Pinkney, Bill 1935–
Bill Pinkney 1935–
On June 9, 1992, a sailboat sailed into Boston Harbor, with a single man at the helm. The captain, 56-year-old Bill Pinkney, had just completed an amazing voyage: he had sailed around the world singlehandedly, on a route that took him around the five southern capes, including Cape Horn at the tip of South America, one of the most difficult sailing passages in the world. Altogether, his voyage took him two years from start to finish and covered 27,000 miles.
When he sailed into Boston Harbor after having successfully circumnavigated the globe, he became the fourth American and the first African American to sail around the world solo. Gathered around to meet him and celebrate the day were hundreds of schoolchildren from schools all around Boston who had been following Pinkney’s voyage for two years, tracking his progress in their classrooms, watching videotapes he made for them, and even talking to him via satellite radio. A week later, Pinkney met another cheering crowd of adults and schoolchildren in Chicago, his home town, including more of the students from over 150 schools who had followed his voyage, his second wife, Ina Pinkney, and his two grandchildren.
Pinkney sailed on a 47-foot cutter, called The Commitment. The sailboat, which was designed for a seven person crew, had been specially outfitted so that he could handle it by himself. Pinkney had originally planned to sail an easier route, through the Panama and Suez canals, but another sailor convinced him that his trip would only be considered meaningful if he sailed the more difficult southern route that would take him around the five capes. He began his journey on August 5, 1990, sailing out of Boston Harbor. His first stop was Bermuda, to fix a troublesome gear shift. From there he sailed to Salvadore de Bahia, a province of Brazil which had been settled by African slaves and still has a strong African influence. From Brazil he sailed across the Atlantic to Africa, a voyage of over 3,000 miles that took him 34 days. When he left South Africa, he ran into a week of bad weather, and his boat was knocked down twice.
Since Pinkney was sailing singlehanded, it was difficult for him to sleep. He would try to rest when the wind wasn’t blowing too hard and when he was not close to any of the busy shipping lanes that crossed the ocean. When he rested, he depended on his radar to watch the seas for him. One night, his radar alarm went off, indicating that a ship was within 24 miles of him. Pinkney got up and began tracking the other ship. The ship, a large container ship was directly behind him and coming up quickly. Alarmed, Pinkney called the captain on the radio. Soon the ship pulled up so close that the Commitment shook. As Pinkney later told the Chicago Tribune, “All the guys from the crew—they were taking pictures of this crazy American on his little sailboat.”
Pinkney expected this leg of his voyage to take around three weeks, but it was another 56 days before Pinkney completed the 5,300 mile leg from South Africa to Hobart, a town on the island of Tasmania that is part of Australia. He arrived there in April of 1991, which is
At a Glance…
Born William Pinkney on September 15, 1935, in Chicago, IL; son of Marion Henderson Pinkney and William Pinkney, Sr.; married Yvonne Glover, 1957 (divorced 1962); married Ina Pinkney, 1964 (divorced 2001); married Migdalia Vachier, 2003; children: Angela Walton. Military Service: U.S. Naval Reserves.
Career: X-ray technician; naval hospital corpsman; newspaper stringer; elevator repairman; professional limbo dancer; makeup artist; Revlon, product developer; Johnson and Johnson Products, product developer; City of Chicago, Department of Human Services, director of program services; a motivational speaker; Mystic Seaport Museum, Freedom Schooner Amistad Project, captain, 2000-03.
Memberships: New York Yacht Club; Belmont Yacht Club.
Awards: Recognized by President George H.W. Bush, Sr., Lord Mayor of Hobart (Tasmania, Australia), the Premier and President of Bermuda, and Senators Ted Kennedy (MA), Paul Simon (IL), and John F. Kerry (MA). Recipient of a honorary degrees from Becker College; Southern Connecticut State University; Chicago Yacht Club, Yachtsman of the Year, 1992; Chicagoan of the Year, Chicago Magazine, 1999; Illinois Governor’s Distinguished Achievement Award.
Addresses: Office —Keppler Associates Speaker’s Bureau, 4350 North Fairfax Dr., Suite 700 Arlington, VA 22203.
winter in Australia. Because of the delays he had experienced due to bad weather and equipment failure, it was now too late in the year to attempt the passage from Australia to South America, so Pinkney took a six-month layover to wait for conditions to improve. He returned to Hobart in October of 1991 for the next leg of the journey to Cape Horn, a journey of 4,600 miles that took him 65 days.
