30 years ago, William Pinkney finished his solo around the world voyage via the Great Capes and entered the record books. He recalls his groundbreaking circumnavigation
‘By the time I got anywhere near making my easterly towards Cape Horn, I got a southwest storm that pushed me to within 30 miles of Cape Horn, and there I had winds in excess of 60 knots. I ended up going around Cape Horn under bare poles at six knots; the seas were about 25-30 feet. Weather wise, that was the biggest excitement during the whole trip.’
It is 30 years since Captain William Pinkney, known by everyone as Bill, circled the globe solo via the five great southern capes, the first African American sailor to achieve the feat.
His initial goal was to sail alone around the world via much calmer waters, transiting the Panama and Suez canals.
But a chance meeting with Sir Robin-Knox Johnston while visiting England changed his mind.
‘He recommended that if I was going to go out there at all, I should not do it like a little kid and go through the Panama and Suez Canals, I should do it like a man and go all the way around the capes. And I said, if the Lord says go around the capes, I’m going!’
But before he could set sail there was the small matter of the $400,000 needed to fund the voyage.
From little acorns to mighty oaks
Originally, Bill’s plans had been much smaller.
‘‘I was going to sail around with a 32ft foot boat, go through the Panama and Suez Canals and write to my grandchildren to tell them not only about where I was and what I was doing, but how I was using all of the things that I learned in the first 12 years of education. I wanted to show them that they had a good foundation to do whatever they wanted to do. Ultimately, it got out of hand and I ended up with 30,000 ‘grandchildren’, a 47 foot boat and going around Cape Horn.’
The 30,000 ‘grandchildren’ were pupils at schools in Boston and Chicago, who followed his two-year, 27,000 mile circumnavigation.
With the growth of the project, Captain Bill Pinkney found donations began to trickle in.
People bought miles, pledging $5 or $10, and then he got a $10,000 donation from the owner of the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands.
A New York Times article followed which led Bill to secure his main sponsor, Boston investment firm, Alrich, Eastman & Waltch.
Bill bought the Valiant 47, Lone Star.
The 47ft cutter had solid offshore credentials, having been sailed successfully by American circumnavigator Mark Schrader in the 1986-7 BOC Challenge; the only boat in the fleet not to break down, according to Bill.
He renamed the yacht Commitment ‘because it was my commitment to do this voyage, my commitment to education, to young people and my grandchildren’ and made his final preparations before throwing off the bowlines on 5 August 1990.
He was 55, with very little experience of sailing long distances alone, having mostly raced as crew or solo aboard his 28-foot Pearson Triton in Lake Michigan.
‘I figured if I could sail 24 or 48 hours alone, I could just keep doing that over and over until I got all the way around the world,’ said Bill.
Having sailed 600 miles from the start port of Boston, Commitment made her first stop, albeit unscheduled.
An oil leak from the auxiliary engine (due to a loose gasket) and an untuned radio forced Bill to stop at Bermuda for repairs before he continued.
His scheduled stops were at Salvador, Brazil, Cape Town in South Africa (where he memorably sailed past Nelson Mandela’s island prison of Robben Island, flying a spinnaker of red, black and green – the colours African Americans displayed in their struggle for freedom from second-class citizenship and discrimination), Hobart, Tasmania, and Punta del Este in Uruguay.
At each stop, he would send videotaped messages home to his wife, Ina and the school children of Chicago and Boston (which were later made into the film, The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney) and received letters and messages of support.
Commitment was fitted with a satellite transponder which would transmit the boat’s position six times a day, allowing students to plot her position.
He also spoke to the school children via single sideband radio.
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Sailing across the southern Indian Ocean certainly gave him something to write home about; his headsail blew out in 30 knot winds, leaving him using a smaller jib to sail to Hobart, where he bought a replacement.
Commitment was also knocked down twice.
Bill sailed into a microburst and the wind ‘suddenly went from 25 knots to 50 knots, knocking me right on my side’ (the only damage was cleaning up a bottle of maple syrup which smashed down below, leaving surfaces sticky for weeks).
‘The second time I was in 16-18 feet high swells. As I reached the crest of one of the swells, a rogue wave hit me on the beam and knocked me down in the trunk between the swells,’ recalled Bill, who said both knockdowns were ‘enlightening’ and proved Commitment was ‘well found because it rolled right back up, and the windvane caught and the boat went right back on track; there was no damage. It was an excellent fibreglass cutter. I wish we still had it.’
