Mystic Seaport Museum recognized Capt. Bill Pinkney by awarding him the America and the Sea Award at a black-tie gala on Wednesday, October 26, 2022, at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. To view a tribute video, award presentation, and an interview with Captain Pinkney conducted by 2013 America and the Sea Award recipient, Gary Jobson, please visit here.
William Deltoris Pinkney was raised in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. In elementary school he discovered Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry and resolved to have a great adventure when he grew up. In high school, Pinkney joined the Naval Reserve and after graduating from Tilden Tech High School, he trained as an X-ray technician, followed by active duty with the Navy, beginning at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Bainbridge, Maryland. He was then stationed in Puerto Rico, where he settled after his discharge years later and where he learned to sail and developed the sailing prowess that would serve him well in the adventures to come.
Pinkney eventually returned to Chicago, where he continued sailing and began racing. In 1977 he bought his first sailboat, a 29-footer that he sailed out of Belmont Harbor in Chicago. Often without a partner available, he learned how to sail single-handedly. As he approached the age of 50, he began to think about what legacy he would leave for his grandchildren. His mind returned to the idea of the great adventure he had promised himself when he was 12. He thought that sailing around the world would show his grandchildren how a person could apply the things that were learned in school to real life.
While Pinkney was planning for the circumnavigation, the principal of Douglas Elementary School, his alma mater, suggested that he use the trip to inspire a wider range of children. The project grew, funded by investors, and true adventure ensued in 1990 as Pinkney embarked on his solo circumnavigation of the globe on his 47-foot cutter, aptly named The Commitment, traveling from Boston around the five southern capes and back to Boston, spanning 27,000 miles and 22 months. The voyage had developed into the educational opportunity of a lifetime for so many children via video diaries, phone conversations, opportunities to track his progress through satellite technology, and lesson plans that included nautical calculations and the influence of faraway cultures brought to America from across the sea.
He departed on Sunday, August 5, 1990, sailing out of Boston Harbor. His first stop was Bermuda. From there he sailed to Salvador de Bahia, a province of Brazil that had been settled by enslaved people from Africa. From Brazil, he sailed across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa, a voyage of over 3,000 miles that took 34 days. After another 56 days, Pinkney completed the 5,300-mile leg from South Africa to Hobart, a port on the island of Tasmania that is part of Australia. He arrived in April of 1991, winter in Australia. Too late in the year to attempt the passage from Australia to South America, Pinkney took a six-month hiatus, returning to the United States and visiting schools to tell of his adventures up to that point in the voyage. He returned to Hobart in October of 1991 for the 4,600-mile journey to Cape Horn that took 65 days. Pinkney was greeted in Cape Horn by unceasing wind and waves, and despite having lost the aid of many of his instruments that had failed during the long crossing, Pinkney and The Commitment persevered, rounding Cape Horn successfully on Valentine’s Day 1992. When he sailed back into Boston Harbor on June 9, 1992, after having successfully circumnavigated the globe, he became the first Black man to sail around the world solo via Cape Horn. Gathered around to meet him and celebrate the day were hundreds of schoolchildren from schools all around Boston who had been following Pinkney’s voyage for two years, tracking his progress in their classrooms. A week later, Pinkney met another cheering crowd of adults and schoolchildren in Chicago, including students from over 150 schools who had followed his voyage. In the crowd were his two grandchildren, who had inspired the voyage.
In 1994 Pinkney joined the Board of Mystic Seaport Museum, serving for 14 years. During this time, he led a journey through the Middle Passage, the stage of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas as part of the triangular slave trade. He recruited teachers to sail with him while developing curriculum for their students. Departing in 1999 on a 78-foot ketch, The Sortilege, Pinkney, teachers, and the crew traveled a 12,000-mile route in six months, sailing first from Puerto Rico to Brazil where they visited the sites of former slave markets. They then sailed across the Atlantic to Accra in Ghana, and to Dakar in Senegal, where they also visited the infamous “Door of No Return,” a small island off the coast of Senegal, where enslaved people were loaded onto ships. On this trip, they were able to communicate with students in several hundred schools back in the United States via online computer service and satellite TV. This remarkable journey, shared with educators and classrooms across the country, brought to life personal connections to the history of slavery and the crucial role that seafaring played in that history.
