Last Time Around

The author's father traveled the world, shipped out on the last commercial sailing voyage around Cape Horn, and handed down a legacy of adventure. But his risk-taking spirit had a dark side—and its shadow fell across a final winter rendezvous in Aspen.

Oct 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS: Bill Stark, far right, and his watch mates on the foredeck of the Pamir after rounding Cape Horn, July 1949    Photo: courtesy of the Stark Family

AT 9:45 A.M. LAST JANUARY 25, my father slipped out of the Aspen hotel suite he was sharing with my mother, went to the concierge desk, and asked for one of the hotel's complimentary vans to give him a lift to Castle Creek, at the edge of town. He told the driver he wanted to take photographs from the footbridge, some 70 feet above the gorge. The driver didn't know my father wasn't carrying a camera.

My mother, Judy, still a strong and graceful skier even in her early seventies, was up on 11,000-foot Aspen Mountain at the time. She planned to meet my father for lunch and go for a walk with him in the afternoon, as she had done for the past few days. Normally my father, Bill, would have been skiing Ajax, too, as Aspen locals call the beloved mountain my family had spent vacations skiing for decades, but he was limping due to a nerve condition in his foot. Dad was about to turn 76, and this winter was the first of his adult life that he couldn't ski. Besides this physical deterioration—or perhaps because of it—he had recently been hospitalized for depression. I didn't hear him go out. I was sitting in the adjoining room at my laptop. We'd planned to meet at 10 a.m. to add finishing touches to his memoir, The Last Time Around Cape Horn. In a lifetime of adventures, this one stood out: In 1949 he'd served as an ordinary seaman on the four-masted Finnish barque Pamir. My father and the rest of the 33-man crew were the last sailors ever to round Cape Horn on a commercial sailing vessel. The voyage of the Pamir ended the Great Age of Sail.

"I want this to be good," he'd said to me at the outset of our work together on the book. "This is my swan song."

The manuscript had already been purchased by the New York publisher Carroll & Graf, as well as by publishers abroad. It would be released in November, and to promote it, he and I planned to travel together to St.-Malo, France, in May, for the last reunion of a society of old sailors who'd rounded Cape Horn on commercial sailing vessels. Despite his depression, he was pleased with the manuscript, and so was I. Now I simply hoped to keep him busy with minor editorial details, the excuse for the three of us to rendezvous in Aspen. In reality, my mother and I thought the mountains and sunshine might cheer him, maybe even inspire him to try to ski again. The alternative was another hospitalization, which he'd hated, or another change of medications, which hadn't helped, or the looming prospect of electroshock therapy, which he dreaded.

When I met him in Aspen after flying down from Montana, he looked paler and thinner than when I'd seen him last, six months earlier, at our family home in Wisconsin. Though he was now touched by the first papery brittleness of old age, his shoulders were still broad, his biceps showed bulges, his posture was mostly erect, and he seemed relaxed. But I quickly discovered that he didn't want to be kept busy "nitpicking the manuscript." He'd said what he wanted to say. It was finished. His had been a life of physical action, of bold spontaneous gestures, of drama, of fun, of decisiveness. Far more frightening to him than dangling from an ice-glazed yardarm 150 feet over the Southern Ocean was being unable to choose his own destiny. And he feared that incapacity was creeping closer each day.

At 10 a.m. I stepped into his room. He wasn't there. I checked the dressing room, the bathroom.


No answer.

I'd spoken with him in my room only half an hour earlier, asking him if he minded whether I worked a bit more on my own manuscript, a book about a first descent of a river in Africa.

"That's fine," he'd said as I handed him a history of Cape Horn to keep him busy researching some nautical details.

I looked around the empty room. Maybe he's reading down in the lobby, I thought. Then I saw the Cape Horn book, placed neatly on the floor beside his briefcase.

HE WASN'T ALWAYS SO BOLD. My grandfather often told me how firecrackers had frightened my father as a young boy. This so vexed my grandfather, a former college tackle and avid wilderness canoeist, that early one Fourth of July he hauled my father out to the garage of the family's summer home on Pine Lake, in southern Wisconsin. There, away from the prying eyes of cousins, he gave Dad lessons in how to shoot off firecrackers.

"After that he liked firecrackers," my grandfather said with a satisfied laugh.

So much of my father's adventurous spirit sprang from my grandfather, Howard Stark. Growing up in Milwaukee around the turn of the century, Howard swam competitively against rival Chicago's ace, Johnny Weissmuller—soon to be an Olympic champion and star of Tarzan movies. Instead of heading to Hollywood, my grandfather finished college and joined his family's Milwaukee candy-making company. Still, he loved to take his young son and nephews on canoe trips and teach them, for instance, how to do back flips off the cliffs of the Wisconsin Dells for passing tourist boats. He always appreciated an audience.

