Bill Pinkney, who was the first black sailor to sail around the world solo via the five great southern capes, has died

Bill Pinkney, who was inspired by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to sail around the world singlehanded, has died in Atlanta, USA, aged 87.

The American sailor was the first black man to sail solo around the world via the five great southern capes.

He was 55 years old at the time, with little experience of sailing long distances alone, having mostly raced aboard his 28ft Pearson Triton, Assagi in Lake Michigan, or sailed on the boats of friends.

The skipper circumnavigated in legs aboard the Valiant 47, Commitment, stopping at Bermuda, Salvador in Brazil, Cape Town in South Africa, Hobart, Tasmania, and Punta del Este in Uruguay.

A man in a tie and jacket

Bill Pinkney was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2021. Credit: Octane Rich Media, Photographers

In an interview to mark the 30th anniversary of his circumnavigation, Bill Pinkney told PBO editor Katy Stickland that he “figured if I could sail 24 or 48 hours alone, I could just keep doing that over and over until I got all the way around the world.”

His original plan was to sail through the Panama and Suez Canals, but Sir Robin told him “not to do it like a little kid… I should do it like a man and go all the way around the capes. And I said, if the Lord says go around the capes, I’m going!”

At each scheduled stop, he sent videotaped messages back to the school children of Chicago and Boston, which were later made into the film, The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney.

A satellite transponder transmitted Commitment‘s position six times a day, allowing students to plot the boat’s course, and he also spoke to them via single side-band radio. When he arrived back at the Charlestown Navy Yard, 700 schoolchildren were there to greet him.

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Born on 15 September 1935 in Chicago, Bill Pinkney grew up in Bronzeville. He became an x-ray technician in the US Navy and started sailing in Puerto Rico, where he settled after being discharged.

He worked on the sailing boats, helping to move goods around the island before returning to New York, where he became a make-up artist. He later worked for Revlon and Johnson Products Company, helping to develop make-up for African American women.

Bill Pinkney at the helm of La Amistad

Captain Bill Pinkney sailed the replica of La Amistad to Europe, Africa and the Caribbean; he was also instrumental in helping to built the ship. Credit: Getty

Following the circumnavigation he became captain of the replica of the 128ft schooner, La Amistad, which was built by the Mystic Seaport Museum.

From 2000-2002, Bill Pinkney and his crew sailed the east coast of the US to Key West, Florida and then crossed the Atlantic to England, Portugal, Sierra Leone and back to Cuba, tracing the voyage of the Mende captives, who took over the original ship in 1839.

Bill Pinkney never saw himself as a pioneer. Instead, he hoped his voyages would inspire others to follow their dreams, and he was active in encouraging the US yachting community to be “more open” to grassroots sailing to keep the sport alive.

“The assumption in the United States is that when you use the word yachting, you’re referring to a group of well-heeled people who sit around in blazers and pink pants on their 90-foot yacht. That’s a misnomer. It is guys who work every day, who are plumbers, carpenters, who on a weekend, go out with their family on their little 22-foot boat and sail around in their small lake,” he said.

A man in a black and white tshirt holding a book

Bill Pinkney wrote books about his adventures including his most recent Sailing Commitment around the World, which was aimed at children. Credit: Bill Pinkney

In 2021, he received a lifetime achievement award and was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame.

He also wrote several books about his voyages including Sailing Commitment around the World, and Captain Bill Pinkney’s Journey.

In his later years, Bill Pinkney lived in Puerto Rico, where he ran a charter company. He had been visiting family and friends in Atlanta when he died.

Captain William “Bill” Pinkney: 15 September 1935-31 August 2023.