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Beautiful Madness

Bill Pinkney is going to sail around the world--the hard way.

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You go about your day-to-day life, and you read about people who climb mountains. Or they reach the pole by dogsled. Or they sail oceans. They are fascinating characters. They sneer at risks. They overcome impossible odds. Occasionally they die, or disappear. You read about them while you take the el to work. Their lives are impossibly removed from yours.

Yet there I was in Monroe Harbor the other week, just a few hundred yards from Buckingham Fountain, standing on the wet and heaving deck of Bill Pinkney's boat, grabbing at railings and getting a little queasy from the pounding of the swells. Or maybe from the thought that in a few months, on its voyage around the world, Commitment might be facing the greater wind and waves of the southern Pacific.

The swells didn't bother Pinkney much, though he is the first to admit that he does get seasick. Still, he said, "I look forward to going out to sea on a rough day now. At least there I know what to expect, what my capabilities are." Pinkney has been through some rough waters lately. If he felt any queasiness himself, it was likely to have been prompted by the thought that his boat isn't paid for yet. Or by the sheer audacity of his plan to teach Chicago public-school students geography and math and astronomy from his floating soapbox half a world away.

Pinkney wants to become the first African-American to sail alone the most arduous route around the world, south of all the continents except Antarctica. Only 25 solo sailors have ever circumnavigated the globe by this route. There are easier ways to do it. "My initial way of thinking about doing this was going through the [Panama and Suez] canals," said Pinkney, "and by the lovely small islands of Polynesia, which--face it--is every armchair traveler's dream." Pinkney changed his mind when he found out that that route had already been successfully traversed by a black American. He wanted to do something unique.

Commitment is moored at the far outer rim of Monroe Harbor, as if she were already straining to leave port. When I went there to visit, the strong north wind was flinging rain almost horizontally. We were in the cabin, and Pinkney was taking apart his computer--on loan from IBM--attaching a bracket to the bottom that would fasten the terminal to the countertop and prevent it from sliding around in tumultuous seas. He took a large panel off the computer and began fastening a bracket to it.

Pinkney, who's in his mid-50s, has a receding hairline and a beard sprinkled with gray. Concentrating on his work, he told me in snatches about his sailing life. Twenty-five years ago he lived in the Caribbean, where sailing from island to island was the most efficient means of transport. When he moved to New York, he took sailing lessons on Long Island. "Then I was ready to be King Neptune himself," he said. "But not having the financial wherewithal to get my own boat, I started sailing on other people's boats."

Pinkney sailed charter schooners in New England and crewed on racing yachts. After he moved to Chicago, he sailed in seven Chicago-to-Mackinac races and joined the Belmont Yacht Club. He bought a 28-foot boat of his own (now for sale) and competed in single-handed races on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Pinkney's wife, Ina, who doesn't like sailing herself, runs a commercial bakery. Since Pinkney gave up his job as a Revlon marketing executive to pursue his dream, Ina provides the family income. "My wife busts her ass seven days a week so that I can do this, and I'm gonna really be in debt to her," said Pinkney. "I'm blessed with a wife that understands my madness. It's a beautiful madness, and once you're initiated, you either love it or hate it."

After several attempts, Pinkney succeeded in reattaching the computer panel he'd taken off. "It's simple when it's done right," he said. "Trick is, doing it right." He then moved over to the bag he'd brought with him and took out a gray electronic device little bigger than a walkie-talkie.

We went out into the cockpit, where a plastic canopy shielded us from the driving rain, to try it out. Pinkney pointed the satellite-location device, donated by a California marine-electronics manufacturer, up at the sky. The device was covered with buttons and had a small LCD display like a calculator. Pinkney turned it on, waited a few moments, and received an error message. "I'll turn you off and see if you're smarter this time," he said. "'Satellites found,' it says now. Let's see what that means," and he began flipping through the instruction manual. "New toys are always like this."

