Thursday, March 31, 2005


My sailing education began with the instruction I received from Mr. Durant on his little sailboat, Blenny, during our summer vacation in Waupaca, Wisconsin in 1968. After we got our own boat the next year, my dad, who has always been good at figuring things out, helped refine some of Mr. Durant’s lessons. He bought a copy of Royce’s Sailing Illustrated, which put into words and pictures all the fundamental concepts, and we spent the next few summers working them out.

As a Boy Scout, I looked forward to spending a week each summer at Camp LeFeber near Wabeno, Wisconsin. It was a chance to work on merit badges that were almost impossible to get back home in Milwaukee, especially what were referred to as the waterfront merit badges. Over the course of three summers, from 1970 to 1972, I earned all that were offered: swimming, canoeing, rowing, lifesaving and small-boat sailing. Lifesaving was the most difficult by far, but small-boat sailing was the most fun. The camp had a couple of different sailboats of different designs. The only ones I remember now are some Sunfishes and the one they called the Yellow Submarine. It was a Flying Gunther rig, which is like a gaff rig with the shorter second mast going all the way to vertical. The trouble with the design of this boat was that the mast was situated so far forward that on a run, with the wind directly off the stern, the forward pressure on the mast would be so great that the front end of the boat would go completely underwater. Thus the name: Dive! Dive! Dive! Despite this tendency, which was terrifying the first time it happened and fun every time after that, I learned a lot from my counselor, “SS,” and finished the week with the merit badge in hand.

I didn’t receive any additional sailing instruction until almost thirty years later, in 2000. I had started looking into what it would take to charter a sailboat on vacation and was not surprised to discover that the charter companies would not rent their boats out to just anyone; the liability was too high. To be eligible, one had to have previous charter experience or a certificate from a recognized sailing school. Since I had never chartered before, other than acting as “captain” on a houseboat on Lake Powell during Columbus Day weekend in 1998, it seemed I had no choice but to enroll in some classes. The closest facility to Aspen I could find that offered approved sailing classes was The Anchorage, a sailboat dealer and chandlery incongruously located just 250 miles away in Lyons, Colorado ( Fortunately, I had friends down the road in Boulder, Andy and Angie Bigford, that I could stay with during the long weekends that were required by the classes. In autumn 2000, I took three of the American Sailing Association classes in a row: Basic Keelboat Sailing, Basic Coastal Cruising and Bareboat Chartering. The on-water sections of the first two classes took place on Carter Lake, a man-made reservoir about thirty miles northeast of Boulder. Our instructor, Terry Killian, took us out in his Hunter sloop and made us demonstrate what he had taught us in the classroom above the showroom at The Anchorage. This was followed by written tests given in the cabin of the boat back at the dock. I passed the first two classes and so was eligible for the third.

The final class was more of an impromptu vacation trip than it was a sailing class. The students, Jim, Steve, Al, Doug and I, met with Terry at a restaurant near The Anchorage to plan the details, then we all met at Florida Yacht Charters in Miami about three weeks later, in mid-October. Over the next four days and three nights, we sailed a 41-foot Hunter named “Grande Child” from the yacht harbor in South Beach to Key Largo and back. Along the way, we experienced many of the joys and terrors of ocean sailing.

The first day out, we motored past the freight docks and Fisher Island, then hoisted sails and sailed south down the Intracoastal Waterway on a course we plotted carefully with our charts and compass to our anchorage in the lee of a small island, Pumpkin Key. Doug, Al and I went snorkeling, only to find there was nothing to see but sea grass. The bottom was muddy—not good holding ground—so when the wind picked up during the night, a warning horn from a nearby sailboat alerted us that we were dragging anchor. It took us three more tries to get it reset and get back to bed.

The next day, we motored out of the Intracoastal between two mangrove-covered keys and out into the open ocean. The wind that day was brisk, so we spent the morning working on sail trim, trying to coax maximum performance from the boat. At one point, we were heeled over so far that a stack of plates in the galley fell over and broke, scattering shards everywhere. We made such good time that we arrived at Key Largo just after lunchtime. Terry took advantage by making us practice our heaving to and man overboard drills.

