Dodge Morgan's voice crackled over the radio: "I'm 13 miles due east of St. David's Light. I'm going to make another tack now. Over."
The seas southeast of Bermuda were cresting to six-foot swells as a brisk 15-knot wind gusted from the west-northwest. Six miles out, all eyes aboard Wave Walker, the lead chase boat out of St. George's Harbor, scanned the horizon for Morgan's vessel, American Promise, which hadn't been positively identified since it set out from Bermuda last Nov. 12 to circumnavigate the globe. Five months and some 26,280 miles without a sighting. Minutes later—11:12 a.m. Atlantic time, Friday, April 11, to be exact—a sail appeared out of the haze on the horizon.
"American Promise, American Promise. We have a visual," radioed Grant Robinson, barely able to contain the thrill in his voice. Robinson was the project manager from design through construction for the boat that had now carried Morgan, sailing singlehanded, around the world nonstop in record-shattering time.
"Well, at least I haven't become invisible," Morgan radioed back.
April 21, 1986
American Promise, a 60-foot cutter designed by sailmaker Ted Hood, heeled jauntily into the wind, doing 10 knots as she crashed through the deep-blue swells. "She's even got a clean bottom," said Robinson, a native of New Zealand who lives in Beverly, Mass., as Promise's red, white and blue hull came into view. "She doesn't look any the worse for wear at all." Promise's deck, too, looked spit-and-polished. Even her sails appeared almost factory fresh. Indeed, she might have been coming in from a morning's sail. "We see you've still got some paint on her," Robinson radioed.
"What do you mean 'some paint on her'?" replied Morgan. "She's only been used once."
Moments later Morgan appeared, standing in Promise's cockpit, and the 54-year-old sailor from Cape Elizabeth, Maine looked every bit as fit as his vessel—tanned, clean-shaven, his Marine-style crewcut grown out to a sun-bleached, stylish length. Barefoot, wearing foul-weather pants and a blue windshirt, Morgan raised his fist in triumph. "He looked better than he did when he left," Morgan's wife Manny would say after their reunion ashore.
"Welcome back, mate," radioed Robinson, blinking back tears and signing off. Then he said, "I never thought I'd cry to see a boat come in. The baby comes home."
At 12:17 local time, American Promise crossed the imaginary line east of St. George from which she had begun her easterly voyage exactly 150 days, one hour and six minutes earlier. "When I saw that first boat," said Morgan later, "it hit me like a mallet that I'd done it."
Only three men before Morgan—none of them American—had sailed around the world alone without stopping. No taking on additional food or water; no assistance accepted from another vessel; no using the motor for propulsion. The fastest of the three previous solo circumnavigations was by Chay Blyth of England in 1971. Blyth sailed his 59-foot ketch British Steel in a westerly direction—and therefore into the teeth of the prevailing winds of the southern ocean below the equator—in 292 days. Morgan sliced that mark nearly in half. He also bettered the fastest solo circumnavigation that permitted stopping: the 159-day voyage of Philippe Jeantot of France in 1982-83 in a four-leg, three-stop singlehanded race that started and finished in Newport (Jeantot's time did not include the days he spent in port).
"It takes three things to sail around the world alone," Morgan told the crowd that had gathered to greet and cheer him at dockside, shortly after he had taken a bite of a ceremonial cheeseburger, his favorite meal, which had been served to him on a silver-colored platter by David Hillier, owner of the nearby White Horse Tavern. "A good boat, an iron will and luck. To do so in record time takes a great boat, an iron will and extraordinary luck. And, my friends, here is a great boat."
True enough. And it was sailed by an extraordinary man. A bit off-the-wall, perhaps—how else can you describe a fellow who spends five months alone at sea and claims his most frightening moment came "when I pulled the next-to-last bottle of beer from the bilge"—but nonetheless extraordinary. Morgan is gruff and bawdy and commands unwavering loyalty from his broad circle of admirers. "He is such an optimist," says Manny, an extraordinary woman herself, "that he will honestly tell you that the fact that his father died when he was three years old was the best thing that ever happened to him. He is absolutely determined to make something good out of everything."
Morgan has pursued a number of careers during his lifetime. He flew jet fighters in the Air Force, was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and headed his own advertising and public relations firm. But the business that earned Morgan his fortune was Controlonics Corporation, an electronics firm in West-ford, Mass. that makes, among other things, Whistler radar detectors. In December 1983, Morgan sold Controlonics in a stock deal worth $32 million, a sum that let him keep a promise he had made to himself in the early '60s, that one day he would sail around the world. He caught the bug while sailing his first boat, a 36-foot wooden schooner named Coaster, from Maine to Alaska over a period of 2½ years, with stops at the Virgin Islands, the Panama Canal and Hawaii. Morgan's first marriage dissolved while he was at sea.
The first time Manny, whom Morgan married in 1972, heard about the prospective Promise voyage was back in 1981. "He didn't say anything to me for about four months, and whenever he saw me he'd start to squirm," she recalls. "The only thing I could think was that he was seeing another woman. So when he finally told me he wanted to sail around the world alone before he got too old, it was almost a relief."
