Black man's sailboat trip around the globe was dedicated to children

July 08, 1992|By Toni Y. Joseph | Toni Y. Joseph,Dallas Morning News

There's a great story behind William Pinkney's broad smile. It's a tale his grandchildren will tell their grandchildren. Heck, it's an adventure a lot of people will remember.

It began as a dream decades ago, when Mr. Pinkney stood on the shore of Lake Michigan and imagined himself a modern-day Magellan.

"We ran into each other at a pancake house," recalls Iva Carruthers, a friend and supporter. "He said, 'I'm going to sail by myself around the world.' I said to myself, 'This guy is crazy.' "

The longest chapter closed a few weeks back when Mr. Pinkney, eased his cutter into Boston Harbor, ending a 22-month journey and becoming one of the first African-Americans to circumnavigate the globe.

His was far from a typical landing. More than 1,000 cheering children, most from Boston-area schools, greeted Mr. Pinkney as he sailed into the Charleston Navy Yard on June 9. The proudest and happiest were his two grandchildren, who live in Jacksonville, Fla.

"They were excited," Mr. Pinkney says. "I told them they get bragging rights."

More than 3,000 schoolchildren in eight states used radios and computers to follow Mr. Pinkney's 27,000-mile voyage. They journeyed through geography, social studies and science lessons as he made his way down the eastern coast of South America and across the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa. They explored marine biology and climatology as he sailed the Indian Ocean to Hobart, Tasmania, then crossed the southern Pacific to Cape Horn before heading back up the South American coast.

Ms. Carruthers, the Chicago software maker who designed a curriculum for schools that followed Mr. Pinkney's trip, says that many children who he had hoped would benefit from the adventure were unable to participate as fully as their suburban and private-school peers.

"They did not have the technology in the classrooms," Ms. Carruthers says. "Often, all they lacked was an $80 modem. Sometimes it felt like we were a little ahead of what is needed to prepare our children for the 21st century."

Mr. Pinkney, a former cosmetics executive, dedicated the voyage to children, particularly those who live in America's inner cities. Raised by a single mother on Chicago's South Side, he says he identifies with challenges facing poor children. A positive thinker, he christened his vessel Commitment and hoped his trials and triumphs would demonstrate commitment's rewards.

"The sea is probably the best place to prove yourself," Mr. Pinkney says. "The sea has no bias. You can't buy yourself out of a 50-foot wave."

There were plenty of perils, including 50-foot waves, but Mr. Pinkney emphasizes that he thought his way through physical and mental challenges, that he focused during what he terms "mind-dulling boredom."

"For 65 days, I saw nothing man-made," recalls Mr. Pinkney, "nothing human. Nothing but water."

The isolation taught him a lot about his abilities -- and limitations.

"You find out you know a lot more than you think you do," Mr. Pinkney says. "You also realize that you know a lot less than you thought you did."

Icebergs forced him to postpone his first attempt to sail around Cape Horn. He returned to the United States for two months while waiting out bad weather, and spent the hiatus visiting schools.

The challenge of changing the 200-pound main sails -- among the most difficult tasks on a moving vessel -- taxed his mind and body.

"I had to change them twice in two weeks," he says of the sails, which are 16 feet wide at the bottom and 58 feet high at the top. "That's a challenge for someone who is a highly conditioned athlete."

Mr. Pinkney says he wants children, particularly black children, to realize that he never let people's doubts about a black man in an overwhelmingly white sport diminish his determination.

"I was making a human statement," he says. "The idea had less to do with assumptions about race and ability, but because I am who I am, it makes a statement of sorts."

Mr. Pinkney says he wanted his trip to symbolize freedom. He planned to sail around Robben Island, where African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 27 years. the time he arrived there, though, Mr. Mandela had been released. Determined to convey his commitment to liberty, Mr. Pinkney flew a red, black and green spinnaker as he slipped his 47-foot boat into South Africa's Table Bay. The colors represent African and African-American liberation.

"I don't know if anyone there knew what it meant," Mr. Pinkney says. "South Africa was very emotional."

Mr. Pinkney says he planned five years before setting sail. From the beginning, he worked with Ms. Carruthers, president of Nexus Unlimited and a professor at Northeastern Illinois University. She helped write proposals for the trip's educational components. Her company also developed software used by school participants and produced a monthly newsletter for children and other observers. She says she stayed committed because of Mr. Pinkney's enthusiasm and determination.

"We became spiritual partners in the odyssey," Ms. Carruthers says. "I ended up taking sailing lessons to get a real appreciation for what he was doing."

Mr. Pinkney says he has no regrets about leaving his career in cosmetics. Since coming home, though, he has noticed few ads for highly skilled heroes. Still, he remains optimistic.

"I feel like I have a wealth of information to share in the corporate world -- strategic planning, commitment, perseverance, motivation," he says. "I have a message quite applicable in these difficult times."

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