The idea behind the man overboard drill is to get the person who has fallen overboard back on board as quickly as possible. The recommended way to do this is to throw the person a life buoy and have a crew member keep an undisturbed eye on them while the rest of the crew puts the boat into a beam reach to build speed quickly, then comes about and heads back toward the person, leaving plenty of room to round back up into the wind and approach the person to windward. As the boat slows, crew members use a boat hook and muscle power to wrestle the person and the life buoy back into the boat. This figure-8 maneuver becomes second nature with practice, and Terry had each of us man the helm while we repeated it over and over using a boat fender as our overboard man. I managed to garner Terry’s wrath twice: once by throwing a life buoy at our floating fender ("Now we have TWO things to rescue!"); and once by going too far forward with the boat hook, only to have a flapping jib sheet whip off my ball cap and sunglasses. The sunglasses I managed to recover but the cap, a treasured souvenir from a trip to the British Virgin Islands, was lost.

We arrived at Key Largo about mid-afternoon. After showers and clean clothes, we headed to the Coconuts bar for happy hour, then to the Fish House for dinner. Just two days into the trip, tensions were starting to run high between some of the crew members, so when we returned to Coconuts to watch Monday Night Football, Steve and Doug almost got into a fight. Steve had been openly critical of Doug a couple of times on the boat, and alcohol just added to the emotion. Doug said to hell with Steve and the rest of us, he was jumping ship. I tried to explain to him that if he did that, he wouldn’t pass the course and get his bareboat chartering certificate. The anger he was feeling would pass, but the resentment of failing the course would last a long time and prevent him from doing what he really wanted to do, which was to charter a sailboat on his own. He said he would think about it and stumbled off to spend the night on a poolside chaise lounge under a beach towel.

The next morning, everyone was not only nursing hangovers but also on edge over the conflict the night before. Doug had grudgingly returned in time for our departure. The return north was a quiet, uneventful one, with most of the crew working on their navigation skills or helping at the helm or sails. Our destination that afternoon was Boca Chica, a tiny island once owned by the Honeywell family and featuring one of the only lighthouses in the area. Rumor had it that during prohibition, Mr. Honeywell would boat over to the mainland to tie one on and then find his way home by way of his little lighthouse. Now the island is abandoned, but it’s still a popular overnight spot for the Miami boating crowd. We spent the afternoon practicing our docking and backing down skills at the concrete-lined harbor, until Terry had used up all his available patience. Since this would be our final night out, we were planning something special, a steak and baked potato barbecue. But as darkness descended, the mosquitoes came out in force, so instead of eating at the picnic tables near our grill, we retreated to the boat. After dinner, it was time for our final exam. It was harder than we expected but everyone passed it. A couple of celebratory beers later, we were all ready for bed.

The final stretch back to Miami the next morning started early because Jim had an early flight to catch back to Colorado. We departed at dawn, with me at the helm. There was a light fog on the water, so the navigation buoys that would normally keep us on track in sufficiently deep water as we departed the island were difficult to see. Even with two crew members at the bow with binoculars, we still managed to get off track and run the boat’s wing keel firmly into the mud on the bottom. Terry took charge and ordered all of us forward on the lee side of the boat to heel it over in an attempt to lever the keel out of the mud. It took the addition of having Terry gun the engine and swing the wheel back and forth to finally get us free, but we managed it. The fog had burned off by then, so we were able to navigate smoothly back to deeper water in Biscayne Bay, then on to our starting point four days earlier at Florida Yacht Charters. It seemed more like a month since we had started out, the experience of those few days was so compressed. Jim took off in a taxi to catch his flight while Terry debriefed the rest of us and signed our log books. The trip was over.

Looking back on it now, I think we all learned a great deal not only about sailing, but also about each other, and about ourselves. I think this is probably true of every experience where we intentionally remove ourselves from our daily routines. Adventure is the surest path to self-knowledge and also to being truly alive.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


When I was almost 11 years old, about the same age that I started to develop an interest in sailing, I remember reading a 1969 National Geographic article about a young man who had just become the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. His name was Robin Graham, and he immediately became my hero. If someone just a few years older than I was could sail around the world, then why couldn’t I? This was the start of the dream.

