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The Circumnavigations of Henk De Velde


[clock] 20-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2017

Illustration by Julien Pacaud

When I first wrote the Dutchman, ten years ago, he was sailing around the world alone for the sixth and final time. His plan, he said, was to keep on sailing, continuing this last circumnavigation until the day he died, or until he found some unknown place “behind the horizon.” At the time, Henk De Velde was somewhere in the Atlantic, slightly closer to South America than any other continent, but not very close to anywhere at all. I was on the nineteenth floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan, working at an adventure travel magazine, looking for stories. De Velde’s journey had a nice hook, a neat beginning, but no real end, which was kind of the point. Several years into our correspondence, I told an editor about it. His response was that De Velde probably needed to die for the story to have a proper arc. In the meantime, De Velde kept sailing, and I kept following him—less and less as the years piled on but well after the magazine shut down and I’d left New York. I still wanted to know what shape De Velde’s story would take, if he would ever find what he was looking for, and if he did ever get behind the horizon, where that might be.

I first reached him through a message board frequented by various adventurers, particularly seafarers. I asked him basic questions about his voyage, which he answered with a few details: His ship was named Juniper, a fifty-two-foot trimaran cut from Alaskan white cedar; he drank ten cups of coffee a day, plus a spoonful of water scooped out of the ocean for his health; he slept next to his satellite phone, in a bunk that didn’t quite fit his six-foot-three-inch frame; he said the thing that kept him up at night were the sounds of his ship, to which he was constantly attuned, cataloging the creaks and shudders he might have to address in the light of day—unless something was too loud or too extraordinary to wait until dawn, in which case he put on a headlamp and harness and investigated. Most of his waking hours were filled with fixing countless minor catastrophes. When he had a spare moment, he wrote. He was working on several books, some about this journey, some not.

Eventually, we arranged a time to talk by satellite phone—me in my cubicle, De Velde making for the coast of Argentina. When the call finally came through, his voice was low and small and garbled by a crackling line. In the background I could hear a constant roar—from the wind or the sea or a bad connection, I wasn’t quite sure. I asked him what it was like to be alone in the middle of the ocean for so long. “It never bothered me, being alone,” he said. “At the moment I have these big feelings, but it is actually better that I cannot share. There are no words for the closeness I feel.” To what? I asked. As way of explanation, he described a voyage he’d undertaken years ago, when he spent a winter with his boat locked in ice.

De Velde had been trying to sail around the world through the Northwest Passage, but had arrived too late in the year, and ended up surrounded by sea ice off the coast of Siberia. He got stuck near the village of Tiksi, at the mouth of the Lena River, which sounds like somewhere but is close to nowhere, which is exactly where he wanted to be. He stayed nine months, battling the ice as it expanded and hardened and closed in on his ship, threatening to tear it apart.

The climate there, he said, was not like any other he’d known before or since. It was dry—surreally so, the frost like a different type of substance entirely, more granular, almost like sand. Minus fifty degrees Celsius did not feel like minus fifty degrees Celsius, he said. Of course, his fingers stiffened, and his joints ached. But it wasn’t a damp cold that left him chilled and shivering. He had a diesel heater, but to conserve fuel he relied on a small electric space heater instead, which kept the air around it at minus five degrees Celsius, and much colder everywhere else. Life inside the boat was pleasant enough, he said. At any rate, he got used to it.

Within a few months, a layer of ice about a meter thick had formed over parts of the boat, prompting De Velde to go at it with his chain saw and axe. He dismantled the frozen rigging and removed all the doors, worried that the cold and ice would snap them off anyway, or worse, lock them in place. When it snowed, he dug out from his little lair inside the berth.

And whenever he could, he walked. The snow, he said, was too dry to ski on even if he’d had skis, but it was perfect for walking. “I walked for hours in the cold. I did all-day walks. It was like being on another planet. You are very close to something like God. It is very difficult to explain.”

Sometimes, when his walks led him close enough to Tiksi, someone would spot him. Now and then villagers wandered out to see the boat. Why didn’t he come to the village? they insisted. “If I go with you, I wouldn’t be wintering in Siberia,” he replied. Eventually they left the odd Dutchman alone to enjoy his solitude in the darkness and ice. For three months the sun did not rise. “Time,” he said, “was flying—the colors, the ice, the emptiness.”

