Outside magazine, September 1994
Neal Petersen knows it will take more than geluk. Ten thousand miles from his home, awash on the benevolent shores of Ireland, he hasn't lost sight of his dream.
Twice daily at high tide the gates of Galway Harbor open to the wide bay and, three miles beyond, the wild North Atlantic. Twice daily for six days Neal Petersen has stood at the ancient gates, waiting for the March gales to quiet and the gray sea to flatten so he can sail again.
He waits in vain. Riding out of the southwest on 30-knot gusts, swamping the mild Gulf Stream with icy, driving rain, the gales this spring seem to bear a preternatural force. It's as if the full fury of the Atlantic were beating upon Galway and upon Petersen, while, in an unsheltered berth in the inner harbor, he lives and works on his 40-foot cutter, the Stella R.
Neither sailor nor city, fortunately, is a stranger to hard weather. Galway sits on the western coast of Ireland, a few miles from the westernmost point of the Continent. Through the centuries Galway has served as both the first and last northern European port of call, the first and last refuge, the place in Christendom most open to the elemental sea. From here the ancient Celts cast off on their marauding journeys; here Columbus heard Mass before his epochal voyages of discovery.
Petersen is planning his own epochal voyage--he intends to begin fulfilling his lifelong dream of sailing alone around the world by participating in the 27,000-mile BOC Challenge, which starts September 17 in Charleston, South Carolina--but for now he'll settle for a modest hour on the bay, his first sailing in four months. He's spent the winter in dry dock, painting, waterproofing, generally retooling the Stella R, laboring to transform her into a craft that despite its modest lineaments can withstand the seven oceans, the five capes, and the tremendous warping pressures that a global circumnavigation exerts on a vessel.
By tradition and necessity, most solo circumnavigators are either wealthy themselves or have the support of wealthy patrons, preparing their boats with a full retinue of technicians and artisans. A 27-year-old man from Cape Town, South Africa, the son of a black security guard and a mixed-race schoolteacher, Petersen possesses no such wealth, no such patron, no such retinue.
Instead, his capital lies in the narrative drive of his extravagantly eventful life, the gale-like force of his dream, and, not least, the intense, nearly mystical relationship he has forged with his adopted town of Galway and the country of Ireland. Three years ago, the spindly young African careened onto this island a virtual shipwreck, setting in motion an almost mythological tale that's since been told and retold from Cork to Belfast. As he leaves Charleston, Petersen will sail out in renewed quest of not only his own dream, but the dreams of the people who've so ardently, improbably, and inevitably embraced him.
"Single-handed sailing is ideally suited to the Irish temperament," muses Petersen's friend Robin Deasey while visiting the Stella R one blustery afternoon. A native of the Irish midlands, Deasey is planning his own single-handed circumnavigation. "You have to prepare very, very carefully," he says. "But even if you've prepared completely, there's always an element of luck involved."
Deasey pauses, smiling slightly, nodding to where Petersen works on the mainsail halyard. "The Irish, you know," he concludes with a twinkle, "are very big on luck."
Luck; fortuna; ádh in Gaelic and geluk in Afrikaans: Setting out from Cape Town, Petersen must have felt its presence as palpably as he felt the Cape Doctor Winds off Table Mountain.
In the spring of 1991 he was 23 years old and seemed already to have lived several lives. As a small child he'd survived both a potentially crippling congenital hip condition and the even more crippling consequences of growing up in a racist society. He'd read widely in adventure literature, learned to sail, studied commercial diving, traveled to Europe and Australia working on oil rigs and underwater diamond mines, and saved enough money to build the boat that he hoped would carry him around the world.
Now the dream was about to become manifest. Alone, Petersen sailed the newly christened Stella R, named for his mother, from Cape Town up the western coast of Africa, bound for England and the start of the Plymouth-to-Newport, Rhode Island, OSTAR Transatlantic Challenge, a requisite race for Petersen's entry into the 1992 BOC Challenge.
Early on, the Stella R performed well, a welcome change from the repeated disappointments and frustrations that Petersen had endured during the boat's construction. (To save money, he'd used hand-me-down and throwaway parts from other boats.) He sailed carefully, conservatively, stopping in Namibia to visit friends from his diamond-mining days, including the Afrikaner divers who at first had refused to work with him because of his race.
