Growing up in the 1950s, Gerry Spiess stopped in ports of India, Egypt and Europe as his family made their way back to Minnesota after living in Australia.
Those glimpses of the vast world instilled such a curiosity in the boy that, years later as an adult, Spiess made headlines for his global exploration after building a 10-foot sailboat in his White Bear Lake garage and crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in it.
Later, he learned to fly small aircraft, completing feats such as landing at every airport in Minnesota and flying around the U.S. border in both directions. He biked around Europe and across the U.S. and took up rock climbing, too.
Spiess died at his Pine County home this month after a decadeslong battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.
“I think seeing such a wide world through not only very young eyes, but the wondrous things that he saw, opened him up to travel and adventure,” said Sally Spiess, his wife of 56 years.
People thought Spiess was crazy to try to sail across the Atlantic in the tiny vessel he meticulously crafted out of plywood and fiberglass and called Yankee Girl.
So with zero fanfare, he set sail on his own from Virginia Beach, Va., for his epic journey in June 1979, his tiny boat outfitted with four sails, navigational equipment, a VHF radio, a 4-horse outboard motor and 60 gallons of fuel.
He survived on containers of fresh water that he had stored in the boat along with foodstuffs including homemade beef jerky. He read Mark Twain’s works and kept a photograph of Sally pinned up in his tiny cabin, her image bringing him strength when the rough seas tested him and his boat, tiny flecks on the surface of the vast ocean.
There were plenty of tests, according to a piece he wrote for the National Enquirer, reprinted in the Minneapolis Star. He worried he might not survive an encounter with a school of whales that threatened to bobble his small craft, but they swam away after satisfying their curiosity.
His most harrowing moment came when he plunged into the “angry waters of the Atlantic,” he wrote, a storm’s wave washing him overboard.
“One moment I stood on the deck of my boat, and the next I was catapulted into the sea,” he wrote. “This seemed the moment when God finally deserted me — the last act in a terrifying series of mishaps which had dogged me from the moment I had set out.”
The sails of his boat lay slack on the water, but soon Spiess felt the tug of his lifeline still attached to the boat. He would survive, after all.
After 54 days at sea, a bearded Spiess arrived in Falmouth, England, where he was greeted by his wife and parents and 10,000 other well-wishers. Two years later, he crossed the Pacific in an updated version of the Yankee Girl, making stops in Hawaii and other places.
Sally Spiess was joyful and relieved at her husband’s return from every epic adventure he dreamed up.
The pair met in the Bailey Hall dorms as students at the University of Minnesota. Already, Spiess had been a world traveler, living in Australia and Mexico after his father worked in both countries for 3M. Spiess majored in psychology and minored in sociology and anthropology.
“I’ve often said he was the brightest man I ever met,” Sally Spiess said Thursday. “He had wide interests. He was easily bored.”
The couple lived in various places around the country while Gerry was in the Air Force. After returning to Minnesota, Gerry worked as an electronics instructor for 3M in its Maplewood training center. Later he supported himself through motivational speaking. He wrote about his journey in “Alone Against the Atlantic” with co-author Marlin Bree.
Meanwhile, Sally became an IT consultant and executive.
“Gerry was always supportive of those things that I wanted to do,” she said. “So how could I do anything but return the favor?”
His adventures were always self-funded, she said. And although she joined him occasionally, he ultimately decided he didn’t want to risk her life as well as his own, she said.
Neighbor Jackie Potts, who grew up next door to the couple, credits Gerry with instilling in her a sense of adventure. She sometimes biked or climbed or sailed with Gerry, she said, and the couple treated her like the child they never had.
“His spirit was all about the adventure and the challenge, that was a key component,” Potts said. When other adventurers came to him for advice, he was generous.
“He wanted people to succeed. That was one of his big goals,” Potts said, adding that he wanted people “to always strive to do your best.”
Though his journeys were risky, Spiess wasn’t foolhardy, his wife said. He practiced on his equipment and got to know how to use it intuitively. And he prepared himself to recover from every conceivable snafu.
“He mitigated risk where he could,” Sally Spiess said. “Some of that was knowing the machine, and some of it was knowing himself.”
Late in his life, Spiess dreamed of a final sail into the sunset in Polynesia, a place that he loved partly for its history of sailors who navigated the Pacific using stars and the sun and the waves coming off islands, Sally Spiess said. His health prevented him from going back, she said, but his family and friends plan to spread some of his ashes there.