What goes around comes around

As one of an elite group who has circumnavigated the globe, Marshall Damerell has a world view based on first-hand experience

Conversations

October 03, 1999|By Barbara Hall | Barbara Hall,Special to the Sun

Talk about an exclusive club. This one has counted among its members Gen. Douglas MacArthur, President William Howard Taft, Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride and Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic. Also, one Marshall Damerell of St. Mary's County.

All have met just one basic requirement: Each has circumnavigated the globe, that is, circled the Earth in a single direction, crossing all meridians. For that feat, they have been enrolled as members of the venerable Circumnavigators Club, a quietly active institution established in 1902 to "encourage global fellowship and understanding."

To that end, it has a panoply of projects, including a foundation that makes an annual Around-the-World Travel-Study Grant (to students at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service), and the Order of Magellan Award, given periodically to individuals deemed to represent the Circumnavigators' creed of global fellowship. Recipients have included Herbert Hoover, Lowell Thomas, James Michener, Jacques Cousteau, Walter Cronkite and Ted Turner.

As head of the Maryland-Washington chapter of the 1,000-member global organization, Damerell, 74, has rubbed shoulders and swapped stories with some of these luminaries. He's certainly got tales to tell, having sailed (with wife Fran) around the world twice.

How did you get the idea to sail around the world?

I started sailing in about 1965 with a small boat another fellow and I built together. We bought a book about how to sail, and we started out. Around that time, I read "Sailing Around the World Alone" by Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail around the world by himself. He was the granddaddy of us all, and a fine writer.

In 1970, I thought, boy, it would be the greatest adventure of my life if I could take a boat around the world. I read more about all the things you have to do to prepare for a voyage, and plotted out a tentative route in 1972.

In 1975, we found a company in Rhode Island that built the kind of boat we were after. We ordered the boat in 1977 and took delivery the next year.

Could you describe your voyages?

We left for our first trip on June 10, 1980, and returned in August of 1983. We traveled 32,072 nautical miles in 3 years, 2 months and 2 days. Our route ran from Wilson, New York, where we lived at the time, down the Mississippi River, through the Panama Canal and across Tahiti and New Zealand. We then sailed to Australia, Mauritius, Cape Town [South Africa], across the seas to Brazil, the Caribbean, on to Newport, Rhode Island, and home again.

We retired in 1987, and made our second circumnavigation in 1996 aboard a German freighter. This time, we boarded ship in Charlestown, South Carolina. From there, we went on to Panama, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Le Havre in France, Felixstowe, England, New York, Norfolk and home to Maryland. It was a 95-day trip, running from February to late May.

How did the freighter trip compare to your sailing voyage?

The sailboat trip lasted more than three years -- that was the true challenge, that was the really exciting trip. On the freighter, we were just passengers. You know, we had no real responsibilities other than getting back to the ship on time.

It was a fun trip for us -- we got to know everybody on the crew very well -- but I'm sure some people would have gotten bored. My wife is a lace maker, so she took her materials with her. I got a chance to use my celestial navigation, practically an extinct art that involves finding a location on the Earth by taking sightings of any celestial body -- sun, moon, stars, planets. That was the way all navigation was done up until 15 years ago, when some newer electronic methods came along.

Were you ever at risk on either journey?

We don't think so. Sometimes there are dangers that you don't know about. For instance, container ships sometimes get in bad storms and they lose a container, which doesn't sink immediately because of air trapped inside. They weigh up to 10 tons, they're steel with rather square corners on them. If a small ketch like ours were to hit one of those, it would be the end of us, no question. And there were a few other dangers, like being struck by lightning. To the best of my knowledge, we weren't in danger, but the fact is, you never know how close you came.

What is your most outstanding memory?

I guess I'd say seeing the Sydney Opera House. What an unusual building that is! It's built right on the main bay in the city. It's truly a gorgeous building, so unusual that I don't have words to describe it. It's just incredible.

Tell us about the Circumnavigators Club.

My wife and I have been members for about five years. There are about 40 of us in the Maryland- Washington, D.C., chapter. I just like to be around people who do a lot of traveling.

What sorts of traits do you think members share?

The first thing that comes to mind is that we're all looking for the unknown. Circumnavigators like to see how other people live. We've visited people in the Pacific islands, for instance, where the lifestyle is very simple. Everything's provided for them by nature. Fish, coconuts from the trees -- they're all set. It's such a contrast to here, and I think circumnavigators appreciate that.

Also, a number of us have an interest in world affairs. And we all have that spirit of adventure to go and see what's out there. We're open to doing new things.

The boat you sailed around the world was named the Invictus. Where did the name come from?

That's from a poem written by a fellow by the name of William Ernest Henley. The poem is about an individual who suffered great hardships, but stood robustly and did his best to overcome his difficulties. The last two lines of the poem are:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

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