I didn’t hear anything more about Robin until his book, Dove, taking its title from the name of his 24-foot sloop, was published a few years later, in 1972. I checked it out of the library and read it in just a few days. If the dream had been waning, it was quickly rekindled. I even had a name for my dream’s future sailboat: Impossible Dream. The Man from La Mancha must have been big at that time. (As coincidence would have it, I met Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mt. Everest, about five years ago at a book signing, and part of his slideshow focused on his family sailing around the world in their large steel-hulled sailboat, Impossible Dream.)

I reread Dove a few years ago in anticipation of taking a series of American Sailing Association sailing courses. It was just as I remembered it, but I had the greater appreciation that comes from age for the dangers and doubts that Robin experienced. As I retraced his route on the giant world map in my office, the reality of taking five years to sail 33,000 miles was staggering. But the dream persisted. And it started to evolve into a plan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Where the name comes from

The name "Whispering Jesse" has multiple meanings for me. It is the name of one of my favorite ski runs at Snowmass, a steep and rolling slope punctuated with islands of spruce trees that give the illusion of intense speed when passed at close range. It is also the title of one of my favorite John Denver songs. Some of his fans think the song is about his daughter Jesse Belle, but she was born after the first album to include the song, Higher Ground, was released in March, 1988. More likely, Jesse Belle was named after the song.

Here are the lyrics:

I often have wandered in deep contemplation
It seems that the mind runs wild when you’re all alone
The way that it could be
The way that it should be
Things I’d do differently if I could do them again

I’ve always loved spring time, the passing of winter
The green of the new leaves and life goin’ on
The promise of morning
The long days of summer
Warm nights of loving her beneath the bright stars

I’m just an old cowboy from high Colorado
Too old to ride anymore, too blind to see
I sleep in the city now
Away from the mountains
Away from the cabin we always called home

I dream I left there
On an old Palomino
Whispering Jesse rode right by my side
I long to hold her
To hear her soft breathing
The touch of her cool hands on my fevered brow

Whispering Jesse still rides in the mountains
Still sings in the canyons
Still lives in my heart

Words and music by John Denver

I like to think that John, who was an avid skier, also liked the ski run, so much that he put its name into his song.

But the significance of the song for me is more about John than it is about the song itself. I had the great good fortune to know John during the final years of his life. We were introduced by his assistant Stephanie Ryan shortly after she started working for him in 1994. Stephanie had worked for Marty Stouffer of Wild America fame for several years as a producer, and I was their computer consultant. When she left Marty to work for John, she suggested to him that they use me for their computer needs. It was the highlight of my professional career.

During the next three years, I got to know John both professionally and personally. He had always been an advocate for technology, especially as it positively affected the environment in ways such as reducing tree cutting and paper waste. He was a late adoptee of personal computers for his own use, however, so I spent many hours teaching him how to use his Macintosh laptop computers to do word processing and email, conduct research on the Internet, and generally keep his hectic life better organized. He was an eager student and would actually utter his famous "Far out!" when he had a new revelation about his computer and what it could do. He was also a humble man, astonished that a Yahoo search on his name would result in thousands of matches.

I saw John for the last time on the Tuesday evening before his death on Sunday, October 12, 1997. Stephanie and I were up at his house in Starwood getting him organized for his trip to Monterey. Stephanie was working on his agenda and I was working on making sure his laptop’s dial-up access would work when he got out there. John was in a great mood, more interested in socializing than in planning his trip. He had just recorded a new song, Yellowstone, that he wanted us to hear. So we went into his home studio to listen to a tape of it. There are some wolf howls in the song, so John was howling along while Stephanie and I laughed uncontrollably. Then we were off to his little music nook to hear a brand-new song he was still working on. He grabbed a guitar off the wall from among several hanging there, pulled out his piano bench, sat down, and immediately launched into the song. I can’t remember the melody but the lyrics told the story of two old lovers running into each other after many years. It reminded me a little of Harry Chapin’s Taxi, or Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue. More than anything, I was enthralled by the sound of his voice in that small space. I had seen John perform at Fiddler’s Green in Denver during his 1995 tour, but it was completely different to experience a personal concert. He strummed out of the song after a few minutes and said, "There’s a bridge that goes in there, but I don’t have it figured out yet." Stephanie and I just stared. "So what do you think?" he asked. All I could think to say was, "I can’t believe you can just pull a guitar off the wall, sit down and start playing like that! No tuning or anything!" He smiled one of his patented broad smiles and said, "But John, this is what I do."

