A voyage 25 years in the making

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John Gage’s voyage around the world required a strong boat, years of experience, planning and money — the standard milestones for a once-in-a-lifetime circumnavigator.

John Gage’s voyage around the world required a strong boat, years of experience, planning and money — the standard milestones for a once-in-a-lifetime circumnavigator. As Gage tells it, the real key can be just a pack of index cards, those little 5-by-7-inch lined white papers, the everyday tablet for generations of librarians and students and cooks in the age before Post-It notes and word processing.

Read the other stories in this package: The Around the World Club   Fastest Aussie — by less than a day

For years Gage worked his plan off index cards around his house in Lakewood, N.J., where he could read them while hustling off to his business. They were checklists, reminders and exhortations of the dream he had and the steps needed to fulfill it.

“Dreams are golden; time is the thief,” Gage invariably says at some point when he’s telling sea stories. Years of preparation and weeks of quiet reflection at sea led him to a Zen-like conclusion: “It’s the passages that make the difference, not the reaching of the destination.”

Twenty-five years of planning came full circle in May, when Gage cleared the Sandy Hook channel entrance to lower New YorkHarbor, completing his 3-1/2-year voyage around the world at age 74. He came back to congratulations from old friends and with a new way to see the world.

“That’s the best part of solo sailing; it allows you to think without any distractions,” Gage says from the navigation table on Dream Catcher, a 1985 Passport 42 cutter. He was still getting used to being back at the Atlantic Highlands municipal harbor, with its workday bustle of commuter ferries shuttling to New York City, fishermen and his own well-wishers tromping down the dock.

“There’s still hope for us old guys,” observes Don Baker, education coordinator for the Raritan Bay Power Squadron. Other “old guys” laugh in Dream Catcher’s cockpit. On Gage’s return, the squadron volunteers organized a welcome for their protégé: a boat parade with each crew ceremoniously saluting Dream Catcher and a party afterward. Like all good teachers, they were proud of his success, Baker says.

“While John was out there his electronics went down and he had to resort to celestial navigation,” Baker says. “Some of our classes are like college-level courses. The celestial course is like 48 weeks, one night a week. If you go through these courses, you’re able to go anywhere in the world.”

Gage’s passion started with a big idea and a small boat. In 1977 he conceived an idea to travel the Yukon River in a sailing canoe. In the midst of his kitchen-table planning session, Gage says, his wife, Patricia, offered a suggestion. “If you’re going to sail a canoe, don’t you think it would be a good idea that you learn to sail before you get to Alaska?” she asked.

So down on the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers estuary, a few miles from his house, Gage spent a couple hours in a rented sailing dinghy. “I had a few accidental jibes, ran it aground, and took about 20 gallons of water into the boat,” Gage recalls. However, he also was bitten by the sailing bug.

When he got home, Gage says, he told Pat he would sail around the world; she laughed out loud. In time Pat would tease him that she’d follow his course around the planet by airliner. “I’ll fly by 747 and stay in five-star hotels,” she told him. “That’s my circumnavigation, and it will be cheaper than yours.” Pat Gage died in 1996, and John says the loss made him more determined to sail around the world.

In 1977 Gage got Cloud Nine, a Tanzer 25 sloop, and spent years sailing the New York Bight and southern New England waters. His friend Charlie Eggerman from the North Jersey Power Squadron introduced him to celestial navigation. During those courses he met Dr. Philip Jasper of Passaic, N.J., who took Gage on as a crewmember for the 1983 and 1985 Marion to Bermuda races on Vee Jay III, his 39-foot Bristol.

In fall 2002 Gage made ready. He sold Cloud Nine, bought Dream Catcher a few months later, and began fitting her out. After almost 25 years of part-time sailing and training, Gage had learned his own way of doing things.

He’d started Blue Water Sailing Services, a yacht delivery company, as a side business — not to make money, Gage says, so much as for the fun and experience of sailing other people’s boats. He logged 15,000 miles doing it and obtained a captain’s license. Another entrepreneurial effort, however, to sell a self-steering mechanism didn’t fare so well.

“I made it out of stainless steel and priced it out of the market,” Gage says.