My grandfather encouraged my father's travels; he regretted not traveling the world himself when he was young. But they had to be squared with a family rule handed down through Howard's Prussian ancestry: The summer you turned 16, playtime ended and you landed a job during summer vacation. My father had zero interest in farmwork, Howard's choice for his own 16th summer, and even less in stirring vats of caramel or stamping out valentine hearts in the candy factory. Dad had been smitten by the romance of the sea while growing up within earshot of a Lake Michigan foghorn and racing sailboats out at Pine Lake. In the summer of 1943, he decided to ship out.

With most of the country's young men in uniform, and civilian jobs plentiful, my father rode a bus down to the Milwaukee harbor and, in the union hiring hall, easily landed a berth as a mess boy on a 1,000-foot Great Lakes ore freighter. He stepped ashore two months later with a double-size paycheck—and his father's approval—unknowingly having done the work of two mess boys.

He spent the following summers at sea. Then came a stint in the Naval Air Corps, the end of World War II, and his matriculation at Dartmouth College. The summer he was 20, he chipped paint on a Swedish freighter steaming across the North Atlantic; when it docked in Gothenburg, he looked out over the ship's railing and remarked to the Swedish third mate that he wished he could see the countryside. The third mate offered to help him jump ship, clandestinely bought him a train ticket to central Sweden—where the authorities weren't likely to find him—and had my father's seabag spirited down the gangplank in the night. Dad spent the rest of that summer hiking with a young woman named Anne-Marie. He always liked, as he put it, to "beat City Hall"—to defy authority, to pull surprises. That was a theme of his adventuring life.

SEEING THE CAPE HORN BOOK ON THE FLOOR, I ducked back into my own room, quickly dressed, laced up my hiking boots, and rushed downstairs. I remembered one odd moment. When my father had taken the book from my hand a half-hour earlier, he'd simply stood there in the middle of my room, staring at the thick carpeting, while out the big window behind him the morning's first skiers were carving down Ajax. I assumed he was brooding again—about the ongoing decline of the stock market, the decline of his strength, the decline of his physique. Earlier, I'd heard him demonstrating to my mother how he could no longer do a proper push-up. At dinners, he'd been eating like a 15-year-old anorexic, picking at his pasta, worried he was gaining weight.

"Come on, move it!" I'd commanded him to get to work with tongue-in-cheek harshness, similar to the way he had ordered me as a balking teenager into, say, sweeping out the garage. In better days he would have instantly fired back with something defiant and goading, belittling and affectionate: "It's you we're all worried about, my friend." But in this state he only said, "OK, OK," before limping into his room with the book.

Maybe he'd gone for a walk. I asked at the front desk. They'd seen him go past about 20 minutes earlier wearing a coat; he'd gotten a lift somewhere. Just then the driver, a young man named Parker Lathrope, stepped from his van.

"Where did he want to go?" I asked.

"To the footbridge over Castle Creek," Parker told me. "He said he wanted to take pictures."

"Let's go," I said, jumping into the van. "Hurry!"

I SAT SILENTLY AS THE VAN whisked down snow-packed West Hopkins the ten or 12 blocks to Castle Creek. I worked over in my mind whether he really could have done it this time. His first bout of depression hadn't struck until midlife. By then he'd completed Dartmouth and married my mother, Judy Zentner, also from a respectable Milwaukee family and an attractive sophomore at Smith College. She equaled him on the ski runs and tennis courts and was a far more conscientious student besides.

They embarked on a life that was both romantically adventurous and cozily domestic. Reconstructing the ruins of a Swedish pioneer's 110-year-old cabin in the Wisconsin woods, they had four children in quick succession: Kate, me, Sarah, and Ted. Once the four of us were old enough to go to school, my mother finished college and got a master's degree in landscape architecture.

My father was in charge of the "fun factor," as my sister Kate once put it, when he wasn't working for his father at the candy factory or writing books and articles about local history. I remember delicious Indian-summer days when my father and grandfather would appear at my grade school with a canoe strapped to the car roof and pluck me from class for a spontaneous overnight river trip. There were also family canoe trips and Aspen trips, and my parents embarked on many of their own adventures: riding bikes through Norway, canoeing the Danube, skiing the Bugaboos.

"Your father has style," my mother used to say.

