Profiles

MIKE HARKER

Mike Harker at Sea Aboard Wanderlust III

Mike Harker at Sea Aboard Wanderlust III

 

There are many good sea stories and some of the best involve the great circumnavigations – trips around the globe by intrepid passagemakers. Although such a voyage is not so extremely rare anymore, there are some that still make for great reading. Most of those are the single-handed circumnavigations; most by sailors; still a remarkable achievement in a modern and sometimes hostile world. One recent circumnavigation, however, exceeds even that high standard of accomplishment. This is the story of Mike Harker, a paraplegic who spent six years in a hospital bed and was told that he would never walk again. Not only did he walk, he took a brand new production sailboat and sailed it nearly 30,000 miles around the globe, in less than 11 months  – alone.

The t-shirt, the salt-and-pepper beard that’s mostly salt, and the sun-pressed crow’s feet that frame his dark eyes give Mike Harker a Hemingway-esque look. When he talks the impression is reinforced by the matter-of-fact tone in which he recounts what most of us would consider hair-raising experiences during his round-the-world sail aboard his 2007 Hunter 49 Wanderlust III.

At a reception held in his honor at the recent Miami Boat Show by Hunter Marine, the builder of Wanderlust III, Harker recounted the day, in mid-Atlantic, when his high-water alarm went off. The gasp from the audience was audible. Let’s face it, when you’re alone in the middle of the ocean, an alarm announcing that the boat and ocean are attempting to swap places really gets your attention. In describing the event, however, Harker came across as mostly just annoyed that he had to spend nearly 100 minutes of his 500-minute satellite phone budget getting a backup alternator to work

The repair to the leaking water pump housing, by the way, was sheer genius. Harker grabbed a self-tapping stainless steel screw, coated it with 3M’s 5200 sealant/adhesive, and screwed it right down into the hole in the housing, permanently fixing the leak. Harker had to then deal with a main alternator and a generator that had both been drenched in salt water, but these seemed minor annoyances to the laconic sailor.

WHEN LIFE GOES OVER A CLIFF

That Harker can even walk is one of those miracles that doesn’t often happen.  A 1977 hang-gliding accident in Grenada sent him tumbling 400 feet down a sheer cliff into the ocean, breaking 33 bones, leaving him in a coma for 11 months, and in a hospital bed for six years, paralyzed. The doctors who told him he would never walk again obviously didn’t know him. Harker was then, and still is a driven adventurer; the kind of person to whom all obstacles are merely temporary hindrances. They are not roadblocks; terminal markers of the end of a journey.

In the late 1960s, Harker was one of the inventors of the sport of hang-gliding.  His first rigs were nothing more than plastic tubing and duct tape. But as he developed the equipment, and his skills, the high-adventure accomplishments began to accumulate.  He flew from the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, and glided down Japan’s Mt. Fuji. The 1977 accident, film of which brings shudders to viewers, left him with control of only a few small muscles on the inside of his thighs.

His legs, to be polite, are sticks and he stands uneasily, finding balance control only in constant movement. Endless physical therapy taught him to leverage the miniscule muscle control he has to allow a sort of uneasy gait. Aboard Wanderlust III, Harker has installed a StairMaster, which he uses by balancing himself with his hands on the cockpit dodger overhead. He is dedicated to staying fit and exercises nearly every morning during his cruises, while his steel-cut oats are cooking in the galley.

THE UNEXPECTED CHOICE OF BOAT

As befits his nonconformist personality, Harker circumnavigated aboard a standard production sailboat, the Hunter 49. He had previously owned and sailed a Hunter 466 on several transoceanic voyages and enjoyed the comparative luxury of the Hunter’s while sailing in ocean waters. Traditionally, ocean sailors have favored somewhat smaller, full-keel boats to venture into the bluewater offshore. Not many of the traditionalists would have considered a Hunter sailboat to be a true, bluewater passagemaker.  (see Hunter 49 sidebar).

