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Geraldo Live!

You know him as an outspoken televisionpersonality, but newsman Geraldo Rivera is as comfortable at the helm as he is in the limelight

You know him as an outspoken televisionpersonality, but newsman Geraldo Rivera is as comfortable at the helm as he is in the limelight

Just after 5:30 on a drizzly Friday afternoon in late October, Geraldo Rivera stands in the cockpit of his 36-foot Hinckley Picnic Boat, Belle, helping three crewmembers load bags onto the boat for the jaunt from New York City’s 79th Street Boat Basin to Rivera’s home perched above the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J. Two people, the last of his passengers, make their way down the dock toward Belle. Rivera notices them and looks down at his watch.

Read the other story in this package: Geraldo - Q&A

“You’re nine minutes late,” he says, a bag in his hand. He turns toward the pilothouse and stuffs the bag below. “Let’s get on board. It’s time to get going.”

A veteran broadcast journalist and former talk show host, Rivera, 63, has reported some of the most significant news stories over the last four decades. As a war correspondent, Rivera traveled to Afghanistan to cover the U.S. government’s military action against the Taliban following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He covered numerous stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and set news station CNBC’s all-time ratings record in 1997 for his coverage of the O.J. Simpson civil trial. On the job, Rivera functions at break-neck speed, tackling one story after another, always on deadline.

On this day, though, Rivera doesn’t seem too bothered that his guests were tardy, setting his schedule back nearly 10 minutes. Instead, he settles in at the helm as crewmembers release the lines and step aboard. His right hand on the joystick, Rivera eases Belle off the dock, whistling as he pushes her up the Hudson.

“You see that,” Rivera asks moments later, smiling and pointing over his right shoulder at the seemingly endless line of cars ground to a halt on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. “I take Belle to and from work every single day I can because of that traffic. If I drove, it’d take two or more hours. This way it takes 15 minutes, and it’s such an easy, beautiful ride. I love it.”

Rivera would rather visit the dentist than be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, says Greg Hart, Rivera’s producer for nearly 20 years. “The one thing that will bring this icon of TV to his knees — what is literally his Kryptonite — is traffic,” says Hart, 41, in an e-mail to Soundings. “You will never see a man more relaxed than when he is [on board Belle] after a crazy day. [Rivera] is a very passionate man and plays as hard as he works. He boats with the same passion as when he is doing a great story for television.”

Rivera is best known as a hard-hitting, often opinionated and sometimes sensationalistic broadcast journalist. For better or worse, he’s also known for his embarrassing moments and controversies — like his 1986 live two-hour TV special “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault,” which turned up only an empty bottle of gin and some dirt, or when he left Iraq in 2003 after divulging sensitive details of a pending military operation.

That’s the Geraldo that most of the public sees. However, what many may not know about Geraldo Rivera is that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool sailor. He’s been a boater for nearly as long as he’s been a journalist and has owned a number of vessels over the years, including Voyager, a 70-foot aluminum Sparkman & Stephens ketch that he still sails. (See photo, Page 4.) And as the new millennium began, Rivera was sailing Voyager around the world and later cruised Central and South America and ventured up the Amazon River.

A love of the sea

A native New Yorker, Rivera was born in Manhattan in 1943 and lived in Brooklyn with his family until the 1950s, when they moved to West Babylon on Long Island. Growing up in that blue-collar town, he says, he realized he had a passion for life on the water.

“When I was little I used to watch fishermen on the PeconicBay,” Rivera recalls, sitting on a couch at his home, gazing out a window at the Hudson, the walls of the room covered in nautical paintings. “Living in West Babylon we didn’t get to see the open ocean much. I always associated boats and sailing with the haves, not the have-nots. But there was something special for me about looking at those old fishermen. Watching them harness the physics of sailing was a great joy.”

At age 18 Rivera enrolled at the State University of New York Maritime College at FortSchuyler. Although he didn’t complete the four-year program, he says the lessons he learned while living aboard a 500-ton converted troop transport vessel in the shadow of the ThrogsNeckBridge were crucial to his evolution as a man and as a sailor. His stint as a member of the school’s rowing team provides some of Rivera’s most vivid memories of those years.

“Rowing through the river mist after first light but before sunrise, there is a salt tang as potent as a sizzling steak or a lover’s perfume,” Rivera writes on his Web site, . “Spending countless hours sitting on my bench as starboard stroke oar, inches from the choppy waters of the Sound — I can still conjure that scent. To this day, carried on an ocean breeze, it fills my head with remembrance of Schulyer and the promise of the sea.”

A few years after leaving FortSchuyler, Rivera graduated from the University of Arizona and later earned a law degree from the BrooklynLawSchool. He landed a job as a reporter with WABC-TV in New York in the early 1970s and got his first taste of national recognition after presenting a series exposing abusive conditions of mentally ill residents at New York’s WillowbrookSchool.

Rivera went on to work for a number of national ABC programs and was an original member of the “Good Morning America” team. It wasn’t until 1976, at age 33, that he purchased his first boat, a 20-foot gaff-rigged wooden sloop he named Francina after his fiancée. Aboard Francina, Rivera explored the waters between the north and south forks of eastern Long Island Sound, and cruised as far as Block Island, R.I.