Captain Bill Pinkney rounds the Horn
Flu made crossing the Tasman Sea an endurance for Bill. The Southern Ocean lived up to its reputation, with Bill sailing between 45° and 50° south.
Initially, he had planned to sail at 50° south and ‘then duck under Cape Horn’.
Around 300 miles from the shore of Chile, he got a call from Mark Schrader.
‘He said you’re too close to land, get out of there! So I went directly south, almost 60° south’ before being hit by a storm with winds of over 60 knots; he rounded the infamous landmark under bare poles.
Storm sailing was not the biggest worry for Bill though.
‘I got becalmed for four days off Brazil, which was very frustrating, far more frustrating to me than being in heavy weather because there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t rig a bigger sail, you can’t do anything.’
But these moments of irritation were quickly forgotten, especially on his triumphant return to Boston. 700 school children were on the dock at the Charlestown Navy Yard to greet him as he tied Commitment behind the USS Constitution.
A former medical corpsman, Bill was later piped onboard the ship, a moment he cherishes.
‘The side boys piped me aboard and said ‘Commitment arriving’ and it made the hairs stand up on my arms, because in the Navy I knew exactly what that meant. That’s the highest honour, to be piped aboard another naval vessel,’ he said.
A change in direction
Bill spent eight years as an x-ray technician in the US Navy, having joined the Naval Reserve whilst still at school.
He grew up in Chicago’s Bronzeville community, where he was always lured to the water.
‘I spent a lot of time on the shore of Lake Michigan watching the boats and wanting to go out and sail and find out what was on the other side of the lake; I didn’t get the opportunity to sail until many years later.’
That opportunity was in Puerto Rico, where he settled after being discharged, working on the sailing work boats which moved goods around the island.
He returned to the mainland, living in New York where his career took a sharp change of direction: he became a make-up artist.
This led to a career in the beauty industry, where he worked for both Revlon and later the Johnson Products Company, developing products for African American women.
In 1977, he bought his first boat, a 28-foot Pearson Triton which he often sailed singlehanded on Lake Michigan; he would spend weekends ‘racing and sailing on any boat that I got a chance to sail on’.
He also became a US Coast Guard licensed Master of Steam, Power and Sail vessels.
After his circumnavigation, he joined the Board of Mystic Seaport Museum, which built a replica of La Amistad, becoming the 128ft schooner’s captain between 2000-2002.
The original ship was seized by the authorities after Mende captives took control of the ship in Cuba and tried to sail it back to Africa.
The subsequent court case became the first human rights case in the US Supreme Court, which was won by the Mende.
Captain Bill Pinkney and his crew sailed the ship along the east coast of the US to Key West, Florida.
He also crossed the Atlantic to England and sailed to Portugal and Sierra Leone, where the Mende came from, and then back to Cuba where the whole La Amistad affair began.
‘I think that was quite an honour to be able to do that, ‘ noted Bill, who insists he is ‘not a pioneer’ unlike Sir Robin Knox-Johnston or Joshua Slocum.
Instead, he believes his legacy is giving people the belief that if you have a dream, it can be achieved, as long as they have the ‘mental capacity and the desire to do it.’
‘This is not expected because of the assumptions made about people’s gender, their race, their religion or whatever. The fact that I was the first black man of any country to solo circumnavigate the world via the Great Capes proves the point that it had nothing to do with my ethnicity. It had to do only with my desire and willingness to take the chance. This has helped me to encourage more people of colour into sailing, who generally don’t get into any sort of water activities because of opportunity, or because they’ve never seen someone who has their background do it.’
A member of the New York Yacht Club for 25 years, Bill wants to encourage the US yachting community to be more open to grass roots sailing to ‘keep our sport alive’.
‘The assumption in the United States is that when you use the word yachting, you’re referring to a group of well heeled people who sit around in blazers and pink pants on their 90 foot yacht. That’s a misnomer. It is guys who work every day, who are plumbers, carpenters, who on a weekend, go out with their family on their little 22 foot boat and sail around in their small lake.’
He passionately believes sailing is ‘empowering’ for children, especially when given control of their own boat.
He has just published Sailing Commitment around the World, a book for children about his circumnavigation.
His earlier book, Captain Bill Pinkney’s Journey is still read in classrooms nationwide.
Inspiring tens of thousands of students with its message of sailing, adventure and commitment, this is perhaps the most fitting legacy for this truly remarkable sailor.
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