But Harker’s philosophy about the Hunter was “why not?”  Even just learning to sail was a metaphorical jump into the deep end of the pool. He only learned to sail in 2000 aboard his newly purchased 466 in a sailing rally down the Mexican coast called the “Baja Ha-Ha.”

To Harker, perhaps unburdened with some of the old stereotypes about what makes a good bluewater boat, it seemed the Hunter had everything a passagemaker might want. The “Bluewater” options package offered on his standard production Hunter included a second layer of Kevlar reinforcing in the hull, a bow thruster, deeper keel, taller mast, and included several beefed-up or additional systems intended for the ocean voyager, such as the watermaker. But they are “standard” options in the sense that any buyer can order them. The 49 also has a fin keel instead of the traditional full keel of the traditional passagemakers and a modern, full-furling rig that Harker says was designed for the single-hander.

A ROUTE AROUND THE WORLD

Harker’s westbound circumnavigation began in Antigua. He planned initially on a total distance of 26,000 miles over the course of a year, with half the time spent actually at sea, making an average of 6.5 knots; roughly 1,000 miles per week. Harker said he actually sailed an extra 2,000 miles along the east coast of Australia because he enjoyed it so much.

He consulted with experts and sailors who had circumnavigated, including Jimmy Cornell, a well-known global sailor and author of Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. Harker figured that, by timing the various traditional storm seasons in key regions around the world, his chosen route would normally take either 18 months or two years to complete. He says that further study enabled him to pare the schedule to just 11 months. Harker said that he might have even finished earlier than he did if he hadn’t been held up for three weeks in the Galapagos Islands, waiting for Ecuadoran customs officials to release an alternator.

THE PEOPLE YOU MEET

Although his long distance, open-water legs were solo, Harker did have occasional company for some of the coastal, in-shore passages.  An accomplished professional photographer and filmmaker, Harker is particularly proud of some of the photos of a particular few of his temporary crewmembers. Two Danish models joined Harker on a whim for the leg from the Perlas Islands of Panama to the Galapagos. He complains, unconvincingly, that their hair-dryers and lots of “gourmet meals” forced him to use the engine alternator to keep the batteries charged on that leg.

Harker also said he met lots of other solo circumnavigators along the way, and said that most were French and many were women. He said none were in boats larger than 40’.  Two South African boys, sailors in their own right, sailed with him from Durban, South African, to Cape Town, covering nearly 800 miles over four weeks.

It was after that, on the leg from Africa to the Caribbean, that the water pump sprung a leak and started filling Wanderlust with South Atlantic seawater. The repair was so hardy that the pump was still working fine when he arrived in Miami just prior to the boat show.

Harker says he really never had bad weather; at least not the kind that knocks down cruisers and dis-masts race boats. He said he experienced winds approaching 40 knots in the South Pacific on his way to Vanuatu, but says they were following winds and didn’t bother the boat, the beefed-up autopilot, or the helmsman. He averaged 7.5 to 8.5 knots for most of the trip and said he’d “had more than a dozen 200 mile days” en route.

ON THE RODE AGAIN

The question from the Super Bowl TV commercials comes to mind – “So, Mike Harker; you’ve just sailed alone all the way around the world! Now what are you going to do?”  In the TV commercial, the answer was to go to Disney World, of course, but one suspects Harker might want to put his feet up for a bit on dry land.  And, also of course, one would be wrong. It seems wrong to say it, but this paraplegic just can’t sit still. Immediately after the Miami Boat Show, Harker left for the Bahamas; a little island sailing suffices for rest and relaxation.

Harker has more plans. After hauling Wanderlust this month for a check-up, he will go to work for Hunter, doing a series of presentations at dealerships along the East Coast. He said that late in the year he planned to be back in the Caribbean, perhaps the British Virgin Islands. For 2009, he plans to start another circumnavigation, this time eastward.  Harker said he wants to get to Thailand and then end up in Japan, where his Mt. Fuji hang-gliding is still celebrated. Finally, he will head back across the Pacific to California. For a man with more than 55,000 miles already in his logbooks, that’s a lot of miles to go before he sleeps.

END

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