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A century of sailing - Harry Heckel Jr.

A two-time solo circumnavigator, Harry Heckel Jr. at 89 is almost certainly the oldest person ever to sail alone around the world.

A two-time solo circumnavigator, Harry Heckel Jr. at 89 is almost certainly the oldest person ever to sail alone around the world.

On June 7 Heckel arrived in Jacksonville, Fla., aboard his Dreadnought 32, Idle Queen, to finish a 10-year west-to-east circumnavigation.

Warmly welcomed by his children, the octogenarian won’t be worrying them anymore with his long absences. After sailing around the world alone twice in 13-1/2 years, he is retiring from single-handing.

“My children have been very supportive,” he says from Green Cove Springs, Fla., where he was living on Idle Queen earlier this summer.

Blessed with four children, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, Heckel has had a strong cheering section as he sailed alone around the world. Though the children enjoyed posting news of their adventurous dad’s voyages to friends and well-wishers, “They are relieved I’m not going to be doing any more single-handing,” he says.

Heckel says the hairiest moments of his 10-year voyage were two knockdowns — off Japan and Madagascar. Idle Queen was sailing at night under storm jib in high winds off the south coast of Madagascar when a big wave knocked her down, a consequence Heckel believes of sailing too close to shoals. The second knockdown, 700 miles off Japan’s Honshu island, occurred while he was trailing a drogue in a gale en route to San Francisco. The line to the drogue broke, Idle Queen fell into a trough, and an enormous wave “slam-dunked” her, damaging rigging and lifelines. Later Heckel blew out a mainsail and a jib, forcing him to use a spare staysail as a main and extending what should have been a 60-day passage to 142 days. Out of food and still 1,700 miles from San Francisco, he rendezvoused with the container ship BBC Sealand near the Aleutian Islands and took on more supplies. Then, unable to sail into stiff easterlies to San Francisco with his improvised mainsail, he changed course and sailed for Hawaii.

“I was in good shape after I got reprovisioned,” Heckel says. The captain of the container ship wanted to take him aboard — a very tempting offer because he knew his children were worried sick over him and he didn’t want to put them through any more heartache.

“But I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the boat,” he says.

Later in Panama Heckel lost Idle Queen for a few hours. She was on a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, and when he returned one night boat and mooring were gone. He feared a ship had run her down.

That night a U.S. Army officer took him out on his boat to look for the missing yacht, and after hours of searching with a powerful spotlight they found Idle Queen drifting six miles offshore.

Heckel began single-handing 16 years ago, after the death of his wife and cruising companion, Faith. A research chemist, he had retired in 1972 at age 56 so the two of them could cruise together. They owned powerboats while raising their family, but after the kids left home they bought a small sailboat and learned to sail it. By the time he retired they were ready to buy Idle Queen and go cruising.

Beginning in 1978, the couple cruised the Marquesas, Tahiti, Hawaii, Alaska and U.S. East Coast. They had just sailed to Bermuda for a trans-Atlantic crossing to Europe when Faith found a lump in her breast, and they returned home. There were surgeries and treatments, and a visit to Europe together by land. Heckel says his wife had always wanted to visit Europe. She died in 1989 after a five-year battle with cancer.

“That’s when I started single-handing,” Heckel says. “I was at loose ends. I just wanted to get away, but single-handing gets in your blood. It’s a bad thing,” he jokes. “Don’t take it up if you haven’t yet.”

Heckel completed his first circumnavigation, an “easy”2-1/2-year voyage east to west with the trade winds, in 1994 at age 78. He sailed the “wrong way around” — against the trades — the second time. He stopped often to travel extensively, get to know the local people and “smell the roses” — the way his wife would have done it.

“He’s awesome,” says Maggie Farrington, a longtime friend who lives in Green Cove Springs. “To take his little 32-foot boat and sail around the world alone — not just once, but twice — he’s a great, great man.”

An avid reader when he sails solo, Heckel can recite from memory long passages from poems, plays and music. “I don’t think he has ever forgotten anything,” Farrington says.

His mind is acute, yet Heckel says his body isn’t up to single-handing anymore. “I’m losing stamina,” he says. “I get tired more quickly.”

After his first circumnavigation, Farrington’s husband, John, sent in corroborating paperwork to Guinness World Records to confirm Heckel as the world’s oldest circumnavigator, but Guinness sent him a letter back saying it had decided against establishing a category for that because “it might lead people into hazardous undertakings,” he says. Guinness still has no record for oldest circumnavigator, but Heckel believes he probably is the oldest to complete such a voyage. He says he won’t try to best his record. He plans to double-hand Idle Queen with family now on coastal cruises. He looks forward to it, but it won’t be easy to quit soloing cold turkey.

“I get a certain thrill being 1,000 miles from somewhere on my own in the middle of some ocean,” he says. That’s the single-hander mindset.