It was, in many ways, an idyllic life—until the dark, Watergate-era autumn of 1973. Then in his mid-forties and president of the candy company, my father had come to believe (with some reason, as sugar prices had surged) that the family firm, and he, were headed for bankruptcy. He swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Having second thoughts, he woke my mother; he spent the next three days hospitalized in a coma. She bore it stoically and quietly, cut expenses to ease his financial worries, and made sure no one outside the family found out. None of us, including my father, realized he was manic-depressive.

I was a sophomore in college—at Dartmouth, like him—during this first suicide attempt, and it so shook me that I eventually left school for nearly a year and spent months traveling overland across Asia, as my father had done before me. Instead of a windjammer's berth, I aimed for the Himalayas to find some kind of clarity, some perspective on my life, now that one of its central pillars had suddenly and inexplicably crumbled. In different ways, his depression left a mark on all of us.

Five years later he lay down across the railroad tracks that ran past his office. Again he feared he was going broke. In the instant before impact, he flattened out between the rails while 17 cars of a freight train, its brakes locked, screeched over him. Though he suffered head contusions, he was alive. This time, the papers got hold of it. He was hospitalized for several weeks, finally diagnosed as manic-depressive, and prescribed lithium. The medicine slowed him—no longer could he keep up with my mother on the tennis court—but for the next 25 years he lived a relatively happy and productive life. Meanwhile my mother threw herself into her own work, starting a successful landscape-design firm.

Despite the lithium, thoughts of suicide remained.

"I plan to kill myself long before I start falling apart," he confided to me a few years after the freight-train incident, when he was anything but depressed. "I don't intend to spend my sunset years sitting in a rocking chair in a nursing home." He was 56 years old. "Here's where I let him off," Parker, the van driver, said, pulling up to a snowbank at the street's end, with a path wending past it.

I leaped out and sprinted down the snow-packed path. I could hear Parker, now fully understanding my urgency, sprinting right behind me.

OVER THE YEARS I'VE WONDERED how many other adventurers and explorers were manic-depressive—if the condition's highs and lows don't somehow lend themselves to grandiose geographical schemes like chasing halfway around the world for an improbable berth on a windjammer. Meriwether Lewis set out across a continent with William Clark, then apparently committed suicide three years after the return of the Corps of Discovery.

And life aboard a windjammer provided its own highs and lows. The second day out from Port Victoria, May 29, 1949, my father was walking aft on the midship deck when the big English bosun—the ship's enforcer of authority—called out "Yank!" and pointed to the top of the mainmast, ordering my father to clear the fouled windsock that hung from the ship's uttermost pinnacle. My father, who had never been aloft, remained rooted to the deck. "You aren't on your daddy's yacht now!" the bosun shouted, giving him an abrupt shove in the back. "This is what you signed on for! Get aloft!"

For long minutes my father clambered up the ratlines past sails as large as tennis courts, then clung with one hand to the slender spar, nearly 200 feet above the sea, while untangling the windsock with the other, and finally returned to deck, where the bosun had been watching him.

"That's the way she should fly," he said. "Good on ya, Yank!"

"I was as elated as I'd ever been in my life," my father wrote in his memoir.

What began as a lighthearted adventure, however, turned into a hellish trip. As the ship entered the Roaring Forties and then the Furious Fifties on the 6,000-mile run across the Southern Ocean, storm after winter storm slammed the Pamir. Sails were blown to shreds. Icy green walls of water staved in skylights. Despite her big steel hull, the Pamir hardly differed in living conditions from a 17th-century square-rigger: She carried no engine or working radio, there was no heat but the galley stove, and the sailors worked the traditional and exhausting "four hours on, four hours off" watches. Even the brief rests were shattered by "three-whistle" emergencies summoning all hands, when the sailors would tumble from their sodden bunks and a few minutes later be clinging to a yardarm far above the black sea.

"I would have done anything to get off that ship," my father wrote in his memoir. "But there was nothing I could do, short of jumping overboard and swimming for the coast of Patagonia, several thousand miles away."

Were these second thoughts the inevitable downside of a manic upsurge? Or maybe it wasn't just mania that inspired these journeys. More than anything, my father loved the sheer exhilaration of it all. I remember one sultry August evening during my twenties, quietly sitting with my father and my brother at the dinner table on my parents' screened porch, overlooking the same Wisconsin lake where Dad had spent his summers sailing as a youth. We were finishing dessert and a bottle of red wine when a violent thunderstorm rolled in. "Boys," my father said, looking out at the chaos of whitecaps, sheets of rain, and bolts of lightning thrashing the lake, "what do you say we get in the canoe and go surf those waves?"

