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Dodge Morgan charted his own course

Brutally honest, the solo circumnavigator valued his independence, but he grew to value others

The interview lasted four hours and by the end I knew I wanted more. I had phoned Dodge Morgan at the suggestion of others. My assignment was to write a profile of yacht designer Ted Hood, whom Dodge had chosen in 1984 to create American Promise, the boat he would sail single-handed and non-stop around the world.

Morgan was the first American to sail solo and non-stop around the world.

I knew little of Dodge beyond the result of that voyage: the shattering in 1986 of the existing world record of 292 days, with a time of 150 days, 1 hour and 6 minutes. What I discovered during that lengthy phone conversation in 2006 was more than a man bold enough to challenge the world's oceans alone, more than a self-assured, self-made businessman whose millions had made the circumnavigation possible. I found - and later confirmed by speaking with those closest to him - that I had met that most rare of humans: a totally honest man.

Dodge completed his remarkable journey through this life Sept. 14 in a Boston hospital, where at age 78 he did not recover from cancer surgery. Family members were at his side.

The bare outline of Dodge David Morgan's life reads like an adventure story. His father died when he was 2, during the Great Depression, and his hard-drinking, hard-living grandfather became one of his role models. Both of them worked at a family-owned boatyard on Cape Cod, Mass., where Dodge had to rent a boat from another yard to teach himself to sail.

Later he left the University of New Hampshire, where he played football, after an ill-conceived prank involving a cannon, a ladder and the window of the Dean of Women's apartment. He joined the Air Force and flew jets, then returned to college at Boston University, where he earned a degree in journalism and met his first wife, Lael Morgan, to whom he explained his vision.

"He said you didn't have to work 52 weeks a year and take two weeks vacation," Lael told me. He said you "could work like hell" on three jobs for a couple of years and have enough money to take off a year or two.

They married, graduated and moved to Alaska, where he capitalized on the early stages of oil exploration by opening a public relations and advertising business. Then they took off to sail a wooden schooner from Maine to the Pacific islands. They parted ways when Dodge decided to move back to the East Coast. Brandishing a sketchy employment record, he talked his way into a marketing job with a valve manufacturer. Then, for pennies on the dollar, he bought a struggling electronics subsidiary from that company.

At first he ran the business out of a garage, but by the mid-1980s the company was worth $39 million and he sold it. Married now to his second wife, Manny, and the father of two children, Hoyt and Kimberly, he turned his attention to circumnavigating the globe.

It was in 2006, 20 years after he completed that voyage in Bermuda, that I visited Dodge. I was sailing in Maine, called him, and although he was quite busy, he said it would be OK if I stopped by his home - 30-acre Snow Island on Casco Bay. What followed was another four-hour conversation and I began to understand the source of his drive and his many successes.

We were sitting in the cottage at the rocky southern tip of Snow Island when he told me his tennis story. His mother had married a man who belonged to a ritzy Massachusetts club and Dodge quickly become competitive in tennis. In the semifinals of a big tournament, he told me, "I played a guy, a tall, lanky guy with glasses. I was afraid of him. I went into that game with one racket and with a string that was fraying. I knew that that string was going to break. ... I had gone into that match with an excuse to lose."

And lose he did. "I said to myself then, I will never, ever go into a circumstance of challenge carrying a reason not to succeed."

He continued: "There are certain physical attributes you can't change, but what the f- - - you can change is your attitude."

He did not always succeed or follow his own advice. When he met Manny, he gave himself a reason to fail as a husband, telling her he wasn't a good prospect for marriage. "He said, 'You know I'm too selfish. I'm too focused on my own needs,' " Manny told me. "You know, in the end, he was right." They divorced some time after the circumnavigation.

Talk with those closest to Dodge and the same adjectives are repeated: driven, focused, independent, self-assured, loner - all descriptions you might expect of a successful businessman who conquers the world alone on a sailboat. But there are other adjectives on the list - generous, reliable, honest. "It's rare to find a man who's made as much [money] as he has who is that honest," Lael Morgan told me. "He was a straight shooter. He wouldn't bulls- - - you."

It was that quality - his unguarded honesty - that struck me in our first conversation. It was a quality that Dodge expected of others, personally and in business. "If I'm working with somebody and they move across this threshold of being [dishonest] with themselves and, therefore, with me, I don't want anything to do with them," he said.

Reliable? He befriended Don Friend, the man who oversaw the construction of his Snow Island home, and hired him to help out on the island. They became best friends. Then Friend had major surgery and wasn't expected to live. "He never missed a day of either seeing me or calling," Friend told me.

Then there was his optimism. Manny explained that "everything that other people would consider bad fortune, Dodge turns it in his mind to make it a positive." An example, she says, was "the fact that his father died when he was young made him strong."

Those closest to Dodge had the unenviable task of dealing with his self-centeredness for many years. But then Dodge found Snow Island and four years ago cancer laid him low. On the island, he began to notice and revere nature. Previously, Lael says, "he was not interested in land. He was not particularly interested in birds. One could have landed on his head 3,000 miles out [to sea] and he wouldn't blink." That changed on Snow Island, where he began to marvel at the eagles and other wildlife around him.

Before his first bout with cancer, there was no "balance" between Dodge's wants and the needs of others, Lael says. "He must have done a lot of thinking," she says. "When he came out of the illness, he really tried hard to be a more thoughtful person. He realized how valuable people were."

"He became gentler," Manny told me.

It was around the time of his first illness that Dodge met Mary Beth Teas, a woman whose sailing credentials included a voyage that involved rounding Cape Horn as well as a circumnavigation of South America. She nursed him through a sickness that left him, for a while, unable to walk or talk. And then she became the other resident of Snow Island.

In summer 2009, Dodge and his companion cruised the Maine coast in his 30-foot schooner, Eagle. Then he asked her whether she would like to do more extended cruising.

By that October, he had bought a Monk 36 trawler named Osprey and he headed south on the Intracoastal Waterway with Mary Beth. It was a colder-than-normal winter in Florida and the Bahamas, she recalls. Osprey spent less time at sandy beaches and more time anchored in harbors with many other boats.

Still, "we had a fabulous time," Mary Beth says.

In July, for the ninth time, Dodge invited 140 of his friends to Snow Island for his annual Bang and Go Back picnic. He was his usual humorous self, if slightly less profane than I'd seen him.

A month later, I stopped by Snow Island on my way home. When I asked Dodge whether he and Mary Beth would be cruising south again this winter, he hedged. He had some business matters to address and some minor surgery to get past. So unlike last winter, when they stayed aboard the entire season, they would be parking Osprey from time to time and returning home.

But he'd had the boat hauled and the bottom painted. When he headed for the hospital, there was a collection of papers on his desk on Snow Island, Mary Beth told me. Some dealt with preparing the trawler for the next voyage.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.