Later, after Stephanie left to go home, John and I shared a couple of Fat Tires while making sure that he knew what he had to do to access his email and agenda from Monterey. When I was sure he had it down, I told him it was time to go. Since I had parked down by the guest house, he saw me out his back door. It was raining lightly. I thanked him for the music and the beer, and he thanked me for the computer help, then he said he was going to go sit and watch the storm roll in for a while. He clapped me on the back and then waved good-bye as I walked away.

I can’t find the quote now, but John once said that he had performed all over the world, and the thing that struck him wherever he went was that people are the same everywhere, that everybody wants the same things from life. I want to experience that feeling myself, to explore the world, meet the world’s people, and share in that sense of world community. To honor John’s memory, the sailboat that will take me there one day will be named Whispering Jesse.

Addendum 2/9/08: A loyal John Denver fan located the quote I couldn't find and sent it to me: "My music and all my work stem from the conviction that people everywhere are intrinsically the same," Denver said in a 1995 interview. "When I write a song, I want to take the personal experience or observation that inspired it and express it in as universal a way as possible. I'm a global citizen. I've created that for myself, and I don't want to step away from it. I want to work in whatever I do - my music, my writing, my performing, my commitments, my home and personal life - in a way that is directed towards a world in balance, a world that creates a better quality of life for all people."

Monday, March 14, 2005


Hello, my name is John and this is the first post to my new Web log, Whispering Jesse. This blog will be an account of my dream to sail around the world. There is much more to life than the pursuit of a dream, but this blog will focus only on those aspects of life that contribute to the fulfillment of my dream. Here we go...

I grew up sailing in Wisconsin. My family would vacation in the Chain of Lakes area near Waupaca every summer with the same families. One of the families owned a Butterfly sailboat they named "Blenny". The father, Mr. Durant, would take the kids out on Round Lake one at a time to introduce them to sailing. I was ten years old in 1968 when I went sailing for the first time. I was excited by the speed and the spray, and I was impressed by the command Mr. Durant seemed to have over the wind through the control of his boat. I wanted to learn how to sail just like him. He was a good teacher and introduced me to all the basics: different reaches, coming about, maintaining a heading, reading the wind by watching the water, and the other skills necessary to sail safely and confidently.

I was so into sailing by the end of the vacation, as was my dad from his own experiences with Mr. Durant, that we convinced the family to get a small sailboat of our own the following summer. We bought a newly introduced AMF Alcort model, the Minifish, in June of 1969. It was a scaled-down version of a Sunfish, with an 11-foot, 9-inch hull that weighed 75 pounds. It had a weight limit of 300 pounds, which was perfect for Dad and two of the kids. Despite the small hull, the sail area was pretty close to Sunfish size, so our Minifish, which my mom christened "Chelsea Morning" after the Joni Mitchell song, was a quick little boat. She featured a hiking stick on the tiller and a nylon hiking strap across the small cockpit, standard equipment on a racing boat, so I came to think of her as a one-man racing Sunfish.

We sailed Chelsea Morning frequently over the next several summers and well into my adult years. I still have her. She is leaning against a protected wall outside our house in Aspen, Colorado. During our short summers, my wife Nan and I sometimes take her up to Ruedi Reservoir, about an hour away, to launch her from Freeman Mesa. The reservoir is small and narrow, and the winds tend to swirl wildly around the surrounding mountains, but it's always fun to get reacquainted with the childhood thrill of sailing this small boat, the thrill that has sustained my lifelong interest in sailing.