But long-distance single-handed sailing is too radical an undertaking, too much of a thrust into the unknown, to proceed without setbacks. It was the loneliness of the enterprise that first nicked him, just after he passed the equator, about two months into his voyage.
"I had just gotten up from a nap," he recalls--the brief, fitful nap of the single-handed sailor--"and I saw a ship far on the horizon. I was waving to it when the boom swung around and caught me." He fingers a one-inch scar above his left eye. "There was quite a bit of blood, and I passed out for a few minutes."
When he came to, the blood was still gushing, and he felt dizzy and nauseous. Stitches were clearly required, but Petersen lacked the supplies and the steadiness of hand for the job. The nearest port was in the Cape Verde Islands, still several days distant. Early in his first solo voyage, Petersen had encountered the heart of his calling.
"If single-handers have a common denominator," explains Mark Schrader, race director for the BOC Challenge and one of only four American sailors who've completed a five-cape single-handed circumnavigation, "it's that they're resourceful. In the academic world they'd be known as generalists. They know a lot of things: navigation, meteorology, history, electronics, as well as how to fix whatever breaks. They learn to be self-reliant, but at the same time they learn humility. Alone at sea you learn very quickly that the world doesn't revolve around you."
In this instance, Petersen became his own physician, closing the wound with a clothespin. Bloodied and humbled, he continued north. The mishap, however, was merely prologue to the travails to come.
Having cleared the Azores, on course for Europe and the English Channel, Petersen was standing at the helm on a clear, sunny day when a rending crash came from beneath his boat. The Stella R had struck the temperate-zone equivalent of an iceberg--a partially submerged container, the size of a boxcar, that had fallen from a merchant ship--and was shorn of her rudder. Petersen had once read that a bucket--an ordinary galvanized-steel bucket--could be jury-rigged as a rudder, and so with the wound above his eye still oozing he hooked the bucket to the stern. His speed was halved, but he could steer. He persisted northward, continuing to aim for England.
Passing ships offered help, but each form of refuge came at a price that Petersen couldn't afford--or wasn't prepared--to pay. He could be towed to port by a commercial ship, but would have to pay a whopping fee for the ship's inconvenience. Of course, any passing vessel was obliged to take him aboard, provided that he scuttle the Stella R. The boat and the dream, however, were Petersen's only possessions. He declined assistance, relying on his wits and the strange consolation that the sea eventually grants a lone sailor. "You get a little peek over the horizon," says Bill Pinkney, a 59-year-old single-handed sailor from the United States, who in 1992 became the first black man to make a solo five-cape circumnavigation of the globe. "You learn there's no place but right here, and no time but right now."
The days came and went, blending into weeks. The ships passed with their conditional offers of aid, but Petersen stuck to his bucket and his slow push north. Water became the next problem. Petersen's stores weren't sufficient for the added time at sea, and rough weather prevented ships from drawing close enough to replenish his supply. He slashed his daily ration from two liters a day to one, then to a half.
Gradually, imperceptibly, he began to weaken. Endurance became less a means to achieving his destination than an end in itself. "No matter how difficult things get at sea, there's always an act you can perform in response, despite how small or insignificant it might seem," explains Robin Deasey. "You learn that there's always a next step."
Petersen kept taking the next step, while the present moment seemed to keep expanding: cawing seabirds, the glint of sunlight, plastic flotsam from a distant world, ships like mirages against the horizon. When the water jugs ran dry he began slurping the liquid from cans of fruit and vegetables.
Finally, in early September, 21 days after the loss of the rudder, the sea flattened enough so that an Irish commercial fishing boat could come alongside the Stella R. Petersen was invited aboard, but when he began explaining his predicament the captain stopped him. "Go below and have a steak," Petersen was ordered, "and then we'll talk about your problems."
After a meal and a shower, Petersen began to talk, and Ireland, about 30 miles to the east, began to listen. His plight was heard over the radio by an Irish Navy cruiser, which was heading into Galway the next day. Petersen eagerly accepted its offer of a tow, even though, he says, all he knew of the country was that "it was an island to the west of England."
