Clare Thompson did not fall into sailing in the usual way. She was in her early 20s in the mid-1960s, an unwilling patient in a psychiatric hospital in Britain, when she picked up a discarded newspaper from the floor of the ward she was on. In it she found an interesting article about a bluewater sailor, Edward Allcard, who was sailing around the world alone and wistfully admitted he wouldn’t mind finding a partner to share adventures with. Clare at once wrote a fan letter to this fellow, and—amazingly—he wrote back.
Once Clare was discharged in 1968, she and Edward met and soon trekked overland from Britain to Singapore. Afterward they had a daughter together, Kate, and Clare became Mrs. Allcard. They later purchased an old 69-foot Baltic trading ketch, Johanne Regina, and roamed the planet as a family with pick-up crew for 12 years. As Clare recounted in her classic cruising memoir, A Gypsy Life, they were nearly sunk by a French fishing boat, were raided by the Italian mafia, attacked by the Ethiopian navy, and jailed as spies in Yemen. They cherished these adventures, but finally swallowed the anchor and moved ashore in 1984.
I first met Clare and Edward while I was researching The Boy Who Fell to Shore, my biography of Thomas Tangvald. They played an important role in Thomas’ life, as they took him in after he was orphaned in a shipwreck at age 15. I was a fan of A Gypsy Life, and Clare and I, as two cruising writers, were soon thick as thieves, swapping tales and memories. Edward at the time was 101 years old, and Clare, some 30 years younger, was his full-time caregiver. She did this cheerfully, gratefully, never forgetting how he had saved her by answering her letter.
A couple of years after Edward died in 2017, as part of my continuing research, I had Clare and some members of Thomas’ family as guests aboard my boat Lunacy in Puerto Rico. Clare was pleased to announce this was the first time she’d sailed in the tropics in 40 years. It was also, I am sure, the first time she’d been aboard any sort of modern sailboat. All her sailing had been on a heavy wooden ketch with zero amenities.
Clare watched in bemused amazement as I managed Lunacy under sail—popping on the autopilot as soon as the sails were up, monitoring our progress on the chartplotter, changing course just by punching a button. When she teased that this all looked far too easy, I could only assure her that by today’s standards, mine was a simple boat.
What is most striking about Clare, once you know her, is her profound equanimity. I had connected with her to explore a tragedy in her life, the disappearance and presumed death of Thomas, her foster son. And soon after we met, she lost two others. First Edward, who, to be fair, could not complain of being short-changed in life. But then also, most tragically, her daughter Kate, only in her 40s, who died of cancer in 2018.
Clare took all this in stride, never complained of her daughter’s fate, but worked hard to help Kate live the last of her life to the fullest. Kate, inspired by her parents, was quite an adventurer herself and refused to spend time with doctors trying to prolong her life by a few weeks or months. Instead she traveled, went on long hikes, attended concerts, and did all she could to suck the marrow out of her last days on the planet.
The denouement of my Puerto Rican cruise with Clare, conducted not long after Kate had passed, was a hike up a hill to a house that Thomas had built on the island of Vieques. Once there, after Thomas’ wife Christina gave us a tour of the place, Clare extracted a small Lucite pebble from her pocket. It flashed with color and contained, she told me, some of Kate’s ashes. She set it in the crook of a tree branch, with a view of the sea, and smiled as we walked away from the place.