Cape Horn lived up to its reputation as a sailor’s challenge. By the time Pinkney reached the Cape, the wind was blowing 50 knots and the waves were 30 feet. Since most of his instruments had gone out during the long crossing, Pinkney wasn’t sure of his course, and he was worried that he might be blown too far north by the stiff winds. Although the wind and waves did not abate for 48 hours, Pinkney and the Commitment persevered, and he rounded Cape Horn successfully. When conditions got better, he called the children at Douglas School in Chicago that were following his trip and told them that he had rounded the Cape. Following an old sailor tradition, Pinkney got his ear pierced and began to wear a gold hoop earring in his left ear to commemorate his successful passage.
Pinkney traced his decision to sail around the world back to his experiences in 7th grade in Chicago. The son of Marion Henderson Pinkney and William Pinkney, Sr., William “Bill” Pinkney was born in Chicago on September 15, 1935, and grew up in the neighborhood around 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue. His seventh grade teacher at Douglas Elementary School in Chicago, Gladys Berry, got him hooked on reading. One book he read that year, Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry, made him resolve to have a great adventure when he grew up.
After he graduated from Tilden Tech High School—one of only four African Americans in the graduating class—Pinkney got training as an x-ray technician. He had joined the naval reserve while in high school, and after he finished his training, he went on active duty, and was sent to Hospital Core School in Bainbridge, Maryland. There were not many African Americans in the school, and he became friends with another African American, Bill Cosby, who was in the class ahead of him.
Pinkney was on active duty in the Navy from 1956 to 1960 as a hospital corpsman second class, and was stationed in Puerto Rico for part of the time. When he was discharged, he landed in New York City in January. New York was cold, and he decided to move back to Puerto Rico and build a life there. He rented a room in Puerto Rico over a bar called the “Black Cat” for $7 a week, and later found out that the room was so cheap because the hotel was a whorehouse.
During the three years he lived in Puerto Rico, he found work as a stringer for a local paper and then as an elevator operator, and spent his nights going out to clubs. After winning a couple of Friday night limbo contests, he was hired by one of the clubs in Puerto Rico as a professional limbo dancer. He also began crewing on sailboats. A few years later, Pinkney returned to New York and to his career as an x-ray technician. Determined to find a job that was more creative, he went to school to become a makeup artist. This led to a new career, doing make-up for commercials and even acting in some low budget films.
His career as a make-up artist eventually led to a job working in product development for the cosmetics firm Revlon. Then, in 1977, Johnson and Johnson Products lured Pinkney back home to Chicago with a job offer in product development. He stayed with them until 1980, when he went to work for the city government in Chicago.
All this time, Pinkney had continued to sail: when he was in New York he joined the New York Yacht Club. Then in Chicago, he began racing on sailboats owned by friends. In 1977 he bought his first sailboat, a 29 footer that he sailed out of Belmont Harbor in Chicago. His friends often would make a date to sail with him but then fail to show up, so he learned how to sail it singlehandedly. A few years later, he lost his job with the city during a change of administrations. His daughter from his first marriage had two children, April and Brian Walton, and as he approached the age of 50, he began to think again about what legacy he would leave for his grandchildren. His mind returned to the idea of the great adventure he had promised himself when he was 12. He thought that sailing around the world would show his grandchildren how a person could apply the things that were learned in school to life.
The project quickly took on a life of its own when the principal from Douglas School, Pinkney’s alma mater, suggested that he use the trip to inspire a wider range of children. Now it was a much bigger project, requiring a larger boat, more equipment, and a budget. The funding for the project came about in an interesting way. Pinkney ran into a friend, Howard Johnson, a jazz musician, at a concert and told him what he was doing. Johnson saw Bill Cosby a few weeks later, and told him what Pinkney was trying to do. Cosby was interested, and forwarded the information to Armand Hammer, an industrialist, who agreed to provide some of the funding. A second major source of funding was from the Boston-based law firm of Aldrich, Eastman, and Waltch. One of the principals of the firm, Todd Johnson, a sailor himself, became the strategist for the journey, as well as a liaison with schools that were following Pinkney’s adventure.
After Pinkney’s return, he wrote a book for first graders about his adventure that became part of the Open Court series for schools. He began visiting schools to talk about his great adventure, and discovered a knack for public speaking. When children asked him what was the most difficult part of his voyage, Pinkney told them about the time a large can of maple syrup spilled all over the cabin, so that Pinkney had to spend the next week cleaning it up. Soon Pinkney was speaking for corporations as well, on the theme of what he had learned from sailing around the world.
