Teddy Seymour calls himself an “average man”, and average runner, and average sailor” but on June 19, 1987, at the age of 46, he achieved an extraordinary feat: He became the first black man to sail singlehandedly around the world.
The former Newport Beach sailor had a bare-bones cruising budget and little support from anyone other than his family and friends when he set out from his home in the US Virgin islands on February 24, 1986 aboard his 35 foot fiberglass sloop Love Song.
His motivation wasn’t fame and glory. “I didn’t make this (voyage) for the publicity. It’s not my style, I could have gone to New York and gotten backing, but this was a solo effort.”
He did it simply because he wanted to sail the world.
Seymour’s solo sail was so low key that the only publicity he has received is a handful of stories published in island papers and one write-up in his hometown newspaper in Yonkers, New York.
And another sailor, William Pinkney of Chicago, has announced that his circumnavigaton next year will be the first ever by a black man. Pinkney’s high profile effort has the backing of Bill Cosby, Armand Hammer and several others. But D.H. “Nobby” Clarke of Suffolk England, who has been keeping blue water sailing records for more than 50 years, confirms that the unassuming Seymour is the first black man to circumnavigate the globe alone. Seymour has also received an honorary lifetime membership in the Joshua Slocum Sailing Society, which recognizes circumnavigations.
Public recognition, however, isn’t likely to run his head or affect the people and places he visited, he prefered remote areas “untouched by the wand of progress” over more popular tourist destinations. He said he wanted to sail, not visit; aside from the pyramids, historical sites didn’t really interest him.
Along the way, he stopped at only 12 ports, including several South pacific islands, Australia’s Port Darwin, the Seychelles Islands, South Yemen, Israel, Greece, and others.
Economics prevented additional stops; Seymour said working at various ports, as other cruisers say have, wasn’t feasible. In Bora Bora, he said, “They want you to deposit thousands of dollars” to ensure you can leave.
Instead, he just cut expenses. After preparation costs of about $17,000 plus the $25,000 purchase price of the boat, he was left with cruising funds of just $6,000: $2,000 in savings, a $2,000 loan from a cousin, and a $2,000 Visa credit limit. In the end, he made it on $5,300, by following one basic rule: “Keep it simple.”
That philosophy extended to his diet. his storage lockers were filled with “one case of peanut butter, potatoes, rice, beans, oatmeal, onions, flour, and lentils,” he said.
I baked my own bread, and about once a week, caught a fish” using homemade lures constructed out of dried fish skin, aluminimum foil, candy wrappers, a teaspoon, and frayed line or electrical wire. “The hungry fish didn’t seem to mind the lack of refinement in my creations.”
A standard-sized icebox provided refrigeration for fresh meats and vegetables, and Seymour grew his own bean and alfalfa sprouts for fresh, high-protein addition to his diet.
His water supply was limited to 66 gallons in two tanks, plus whatever rain water he collected off the deck. In 17 months, he refilled the water tanks only five times.
He required medical attention only once, visiting a doctor in American Somoa for treatment of boils. Other ills were treated from his medical kit, which contained primarily antibacterial medications, large bandages, gauze and an Ace bandage.
A cramped neck and lack of exercise were his greatest health complaints. A devout runner and former college track star, he missed his daily workouts. Still, stretching and yoga exercises helped him mantain muscle tone, and he kept in running condition long enough to win second place in a 5,000 meter race in American Somoa. Now a year later, he is just returning to his pre-voyage running condition.
Despite this seemingly carefree existence, not everything went as Seymour intended. “Orignally, I planned the trip with three women, each on a different occasion. They…backed out. All along, I was getting ready,” he said.
Three years before he left, he planned his route, checking weather and estimating arrival dates as each of his five scheduled ports. With seven extra stops, delays for repairs, 10 days in the Pacific doldrums and an average speed of 3.5 knots, his planned 15 month voyage stretched to 17 months.
But perhaps the greatest hitch in his plans was a course change to avoid a stop in South Africa. He initially planned the easiest route, staying ithin 1,200 miles of the equator and sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.
“I wrote to President Reagan, Jesse Jackson, and Andrew Young to make arrangements,” he said, received no replies. “During the trip, I consulted an American consul, who said, ‘Don’t go.'”
Instead, after sailing through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Seychelles, he altered course and went north through the Red Sea and Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea.
Seymour made a speedy 19 day trip across the Red Sea but was plagued by winter storms in he Mediterranean, even after waiting out the rough weather in Isreal for 31 days.
“Every bit of my 18 year sailing experience had been in mind, temperate climates,” he said. “I was thinking of the cruise as an opportunity to experience a different kind of sailing, when I should have been regarding it as a wild adventure with the potential of a struggle for life.”
Winds to 40 knots tossed and pummeled Long Song off the coast of Libya, and Seymour spent three days struggling against hailstorms and strong head winds. “At that time, the British Broadcasting Corp. Weather Service declared that the Medittanean was experiencing the worst winter in 42 years,” he said.
