MPR’s Rich Dietman interviews St. Paul native Gerry Spiess, who talks about his solo voyage across the Atlantic in a boat he built himself named "Yankee Girl". Spiess also discusses his plans for his next journey with "Yankee Girl", this time across the Pacific ocean with stops in Hawaii, Samoa, and Australia.
Read the Text Transcription of the Audio.
(00:00:00) When I landed it was it was quite a surprise to me to find that all these people were there waiting. I hadn't anticipated that at all and I was just looking forward to seeing Sally and my folks and I didn't even know if they would be there as a matter of fact, but this caught me completely off guard and I didn't anticipate that, you know the public reaction, but I did the best I could to respond to it. And so I really ran for about eight months after I came back just running and running and running with lectures and boat shows and appearances and so on and then finally I just had to slow down a little bit. I was just my stomach was starting to bother me and I'd been gone so much from home. So I decided to slow up a little bit and start thinking about what I want to do rather than just responding to what other people wanted me to do. So actually that summer 1980 Our Last Summer I decided then that what I want to do is do some more sailing and the vote and so I started making plans for that and did an enormous amount of work on the boat during the fall. Along with other obligations to lectures and so on and the book and these things but I re fiberglass the boat and repainted the inside took everything out and repainted her and got a ready for another Voyage basically the boats remain the same, but I've freshened her up and she wasn't really damaged going across the Atlantic but being transported around up and down escalators and so on freight elevators and things she'd been bumped up a little bit. So I was going to just originally just touch up the fiberglass where it needed it, but I got kind of carried away and rig last the entire boat and deck cabin everything so she's actually stronger now than she was for the Atlantic Crossing. (00:02:03) Had you been thinking about this specific Crossing even when you were crossing the Atlantic or is it something that came came to you after you got back and if so, what prompted that do? You think? (00:02:15) Well, I've thought about just about every conceivable Voyage, you know over the past 20 years. I've you know, this has been my avocation and so I thought about all the possibilities and when I designed Yankee girl, she was designed to cross the Atlantic primarily that was my objective. But with a capability of going across any ocean and going across the North Atlantic is like I think the distance is about 3300 nautical miles and that's further than you'd ever have to go at anyone stretch to go around the world. See I could have stopped and Azores on that Crossing and so on. which would almost have cut it in half so I had considered sailing across the Pacific and I've started to do that crossing a couple times before and I've been able to do it for one reason or another so of course when I was on the trip, even in my log I say things like I'll never you know, make another Crossing again. This is it. This is the last me for the rest of my life and so on but you get over that after a while after you finish or for a while and another reason that I want. I've always want to make this trip is that I used to live in Australia when I was young and I'd like to go back down there again. (00:03:34) Will that be your first landfall? (00:03:36) No, I'm making several times the distance across the Pacific is twice the distance across the Atlantic. It's really big. I was just looking at the statistics the other day. It's 64 million square miles. The Pacific Ocean is just unbelievably large and but at again the longest stretches to Honolulu, which is about 20 200 nautical miles of two-thirds of distance across the Atlantic from Honolulu. The longest all go is Well, I'm going down a similar stop hopefully in the Line Islands and the way down. So that's only a little over a thousand miles to that point. And then the distance is there even shorter after (00:04:11) that. What are some of the things that you're doing to prepare for this trip that are different from the preparations that you had to make for crossing the North Atlantic. (00:04:23) Well, I think you might say that all of the big items are out of the way as a result of the Atlantic Voyage, you know, the boat the steering system the provisioning and so on. However, I've made a little bit stronger with the fiberglass because the bottle have a little more abuse by going in and out of ports anchoring and this sort of thing is where you pick up most of the abuse. The communications will be vastly improved before I had five radios this time. I think I'll have eight radios. It's kind of funny and I it's Just chuckle all the time because the like at the boat shows people look at the boat and they say well, you know, it's a home-built boat and it's just a little boat and they don't think it has the capabilities that it does but it's a very fast boat very stable. Very safe. It's it goes Way Beyond what anybody understands and in terms of the technology I'll have very sophisticated ham equipment be able communicate with aircraft ships may even go into the Marine Net but I doubt that the Marine operator through the telephone system, but I don't think I'll do this, but I'll have satellite navigation on the boat so that I have automatic updates as new as these satellites Passover. It's so she's really at the at the edge of the technology depth finders are go down