Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting
T. R. Pearson
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Welcome to the daring, thrilling, and downright strange adventures of William Willis, one of the world’s original extreme sportsmen. Driven by an unfettered appetite for personal challenge and a yen for the path of most resistance, Willis mounted a single-handed and wholly unlikely rescue in the jungles of French Guiana and then twice crossed the broad Pacific on rafts of his own design, with only housecats and a parrot for companionship. His first voyage, atop a ten-ton balsa monstrosity, was undertaken in 1954 when Willis was sixty. His second raft, having crossed eleven thousand miles from Peru, found the north shore of Australia shortly after Willis’s seventieth birthday. A marvel of vigor and fitness, William Willis was a connoisseur of ordeal, all but orchestrating short rations, ship-wreck conditions, and crushing solitude on his trans-Pacific voyages.
He’d been inspired by Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s bid to prove that a primitive raft could negotiate the open ocean. Willis’s trips confirmed that a primitive man could as well. Willis survived on rye flour and seawater, sang to keep his spirits up, communicated with his wife via telepathy, suffered from bouts of temporary blindness, and eased the intermittent pain of a double hernia by looping a halyard around his ankles and dangling upside-down from his mast.
Rich with vivid detail and wry humor, Seaworthy is the story of a sailor you’ve probably never heard of but need to know. In an age when countless rafts were adrift on the waters of the world, their crews out to shore up one theory of ethno-migration or tear down another, Willis’s challenges remained refreshingly personal. His methods were eccentric, his accomplishments little short of remarkable. Don’t miss the chance to meet this singular monk of the sea.
From the Hardcover edition.
the boat’s paddles. With the tide flowing, they took their leave of Jules and Willis and entered the current that would carry them, with luck, past the shoaly mouth of the Maroni and into the Atlantic, where they would follow the coastline west to the relative anonymity of Paramaribo or, more likely, breach and drown. Either was thought preferable to life in the colony. By this time the search for Bernard Carnot was fairly stymied. Jules’s inquiries had come to nothing, and the only potential
swing due east to come to harbor. Such a route served to compensate for the uncertain quality of early-nineteenth-century charts and took into account that the greatest danger to ships of the day, all under sail, was inadvertent landfall, not storms at sea. The Medusa’s captain pursued a more coastal heading, which demanded he negotiate passage between Madeira and Porto Santo, through the Canary Islands, and approach the Senegalese coast from the north rather than the east, putting his ship in
the first time in his voyage. He lost more weight in the final twelve days of his trip than in the first fifty-three, endured the brand of hunger pangs and cramps he’d not known since his shakedown cruise, and became anemic. He dreamed of food and hailed a passing Dutch cargo ship almost within sight of Barbados simply “to see if they would give me something to eat—not fish.” At half past midnight on December 22, Bombard spied the reflected flash of a lighthouse in the night sky. At last he was
shore on his own. As he approached eastern Tutuila, Willis was obliged to negotiate a heavy sea whipped up by squally weather. The prevailing wind was out of the south, and he sailed as close to it as possible—no easy task on a keelless raft—in hopes of keeping within striking distance of the northern shore. By late afternoon he had fought his way close enough inland to spy out an inviting stretch of beach, where he attempted a landing but was driven off by wind and current. He could get no
a little askew. At one of the last yoga lectures he attended in San Francisco, Willis suffered himself to be sized up by the speaker: You are a seeker. You are very slow developing on the intellectual side which you must overcome before you find your path on account of your excessive physical energies which demand an outlet first…. You breathe too deep now, meaning too much towards the sides of the chest which keeps you a dreamer. You must try to fill the upper lobes of the lungs which alone