Joshua Slocum protege dies at age 74

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Adventurer, circumnavigator and Joshua Slocum devotee David Sinnett-Jones died Nov. 15 at the age of 74 at his home in Aberaeron, on the west coast of Wales, after an extended illness.

The Welshman sailed around the world solo in 1985-’88 aboard Zane Spray, his home-built steel-hulled version of Slocum’s circumnavigator, Spray. He was blind in one eye, and that voyage gave him the title of first disabled sailor to solo around Cape Horn. Sinnett-Jones built an updated version of another Slocum design, the junk-rigged 35-foot Liberdade, in 1997 after Zane Spray sank off Ireland. Three years later, he and the new Liberdade retraced Slocum and the first Liberdade’s 5,500-mile 1888 voyage from Paranagua, Brazil, to Washington, D.C. (See March 2004 Soundings, Page 20.)

Sinnett-Jones wrote three books about his exploits, “To the Cape of Storms,” about his first voyage to South Africa; “Not All Plain Sailing,” the story of his circumnavigation; and “Passion for Life: Adventures Against the Odds,” his autobiography released last summer.

Sinnett-Jones was born April 19, 1930, to an English mother and Welsh father who were singers. He toured on the theater circuit with them as a child and attended 16 schools before joining the British merchant navy as a deck boy at age 16. He served in the Army Royal Signal Corps, then went into theater himself, building scenery and later becoming chief electrician at the prestigious Wimbledon Theatre.

In 1957 he took up sports-car racing, eventually becoming a Formula One driver trainee for Cooper Cars. In 1968 he was thrown through the windshield in a road accident, losing sight in one eye along with his International Racing Drivers License. Undaunted, he returned to Wales, bought a farm, and built up a successful dairy operation there.

He didn’t come to sailing until he was 50 years old, when doctors diagnosed him with cancer, and removed a lung and part of his heart wall. Unsure how long he would live, he sold his farm and with the proceeds contracted the design and construction of a 26-foot sailboat, which he sailed alone to South Africa to visit a daughter.

“My prognosis was not very good when I got out of the hospital,” he said, in an interview two years ago. “I thought I better visit her.”

Back home after that voyage, Sinnett-Jones astounded his doctors with a miraculous recovery. His cancer was gone.

He went on to build on his own Zane Spray and Liberdade. Sinnett-Jones sailed Zane Spray 55,000 miles before it sank, and single-handed Liberdade from Wales to Brazil before undertaking the voyage from Paranagua to Washington, D.C., with one crewmember.

Sinnett-Jones retired two years ago from his single-handing and at age 72 took up racing cars again — small ones, in hill climbs and sprints that pitted him against the clock rather than other cars.

Though his cancer never recurred, Sinnett-Jones had been fighting congestive heart failure and died quietly at home in his sleep, says Suzanne Gingell, his friend and companion for 13 years. “It was a peaceful passing,” she says. “A lot of his life had been such a struggle to live. At the end of the day, he had passed all the tests, and this was his reward at the end.”

Gingell sailed with him often. Their first voyage together was in 1992, when they crossed the Atlantic with another crewmember on Zane Spray. “It was an epic journey,” she says. Zane Spray’s engine failed, and they faced storms and calms with sails alone. “It was the most incredible voyage of my life,” she says. “And a real test.” She was also on Zane Spray three years later when it developed a bad leak and sank in 300 feet of water off Ireland. They were bound for the Azores to celebrate Slocum’s arrival there 100 years earlier on his circumnavigation.

“We’ve shared a few adventures,” Gingell says.

She remembers Sinnett-Jones as a very kind, considerate and gentle man, but also as very focused and determined — especially when he was at sea. “There would always be a way of fixing anything,” she says. “He would never, never accept that anything was impossible. There was always a way around it. He was very clever at improvising.

“But above all else he taught me that life is for living,” she says. “He only lived in the moment. What was in the past was past. The future, you can’t see. He always told me, ‘Live every moment of every day.’ ”

Sinnett-Jones’ Liberdade, a three- master built of epoxy-sheathed marine plywood, remains on Martha’s Vineyard, in the temporary care of Dr. Ed Rothschild, a port captain for the Joshua Slocum Society. Rothschild says the boat is on the hard and still listed for sale for £25,000, or about $48,000.

A close friend of Sinnett-Jones who put him up at his home when the Welshman visited the United States, Rothschild says he was a great guy. “[He was] a remarkable man. He was one of my best friends in life and a modern hero, in the tradition of Joshua Slocum,” says Rothschild.

“He was very keen on continuing the legacy of Joshua Slocum,” says Ted Jones of Bethel, Conn., commodore of the Joshua Slocum Society. “He was one of Slocum’s great admirers, being a single-handed sailor himself.”

Jones says Sinnett-Jones built modern, safer versions of the Slocum boats. “[He] tried to encourage people not to give up, and to use their ingenuity to go to sea alone or double-handed.”

Sinnett-Jones’ daily prayer through most of his life after his cancer surgery was, “Give me one more day,” Gingell says. “He had 24 years he never reckoned on having. That’s why life was so special to him.”