While aboard the fishing vessel, Petersen had used the radiotelephone to call his mother in Cape Town. This communication, in turn, was picked up by Brian Lynch, a lawyer from Galway who was sailing in the area. Lynch called a friend who worked for the Irish TV network: A black kid from South Africa intent on sailing around the world was being towed into Galway. He would reach town in the morning.
So Petersen's lilting voice preceded him onto the island. It was his voice, caroming off a satellite toward the far end of the planet, that tripped off this world-beat fable.
In the morning, in the rain, he got his first look at Galway. The gates of the harbor swung open. He was led to the customhouse to talk to some understandably curious officials, who returned with Petersen to the Stella R to search for contraband.
Back at the boat, they had to ask a knot of reporters and cameramen to please make way. Geluk had commingled with ádh. Neal Petersen had arrived in Ireland.
On a rainswept, iron-gray morning, the cold of the Atlantic pierces deep into the cramped saloon of the Stella R. Tools, books, spools of line, computer printouts, and sour sleeping bags are strewn about. The cold, clutter, and discomfort, however, seem small compared with the blessings of being back on the water. Since December, Petersen explains, he's been holed up in a drafty warehouse five miles from town, living aboard the Stella R with his girlfriend, Gwen Wilkinson, subsisting on about $70 a month.
"These last few months in dry dock have been very tough," Petersen says, his lilt riding on the dank air like a whiff of jasmine. "Financially tough, emotionally tough." The complaint is softened by an almost omnipresent smile. It's a remarkably gentle and reassuring smile, creasing a long brown face framed by black curls and a scraggly beard. His body is deceptively willowy. On land and sea, Petersen moves with striking economy and lightfootedness, like a pirate.
"Gwen and I have had to live not day-to-day, but hour-to-hour," he says. "We've literally had to scrape along the bottom of the boat for a few pence to buy a cup of tea." He gestures around him. "You see, this is where we live. This is all we have. We can never just turn off the lights for the evening and walk away. We go to sleep and have nightmares about the boat. We wake up, and the boat is the first thing we see."
This past week, Petersen and Wilkinson, a russet-haired 21-year-old who recently graduated from University College Galway, had hoped to reap some rewards for their difficult winter. They planned to get the Stella R into the water, test out the repairs and additions (Petersen had added a couple of feet to the boat to meet BOC specifications), and break free for the shakedown cruises that will culminate at the BOC starting line. They achieved the first of these aims, but the incessant gales and storms lashing the boat day and night have kept them miserably confined to port.
And now, resting briefly in the rocking saloon, Petersen reads more bad news: In South Africa yesterday there was another massacre, this one in front of the African National Congress headquarters in Johannesburg. Only a month remains before his native country's first free elections. Three years have passed since he last saw his parents.
Petersen strokes his billy-goat beard as he pores over the newspaper page and breaks off another chunk from a bar of chocolate. Then, as he does countless times each day, he looks out to sea, tasting the air, reading the lay of the wind and water.
The weather remains abysmal. Squalls batter the docks, whitecaps ruffle the surface of Galway Bay. Another day on land, Petersen realizes, calculating the rapidly shrinking number of weeks before he must leave Galway. He is about to commit himself to the world, and he can't say where the world will lead him over the next year of relentless sailing. The morning seems ripe for some initial farewells.
Petersen's first stop is the Travelers camp, a place far removed from Galway's tourist haunts but close to the heart of Ireland's rich and shadowed history. The camp occupies a bare, rutted hill a few miles from the shed where Petersen spent the winter. He walks through a landscape of dilapidated trailers ("caravans," in Irish parlance), scrounging dogs, and freckled, red-haired children whose teeth are yellowed by neglect and poverty.
"Is this where Paddy stays?" Petersen asks a bearded man. "Where's Paddy?" he repeats to a sullen woman serving tea to her children.
As he tracks down Paddy he talks about the Travelers, Ireland's gypsies, who for centuries held an ambivalent but necessary place in the economy and culture. They were master tinsmiths, wizards with their hands. They would also work the crops, traveling from county to county with the seasons, setting up temporary camps in their wagons, which until the last few decades were horse-drawn. They kept to themselves and were stigmatized for their clannish ways.
