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Bay Tripper

A life consumed by the sea

A life consumed by the sea

Meet William Willis, who left home in Germany in 1908 as a 15-year-old deck boy aboard a five-masted barque to help support his family after his father abandoned them. His final bluewater voyage, at the age of 74, came in 1968 in his third attempt in as many years at a solo Atlantic crossing in an 11-foot pram.

Willis was lost at sea, but his half-submerged pram, Little One, was recovered and eventually turned over to The Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va. Placed on display outdoors, it mostly languished in neglect until it was broken up in the late 1990s — the same fate that befell his oceangoing, raft-like trimaran, Age Unlimited, in the early 1980s at the same museum.

I had never heard of Willis, but I vaguely recall seeing that doomed vessel with the ungainly wooden wheel during a long-ago visit to the museum. Then I received T.R. Pearson’s “Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Age of Rafting” (Crown Publishers, New York, 2006). It made for a good winter read when nothing much was going on in my home waters except a deep freeze that put everything nautical on hold.

Willis was an able-bodied seaman by profession and a practitioner of yoga and oddball diets with a belief in telepathy and, most of all, in himself to survive anything. He designed and built two clumsy seagoing rafts inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s scientific Polynesian voyage on Kon-Tiki. Between nautical pursuits, he was a lumberjack, stevedore, coal passer, cotton jammer, riveter and plumber. He also worked on salmon traps in Alaska, rode the rails to wheat harvests as a hobo, and built oil-boom derricks as a roustabout in Texas.

He wrote novels, penned an epic poem on the life of Christ, and had his tales of epic sea voyages published. He haunted the main branch of the New York Public Library as an independent, self-educated researcher, and somehow managed a strange detour in life to rescue a prisoner from Devil’s Island in French Guiana. He interested me because he feared age might be trying to catch up with him as he turned 70. He admitted to “showing signs of wear”:

“Diabetes, arthritis, digestion and kidney troubles began to plague me, not to mention other symptoms. … The man who I had thought was unbreakable was breaking up.” (He neglected to mention an ignored hernia that threatened his life more than once.)

All those ailments didn’t stop him, however, from setting out in Age Unlimited on his last open-ocean rafting voyage, a crossing of the Pacific from Peru to Australia in 1963 after an almost 10-year layover on land. This raft, however, wouldn’t be made of balsa, reeds and bamboo like his 1954 raft, Seven Little Sisters. With the financial help again of a wealthy sponsor who donated $15,000 to the cause, he designed and had commissioned a 33-foot steel pontoon trimaran with an 18-foot beam.

He had made it from Peru to as far as American Samoa in Seven Little Sisters and had left the raft with the governor, who assured him it would be “protected and exhibited.” But soon after Willis left, the locals chopped it up — the same fate that would find those final two vessels, which also were assured protection and exhibition.

He wrote about this interrupted voyage to Samoa in a five-part series for The New York Times, later published as “The Gods Were Kind.” Curiously, it became a favorite in the Soviet Union and by 1961 had sold nearly 100,000 copies.

Described by author Pearson as a “connoisseur of solitude and a student of isolation” at sea, Willis actually had a wife on land (long-suffering, as the saying goes) and enjoyed organic gardening. For the 1963 raft voyage, Age Unlimited was “rigged for three sails [but] flying five with what must have looked like all the trim and nautical organization of laundry on a line,” notes Pearson. When he arrived in Australia he appeared as a castaway adrift on a barely floating rig with broken twin rudders and centerboards, suffering from hallucinations and a “depressed and agitated state of mind.”

Before making Australia, however, he had to put in at Apia in the SamoanIslands after 130 days at sea. Again he would leave his raft, hoping this time it wouldn’t be dismantled like the other. He returned to resume the voyage in the spring of 1964, after repairs were made to the disintegrating craft, and by June was off again for Australia.

Suffering yet another crippling hernia attack at sea, he prepared for “strangulation, gangrene, perforation, the works,” he wrote. He hoisted himself off the deck, upside down, with a block and tackle and dangled there for hours until his intestine slipped back into place — after which he took care of some belated business and donned a truss.

By mid-July he had been driven a little batty and had drifted, becalmed, within a mile of a shoreline with trees laden with fruit. Desperate for fresh coconut meat and milk, he dropped sails, unshipped a 10-foot Samoan canoe, and began paddling to shore without anchoring his raft.

He drifted out of sight of the raft, pushed on by visions of a lush paradise full of fruit, fish, lobsters and clams, when he suddenly noticed that “the sea had become a bit ruffled and the sky darkened a little.”

Willis immediately came to his senses and began paddling furiously for his floating home while his outrigger continued coming apart beneath him. Later, embracing the folly of his ways, he reflected: “I could hardly believe I had been guilty of such stupidity, leaving the raft adrift in the open sea and paddling off to an island to get coconuts.”

En route to Brisbane, an accident knocked him to the deck and, unable to stand, he feared he had broken his back. Recovery bordered on the miraculous and came just in time, with the Great Barrier Reef only 120 miles ahead.

By early September 1964, he had spotted the low-lying Queensland coast after being at sea 204 days and covering nearly 11,000 miles. He entered a flat bay and came to rest in waist-deep water, where he anchored. Wading ashore with passport and clearance papers, he signaled to a couple in a boat, who motored over but stopped short when they drew close. “They were somewhat taken aback,” wrote Willis, “when they saw a gaunt, old and sea-stained man with a white beard down to his chest.” The grizzled old sea dog stuck out his hand and introduced himself, “I’m Willis from New York.”

At the police station, all were skeptical of his exploit, thinking his papers were forgeries and suspecting he may have been a runaway convict from a nearby island prison, which had closed in 1850.

“Do I look that old?” Willis asked them.

Fast-forward to 1966, and we find a bored, impatient and land-locked Willis with no funds turning to a small, open boat. His plan for his first Atlantic crossing was to “drink only sea water and survive on a diet of whole wheat flour, evaporated milk and daily spoonfuls of olive oil, honey and lemon juice,” writes Pearson.

He left from Manhattan in late June 1966 on his first attempt in Little One and got as far as the Boston shipping channel before he had to be rescued. He experienced more hernia attacks and set off an emergency flare for help, accidentally setting his mainsail on fire.

By the next June he had added a puny cabin to Little One and set off once again for Plymouth. Blown off course by North Atlantic storms, he was rescued again — out of food and flying a red sweater as a distress flag. His final attempt came May 2, 1968. There was no word from or of Willis until Sept. 24, when a fishing trawler recovered his half-sunk dismasted pram, with a missing rudder and only the bow afloat, 400 miles west of the Irish coast.

“A curiosity in his day, a wholesale obscurity in ours, William Willis once claimed the ocean as his ‘monastery,’ only to have it for his mausoleum as well,” writes Pearson. “We can only be sure that [he] slipped beneath the swell and so in death, as in life, was committed to the sea.”

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.