William George 'Bill' Homewood, yachtsman, dies at 75

Solo trans-Atlantic exploits were chronicled in the documentary film 'The American Challenge'

November 13, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

William George "Bill" Homewood, a retired British Airways executive and an accomplished transocean sailor who set a record in 1984 for a westbound Atlantic crossing during the Observer Transatlantic Singlehanded Race, died Sunday of a pulmonary embolism at Hilton Head Island Medical Center in Hilton Head, N.C.

The former longtime Edgewater resident was 75.

The son of a British military officer and a homemaker, Mr. Homewood was born in London. During World War II, he and his sister were evacuated with thousands of other children to the English countryside to escape the German blitz.

He was a graduate of the Westwood Public School and earned a degree in business management in 1956 from Thanet Technical College in Broadstairs, Kent, England.

After serving in the British Army for three years, he emigrated to Washington, where he took a job with American Airlines. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1969.

In 1961, Mr. Homewood joined British Overseas Airways Corp. — now British Airways — eventually becoming senior account manager responsible for the Washington region. He retired in 1994.

Throughout his life, Mr. Homewood vigorously pursued adventures. He raced cars and competed in 100-mile endurance rides on horseback before taking up sailing in 1968, eventually participating in Chesapeake Bay races.

Mr. Homewood discovered the thrill of single-handed racing when he competed in the 1977 Newport-to-Bermuda race, where he finished third.

"It got in my blood," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1983 interview. "I began thinking about OSTAR [Observer Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race], the adventure, the dream, the fantasy of it."

To raise funds in order to purchase the 31-foot trimaran Third Turtle, Mr. Homewood sold his house and his former sailboat, the 26-foot Union Jack.

At 7 a.m. May 1, 1980, Mr. Homewood set sail as he steered Third Turtle from Annapolis, down the Chesapeake Bay, and across the broad Atlantic stretches to Plymouth, England, where he landed 23 days later, and where the start of the westbound OSTAR race is held.

The uneventful voyage to England resulted in two hilarious experiences, he told the newspaper. An inaccurate reading early in his journey of his sextant placed his boat in downtown Philadelphia rather than in the Atlantic, and the fly on his pants rusted shut from the damp weather.

Mr. Homewood was one of several American race participants who agreed to let a Boston film company outfit their boats with a video camera that recorded their voyage and reactions and later became "The American Challenge," an hourlong film of the race.

Mr. Homewood departed from Plymouth on June 7, landing 25 days, 20 hours and 13 minutes later on July 3 in Newport, R.I.

The first six days passed without incident. However, if Mr. Homewood was seeking thrills and adventure, it soon came as he huddled in his cabin for most of the voyage.

Food consisted of onion sandwiches and candy bars, and meals he cooked on a small butane stove.

He had to endure eight days of fog, the risk of colliding with icebergs and, since his vessel carried no running lights, being run down by ships. He also had to contend with seas that often rose 15 feet.

One day while on deck, he lost a sponge, bucket and cooking pot.

"From then on I prepared my meals in the coffee pot, but worse, my bucket was my toilet," he told The Baltimore Sun in an interview at the time.

As he stared at the endless undulating ocean around him, his thoughts rambled at times, he told the newspaper.

He found himself "thinking about family and friends, even dead people come in very clearly to you," he said in the 1983 interview.

"You feel very close to nature, to the birds, the sun. You talk to the boat — I called her 'TT' or 'Old Girl.' I knew every creak she had, how fast she was going just by the sound of water moving past the hull," he said.

He managed to survive a 65-knot mid-ocean storm and 45-foot mountainous waves that almost flipped Third Turtle, with its captain being tossed into the sea and spared death by a tether that kept him lashed to the boat.

He dropped a sea anchor and hove-to for 26 hours, being pushed back by the sea some 70 miles. Before the storm, he had been averaging 200 miles a day.

Two days after the full blow, with seas and wind still high, Third Turtle's mast broke, some 1,100 miles off the U.S. coast. It took him three days to rig up a small mainsail on the oar-splinted boom.

"Lord, give me strength to get through this. … Please, I don't want to be a heroine. I just want to survive," he said in 1983, recalling his thoughts for the article.

When he landed in Newport, 25th out of 62 boats to finish the race, he was wearing the same clothes that he had worn from the start of the race. He described his condition as "coming in smelling, stinking, grungy horrid."

"I love it. That's what's so marvelous about sailing alone," he said in the interview.

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