Septuagenarian sets sail
Launching a dream
Speaking from experience, John Gage urged 80 Wilmington Power Squadron members to hold onto their dreams.
After 25 years of preparation, Gage was in his 70s before his dream of circumnavigating the world finally came to fruition.
Gage launched his dream at Sandy Hook, N.J., aboard Dream Catcher, a 42-foot Passport yacht, in December 2003. He sailed back into Sandy Hook three and half years later—at the tender age of 75—having sailed nearly a third of the 33,000-mile voyage alone.
Gage advises writing your dreams on 3-by-5-inch index cards and placing them by the bathroom mirror, kitchen sink or anywhere you will see them several times a day. Gage sees the value in his wife’s words that “a dreamer with a plan is better than a genius without one,” so he advocates writing down your plan, making a list of things to read and people to interview, and developing a financial strategy before just doing it.
Gage said he had acquired the skills to launch his dream earlier, but getting into the right financial position took him more than two decades.
In mapping out his plan to circumnavigate the world, Gage enrolled in several USPS courses—Seamanship, Piloting, Navigation and Weather—and learned diesel engine maintenance from a mechanic. He also logged 10,000 miles of blue-water sailing and earned his captain’s license.
Then he bought Dream Catcher, a 1985 dark blue Passport equipped with a watermaker, two navigation stations, a high-frequency radio with a modem, a wind vane steering unit, an autopilot, and a hand-cranked windlass. With a 16-ton displacement hull, Dream Catcher is a cutter rig designed for ocean sailing with a cruising speed of 6 knots and a maximum hull speed of 7.5 knots. (In heavy winds and high seas, it reached 10 knots.)
Gage started each day with hot tea and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and he ended it under an awesome canopy of twinkling stars. “That will make almost anyone spiritual very quickly,” he said.
Gage experienced equipment and gear failures but took them in stride. He changed a blown-out sail by himself during a storm, relied on his celestial navigation skills during a GPS failure, and incurred steering damage when a wave gave out, leaving Dream Catcher airborne for several seconds over a trough of air.
He experienced 50-knot winds and 35-foot seas as well as endless days of the ocean’s glassy surface in the windless Doldrums. On several occasions he tried to enter coral-laden harbors at night—a practice he soon abandoned by scheduling his arrivals during daylight. Weeks of heat in Panama caused him to end his onboard workdays at noon.
The ordinary was heightened by the unusual: Flying fish attacked the boat while he was night sailing, hitting him and his first mate in the head. In the morning, he found 43 dead fish on deck.
The testing of Gage’s sailing skills was offset by the camaraderie of yachties, the friendliness of strangers, and the relationships forged along the way. He sipped sundowners on verandas, traded stories about broken engines and downed masts, and flipped pancakes at yacht club breakfasts. He gifted fan belts to a stranded boat in the middle of the South Atlantic and caught fish from a line dragging behind the boat. He was mesmerized by the Pacific swells that gently lifted Dream Catcher up and down.
Although he had no near disasters, Gage said sailing solo was both dangerous and exhausting. When solo, he slept in 45-minute shifts; with crew, he slept in two- or four-hour shifts. On the Coconut Milk Run from the Marquesas—3,000 miles in 22 days, 30 minutes—Gage said he got just enough sleep to avoid mind-numbing fatigue but at times awoke to hear himself having conversations with another voice.
Gage pushed himself early in the journey but later realized he needed to slow down. The daily tasks—anchoring, pulling up 250 feet of chain using the hand-cranked windlass, doing laundry, lifting the dinghy and motor up and down, keeping batteries charged, operating the watermaker and refrigerator, making notes, plotting courses, reading about the local area, and getting to shore for visits—were physically and mentally demanding.
Looking back over his journey, Gage told squadron members he would do it all over again with a few changes: He would install an electric windlass to save his shoulders the work of hauling chain, never again risk the dangers of sailing solo for long distances, and be more selective about his crew’s sailing skills.
Gage’s Dream Catcher is on stands, up for sale, ready to launch someone else’s dream. Gage plans to return to piloting airplanes and has a new dream. He wants to fly over the routes of explorers such as Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell and photograph the terrains they traveled.
“Pursue your dreams,” says Gage, “even if they appear to be outrageous or to exceed your grasp at this moment.”
You can read Capt. John Gage’s daily log on his website.