I am delighted to share a wonderful account about Dodge Morgan, brought to you by Bruce Hansen. Bruce is the author of a new sailing blog, A Voice Cries Out In The Wilderness. This blog will be well-worth following. As you can tell, Bruce is a fine storyteller. Dodge Morgan was truly larger than life: Jet pilot, journalist in Alaska; newspaper publisher; inventor; entrepreneur and above all a Great Sailor. He passed last September. Here's his story.
His most frightening moment came when he pulled the next-to-last bottle of beer from the bilge. Dodge Morgan circumnavigated alone 27,000 miles around the world on his sailboat American Promise in 1986 after five months at sea in a record-shattering time of 150 days, 1 hour and 6 minutes, cleaving the previous record in half.
The enthusiastic energetic self-proclaimed contrarian Morgan always colored outside the lines. His charismatic, bawdy, irreverent and outspoken personality was larger than Magellan’s boat. Some considered him a loner, or worse, a curmudgeon. Nay, say I. He had grace, didn’t brag about his accomplishments and was outraged by injustice. For example, Morgan noted the phrase “American Promise’ relates to those things guaranteed in the United States Constitution, including the welfare of the citizenry; the government promises benefits to everyone. Curmudgeon? Get outta my way. Hungry minds crawled over each other to participate in his inspirational discussions. The man had style.
Dodge Morgan started his Controlonics Company in a garage by himself in 1971 with $10,000 and a $20,000 loan. The guerrilla manufacturer sold the first Whistler fuzz-buster radar detectors. Twelve years later, he sold the business for $32 million and retired at the age of 50. On the way out Dodge rewarded members of his staff with gratitude gifts of money, with some receiving as much as $1 million. $1.5 million was set aside from the sale to commission the American Promise.
Morgan’s custom-made American Promise 60-footwhite and blue monohull single-masted sloop is a 30-ton78,000 pounds displacement high-tech, state-of-the-art, $1.5 million sailboat. 1974 America’s Cup Winner Ted hood designed her for sturdiness rather than speed.
Six film cameras were aboard; three above deck and three down below. Morgan hired Producer Christopher G. Knight and his New Film Company of Boston, Massachusetts to make a film about the journey. One in each set was programmed to come on twice a day during daylight hours and run for 30 seconds, allowing Morgan to film himself.
The forceful 1,000 square foot cutter sail was deployed above and a backup sail was stored below. There were two rudders, two diesel generators, with yet another generator hanging from the transom powered by the movement of the seas. 3,000 pounds of batteries, four battery chargers, 800 gallons of diesel fuel, two machines to convert salt water into fresh water. Hydraulic steering, two steering stations, four electronic autopilots, a wind vane pilot, two satellite navigational systems and an excess of redundant electronic gizmos.
A doctor had stocked a sea chest overflowing filled with enough drugs and medical supplies to keep the captain buffed up…if he was conscious. Thirteen big winches surrounded the helm so the vessel could be run without getting out of the cockpit, protected from all weather by a pilothouse. Down below, the craft was outfitted to be very comfortable.
The hold held 650 pounds of tools and spare parts, with 300 pounds of clothing was thought to be about right. 40 books (no bible). The galley larder was stocked with more than enough for one; 1,600 pounds of vacuum-packed meals and freeze-dried food for 280 days at sea. And oh, yes, of course; a case of beer.
It takes three things to sail around the world alone. A good boat, an iron will and luck.
The impossible voyage turned out to be more lonely and strenuous than predicted by his friends. “I felt that the worst thing that could happen was death, but I came to terms with that before I left.” The solo attempt became more stressful and strenuous than even risk-taker Morgan had predicted. Things can happen at sea that are worse than death.
Did a 54-year-old sailor have a chance in hell? This couldn’t be worse than the time he crashed his F-86 fighter jet into the Maine woods. It took axes to break him out. Towild man Morgan, sailing around the world on the open ocean was a great excuse to get out of the office.