with thousand feet not meters at tell me my speed within a tenth of a not things like this. So that really always makes me chuckle because People think of the boat is being very primitive and yet it's very very sophisticated. (00:06:05) So if you don't want to you don't have to shoot the Sun or take or whatever you call that to to find out exactly where you are. (00:06:13) Well, I assuming that it works properly, but when you're out in that which is really a hostile environment and very corrosive environment Electronics take a real beating and the smaller the both the greater beating they take only physically but they're more exposed and so on so you can't rely on those things. That's why we have redundancy built in in terms of you know, like I have multiple radios and so on and whereas I have satellite navigation, I also can find my position by talking the aircraft and ships. I can also find my position myself course, I'll have to Sexton salon and I liked it navigate. I enjoy that it's kind of fun. And so I don't at all rely on these. Their systems that would not be wise now some people when they're getting into something like I say so well, do y'all get satellite navigation system and then I don't have to learn navigation. Well, that wouldn't be a very good Approach at all (00:07:13) because they could end up with equipment down and then they would not where they were. That's right and it (00:07:20) you know, you can have antennae failures and the antennas they're making some great advances in the antennas for satellite navigation, but they still are still highly susceptible to any salt water damage. So I'm actually going to have the antennas inside the boat to help protect them. (00:07:38) Will it make a difference being able to talk to so many different people this trip as opposed to the last trip where you if I recall correctly were not able at some points to talk to anybody. (00:07:51) That'll be a vast Improvement. It really well just tremendous because I suppose most people think gee it's fun, you know, you'll be able to talk to people and be reassuring. I don't think of it as being reassuring to me so much as being able to get a message back to Sally and my parents because I if I don't talk to anyone for a while, let's see then I think oh gee they're going to start worrying about me and then I worry about them worrying about me. So it'll be helpful to me to know that they know where I am more than anything else plus it'll be great. You know, it'll be it'll be great to talk to you but they can't really do anything to help you or help you get away from the misery, but it definitely will be a hell (00:08:35) over the last couple of years certainly people in the Upper Midwest who heard about you. See you as an adventurer and people who met you at boat shows and other kinds of things around the country. Also see you as an adventurer and it seems to me that This time that we're living in is for most people not a very adventuresome time or at least in most people's lives. There isn't an opportunity. At least we don't see it for a great deal of Adventure. What are some of the elements about Adventure? that you see for yourself and how you consciously created or set yourself up to have Adventures that people might might learn something from (00:09:26) well, that's a very complex question really but In a way the things I do are sort of adventurous but I don't think of them as Adventures I think of them as projects and when I set off or not set off, but when I undertook this Atlantic project, that was the The Challenge I had set for myself was to design a boat that could cross the Atlantic Ocean the smallest practical sighs. Well not to sail across the Atlantic not to go to Europe or anything like that because I would have taken a plane if I was going to go to Europe, but it was I was interested in still am very very interested in solving problems. That's what really fascinates me and that's the creative part of the trip when I think of Adventure and I know everybody has a different interpretation of that but I like to do things in a in an efficient way. I don't want to come back with these tremendously exciting stories about how I ran out of food. And I was eating toothpaste the last couple of weeks, you know and didn't have any water and I just drank, you know, the juice off my vegetables for the last week and this sort of thing. I want to come in looking good, you know and good condition and have plenty of food and water left over and have made a very efficient fast Crossing so I don't really think of it in terms of the adventure where you say. Oh, I'm going to jump in a raft and go down the Amazon or something that that you it would be adventurous in some ways. If you didn't know what you were doing, then it can really get adventurous but I think that planning preparation and the research that goes with that is the most interesting part and that carries over and in virtually anything you do the people that are successful are the ones that that do the research and planning and preparation and You enjoy that part of it generally speaking. You'll be successful. And another big aspect of that is the psychological preparation is probably the most overlooked area preparation. There is an anything not just in Crossing oceans or mountain climbing or it may be more more obvious. You know, when you when you find out why you failed that's probably the most common reason for failure and undertakings like of this nature. It's probably also very common. I think cause a failure in other areas, like people go into business say they'll think about wanting to put in a little business like a bakery and I think