Sailing Aboard Pipe Dream

When William “Scott” Piper III was a child his father laid a piece of advice on him that still resonates after 60-plus years: “There’s no reason to live in Florida if you don’t do what it has to offer.” With this, a passion for sailing was born, and with it a legacy that Piper’s father, now passed, would be proud of: Four “near” circumnavigations, podium finishes in high-profile events such as Key West Race Week and the now-defunct Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC), a third-place finish in the double-handed Newport-Bermuda Race, an invitation to sail with Dennis Conner in his Stars & Stripes ’87 campaign, and numerous ocean crossings, including rounding three of the world’s five great capes.

Piper began sailing at age 10 aboard Spray, his father’s 37-foot Alden yawl, and within a year had a boat of his own, a Moth (Pipe Dream I). Next came a Comet (Pipe Dream II) and a penchant for buoy racing. By the time he was in high school, Piper was racing Lightnings and doing foredeck on big boats, including offshore SORC events with his father. “There’s no better place in the world to live as a sailor than Miami,” says Piper, now 70. “There are great winds, a million places to go, and the Gulf Stream is right there.” By age 19, while still an undergrad at Dartmouth, Piper made his first Atlantic crossing; his second came two years later.

Shake Dr. Piper’s hand and you know that you are in the presence of an intelligent, driven man. Forget the thinning silver hair and the paunch belly–imply bring up the subject of adventure and you’ll see his eyes alight. While Piper may appear to be somewhat withdrawn, it’s obvious that he’s constantly evaluating the outside world.

You also immediately know that, should things turn ugly offshore, Piper’s reticent faade will immediately give way to a calm, clear-thinking command that has “been there, raced that.” You simply don’t sail as many offshore miles (185,000 and counting) as Piper without having dealt with serious weather and trying situations; likewise, you don’t practice emergency-room medicine for as long as he did without encountering some truly horrific scenes.

When I visited Piper in his home in Coral Gables, Florida, Pipe Dream IX, his J/160, was in Vancouver being refitted for his next adventure. Crawling around on Pipe Dream XVI, his latest Etchells (a class in which he’s been active for the past 15 years, and which he helped seed in Florida), I found his spark for adventure and serious competition much in evidence when I queried him about rig details. The same analytical mindset that allows Piper to quickly evaluate a car accident victim also allows him to utilize his knowledge of sailboats to the utmost while competing in one of the world’s toughest one-design fleets. Imagine him competing in the 1999 Sydney Hobart Race aboard his J/160–which he sailed to Australia on its own bottom–with 55 knots square on the nose, and, well, you get the idea.

Piper has lived a life that any sailor would admire, but medicine, not sailing, tops his chart of personal accomplishments. “I’m a third-generation doctor,” says Piper, watching the sunset from his waterfront patio. “Anybody can sail around the world four times, but not everybody can be an orthopedic surgeon.”

There was a period of 13 years–from the age of 21 to 34–when Piper didn’t sail at all. It wasn’t because he lost interest. But when you’re a young resident in the demanding field of orthopedic surgery, working shift rotations of 36 hours on, 12 hours off, it’s hard to find time for anything else. Yet Piper beat the odds at this game too, maintaining his relationship with his wife, Gillette, as well as his interests in sky diving, flying and scuba diving while still surviving the rigors of resident life.

Piper spent five and a half years in the military during Vietnam, working as the Assistant Chief of the Department of Orthopedics at West Point. While there, he also served as Officer in Command of the Cadet Skydiving team (he held the rank of Major) with a Class-C jump license and racked up an impressive 226 jumps, some of which he made with his adventurous wife. After the military came private practice, but in typical fashion this too was executed at a high level. “Long hours are the norm when you first start medicine,” says Piper. “Hospitals love a new surgeon who’s willing to cover the emergency room. I worked on the ER staff of six hospitals concurrently and also taught medicine at Jackson Hospital through the University of Miami Medical School. I got a lot of patients this way.”

While this patient list was to reward him later in his sailing life, a younger Dr. Piper focused on staying at the cutting edge of his profession. In 1970, while working as a resident in Denver, Piper performed his first arthroscopic surgery when the technique was still new, using early scopes that had a lightbulb–not fiber optics–affixed to their business end. “I always worried about losing a light bulb in a patient,” he muses. Soon, the tools of his trade improved, as did his post-resident personal life. By 1973 Piper had his own practice, as well as his first ocean-going vessel, Pipe Dream III, a one-tonner, which he campaigned in the SORC with Gillette.

Soon he was winning races, both around the buoys and offshore. More Pipe Dreams followed, including Pipe Dream IV, a custom Swan two-tonner, and Pipe Dream V, an X-Yachts 3/4-tonner. Walk through the halls of the Piper’s home and you’ll find them lined with framed photos of various Pipe Dream incarnations, each one well-equipped and well-sailed. Along the way Piper served in every SORC administrative position (including chairman), acquired a cruising boat (a J/40) and became a member of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, the Coral Reef Yacht Club, the Storm Trysail Club and the Cruising Club of America (CCA). The latter recently awarded Piper its prestigious Blue Water medal, which acknowledges “meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea displayed by amateur sailors of all nationalities, that might otherwise go unrecognized.”

