STEUBEN — For some people, an unusual, trying and somewhat dangerous journey becomes the baseline for one’s life.
So it is for Russell Heath, associate director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, who 31 years ago set sail on a four-year, singlehanded circumnavigation of the globe.
His only companion was the 25-foot Vertue class sailboat Kainui. Together the two journeyed from Juneau, Alaska, to Pitcairn Island across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.
In a thoroughly self-deprecating talk at the Henry D. Moore Parish House and Library April 27, Heath recounted his voyage, which included well over a year actually at sea and months on land earning more money to forge ahead.
“Prior to leaving, my only sailing experience was in keeping out of the way,” he said, adding that anything he learned prior to departing Alaska on Aug. 6, 1985, he ingested from Royce’s Sailing Illustrated.
The impetus for the trip had started a few years before when Heath, then in his 30s, first learned one could sail a small boat across the ocean.
“It was like God leaned out of the clouds and whacked me with a two-by-four,” he said. “I had no choice, no choice at all.”
He and his friend, Bob, who accompanied him as far as Seattle, immediately ran into foul weather, which also revealed something Heath had not been aware of — his vulnerability to serious seasickness.
While trying to take in a sail, for which some of the mast hardware was stowed below, Heath suddenly found himself heaving.
“The two years I had dreamed of this trip it had never occurred to me I might get seasick,” he said.
Heath said he contemplated turning around, but couldn’t bear the humiliation of returning in two days following a champagne filled send-off in Alaska.
“When I was at sea, every day there raged a debate in my head — to go or not to go — to continue putting up with the nausea, the cold, the wet, or to sell the boat and move back to shore,” he said.
In addition to his motion malaise, Heath had not made anything easy. No electronic navigation gear for him. He would move entirely under sail only and via celestial navigation, something he had not quite mastered.
Among the other things he had not foreseen was the physical difficulty of moving about on a small, rocking boat; the stress of keeping watch single-handedly, the stress of “not knowing what you would run into or what would run into you” when he did sleep.
Heath persevered and soon was on the 500-mile stretch from Mexico to Costa Rica — a long stretch with virtually no wind.
“With good winds, it’s five days, maybe six. It took me 19,” he said. “Then there would be the storms — thunder and lightning. The only wind I had was in those storms.”
Heath spent six weeks in Costa Rica working on his boat before heading across the straits of Panama to Ecuador and the Galapagos, where he had a rendezvous with a sister and her husband who were serving in the Peace Corps.
Heath’s next challenge was wondering if his rudimentary celestial navigation skills would take him to Pitcairn Island, a tiny one mile in diameter presence in the southern Pacific Ocean.
Near gale force trade winds pushed him along as Heath began taking navigational positions morning, noon and night.
He also discovered it is impossible to get a good fix navigationally when the sun is full overhead.
However, despite his lack of skill, he found himself south of the Tropic of Capricorn and 110 miles from Pitcairn, and, soon, just 10 miles offshore.
“From that point on I had no greater joy,” Heath said of mooring off the tiny island.
He waited out the hurricane season in French Polynesia, and eventually departed again for the Tasman Sea, headed to Melbourne, where Heath met the British man, then more than a century-old, who commissioned Kainui.
Heath’s journey continued across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and beyond.
The longest ocean crossing — 4,300 miles — found him delving into a book of poetry he had picked up along the way.
Heath found himself reciting poetry as he headed to Maine, where his family owned a small cabin near Petit Manan Point.
Quoting from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Giding,” Heath shouted out to the sea “to make an end is to make a beginning.”
He arrived in Bar Harbor on July 3, 1989.
Heath is the author of “Broken Angels,” which he describes as an “Alaskan noir filled with complex characters struggling to survive in a hostile country where there are no second chances.”