Explorations of the globe under sail, like Darwin’s voyage aboard the ship Beagle and the voyage of the Royal Navy ship Challenger in the 1870s, were scientific milestones that greatly increased our knowledge of the planet. For biological scientist and lifelong sailor Dr. J. Craig Venter those passages provided a major inspiration for his extensive voyaging aboard his 95-foot sloop Sorcerer II. On two separate expeditions Venter, along with a group of fellow scientists and Sorcerer II’s crew, gathered biological samples from the world’s oceans. Sorcerer II sailed more than 65,000 miles and harvested a vast biological trove that is being used to expand knowledge of the world’s biological organisms.
In the 1990s, Venter and his team successfully sequenced the human genome in parallel with a government-funded effort. Venter also founded the biotech firms Celera Genomics, the Institute for Genomic Research and the J. Craig Venter Institute.
During a recent phone call Venter said that when he was serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War and stationed at a Navy facility in Da Nang, he often thought about sailing. “The idea of the sailing around the world helped keep me sane,” Venter said. When deciding to launch his first worldwide sampling expedition he realized he could combine his desire to do a circumnavigation with science. “A chance to do that and do my research at the same time was a phenomenal opportunity.” Venter and David Ewing Duncan have written a new book about the sampling expeditions called The Voyage of Sorcerer II published in September by Harvard University Press.
Venter and crew collected samples every 200 miles by pumping 200 to 400 liters of seawater aboard and running it through a series of increasingly smaller filters designed to capture ever smaller denizens of the aquatic world. The filters with their specimens were then frozen on board and when Sorcerer II arrived at a port that had air freight service the frozen filters were airlifted back to Venter’s lab for analysis. The amount of data acquired was staggering. “We discovered more species on these voyages,” Venter said, “than the entire history of scientific discovery put together.”
Sorcerer II, the vessel for this impressive effort, was built in Auckland, New Zealand in 1998 by Cookson Boats. Ltd. Cookson, which sadly has since closed its doors, built some renowned sailboats over the years, including Larry Ellison’s 78-foot maxi Sayonara and Steve Fossett’s 125-foot catamaran PlayStation. Sorcerer II was designed by famed Argentinian naval architect German Frers.
During Venter’s research voyages, the boat — currently under different ownership, Venter sold it in 2019 — was equipped with a 300 horsepower 6CTA8 3M Cummins diesel with an adjustable pitch Max Prop propeller and fuel tankage of 2,324 gallons and water tankage of 634 gallons. Its fin keel has a draft of 10.2 feet. Even though a large boat Sorcerer II has manual cable steering. It was also equipped with bow and stern thrusters, water maker, two gensets and a host of other gear for crew comfort while conducting its research worldwide.
The tough hull of e-glass and Kevlar was well suited to the demands of many ocean miles. An excerpt from the Venter and Duncan’s book provides a glimpse of how Sorcerer II’s captain viewed the vessel. “Sorcerer is not too big and not too small,” said Captain Charlie Howard, describing his vessel…. “She is smart and well put together with the best components and a lot of thought and engineering. She has long legs and once took us almost six thousand miles on one load of fuel from Cape Town to Antigua. She thrives on lots of attention and when you don’t give her the attention, she gives you surprises. She is a good friend when the going is rough, and she has never let me down.” n