John Atkisson; After law career, he sailed across Atlantic

John Atkisson had a 32-foot sloop, Kestrel, harbored on the Chesapeake Bay, which he loved cruising with his wife.
John Atkisson had a 32-foot sloop, Kestrel, harbored on the Chesapeake Bay, which he loved cruising with his wife. (James A. Parcell/for The Washington Post)
By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2010

John Atkisson was at home and at ease in a congressional hearing or a courtroom, in the offices of a federal bureaucrat or on the deck of his sailboat. He earned his living as a lawyer, but his friends would tell you that under his pinstripes was the soul of an 18th-century seaman.

Mr. Atkisson, 68, died Feb. 19 at George Washington University Hospital, six months after a diagnosis of lung cancer. His family said he faced the end of his life with serenity because he had already lived "the dream" -- which included a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a small boat and such unintended "growth experiences" as a collision with a whale on an earlier sea voyage to Bermuda. Both man and whale survived.

As a Washington lawyer for 35 years, Mr. Atkisson worked in Congress, the private sector and the executive branch. He retired as executive counsel from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in 2005.

He then set out to sail the Atlantic circle -- from the East Coast of the United States to Ireland, Scotland, the Iberian coast and home again -- aboard his 32-foot sloop Kestrel. He was joined by his wife or other crewmates for parts of that adventure. But he often sailed alone. On one leg, from the Azores to Ireland, he had a freak collision with a 150-foot steel fishing trawler. Each continued onward -- Mr. Atkisson sailing with the prow of his boat twisted and mangled. He later said the accident was in some ways fortuitous because of the close friends he made upon arrival in County Cork, where his boat was dry-docked for months of repairs.

In late 2006, Mr. Atkisson completed a 3,000-mile-plus solo crossing of the Atlantic, from Tenerife to Martinique, in 22 days.

"Emphatically, it is not man-against-the-elements," he told The Washington Post in 2007. "That attitude can get you killed. I wanted to go with the elements. At every sunrise in the tradewind passage, I silently and prayerfully asked the ocean for permission to be its guest that day, hoping not to offend those who live there -- whales, for instance."

There was a unique sense of personal freedom in that time alone at sea, Mr. Atkisson would later tell friends. "One late afternoon, about a thousand miles southwest of the Canary Islands," he wrote in a message from sea, "the boat very nearly surfing in front of 22 knots of wind, temperature about 85 degrees . . . the hi fi system cranked up as high as it would go, I found myself standing in the cockpit buck naked, gyrating to Patsy Cline and veritably yelling the lyrics of 'Walkin' After Midnight' to 20 or more madcap dolphins playing in the bow wake."

He also loved the Chesapeake Bay, where his boat was harbored, and was said to have equaled the zeal of an evangelist in his warm but importunate entreaties to nonseafaring friends to accompany him on one-day sails around local rivers and rustic anchorages.

John McElroy Atkisson was born in Sanger, Calif., near Fresno, on July 2, 1941, and acquired his love of sailing after his move to Marin County, near San Francisco. He attended Princeton University, studied acting in New York and graduated in 1966 from the University of California at Berkeley. He received a law degree from San Francisco State University in 1970.

He practiced trial law in San Francisco before moving to Washington in 1975, where he served on the staff of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, then became chief counsel to the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. Later he was in private practice, including five years with the firm of White, Fine and Verville from 1979 to 1984.

In 1993, Mr. Atkisson became executive counsel to the Interstate Commerce Commission where his work required the attainment of a rare expertise: how to litigate the abolishment of a federal agency. In the mid-1990s, the remaining functions of the ICC were transferred to the much smaller Surface Transportation Board.

Mr. Atkisson and his wife, author and former Washington Post science writer Kathy Sawyer Atkisson, had acquired the Kestrel in 1978. Over the years, they cruised Chesapeake Bay and gradually extended their range to New England and Bermuda.

A recovering alcoholic, sober since 1988, Mr. Atkisson was active in recovery efforts, including a Georgetown University medical school program to teach medical students how to work with alcoholic patients. Mr. Atkisson said he was energized by his exchanges with these young people.

Babette Wise, assistant professor and director of Georgetown's Alcohol and Drug Program, said of Mr. Atkisson, "The students learned so much from him, unique skills that will help them in their medical careers, whatever their specialty."

Mr. Atkisson is survived by his wife of 34 years, of Washington; and a sister. His first marriage, to Eileen Drechsler, ended in divorce.

A news reporter once asked Mr. Atkisson about the fear factor during some of his more harrowing moments at sea. He said that, as a recovering alcoholic, "I am at pains . . . to, as we say it, 'stay in the now' -- i.e., don't dwell on the past or obsess on the future. . . . Nothing keeps one in the moment like single-handing a small boat across a big ocean. Hard to explain, but when you are that deeply set into the moment, you just cannot fear the future."

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