about location they think about supplies I think about the volume and they think about the ovens and Equipment they'll need and so on but they don't think about is that to run a bakery may have to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning and bake until 6:00 when your customers come in at 8 and so on and the effect that's going to have on their lifestyle and their family and On so so forth It's maybe a six or seven day a week job and I haven't thought about the psychological aspect. So after a year or so they may say jeez. I really don't like the bakery business and it may they may be very successful and I just don't like this and they find out that the reason they're getting out of the business is because there is a psychological side. (00:12:54) What are you doing to psychologically prepare for this trip? (00:12:58) Well, I haven't done as much this time as I did last time to be very honest. I last time I worked on for about a year because I had been defeated by that in a previous voyage and severely defeated by psychological problem. And that's the point where I was almost fatal was a very serious problem. So I knew that I had to be adequately prepared. The reason you need that is it's combined with discipline to have to be very very disciplined when you go out like that and I knew that I would need that that sort of a backlog Of determination to carry me through the low points which can be really severe at times for this voyage. I know better the both capabilities and my capabilities and I don't feel that it's going to be as difficult Crossing. I'm sure it won't be as difficult unless I have problems with well are there are always problems you can have with hurricanes whales and things like that or other unforeseen problems, but (00:14:06) you talk about backlog something to draw on. How do you build such a thing up by thinking about the trip by going out and practicing a lot by loading the boat and making sure you know where everything is what kinds of things contribute to that backlog as I understand you're saying it's a sense that you it someplace you can dig into when things get a little bit rough to calm yourself and to remind yourself of what direction you're going in. (00:14:37) Well, there are actually several things that you can do. The most obvious thing is I just psych myself up. Now it's difficult this trip. I won't get into because it gets kind of complicated. But last time I just kept psyching myself up and thinking pie I wouldn't associate with anybody and I still want the has any negative thoughts. I just don't have time for those people. I just kept psyching myself up puffing myself up until when I left Virginia. I felt like I could walk across the Atlantic. I was ready. Nothing was going to stop me. Although I was going to be foolish about it, but I was I nothing within reason was going to stop me. And so first of all, it's psyching yourself up. Secondly, it's eliminating as much of the fear as you can and that's through done through planning again most fears lack of understanding and lack of preparation. So I studied and I prepared and I over prepared and I had you know, backup upon back up and I tested procedures and I tried to eliminate everything I possibly could Then I avoid a lot of distractions. I didn't talk to anybody before I left the press or anything like that. So I could concentrate on the void. Another thing I do is I have all sorts of little tricks that I use to help me get by the most effective one. I think was it's a common part of this gets rather complicated but when you're tired, and when you're frightened, especially when you're very very tired, I'm talking about what you haven't slept for 24 hours or so, you can start to begin to hallucinate and hallucination be very dangerous. And that's part of the problem. I had on that previous watch and I've had hallucinations, you know several times. So that's where the discipline comes in to help. You avoid that now when you hallucinate generally it's like a dream except you're awake and your Like your dreams your mind is filling in what you need. It's saying if you need another person to talk to it will create another person that doctor. Unfortunately a lot of times these people are hostile and it can be using very hostile so too. Circumvent that problem I decided to take along somebody some imaginary friend that would be friendly and supportive (00:17:02) someone consciously. Now before you left you had decided that you were taking along a friend. (00:17:08) That's right. As a matter of fact, it's in my notes just take along imaginary friend question mark because I wasn't too sure at that time but I anticipated this and I thought well, this is one way to get around it. Well this friend and you know, everybody talks themselves all the time. I don't know always amazed when people that I don't talk to myself. Well, it's the only way you can communicate with yourself. So you have to do that and this friend that I had long was sort of like an extension of myself sort of a conscience and so on and that's very helpful and motivating me and in helping helping me to make decisions which become very difficult the more tired to become So I would have long conversations for this film we go back and forth and he keep sometimes really get on my case and bright me about things in a sort of thing. (00:18:00) But this is someone you've designed for (00:18:02) yourself. Well, he just sort of evolved really I don't have any name for him or anything like that and I fully expected and when I got the England just disappear and I expect when I leave again that will re-establish that relationship and I expect to be