Outgrowing oversized ambition

September 2021

By David Roper

Dave at the helm of Rosie, his very capable nine-foot dinghy. But are they ready for a transatlantic crossing? Photo courtesy David Roper

The blue boat in the picture is Rosie, my very able nine-footer. I’m wondering if I should sail her solo to England. But first I’ll need some sponsors. Since there’s no cabin and I’m very fair-skinned, I’d like to get Neutrogena sunscreen as a sponsor; and since I love sweets, maybe Lindt Chocolate for another, and of course to please my libation urges and to fight dehydration, maybe Robert Mondavi Vineyards.

When I was sixteen, I was smitten by the “courage” of one Robert Manry, a man with a young family and little money who had a dream to sail across the Atlantic. He bought a 13-foot Old Town sloop (similar to a Town Class), built a cabin on it and a daggerboard keel, took a leave from his newspaper copy editor job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1965, towed the little boat behind the family station wagon to Plymouth, Mass., and, with little fanfare, hugged his family goodbye and spent the next seventy-eight days sailing Tinkerbelle to Plymouth, England.

Since then, there have been many others – Tom McClean topped Manry’s record in a 10-foot boat, then Bill Dunlop, a truck driver from Mechanicville, Maine, sailed his Wind’s Will alone across the Atlantic in a nine-footer. And it gets smaller from there. I think the record is down to 5 feet, four inches, but word has it that someone tried it in a three-foot, four-inch boat. Some of these folks called it a day and went back to their routine lives, though Dunlop couldn’t stop, deciding to sail around the world in his Wind’s Will; somewhere in the Pacific is where it all stopped. He said he’d rather die trying and, well, that’s how it ended.

My wife often rolls her eyes at these folks. “Just plain selfish,” she says, thinking about their spouses and families and the costs of attempted rescue. Perhaps she’s right. Is it all about just “us” or all about us and the others who love us?

In ’79, Gerald Spiess, a schoolteacher from White Bear Lake in Minnesota, designed and built a 10-footer in his garage and sailed it alone from Norfolk, Virginia to Falmouth, England in fifty-four days. At that time, I lived in a houseboat and captained a 135-foot sternwheeler on the Upper Mississippi River out of St. Paul. The city had a celebration for Gerry upon his return, with a grand display of fireworks over the river, with Gerry riding with me in the pilothouse of the sternwheeler as we headed up through the city. I remember noticing that he seemed a bit overwhelmed and then thinking how bizarre this must be after nearly two months alone in a tiny cabin out in the wide Atlantic. So, when the moment seemed right, I asked him, “Gerry, two questions: level with me, was it worth it? And what was it really like?”

“I won’t answer the first question, but as to the second, I’d break it into thirds,” he replied.


“Yes: One third misery. One third desperate loneliness. And one third total terror.”


Maybe I’ll restrict little Rosie to her home waters.

David Roper’s latest book, “Beyond Mermaids… Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends,” is finally on bookshelves. It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-time bestseller, and is available on Amazon.