And so we did, wildly, laughingly, in the rain and wind, thunder and lightning.

HE WASN'T ON THE BRIDGE. I jammed my head over the railing on the gorge's upstream side: nothing but the pretty stream burbling over rocks and between snowbanks 70 feet below. I rushed to the other side—and saw a figure in a blue parka and tan corduroys sprawled in the creek.

"There he is!" I shouted.

With Parker now taking the lead, we raced off the far end of the footbridge and tore down the steep embankment through cottonwoods and hip-deep snow. The sun had just broken through clouds over Ajax Mountain. We found him lying faceup in the shallow, crystalline water, eyes open but unseeing, looking like my father—not smashed up, at least outwardly—but definitely dead. His arms were outstretched, his legs more or less together, his feet up on shore. The snowbank showed splash marks but no footprints. My first reaction was anger. I remember pacing back and forth over the hard bank, kicking at the snow.

"Goddammit, Dad! I can't believe it! Why did you do this?"

My mind raced over what I could have done—should have done—to prevent it, and what I could do now. I pressed his neck for a pulse. None. His skin felt cool. I left him lying in the icy water. If there was a chance of reviving him, the frigid water was his best hope.

Even as Parker called 911 on his cell phone and sirens started wailing somewhere up above, my anger began to dissipate in the sparkling, sunlit gorge. The medical rescue team charged down the embankment, pulled my father from the water, and with cool professionalism went to work. I was now a spectator. Part of me hoped they'd manage to revive him and part of me hoped they wouldn't. The prospect of brain damage, paralysis, oxygen bottles, a wheelchair—any of those would have been a living hell for everyone, but most of all for him.

I stood at a distance and thought, He'll be 76 in two weeks. What's wrong with dying now? "Do you mind telling me just what it is I'm supposed to be sticking around for?" he'd said to me at one point last fall. I didn't have a good answer for him.

A young Aspen police officer named Chip Seamans walked over to check on me. "Your dad must have been quite a guy," he said. "For someone his age, he was pretty chiseled."

How he would have loved to have heard that!

At 11:13 a.m., the emergency doctor on duty at the Aspen Valley Hospital pronounced him dead. I later realized, from the way I found him lying in the creek, that he probably had done a back layout off the bridge. He'd died as he'd lived—with a bold gesture, a flair for the dramatic, adamantly refusing to become a frail old man. More than his death itself, what unleashed cascades of tears from my mother, my siblings, and me was to think how he may have suffered mentally on his way there.

Therein lies one of the pitfalls of an adventurous spirit. If you define yourself only by your exploits and travels, your feats of physical courage, when the time comes that you can no longer live such a life, you've lost the standard by which you measure yourself.

It's the last lesson I learned from my father.

IN MAY I TRAVELED TO ST.-MALO, an ancient walled seaport on Brittany's coast, for the sailors' reunion. It was in a tavern here in 1937 that six sea captains founded the brotherhood of Cape Horn sailors, the Amicale Internationale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap-Horniers, which was eventually opened to any sailor who'd rounded Cape Horn on a deep-sea commercial sailing vessel but adamantly excluded "sportsmen" rounding on "yachts." Thus, it's been impossible to qualify for full membership in the AICH since 1 a.m. on July 11, 1949, when the Pamir, under full sail and a starlit sky, doubled the Horn with my father aboard.

It was decided long ago that the 2003 St.-Malo gathering would mark the last of the annual AICH "congresses," as the membership had dwindled from several thousand to a few hundred aged men. The group would then disband forever—"to end in beauty," as the president put it, "and die in dignity." I went alone to the elegant champagne-and-caviar receptions, the flag-raising ceremonies with military bands, the dedications of monuments. I sat in a pew next to an old Finnish Cape Horner and his wife during the memorial service in St.-Malo's great Gothic cathedral, the sea crashing just beyond the city walls. Hundreds of relatives and well-wishers attended the service, plus a few dozen of the old Cape Horners, with their blue blazers and white hair.

"And now let us pray for all sailors," intoned the priest into the dim and towering stone spaces, "for those who go down to the sea in ships, and follow their trade in great waters. Keep them in their hour of special need."

The 12 chapter presidents read off the names of Cape Horners who had "crossed the bar"—died—since the last congress. The German chapter had lost scores of members in the past year, the land Islands of Finland had lost dozens, and the North American chapter—tiny to begin with—had lost two.

"William Stark. After weathering many storms, may he have found a safe and tranquil sea."

Peter Stark's book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival will be published in March 2014 by Ecco.

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