05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
A raw spring morning and wisps of fog hugging Connecticut's Mystic River aren't enough to keep Bill Pinkney from warming to his task. "Oh, baby, this is going to be beautiful," he says as he strides through a riverside shed, filled with the smells of sawdust, tar and old rope, where workers are putting the final touches on a new ship. Pinkney, the captain, caresses the bronze frame of a porthole that will one day be part of his cabin. "The crew's going to hate having me on board, because we are going to polish every piece of bronze every morning," he says. "If I can't see my face in it, then we'll polish it again."
In fact the sailors and shipwrights of the Mystic Seaport maritime museum seem delighted to have Pinkney at the helm. After 10 years of planning and construction, Amistad, a near-replica of the slave-carrying schooner made famous by the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie of the same name, is almost complete. The original ship was carrying a human cargo of 53 African slaves in 1839 when the captives mutinied; they were later set free by a decision of the United States Supreme Court. "This ship is an icon of the right of man to be free and the willingness to take whatever steps are necessary to achieve that freedom," says Pinkney, 64, who hopes to sail the vessel to every major seaport in the country after its maiden voyage on July 2.
Rarely have a man and his mission been better matched. Pinkney has sailed the high seas many times before, once making a solo round-the-world voyage in a 47-ft. cutter along the treacherous 32,000-mile southern route. "Nobody has survived what he has without being an outstanding seaman," says Ivan Luke, captain of the U.S. Coast Guard tall ship Eagle.
Along the way, Pinkney has also found novel ways of combining his love of the sea with a commitment to human rights. Last year, with nine schoolteachers aboard (and students from 163 schools nationwide watching via the Internet), Pinkney guided a 78-ft. ketch along a 10,000-mile route once used by slave traders traveling between Africa and the Americas. A charismatic public speaker, he raised most of the $290,000 in needed sponsorships by himself. "His life is about overcoming the odds," says Ed Menaker, executive producer of Captain Bill Pinkney's Voyages Home, a documentary about the Africa trip that premiered on PBS in April. "He begs, borrows and steals—well, I wouldn't go that far—but he follows through."
A Chicago native raised by his late mother, Marion Pinkney, a maid, Pinkney admits his own life has often followed an uncharted course. After high school he spent eight years in the Navy (befriending the young Bill Cosby at a Maryland training facility), then worked as an X-ray technician, a ski instructor, a limbo dancer, a makeup artist and a public information officer for the city of Chicago before turning full-time to sailing, his beloved hobby, in 1990.
A lucky break helped Pinkney realize his dream to sail around the world. Conceived originally as a way of inspiring his two grandchildren (whose mother, Florida financial analyst Angela Walton, 40, is Pinkney's only child from two marriages), Pinkney's proposal had been turned down by some 300 potential sponsors when a friend of his landed a job as a New York Times photographer. At her suggestion, a reporter did a story about Pinkney that was read by the late Tom Eastman, then a Boston investment adviser.
With some $350,000 in backing from Eastman's firm and other donations, Pinkney sailed out of Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard on Aug. 5, 1990. Videotape taken on board during the nearly two-year voyage shows Pinkney reciting Psalm 107—"He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still"—as his boat, the Commitment, is hammered by 30-ft. swells in the southern Indian Ocean. "People are always saying, 'Oh, you must have a death wish,' " he says. "But no, I have a life wish. Those who sit on their butts, they are the ones with the death wish." Pinkney made it back to Boston on June 9, 1992, one of only five Americans to have sailed the southern route alone.
Pinkney's singular seamanship in turn attracted the attention of Warren Marr, 83, a retired editor of the NAACP's Crisis Magazine, who had been working for years to raise the funds to rebuild the Amistad. In 1998, after persuading the Connecticut legislature to appropriate $2.5 million to rebuild the ship (with twin diesel engines and modern safety features), Marr and the Amistad organizing committee began scouring the horizon for a suitable captain. "We were looking for a man of experience," says Marr, "and here was one who had sailed around the world." Pinkney's mission: to keep alive, and afloat, a symbol of what scholars have called the first civil rights case in U.S. history.
"I have the opportunity to teach people about the sea, about dreams and about the reality that we all have to strive to support basic human rights," says Pinkney. "Because if you don't maintain those of others, you could be the next to be without yours."