By August, the ice had loosened, and the ship drifted with the floes away from shore. Once free, De Velde slowly worked his way toward the East Siberian Sea, hugging the coast, avoiding frozen sheets and icebergs, making toward open water. He barely slept, so tenuous was his time snaking between the floating slabs. Then, just before rounding a cape, on his way to deeper waters, the Juniper hit a stamukha—an iceberg stuck fast to the sea floor—which lifted the boat out of the water and tore through its hull.

De Velde radioed for help, then made ready to abandon ship. When a Russian icebreaker finally arrived, the crew found him weeping. At first the Russians thought he was distressed by his predicament, or simply relieved at the sight of his rescuers. No, De Velde told them, he was heartbroken, for it was the end of his voyage. The Russians slapped him on the back and howled in appreciation.

When he returned to the Netherlands, De Velde found it difficult to articulate what he’d felt that winter—in the darkness, on his walks, the northern lights all around him. He described “a strange lonesome happiness” that would wash over him, a feeling of having witnessed nature in all its purity, without audience. Overcome by these large feelings, he would suddenly burst into tears.

Coming back to civilization, he told me, was too difficult. In Holland, he’d kept a small apartment, a motorbike, and thousands of books. He sold it all and used the money to buy the boat he would christen Juniper, then made plans to leave and never return. When I asked him why he’d left for good, he replied, “It’s easier to keep moving. The only thing left is me and my boat. I don’t miss anything. I am home where I am.”


When De Velde and I spoke again, he mentioned a recurring dream, an ominous sound that he often awoke to. The sound was of “rushing mountains of water…a dream of the sea and its violence.” He never had this dream during a voyage, he said, only when he was on land.

In fact, he was plagued by a nightmarish possibility now and then, which was “to be trapped on land forever.” De Velde was not alone in his dread of permanent landfall. In 1969, the French sailor Bernanrd Moitessier intentionally veered off-course as he closed in on the finish line of a round-the-world, single-handed sailing race, tacking hard and fast back into the Pacific. In his memoir of the trip, Moitessier describes taking a nap halfway between Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, where he dreams of his friends telling him his journey is finished. He sees his boat, named Joshua, “trapped in the dock.” He tries desperately to get back aboard. “I was agonized,” he writes. “I shouted…that my voyage wasn’t over.”

Joshua the boat was named after Joshua Slocum, the first to sail alone around the world. Slocum left Boston in 1895 in a gaff-rigged sloop, an old thirty-seven-foot oyster boat he’d rebuilt and named Spray. In no hurry, Slocum made his way north to Nova Scotia, visiting the coast of his boyhood, and then, at Halifax, left North America in his wake. He returned more than three years and 46,000 miles later, landing in Newport, Rhode Island.

Slocum carried a sextant, and occasionally determined his longitude using the angle of the moon in relation to certain stars. But mostly he made his way by dead reckoning, which is among the oldest forms of navigation. You measure speed, often using nothing more than a length of knotted rope (hence, knots for speed at sea). Mistakes pile up quickly. To know where you’re headed, you must be right about where you’ve been, and how close or far away the destination may be, and what the wind and waves are doing, and how fast you’re going—all in order to have an approximate sense of where you are in a rolling, open ocean. It’s terribly inaccurate if the navigator isn’t also taking into account a thousand variables, big and small, acting upon the craft to cause drag or drift or anything else that might push or pull it off course. So the navigator looks outward, to the heavens.

Polynesians sailed, discovered, and settled nearly a fifth of the planet’s surface, tens of thousands of islands throughout the Pacific, by knowing the wind and waves and heavens. Stars low in the sky, just risen or about to set, were used as guideposts. The navigator sat in the center of the universe, often in the center of the boat, conjuring the journey’s end point, seeing the destination in his mind long before it appeared over the horizon. He sat in the middle of the boat but also was a part of the boat, more in tune with the craft and its course through the wind and sea, toward certain stars, than with anyone else on board.

One master navigator from the Caroline Islands grew up on an islet a third of the size of Central Park. “His universe was the ocean,” the anthropologist Wade Davis writes in The Wayfinders. His training began as an infant, when he was placed in tidal pools for hours so that he might absorb the rhythms of the waves and currents. On his first long voyage in open ocean, at eight, he became seasick, and his teacher tied him to a rope and dragged him behind the boat until he was no longer ill. When he was fourteen he tied his testicles to the rigging of his canoe to sense its movement through water and wind more completely.

