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Lessons from Bill Pinkney’s historic solo sail around the world

Bill Pinkney chronicled his solo sail around the world as the first African American to do it the hard way — around the great Southern Capes — in his 1992 video diary and documentary. Special correspondent Mike Cerre has his story, and the life lessons his journey imparts, from Puerto Rico.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now to a man who made history and set records in a profession and a sport not known for its diversity. He was able to navigate rough seas to reach new shores.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre has the story from Puerto Rico.

  • Captain 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 cares about one thing: I am the sea.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Bill Pinkney chronicled his 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.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

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

  • Mike Cerre:

    Raised on Chicago's South Side, in a fatherless home, often on public assistance, and only attending inner-city public schools, Bill Pinkney's sailing accomplishments are all the more extraordinary.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

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

  • Mike Cerre:

    Now 85, 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.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

    I was a terrible student, but I read this book entitled "Call to Courage" about a young man who was an outcast with people on this island in Polynesia. I held that as my dream for 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 commitments, like he named his boat, donated by other sailors and businessmen.

    Well before the Internet and Instagram, he sent back video dispatches from his circumnavigation and social studies reports from his several stopovers during his two-year sailing adventure.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

    This is the original form of break dancing.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The lesson plans he created with Chicago educators eventually connected his voyage with nearly 30,000 students throughout the country.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

    I had one day when I made almost 140 miles in a day. My average speed for that day is a number that you might want to figure out.

    The thing I tried to show in my trip was that the things you use and learn every day, the things you learn in the first 12 years of school come into play every single day.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Bill Pinkney added to his sailing legacy as the first captain of the Amistad schooner replica for teaching the sailing history of the slave trade, and taking teachers to Africa for a Middle Passage crossing from Senegal to the Americas, starting from the door of no return that slaves passed through.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

    That was the whole idea, is to give that juxtaposition, to get a real, a visceral appreciation of that distance, of that time, of that removal, that quantum leap from Africa to America essentially as cargo contemporarily as the master.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Nearly three decades since his historic solo circumnavigation, and nearly 10 years on the national Sailing Hall of Fame nomination list, Bill Pinkney is finally joining sailing's elite, not so much for his sailing, but for his lifetime contributions to the sport.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

    Sailing gets a bad rap for being an elitist sport, because it's always portrayed as yachting. Because sailing is predominantly white and there aren't many Black people doing it, it's an easy — it's easy to hang your hat on something like that.

    Sailing, on the other hand, is people on boats anywhere from a little Optimist dinghy up to 140-, 170-, 190-foot boat that sails. I don't believe that my entry into the Hall of Fame had anything to do with the times that we live in and Black Lives Matter. I think it had to do more with my ability, what my story is, what my history, what my achievements have been.

  • Mike Cerre:

    These days, Bill Pinkney is playing more dominoes at the local American Legion post here in Fajardo than sailing and hanging out at yacht clubs. He is a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club in Newport, Rhode Island.

    Hurricane Maria beached his most recent boat, causing extensive damages, and the COVID shutdown crushed his charter boat business, but not Bill Pinkney's faith in sailing as his metaphor for life.

  • Captain Bill Pinkney:

    I kept my focus on what my goal was. I knew that I had to complete what I started, because there were kids out there watching, and adults also, who were depending on me to make my dream a reality, so their dream would seem more like a reality to them.

  • Mike Cerre:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Mike Cerre reporting from Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

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