An around-the-world journey to a Nobel

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Circumnavigator/physicist George E. Smith can add Nobel laureate to his list of accomplishments

Sailing around the world was something George E. Smith always wanted to do. “Back in my really younger days I had thought about doing it single-handed, and by the time I was 19, I had read every book by somebody who had sailed a solo circumnavigation,” he says.

George E. Smith

But the obligations of raising a family and building a career kept that dream under wraps for decades — but not forever. The now-retired 79-year-old has since notched two remarkable entries on his résumé: global circumnavigator and Nobel laureate.

As an engineering researcher with Bell Laboratories, Smith, along with partner Willard Boyle, in 1969 invented the charged-coupled device — or CCD — which is used in digital cameras and optical scanners, among other applications.

The duo had been honored with numerous prizes through the years for the invention, culminating in the Oct. 6 announcement that they had won the Nobel Prize in physics. They will split the $1.4 million purse with Chinese inventor Charles K. Kao, who made his mark in fiber-optic communication.

Known as a soft-spoken intellect among those at his Barnegat, N.J., beach community, Smith is seen as more a sailor than a scientist. Asked if he considered himself modest, he deadpanned, “I was until Tuesday,” the day of the Nobel announcement.

Follow the wind

Smith says despite his desire, he didn’t sail as a child growing up in White Plains, N.Y. It wasn’t until he earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1959 and landed a job at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., that he bought his first boat — a Barnegat Bay Sneakbox. “Having read about sailing quite a lot for some time, I found sailing came easy,” he says. “I bought the boat, put it in the water, and sailed off by myself.”

Smith enjoyed a season of solo sailing on Barnegat Bay, but the following season — 1960 — a hurricane battered his little boat against a dock. “I immediately bought another boat — a 19-foot foot wooden sloop with a small cuddy cabin and two bunks.” He sailed that boat around Barnegat Bay, with the occasional overnighter, for 10 years.

With a wife and three children, a bigger boat was in order — a Morgan 22. “It had a 22-inch draft, which was good for the shallow bay, and you could go cruising comfortably and could actually sleep six aboard,” he says.

Smith held on to the Morgan for another 10 years. In that time, his wife, Janet, passed away and his children grew up. He later found himself in a relationship with another Janet — Janet Murphy — and the two sailed the Morgan as far north as Northeast Harbor, Maine, and as far south as Beaufort, N.C.

“One summer we also did a very interesting cruise around the Delmarva Peninsula,” he says. “We were crossing one bay while the tide was running out, and we ran aground. Before long we were sitting on dry land and waiting for the tide to come back.”

Exiting that bay was going to be tricky, Smith says, so they walked to the outlet and marked it with a few empty beer cans on sticks. When the tide came in and floated their boat, they followed their markers for a safe passage.

In 1983, with retirement looming and that bluewater adventure still beckoning, he commissioned and launched a Southern Cross 31, which he and Janet still sail. They named it Apogee.

“It’s a semicustom boat with standard hull, a cutter rig with double backstays and an outboard rudder,” Smith says.

Smith retired from Bell Labs in 1986, and he and Janet set off for what would evolve into an open-ended 17-year meander around the globe.

“We left the dock in 1986 and made it back to the dock in 2003,” Smith says. They would occasionally leave the boat and fly home to visit with family and friends, but at times his neighbors didn’t see him for years.

As a shakedown, they signed up for the inaugural Atlantic Rally for Cruisers — from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia. They made stops at Bermuda and the Azores on their way to the start of the rally, backtracking across the Atlantic with the fleet to the Caribbean. They then transited the Panama Canal into the Pacific and explored the Galapagos for a month before sailing to Tahiti and the Cook Islands. They settled into seven years of cruising New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

They made their way through Indonesia, Thailand, across the Indian Ocean and through the Red and Mediterranean seas. Having two Atlantic crossings under their belts, the couple shipped Apogee to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and made their way up the inland waterways and back to New Jersey.

Back at the dock

Smith counts the adventure as one of the great accomplishments in his life. Though his bluewater days may be behind him — “at 79 years old, the joints seem to get a little creaky” — Smith still day-sails. He had plans for an extended coastal cruise last summer, but it never materialized.

“Even when I was sailing around the world, I made a point not to make plans too firm,” he says. The coastal cruise is still very much an option for his 80th year.

He admits winning the Nobel is the perfect cap to a career physicist, but, he adds, “I wanted to go sailing long before I got into physics.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.