Judith Lawson
April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

Make no mistake, the world is getting smaller, even for sailors. Just before the turn of the century, Joshua Slocum, the original old salt, took three years, counting layovers, to complete the first solo circumnavigation of the globe. By 1971 Britain’s Chad Blyth, sailing nonstop, had knocked that record down to 292 days. Now Dodge Morgan, 54, a mild-mannered newspaper owner from Maine, has blown Blyth’s record out of the water: Sailing American Promise, a $1.5 million, 60-foot cutter, Morgan completed his 25,671 mile nonstop voyage in 150 days, one hour and six minutes. “It took a great boat, an iron will and extraordinary luck,” Morgan said on his arrival in Bermuda. “But most of all, it took a great boat.”

Morgan’s assessment reflects both honesty and modesty. While it is impossible to eliminate the risks of solo sailing, Promise was designed to make the journey as safe and comfortable as current technology allows. Self-steering gear, roller-furling sails and electric winches reduced much of the physical work. Satellite navigation devices and a small computer rigged to wake him up if the wind rose or shifted helped keep Morgan on course and out of trouble. Two generators powered his equipment, and a desalination unit made fresh-water showers possible. Says designer Ted Hood, who constructed the boat, “There was a lot of built-in redundancy—we tried to make her the perfect nonstop boat. We feel we really accomplished something.”

Which isn’t to say that Morgan could simply shift Promise into cruise control. Along the way she was buffeted by two cyclones and knocked on her side three times by strong winds and 40-foot waves. Morgan says he coped by training himself to take the trip “one nautical mile at a time, never allowing myself to think about the lousy situations I was in. There were enough opportunities to have things go wrong out there without enhancing them with an attitude that doesn’t lead to success.” He says he felt apprehension, but never fear: “The worst thing that could happen was death, but I came to terms with that before I left.”

Morgan dealt with loneliness by reading and staying in weekly radio contact with his family—wife Manny, 42, and children Hoyt, 12, and Kimberley, 9—in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. “I had cycles of elation and depression that were stronger than when I’m ashore,” he says. “But the good times were extraordinarily good, and as simple as a beautiful sunset or when the boat was going well in smooth water.”

A former Air Force pilot and electronics entrepreneur, Morgan made a fortune in 1983 when he sold his communications equipment company, Controlonics Corp., for $36 million. The windfall allowed him to fulfill two goals: buying his own newspaper, the 20,000-circulation Maine Times, and building his dreamboat. Part of the purpose of the trip, he says, was to give himself time and solitude to meditate about what was really important in life. As he notes of the success of Controlonics, which he started in a garage, “When the company starts making money like crazy, you can get sucked in by your own image of yourself—’I’m the company president and I started this hummer thing.’ But you’ve got to watch it so you don’t think your intelligence goes up with your income.”

Morgan says that he learned two things during his time at sea. The first was that the sea life of the Southern Hemisphere was neither as rich nor varied as he expected. “I was disappointed and perplexed,” says Morgan, who saw albatross but little else. He suspects pollution and overfishing may be responsible. “I’ve begun to listen to Jacques Cousteau and [writer] Farley Mowat, and maybe I can do something about it in the paper, to speak about the diminishment of life.”

The other thing he learned—and, with candor, admitted—was that solo circumnavigating isn’t all that much fun. “All we really have,” he concluded, “is the few people we have direct contact with—family, friends, whoever—and the best we can do in life is to be generous and honest and demanding of those people, as with ourselves. As beautiful as solitude can be, as close to the truth as you can come in the soul’s presence at sea, I’ve made up my mind that the race I really want to belong to is the human race. The hell with that stuff out there.”

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