The satellites tracked by the device, Pinkney said, are 11,000 miles up. When three satellites have been located, the machine calculates by triangulation the boat's position--within 30 feet, the manufacturer claims. "They're three grand now," Pinkney said. "They're just starting to market them. They probably cost $750 to make."

As we sat in the cockpit, Pinkney told me he'd decided to sail around the world about five years ago. "Sailing around the world is more than a notion," he said. "The first decision you have to make is: are you willing to meet the end of your life alone, not surrounded by friends and loved ones, which is what you hope to be when you're 99 and on your deathbed?"

Pinkney said the decision "came from a number of places. One was that I'd like to do something significant. My great love is sailing, and to do anything significant in sailing means a significant ocean passage."

While working on the logistics of the voyage, he realized that he, Bill Pinkney, could be an inspiration to Chicago public-school students. He had been one himself, back when he was growing up at 33rd and Indiana. "I went through 12 years of education in this city that stood me damn well," he said. "No college degree, though Lord knows I wish I'd had it. But I feel this system can do well if it can teach kids how to educate themselves in the meantime. I'm thumbing my nose at people who say, if you were raised on welfare in a single-parent household, you'll never make it."

When Pinkney thought about what he would need to know to make it around the world, he also thought about how inspiring it might be to students to work out real-life problems in geography and navigation. "I found that there was a great potential for my grandkids to learn about the world, about how the things you study in basic education are put to practical use. I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to do more than just my personal odyssey."

In essence, Pinkney would like to take 250,000 Chicago students with him on his voyage--in spirit. The MacArthur Foundation has agreed to cover almost all the expenses of the educational program. He plans to send reports and pictures back to Chicago, where public-school teachers and curriculum officials will compile and distribute a monthly newsletter to schools or individual classes interested in the project. He plans to set up phone links between his boat and classrooms (on a rotating basis), so that he can send in ten-minute oral reports from wherever he happens to be. He also plans to videotape his trip; installments will be mailed to Chicago from ports along the way.

If you look at the potential benefit to students, he said, then the cost of the voyage--$350,000--begins to look like peanuts. "That's not much more than it takes to keep one guy in jail for ten years," he said. He believes the private sector should take an interest. "The business and political communities have failed to realize that you put your money into schools today, or you put it into bigger and bigger prisons five, ten years down the line."

To cover his costs for the 11-month trip, Pinkney said, "I decided to look for sponsorship. And that was my first step toward wrack and ruin."

What he needed, he decided, was a boat and something over $100,000 for expenses. Unfortunately, the boat he found cost $240,000. Fortunately, it is the perfect boat to fulfill Pinkney's dream. He was looking for a smaller, more affordable craft, say 39 or 40 feet long, but he found ocean cruisers in that size hard to come by. So when he heard that a 47-foot Valiant was up for sale, it was hard to resist, especially after Robin Knox-Johnson, who single-handedly circumnavigated the globe by the same route nonstop in 1963, told him that it was one of the very best vessels for the job.

Lone Star had been piloted alone around the world in 1986-87 by the American sailor Mark Schrader, in the British Oxygen Corporation around-the-world race, a quadrennial event that drew 25 entries. The 47-footer was the only boat of the 16 that finished that didn't need repairs when the voyage was over. It was the used-boat buyer's dream: only one owner, sailed only once. "A cream puff," said Pinkney. Of course it was a 27,000-mile trip, but that proved to Pinkney that the boat could take the worst the oceans could throw at it.

Pinkney contracted to buy the boat, which he renamed Commitment, last year. It is beautiful, with a wide cockpit and an extra-large steering wheel that allows the sailor to reach winches and other controls without letting go of the wheel. It has two bulkheads that divide the boat's hold into thirds and that are pierced with submarine hatches. These hatches allow the sailor to completely close off the forward and aft parts of the hull--a safety feature, Pinkney said, that could be a lifesaver if these parts are damaged when the boat hits, say, cargo that has fallen off a container ship. Or if the boat is hit by a surfacing submarine, which is rumored by yachtsmen to be a hazard around Bermuda.