very helpful and also for joking around now, I think of it like in a restaurant you won't see a fellow unrest I just sit there and burst out laughing people just don't do that and telling a joke to yourself isn't much fun, you know, but as you get into this sort of relationship, you know, sort of start to make up little jokes and you think of this other person, you know, you say well we lie here is this one, you know, he's going this will kill him, you know, where a see what he thinks about this and I know it sounds sort of strange now, but it's very helpful to me. Equilibrium (00:18:52) kids do that. It seems to me and this may not be the same thing at all, but it seems like kids have imaginary friends at some point. I did I know and I don't remember that imaginary friend, but my parents tell me that I carried on lengthy conversations with this person when I was 4 or 5 years old and I didn't have any siblings at that time and I suppose that it that person filled in the boredom. Do you think it's something like (00:19:20) that? Yes as I do. I think that's a very good analogy and I think it's something that had you know, it's one of these things we sort of grow away from you know, he said well jeez, you know, you don't walk around saying I have an imaginary friend one of the things that kids can do and I was the same way. I guess I didn't have a long-term imaginary friend when I was young but you know, whenever you're playing games and so on, you know, you always have some other guy and you know you watch him coming around that way. I'll get them this way and this other thing and As you can see kids can go on for hours and hours and like that and it's good for him. You know, they have their developing certain skills. So I think that's a very good observation. (00:20:01) So this person may likely join you again and you'll talk to that person and when things get a bit tough that person may end up giving you some advice or at least pulling you back into line. (00:20:12) Yes, and well one of the things that happens when you're out at Sea like that or another circumstance is too but especially as far as I'm concerned from my experience when you're out there you do tend to sort of get into if you're steering the boat and I don't steer the boat anymore and I have to I steered very very little she normally takes care of herself, but the beginning of the triple usually steer was I feel better when I'm steering you tend to get cold and you're tired you don't drink water and you don't get rest and you can get into a real. Add State real serious thing (00:20:54) physically run down. Mmm-hmm. (00:20:57) You can you just don't drink water and you can go into sort of a trance after a while. And so what I do is I keep asking myself. Are you cold wet tired or hungry or thirsty? But I keep repeating that to myself over and over and over and if I am I do something about it. I say well if are you cold I said well, yeah. Well then why don't you do something about it? Because otherwise you'll sit there until you get so cold you can hardly move or you'll you won't drink and you're still steering about your so you fix it. So strongly on your destination and moving and getting there you've got thousands of miles of water to cover and you get into this terrible trance and you do that in the car to you know, you'll be driving alongside say let's stop and have a Dairy Queen or something like that. And you say no well, we just got a few more miles. It's it's the same thing except too much more extreme example of this goal fixation. (00:21:56) That same kind of thing happened to Charles Lindbergh when he flew across the Atlantic. He had a lucid Nations had had as he described them ghosts come up around him in the cockpit and he managed to make it of course, but he described going through that just Before Sunrise I think on his (00:22:16) trip. Yeah. Well, I don't remember the specifics. I've read, you know his account, but you see how there's an example where you get these other people he's goes, so whatever and again when you're desperate say in his case to rest, it'll say hey, there's an aircraft carrier down and while not an it perhaps in his time, but they said hey, there's an aircraft carrier and you'll see that aircraft carrier just as clear as you could possibly see you'll see the numbers you'll see people on it. Everything say well, why don't we land which is land few minutes? No one will find out about it stretch our legs and we'll take off again. They won't tell anybody and they'll just fly right down into the water and there. If I heard yesterday that this fellow rowing across the Pacific fell asleep and went right up on the Rocks. It's what I've heard and I I really shouldn't say that because I'm not positive of it but this sort of thing is not uncommon when people are hallucinating and I know one time I owe my sailed right up almost in Miami Beach is inside the breaker line and I could see a gas station. There was a Union 76 and I still see it just as clear as a bell and everybody knows it no gas stations and the beach in Miami, but I could see it and I was going to stop there and make a phone call and the other thing that brought me around was the breakers themselves. (00:23:37) I'm interested in talking to you more about how people have approached you since you made your Atlantic Crossing on the whole business of Adventure. Do do you? Feel comfortable in the position that that people want to put you in I read a little blurb from the energy conference that you went to the other day that described you or compared you with Charles Lindbergh. Do you feel comfortable with that sort of thing? (00:24:01) Well, I