But now their traditional economic role has evaporated. There's no market for the tinker's trade. The Travelers now roam Ireland on the dole and are even more generally feared and despised. No parents want a Traveler child in their kids' classroom; no homeowner wants to see a Traveler on his doorstep.
Paddy Donovan finally turns up in a commons room. A thin, stolid man of 22 with a nearly impenetrable accent, he is clearly delighted to see Petersen, who's come to be a hero among the Travelers, just as he has to many other Irish.
Petersen's celebrity, while genuine, has not happened by accident. Indeed, his fame seems as much a product of design as his landing in Ireland seemed a working of fate. Petersen began his PR campaign within weeks of arriving in the country, volunteering to talk about his life and ambition to sail around the world at such venues as schools, prisons, and the Travelers camps. This impulse was due partly to his natural gregariousness--he clearly loves sharing the particulars of his odyssey and inspiring others, especially young people, to pursue their own dreams--and partly to a shrewd, resourceful streak worthy of Odysseus himself.
"If you haven't got deep pockets in this sport, you better have something else," observes Bill Pinkney. "Luckily, Neal's got the gift of gab."
It is a gift that Petersen spends prodigally, obsessively, seeming to dwell sometimes at a far point on the psychological continuum where devotion approaches megalomania. He continuously spins his story--his charming African lilt caressing the details--to reporters, potential sponsors, strangers in pubs, the constant trickle of people from far and near who are drawn to the Stella R and her skipper. The Irish, in turn, have shown an almost insatiable appetite to listen: Petersen has been the subject of scores of press and TV stories. In May, an Irish publisher released his autobiography, No Barriers.
Petersen met Donovan and his friend Willie McDonagh after he'd presented a slide show at the Travelers camp the previous autumn. Petersen explained that he needed help building a bulkhead; the men had never been on a boat but were happy to turn their hands to the challenge.
"Thanks to Paddy and Willie, I was able to come in under budget," Petersen says with a smile.
"Aw, Neal's a good man tuh work with," Paddy responds shyly. "When yuh make a mistake he don't jump on yuh how a lot will."
"When I told people I was working with Travelers, they warned I'd be ripped off," Petersen says. "They said I'd be ruined. But I never got that feeling. In South Africa you're told that blacks are lazy, that they'll steal you blind. So I understand the attitude. There's a great deal of fear behind it--fear based on the unknown."
Paddy rubs his jaw reflectively. "Yuh be leavin' soon then, Neal?"
"In a few weeks," Petersen replies, his smile fading. "If this weather ever breaks. I want to get you out before then, Paddy. I want to take you and Willie sailing."
Paddy shrugs, feigning indifference, barely biting back a smile of excitement. "That'd be fine then, Neal."
Neal petersen came to the sea through his father, a Lesotho, whose own mother came from Bontehevao, one of the meanest of South Africa's black townships. But Eddy Petersen willed himself to a better life, working as a diver for abalone and lobster off the Indian Ocean beaches of the Cape Province.
The family lived in a mixed-race, working-class neighborhood of Cape Town. They considered themselves well-off by nonwhite standards: Neal and his sister had food, a roof, and clean school uniforms. But when Petersen was still a small boy, politics caught up with the family. It was decided that commercial divers must obtain a license. Only a certain number of licenses were available, and white divers were given priority. Forced from the sea, Eddy Petersen became a night-shift security guard at a textile factory.
"Dad was broken by losing his diving business," Petersen recalls. "He lost his fight. His world changed. He became a very defeated man--working in a factory, not being able to give his children the things he wanted to. But Dad was still able to introduce me to the sea. On his time off he would take me out diving with him. We would pitch a tent and snorkel, without tanks or wetsuits. He loved to swim. We fought on land--the usual father-son stuff--but in the water he and I were a team."
Petersen's love for the sea was enhanced by the fact that he was born without a socket in the joint of his left hip. He endured a series of painful bone grafts and related operations, one of which, at age six, left him in a body cast for four months. "I couldn't run and tumble like other kids," Petersen says. "Instead, I read. With books, I could disappear into somebody else's life. The books that captured me most were the ones about sailing. I remember Sir Francis Chichester's Along the Clipper Way. It was a tremendous joy when I could get rid of all the crutches. I built a tree house and sailed the sea with a rope ladder."