The reaction of Morgan's older brother Russ, now 68, was more typical. "I only had one statement on the matter," he says. "You're out of your goddam mind."
To prove that he wasn't, Manny contacted two Boston College psychology professors, Randy Easton and William Nasby, who agreed to use Morgan as a guinea pig in a study on the effects of prolonged solitude and sensory deprivation. They studied him for five months before he set sail and then put together a series of daily tests for Morgan to take during the voyage. "Shrink tests," Morgan delighted in calling them. "He's a very self-reliant, independent person," says Easton, who found Morgan's personality to be similar to those of certain solo explorers of the Arctic. "A touch narcissistic, but that's all right. He's a risk-taker, but not a foolish risk-taker."
That became clear when Morgan selected Hood to design American Promise. A proponent of the heavy-displacement theory of boat design, Hood believes that the heavier the boat, the smoother the sail, which means less taxing conditions for the skipper. Morgan kept telling people he would gladly sacrifice a half knot of boat speed for two hours more sleep each day. "He didn't want one of those light boats where you'd drive 10 hours straight and then heave to and rest," says Hood.
"The other thing I said was, 'Let's make things redundant,' " says Morgan. "Boy, did we make things redundant." He wanted at least two of everything on Promise so that if something broke, he wouldn't have to fix it. So the boat was outfitted with two complete sets of sails (14 in all); two rudders (one retractable); four electrical power sources (two diesel-powered generators, the engine, and a propeller-driven water generator as a final backup); 3,000 pounds of batteries to store that power; 60 circuit breakers; two autopilots; two SatNav satellite navigational systems; two machines to convert saltwater into fresh water; two 60-gallon water storage tanks; 13 winches; five 200-gallon fuel tanks; five watertight bulkheads; and three bunks. American Promise, all 30 tons of her, was a high-tech, state-of-the-art, $1 million-plus sailboat. From the cockpit Morgan could furl or unfurl the sails with the touch of a button.
"The only reservation we had was his lack of experience with big boats," says Hood. "He really didn't test Promise any further than to take it for a few little sails off Marblehead in July." Actually, Morgan did sail Promise more than that, but not a whole lot more.
On Oct. 14 Morgan, dressed in a tuxedo with red suspenders—"I want to go out in style!" he told Russ—set sail from Portland. He had hoped to return 180 days later. Two days out he ran into a storm that tossed Promise about in 40- to 50-knot winds and the strongest seas the boat had yet encountered. The autopilots wouldn't steer her, and a swivel atop the jibstay broke causing the 285-pound genoa to fall into the sea. Morgan spent four hours pulling it in. It took him two hours more to climb the 75-foot mast to retrieve the jib halyard. Much of his anguish was captured on film by cameras and microphones set up around the boat to record the voyage.
"The boat seemed to be falling apart, and I fell apart as a result," Morgan says now. He eventually decided to put in to Bermuda for repairs. It was quickly determined that the autopilots simply could not handle a boat as heavy as Promise. After heavier-duty autopilots were installed, Easton, one of the psychologists, studied the films and was shocked. "Very heavy. Tough to watch," he recalls. "Dodge left in his tuxedo and three days later he was a completely changed person. He had named his autopilot, which was always growling, the Hungry Bear. He had given a name to a bird. And right to the last day he was considering sailing into the southern ocean with a defective autopilot." Three weeks later, the new autopilots in place, Morgan started again, this time from Bermuda.
"The first three weeks it was very painful to be away," Morgan says. "Then I got used to my solitude and got out of the way of it." He had tapes of his favorite music—Dixieland—on board, plus voice recordings of Manny and their children. "I played those almost immediately," he says. "But I never listened to the music. It reminded me too much of people, of what I was away from. I had to avoid those things."
Initially sailing south from Bermuda, he made good time through the Atlantic, averaging 175 nautical miles a day, a pace he was able to maintain throughout the voyage. Typically, he would rise at 5:30 a.m., check the boat, then return to his cabin to shave and have his morning coffee. Then, weather permitting, he would fix whatever needed fixing. There was always some little nagging something—frayed running lines, a leaky fuel tank. He would have brunch at 11. Manny had prepared a rotating 21-day meal cycle, intended to supply Dodge with a daily diet of 2,700 calories: 30% fats, 12% protein, 58% carbohydrates. American Promise carried enough provisions for 280 days at sea—1,609 pounds' worth of freeze-dried, precooked, vacuum-packed and canned vegetables, fruits and meats. All very nutritional, right? So what were the only things that Morgan ran out of? Cold cereal and popcorn. And, of course, the case of beer that had been inadvertently left on board by some dockhands during the summer. Morgan, never a beer drinker, developed a taste for the stuff only after he discovered it at the bottom of a refrigerator late in the voyage.
