Sailing Totem: Better than Bacon

Does it ever seem to you that all sailors are connected somehow? Maybe we are!

November 4, 2019
Controller’s Bay
Totem entering the time-warp that is Controller’s Bay, Nuku Hiva Behan Gifford

Most of us don’t have a Bacon Number . This, of course, is the number of connections it takes to link an actor to Kevin Bacon. What does Kevin Bacon or the concept of six degrees of separation have to do with cruising? Proximity. Access. Friend-making. Ghost-touching. Being human.


The worldwide population of sailors is quite a few digits less than the world population. It’s a wild guess, but let’s say 99% of all humans don’t sail. If only six friend-of-a-friend steps link seven billion individuals, mostly, then it stands to reason that fewer degrees link all sailors. Four degrees maybe? Or even three friend-of-a-friend steps could connect most sailors. Imagine it! Go out on a casual evening race and you may be crewing with someone that knows accomplished racing sailors like the McKee brothers, Dennis Conner, or the inspiring Sail Like a Girl team that won last year’s R2AK. Attend a sailor-focused gathering such as the Annapolis Sailboat Show, or an event held by an organizations such as the Puget Sound Cruising Club or Seven Seas Cruising Association, and you’ll likely meet people who know two-time circumnavigator Nancy Early, Jimmy Cornell, Fatty Goodlander, Laura Dekker, Nigel Calder, and Joseph Ailis from Ninigo, Papua New Guinea. (Joseph sails an outrigger canoe between islands by traditional Pacific Islander navigation skills only. Steering with a paddle in an open canoe, his sun baked eyes read ocean and sky as easily as easily as a librarian lives in the pages of a cherished book.)

wound care team
Michele instructs Mochi’s wound care team in Totem‘s main cabin Behan Gifford


Statistically speaking, it’s improbable that ALL sailors link within three steps. Still, a significant portion of us are within few connections. I’ve had the fortune to meet truly great sailors: Sir Peter Blake, the Pardeys, the Goodlanders, Tracy Edwards, Buddy Melges, Chris Dickson, Titouan Lamazou, Hal Roth, Florence Arthaud, Mike Plant, Jim Kilroy, Gary Jobson, Tom Whidden, Dennis Conner, Laurie Smith, Chris Dickson, Peter Gilmore, John Rousmaniere, Joseph Ailis the navigator…others known and less-known, all notable for experience on the water.


Sailors are a close community. Differences in speed and style, but close. As an awkward 13-year-old, my parents scrambled to borrow a blazer to meet dress-code requirements for me to attend a presentation by Gary Jobson. The subject was America’s Cup and I was huge fan. My discomfort in the ill-fitting jacket was nothing compared to the stage fright I felt when seated next to the America’s Cup winning tactician himself. On the break, he turned to me and we talked sailing.

The sailing community rewards you for reaching out. Friends from Baba 30, IO, told us how they were inspired by Lin and Larry Pardey and emailed them asking for advice. They were stunned when on the next day they got a considerate reply from Lin. Friends aboard Rutea, circumnavigators we met back in Southeast Asia, related how they had written a review of Jimmy Cornell’s recent book, 200,000 Miles: A Life of Adventure on their blog. Shortly thereafter they were contacted by Jimmy himself, thanking them for the thoughtful review, and asking to publish it on his website.


If sailors are mostly connected through a few friend-of-a-friend relationships, then by extension we’re mostly friendly friends. This leads to unexpected encounters. Last year, in Santa Marta, Colombia, our dwarf hamster had a bad infection. Surgery was required, but the local vets wouldn’t touch the tiny creature. The evening after being turned down by the vet, Behan’s cocktail conversation with a new cruising friend on a boat belonging to neither of them surfaced the fact that Michele, from nearby vessel Nautilus, happened to be a small-animal vet. She diagnosed our pet, talked a local vet into letting her use their facility (her boat had everything but anesthetic gas), brought our then 13-year-old, Siobhan, in to be vet tech, taught all three of us post-op care, and wowed us with stories of her work with animals around the world. We probably never would’ve met Michele if it weren’t for our hamster crisis, but we did through a friend-of-a-friend. To thank Michele, we gave her a nautilus shell that we got in Papua New Guinea, on the island where Joseph Ailis lives.

Tenacatita Bay
Nautilus pulling into Tenacatita Bay Behan Gifford

On our fast track going north from Panama to Mexico, we lost touch with Michele. Though the links between change with time and distance, the connections remain, knowing you’ll see each other again, somewhere. Sure enough: almost exactly 12 months since we waved goodbye, Nautilus anchored next to us in Tenacatita, Mexico. It was nice to see Michele and the nautilus again.


Sentimental hogwash no doubt, but cruising and a little imagination can bridge time, almost. As a teenager I was inspired by Miles and Beryl Smeeton’s sailing adventures on Tzu Hang. Many years later at a presentation by legendary sailor John Guzzwell about sailing his Trekka around the world, including his detour to sail aboard Tzu Hang with the Smeetons, every person gripped their seat and choked on the taste of Southern Ocean rolling down their cheeks. Perhaps they were tears, but thanks to John we all felt eerily close to Miles, to Beryl and to his experience – if only in the moment.

Friend-of-a-friend-of-ghost. I’ve had the same feeling when in Comptroller Bay, Nuku Hiva (Marquesas), anchored on the spot where a disillusioned young seaman named Herman Melville fled a whaling ship into the thick, brushy hills where the cannibals lived. And felt it when anchored in the bay at Portobelo, Panama, an old Spanish colonial fortified town where notable sailor Sir Francis Drake succumbed to dysentery. And a very eerie night ghosting on the west side of Saint Helena, too dark and rainy night to approach a mooring; being watched by the ghost of dirt-dwelling Napoleon and his contempt of the sailors keeping him imprisoned on this remote island.

Ascension Island museum
Dampier’s bell, in Ascension Island’s small museum Behan Gifford

Being Human

Sailing offers enough uncomfortable moments that one must question the attraction. Some are born to it. Many are inspired into it by other sailors. People separated in life, connected by adventure and passion. Friends separated by only a few dots waiting to be linked.

17th century pirate William Dampier was many things, but his legacy is as an observer and travel writer. His keen eye and drive to share insights gleaned during three circumnavigations aided Cook, Humboldt, Darwin, Wallace, and even the English language (thank Dampier for barbecue, avocado, chopsticks, and many other words) and classic literature. Dampier’s travel writing helped inspired parts of Gulliver’s Travels. He even played a part in rescuing Alexander Selkirk: the unpleasant, foolish sailor cast away to die alone on a deserted island that became the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

In 2016 Totem was anchored in Clarence Bay, Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic — the same spot where William Dampier’s ship Roebuck sank in 1701. Touching his ship’s bell at the museum onshore enhanced the frisson of Dampier’s ghost. In the 1997 film titled “Robinson Crusoe” based on the book, Pierce Brosnan played the starring role. So, our friend-of-a-friend-of-a-ghost links Totem crew to William Dampier, Daniel Dafoe and Pierce Brosnan — who has a Bacon Number of 2!


Before my Gary Jobson experience, I met a more famous sailor in Block Island, Rhode Island. We didn’t really meet, rather he was docking his boat and handed a line across to this skinny kid that happened to be there. Then realized who I was looking at – that guy on TV, Walter Cronkite. We’re all connected, near and far. Sailors, keep sailing and sharing. You never know who’ll meet along the way, or who YOU will inspire to go sailing.


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