MYSTIC, Conn. - The yellow raincoat hung in the glass case. The Bill Pinkney exhibit at Mystic Seaport museum also contained a GPS unit and a safety harness, the essential piece of gear that tethered the Chicago sailor to "Commitment."
"I stayed hooked to the boat the whole time," the sailor recalled. "I slept in that."
For 22 months and 32,000 solo sailing miles around the world in 1991-92, the safety harness' straps held him together. On this day Pinkney stood outside of himself, almost literally. The man who did the deeds, the man honored by the exhibit, looked into the case and looked into his soul. He was pleased with what he saw.
It has been a remarkable journey. The youngster who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in poverty, who wondered about an uncertain future, became the first black man to sail solo around the world. He also became the first captain to pilot the reincarnated Amistad.
At 70, he yearns for one more joyful tour of the earth's oceans.
It was a quiet day at "The Museum of America and the Sea." It's the off-season at the normally bustling seaport where the replica of the slave ship Amistad was built and docks for the winter.
Pinkney, whose sailing career began on Lake Michigan and who did the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac many times, now lives near here in the city of Meriden and is on the museum's board of trustees.
Sailing often is regarded as a rich man's hobby and prominent African-American sailors are rare.
But the museum's display "Black Hands, Blue Seas" noted that blacks served in the American Navy beginning in the 1700s and that 17,000 black sailors served during the Civil War.
Pinkney did not know that. Reading Armstrong Sperry's sailing book "Call It Courage" in the early 1940s inspired him.
"It changed my life," Pinkney said. "I wanted to have a great adventure."
He also wanted to show young people they could make their dreams come true with determination. Pinkney's first boat was a dinghy he could transport on the roof of his car.
From 1953 to 1961, Pinkney served in the Navy and in the 1970s he sailed on inter-island schooners near Puerto Rico. He later did makeup work for Hollywood movies and was a consultant for Revlon. But when Pinkney turned 50 he turned reflective.
"The great adventure thing kept going through my mind," he said. "It was time for me to strike out on my dream."
The first great challenge was raising money for the trip and obtaining and outfitting the proper boat.
Businessman Armand Hammer donated $25,000 and that provided a great boost. Pinkney also had served in the Navy with entertainer Bill Cosby and, although Cosby thought he was crazy to undertake the sail, he tried to open sponsorship doors.
Although Pinkney's sail was solo, he didn't want his adventure to be selfish. Before such links became more common, Pinkney established a sea-to-shore system of communicating with 30,000 school children in Boston and Chicago. He visited thembefore he sailed and stayed in touch the entire trip.
"I was high tech for my time," Pinkney said.
There is no such thing as an easy solo sail around the world. It is time-consuming, demanding, dangerous, lonely andmentally and physically taxing. Success demands consummate skill, courage and will.
Not a day at the beach
Pinkney departed from Boston sailing east. He enjoyed beautiful sunsets and gorgeous waters, feared the 47-foot "Commitment" would be run over by freighters and was tossed around by fearsome seas at Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope and off Tasmania.
"About 85 percent of it was absolutely wonderful," he said. "Ten percent of it was miserable. Five percent of it was life-threatening. I never slept more than an hour at a time."
One Pinkney stop was Cape Town, South Africa. Neal Anderson, an aspiring young black sailor, sought out Pinkney there. They became friendly and Anderson, who later became an around-the-world solo sailor, said Pinkney inspired him.
"He was a big influence," said Anderson, 38, who now lives in South Carolina and in 2005 appeared at a Chicago boat show. "I was young and eager and trying to figure out how to make my mark. There were very few people of color who owned boats and who were sailing oceans. He was a tremendous role model for me."
Near Tasmania, "Commitment" was knocked on its side twice, once for more than 30 seconds.
"I try not to remember," Pinkney said. "That's an eternity. At the time you don't think much, but afterwards you start to think, `That was close.' "
Pinkney wanted the adventure to be as much the students' as his own.
"Young people on the South Side of Chicago get told the same thing I did," he said. "
`You're not going to amount to anything. You'll be dead at 21 from drugs.' They have single parent households. But I'm living proof you can do these kinds of things. What did I have that they don't have?"
Completing his long sail made Pinkney a hero. He compiled a list of "Things I Learned at Sea." One was, "You're smarter than you think you are." Another was, "You're dumber than you think you are."
Thousands greeted Pinkney in Boston. People magazine said, "To encourage kids to excel in the world, Bill Pinkney sailed around it."
Bill Cosby narrated a video entitled "The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney." Cosby noted that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have sailed solo around the world. Cosby called Pinkney's adventure, "One man's quest for more."
Some of that "more" was helping bring the 129-foot Amistad to life at Mystic Seaport. Launched in June 2000, Pinkney was at the helm for three years.
"People just touched the wood and they would break into tears," Pinkney said. "This is the only floating symbol of the slavery era in this country. This was a liberation ship. It is powerful every time I come back on board."
The primary reason Pinkney lives in Connecticut is his wife Migdalia's job at Wesleyan College. Pinkney hosts a weekly radio show on the maritime scene and lectures at schools and corporate gatherings. His biography, "As Long As It Takes," is scheduled for release in August.
Once in a while, Bill Pinkney clambers up the Amistad's 96-foot mast to show the crew and the rest of the guys in the shipyard that he's not as old as his age.
"The old man can still do it," Pinkney said.
Yes, you have to be ready when that last great adventure calls.