Freed from the big chill in 1961, Jones endured by running day charters out of the Balearic Islands, delivering luxury yachts to distant ports and wangling such cushy deals as teaching a course in "pub culture" at the University of Toulouse in southern France.
By the mid-1960s, following the well-publicized lead of solo circumnavigator Sir Francis Chichester, a virtual flotilla of ocean voyagers and racers, many with the backing of commercial interests, was loose on the high seas. In 1969, concerned that "by offering huge sums of money, big business and the communications media had made a mockery out of ocean cruising," Jones decided that "a humorous gesture" was needed "to point out the ridiculous direction in which the sport was heading." Since everyone else was "going round and round," he says, "I thought I'd do something different and go up and down." His goal was to set the world's "vertical sailing record," that is, to sail the 38-foot yawl Barbara on the Dead Sea, which at 1,292 feet below sea level is the world's lowest body of water, and then sail on to the highest, Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian Andes, at an elevation of 12,507 feet.
The voyage to and from the Dead Sea, which required passing through some of the most volatile areas of the strife-torn Middle East, was demanding and dangerous enough. But when Jones attempted to reach Lake Titicaca via the upper reaches of the Amazon, he spent three months sailing, hacking and hauling his way a record 1,400 miles up that wild and mighty stretch of water, only to find the river so impenetrable that he was forced to turn back. By then, three years and all the humor of the vertical record had expired. He says, "What had started off as an amusing venture had now become a deadly serious matter—a pilgrimage to my pride!"
Aware now that the only route to Titicaca was by portage, Jones relinquished Barbara in the U.S. Virgin Islands and then purchased a much smaller craft, Sea Dart, which was just 17 feet on the waterline. Reaffirming his original proud claim—"I will set a record that will not be broken until man finds water amongst the stars!"—he sailed through the Panama Canal and down the coast of South America to Peru.
There, in the port city of Callao, he arranged to have Sea Dart lifted onto a broken-down truck belonging to a driver he had met in a waterfront dive. Then, with a portrait of Che Guevara painted on the truck's mudguard, and in contravention of all known customs regulations, Jones and the driver proceeded to smuggle Sea Dart, which had entered the country illegally, 700 miles across Peru and up, up into the Andes, over rickety, swaying bridges slung across chasms and through tunnels so tight the truck's tires had to be deflated to allow passage, to the shimmering shores of Titicaca.
The final leg of Jones's incredible voyage, beginning with a truck portage through the sniper fire of an abortive military coup in Bolivia, was the worst. Writes Jones: "After a hand-and-muscle haul of some miles through the scrub to the piranha-infested headwaters of the Paraguay River in the green hell of the Mato Grosso, Sea Dart was navigated by Huanapaco, my Quechua Indian mate, me, guess and God through seemingly limitless jungle swamps—a devilish maze of tortuous, stinking water traps alive with malicious life and the screams of sudden death—until, almost dead with hunger and despair, we broke out into the clear pampas of Paraguay."
Ahead lay another treacherous run of 2,050 miles down the Paraná River to Buenos Aires. But the memory of the hardships encountered in the mad riot of vegetation in the green hell, including malnutrition, tapeworms and leeches that drained his body weight from 120 to 80 pounds, is so indelible, Jones claims, that even today the sight of a tossed salad makes him uneasy.
Upon returning to London after this quest, which took more than six years and in which he covered a distance more than twice the circumference of the earth, Jones discovered that his old friends, the customs officials, had prepared a special surprise: they impounded Sea Dart on a Newhaven quay, subject to the payment of a $1,600 "import" tax.
Dead broke, Jones took a job stoking the furnaces in Harrods department store, where he at one time slept in the boiler room and lived off the scraps discarded by the store's greengrocer.
Eventually, in 1976, determined to earn enough to rescue Sea Dart from the clutches of the "bureaucratic troglodytes," he made his way to New York City with the promise to himself that he would write seven books in five years. The first, The Incredible Voyage, he tapped out on a typewriter balanced on a chair in the janitor's room of a Manhattan flophouse, where he bedded down in a dormitory with the flotsam and jetsam of the Bowery. Incredible also was the fact that by pure chance/fate, a publisher crossed his bow and bought the rights to the book, the advance for which Jones used to have Sea Dart shipped to New York.