Jo Forrestel’s book details bold sailing adventure to Europe – without GPS

Posted 21 July 2018 at 8:11 am

Provided photos: Joan “Jo” Payjack Forrestel, right, poses with her sister Bonnie Hartway of Medina, seated left, and daughter Libby Naylor at The Book Shoppe in Medina, where copies of Forrestel’s book are being sold. The book An American Thread is the true story of Jo’s and her husband Tom’s sailing voyage across the Atlantic and his tragic, unexpected death aboard ship.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent

MEDINA – A Medina native has written a book on her family’s sailing adventure crossing the Atlantic in 1976 and her husband’s subsequent death aboard ship in Europe.

Joan “Jo” Forrestel will be at The Book Shoppe from 10 a.m. to noon on Aug. 4 to sign copies of her autobiography, An American Thread: A Sailing Family’s Adventure, in which she recalls a seafaring voyage half way round the world, some of it told in her late husband’s diary.

Jo was born in Medina, a daughter of the late Frank and Laurita Payjack. She met Tom Forrestel in 1949 when he came into Payjack Chevrolet, where she worked as a bookkeeper.

“We took one look at each other and our fate was sealed,” Jo wrote in her book.

She was already engaged to another man, but when Tom asked her to go to a circus with him, she accepted because, as she explained, “A circus wasn’t a real date.”

The second time Tom asked her out, she broke off her engagement, and she and Tom were married six months later.

Jo’s daughter Libby Naylor wrote an introduction to the book, in which she describes her mother as a strong and courageous woman, qualities she comes by honestly.

“She comes from a long line of remarkable women from Western New York,” Naylor said.

These include her mother, her grandmother Elsie Miles and her great-great-great-grandmother Bathshua Brown, who according to family history saved the area from English occupation during the War of 1812.

Jo gave birth to 10 daughters in 13 1/2 years, one of whom, Abigail, died at 3 months.

“That alone elevates her to strong and courageous status, but there is much more to her story,” Naylor said.

Tom and his brother Richard had taken over their father’s business, Cold Spring Construction, and during the busy summers they would rent a cottage at whatever small lake they were near.

Both Jo and Tom had grown up sailing. Jo grew up on Lake Ontario near Shadigee, while Tom spent his first 15 summers at a small lake north of Hornell called Loon Lake.

While building a road near Java in Wyoming County, the family discovered a small lake near Cuba with an active yacht club. There, they learned about sailing and bought their first boat, a Snipe, which they raced every weekend.

“It was a common sight for me to be nursing the baby on our dock between races,” Jo wrote.

It wasn’t long before they graduated to sailing a Morgan 41’ boat out of Point Breeze.

Tom was insistent all the family learned how to sail.

“He would make us practice ‘man overboard’ drills,” Naylor said. “He would dive overboard and we had to rescue him.”

Then came the night in 1972 when Tom came home from a Medina School Board meeting and announced, “Jo, I would like to sail across the Atlantic.”

Jo was not surprised, she said, and began the enormous task of planning.

They contacted boatbuilders in Clearwater, Fla., and ordered a 51-foot sailboat they named “Liberty.”

Tom and Joan Forrestel raised nine daughters at their home in Shelby Center before setting sail to cross the Atlantic in their boat “Liberty.” From left front are Francy, Patty, Amy and Teresa. At rear are Susy, Joesy, Margaret, Libby and Katy.

Susy and Teresa were in college and Francy, Patty and Amy were out of school and working. But that left four children at home, Margaret, Katy and Josey in junior high and high school, and Libby in elementary school. Leaving them behind was not an option, Jo said.

They eventually signed the girls up for correspondence courses.

At that time, there was no GPS and reckoning was done solely by celestial navigation, which both Tom and Jo learned.

“That was a time when the high seas had to be sailed relying on wit and wisdom alone,” Naylor said.

By the end of 1975, all preparations for the voyage were complete and the family was ready to begin their journey. Tom had left the business in the hands of his nephew Steve Forrestel, and on Feb. 8, 1976, in a blizzard, the family departed Shelby Center for Clearwater and life aboard Liberty.

Shopping for food for the long journey was no small task. Canned goods had to be varnished so they didn’t rust. Jo learned to buy meat without bones, as bones took up too much room in their freezer onboard.

On Feb. 11, 1976, Liberty left Clearwater.

Naylor said they loved the boat.

“Mom and dad made it ‘home’,” she said.

On Sunday, June 27, the Liberty came within sight of Bishop’s Rock off Falmouth, England.

The next leg of their journey was crossing the English Channel to Holland.

From Brussels, they took the canal route to Paris, traveling through 34 locks in one day.

On Oct. 22, Liberty left the French canal system for the Mediterranean.

The family had decided to leave the Liberty in Italy and fly home for Christmas to spend a month with Jo’s mother in Medina.

Returning to life on the water, plans were made to head to Israel by way of Crete toward the end of February.

On March 10, they set sail from Malta.

Israel marked a turning point in their voyage, as from then on it was all westward and home, Jo wrote.

They headed toward Cyprus, then Rhodes, leaving there April 29 for Symi Island and Kos, where Hippocrates lived and taught. Next, they set sail for the Aegean Sea and Greece.

As the family prepared to leave Athens, little did they know how their life was about to change.

They had decided to go through the Corinth Canal, four miles long with 300-foot cliffs. But it saved them several days travel.

They sailed through the Ionian Sea, anchoring for the night at Levkas. They were invited for cocktails aboard a 100-foot yacht nearby, where they were greeted by Alexandre de Lesseps, a movie producer. He was a descendent of the man who built the Suez Canal, Jo said.

“We had such a good time, Tom invited them over for breakfast the next morning,” Jo said.

Later in the evening on the Liberty, Tom said to Libby, “Now I have seen just about everything I want to see. Maybe it is time to think about going home.”

The next morning around 5 a.m. Tom collapsed on the floor of their bedroom.

“My world came crashing down as I looked at him and knew he was gone,” Jo wrote.

Margaret took the dingy and went to the de Lesseps’ boat, which had a nurse onboard. Alexandre went ashore to find a doctor to pronounce Tom dead.

Tom’s brother Richard flew over to help with arrangements, and Jo made the decision to continue sailing Liberty home.

“Liberty had become our home,” Jo said.

Tom had insisted everyone learn an important area of the boat. Jo was at the helm during navigation, Margaret was in charge of the biggest sails, along with Libby. Katy and Libby were responsible for the engine room and Joesy took care of the anchor, winches, chain and ropes. Libby was in charge of the rigging and if something went wrong, she was always the one hoisted up to fix it. Everyone was trained to do an important task aboard Liberty.

“We were confident in our sailing because Tom had trained us all,” Jo wrote. “We depended on each other, and it was time to move on and continue with our adventure.”

Sailing away from Levkas, Jo said they felt Tom’s presence. He was the wind, the sky and the waves that swept them back out to sea, she said.

After completing the voyage, Jo said she now had to figure out where they would live.

Daughter Teresa was attending the University of Miami and they set sail for Miami. The found a house in Coconut Grove and a berth for Liberty in a canal one block from their home.

Jo and the girls continued to sail Liberty from Miami for many years. When the girls had family obligations and could no longer sail, Jo gave the boat to Dolphin Research and 10 years ago moved to Savannah, Ga., where she loves to golf.

Three years ago, she found Tom’s diary. Naylor started to type it so her sisters could have a copy, when Jo decided to write her book.

An American Thread is available at the Book Shoppe, 529 Main St., Medina, at and

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