'Around the World in 80 years'
By Ashley McLeod, Staff Writer
Jan 9, 2014, 15:05
When he was 76 years old, Harry Heckel Jr. didn’t plan on sailing all around the world when he set off from port in 1992.
“I never really made the decision to sail around the world, but there was nowhere else to go but around, so I did it,” said Heckel, now 97.
With that trip, the California native, who now lives in Mechanicsville with his son and daughter-in-law, became the oldest individual to sail around the world — alone. Eleven years later at the age of 89, he broke his own record when he completed another trip alone on the sea.
Heckel began sailing when attending Berkeley, where he received his doctorate in chemistry in 1941. Following the completion of his degree, he relocated to Syracuse, N.Y., to work as a research chemist for Allied Chemicals. While in Syracuse, he met his future wife, Faith.
Following their marriage, the two had four children, then moved to Hopewell when Allied opened in the area.
After working for the company for 32 years, Heckel was able to retire in 1972 at the age of 56. Following his retirement, the couple traveled, ending up in California, where they set out to find the perfect vessel to sail with.
The couple found a 32-foot Dreadnought sailboat and christened it “the Idle Queen,” named in honor of the idle king from the poem “Ulysses” by Lord Alfred Tennyson. After fixing up the sailboat and preparing supplies, the two set off into the ocean.
Although Harry was the sailor of the two, Heckel said his wife came to enjoy it as well, saying she had to put up with it.
“I got her into sailing whether she liked it or not,” Heckel said.
“She was a good spirit about sailing. I helped her raise four kids very successfully, but after we retired at a fairly early age, she was happy to go sailing with me.”
The couple sailed some on the East Coast, but also traveled north to Alaska, down the West Coast and out to Tahiti and in the Pacific before coming back to the U.S. Faith wanted to travel to Europe, so in 1984, they set out across the ocean. On a stop in Bermuda, their plans unexpectedly changed.
“After we got there, she found a lump in her breast, so we headed back home,” Heckel said.
After battling cancer for the next five years, Faith passed away in 1989, leaving Heckel without a sailing partner.
In 1992, three years after the death of his wife, Heckel decided to get out on the water again. He set out on what would end up being his first solo trip around the world.
“I was planning just to get away from it all. Just to go somewhere other than being here and staying in one spot, which is not what I wanted to do,” Heckel said. “I wanted to move on and keep moving.”
Heckel left from Jacksonville, Fla., in February of 2002, traveling east to west through the South Pacific. Heckel spent around two and a half years traveling during this trip, and although Heckel didn’t have a set plan for this trip, he went where his boat took him, visiting such places as Ecuador, Kenya, Jamaica and Australia.
“I went with the wind primarily,” Heckel said. “I wanted to see the Pacific islands, and after I got as far as Australia, it just seemed easier to keep on going and more fun actually.”
Heckel returned home to the United States in June of 1994, but didn’t stay ashore for very long. A year later, Heckel set out to sea again, this time sailing west to east, traveling through Europe, down the Red Sea, and into Malaysia and Japan. Heckel spent time in Spain, Egypt, Israel, Africa and Italy, among other countries.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Harry Heckel Jr. stands on his sailboat, “The Idle Queen.”
During his second voyage, his granddaughter Martha flew to Europe to meet him, and they spent a month traveling together. The two traveled to Malaysia, Nepal, Bangkok, Thailand and Laos, exploring the culture and people of the area.
“When I was traveling, I did a lot of exploring in the countryside and the town, the people in it,” Heckel said.
This was what Heckel named as one of the best parts of sailing around the world, and some of the best memories. His travels allowed him to meet so many different types of people from different cultures, some of which he still is in contact with today.
“It’s amazing how many people from all over the world met him and have kept in touch with him throughout the years,” said Heckel’s son, Carl, whom he now lives with. “That kind of relationship was developed from him just traveling and talking to people.”
“You spend a lot of time in boat maintenance, but a lot of the time you spend in local bars with the local people learning about them,” Heckel said. “You spend a lot of time exploring.”
During his travels Heckel spent 10-20 percent of his time on the boat, whether it was while sailing, or performing maintenance on the craft. Heckel did all of the maintenance to the boat on his own in order to keep himself busy. Heckel also said that one of the hardest parts of his travels was having to perform maintenance to the boat in between ports.
While at sea, Heckel passed his time by reading and bird watching. He traveled with a book with birds of the world, which he used to try to identify different birds he encountered. His diet consisted of canned goods, such as Spam or corned beef, beans, and dehydrated potatoes. The ship had no microwave, but did include a 2 burner gas stove.
Heckel did run into some complications during his sailing trips around the world. On his first trip, Heckel used a sextant, which uses the measurements of celestial bodies in order to find longitude and latitude in order to navigate. Sometimes, such as during his trip to the South Pacific, the maps weren’t always accurate.
“I’d have troubles at times finding my ways into ports when my charts weren’t accurate,” Heckel said. “When I went to Sri Lanka and had no charts for the island and it took me a long time to wait for a boat so I could follow them in, so I trailed along behind them.”
On his second trip, Heckel obtained a GPS system, making his navigation easier. But even sometimes with the GPS, Heckel says some islands are misplaced, which made looking for them in the dark slightly difficult.
Heckel did most of his traveling at night, without lights on. While in the North Pacific, Heckel had to avoid pirates while at sea, and traveling like this helped him to avoid problems.
While trying to avoid pirates, Heckel also had to avoid not-so-friendly fisherman who he encountered while at sea. At one point, a Chinese fishing boat purposely bumped Heckel’s boat. Another time, a 100-foot steel fishing vessel tried to sideswipe his 32-foot boat, while the whole crew lined up to watch the so-called entertainment.
Even the slightest bumps caused troubles.
“I was scared a couple of times,” Heckel said. “I’d be downstairs reading while the boat was sailing itself and hear a knocking noise against the boat. Most the time it wasn’t anything but you could never know.”
During his travels, Heckel visited 54 countries, single-handedly crossing every ocean, learning and exploring the world. His travels around the world were his way of experiencing life, and other countries, instead of sitting home.
“One of the important things about his experience is the message he gives to people who are retired, that life could be starting at that point,” Carl said. “You can go out and do all those things you want to do because you have the time to do it now.”
As time passed, Heckel’s eyesight weakened and he became unable to continue his travels. When he returned, Heckel, along with members of his family, decided to take his story and put it down on paper. During his travels, Heckel would write trip reports to send home to his family, which made this an easier process.
“Whenever I got into a port I wrote reports home, and when I got through with all the sailing, and got back, all I had to do was put them all together to form the book,” said Heckel.
His story, “Around the World in 80 Years – The Oldest Man to Sail Around the World – Twice!” compiles his trip reports, and includes a chapter written by his granddaughter about their travels.
Heckel now lives in Mechanicsville with his son and daughter-in-law. To him, his story stands as a motivator to other retirees, to go out and live and not to waste any second of their lives.
“I think it’s instructive and helpful for people to travel the world. To avoid getting into the type of straight jacket that you’re in if you stay in the U.S. and don’t pay much attention to what goes on anywhere else,“ Heckel said.
“If I could do it all over again I would’ve retired a good deal earlier.”