This devotion to the boat, the melding of ship and navigator, recalls sailors from De Velde to Slocum to Robin Knox-Johnston, who’d been in the same race as Moitessier and had gone on to win it. In his memoir, A World of My Own, Knox-Johnston refers to his vessel as if it were a companion, a fellow sailor: “Until we reached the Southern Ocean we had met only one gale.” And: “It was no good taking all that sail in…as we lost too much distance like that.” John Steinbeck knew how “a boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in man’s mind.” In his Log from the Sea of Cortez, he describes how his boat had “seemed sometimes nervous and irritable, swinging off course before the correction could be made, slapping her nose into the quartering wave.” After storms, the boat “seemed tired and sluggish.…Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.”

What became of a man with a boat-shaped mind, in a boat with a man-shaped soul? Often it seemed the Polynesian navigators existed in a realm between or almost outside of society, sitting apart from the crew, at the center of the ship. Among the most famous was Tupaia, a navigator from Raiatea, Tahiti, who joined James Cook’s ship. Cook was dazzled by Tupaia’s knowledge—he could reproduce star charts and maps of islands by memory, using shells and rocks on ship decks or beaches—and relied on him for his explorations throughout the Pacific. Tupaia never returned to his people. The solo circumnavigators seem cut from the same cloth, so enthralled with the search for some place beyond that they were never quite ready to go back.

“How can I tell them that the sounds of water and the flecks of foam on the sea are like the sounds of stone and wind, and helped me find my way?” Moitessier wrote. “How can I tell them all those nameless things…leading me to the real earth? Tell them and not frighten them, without their thinking I have lost my mind.” Slocum, though not as introspective, nonetheless returned to long ocean voyages, alone and repeatedly, just as De Velde.

De Velde’s life mirrored Slocum’s in other ways. Both men took to the sea as teenagers, became captains in their twenties, and chased the feeling of piloting a ship to its purest point, untethering themselves from other people in the process. In 1871, soon after marrying his wife, Slocum took her on an epic voyage—from Sydney to Cook Inlet in Alaska, down to San Francisco, across the Pacific to the Philippines and Hong Kong, then north to the Okhotsk Sea. Along the way, they had a son, then twin daughters. Much later, in 1909, long after his initial, famous single-handed circumnavigation, Slocum sailed off alone again and disappeared completely. Within a year, his wife told the press she believed he was lost at sea, though it would be another fourteen years before Slocum was declared legally dead.

De Velde began his sea life at fifteen, a deck boy on a Belgian cargo vessel. An officer taught him to use a sextant, read the sun, plot a course, and reckon their speed and position. When he was twenty-eight, he became captain of a 6,000-ton cargo vessel, among the youngest captains in Holland. On one of his trips, he spotted a small sailboat out in the middle of the ocean. “This was the start of the next dream,” he said. “I remember thinking, It does not cost any money to do that. It costs time.” When he returned to the Netherlands, he found a small lake, a small boat, and taught himself to sail.

Illustration by Jenn Boggs

When De Velde married, in 1977, he also took his bride, Gini, out to sea—crossing the Atlantic on a forty-six-foot catamaran. After a year, they ran out of money. De Velde took a job captaining a vessel out of Curaçao, and after six months th
ey were off again, through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific. Soon after, they learned Gini was pregnant. Near Easter Island, De Velde took ill with typhoid, and soon became unconscious with fever, though not before teaching Gini to navigate by sextant herself. She piloted the ship for thirty days, toward Easter Island, where they anchored while De Velde recovered. While there, Gini gave birth to their only son, Stefan. Seven months later, the family left port again.

In the Indian Ocean, they hit a cyclone. It took them two days to pilot through it, with De Velde lashed to the tiller. With the storm behind them, Gini decided that she’d had enough: She and Stefan would be leaving him once they reached South Africa. “There seemed to be nothing left but to wander without purpose,” he said. All told, it took seven years to complete that first round-the-world journey.

Why had this circumnavigation taken so long, I asked him once, years after we first spoke. “In my heart slowly grew the feeling of being a nomad,” he told me. “And many things went wrong, and I ran out of money again and again. But you are young—seven years is not that long a time.”

After that first circumnavigation, the others came quickly, one after the other, and all for speed. De Velde rarely pulled to port, with the intent of achieving “complete freedom from land.” On one voyage, he sailed into a gale. Again, he felt fear, but this time around, because he was alone, he realized: “What is this fear? It is just blood rushing through my veins.”

On another journey, after rounding Cape Horn, the ship’s generators broke down. The sea was a dead calm. De Velde drifted for forty days, the sky and sea one seamless whole. He lost his bearings, and when his ship collided with a partially drowned container, the boat lurched and De Velde fell, fractured his skull, and lay unconscious for three days.