Commitment is outfitted with the loaned computer, radios donated by Motorola, and other electronic equipment that can tell Pinkney, at the push of a button in the cabin, the wind speed and direction, the boat's speed, and the mileage the boat has covered. And of course there's the satellite-location device. It was almost a surprise when Pinkney told me that he's taking along a sextant, too. It seemed so old-fashioned.

Marine suppliers have been generous--genuinely helpful--in donating equipment to Pinkney. Raising money to pay for the boat, however, has been hard. Pinkney has concentrated on getting donations from the Chicago business community--especially the black business community. He figured that black businessmen would be glad to fund a program so inspirational to Chicago public-school students.

It hasn't worked out that way, though. "I don't know if I'm really angered or saddened or in disbelief," said Pinkney, "at the support I've gotten from the black business community in this town. A company that can afford to emblazon their name on the sails and sides of the boat--Johnson, Soft Sheen--won't even talk to me. But a lot of people to whom $50 is a lot of money have bought a sweatshirt or paid for x number of miles for their grandkids.

"There are 100 black businesses in this city that could afford $2,500, and could provide an opportunity for kids to learn math, geography, in a way that would interest them. In class, the kids for the most part are bored to tears. Education is really the memorization of things you like. If I can get a kid to like math because he can figure out how fast I can get from point A to point B, and he can beat the kid next to him who's supposed to be the smart guy, he can show off."

Pinkney also believes that kids today require different educational tactics. "When I talk to the kids about the sea, I'm not talking about Moby Dick, I'm talking about this," he said, indicating the satellite-location device. He believes that television and video games have made kids comfortable with technology. "They can understand this. And when they're interested in this, then I can get them to read Moby Dick."

Indeed, Pinkney maintains that learning about sailing is a great way to learn about life. "Sometimes it's rough, sometimes it's beautiful. Sometimes it takes every bit of courage and knowledge you have to make just a little headway. You never learn it all. Some days you learn a little, some days you learn a lot."

What also makes sailing a good inspirational tool, said Pinkney, is that it erases the distinctions made by our culture. "When you get out there and the wind is blowing like it is today, the waves do not ask you if you are male or female, rich or poor, black or white." Pinkney is currently the commodore of the Belmont Yacht Club--the smallest yacht club in Chicago. When he resigns later this year, he will be replaced by the first female yacht-club commodore in Chicago.

Since 1986, Pinkney has been selling his voyage and sailing as an educational tool in TV and radio appearances, at boat shows, and in corporate offices. He's raised almost $100,000--which still leaves him some $250,000 short. In countries where sailing is more popular, it would be easier, he said. "If I were French, I'll bet I could raise all kinds of money. If I were British, it wouldn't be a big problem. If I were a white South African, I could do it. If I were a black South African, I could probably do it without too much trouble."

Even in other American cities, Pinkney maintained, his lot might be easier. "This town suffers from a second-city syndrome." He said Chicago talks about wanting to be world-class but hasn't done much to reinforce that idea. "I know what's going to happen. I'm going to get into a harbor, and people are going to see I'm from Chicago, and what are they going to think?"

"Al Capone!"

"That's right."

Pinkney plans to begin his voyage in New York City, covering the distance from here to there on the interstate, hauling the boat by trailer. It's too much time and expense, he said, to cruise all the way through the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway, and he wants to leave New York in the first week of September to take advantage of summer weather in the southern hemisphere early next year.

He hopes to leave Chicago by August 18. In the meantime, he's still looking for money, or at least for commitments from corporations or foundations. A final option, he said, is "hocking everything I have."

Shortly before we left the boat, six biplanes flew overhead in close formation, practicing for the Air and Water Show. "That's the next thing," said Pinkney. "I want to learn to fly. Not around the world, but I want to learn to fly."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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