Forecast of another gale sent him for shelter in the inner harbor at Pilos, Greece, where two days later he went hiking with some friendly Greeks.
“While in the mountains, the wind picked up. I looked down the hill into the harbor and didn’t see my boat,” he said. Realizing the ancor had dragged and Love Song was in danger of hitting the rocky shore, he caught a bus tot he harbor, blew up his dinghy and launched it through the breaking waves.
“I couldn’t board (the dinghy), so I swam out with a dinghy and rowed out to Love Song for the rescue. With the help of adrenaline, brute force, cursing, anger and luck” he got the boat back into the inner harbor throwing “all four anchors plus the galley sink” overboard to keep it from drifting again.
The next day, Pilos received its first snowstorm in four decades; another morning, Seymour awoke to the sound of icicles falling from the spars and crashing on deck.
Perhaps an even greater problem with singlehanding, Seymour said, was the need to stay alert and maintain a 24 hor watch. “In the Red Sea, Mediterranean, North Alantic and the Caribbean, there was heavy shipping and I stayed awake up to three days,” he said.” I chewed coffee beans, and took NoDoz.”
Conversely, in the South Pacific, where shipping was light, he said he sometimes slept 17 hours a day, letting his Aires steering vane do the work.
When ships did appear, he added his spreader lights to his running lights, altered his course if collision seemed possibile, and monitored the VHF radio. “Everyone moniters VHF 16, even Soviet ships. They’re surprised to find another ship in some waters,” he said.
His satellite navigation system was another resassuring peice of eqiupment, even though he used it only as a backup to celestial navigation. He confessed to a great feeling of comfort each time the sat nav beebped, verifying his daily sun sights. “It’s a tremendous power to know where you are in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “There are two things I won’t leave home port without: satellite navigation and M & M’s with peanuts.”
Unlike many sailors, Seymour also loves the sound of an engine powering his sailboat. “I feel you whould have the biggest engine you can fit in the boat,” he said. “An engine is extremely important, even if it’s used for no more than making sure the ancor is set. There are a lot of places you can’t go without an engine – like some harbors.”
Long Song’s 11 hp Universal inboard diesel engine came to the rescue several times during the voyage, and required repairs only once, in Australia. The sat nav was also repaired in Australia and again during Seymour’s layover in Greece. A headstay broke on the Indian Ocean, and was replaced in Gibraltar.
In Australia, as in many other ports he stoped at, Seymour found his race created interest. “People would invite me to their homes. In Australia, I went home with a mechanic. He fixed my engine for free. A parts company representative ordered the parts I needed and paid for them himself. Everywhere, people helped me. I got preferential treatment by being a black American,” he said.
But rather than depending on the kindness of strangers, he tried to prevent repair problems with preparation. Before his departure, he reinforced the boat with six layers of 24-ounce mat and epoxy resin inside the bow and several layers in the stern.
He also installed five-sixteenth inch stainless steel rigging and double headstays, strengthed the rudder post, added solar panels and reinforced the mast support. The aluminum mast is stepped to the deck and supported belowdecks by “a post made of 17 pieces of wood minated side by side,” he said.
Seymour replaced the vinyl covered pine overhead, which trapped moisture, with varnished wood, and added ironwood to the underfloor because it resists mold and sea water damage.
The fiberglass boat has a full keel with an attached rudder and is rigged so that all lines run to the cockpit, virtually eliminating foredeck work. “The mainsail is held on the boom by lazy jacks,” Seymour said, “and the job is held on deck by a net connected to the forward stnchions.” In addition, the boat relies on a tiller rather than a wheel. “so there’s no concern with a cable breaking.”
The sturdy Love Song has served Seymour well fo many years. An Alberg hull manufactured by Ericson, it was built in 1966; Seymour bought it in the mid-1970s, while stationed near Newport Beach as a Marine artillery officer. He lived aboard, moored near the Pavilion fuel dock in Newport Harbor, for four years before sailing solo through the Panama Canal to take a teaching job in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1979.
Before buying Love Song, Seymour had lived aboard a 26 foot Columbia Mark II for five years. his first boat was a 16 foot Snipe. “I learned to sail by reading two books and then by going our and renting a sailboat in Newport harbor,” he said.
As a child growing up in Yonkers, New York, he was fascinated by the water, and at the age 13 he and some friends built a raft out of scrap wood and drifted down the Hudson River. That was the sort of start of his on-the-water wanderings. “Some of us are drawn to the water for more profound reasons than securing a glass of water to quench a thirst,” he said.
For now, Seymour is at home on Love Song, back in St. Croix. he teaches sailing, runs his small business, Love Song Charters, and plans to teach kindergarten this fall – the same things he did before his circumnavigation.
*This article was originally published on Indigo Waves.