“In that taste of real ocean between the island and [Montauk Point, N.Y.], a sailor can experience every condition likely to be encountered on the vast expanse of open ocean, only smaller and closer to safe harbor and refuge from a storm,” Rivera says on his site. “With Francina, I learned the basic physics of sailing, understanding how wind is converted to momentum. … Once you learn how to use wind to make your boat go forward, you can theoretically skipper any other boat, however large.”

It was aboard Francina that Rivera also first dreamed of sailing the oceans of the world. “The independence, the ability to go out in whatever weather, the fact of owning an actual sailboat had a profound impact,” he says in his interview with Soundings. “I could dream of being Slocum and going beyond the horizon to the ends of the earth.”

Bigger and bigger

In 1980, two years after joining the ABC news program “20/20” as an investigative journalist, Rivera realized that in order to fulfill his dreams of bluewater adventure, he’d need a larger boat. He purchased New Wave, a 44-foot Gulfstar sloop, in Miami. Rivera and then-wife Sheri (his third) sailed New Wave for their first time down the Miami River and across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.

“As a rookie big-boat sailor, I alternated between wild joy and heart-stopping fear depending on where we were and how well I was handling our journey,” Rivera writes on his site. “I remember hands rubbed red and raw from fighting to furl a runaway jib as we careened toward an island breakwater in full gale. The other, after getting the sail down, was neglecting to have mooring lines or fenders ready as we flew toward a looming cement [dock].

“ ‘Throw me a line, Captain,’ the dockmaster shouted through the stiff breeze,” Rivera continues. “ ‘Now toss me one still attached to your boat,’ he added impatiently after I threw the whole thing, neglecting to hold onto my end.”

Over the next several years Rivera sailed New Wave extensively, from the Canadian Maritimes to the Panama Canal. Back in Manhattan, however, his career was far from perfect. He was fired from “20/20” in December 1985 for criticizing ABC over pulling a segment that alleged a romantic relationship between Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Upset over what he considered an unjust dismissal after 15 years with the network, Rivera decided to embark upon an ambitious sailing adventure. He planned to sail New Wave from Sarasota, Fla., to California by way of the Panama Canal, documenting the journey on video.

Rivera set sail later that month, with his brother Craig and his girlfriend C.C. as crew. (Rivera and Sheri had divorced; he and C.C. would later marry.) They pushed south toward Cuba, then on to Isla Mujeres and Cancun, Mexico. They continued south to Guatemala and made it as far as the Panama Canal when Rivera was contacted by Chicago’s Tribune Company to host a live worldwide broadcast called “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault.” Short on cash and unemployed, Rivera agreed. Although he was widely ridiculed for the anticlimactic show, ratings were exceptional. The important thing for Rivera at the time was that he was working again.

As the assignments continued coming, Rivera outgrew New Wave. He had spent thousands of dollars in projects on the 44-footer, including one in 1983 after a crew he hired to transport the boat from St. Thomas to the Bahamas ran her aground and abandoned her. Rivera wanted a larger, more rugged vessel capable of taking him offshore.

In 1995 Rivera saw the plans for Palawan IV, the 70-foot Sparkman & Stephens-designed aluminum ketch built in 1972 for the late IBM chairman Tom Watson Jr. (she was one of six S&S cruisers designed for Watson). He contacted the owner, who was selling her, and then flew to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, to see the vessel.

At first glance, Rivera says he knew the ketch was exactly what he had been looking for. “Just over 50 feet at the waterline, her longer deck above sloped gracefully fore and aft giving the vessel the elegant low sweep of a 19th-century schooner,” Rivera says on his Web site. “Her rigging matched the rough grace of the hull. The stays … looked powerful enough to hold up a bridge. I put my hands around those thick wires and pictured them straining under the pressure to hold the mast in place in a gale on the high seas.”

Rivera hired a surveyor to inspect the boat and chartered her for a weeklong cruise. The inspection showed that the hull was suffering electrolysis problems. She also needed new holding tanks, modern electronics and more. But Rivera was in love. He purchased the boat for $470,000, had her restored, and renamed her Voyager.

The ultimate adventure

Just months after the restoration Rivera already was planning to sail Voyager eastward around the world. In July 1997, after the ketch was blessed by a minister in her home port of Marion, Mass., Rivera got under way with four crewmembers — one of them his oldest son, Gabriel. He wanted to make it to the Pacific island nation of Tonga, near the International Dateline, in time for the 1999-2000 New Year so that he, his family and crew could be among the first people to celebrate the new millennium.

“I think every boat owner, no matter the size of their boat, dreams of sailing around the world,” says Rivera. “I figured spending New Year’s Eve on the International Dateline would be an incredible experience, and it really was.”

Rivera agreed to film the voyage using hand-held cameras for a Travel Channel special called “Sail to the Century with Geraldo Rivera.” “When I christened her Voyager, that wasn’t just an arbitrary label,” Rivera says during the special. “It was a statement of my intention: to voyage, to explore, to really discover myself as well as the world.”