At noontime, three times a week, Morgan would use a sextant to fix his position. He could also track his progress by SatNav, which receives signals from five satellites in fixed-position orbits above the earth. In the afternoons, he would make entries in his log, which would grow to some 60,000 words by the time he returned; sometimes he would read. Of the books that he brought along, he liked best those about people battling to overcome hardships—Victoria Poole's Thursday's Child, about a boy who needs a heart transplant, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Another of his favorites was Farley Mowat's Sea of Slaughter, "which," says Morgan, "has such respect for all things living. I experienced that, too, throughout my trip." After dinner, at sunset, he would faithfully fill out his shrink tests. Then he would go to bed, getting up every two hours or so to trim the sails and take a tour of the boat. He averaged eight hours' sleep a night.
"It's a whole long series of little victories that make up a voyage," he says. "It's not a big thing. It's like they say: 'Ninety-five percent of winning is showing up.' I showed up every day. That's the thing that really grinds on you."
By Christmas, Promise had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and was heading into the Indian Ocean. Manny and the Morgan children, Kim, 9, and Hoyt, 12, had sent along some gifts for Dodge to open—a rum cake, a poem, a toaster, some Super Glue. For his birthday, Jan. 15, he got a telescope with which to look for Halley's comet (he never found it). He was able to make radio contact with his family throughout most of the voyage, so it was not as if he was completely out of touch. He also spoke with his weather guru, Bob Rice of Weather Services in Bedford, Mass., an average of twice a week, so he was rarely surprised by storms. Promise's most productive day was Morgan's birthday, when she covered 236 miles. The least progress he made in a day was 60 miles. By Jan. 27 he was south of New Zealand, halfway through the trip.
And becalmed. "I'm in the Screaming 50s and there's no wind," he radioed to Manny, invoking the name given to those latitudes by sailors lashed about in the region's usually fierce gales. Forty-foot swells rolled the boat as it lolled. "I must be going crazy."
Dodge asked for, and received, permission to take the series of shrink tests that Easton and Nasby had prepared specially for the mid-point of the journey. "Do you think you are good-looking?" was one of the questions. "Are you the life of the party?" was another.
I AM THE ONLY PARTY HERE!
But the tests seemed to raise his spirits. The psychologists, after all, were apparently daffier than he was.
The Screaming 50s lived up to their reputation soon enough, as Promise encountered a tropical storm that howled through the South Pacific. The three-day storm blew with 70-mile-per-hour winds, repeatedly administering 70-degree knockdowns to a battened-down Promise. Four or five times she was laid flat down on the water. "We'd sort of lie there for a few seconds and then she'd right herself and I'd start picking things up," says Morgan, who rode out the storm in the cabin. "It was very inconvenient, but the boat didn't seem to mind." In one day the storm blew Promise, with sails furled, 175 miles on her way. When the storm finally subsided, Morgan—exhausted—radioed Rice that he and Promise had come through O.K. Rice reported back that there was a huge iceberg in the area and to stay on the alert. Morgan stayed awake all night doing so, but never saw the iceberg.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of a solo circumnavigation is the rounding of Cape Horn. The seas are usually wild and the Cape itself fog-shrouded. Not so when Promise rounded the Cape on Feb. 28—Day 108. Morgan chose that day to again dress in his tux. He and Manny were married on Feb. 29, 1972, a leap year, so the 28th serves as their anniversary three years out of four. Morgan popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion, and the day cooperated. After 18,000 miles at sea, he got his first glimpse of land. "There were 18- to 20-foot seas, 15 to 18 knots of wind behind me, and extraordinary visibility," he says. The Cape, he says, has "magnificent headlands that drop right down to the shore like lion's teeth."
Feeling at last that the worst was behind him, Morgan promptly ran out of wind off Rio de Janeiro. "Find me some air," he radioed Rice. The weather expert soon found him some air, all right: a howling storm that blew straight into Promise's bow for the next eight days. "You wanted air," was Rice's answer when Morgan complained about the weather.
"Remind me never to ask you for a drink when I get home," Morgan replied. "If I don't specify, you'll probably bring me hemlock."
But that was the worst of it. That, and of course the solitude—day after day on a slate-gray sea, no land and few birds or fish in sight. Morgan guesses that for nearly 80% of his voyage, he never spotted another living creature.
Then, suddenly, he was back, greeted by all the fanfare St. George, Bermuda could muster—bands, keys to the city, press conferences, autograph seekers, friends and family. He seemed relieved later in the day to be able to return to the peace of American Promise. "She really does look good, doesn't she?" he said, pausing before stepping aboard. "I haven't had a chance to get off and look at her."
Below, in the cabin, he talked quietly about the voyage, relieved to be away from the hubbub. Asked how he had kept abreast of news events, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, for instance, Morgan stiffened. "A space shuttle blew up? There were people aboard? Oh my god," he said.
Later, he said this: "The feeling out there of being alone is immense. If you want to know how insignificant each of us is in the whole realm of things, sail around the world. It made me ask myself, 'In what realm are we important?' We're important to the people who mean the most to us—family and friends. We can make a difference by being honest with them and demanding of them. Other than that...hey, out there on the sea I'm just one little hummer."
Cape of Good Hope