Sept. 2/2023: Neither of these guys were on death’s door, at least as far as I knew, so I was a bit surprised when they died within a day of each other this week. They were both sailors, but in very different ways.
Bill Pinkney, of course, was the first black man, of any nationality or background, to sail solo around the world via the southern capes. He completed this voyage in Boston aboard a Valiant 47 named Commitment in June 1992 (see image up top) and later oversaw the building of the replica slave ship Amistad and served as its first skipper.
Bill’s life story was remarkable. Born into strained circumstances on the South Side of Chicago, he led a restless and varied life. He worked as an elevator mechanic, a limbo dancer, a make-up artist, and eventually succeeded as a marketing executive at Revlon and other cosmetics companies. He also served in the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman (this in spite of being encouraged to work as a lowly steward’s mate) and after mustering out first learned to sail in Puerto Rico. He got serious about sailing after moving back to Chicago, where he bought a 28-foot Pearson Triton he named Assagai and started roaming about Lake Michigan.
Bill in his U.S. Navy days, when he worked as an X-ray technician
Bill as skipper of Amistad
Bill had little ocean experience and never been on a solo passage when he set out from Boston to circle the world on Commitment in August 1990. His first thought had been to circumnavigate via the west-about Milk Run route, but Robin Knox-Johnston presciently urged him to ditch the “kiddie cruise” and sail via the Southern Ocean instead.
Sailing, Bill wrote in his 2006 memoir As Long As It Takes, allows one to “escape from the bonds of conformity, racism and lack of respect because of one’s background. It can be the means of achieving a goal, but sometimes it can be a source of discovering alternatives to your conventional path.”
Amen to that.
I think we can agree that in the end there was no one who disrespected Bill Pinkney. In his later years, he worked as a charter skipper in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, and I several times saw him there at Puerto del Rey when we were both scrambling to prep our boats for cruises. I always told myself I should pull myself out of my chore of the moment and go introduce myself, but I never did. And now I have nothing but regrets about that.
RIP William Deltoris Pinkney III: September 15,1935 – August 31, 2023
As for Jimmy Buffett, I never saw him anywhere, but of course I was well aware of the mark he made in the world. I was in my first year of college when his one top 10 hit “Margaritaville” blasted on to the scene. Of all his songs, it was the only one I really enjoyed. Later on, scrambling to find a berth on a boat in Key West in the early 1990s, I learned to avoid his restaurant of the same name, his first step taken toward a vast Parrothead business empire now estimated to be worth something like a billion dollars.
What matters most is that Jimmy was most certainly the son of a son of sailor… and a sailor himself. With the money he made from his second album, which wasn’t that much, he bought his first boat, a Cheoy Lee Offshore 33, and thought of it as an insurance policy. His accountant told him he was crazy, but Buffett knew if the music thing didn’t work out, “I can live on the boat and go where I want.”
In his prime, power-lounging on a bowsprit
Performing at the St. Barth’s Bucket in 2008
His last sailboat, Drifter, a Surfari 48 designed by Ted Fontaine and built by Pacific Seacraft in North Carolina (Photo by Onne Van Der Wal)
For sure he was one of us.
RIP James William Buffett: December 25, 1946 – September 1, 2023