From Marion, Rivera crossed the Atlantic to Horta in the Azores. During the 10-day passage, footage shows the crew working out together and Rivera, unabashedly, skinny-dipping.

From the Azores, Rivera took Voyager to Lisbon, Portugal. He pushed south to Gibraltar and then east around southern Spain to Ibiza — one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. On Sept. 1, 1997, while cruising off the nearby island of Minorca, Rivera learned of Princess Diana’s death. Voyager was hauled, and Rivera flew to Paris and later to London to investigate the accident.

Rivera and crew picked up the circumnavigation in March 1998. Having signed a new contract with NBC, Rivera would be on and off Voyager for the remainder of the circumnavigation, sailing for a number of weeks, then disembarking to cover such news events as President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and his ordering of the bombing of Iraq.

“Geraldo always came on board with his briefcase in one hand and his BlackBerry in the other,” recalls crewmember Julietta e Silva, 39, in an e-mail to Soundings. “Out at sea, the non-working Geraldo would surface, deceivingly relaxed, but you always knew deep inside the cogs were still ticking.”

As Rivera hopped on and off Voyager, so did his crew, with different family members and friends joining the many legs of the circumnavigation. As would be expected on this type of voyage, conditions ranged from calm and relaxing to boisterous.

“As in a war zone during a gunfight or a hurricane on the open seas, Geraldo is the most fearless man on the planet,” says Hart, Rivera’s producer, who crewed on several legs of the circumnavigation. “He always takes the lead in a hairy situation, and I always think to myself, If he has the guts to do this then I will trust his lead. He is the captain of his ship and his crew. He has so much experience and has done so many things, it is incredible how easy he makes it seem under extreme pressure.”

Kevin Overmeyer, 34, a professional captain who also crewed aboard Voyager, agrees. “[Rivera] may sometimes steer you into the path of a storm in his quest for adventure, but he’s the guy you want next to you when it hits,” he says.

Rivera and crew explored the Mediterranean before transiting the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. They saw Egyptian soldiers sitting on the banks of the Suez, were confronted by an Egyptian gunboat, and outran pirates off Somalia. They reached the Seychelles and Maldives, then crossed the Indian Ocean to western Indonesia. From there, they stopped in Thailand and Singapore, and visited Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. After celebrating the New Year, Rivera continued pushing east toward Tahiti and the Galapagos before wrapping up the three-year, 30,000-mile odyssey back in the United States.

“Along the way I figured out who I was at that stage in my life,” Rivera says on his Web site. “[I was] thankful my grand journey happened when I was still young enough to do my own heavy lifting and do it accompanied by my kids and other loved ones, understanding and enjoying them more than would have been possible back home in the busy world of celebrity and television journalism.”

And beyond

By late 2000 Rivera was itching for another adventure. In December he set off on a 1,500-mile voyage along Central and South America and the Amazon River. Shortly before getting under way, Rivera met his current (fifth) wife, Erica, through mutual friends. He invited her to join him as his guest aboard Voyager.

“We set sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, into a storm and headed for the Amazon River,” says Erica Rivera, 32, in an e-mail to Soundings. “I remember the enormous waves. … It was thrilling, even though I felt so sick to my stomach. Geraldo was comforting and supportive, appreciative of me just being there with him, as he still is today.”

Also in 2000 Rivera purchased Belle, the Hinckley Picnic Boat. It’s the only soft-top Picnic Boat built, according to John Correa, a Hinckley sales director. When weather permits, Rivera takes Belle to and from work in the Big Apple. He enjoys cruising to such destinations as Marion, Hadley’s Harbor near Woods Hole, and Provincetown, Mass.; the Hudson River north to Troy, N.Y.; and around New York Harbor.

“When I see Belle pull up I know I am in for a fun afternoon,” says Chick Cunningham, Rivera’s longtime friend and owner of the Carriage House Marina in Sea Bright, N.J. “Geraldo is a natural yachtsman. He looks for reasons to get out on the boat and smiles ear to ear when he leaves the dock.”

Another of Rivera’s favorite destinations is an undeveloped 26-acre island off Puerto Rico that he owns. (Rivera is of Puerto Rican descent.) He makes frequent trips there aboard Voyager with Erica and his children — Gabriel, 27; Cruz, 19; Isabella, 14; Simone, 12; and 18-month-old Sol. All of his children have spent many hours aboard Voyager over the years, Rivera says, and they love visiting the island.

“It’s the most wonderful education, maybe besides law school, to grow up spending lots of time on the water as Geraldo’s children have,” Erica Rivera says. “And Geraldo is truly a different man at sea than at home. Happier in his underwear than a tie, he is thrilled to be away from the daily responsibilities of his job and be somewhere alone with his children.”

If Rivera could have his way, he’d skipper Voyager over the horizon and never return, he says. One of his special memories is of a day in January 2006 on board Voyager while anchored off the island.

“I had Erica and my five children on the boat,” he says, staring off as if in a peaceful trance. “The sun was setting behind us. It was absolutely beautiful, and I said to myself, I have everything on earth that I want. It was perfect. I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling every day since.”