Pinkney then decided that he wanted to organize a second voyage that schoolchildren could follow, this time a replication of the “middle passage,” the sailing route taken by slave traders from West Africa to Cuba.
That project came to life in 1999. This time, he knew more about fundraising and connecting with children, and he recruited teachers from the schools to sail with him and keep in contact with their students. Sailing on a 78-foot ketch, the Sortilage, Pinkney and his teachers and crew traveled a 12,000 mile route in six months, sailing first from Puerto Rico to Brazil where they visited slave markets. They then sailed across the Atlantic to Akkara in Ghana, and then to Dakar in Senegal, where they also visited the infamous “Door of No Return,” a small island off the coast of Senegal, where the slaves were loaded onto the ships. On this trip they were able to communicate with students in several hundred schools back in the United States via on-line computer service and satellite TV.
When Pinkney returned, his next challenge was already waiting for him. Back in 1994, he had agreed to be on the board of the Mystic Seaport Museum. In 1996 the museum began a project to build a recreation of the 19th-century schooner, La Amistad, the ship that was the focus of an important event in the history of slavery in the United States, and that became the name of a movie directed by Steven Spielberg in 1997. La Amistad was a coastal schooner used to transport people and goods up and down the west coast of the Atlantic. In 1839 it was being used to transport 53 recently-arrived African slaves from Havana, Cuba, to another part of the island. During the passage, the slaves rebelled and took over the ship, ordering the crew to sail them back to their home in Africa. The crew members would sail east by day, but by night would chart a course back towards the eastern seaboard. The ship made its way up to a point off the coast of Connecticut, where it was seized by the U.S. government. The legal case that followed, to decide whether the slaves were to be considered property or human beings who had been illegally seized had important historic implications. It was eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams, who won the case. The 35 Africans who were still alive at that point were returned to their homeland in Africa.
The museum board wanted to use the Freedom Schooner Amistad as a vehicle for entering into dialogues with children about issues of race in the United States. Pinkney agreed to be on the board for this project as well. “This ship is about a passport to freedom,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s about resourcefulness and perseverance and self-reliance and commitment.” The project moved forward, and as the building of the Amistad neared completion, Pinkney was the logical person to ask to be the first captain of this new ship.
The Amistad, a 129-foot schooner, had its maiden voyage in spring of 2000, and since then has sailed to many ports communicating the issues of respect, freedom, and human rights that underlay the drama connected with the original ship that the Amistad was modeled after. It sails with an international crew, and thousands of children and adults have visited it. Four years after taking the helm of the Amistad, during a visit to Chicago in the summer of 2003 as a part of the “Tall Ships” festival, Bill Pinkney announced his retirement as captain. The celebration was held on August 14, and two days later, he embarked on his third marriage, to Migdalia Vachier, in Meridien, Connecticut. His sailing in Connecticut, he asserted, will be for the joy of sailing only.
When Pinkney spoke to corporate audiences of his voyage around the world, he was often asked to tell what he learned from his experiences. As he told Contemporary Black Biography in an interview, his answer was that he had learned five things. First, he said, he learned that he was smarter than he thought he was. There were a lot of things that happened that he could handle, even though he didn’t know that he could. Second, he learned that he was dumber than he thought he was. There were things that he thought he could do that he found he didn’t know as well as he thought. Third, he learned that help is always there if you are willing to ask for it: that’s how he managed to finance this trip and his next venture. His fourth lesson was that adversity ends. Our job is to stay there and hang in until it does end. And the fifth lesson he cited, is that dreams do come true if we follow up on them.
That is why his sailboat was named the Commitment: it was his commitment to his dream, to his grandchildren, and to the children who followed his voyage that made his dream of sailing around the world solo become a reality. “I have the opportunity to teach people about the sea, about dreams and about the reality that we all have to strive to support basic human rights,” Pinkney stated in People Weekly.
Chicago Tribune, June 1, 1992; August 9, 1992; Oct 4, 1992.
People Weekly, May 22, 2000.
Sailing Magazine, March 1998.
USA Today, June 22, 1999.
Washington Post, March 23, 1999.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney, a documentary produced by MPI Home Video, 1994; a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biography on July 19, 2003; and publicity material provided by AMISTAD America.
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