‘A great equalizer:’ What the sea taught Bill Pinkney about life and success

Bill Pinkney is the first African American to sail solo around the world via the Capes. One of the goals of his voyage was to inspire and educate children. Last year, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the National Sailing Hall of Fame. Special Correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When Bill Pinkney sailed solo around the world via the Capes, almost 30 years ago, he became the first African American to do so. One goal, he said, was to inspire and educate children. Last year, he was honored for those efforts – and more – with a lifetime achievement award from the National Sailing Hall of Fame. Special Correspondent Mike Cerre has the story.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Newport, Rhode Island's world class sailing, stately seaside mansions, prestigious yacht clubs and Bill Pinkney's historic induction into its National Sailing Hall of Fame. A world away from where he grew up on Chicago's south side.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    I'm the first person of African descent to be a part of this, to be recognized for my efforts as a sailor, not as an African-American, but as a sailor.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    The sea doesn't care what your economic status is. Your religion, your nationality, your sex, it doesn't care what you think. It care's one thing: I am the sea.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Bill Pinkney chronicled his historic solo sail around the world, the first African-American to do it the hard way around the Great Southern Capes in his 1992 video diary and documentary.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    It's been very, very rough. For seven days I've had nothing but bad weather. The boat's been knocked on its side a couple of times.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Pinkney had been knocked down before while growing up on public assistance on Chicago's south side.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    The fact that I was Black meant that statistically before I was 21, I would be either killed from a crime of violence, on drugs, or incarcerated. Now, I never believe the statistics.

  • Mike Cerre:

    At 86, he's retired in Puerto Rico, where he first learned how to sail small cargo skiffs while stationed here with the Navy in the '50s.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    I was a terrible student but I read this book entitled "Call It Courage" about a young man who was an outcast with people on his island in Polynesia. I held that as my dream for a great adventure in my life.

  • Mike Cerre:

    After a successful career as a cosmetics executive, Bill Pinkney decided to sail around the world in 1990 while in his mid-50s as a legacy for his grandchildren and to teach inner city students back at his former elementary school how far they could go with a basic education and by making a commitment, like he named his boat donated by other sailors and businessmen. The lesson plans he created with Chicago educators eventually connected his voyage with nearly 30,000 students throughout the country. Now a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club, he thinks sailing often gets a bad rap for being confused with yachting as an elitist recreation exclusive to those with more privileged backgrounds than his.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    But I'm very proud that I am a member of that ethnic group who has been part of the sea all along the African coast, all along the coast of the United States, because the first people and the watermen in this country were slaves.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Absalom Boston, the first African-American captain of a Nantucket whaling ship in 1822 is on the Sailing Hall of Fame's nomination list like Bill Pinkney was the past 12 years prior to his induction in 2021.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    I don't believe that my entry into the Hall of Fame had anything to do with the times that we live in, or Black Lives Matter. I think it had to do more with my ability, what my story is, my history, what my achievements have been.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    Just me. No cat, no dog. No birds. No, nothing.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Solo sailing might be Bill Pinkney's claim to fame. But sharing his adventures and passion for sailing as a metaphor for life has also been his longstanding obsession. Prior to joining the Sail Newport sailing program, most of these fourth graders from Newport's public schools had never been on the water before, like Bill Pinkney never had while attending Chicago Public Schools.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    I probably learned more at sea than I ever learned in school or anyplace else. When they're out there, they've got that tiller in their hand and they learn about control, self-control, they learn about teamwork, they learn about all of the basics that one needs in life to be successful.

  • Mike Cerre:

    I'm sure no doubt throughout your life there were obstacles, social obstacles that you had to confront, either go around or get over somehow. Did you find that in sailing as well?

  • Bill Pinkney:

    In the actual sailing? No, I didn't find that at all in sailing. Like I said before, it's a great equalizer.

  • Mike Cerre:

    A bit older than your typical male model in the Ralph Lauren Polo ads for nautical and club attire, Bill Pinkney still wears a 40 regular right off the rack and was a perfect fit for a "RL Magazine" feature story on his Hall of Fame induction.

  • Mike Cerre:

    There's one other thing that you wear that probably nobody else does wear in this club, the jewelry.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    Ah, the jewelry. This little piece of gold right here, that was tough to get. I had to sail around the world to get it.

  • Mike Cerre:

    And what's the symbolism of that?

  • Bill Pinkney:

    Well, it's an old sailing tradition that when a sailor rounded Cape Horn, he put a sail maker's needle through his ear and put a piece of gold in it to signify that he had rounded Cape Horn. If you look at a painting of Absolom Boston, you'll notice he has earrings in both ears. That means he's double the horn. East to west, west to east.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Joined by family, friends, sponsors and fellow sailors, Captain Bill Pinkney was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame and also received its Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing sailing to a much broader community of American life.

  • Bill Pinkney:

    The United States, by its very population, is diverse. What we need to do now is to embrace our diversity. Thank you all for this.

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