The reading and dreaming were gifts from his mother, a woman of Dutch Madagascan lineage who had won a one-year scholarship to Syracuse University in the 1940s. She returned to South Africa and graduated from Cape Town University, after which she devoted herself to teaching science at a mixed-race high school. Education was revered in the Petersen household. Stella tutored children in all subjects, and when many of the nonwhite schools were closed after the Soweto uprising of 1976, she ran classes out of her students' homes. The parents scrimped and saved so that Neal's older sister could be educated in England. They were prepared to make similar sacrifices for their dreamy, sickly, bookish son. But already Neal was pursuing an education of his own design.
One day when he was 12, Petersen and his father were planning to go deep-sea fishing on a boat belonging to the parents of one of his mother's former students. At the wharf, however, Neal became enthralled by a white man's yacht. The man invited him to come aboard for a sail. "Before, when we went out fishing, I used to get seasick," says Petersen. "But on the yacht I didn't feel seasick. The sails, the wind in my face, the quiet--I thought it was heaven. Afterward the man told me that if I wanted to learn to sail, I should go to the Royal Cape Yacht Club. I'd have a better chance there of getting on a boat."
With the ingenuousness of youth, Petersen followed the advice, presenting himself at one of apartheid-era South Africa's bastions of white privilege. "As a kid you don't see the obstacles," Petersen reflects. "If someone says no to a 12-year-old, he takes the refusal at face value. Only when you're older do you learn to read into it. I would often ask 50 people in the course of a day to please take me out sailing. I knew that eventually somebody would say yes."
To reach the yacht club from his segregated neighborhood, Petersen would ride the train 12 miles and then walk another half-hour. To be at the club by nine in the morning he would leave his house at 7:30 A.M. He sailed at least three times a month, usually on Sundays, and every day during the summer racing weeks.
"That training turned me into the kind of sailor I am today. I see myself as a plodder. I persevere until the boat and I are working as a well-oiled machine. I've never had a high-tech boat at my disposal to compensate for my mistakes."
So Petersen became a wharf rat, a curiosity, an African yachting factotum, the kind of good-humored, polite, capable boy whom everybody likes; a boy who always seemed to be accommodating himself to the world; a boy whose inner strength was in fact drawing the world to him.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1982, the leaders of the maiden BOC challenge began arriving in Cape Town, the first of three stops on the race route (the others that year were in Sydney and Rio de Janeiro). In the United States, the event might have made the agate type in the Monday morning sports section. In sailing-mad Cape Town, it was like Derby Day.
Petersen was on the water when the third-place sailor, an Englishman named Richard Broadhead, approached the harbor. Petersen rushed to shore and took the mooring line from Broadhead as he berthed. The 14-year-old boy was invited on board. At that instant, all the vague longings and hard lessons of his life crystallized into one desire.
"That very moment was when I decided that one day I was going to do the BOC," Petersen says. "I knew then I was going to sail around the world."
On the morning after visiting the Travelers camp, Petersen, with slide projector in tow, carries the sea and his stories to the children of Galway's Claddagh School. Images click up in Kodachrome lozenges on the white classroom wall: Petersen in scuba gear by a flaming outcrop of coral; the Stella R in sunny waters, dolphins playing beside her. Outside, cold rain teems at the classroom window. Inside, the children's faces open like petals in the slide projector's light.
The classroom could be taken from a travel poster: wool sweaters, porridge-and-cream complexions, the presiding crucifix. The scene might appear archetypally Gaelic, were it not for the dark, skinny Jeremiah proclaiming in front of the neat rows of desks.
"What can you do to prevent this?" Petersen demands, clicking to the next slide: a sea turtle with its neck caught in the noose of a plastic six-pack container.
"What can you do to clean up the environment?" he repeats. The kids stare back, slack-jawed. Then, striding among the rows of desks, the uniformed students watching with wide eyes, Petersen begins to pick up crumpled papers on the floor.
"Look at this! Look at all this trash around your desks!" he thunders. "This is how to start cleaning up the environment, by cleaning up the place where you are now! If you don't start in your own classroom, you'll end up throwing stuff around at the beach. Do you want to be responsible for this?"
