HOMER — On July 3, 2009, Rick Morris of Nikiski sailed Freestyle, a 32-foot Westsail, out of Kachemak Bay. Living his childhood dream, Morris was headed for points east and south and west.
Last week, he sailed back into Homer Harbor, having completed a journey that took him around the top of the Gulf of Alaska, down the Inside Passage, along the west coast of Canada and the United States to San Diego. From there, a southwesterly course took him across the equator to the Marquesas, Tahiti, Fiji and New Zealand, before turning north to the Solomon Islands, Japan and back to Alaska.
“When I was about 10, my family made a trip to Hawaii. I saw a sailboat in a marina and thought there wasn’t much to that kind of boat. Then I saw a guy disappear inside it and I thought there must be more to the boat than I could see,” said Morris, 45. “I invited myself on board and he showed me around. From then on I thought it would be cool to sail.”
He learned to sail with a Hobie Cat on a central Kenai Peninsula lake. Then, in 2005, his search for a boat led to the Freestyle, sitting high and dry in a yard in Soldotna.
Having been out of the water for 10-15 years, the Freestyle was in less than perfect shape.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” said Morris of reactions to his plan purchase and repair the vessel. After all, Morris knew more about operating his dump truck business, Puppy Dog Trucking, than he knew about sailing.
His seasonal-type work offered during the winters to step out his door, walk to the Freestyle where it sat his driveway, and work his way through a lengthy list of repairs. His original plan called for one winter of work before launching the boat, but the amount of work needed added a second year to the plan.
In 2007, he trucked the Freestyle to Homer, where it was launched by Northern Enterprises. Over the next two years, he sharpened his sailing skills. He joined the Homer Yacht Club and competed in club events. When a friend needed to get to Cordova for the fishing season, Morris sailed him there from Homer.
Finally, in July 2009, he began his journey around the Pacific Ocean.
Along the way Morris maintained contact with his mom, Karen Morris, family and friends through emails, thanks to the SailMail Association, a nonprofit operating and maintaining a worldwide email communications system. He wrote and then emailed to his mom entries to put on a blog chronicling his journey. He also noted changes happening within himself. For instance, there was the visit with a cousin in Anacortes, Wash., where Morris discovered how uncomfortable he was with fast-moving vehicles.
“It scared me to death,” said Morris. “I’ll take the ocean any day.”
Arriving in San Diego on Nov. 25, 2009, his choices of where to eat Thanksgiving dinner were limited.
“There was nothing open except a Japanese restaurant,” he said, laughing. “I’ll never forget that.”
He returned home for Christmas that year and in February 2010, put the U.S. mainland behind him and headed out to sea. On Feb. 22, not long after leaving San Diego, Morris wrote in his blog that winds were picking up to 20 knots, the water was 17,000 feet deep and he was celebrating his 43rd birthday.
“What better a place to be on your birthday,” he said.
In three years, Morris was alone only on the final leg, from Kodiak to Homer. The rest of the time, he had crews of one or two individuals he found on the docks or on the web at findacrew.net. They came from 14 different countries, some with him for three weeks, one for a seven-month stretch. Most knew some English and others learned while they were with Morris. Some knew how to sail, others learned as they went.
“That made it more interesting,” said Morris. “I’ve never been to Europe, but now I could go to five different countries and have a place to stay.”
The longest nonstop time at sea was the 33-day sail from Japan to Adak.
The average distance he traveled a day was 90 miles, slightly less than the 100 he hoped for. Twenty-foot seas were not uncommon. During one 10-day stretch he encountered 20-foot seas coupled with sustained 35-knot winds.
“I was a zombie when that was over,” he said.
He and his crew took turns with four-hour watches, rotating every other day because nights proved a challenging time to stay awake.
Fishing added to food supplies, but Morris carefully stocked groceries, following advice to bring the world and take back what you don’t need. The Freestyle can carry 80 gallons of water. By conserving, Morris and his crew used only 50 gallons between Japan and Adak.
The biggest health concerns were malaria, for which he was vaccinated, and infections, for which he carried a broad-spectrum antibiotic.
Were the three years at sea what Morris expected them to be?
“Yes. Yes they were. And more,” he said.
One of the memories he holds dear was the first stop four weeks after leaving San Diego.
“It was about the closest to heaven I’ve been. A band was playing on the dock and I thought they were welcoming us. It was a beautiful day, 85 degrees, fabulous,” he said. “I’ll never forget that day.”
Now that he’s home, Morris’ top priority is finding work. Freestyle will remain in the Homer Harbor until next summer, when he plans to haul it out for minor repairs. In 2014, he is considering sailing the Freestyle out to Attu and back.
“I want to write a cruising guide to the Aleutians,” he said. “There are more and more boats out there and no literature about potential troubles or anchorages. There are some winds that will stand you right up on end. It can be fun, but it’s rugged. To sail those areas is a challenge.”
He returned home a different Morris than the one who sailed away three years ago.
“I used to be a little more self-centered, but now I think worldly, not locally,” he said. “We get wrapped up in our little piece of the world, but there’s more to it than this.”
His advise for others who want to follow their dreams?
“Forget the naysayers,” said Morris. “Just go.”
Information from: The Homer (Alaska) News, http://www.homernews.com