Mike Harker doesn’t do things halfway.
As a champion hang glider, he set a world record soaring from the top of the 10,000-foot Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain. As a water skier, he entered the famous race from Long Beach, Calif., to Catalina Island and back for the first time when he was 10 years old, and nine years later he won it.
And this past January he finished a 28,000-mile, mostly single-handed circumnavigation in his Hunter 49, Wanderlust III.
That feat is all the more remarkable since Harker technically is a paraplegic. He has no feeling from the knees down. Walk down a dock with him, and you have to hustle to keep up. He has to keep moving to keep his balance. As soon as he slows down, he has to grab an arm or piling to steady himself.
“I’m a paraplegic,” says the 60-year-old photographer/videographer from Manhattan Beach, Calif. That means that “sometimes I fall and scrape up my knees.” It didn’t stop him from sailing around the world.
Harker almost died in a hang gliding accident April 11, 1977. A daredevil pioneer in the sport, he built hang gliders, sold them, popularized them, and flew them — from the Zugspitze as well as the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji. He often was asked to give demonstrations.
Invited to Grenada’s Independence Day festivities, he was aloft under tow 400 feet above St. George’s harbor when the towboat slowed for a sailboat race, causing Harker to drop precipitously. When the towboat driver tried to make a correction, he accelerated too fast, tearing the tow bar out of Harker’s hands and ripping the hang glider to pieces. Harker plunged to the water below from a height equal to two-thirds the height of the Washington Monument.
After the accident, he lay in a coma for 11 months with 30 broken bones, including two crushed vertebrae that left him paralyzed. “They didn’t think I’d live, much less walk,” he says.
His turning point
A Southern California native, Harker came by his derring-do honestly. His dad, Curley Harker, built 50-hp competition speedboats, which he raced to two national championships, and he set three national motorcycle speed records. Young Harker grew up surfing and doing a little sailing on Hobie 16s and Lido 14s. He rowed competitively for Orange Coast College, helping the team pull off a huge upset to beat UCLA in 1966. He was partial to water skiing and became good enough at it to turn professional. He got his first taste of flying — suspended from a kite behind a ski boat — in performances at Florida’s famed Cypress Gardens theme park.
Drafted in 1969, he served in Germany as a combat engineer and drove boats in an Army bridge-building unit until the commander of the GI recreation center learned he was a crack water skier. He was reassigned as a water and snow ski instructor and, on the strength of four cinematography classes he took at UCLA, as a 16 mm and 35 mm sports photographer for the Armed Forces Network. He has been a photographer specializing in sports and working mainly for German magazines and ZDF German Television ever since.
It took Harker 10 years to learn to walk again after the hang gliding accident. He says there was a defining moment when he decided he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life on crutches or in a wheelchair. A psychotherapist told him he would have to get used to the idea that he would never walk again. “I told her, ‘One day, I’m going to send you a picture of me water skiing again.’ ” And he did. “To me, that was a turning point. I told myself, I’m going to get rid of these crutches.”
In the meantime, he resumed his career, shooting from a tripod mounted on a wheelchair. By 1980, he was photographing the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the German magazines Der Stern and Bunte, and taking on action watersports assignments for swimsuit and sportswear manufacturers.
Harker began sailing in earnest in 2001, on a Balboa 26, a 1974 sailboat that his uncle gave to him after sailing it twice and putting it in storage for decades. Harker sailed it to Catalina Island and back by the seat of his pants and was hooked. He went on to buy a Hunter 34 — the first Wanderlust — aboard which he cruised to Mexico with friends, then a Hunter 46 that he sailed to Europe and used as a platform for cruising the Med and filming documentaries of resort cities for German television.
Back in California, he decided it was time to sail around the world and do what he did in Europe: film documentaries of his travels. Harker says Hunter heard about his plans and offered him a new 49 it was designing to replace the 46. In fact, the builder asked him to come in on the project as a consultant to help with some of the details of the new bluewater cruiser. Hunter offered him some financial incentives if he would go to boat shows and Hunter dealerships to tell his story and help Hunter tell its story.