He points again to the suffering turtle, damned, apparently, by the housekeeping sins of the children of Claddagh School. Lacking the MTV cynicism of their American counterparts, starstruck by their speaker and heirs to centuries of Irish Catholic guilt, the kids drink deeply of the lesson.
From brimstone, Petersen shifts to the path to salvation. "I grew up in a working-class family," he says in a quieter voice. "I grew up not having very much. And I couldn't run and play like the other children. I was born without a hip socket and had to endure many operations. But still I could read and dream."
Petersen pronounces the word with the rolling r of Cape Province English: "dr-r-r-ream." The projector clicks; on the wall the Stella R slips along cerulean waters near the Cape of Good Hope.
"Now, when I came home with my dream, my parents didn't understand it. But they did not discourage me. They did not say I couldn't achieve that dream. They said, 'Go to work and make your dream come true.'"
A teacher enters the classroom and takes a meaningful look at the clock. This is the final day before Easter vacation, and school will be dismissed early. But none of the children stirs.
"Neal," whispers a red-haired boy. "Take as long as you want to."
Half an hour later, walking with Wilkinson across Galway back to the Stella R, Petersen assesses his performance. He doesn't think he came down too heavily on the environmental talk. Petersen feels passionately about saving the world's seas; in fact, by the time he's ready to race in the BOC, he will have rechristened his boat Protect Our Sealife.
He and Wilkinson cross the wide, foaming River Corrib, which bisects the city, and continue through the 500-year-old Spanish Arch. "I usually bomb at universities," Petersen says, musing on his other public-speaking experiences. "The students have no curiosity, they don't seem to understand at all what I'm talking about. The convicts, on the other hand, I find delightful. I've been asked to speak in some of the maximum-security prisons around the country, ones full of felons and guys from the IRA. They seem to understand exactly what I'm trying to accomplish."
Petersen falls silent for a few strides, then adds: "Alone in a cell in the middle of a prison, alone in a boat in the middle of an ocean, maybe there's not so great a difference."
They continue walking, their faces blanched by the prevailing winds. Weather excepted, it was Petersen's geluk to be towed to one of the more felicitous places on the planet. Within an hour's drive of Galway lie both the world-famous Connemarra district and the Cliffs of Moher, landscapes combining the drama of Big Sur or the Kona Coast with a soulfulness imbued by the presence of thousand-year-old castles. Galway itself reflects both cosmopolitan and homespun Irish values, wearing a relatively benign veneer of tourism over an ancient Gaelic core, while supporting thriving arts and university communities. In Galway, Petersen found plentiful kindred spirits--many of them female.
As he works down the narrow, winding streets, a dozen townspeople wave and smile. "It can take Neal an hour to walk from the dock to his boat," observes Wilkinson coolly. She more than anyone winds up having to listen to him talk. "He always has time for everybody--at least it seems that way. Inside, though, the wheels are always turning."
Wilkinson met Petersen a year ago, after a talk he gave at the university where she was about to earn a bachelor's degree in history. She'd been impressed by his background, sense of destiny, and environmental activism. If she was additionally impressed by his liquid brown eyes and warm smile, she also knew something of his rap as a swordsman. When he invited her to dinner, she declined. But Petersen persisted, and in Gwen he eventually met a friend who was willing to share not only the romance of his quest, but the grit, labor, worry, and poverty as well.
In the three years since he was towed into Galway Bay, Petersen has been a man with a home but with no true country and precarious means of financial support. As an alien, he can't hold a job in Ireland. All of his public speaking has been gratis. He lives as a mendicant, devoting his full energies to his boat, relying for support on bartered or donated space, labor, and materials. Petersen counts nearly 50 people around Galway who've significantly aided his campaign; they give of their time, sweat, and heart, in part because they can't give much from their pockets.
One of Petersen's most tireless and substantial supporters has been John Killeen, a Galway resident and CEO of one of Ireland's major paving contractors. "It's a curious thing about this country," says Killeen. "Things don't tend to change much here. One generation pretty much follows another. We don't necessarily go along with all the American-style optimism and progress. Yet when Neal talks about having a dream and working to make it come true, people here listen. Maybe it's the fact that Neal's not in this to get rich. He comes from a place where he's been looked down upon, too."
