to spare.  His family surprised him at the last minute with a “care package” containing Globus canned food and Balaton candy bars (what appropriate choice of names!) as well as some “drops of comfort”. Being amply supplied with sardines, lox and a variety of dried fish, he did not even have to resort to fishing.  He was also armed with encapsulated vegetable and fruit concentrates.

One special food called Pemmican, invented by Native Americans hundreds of years ago, is ground beef preserved with lard and honey.  Great figures of old expeditions: Amundsen, Scott and others had consumed it in their travels.  Nowadays it is packaged like hot dogs and can be consumed from one’s pocket at the helm in the cockpit.  No utensils, no dinner table.  It is not considered gourmet food, but its energy content is colossal.

Water supply was also crucial.  At the start, Kopár had two tanks of water totaling 400 liters. The consumed quantity is typically replenished by rainwater.  His problem was the lack of “proper” rainfall during the first 4-5 months.  The largest rain catcher is the sail, with a canvas bucket, and a hose conducting the water to the tank below.  In a storm the skipper must attend to other tasks.  In a short shower, the dried-on salt from the sail would get mixed with the collected rainwater, poisoning the supply.  Long, soaking rains are needed for “proper” replacement of potable water.  István ultimately ended the race with a few liters left.                  

Of the 18 starting vessels only five finished, Kopár in fourth place, in 263 days, one hour and thirty minutes, on March 21, 2019, back at Les Sables d’Olonne.  By his account, his boat was the slowest, having smaller sails than others, rendering Puffin about 25 nautical miles per day slower than the finisher before him.  Some commented that the first three had outside communication and should have been disqualified.  For lack of proof, however, István did not protest; yet, he believes that besides Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, he was the only solo circumnavigator of the Earth without outside help.

As per his resolution, he duly sprinkled most of his father’s ashes over the ocean at Cape Horn, saving some for a future venture: into Lake Balaton from the old steamship Helka that his father had rescued for posterity.  Dr. Kopár István senior (a.k.a. “Pityu”) who passed away at age 91 on December 28, 2017, had spent his life working for Lake Balaton, the most important Hungarian tourist spot after Budapest.  He was part of the team designing four locks on the Sió-canal in the 1960’s, which have not been built even to this day.  They would facilitate year-round navigation, securing affordable removal of the silt that is constantly filling up Lake Balaton and must be dredged regularly.

Now 66, István is not planning another epic journey.  He would like to continue his father’s lifelong ambition to see Lake Balaton saved for our grandchildren.

He plans to pursue his passion, albeit on lakes only, leaving a sign on the door: “Gone Sailing”! 

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.


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