Bring back Dodge Morgan!

May 2021

By Bob Muggleston

In 2014, and new to the magazine, I was manning the booth at a boat show when a gentleman strolling by with a beer called good-naturedly over his shoulder, “Bring back Dodge Morgan!” He didn’t stop to elaborate.

I turned to my coworker. “Who’s Dodge Morgan?”

“He had a column in Points East for a long time,” my coworker said. “He died four years ago.”

“Do you think that guy knows?” I said, pointing.

“Oh, definitely. We get this all the time.”

Dodge Morgan. OK, the name was vaguely familiar.

I borrowed a copy of “The Voyage of American Promise,” from a friend. Holy smokes! A lot of you – especially you Mainers – know what I’m talking about. In many ways Dodge was the epitome of the American spirit, a larger-than-life, self-made millionaire who succeeded where others could not by running through walls. Though a loner, he understood the power of a team, and throughout his life and projects sought like-minded perfectionists. He was someone who set lofty goals and then saw them to fruition with bulldog persistence. (On a side note, I was satisfied to learn that Dodge’s most iconic product, the Whister Radar Detector, which probably made him a rich man and financed his biggest adventure, was a product I swore by in the mid-’80s to late-’90s. Dodge, thank-you. And you’re welcome.)

Dodge sold his awkwardly named company, Controlonics, when he was fairly young in order to pursue the lifelong goal of circumnavigation. But then he decided to up the ante: Why not do it in record time, and nonstop, to boot?

Which is precisely what he did, in the purpose-built, Ted Hood-designed, 60-footer American Promise. The record at the time was 292 days, set in 1971 by English sailor Chay Blyth. Dodge finished his attempt in 1986 in a mere 150 days (though, to be fair, Blyth had done it “the hard way,” going westabout against prevailing winds).

Nearly one-third of “American Promise” is dedicated to the build-process of the boat, which was completed in record time and wasn’t without several epic clashes between Morgan, the hard-charging businessman, and Hood, the brilliant and often taciturn designer with an explosive temper. An intermediary had to be hired to keep the peace.

He probably made it look so, but being Dodge Morgan couldn’t have been easy. Like Kerouac he loved being around “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing,” but he found it difficult to cohabitate with people. In his later years, Dodge chose to live alone on an island in Maine. (And isn’t it telling that both his ex-wives reportedly still loved him in those years and considered him a good friend, and attended the elaborate parties he threw.)

And then, of course, there’s his writing. The guy holding the beer that day knew. But a quick check of readers’ reviews on Amazon paints a complicated picture. One reader, who considered Dodge nothing short of an egomaniac, posted: “I found his writing style primitive and his observations and insights embarrassingly simple-minded.” To which another responded: “Yes – the ego is there in many pages, but in light of the excellent treatise he has written about sailing in the Southern Ocean, and in consideration of the insight he has given to those who would follow, a little ego can be dismissed. Simple-minded? Hardly.”

After flipping through “American Promise” to refresh my memory, I can’t emphasize enough how incredible a writer Dodge was. Yes, he was a great businessman and raconteur, but in my opinion his real genius lay in his writing. “I miss the confusion and the unpredictability of the human anthill, to walk on a street crowded by people to whom you relate only by being one among them, to sit on a barstool and happily remain a stranger, one smile away from a shallow and passing friendship,” he wrote. “But to be with my family, oh, one day would never be enough. And with friends to talk the sun into setting and to cheer a life that is too short and passing fast. I am not afraid of death, only of missing something important by dying.”

Primitive? Simple-minded? Dodge could be both – he was at times profanely funny, or intentionally belligerent – but surely the man could write, and considered life deeply.

“Bring back Dodge Morgan!”

Well, it’s been seven years in the offing, but we’ve finally done it: All of the pieces Dodge ever wrote for us are now on our website.

Buckle up. It’s a heck of a ride.