I'll tell you it's a funny thing. It's easy to talk about other people and you know their reactions and so on but when it's something that happens to you, it's sometimes very hard to understand and I don't grasp that at all to be quite honest. I don't see that which is something I was doing for my own satisfaction. And of course I have done this purposely to a certain extent too, but I don't really see anything that unusual to be honest and I don't see any reason to be treated any differently, but I have always I go by lots of little fashion philosophies and things in my life, which seemed sort of antiquated a lot of people, but they work for me and I like the approach things as its challenges and I'm guess I'm sort of stubborn in a way and I if something is supposed to be done was one way sometimes I'll do it just the opposite just for the experience of doing it differently because I think that's how you learn a lot of things. So when I landed in England and there was a lot of attention and so on I thought about that little bit I thought well a lot of people I suppose the obvious thing to do would be to say when I wouldn't saying congratulations and you're so brave and you've done this and so on say yeah, I guess that's true. I remember I really am pretty good. So I said, well, that's the obvious things. I'm going to do just the opposite and I said, I'm not going to change one bit and I made up my mind not to change and I've stuck with it. I just refuse to change and the very nice thing about this is that people come to me all the time and they say G. You just kind of an average guy just a regular person. We you know, We call you up you answer the phone and call you but I talked to your mother. She answers the phone or son and I find that very very refreshing and and rewarding when people come and say gee you're just an average guy and they could me all the time. Now kidding me, son that couple days ago about this that they say I look like an accountant or I you know, I don't look like this adventure and that they have imagined and sometimes like it both Joseph. I'm standing by the boat somewhere. It's just about anybody standing next to me. I'll come and talk to the other person and say well congratulations because I'm the least likely person. I guess that they would imagine so I want to just stay the way I am. I don't want to change a bit. (00:26:32) Would you miss it though? Do you think if it all stopped tomorrow? (00:26:35) No, I wouldn't miss it a bit wouldn't it wouldn't phase me in the slightest as matter of fact in a way I would almost welcome it because it gives me more time to spend on doing the things that I want to do. (00:26:46) I want to Ask you about that to you talked earlier about mental preparation and planning and how important that is in an effort. Like the one you're planning. How do you do you have a mechanism? Do you have some tips or hints things that you use that help you to continue to focus for most people in their daily lives. There are countless distractions and there are days when people come home and wonder what it was they set out to do in the morning and they're darn sure. They didn't do that. How do you stay focused on what it is you want to do? (00:27:28) That's another good question. I It seems to me that it's just automatic. This is just an all consuming thing with me and I always think they asked Newton once about discovering the laws granted. How the heck did you figure that out? He said I just thought about it all the time. And that's the way I feel I just think about it all the time. I it's probably sort of monotonous for Sally especially because she's exposed to this 24-hour a day process like Friday. I got up at 3 o'clock in the morning and I work till nine and I went back to bed until noon. I got up and walked again, so Right now I'm a little concerned about the time Factor because I've got an awful lot to do. But other than that, I enjoy that I enjoy being very heavily immersed in whatever I'm doing and that's another one of my basic principles is I like to immerse myself and really work on on the problems and try to do it as efficiently as I can. I'm still working on problems. I'll be working on some again today that I've been working on for three years and I'm still plugging away on us. I think I found the solution. I just feel great. I think I figured out a way back from Miami a better way to carry my gasoline in the building a safer way. So I don't really feel I don't ever feel that I have to focus on it. I just sort of comes automatically. (00:29:05) I don't know exactly if I have a question to follow up to that but you mentioned gasoline and where you might put it in the boat and that seems like a very specific kind of problem one. That one can get one's hands on I'm wondering about the things that aren't physical that you can't get your hands on and I know we talked about psychological preparation, but I'm thinking about the distractions that must come all the time the phone calls the requests to speak and so forth. Do those kinds of things drain you distract you'd or are you able to dispatch them quickly and and get on with things? (00:29:49) Well the lecturing I really enjoy that is really fun for me and I meet a lot of nice people and it's just a real fun experience for me. So I enjoy that very much and people ask me to how the heck You answer questions about this all the time over and over your interviews and so on and I don't mind that at all either as long as they're intelligent questions. I talked about forever because it's my favorite subject if people don't ask intelligent questions, then it's just the opposite. I don't want to