Another circumnavigation, this time in a seventy-one-foot catamaran: “I realized I was part of my boat, that I was talking, although not loud, to the whales around me. I saw the birds looking at me and, the word enjoying is not strong enough. This was it, this was my sea life. This was the third time around and already I knew that the sea would never let me go again, that I was in its eternal grip.” That trip took 119 days, nearly a world record. Nonetheless, “I had learned that any human record is meaningless.”

His final voyage, during which we first made contact, was his purest yet—not for speed, or with any particular destination in mind, just to sail for the sake of it. But as he neared Argentina, not long after our first conversation, his mast snapped. Everything went calm. He could no longer hear the movement of the boat. He was, again, like driftwood. Even the birds knew this, and began to perch on the Juniper. What was left of the mast kept bashing against the hull, so he cut and cast it off, leaving only the mizzen. He continued to drift, sometimes sailing weakly. Eventually he was close enough to land to radio the Argentine Coast Guard and was towed to port.

His fate had now become a question of money. He put his writing together and made a booklet called “State of Grace,” the title lifted from a Joseph Conrad line: “The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land.” Or, in De Velde’s telling: “the grace of God starts 1,000 miles away from shore.” He took odd jobs and saved enough to buy a new mast and get back on his way. He passed through Tierra del Fuego and the Milky Way—a mass of sharp rocks, sudden islets, shoals, and breakers where Slocum had spent a horrific night more than a century earlier. Then De Velde entered the Pacific, aiming for Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world. He still wanted to find that place behind the horizon—a silly sentiment, he knew, but one that articulated the anticipation he felt while sailing on an endless expanse, of reaching a point just beyond the dip. Out at sea, he said, you are fully aware of how you are nothing, just a small spot in the universe. This was the place. This was nowhere. And this vast nowhere was home.

Six months after leaving Argentina, De Velde finally found his island, though it wasn’t the one he’d aimed for. Instead, he landed at a dormant volcano in the Indian Ocean called Île Saint Paul. He anchored in the caldera, surrounded by rockhopper penguins, fur and elephant seals. While there, he learned that his mother had been hospitalized, and was dying. He felt a strange pull back to the Netherlands, and within a few days began sailing north, eventually making it to Japan, where he bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. He visited with his mother before she passed away, and spent time with his son and Gini, who had remained, he said, his “good comrade.” The feeling of a life that existed solely above the waves, in the wind, began to leave him, he said—not completely, but little by little.

I asked what he meant by this, and he told me about coming upon a fin whale—some seventy feet long, longer than the boat itself—on a calm day a thousand miles from anywhere. “Suddenly I realized that the whale, with his big eye, was looking at me. I walked from fore to aft and aft to fore and that big eye followed me. It wasn’t following the biggest thing around him, my boat, but it was looking at that small creature, at life, at me. I looked deep within the eye of the whale and had this feeling, you cannot describe it, of two living creatures recognizing each other. I will never forget looking deep in the whale’s eye, that feeling, too difficult to deal with, in some sense. But I am beginning to deal with it.”


We spoke once more, not long ago. De Velde was anchored in a tiny harbor ten miles from a place called Kampen, less than a day’s journey from where he was born. He had sold the Juniper and bought a forty-six-foot steel powerboat. From where he was anchored, he could see meadows, cows, windmills—the stuff of his childhood. “I am back, let’s call it, home,” he said over the phone, the line clearer this time. Stefan had married and had a son named Fedde. Gini had married another man, also named Henk (“She met the best Henk there is for her,” De Velde said). And De Velde had written another book, his first work of fiction. It was, he said, an adventure tale that skips across the globe and through time, all of it based on places he’d been. The story begins with a man shipwrecked on a desolate shore, and ends on the same lonely beach, hundreds of years later, with a different man who is also, somehow, the same. He wanders until he finds a tribe, and they recognize him. They tell him they’ve been waiting all these years to welcome him home.

I asked De Velde if the man stayed put, if the end of his story was the end of his restlessness. “Maybe,” he said. The ending was ambiguous. Perhaps he’d found his place, but he also needed to keep moving—toward what even he couldn’t be sure. De Velde knew this feeling because, of course, the man was him, and though he was home, and content, he missed his endless days at sea. He missed the ice. Which is why he was already plotting another trip to Iceland and Greenland. He longed to feel the rush of blood in his veins—something close to fear, but not fear exactly—and knew where he could find it. He’d begin by heading north.

1 Comments

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Patricia Bradley's picture
Patricia Bradley · 1 month ago

Fantastic, beautifully written, what an adventure you just took me on!

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