American Promise poised for new chapter

May 2008

By Dodge Morgan

The sloop American Promise has been retired after 25 years of service as the flagship of the United States Naval Academy sail training fleet. She is the vessel I sailed around the world solo and nonstop in 1985-86.

The purpose of the academy sailing program is to engage midshipmen in an intimate and individually challenging relationship with the sea. There is no more effective teaching tool for these lessons than a sailboat, and Promise filled the role admirably. An estimated 300 midshipmen served extended tours aboard her. The boat competed in a dozen ocean races, made four Atlantic crossings, and showed the flag in dozens of foreign ports. She carried a crew of 10 to 12 middies and a sailing master.

On my watch, Promise completed the singlehanded, nonstop circumnavigation in 150 days, one hour and seven minutes, setting 13 solo-sailing records, including the fastest singlehanded circumnavigation under sail, nine days faster than Phillippe Jeantot’s 1983 record in Credit Agricole and 142 days faster than Chay Blyth’s nonstop record in British Steel. All of Promise’s records have now been obliterated, but she will always be the first American sailed vessel to round the world solo and non-stop.

Promise was designed by the inimitable Ted Hood, and built in 11 months in Marblehead, Mass. She is 60 feet overall, 56 feet on the waterline, and 17 feet on the beam. Her hull is glass and Kevlar over a core, and with eight inches of solid glass on the bow, as I specified, she should survive a collision with a container while sailing at eight knots.

Three men have been her major champions during her naval academy career. First was Commander John Bonds, who headed up the academy sailing program when she arrived and defined her eventual role. Next was Jack Reynolds, head of the academy small-boat service yard who refitted her after she was sunk in a collision with a loaded coal barge on Chesapeake Bay in August 1991. She was not holed in the collision, but was driven under the barge and hung up by her rig, then sinking in 45 feet of water 10 minutes later.

Reynolds, who surveyed the boat for the donation, has fallen in love with her almost incomparable strength. Her refit was a two-year project with bureaucratic delays adding another three years. The refit changes amounted to rig and interior layout. She was recommissioned in 1995, and took her shakedown to Bermuda in 1996.

At this time, she entered her most enduring and perhaps her second most intimate relationship (I must claim first there). Dan Rugg became her Sailing Master and served aboard as coach, disciplinarian, cheerleader, teacher to the teams of midshipmen assigned to her, and became her keeper and alter ego. I believe Dan and I are the two men who have found frustration by not figuring out how to consummate our relationship with her.

American Promise’s retirement from the United States Naval Academy closes her second life, a long and celebrated one, certainly. Her first life was with me, a short, intense, highly noted one for sure (she provided my “15 minutes of fame”). She has one more life coming to her I know. And I wonder who and where that will be?

After a two-issue hiatus, Dodge is back in action for Points East. Katy, bar the door.