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Let’s raise a mug of seawater to our sailing Don Quixotes

2007 April 17
I admit to feeling a twinge of irritation when I watched a failed around-the-world sailor experiencing his 15 minutes of fame on a television news program with what I judged to be unseemly enjoyment. He had been rescued at great expense by the Chilean Navy and a fishing trawler after he got himself in trouble in the Southern Ocean, and now he was in front of the cameras, all jaunty and telegenic. I had seen photos of him being taken from his 44-foot steel yawl, which seemed in no danger of sinking, by a small inflatable boat in calm seas. This is not one, I said to myself, for the annals of sterling seamanship.

Well, I got over it. The poor guy had sold his swimming pool business in California to fund his dream of sailing around the world. He was approaching Cape Horn when he sailed into a nasty low-pressure system, was rolled 360 degrees and dismasted in the ensuing storm, and ultimately lost his boat. Presumably he lost his dream too, unless he wants to try again, which probably shouldn't be ruled out. There's something about the sea that triggers some remarkably strange human behavior. After thinking about it, I reminded myself that we need to cut those who are afflicted some extra slack. The human race would not only be a lot duller, but probably constitutionally flabbier as well without these adventure addicts in the gene pool.

When it comes to sailing adventurers, there is a fine line between hero and wacko. I wonder how Joshua Slocum would be regarded if he were to set off alone today on an around-the-world voyage in a leaky wooden oyster dredge with a cheap alarm clock as his chronometer. Probably as a wacko until he pulled it off (without calling the Chilean Navy), and then as a hero.

William Willis, on the other hand, could be called a heroic wacko. That's how he was perceived when he was attempting his strange sailing feats in the 1950s and '60s, and the perception has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, if you want an example of the indomitability of the human spirit, look no further than this driven sailor.

Willis can't be dismissed as one of the screwball types that don't let their lack of sailing skills stop them from courting fame with hopeless stunts like trying to cross oceans in bathtub-size vessels. (That's not to say his quests were not a little screwy.) He was an accomplished seaman, an intelligent, creative man who wrote poetry, novels and nonfiction books and an imposing physical specimen with a noble profile and a chiseled body that even in his old age suggested heroic Greek statuary.

Willis was born in Germany in 1893, went to sea on a square-rigger at the age of 15 and had an eventful life as a merchant seaman before he wound up in New York. There, among other pursuits, he refined a philosophy of life that incorporated mysticism, yoga, exercise and a diet based on fruit and grain that evolved through his lifetime and finally included a daily ration of seawater, which proved to be a practical addition in his line of work. Willis later described his first epic voyage as "a pilgrimage to the shrine of my philosophy."

He was on the cusp of 60 when he made the decision to test his philosophy by sailing a raft alone across the Pacific. The purpose of the voyage, he wrote, was to discover "how much I really can go through in the way of hardships." Willis was to devote the rest of his life to finding that answer by means of, in the words of T.R. Pearson, author of a fine new book about Willis entitled Seaworthy, "trolling for hardship" on the ocean. The book's title accurately describes Willis himself but not his vessels, which were decidedly unseaworthy.

Willis built his raft in Ecuador by lashing balsa logs together with manila rope. On this platform he erected a two-masted rig featuring a square mainsail, a mizzen and a long bowsprit to accommodate a good-sized headsail. Then he set sail from Calloa, Peru.

He found all the hardship he sought. The Pacific Ocean and the wallowing, 10-ton, gradually degrading raft (balsa absorbs water) assaulted him physically and psychologically, yet in one fashion or another he managed to overcome a series of crises, some of which were quite bizarre. While wrestling with a shark he had caught, he slipped on the raft's slimy logs and fell overboard. To make matters worse, he was gushing blood from an artery nicked by the shark's teeth. As his raft sailed away, a hook on a trailing fishing line caught on his shoulder and Willis gingerly pulled himself back on the monofilament line. The lithe and muscular sexagenarian clambered back on the raft and made a tourniquet with fishing line and a marlinspike. All in a day's work.

Some weeks later Willis discovered that the cheap containers he has purchased to hold his drinking water supply had leaked; most of the contents were lost. And that his main food supply, stored in the same type of shoddy containers, had spoiled. Not to worry-he simply drank two mugs of seawater a day and subsisted on rye flour and raw sugar for the rest of the voyage. After a physical exam his long-suffering wife insisted on after he returned, the physician declared Willis to be "dramatically-let me say fantastically-healthy."

After 115 days, 7,000 miles and untold gallons of ingested salt water, Willis landed at Samoa. Pearson describes a photo of Willis at the helm at the end of the ordeal in clean street clothes with a fresh shave and haircut looking like "someone on his way to the bank."

Nine years later Willis was at it again, this time at age 70, on a 34-foot raft made of welded steel pontoons, bound once more from South America to the far western reaches of the Pacific. He was alone again because, he said, that was the point: "man on his own, depending solely on himself under all conditions, with no one near except his Creator, and every fiber-physical, mental and spiritual-put to the test."

The test this time included potentially fatal complications of ruptures that Willis, in his way of avoiding the prudent course, neglected to have treated. His remedy was to hang himself with a halyard from the mast upside down until the intestine slipped back into place. After 130 days at sea, he landed again on a Samoan island. This was a disappointment-Willis was aiming for Australia.

After a respite in the States, he picked up the voyage where he left off and set sail for Australia. He sailed the raft for another 72 days and 2,400 miles, accomplished an amazing navigation through the Great Barrier Reef and landed on the shore of Queensland, where he encountered a couple walking on the beach. He extended his hand and said, "I'm Willis from New York."

Willis had tested his philosophy of life in the most challenging fashion imaginable, and it certainly seemed to have worked, but he wasn't satisfied. So he decided to sail across the Atlantic in an 11-½-foot-long open boat. He failed twice and then, in his style, without a radio, without fresh water or provisions other than olive oil, flour, honey, lemon juice, garlic and evaporated milk, he tried again. It was 1968 and William Willis was 74 years old. He was never seen again. His boat was found 400 miles from Ireland.

Willis didn't accomplish anything of lasting value to society, except maybe to demonstrate that if you're dying of thirst on the ocean, you should drink some of it. Yet this was no wasted life, but rather one that reminds us of the amazing things humans beings can do when they harness their dreams, convictions and courage, even in quests that would make Don
Quixote blush.