"It takes three things to sail around the world alone," Morgan told the crowd that had gathered to greet and cheer him at dockside, shortly after he had taken a bite of a ceremonial cheeseburger, his favorite meal, which had been served to him on a silver-colored platter by David Hillier, owner of the nearby White Horse Tavern. "A good boat, an iron will and luck. To do so in record time takes a great boat, an iron will and extraordinary luck. And, my friends, here is a great boat."
True enough. And it was sailed by an extraordinary man. A bit off-the-wall, perhaps—how else can you describe a fellow who spends five months alone at sea and claims his most frightening moment came "when I pulled the next-to-last bottle of beer from the bilge"—but nonetheless extraordinary. Morgan is gruff and bawdy and commands unwavering loyalty from his broad circle of admirers. "He is such an optimist," says Manny, an extraordinary woman herself, "that he will honestly tell you that the fact that his father died when he was three years old was the best thing that ever happened to him. He is absolutely determined to make something good out of everything."
Morgan has pursued a number of careers during his lifetime. He flew jet fighters in the Air Force, was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and headed his own advertising and public relations firm. But the business that earned Morgan his fortune was Controlonics Corporation, an electronics firm in West-ford, Mass. that makes, among other things, Whistler radar detectors. In December 1983, Morgan sold Controlonics in a stock deal worth $32 million, a sum that let him keep a promise he had made to himself in the early '60s, that one day he would sail around the world. He caught the bug while sailing his first boat, a 36-foot wooden schooner named Coaster, from Maine to Alaska over a period of 2½ years, with stops at the Virgin Islands, the Panama Canal and Hawaii. Morgan's first marriage dissolved while he was at sea.
The first time Manny, whom Morgan married in 1972, heard about the prospective Promise voyage was back in 1981. "He didn't say anything to me for about four months, and whenever he saw me he'd start to squirm," she recalls. "The only thing I could think was that he was seeing another woman. So when he finally told me he wanted to sail around the world alone before he got too old, it was almost a relief."
The reaction of Morgan's older brother Russ, now 68, was more typical. "I only had one statement on the matter," he says. "You're out of your goddam mind."
To prove that he wasn't, Manny contacted two Boston College psychology professors, Randy Easton and William Nasby, who agreed to use Morgan as a guinea pig in a study on the effects of prolonged solitude and sensory deprivation. They studied him for five months before he set sail and then put together a series of daily tests for Morgan to take during the voyage. "Shrink tests," Morgan delighted in calling them. "He's a very self-reliant, independent person," says Easton, who found Morgan's personality to be similar to those of certain solo explorers of the Arctic. "A touch narcissistic, but that's all right. He's a risk-taker, but not a foolish risk-taker."
That became clear when Morgan selected Hood to design American Promise. A proponent of the heavy-displacement theory of boat design, Hood believes that the heavier the boat, the smoother the sail, which means less taxing conditions for the skipper. Morgan kept telling people he would gladly sacrifice a half knot of boat speed for two hours more sleep each day. "He didn't want one of those light boats where you'd drive 10 hours straight and then heave to and rest," says Hood.
"The other thing I said was, 'Let's make things redundant,' " says Morgan. "Boy, did we make things redundant." He wanted at least two of everything on Promise so that if something broke, he wouldn't have to fix it. So the boat was outfitted with two complete sets of sails (14 in all); two rudders (one retractable); four electrical power sources (two diesel-powered generators, the engine, and a propeller-driven water generator as a final backup); 3,000 pounds of batteries to store that power; 60 circuit breakers; two autopilots; two SatNav satellite navigational systems; two machines to convert saltwater into fresh water; two 60-gallon water storage tanks; 13 winches; five 200-gallon fuel tanks; five watertight bulkheads; and three bunks. American Promise, all 30 tons of her, was a high-tech, state-of-the-art, $1 million-plus sailboat. From the cockpit Morgan could furl or unfurl the sails with the touch of a button.
"The only reservation we had was his lack of experience with big boats," says Hood. "He really didn't test Promise any further than to take it for a few little sails off Marblehead in July." Actually, Morgan did sail Promise more than that, but not a whole lot more.
On Oct. 14 Morgan, dressed in a tuxedo with red suspenders—"I want to go out in style!" he told Russ—set sail from Portland. He had hoped to return 180 days later. Two days out he ran into a storm that tossed Promise about in 40- to 50-knot winds and the strongest seas the boat had yet encountered. The autopilots wouldn't steer her, and a swivel atop the jibstay broke causing the 285-pound genoa to fall into the sea. Morgan spent four hours pulling it in. It took him two hours more to climb the 75-foot mast to retrieve the jib halyard. Much of his anguish was captured on film by cameras and microphones set up around the boat to record the voyage.