Case of the pot calling the kettle black

August, 2002

By Dodge Morgan

My cab was careening through the streets of Paris in 1983 on my way to interview French naval architect Guy Ribadeau Dumas. I thought he could be the designer of the boat I intended to sail around the world alone and non-stop. Dumas had created the 60-foot, 22,000-pound sloop Credit Agricole, which had just broken the solo circumnavigation record in the ‘82-’83 three-stop BOC race. She was sailed by the great French solo sailor Philippe Jeantot.

The cabbie spoke more English than I spoke French. I asked him if he knew the name Philippe Jeantot. “Ahhh, the sailor,” he answered. On a whim, I asked him if he knew the name Walter Greene. “Ahhh, the American sailor”, he answered to my amazement. Now this was a cab driver in a big city. Obviously, solo sailing is a national sport in France.

Walter Greene was better known in France than in his home country. His participation in the single-handed race circuit and his reputation for multi-hull design and construction has made Walter a sailing icon in France.

He is a craggy 6-footer, built like he was constructed of raw catgut. One has the sense that this guy can be a natural extension of a length of 1-inch nylon line. It is not unusual to have trouble seeing eyeballs through his glasses as they are clouded with boat-building material. His hair is normally spiked with epoxy. He has a laugh like a rapid series of hiccups. There is a classic photo of Walter in a newspaper story about a solo race with a boat sponsored by the Sebago Shoe Company. He looks like he could use a homeless shelter and his shoes, ironically, look like Goodwill rejects, obviously held together by various boat glues and untied laces sticking straight out.

Walter has made five solo Atlantic crossings, all in races, including the OSTAR and the Route de Rhum. He and his sailing wife, Joan, have three crossings together. His boats have always been multi-hulls, most of his own design and build. He recalls that his most harrowing event at sea alone was a galley fire that scorched away his upper-body hair and burned his hands, arms and chest so badly he was forced to remain below decks for a week. He didn’t call for help. He let the boat steer by autopilot and read “Dr. Zhivago.”

“You get the idea of how vulnerable you are out there alone,” he says. But he notes most problems at sea have been minor ones, such as the time Walter and Joan departed Maine for Europe in April and discovered they had almost no stove fuel aboard. “Joan coped, one cup of hot water a day and peanut butter.”

On an October delivery for the Rhum race with a buddy, he capsized Gonzo a couple hundred miles east of Cape Cod. The boat caromed off one wave, drove her bow into another and flipped end over end. Eighteen hours later the pair was found perched on an overturned hull. His recollection of that capsize is, “I was surprised.” He competed in the solo race with an older boat of his.

Walter’s favorite single-handing sailor is Canadian Mike Birch. Birch, a renowned sailor who, when ashore, is often found at work with Walter at Greene Marine in Yarmouth, Maine, is another of those men who appear strung together with iron wire.

Walter is also a fan of the late Phil Weld, the noted grand gentleman and newspaper publisher who won the 1980 OSTAR in Rogue Wave built by Walter. There is a PBS film of that race, in which Walter finished fifth. On-board cameras recorded the sights and sounds of the sailors, who were quite loquacious, the exception being Walter, whose only film audio was loud country music from a radio by his feet.

Greene Marine looks like the aftermath of a battlefield, strewn with busted-up multi-hulls and unidentifiable hulks. But from the building shed, a wide assortment of marine marvels and bizarre floating creations continually flow forth. Among the craft Walter and crew have produced over the years are many racing and cruising multi-hulls, some 30 tank-test and evaluation models of America’s Cup and Maxi-IOR designs, the celebrated, floating Sebago boat shoe and a half-dozen multi-hulls designed and built by Walter for the charter trade. “These were the McDonald’s of boats, but not that easy for us to build because they had to have things like bars and comfy seats in them,” he notes.

Walter Greene sees the evolution of single-handed sailboats – bigger, lighter, huge sail-plans – resulting in astounding increases in speed. And in an accelerating risk of loss. “Weld’s boat averaged 10 knots and current designs average 18 knots,” he says. “Today’s solo sailors are on the edge all the time and all of them are just one wave from disaster. Super-human risk-takers I’d say.”

Personally, Walter, I don’t think “superhuman” fits. “Stupid” maybe fits. “Rescue dependent” maybe fits. “I don’t care if I finish if I don’t win” maybe fits. The sea is so much bigger than fits that arrogant, over-civilized crap and, Walter, you know it. “Superhuman” fits the guy with epoxy in his head-hair passing a week at sea alone reading “Dr. Zhivago” while his burns heal.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.