Dustin Reynolds has become the first double amputee to sail solo around the world via the Panama Canal. Thom D’Arcy meets this inspirational skipper
Surely if anyone has the right to call themselves the Single-Handed-Sailor, then it is Dustin Reynolds, writes Thom D’Arcy.
When the 43-year-old American arrived back in Hawaii on 4 December 2021 he achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first double amputee to sail alone around the world.
Until 18 October 2008, Dustin had led a pretty comfortable western lifestyle in Hawaii.
He had a nice house, a business, drove a Mercedes and owned a fishing boat.
That night everything changed when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver while travelling home on his motorcycle and left for dead.
In hospital, Dustin recalls: ‘Doctors told my parents, my friends, and me that I would likely die. I heard my mother’s and father’s voices tremble and shake over the phone from thousands of miles away as they tried to be strong for me.’
He eventually pulled through but would have to come to terms with spending the rest of his life as a double amputee – an unimaginable adjustment for the former rescue diver.
Dustin Reynolds defies the odds
As Dustin began his long recovery, he desperately needed a new goal, a reason to live: ‘I was reading through the Slocum Society website and noticed that no double amputee had ever sailed solo around the world.’
The only trouble was he didn’t know how to sail and didn’t have a yacht.
With his medical costs continuing to rack up, his health insurers decided to put a $440,000 lien on him and with the Inland Revenue also chasing payments, he was declared bankrupt and lost almost everything.
There was, however, one glimmer of hope.
‘Thankfully my cleaning company and the fishing boat could not be touched by the lien, so I managed to sell them and then scrape together $12,000 to buy my first sailboat Rudis, a 1968 built Alberg 35. She was tired and worn out, but she floated!’
The first time he pulled the mainsail up it ripped in half but undaunted, he managed to find an unwanted mizzen sail from another boat in the harbour and after two reefs were installed, had a working replacement.
On 18 June 2014, with only a few day sails with friends under his belt, and after teaching himself the basics of sailing by watching YouTube videos, Dustin set sail from Hawaii towards the Palmyra atoll.
He had never experienced singlehanded sailing before. Rudis just about held together for the sail south to the tropics and Dustin Reynolds honed his sailing and navigation skills as the miles slipped under the keel.
‘Because I had never sailed before my accident I didn’t have to change the way I did anything; it was all new and I learnt how to sail the boat with my physical limitations from trial and error,’ he explains.
Rudis didn’t have a self-tailing winch at the mast so when raising the mainsail Dustin worked the winch with his right hand before gripping the halyard in his teeth and pulling in the slack. It was rudimentary but there was no other option.
By the time Dustin had reached Indonesia the pressure really began to mount.
Rudis was leaking, and the engine had seized once and for all. ‘It took me four attempts to leave Bali for Thailand,’ says Dustin. ‘Every time I went to sea something would go wrong and I had to be towed back in. On one occasion the top of the forestay became detached from the mast. I had now completely lost faith in the boat and started to wonder if I could continue.’
After eventually getting away, Dustin received a message from a friend informing him the authorities back home were stopping his disability payments with immediate effect; they didn’t think his disability warranted a claim as he was fit enough to sail.
In disbelief and now with his only source of income dried up, he felt at rock bottom.
Shortly afterwards, he spotted something in the water close alongside. ‘Rudis had been wallowing around in calms for days and there was all this sea life that had made a home under the boat, I realised I was looking at a whale shark and just decided to jump overboard. I’m not a particularly spiritual person but to be in the water close to that incredible creature, at that moment when everything seemed lost, was clearly a sign to keep going and that everything was going to be OK.’
In Thailand, with no money left, Dustin decided he couldn’t continue the voyage without some financial help, so after a lot of convincing, set up a Crowdfunding page.
Within a few months he was able to think about upgrading the boat: ‘I eventually found a buyer for Rudis and asked them if they wanted me to include a few extras with the boat.’
The extras Dustin was referring to were several hundred adult magazines that had been packed away in boxes in a locker by the previous owner. He had told Dustin that they would come in useful for trading with locals in remote locations.