Flip through the book of previous CCA Blue Water Medal winners and you’ll see such hallowed sailing names as Sir Francis Chichester, Rod Stephens, Bernard Moitessier and Eric Tabarly. Piper’s various cruises and near-circumnavigations have also earned him 14 CCA Parkinson Trophies, which are “awarded to any member of the Cruising Club of America who makes a transoceanic passage in his or her own yacht, predominantly under sail, and not as a participant in an organized race.” He is eligible for two more.

In February of 1994, while in the Canary Islands after a transatlantic voyage on Pipe Dream VI, his J/40, Piper encountered Jimmy Cornell’s Round the World Rally. “I always wanted to sail around the world, and when I saw this, I said ‘Aha!’” Piper signed on for the 1997-1999 rally (billed as “Expo 2000”), this time aboard his newly built J/160. “I loved the J/40, but there was no way that we could fit all the necessary cruising gear on board–AC, heaters, watermakers, and so on–so I ordered the J/160 sight unseen. It’s the most magnificent boat that I have ever even thought about. I’ve done 28 knots on her surfing down waves, and she will go to weather, regardless of the wind. I can count on 200-mile days and 1,000-mile weeks.”

Piper sailed with the group for most of the rally’s circumnavigation, but left in South America, finding the rally format–and its excessive fees–constricting. “I’m probably a lot different from the average cruiser,” says Piper. “I get antsy in port after three or four days.” Interestingly, Piper, then in his early 60s, was never away from his medical practice for more than eight weeks at a time. “By this point I had built up my private practice and had many patients from my ER days. They were often willing to delay their surgeries and it worked out like a dream.”

Asked how he balanced his profession with his sailing passion, Piper recalls a past conversation. “A patient once asked me, ‘Everybody says that you’re a great sailor. How can you be a great sailor and be a great doctor?’ So I said, ‘You’d prefer a doctor who’s a bad sailor?’”

After departing from the 1997-1999 rally, Piper decided to continue sailing around the world for a second “near” circumnavigation (he never crossed his outward-bound track, thus making all of his cruises “near” circumnavigations), this time sailing west to east, starting in Brazil and ending in Argentina.

“Looking back on it, the second circumnavigation was the most adventurous thing that I’ve done,” says Piper. “We had really crappy weather prior to rounding Cape Horn, but 24 hours before we rounded, it got really nice. We were able to tuck into a little hole and go ashore on Cape Horn and get our logbook stamped.” While in Argentina, Gillette joined the boat and Piper ensured that there was always a fresh supply of ice–compliments of the nearby growlers–for their evening cocktails.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Piper’s offshore adventures is his propensity for “linking” major ocean races with his cruising routes. During his second circumnavigation, for instance, he raced in the Sydney-Hobart and on his third he raced in the Transpac. His greatest coup was his masterfully planned arrival in Sydney during his second circumnavigation in time for four great events: the Etchells Australian Nationals, the Etchells Worlds, the Sydney-Hobart race and the turn of the millenium.

“I ordered a brand new Etchells to be ready for the start of the racing,” said Piper, who placed second in the Australian Nationals and won the Grandmaster division of the Etchells Worlds. “Then I raced to Hobart. We got absolutely hammered in the Bass Strait. Fifty-five knots right on our nose.” The first photo you see when walking through Piper’s front door is an aerial shot of Pipe Dream IX sailing past Tasmania’s fabled Organ Pipes, appropriately clad in a storm jib and a double-reefed main.

Two more near circumnavigations followed, the third east-to-west, the fourth west-to-east. At the beginning of Piper’s fourth lap it became apparent that maintaining both his practice and his ambitious sailing agenda was unrealistic. “It’s damn-near impossible to practice medicine part-time. I had to give up one, and I knew it wasn’t going to be sailing.” Yet on his various travels Piper has set up occasional field clinics in order to provide medical help for local people, including some that he ran with his son, also a doctor, who tragically passed away at a young age.

“I’ve found that the unknown is always what gives you the greatest pleasures and experiences,” says Piper. Take Vanuatu, a place he hadn’t expected much from that now ranks high on his list of personal favorites. Here he witnessed a circumcision ceremony, learned about the local culture and customs, and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery. Yet for Piper, there will always be the burning itch to keep sailing, to peer further beyond the horizon. The giant map of the world that he keeps in his study attests to this. Each voyage is marked in different color ink, and there’s a rainbow of passages snaking across the world’s oceans, stretching as far south as Cape Horn and as far north as Alaska.

Is a fifth near-circumnavigation in the cards for Piper and Pipe Dream IX? Perhaps. This summer, Piper sailed north from Vancouver, British Columbia to Alaska for a second visit. This fall, he will sail to southern California for the start of the Baja HaHa. Then, it’s through the Panama Canal and back to Florida, before again crossing the Pond and joining the CCA for their 2010 cruise in Scotland. More colored lines on the world map, and more miles under his boots. And then there’s Pipe Dream XVI, his Etchells. “You only have one life to live, and you can’t please everybody,” says Piper with a smile. “So you might as well please yourself.”

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