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Eight Bells: Captain William “Bill” Pickney

Published on August 31st, 2023

The first Black man of any nation to solo-circumnavigate the world via Cape Horn, William “Bill” Pinkney died on August 31, 2023 at the age of 87 in Atlanta, GA. Pinkney was born on September 15, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois to Marion Henderson and William Deltorius Pinkney.

After spending eight years in the United States Navy as a hospital corpsman (1956-1964), and working several jobs ranging from a limbo dancer to make-up artist, he got more serious working for Revlon and later the Johnson Products Company and finally the City of Chicago. One thing he had in his mind was to sail around the world, alone. Pinkney learned to sail while living in Puerto Rico after his time in the Navy.

One of his goals was to leave a legacy for his grandchildren, April and Brian Walton. To have an inspiring impact Pinkney spent a few years setting up educational programs and engaged a film crew to follow his voyage. It was a major undertaking. Up until his departure on August 5, 1990, no African American had attempted such a bold adventure.

His yacht was a Valiant 47-foot sloop named “The Commitment” that he purchased from blue water veteran Mark Schrader. The boat had been adapted for singlehanded sailing. The voyage featured the rounding of the five great capes including Cape Horn, which has the reputation of being the windiest part of the world. The 27,000 mile circumnavigation took 22 months and ended on June 9, 1992.

Throughout the trip Pinkney sent footage back to Globe TV and communicated with some 30,000 school children. The finished production titled, “The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney,” won the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in children’s television programming.

The film has aired on the Disney Channel, National Geographic and PBS stations. He was in high demand as a public speaker. His book, “Captain Bill Pinkney’s Journey” was used for learning to read, and for teaching the lessons of commitment and reaching goals. His talks, book and film have inspired thousands of sailors of all ages.

In 1997 Steven Spielberg directed the film “La Amistad,” a harrowing story of a slave transport vessel. The film inspired the restoration of a replica of the 1839 vessel at Mystic Seaport Museum. The film told the story of how the African natives revolted and killed most of the crew.

The vessel ran aground off Montauk, New York and the crew was detained. After a lengthy court case the slaves became free. Bill Pinkney was named the captain of the “La Amistad” in 2000 for the first two years after the replica was launched. The vessel serves as an enduring symbol of unity and the human struggle for freedom.

Bill Pinkney has raced in the Mackinac Races on Lake Michigan, has served on the Board of Mystic Seaport Museum, the National Maritime Historical Society, and the American Sail Training Association. He is a member of the New York Yacht Club. He took “La Amistad” on an expedition to West Africa and South America with nine teachers aboard. Their mission was to develop a curriculum on the Atlantic slave trade for the University of Nebraska.

He has been honored by President George H.W. Bush, and been awarded several honorary doctorate degrees. His story has appeared in many magazines. When Pinkney was asked by the Chicago Sun-Times if one thing in his life stood out, he responded, “No. It is a progression, never knowing what the next step is going to be, but being willing to do it when the possibility presents itself.”

Famed restauranteur Ina Pinkney, Bill’s former wife, with whom he remained close, was his biggest champion. “Bill was, and is, a remarkable human being. He spent all of his time, when he came home, talking to children about following a dream,” Ina Pinkney said, “and I think his name needs to be part of history of Chicago for all he did.”

Editor’s note: It was later revealed that he passed away after falling down a staircase and suffering a brain injury.

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