spend any time talk to him at all. But most of the people, you know, 99% of people asked good intelligent questions and it's really interesting to discuss these things. As far as the time. I'm getting the point. Now where time is becoming very very critical everyday is accounted for and he always have things that come up in a fear with I like equipment. Some of the equipment is still not in my hands and a lot of things are coming in the next couple of weeks. But I have a very rigid schedule now, it's funny in a way. I because I'm saying I'm leaving June 1st and I intend to leave June 1st. And now I don't have to leave Jim I could leave July 1st to wouldn't really make that much difference in a way. Although it's it's more of a hurricane threat, but I and so that's why I'm leaving on that specific day. But this is something I've set up for myself and I plan to meet that date unless something really unforeseen happens. (00:31:30) So you will likely be taking fewer phone calls and perhaps doing fewer interviews in the in the coming weeks. (00:31:37) Yes, and I don't like to do that because if people want to interview me and want to take the time I love always I've never refused an interview or refuse to cooperate with anyone and It's very nice. Just saying that's the Sally again a couple of days ago that in all of the people. We've talked to an all in newspaper accounts and everything never had any bad experiences at all, which is really nice because you hear so much about that, you know, the Press doing this and so on and some of these Scandal magazines, but that seems to be a different group of people apparently reporters and so on but I've had just very nice relations and have some some nice friends, you know that I've developed as a result of these interviews and so (00:32:24) on your book one about the crossing of the North Atlantic. Is that going to be out soon? (00:32:31) I don't know it's there's some people looking at it now some other Publishers and so on and it may come out and then in the next couple months of to I'm not too sure about that. So I really can't say too much about that. (00:32:48) Have you learned to fly since you've been back? Yeah. (00:32:52) Well I had taken lessons years ago and that was back in college days. I didn't have the money to finish my lessons. So then last summer when I said I was going to spend some time doing what I want to do. I went out and I took some lessons and I paid for lessons that I haven't even had time to take yet and I put it on my calendar for last December to finish up my couldn't do it then and I said a couple weeks ago. I'm definitely gonna do this before I leave. Now, it never even entered my mind again because it's just out of the question which really disappoints my flew a few hours when I was on Virginia with a friend, but I just I just don't have time and I really shouldn't say resent that but I What's the well, I don't know. What word I'm trying to think of right now, but I regret it. I guess I should say. Yeah, I don't resent it. But I regret it. (00:33:44) Is there anything that you can think of that you'd like to (00:33:46) add? Well, I always like to get in a little pitch for people doing what they want to do in life. I think people be a lot happier if they would. Take a little time. Like I did last summer when I said well I want I'm going to think about what I want to do with my life. I think that this is a enormously beneficial area of people would just say I want to do something and they do it. I don't have to do the whole thing. You just do part of it like say a fella says gee I always wanted to be a radio interview. I'd sure like to do that. I want to do that but here I am working as an account but I always want to interview people that doesn't mean you have to quit his job as an accountant and go to Radio Broadcasting school or something like that, but just call him call ksjn and say say I've always wanted to see what these interviews I would you mind if I just went along I won't say anything. I just like to see what it's about and he might find out that he that he made the right decision and I can maybe he'd go down with a guy in the oh boy. This is gonna be fun. We're going to go interview Johnny Cash. He's gonna be in town. It's like I said, oh that's going to be less what? Always want to do so you go down there and they say well mr. Cash doesn't have time after all today. So we're sorry you just got to give it. Like I said Gee this business isn't quite as exciting as I thought it was going to be but the only way to find out is actually try it go do a little bit of it and I just wish people would do that and I not only do the things that they they want to do in terms of vocation and so on or what their dream is, but be self-determining and and and your whole life and other things you do to like your relationships with others your your interest in politics your philosophy and so on don't just do what the crowd does and of course this everyone's heard this but I'm talking about actually trying it something I actually doing it say, well it's a let's take religion is a good example, there are lots of religions around and they have all of their things written out for you, but Sit down and think about yourself say well, what do I think about Gaia not what is it? And what other people told me about? What do I think about God and what do I think God wants me to do? What should I be doing in life? And if you go away and spend a few days all alone away from radio television all that sort of thing other people and just a few days. You can find out awful lot about yourself and where you're really fit in your very valuable experience.