When he reached his 50s, Bill Pinkney didn't have a mid-life crisis. He had a mid-life challenge.
"Age fifty, you know that you've lived half of your life," he told me last week. "What mark are you going to leave when you leave here? I have two grandchildren. They weren't going to get any money 'cause there was none. What legacy was I going to leave them?'
It was 1990. Pinkney had been a professional makeup artist and later an executive in the cosmetics business. He was also an avid and expert sailor. He knew what he had to do. He would sail around the world alone, a rare and dangerous feat that would be all the more so because he was determined to go the long way. Rather than take the shorter, safer route through the Suez and Panama canals, he would go via the legendary five great southern capes -- the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, the capes at the southwest and southeast corners of Australia, South Cape of New Zealand and finally the fabled and fearsome Cape Horn at the end of South America.
It took Pinkney 22 months -- he took breaks en route -- but he made it, becoming the first African American to solo sail around the globe. About 300 people have done what he has done. That's fewer than the number who climb Mt. Everest each year.
Today (July 6), thirty-one years after his lonely voyage, Pinkney, now 85 years old, was elected to the National Sailing Hall of Fame as recipient of the annual Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the first black person to join the pantheon of just 90 sailing greats, all of them white.
"That's your peers," he told me by phone from his home in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. "Those are the people that know exactly what it's like to be out there, to be on the water. Those are my people. Sailors."
When he was nominated to the sailing hall of fame, Pinkney was cited for his solo circumnavigation of the globe, as well as his later voyage re-tracing the Middle Passage that brought tens of millions of African slaves to the New World, and his many efforts to teach and inspire young people through his sailing adventures. During his round-the-world trip, Pinkney spoke regularly by satellite phone to students in Boston and his native Chicago, using his exploits to teach geography, history, science and social studies, as well as important life lessons.
"Having a dream, being willing to pursue it, having a goal in life and persevering in spite of all difficulties you might confront," Pinkney said. "That was the main thing I wanted them to get as well as the academic part of it. That you can persevere against odds that people think are insurmountable if you are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen."
The name of the sailboat that he took around the world tells you everything you need to know about Bill Pinkney. He named it Commitment.
Pinkney was born and raised on Chicago's South Side, a long way geographically and in every other sense from the almost exclusively white, affluent world of American sailing. He didn't take up sailing until he was an adult living in Puerto Rico, working on ferrying cargo from P.R. to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Later, he would take formal lessons in New York and eventually return to Chicago where he bought his first sailboat. Often, he says, he would have a hard time getting friends to join him, so he would go out alone on Lake Michigan, which earned him the nickname the Lone Ranger.
When he first had the idea of actually making a solo trip around the world, he kept it to himself.
"It took a year and a half before I told anyone because I had to come to grips with the fact that I could lose my life," he told me. "I asked my wife at the time what would you think about my doing this? Would you be upset? And she said, 'It's your dream. I would be upset if you didn't do it.'"
After securing financial backing from sponsors, Pinkney set sail on the 47-foot Commitment on August 5, 1990, heading south to Brazil where he stopped in Salvador where he reveled in the rich African-influenced culture of that city. Then he turned southeast to cross the South Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa. Sixty-five days at sea.
"I was alone," he recalls, "but I was never really lonely. You live it as you live your life. One day at a time."
There was always something to do. Sailing his boat. Navigating. Eating. Video recording his journey. And almost daily he made satellite phone calls to classrooms in Chicago and Boston with thousands of students listening in. He usually slept an hour or two at time.
After a port call in Cape Town, Pinkney sailed east to traverse the Indian Ocean at a low latitude where the seas are notoriously difficult and sometimes deadly. Battling ferocious waves that at times threatened to capsize his vessel, he made it to Hobart, Tasmania in 51 days.
From Hobart, Pinkney pressed on toward Cape Horn, the final and perhaps toughest test of all. Cape Horn is famous or perhaps I should say infamous for its howling winds and roaring seas. It is the graveyard for thousands of ships over the centuries.
"Cape Horn," says Pinkney, "is the Mount Everest of the sea."
Before he left, Pinkney had made a video to be played for the schoolchildren following his voyage in case he perished.
"I had to tell them that I knew the risk and they shouldn't be deterred by that, that they should know I was pursuing my dream and sometimes those things happen and I knew that," he said.
Cape Horn lived up to its reputation. It was a rough, rollicking, raging ride. But he made it, then crossed into the South Atlantic heading for home -- Boston. When he docked on June 9, 1992, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of hundreds/ Among them were many of the Boston school kids he had been communicating with throughout his journey.
Today, "Captain Bill" lives quietly in Puerto Rico. Each year, he had wondered if this would be the year he might be chosen by the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
"I wasn't bothered that it didn't happen because I know the people they put in there. To a sailor, these are heavyweight guys," he said. "This year, I'm waiting and I'm saying maybe this year is my year. I turn 86 this year. Maybe they have some pity for an old guy and put me in there. Sure enough, they did."
In 1994, my buddy Mike Cerre made a documentary about Pinkney's round-the-world feat called The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney. It begins with him saying: "The sea doesn't care what your economic status is, your religion, your nationality, your sex. It doesn't care what you think. It cares one thing: I am the sea. If you come out here, you'd be better prepared to deal with me."
It wasn't pity that earned Pinkney his place among sailing's heavyweights. It was who he is and what he did. It took character, courage and commitment.