The new buyer of Rudis was more than happy to have them included in the sale too but unfortunately, Rudis sank several months later.
To the horror of the village elders at the Muslim island of Koj Jum, a regular supply of ‘unsavoury’ magazines began to wash up on the beach at every high tide!
In 2018 Dustin Reynolds left Thailand in his new boat Tiama, a Bristol 36 with a lifting centre plate he had acquired for a bargain.
She was easier to sail than Rudis but still didn’t have a self-tailing winch at the mast.
Extended stays at Chagos and Madagascar followed later that year and Dustin embraced his encounters with these different cultures. ‘I made a real effort to spend time with the locals and in turn, they rarely treated me like an ATM machine. I am so grateful for all the help I was offered along the way, be it food, spare parts or
just to be invited into the community,’ he says.
By the time Dustin arrived in South Africa, even Tiama was showing the strain: ‘I had repaired the mainsail with a combination of Sikaflex and duct tape in Chagos, and 17 miles out from Richards Bay, the whole sail ripped to shreds in a squall. It must have looked like quite a sight arriving into port like that.’
Shortly afterwards, the Ocean Cruising Club awarded Dustin their Seamanship Award. He was finally getting the recognition he deserved.
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Now safely across the Indian Ocean, Dustin took a break from Tiama and joined the four-man crew of a 38-foot yacht on a short expedition from South Africa to Antarctica.
Back on Tiama at the beginning of 2019, with a self-tailing winch finally installed at the mast thanks to the support from his Crowdfunding efforts, Dustin set sail up the South Atlantic, stopping at Saint Helena and the Ascension Islands.
In another example of his remarkable seamanship, he sailed back upwind 30 miles to standby a friend’s yacht when they lost their rudder after colliding with a whale.
He managed to transfer them his series drogue which they then successfully rigged up as an emergency steering system which allowed them to safely reach Brazil.
Losing a leg wasn’t the greatest start to 2020: ‘I was climbing back on board the stern of Tiama after some drinks on a friend’s boat when I caught my prosthetic on the self-steering gear and it popped off and went overboard.’
The leg was never found and Dustin had to make do with adapting his spare ‘swimming leg’ until he could get a new one made.
As the Covid-19 pandemic engulfed the world, Dustin headed to the US Virgin Islands before sailing Tiama up to New York where the original builders of his boat, the Bristol Boat Company, generously offered to refit it free of charge.
After transiting the Panama Canal he made for the Galapagos Islands and then set off on the long 3,000-mile passage to the Marquesas, during which Tiama temporarily lost steerage mid-passage when the steering quadrant and autopilot mechanism disintegrated.
‘My usual process for dealing with big equipment failures at sea is: first – swear at the problem, second – drink a Baileys and coffee while making a plan for the problem, and third – implement the plan.’
A jury-rigged set-up of windvane and emergency tiller regained control and after 22 days at sea he safely made landfall at Nuka Hiva.
As Dustin said himself before departing the Marquesas on the final leg of his circumnavigation to Hawaii in December 2021: ‘It is hard for me to really process everything I’ve done. I have visited 36 countries and sailed over 30,000 miles alone, plus 10,000 miles on deliveries, five equator crossings, and to every continent except Europe. I have met amazing people, learned about new cultures and had the support of so many.’
It was not an easy final passage and as he approached the big island at Hawaii battling 25 knot-plus headwinds, he longed to reach the finish line.
The last 61 miles took 24 long, cold and wet hours. ‘Seeing my friends on the dock and being covered in leis [Hawaiian garlands] and Champagne was something I had been dreaming about for 10 years. We hugged, drank Champagne and Scotch, talked, and were finally together again.’
Earlier this year the Ocean Cruising Club awarded Dustin Reynolds the Barton Cup, their most prestigious award, and his single-handed circumnavigation has been officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the first by a double-amputee.
He has given, and continues to give, inspiration to not just fellow sailors and adventurers but people from all walks of life.
He joins a very select group of people that do something extraordinary with their lives and for that, we should all be thankful.
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