“I didn’t know it’s possible to price anything out of the boating market,” counters Ray Clark of Neptune, N.J., Gage’s webmaster (www.dreamcatchersail.us ) and occasional crewmember.

Gage set sail Dec. 18, 2003, from Sea Bright, N.J., on the ShrewsburyRiver, rounded Sandy Hook and headed out to sea. Far from a voyage of endurance and speed, the circumnavigation was marked by planning and caution. Gage almost always sailed with friends from home or experienced crew recruited from the American and European yachting communities scattered along the seaways.

“I’ve done a lot of coastal sailing, but I wasn’t up to doing it for weeks on end,” says Clark, who joined Dream Catcher in St. Lucia, lending his sailing, photography and piña colada-making skills to the expedition for about 10 days. “Great experience. I really enjoyed sailing with John.” Clark updated the Dream Catcher Web site with e-mail posts that Gage sent from his port stops, and photos from compact discs he mailed.

Gage sailed solo from Tahiti through Samoa and Tonga but says he wouldn’t do it again for safety reasons. In a voyage that was remarkably free of close calls, that’s where he had one. “I was running at about 8.5 knots — the hull speed on the boat is supposed to be 7 — and I’d just gone below to make tea,” Gage says. “A big wave hit on the starboard side. The boat was airborne, and it came down so hard I thought I’d cracked the hull.”

As soon as he was certain the hull was intact, he scrambled to douse the genoa, but it ripped as winds gusted past 35 knots and waves built to 15 feet. It took him more than two hours to rig a yankee and get the boat back on course.

Gage left Dream Catcher for extended boatyard layovers in New Zealand and Australia to wait out stormy seasons, visit his family back home and take side trips to see Asia. He voraciously read everything he could find about his destinations, and talked to locals and cruisers to learn more when he arrived. In his online logs, he wrote at length about island cultures and the people he met — “other dreamers,” he says, from aspiring circumnavigators to young backpackers boat-hopping across the South Pacific. Some joined him as crewmembers.

“Some of them have yachting experience, some don’t,” he says. “My criteria to them was, ‘If you see a light, wake me up.’ ”

In New Caledonia, he took on a 68-year-old grandmother with 30 years of sailing experience. On the fifth day en route to Australia, she took a bad fall onto the companionway ladder and suffered such pain they feared her hip was broken, Gage recalls. “She was enormously brave,” he says. “She laid down in the bunk for three days and never complained.”

Gage gave her codeine for the pain and got a message forwarded to Australian authorities in case she needed to be evacuated. But with heavy sea conditions, Gage decided to continue straight to Bundaberg, Queensland, where there would be an ambulance waiting at the dock.

Later, in the hospital, a doctor briefed Gage on his crewmember’s condition. Luckily there were no broken bones, but there was serious muscle trauma. And there was something else that appeared on the X-rays: two previous knee replacements and assorted screws and scars from other injuries. The doctor jokingly told Gage that if his crewmember stayed on as a patient, “she could put my son through college.”

Cruisers quickly learn the economic barriers between the haves and have-nots when they need an engine part or other service in a distant island port. But their own arrival can make a difference in local economies and social life. Gage is still at work on such an accidental project.

During his onshore career Gage owned Vitality Products, a company that brokered ingredients to the food industry and did some manufacturing, so he has a longstanding personal and professional interest in nutrition. En route through the South Pacific, Gage was recruited to deliver medicines and medical supplies for distribution to clinics and poor out-island communities. “They were outdated for hospital use, but they’re still good,” he explains. In places where the time between supply ships measures in weeks, “there is so much we can do,” he says.

Upon arriving in Vanuatu in June 2005, Gage learned through the local office of the Australia-based group Pacific Yacht Ministries (www.pacificyachtministries.org ) about the islanders’ extremely high incidence of anemia — estimated to affect perhaps half the population, with an extremely high incidence in women and a major factor in the population’s life expectancy statistics. His business side kicked in, and Gage is working on a proposal to provide subsidized nutrition and vitamin supplements, with enriched rice and cereal grains, to the population through the islands’ health ministry. “We have the capability to completely eliminate nutritional and mineral deficiencies for very little money,” he says.

Meanwhile, Gage is planning his next project: He is updating his private pilot’s license, selling the boat, and buying a Piper to “cruise” North America by air.