Continuing on their way to the dock, Petersen and Wilkinson stop at a bakery to accept a friend's offer of tea and scones. "Whenever I get a few pennies, the boat immediately swallows them," says Petersen. "Unfortunately, I still need a few thousand dollars for the BOC entry fee." He pauses, frowning. "I don't mind working on the boat," he goes on, "and I don't mind fund-raising, but I would like to see some results from the labor. I am going to do the BOC--there's no discussion about that--but I don't want to go around the world constantly asking for money."
Tea break concluded, Petersen and Wilkinson have walked barely a block before they are stopped again, this time by a man whose long hair and seasoned jeans mark him clearly as a graduate student. His accent, however, is less easy to place. It turns out to be neither Northern nor Republican Irish, Catholic nor Protestant, but South African. He's a white Cape Town native studying at University College Galway, whom Petersen has run into before.
Like many expatriated South Africans, Petersen bears layered and complex feelings toward his native land. He knew classmates who were killed in demonstrations, and during the student uprisings of the late seventies his family was briefly forced out of the country because of his mother's activism. As popular as Petersen has become in Ireland, moreover, he remains a figure of ambivalence back home. Many members of the Royal Cape Yacht Club seem jealous of his growing fame and scoff at his ability to pull off a successful single-handed cir-cumnavigation. While many other South Africans project Petersen as a shining role model for the new, nonracial republic, none of the vastly wealthy South African corporations has stepped forward with significant sponsorship.
Petersen responds to these conflicting attitudes by keeping a measured and principled distance. A staunch pacifist, he also sails clear of the bogs of partisan politics. "I've become more a citizen of the world than any one country," he says. "Water is one of the basic inalienable rights of all people of the world, and the ocean is the greatest source of water. By arguing for the protection of the oceans, I believe, I'm most effectively fighting for basic human rights."
For a few bittersweet minutes Petersen and the graduate student stand in the wind, discussing the latest news from home: the semiautomatic-weapons fire, the bullet-ripped bodies, the pictures of the smashed plate glass in downtown Johannesberg. The remarkably peaceful and orderly transfer of power that will take place later in the spring now seems as unlikely as the Irish gales' ever relenting.
They part warmly. "Couldn't remember his name," Petersen says apologetically. "We're in similar predicaments, though. We can't stay in Ireland forever."
Upon finally reaching the Stella R, the couple's first task is to bundle Wilkinson off for a long Easter weekend at her parents' home in the Irish midlands. Exhausted from the long winter and sleepless nights on the pitching yacht, reeling from a stubborn flu bug, Wilkinson climbs into a friend's car with an almost desperate sense of relief.
Petersen tenderly waves good-bye and then switches into work clothes and falls to the task of whipping line. The job involves lugging spools of new double-braided line--an expensive yet crucial material that, again, has been donated--down to the saloon, cutting the rope to specified lengths, and sealing the cut ends with melted wax so they won't fray. His tools are a straight razor and a disposable lighter.
"There's a special kind of knife you can buy that automatically applies the wax as it cuts the line," he explains. "If I could afford one, then I'd be just about finished with this job by now." He casts a bleak eye on the thick spool of purple rope.
"On the other hand, I find this work very therapeutic. It takes my mind off fund-raising and all the other things I have to worry over. This is really what sailing's about. I've met a lot of wealthy yachtsmen who hire people to perform every job on their boats, from trimming sails to cooking." He shakes his head disgustedly. "What's the point of having a boat if somebody else does all the work for you? What's the point of living?"
After a few hours, Petersen straightens up from the rope, puts the tea kettle on the propane stove, and resumes talking. There are so many stories left to tell, so many fascinating people, so many voyages, so many fateful turnings. There's the story of his parents saving money so he could spend a year studying commercial diving in Los Angeles. During that year he traveled all through the States, spending a month backpacking and rock climbing in Yosemite, crewing on yachts up and down the Pacific Coast. On one cruise to Catalina Island he met Steven Spielberg.
There are the stories from his days as a commercial diver: proving his mettle to his Afrikaner colleagues in the rich underwater diamond mines of Namibia; earning the money for the Stella R on the North Sea oil rigs; watching a partner on an oil rig die when a gas line exploded off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.
