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Lessons of the Deep

updated 07/06/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1992 01:00AM

SOLO CIRCUMNAVIGATOR BILL PINKNEY WAS SAILING NEAR TASMANIA when the Indian Ocean took its best shot, flattening his 47-foot cutter, Commitment. Pinkney, strapped into a harness attached to the deck, held light as his mast dipped beneath the waves. Even in that harrowing moment, Pinkney says, he never felt alone. After the boat righted itself in response to 11,000 pounds of lead ballast in the keel, and the seas calmed, he described the experience to thousands of students in Boston and Chicago who were tracking his course and communicating with him via a satellite computer system. "I thought about them," he says. "They made me feel I was doing something worthwhile beyond my own enjoyment." And they cheered for him when, on June 9, sailing into Boston Harbor, Pinkney, 56, became the first African-American to sail the 27,000 miles around the planet single-handedly.

It was August 1990 when Pinkney, sponsored by an array of corporations and individuals that ranged from Motorola Inc. to Armand Hammer and writer Maya Angelou, cast off from Boston Harbor to set an example for black children everywhere. The first leg of the voyage took him to Brazil and across the South Atlantic to Cape Town. Along the way, he passed the time reading (Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Danielle Steel) and listening to tapes (Beethoven, John Lee Hooker, Whitney Houston), observing seabirds and battling the weather. "The force of wind and water is greater than anything man has devised," he says. "The best you can do is break even."

In March 1991, Pinkney had to put in for repairs in Tasmania. He took the occasion to fly home to Chicago for a visit with wife Ina, a restaurateur, and his growing legion of school-age fans. The second half of his voyage began in December 1991. Pinkney sailed south of Australia, around Cape Horn and back up the east coast of the Americas. On the penultimate leg, from Brazil to Bermuda, the automatic steering system broke and he had to stay awake six straight nights. "The weather beat me to death," Pinkney says.

Back on land, Pinkney is visiting the children who followed his voyage. "Don't let anyone else ever set your limits," he told 300 Chicago students. "Be willing to know what your dreams will take and be willing to pay the price."

The kids seemed impressed. "He's encouraging others to try new things," says Debra Willoughby, 11. "He encouraged me to do what I want, which is to be a pediatrician."

One girl who heard Pinkney speak in Boston was also impressed, though for a different reason. "He's the only old person I know who would spend all his money on a big boat to sail alone," she said.

MICHAEL J. NEILL
HEIDI J. LAFLECHE in Boston and BONNIE BELL in Chicago

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