Woman who set Guinness sailing record prepares to repeat her life-changing voyage

If you hold a Guinness world record as the first American woman to sail solo around the world, a 33,000-mile odyssey over some of the most ferocious seas on earth, what do you do for an encore?

If you’re Karen Thorndike, you do it all over again.

Thorndike, who finished her record-setting journey in August 1998, is preparing for a second solo circumnavigation. She plans to leave her home in Snohomish, cast off her lines by early September and head out on her 36-foot sloop, Amelia.

“I realized that I wanted to get back out there and experience some of the things again that I was afraid of or that I was too busy to enjoy,” she said.

Thorndike recently sat down for an interview in her 1985 British-built Rival, a rugged offshore boat moored in Edmonds that’s as unassuming as its owner. Cluttered with equipment and tools, the boat’s only indication of its extraordinary achievement hangs on a wall in the saloon, a framed Guinness World Records certificate acknowledging Thorndike’s accomplishment. Her sextant and logbooks from that trip are featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Soft-spoken, with a ready laugh, the 66-year-old Thorndike might not seem the type who’d venture out alone across the world’s oceans. Judy Nasmith, a sailor and Seattle yacht broker, became friends with Thorndike after following her first circumnavigation and considers her an inspiration.

“Her accomplishments are just amazing,” Nasmith said. “She’s so humble about it all, too. She’s an inspiration to all woman sailors.”

Amelia in her slip at the Port of Everett. In a few months, the boat will be ready for another circumnavigation.

Amelia in her slip at the Port of Everett. In a few months, the boat will be ready for another circumnavigation.

Unlike many renowned sailors, Thorndike-who circled the world the first time in her 50s-didn’t grow up on boats. Her interest was sparked in a roundabout way. A hiker and climber, she was on a three-day trek in the early 1980s to the west coast of Vancouver Island. When she reached the coast she looked down, saw a boat and realized there was an easier, intriguing way to reach deserted shores.

Thorndike took some sailing lessons, began racing and was soon delivering boats from Hawaii to Seattle. During one of those trips, her dream of circumnavigating began to take shape. Thorndike confided in a male crew member and friend about her plans.

“That’s impossible,” he told her. “You have no idea what you’d be getting yourself into.”

After that, Thorndike kept her plans to herself. For more than 10 years she worked toward her goal, saving and preparing and telling no one.

“I never talked to anybody about it until I bought the boat,” she said. “I would not discuss it with anyone, because I didn’t want to deal with that negativity.”

Good luck beads are draped over the ship's clock, mementos of Thorndike's world voyage.

Good luck beads are draped over the ship's clock, mementos of Thorndike's world voyage.

Six months before her departure Thorndike bought her boat, christening it Amelia after the pioneering female pilot. It was the first boat she’d ever owned and she had no experience with offshore solo sailing. Others might have chosen a less daunting journey for their first singlehanded effort, but not Thorndike.

“One thing that really appealed to me is that there are no guarantees,” Thorndike said. “The fact that it isn’t easy is the whole point.”

Nancy Erley understands the lure of the open ocean. A Seattle-based, award-winning sailing instructor who has circumnavigated twice with all-women crews, Erley said being surrounded by an expanse of water and sky instills humility and self-reliance.

“The ocean has a certain draw to it that the rest of the planet doesn’t,” she said. “It has a profound beauty to it and also, you’re faced with your own self. You’re such a small speck on the planet. You really look to your own resources on the boat.”

The trepidation Thorndike felt about her first circumnavigation wasn’t focused on the punishing storms and terrifying seas she encountered. It wasn’t even about loneliness. What worried her most was avoiding marine traffic and operating her boat shorthanded.

At the end of a 95-day nonstop passage from South America to Tasmania, Thorndike struggled to remain awake for an excruciating three days while making a hazardous landfall.

“I was so tired that I could not sit down. If I sat down I would have fallen asleep,” she said. “It was awful.”

A framed Guinness World Record attests to Thorndike's accomplishments as a sailor.

A framed Guinness World Record attests to Thorndike's accomplishments as a sailor.

Though Thorndike realized what difficulties lay ahead, she never considered bringing anyone with her. “I wanted the record, for one thing, and I really wanted to see if I could do it,” she said. “I mean, what an adventure! I could imagine myself when I would leave Cape Flattery (Neah Bay), and I could imagine the first time I would see it again.

“What I couldn’t imagine was the middle part,” she said. “It was like a rollercoaster ride, thinking about it.”

Thorndike’s two-year journey brought the challenge she craved and then some. A bout of heart problems in the Falkland Islands derailed her travels for several months, forcing her to return to Washington for medical care.

Qualifying for the Guinness record prevented Thorndike from going through the Suez or Panama canals, since she would require assistance that would invalidate her singlehanded status. Instead, Thorndike rounded all of the Southern Hemisphere’s five “great capes,” including Cape Horn, whose howling winds, fierce currents and enormous waves make it the most feared ship passage in the world.

Encountering gales lasting for days, Thorndike discovered that the single rogue wave depicted in the book and movie “The Perfect Storm” was far from reality.

“It’s not this wall of water. You’re on a wave and behind you is a bigger wave and behind that is a bigger wave and even a bigger wave,” she said. “Once you’re there, there’s nothing you can do, absolutely nothing.”

A sense of humor goes a long way when sailing alone across an ocean. (click to enlarge)

A sense of humor goes a long way when sailing alone across an ocean. (click to enlarge)

After completing her inaugural circumnavigation, Thorndike joked that the one piece of equipment she’d add to her boat the next time she circled the globe was a man. Truthfully, she hoped to meet the man she would sail with around the world. He never materialized, nor did her dream evaporate.

Spending time recently with an 80-year-old female friend, Thorndike realized she couldn’t wait, couldn’t stand the regret of not setting out again while she still can.

Thorndike sometimes wishes she’s embarked on her life-changing journey sooner. She would have made different choices in her life, she said. She would have discovered sooner how being at sea profoundly changed her view of the world.

“Part of me said I couldn’t afford it, but the other part of me said you can afford almost anything if you really want to do it. You can find a way.”

To those harboring their own dreams of sailing over the horizon, Thorndike’s advice is simple. “Do it,” she said. “Do it now. You’ll get more out of it than you could ever imagine.”

3 Responses to Woman who set Guinness sailing record prepares to repeat her life-changing voyage

  1. ML Fowler April 27, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Wow! Great article and amazing story too. Does Karen have a book or website?

  2. BrianH April 10, 2009 at 5:02 pm #

    Cool profile. Does she/did she work at Fisheries in Wallingford?

  3. Three Sheets Crew April 27, 2009 at 6:07 pm #

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Karen had a website when she did her first trip but to my knowledge she doesn’t have one now, nor a book.

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