Also, while a Mystic Seaport Museum Trustee, Pinkney became the first captain of the replica schooner Amistad, which was the first vessel constructed from the keel up at Mystic Seaport Museum.
The story of the original Amistad is one of remarkable bravery and great historic significance. In 1839, Mende captives from Sierra Leone had taken control of the Amistad, the ship transporting them to slavery. Unable to navigate back to Africa, the ship was captured and towed into the port of New London in Connecticut. The Mende were faced with slavery or execution, and their cause was taken up by many residents throughout Connecticut. U.S. Circuit and District courts ruled in favor of the Mende. This case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1841 the court agreed with the lower court decisions and the Mende captives were ordered freed.
Pinkney served as captain of the replica schooner Amistad from 2000 to 2003. Following retirement, he settled back in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, where he became the captain of the term charter catamaran Lady Dee cruising the U.S., British, and Spanish Virgin Islands.
Pinkney and his hometown friend Paul Mixon developed the Black Boaters Summit, a gathering of Black sailors and would-be sailors to bring the joy of sailing to a group that had not yet had the opportunity to go to sea. Over 20 years they have introduced more than 5,000 men and women to the sport. Many of the early attendees have developed new groups that have expanded the reach to others who have now sailed in faraway places such as Croatia, East Africa, and the Seychelles.
Pinkney has written two children’s books: Captain Bill Pinkney’s Journey, which became part of the Open Court Reading series for schools and the first-grade reading program of SRA/McGraw-Hill in 1994, and the recently published Sailing Commitment Around the World.
Pinkney is a member of the New York Yacht Club, the Belmont Yacht Club (Past Commodore), and the International Association of Cape Horners.
He has received the following awards and honors:
- Recognized by President George H.W. Bush, Lord Mayor of Hobart (Tasmania, Australia), the Premier and President of Bermuda, and Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Paul Simon (D-Ill.), and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
- Recipient of honorary degrees from Becker College, Southern Connecticut State University, and Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
- Chicago Yacht Association Yachtsman of the Year in 1992.
- Chicagoan of the Year by Chicago Magazine in 1999.
- Illinois Governor’s Distinguished Achievement Award.
- Received the George Foster Peabody Award for the Documentary, The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney.
- Received the John Southam Award for the autobiography As Long as It Takes.
- The account of his voyage was read into the Congressional Record of 102nd Congress by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2021.
Aside from his significant maritime adventures, Pinkney’s career took many turns following his discharge from the Navy. While in Puerto Rico he worked as a stringer for a local newspaper, as an elevator mechanic, and as a professional limbo dancer (after proving his skill in Friday night limbo contests in local clubs). He was a makeup artist, a product developer for Revlon and Johnson Products Company, and the Director of Program Services for the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services.
The America and the Sea Award recognizes those individuals and organizations whose extraordinary achievements in the world of maritime exploration, competition, scholarship, and design best exemplify the American character. As a former trustee of Mystic Seaport Museum, and an ambassador to those who believe the maritime world is not their world, Capt. William “Bill” Pinkney has proven adept in showing everyone that the sea connects us all, embodying the Museum’s mission to inspire an enduring connection to the American maritime experience.
Past recipients of the America and the Sea Award include outstanding yachtsman Terry Hutchinson; America’s Cup Hall of Famer Tom Whidden, one of the most acclaimed sailors of all time; American businesswoman and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, whose ocean explorations have advanced our understanding of the ocean’s biodiversity and vulnerability; groundbreaking Whitbread and America’s Cup sailor Dawn Riley and Oakcliff Sailing; philanthropist and environmentalist David Rockefeller, Jr., and his Sailors for the Sea; boat designers Rod and Bob Johnstone and their company J/Boats; author and historian Nathaniel Philbrick; maritime industrialist Charles A. Robertson; Hall of Famer sailor and author Gary Jobson; WoodenBoat Publications founder Jon Wilson; former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman; oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle; America’s Cup sailor William Koch; President and CEO of Crowley Maritime Corporation, Thomas Crowley; historian David McCullough; and our first honoree, legendary yacht designer Olin J. Stephens II.