He's barely touched upon all the stories since he came to Ireland. The OSTAR Transatlantic race in 1992, for instance: how the bon voyage party in Galway made the TV news throughout Ireland; how, during the race, high seas ripped a hole in the Stella R's hull just two days out of England. Instead of dropping out, Petersen turned around and sailed back to Baltimore, on the southern coast of Ireland. A crew of friends drove all night from Galway to meet him and worked on repairs for 36 hours straight. Petersen resumed the race, finishing in the middle of the Class IV pack.
So many stories that they seem to blur into one another. So many stories that one wonders how they could all fit into a life so short and so obscure in its origins. One wonders, finally, whether this latter-day Odysseus is in fact too good to be true.
At press time Petersen was crossing the Atlantic, en route to the start of the BOC. He still had no sponsor but did have enough money to sail the first leg from Charleston to Cape Town. If he couldn't drum up cash while on U.S. soil, he'd try his luck again with the South African corporations.
"Neal has a certain naïveté that works for him and against him," says Bill Pinkney. "But the key thing is that he just goes through life. The stuff that sticks on other people just sort of slides off him. He understands that most people need to make life complicated when it's really just there to enjoy: You're born, you make a voyage, you die."
Lines whipped and neatly stacked, Petersen undertakes a job he's been both relishing and dreading: climbing the Stella R's 57-foot mast to install the mainsail halyard.
"To me, a boat is a living thing," he says as he buckles himself into the bos'n's chair. "If the integrity of the boat is in question, then my survival is in question. When something breaks at sea, I go through a great deal of emotional stress."
He moves into position, squinting up the length of the mast, pitching and yawing in the wind. "I've been forced up the mast in the middle of a single-handed race," he says. "I was terrified. There's no one to back you up if something goes wrong."
Petersen nods, signaling a friend to begin winching. He rises in spidery jumps against the pewter sky. Halfway up the mast he pauses, taking a long look west, studying the sea as it pulses beyond the gates of Galway Harbor. "I think we're right in the eye of the front!" he calls, an edge rising in his voice. "More weather's coming--probably as bad as it's been all week--but feel that wind? We might get a few hours' break!"
Back on deck, Petersen grabs his cellular phone--whose free use, like the free dock space, is another of the in-kind perks provided by local benefactors--and punches up a friend's number. "Wim, I think we have a chance then. You'll come down? Six o'clock? Very good, Wim." Then he goes sinuously to work, rigging sheeting on the rain-slick deck, whipping more lines in the saloon below, a space lined with oil paintings done by the resoundingly absent Wilkinson.
"This is the first time we've been apart for months," Petersen says quietly, eyeing the paintings briefly. The outward observation, the subdued manner, seem jarring. Petersen's story, for a moment, hangs in abeyance. The rain drums the deck overhead. Galway, on the day before Good Friday, is a dull, distant hum. Presently a car's engine sounds, grows nearer, shuts off. Petersen swings up to the deck to greet Wim.
Like Petersen, Wim de Koning is an auslander, a 26-year-old native of the Netherlands, employed in Galway by a multinational biotechnology firm. For 15 minutes the two young men work absorbedly, mindful of the brief window of time before the rest of the front blows in. Wim tosses the last bumper to the wharf, pulls in the last line. Petersen revs the small outboard engine that will clear the Stella R of the harbor. They circle the inner harbor once, passing an Irish Navy cruiser similar to the one that three years ago first delivered Petersen to Galway. The rain beads, and the cold intensifies. The barnacled gates of the harbor slowly slide open.
With Wim at the helm, Petersen wheels agilely around the small deck, frowning at the loose lines strewn about in haste. "Steer for the buoy, Wim," Petersen says, his voice carrying easily on the sodden air.
After another moment Petersen lifts his hand. As Wim cuts the engine, wind puffs the mainsail. The prow knifes the water.
"We are sailing, my friend!" Wim calls jubilantly.
Petersen makes no response. After four months of work and talk, he's listening: to the wind and waves, to the creak of the lines and the snap and waft of the sheeting, to theStella R as she yawns and murmurs in the first moments of a long new season.
John Brant, a contributing editor of Outside, wrote about the Whole Earth Catalog crew in the April issue.