Bill Pinkey: first to solo circumnavigate

Bill Pinkney solo circumnavigated the world via the three great capes in 1992. He wasn’t the fastest, and he didn’t do it non-stop, but Pinkney, who died in August, will be remembered as the first Black man to complete what is one of the most celebrated sailing feats. 

“I’d been dreaming about an adventure,” he said in an interview with The History Makers ( and he chose sailing because that was his greatest love. His original plan was to upgrade slightly from the 28-foot Pearson Triton he kept on Lake Michigan, but after Sir Robin Knox-Johnston recommended that “I should not do it like a little kid and go through the Panama and Suez Canals, I should do it like a man and go all the way around the capes,” he bought a Valiant 47 and named the boat Commitment. Pinkney hoped to inspire others with his journey, especially school children. A Black sailing friend told me Pinkney took on hero status for his courage and doing it not just for himself but making it an educational project.  

When Pinkney left on his circumnavigation he was 55. After growing up in Chicago, wondering what was on the other side of huge Lake Michigan, he joined the Navy and went to sea for eight years as an x-ray technician. On discharge he worked in the cosmetics industry as a makeup artist in NYC and later as a marketing manager for Revlon and Johnson Products, a Black owned company in Chicago, while learning to sail.

After returning home from his circumnavigation in triumph, he captained the replica of the schooner Amistad. He received the US National Sailing Hall of Fame’s Lifetime Achievement Award and ran a charter yacht in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Pinkney’s charter partner was his third wife; it’s a tribute to him that his second wife, Ina, remained among his big supporters. He also wrote two children’s books about his sailing times.

“Every time you go sailing, you learn something new…about weather, about the boat you sail on and about yourself. There are no absolutes. There are no superlatives. It is — it just is.” 

Ann Hoffner