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The man who made sailing alone around the world look easy

2010 December 1

No long ocean passage in a small sailboat is easy.

If that's a fact of sailing life, and it is, then it goes without saying that a singlehanded, nonstop voyage around the world on a course south of the five infamous capes of the southern oceans could not possibly be easy. Yet when I think of Dodge Morgan's record-setting circumnavigation, the word "easy" comes to mind. I know what he did was difficult, not to mention dangerous and at times physically and emotionally exhausting, but he made it look easy.

In 1986, Morgan sailed nonstop around the world alone in 150 days. It was a terrific accomplishment-he nearly cut in half Chay Blyth's solo nonstop record of 292 days and it would be another 14 years before Morgan's record was eclipsed-but it owed a lot to technology and, let's face it, Morgan's deep pockets. What I admired about the feat was the way he did it.

I will admit that I was a likely admirer for reasons that had nothing to do with the circumnavigation. Though I had never met him, Morgan and I had something in common besides being nuts about sailing. We were both journalism school graduates who worked as reporters and owned weekly newspapers. Alas, that's where the common ground ended. Morgan proved himself smarter than your average ink-stained wretch by getting out of journalism and into a business that made serious money.

He started a company that made scramblers for police radios and later radar detectors to help drivers avoid police with $10,000 in capital, a $20,000 loan and three employees. Twelve years later he sold the business for $32 million.

He spent $1.5 million of that on a boat he called American Promise, a name inspired by a promise he made to himself when he was sailing and living on an old coasting schooner. The promise, he wrote, was to make "a very significant sail alone with a boat built specifically for the job."

Built for the job indeed. Compared to boats that sail the oceans in pursuit of records today, Promise was a battleship. Displacing 78,000 pounds, the 60-footer carried a powerful cutter rig plus: two diesel generators, another generator hanging from the transom powered by the movement of the water, 3,000 pounds of batteries, four battery chargers, 800 gallons of diesel fuel, two rudders, hydraulic steering and two steering stations, four electronic autopilots and a windvane pilot, a mind-boggling array of electronic instruments, 13 big winches arrayed on the cockpit coaming, a pilothouse and a comfortably fitted out interior.

If all that sounds inimical to fast sailing, well, it might have been, except that the boat was designed by Ted Hood, who proved time and again with his racing and cruising designs that heavy doesn't have to be slow. Robust displacement gave Promise the ability to carry the stores and equipment needed for a five-month nonstop voyage without compromising its sailing lines. Full, round bilges contributed to an easy motion in a seaway that limited wear and tear on equipment and the one-man crew.

When I think of Morgan commanding this juggernaut of a boat, I recall that poor Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old California girl who tried earlier this year to become the youngest person to sail around the world, was given an ultralight, water-ballasted, canting-keel 40-footer that was essentially a racing boat (so tricked out it had no permanent backstay) for her adventure. That boat was rolled and dismasted in the Indian Ocean. Thanks to an epirb and extraordinary efforts at sea and in the air, she was rescued.

Morgan didn't have to be rescued, but that didn't mean his voyage was a waltz around the world. In his book, Voyage of American Promise, he wrote of such tribulations as hitting a whale, being knocked down repeatedly off the Cape of Good Hope, surviving a tropical cyclone, rolling becalmed for days in enormous seas, beating into a gale for six days, falling overboard into 45-degree water and, as a gregarious man, enduring wrenching solitude. He got through it all with little fuss and a lot of style and grace, though after surviving the dunking in the Southern Ocean he described himself as "the luckiest sonofabitch I know."

As he approached Bermuda, the start and end point of his circumnavigation, Morgan decided to make Promise "look as if she has been on a daysail rather than a five-month sojourn. My theory is that I can determine the better of two sailors after a voyage by looking at their boats; invariably the cleaner, neater boat belongs to the better sailor."

When Promise appeared off St. George's Harbor, a Sports Illustrated writer on a welcoming powerboat described Promise as "polished. Indeed, she might have been coming in from a morning's sail." Morgan's wife Manny told the writer her husband "looks better than he did when he left." Asked later to describe his most frightening moment during the voyage, Morgan said it was "when I pulled the next-to-last bottle of beer from the bilge."

Morgan was said to be an outsized personality, bawdy, charismatic and outspoken, yet he seemed to have no interest in inflating the importance of his achievements. Far from dramatizing the rigors of his adventure, he described his life at sea as routine, with eight hours of sleep a night and meals served right on time.

"It's a whole long series of little victories that make up a voyage," he told the SI writer, "It's not a big thing. It's like they say: 95% of winning is showing up. I showed up every day."

Of the shipmates I've had over the years, those I value most are the ones who could deal with the demands of sailing without the excessive drama, the kind that is typically manifested by a lot of shouting, that makes things seem difficult when they're really just a little challenging. I wish I had sailed with Dodge Morgan.

He died in September at the age of 78.

There could be no more fitting epitaph than: He sailed alone around the world and made it look easy.