“You’re out of your goddam mind,” sighed his brother.
Three men have sailed around the world alone in this Russian roulette tontine without stopping and Dodge wanted to be the next. “If these idiots can do it, so can I.” He could win this game if he could not just survive, but prevail. Other men were already under way on the water making their bids. The terms were simple. No touching land. No taking on additional food or water. No assistance accepted from another vessel. No using a motor for propulsion.
In 1985, at age 53, Dodge went for it. On the first leg of the circumnavigation attempt out of Portland Harbor in Maine, a freak storm broke the jib sail, forcing a retreat to Bermuda for repairs. The attempt started all over again from there. All he had to do then was to make it back alive.
He’s a better writer than I, and he was there. If you want to hear Dodge speak of his feelings about the attempt, read his book “Around Alone.”
He was no slouch. Every morning underway, he got up at 5:30 A.M. after waking every two hours during the night to check on the boat’s progress and condition.
A tropical storm in the South Pacific battered the boat with 70-mile-per-hour winds for three days.
On the 109th day, amid boiling seas and growling icebergs, as the boat rounded Cape Horn, the remote always-on video camera caught Dodge stripping off his foul-weather gear to reveal red suspenders and a tuxedo jacket for a champagne toast. “To me.” You can see brutal sideways rain lashing his face from low, scudding gray clouds and almost feel the temperature drop…and drop during the taping. Things happen very fast at sea.
Life aboard even had a few light moments. One day he was unpacking a passel of supplies prepared by family and friends; his thoughtful son sent him Super Glue for Christmas. Dodge laughed to himself after finding a stack of Playboy magazines. No doubt, he kept them under his berth with his lucky sock.
But I digress.
The dawn of November 12, 1986 revealed opaque swells making up as tall as Dodge. Bermuda was warm that day, but not offshore in the moderate 16 mph breeze spanking low scudding gunmetal gray clouds along. Six miles out, all eyes aboard the lead chase boat scanned the horizon for American Promise. Grant Robinson scanned the horizon looking for his boat. Grant managed her birth from design to construction He was looking for his boat. She hadn't been positively identified since she set out to sea in the aggressive attempt to circumnavigate the globe. It had been five months since she was last sighted.
Minutes later, at 11:12 A.M. Atlantic Time, Friday, April 11, a sail cut the horizon.
Morgan shoved off from Bermuda on November 12, 1985, and returned there on April 11, 1986. 27,000 milesaround the world in 1986 alone. Not only did he accomplish this, he made the circumnavigation in five months at sea in a record-shattering time of 154 days, 1 hour and 6 minutes, cutting the previous record in half.
Morgan broke 11 world records, highlighted by the posted wildfire log speed and his being the first American circumnavigator.
On landing, he stepped off American Promise as his wife Manny and his two children handed him a cheeseburger and a bag of popcorn. "He looks better than he did when he left," Morgan's wife Manny whispered to herself. Manny and Dodge divorced soon after the circumnavigation.
The World Sailing Speed Record Council refused to recognize Morgan’s voyage because he took a “shortcut”. Bermuda, they sniffed, was much further south than the traditional start and finish port of Brest in north-west France and it was open to question whether Morgan had achieved a true “circumnavigation”.
Testing and evaluations by psychologists after the circumnavigation revealed Morgan had no delusions (any more than usual), hallucinations or religious delusions; Dodge had changed into a compassionate, generous, humble man.
Gradually slowing down, he bought Snow Island at the head of Quahog Bay off the Coast of Maine in 1998. He built his home on the island sanctuary of dense cedar forest and fragrant fern, spongy moss and scaly lichen, cattail bog and rockweed shore of his sanctuary. By 2001 Dodge sighed he "no longer had the fire in the belly." The captain lived peacefully on his island for his next twelve years.
If you enjoyed this tale, you can find more here.