“We wanted to dispel the myth that Hunter is not capable of building a boat that can sail around the world,” says Hunter’s Eric Macklin (then the company’s marketing manager). “Our boats have been sailing around the world for many, many years.”
Harker departed Great Inagua in the Bahamas March 15, 2007, following cruising guru Jimmy Cornell’s recommended timing for a westward circumnavigation. He returned to Great Inagua Feb. 3, less than 11 months after he started. Harker says he averaged 1,000 miles a week, fast enough so he could stick to his plan of 26 weeks of sailing and 26 weeks in port. He says he avoided storms, sailed mostly downwind, and steered by autopilot 95 percent of the time. “That was my buddy,” Harker says. “It steered; I sat back and read books.”
He carried VHF-based AIS collision-avoidance technology, which tracks nearby ships on a display, puts the yacht on the ships’ displays, and sounds an alarm if they are on a collision course. He averaged 6.5 knots but often exceeded 8 or 9 knots and posted several 200-plus-mile days. He says he usually was ahead of schedule, so he could spend the time he wanted at destinations.
“I’m a comfort sailor,” Harker says. “You can comfortably sail around the world if you have the right boat.”
He says the Hunter held up well, with no breakage except a bar in the shower he used to steady himself. A couple mechanical failures caused some heartburn: a faulty engine alternator and malfunctioning generator fuel pump, which he replaced in the Galapagos, then a leak in the Yanmar diesel’s sea water pump 500 miles south of St. Helena in the Atlantic. Water was up to the sole boards when the high-water alarm sounded. Harker says he thought the boat was sinking.
He shut down the engine, closed all seacocks, then stopped the leak — a hole in the pump casing — with a self-tapping screw and sealant. Then he replaced the alternator, which had become encrusted because of seawater. After completing the repairs, neither the engine nor generator would start, so he called Hunter, Yanmar and Balmar (the alternator manufacturer) by satellite phone. With their help, he finally got the engine and alternator working after two worrisome days with no wind and no power.
Harker says the 70-foot rig and 7-foot keel gave him a stable ride and good tracking under sail. He could do most of his sail trimming from the cockpit, and the sturdy stainless-steel Bimini frame and arch over the cockpit were designed with lots of hand-holds so he could steady himself. “I’m pretty proud of that,” he says. “There’s a lot of me in it.”
Whenever he left the cockpit to raise or douse a spinnaker, he wore an inflatable PFD with an integral safety harness and clipped on with two tethers. One of them was attached to a jackline of stout webbing running down both sides of the deck from the bow to the cockpit. He also laid a jackline outside the stanchions along the edge of the deck from the bow pulpit to the stern arch to help him climb back if he fell overboard. He says he typically clipped the second tether to the outside jackline so if he went over the side and couldn’t climb back aboard, he could cut loose the tether to the inside jackline, stay attached to the outer one, and slide back to the swim platform to climb aboard.
Macklin says Hunter Marine (www.huntermarine.com) partially sponsored Harker’s 2002 Atlantic crossing aboard his Hunter 46. He says the builder was a little nervous at the time because Harker still was a pretty “green” sailor, though he had earned a captain’s license through Sea School (www.sea school.com) and had taken advanced sailing courses at Orange Coast College. “This time around we were a lot more confident,” Macklin says. “He learned quickly, and he learned a lot. … Mike handles himself very well in almost every situation.”
Macklin also gives Harker high marks for his spirit — “He’s one determined guy,” he says — and for connecting with the people he meets at boat shows and dealership seminars while representing Hunter. “He doesn’t present himself as extraordinary in any way, shape or form,” says Macklin. “He just tries to show people you can sail around the world. And he enjoys it.”
Harker has been touring boat shows and Hunter dealerships this summer. He expects to be at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Md., in October, then sail in the Caribbean 1500 from Hampton, Va., to Tortola, BVI, Nov. 2. He wants to stay in the Caribbean through Antigua Sailing Week April 26 to May 2, then sail across the Atlantic to Croatia for summer 2009. His message wherever he goes: “This guy sailed around the world single-handed, and he’s handicapped. No excuses. You can do it, too.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.