On October 18, 2008, Dustin Reynolds was hit by a drunk driver while he was riding his motorcycle in Hawaii. On an operating table in Oahu, his surgeon explained the risks of the exploratory surgery they needed to perform to assess his injuries and offered Reynolds the option of living out his last moments with his friends and family at his bedside. Instead, he chose life.
Now Reynolds, who lost his left arm and leg in the accident, is set to become the first double amputee to circumnavigate the globe alone under sail. In June 2014, he cast off the dock lines on a beat-up 1968 Alberg 35 with $20 to his name and 40,000 miles ahead of him. Since then, Reynolds has sailed over 30,000 miles, visiting more than 25 countries. He has also traversed two and a half oceans and crossed the equator four times.
Given the monumental nature of the voyage he’s completing, it’s easy to imagine that Reynolds grew up sailing, that he raced dinghies as a kid, or that he’d crewed on an epic passage under the tutelage of a seasoned captain. Not so. “I’d sailed twice on a lake with my dad when I was about 12,” Reynolds admits. “My first solo sail was when I left Hawaii for Palmyra.” Dustin bought the Alberg without knowing the first thing about sailing. He learned from books and YouTube videos. “I talked up my experience so people wouldn’t be scared,” he says. His roommate found his YouTube history and said, “You don’t know how to sail, do you?!”
“I do now,” Dustin retorted.
He named the Alberg Rudis after the swords given to gladiators once they had won their emancipation. “I thought it would be freedom for me,” he said. “I didn’t realize that it would suck all my money and life out of me.”
His engine, in particular, proved especially troublesome across much of the Pacific and finally died, leaving Reynolds to float in windless waters for two weeks of what became a 24-day passage. In Thailand, Reynolds sold Rudis and bought a Bristol 35.5 called Tiama. “I am so spoiled now,” he says. “The engine on this boat works.”
He left some of his belongings on Rudis for the new owner, including a box of 500 girlie magazines that his roommate had gifted him at the advice of Rudis’s first owner, who recommended them as useful commodities for trade in far-flung islands. Rudis sank shortly after the sale, when the new owner left it unattended, and the magazines washed ashore in a Muslim fishing village. The village elders were horrified by the gifts from the sea, and Dustin’s friends called in a panic asking how many magazines were onboard. “Hundreds. It’s going to take years for them all to wash out,” Dustin laughed.
Until recently, he was sailing without a self-tailing halyard winch on the mast or a reefing winch on the boom. The mast winch he salvaged off a sunken boat in Africa; the boom winch was a gift from the Royal Cape Yacht Club in South Africa. Both are yet more examples of Reynolds’s grit. How do you grind and tail a main up the mast or tie a reef on the boom with a single arm? Reynolds uses his teeth, and he is both a little proud and a little embarrassed when he demonstrates it.
Being alone and moving slowly has also meant that Reynolds has accumulated a wealth of experiences that landlubbers can’t even begin to imagine, and most circumnavigators can only dream of. In a small village in Fiji, he took up with the chief’s daughter. The chief’s son, a Christian pastor, got upset about his sister living in sin with a yachtie, and ordered Dustin to take the young woman with him when he left. In northern Vanuatu, Reynolds was welcomed into a small village and ate meals daily with the chief and his family. “When I left, everyone cried. The chief gave me a bow and arrow to protect myself from pirates in the Solomon Islands,” he recalls.
On the Indonesian passage, when he was becalmed for days, a dolphin came alongside and convinced Dustin to break his cardinal rule: “Never leave the boat underway.” While he was swimming with the dolphin, a whale shark appeared and stayed with him for the better part of an hour. It let Dustin grab onto its fin for a tow, and each time Dustin let go to swim back to the boat, the whale shark would circle back for another tow.
It is staggering to think about what Reynolds has accomplished in five years, and that by the end of this year he will be the first double amputee to have solo circumnavigated the globe under sail. But the circumnavigation seems to have become more about the journey than the accomplishment. Being the first may have been an initial impetus for the voyage, but that is not what drives him day in and day out to keep sailing. It’s not about feeding his ego or proving something to himself or the world. It’s about living a life worth losing an arm and a leg for, and on that front Dustin Reynolds has triumphed.
Photos courtesy of Dustin Reynolds