Dodge Morgan, first American to circumnavigate globe alone, dies at 78

Dodge Morgan faced loneliness during his single-handed, nonstop journey -- the first by an American.
Dodge Morgan faced loneliness during his single-handed, nonstop journey -- the first by an American. (Associated Press Laser Photo)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dodge Morgan, 78, a millionaire who braved fierce winds and endured profound loneliness to become the first American to sail single-handedly around the world without stopping, died Sept. 14 of complications from surgery for cancer at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Mr. Morgan was the fourth person in history to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the globe. Piloting a 60-foot custom-built boat, he had set out to break the world speed record -- 292 days, set in 1971 by Briton Chay Blyth -- and ended up shattering it, arriving in Bermuda to cheering crowds on April 11, 1986, a mere 150 days after departing.

Mr. Morgan had been bitten by the idea for a round-the-world voyage decades earlier, when he spent 2 1/2 years wending his way from Maine to Alaska aboard a 36-foot wooden schooner.

He maintained his sense of wanderlust even as he returned to dry land, where he started and operated an electronics company in his Massachusetts garage. The business -- producing marine radar equipment and popular Whistler radar detectors for cars -- grew quickly, and Mr. Morgan sold it in 1983 for an estimated $32 million. Suddenly, he had the wherewithal to do whatever he wanted.

"Various people in this world have chosen to put themselves close to the edge, either intellectually, or emotionally, or physically,'' Mr. Morgan said in 1985 as he planned his voyage. "This is my way of doing it. It may be an overdone way, but sailing a boat alone is such an uncomplicated way to stay on the edge. I think it allows you to sort out what is important in life. I think there are a lot of overcivilized people out there drinking coffee out of a Wedgwood cup."

He commissioned renowned naval architect Ted Hood to design American Promise, a rugged, $1.5 million vessel made virtually unsinkable with watertight compartments and submarine-esque doors. Mr. Morgan armed his single-masted sailboat with the latest in high-tech gear, and he avoided the need for repairs by outfitting it with two of everything: two sets of sails, two rudders, two satellite navigational systems and two machines to convert salt water into fresh water.

Sailing eastward around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, skirting south of Australia and South America, Mr. Morgan endured the boredom of becalmed seas and the heaving thrill of tropical storms. American Promise righted itself after being laid flat by wind at least 11 times, according to newspaper reports; once, a gale pushed the boat 175 miles with its sails furled.

Even more than a remarkable physical adventure, the voyage became a psychological test of Mr. Morgan's ability to withstand extreme solitude.

In five months at sea, the sailor spoke only to a handful of ham radio operators. He saw few passing ships and laid eyes on land just once, when he rounded Cape Horn on Day 108. For company, he had only schools of dolphins, the occasional albatross and about 40 books, including Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Once, as he crept across the Southern Ocean, a massive westbound container ship slid by on the horizon -- the first sign of humanity for weeks. "Solitude is easier when I am not directly reminded of the company of others," Mr. Morgan wrote in his book, "Voyage of American Promise" (1989). "It takes me hours to rid myself of the lonely feeling the great ship left me with."

The journey was recorded via six cameras installed around the boat, and that footage was later used to produce a PBS documentary about the trip, "Around Alone."

Mr. Morgan rose every morning at 5:30 to spend the day eating, reading and fixing frayed lines and writing in the ship's log. Each evening, he completed what he called "shrink tests," designed by two Boston College psychology professors who studied Mr. Morgan's response to solitude and sensory deprivation. He woke every two hours during the night to check on the boat.

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