Nabil Amra has sailed many hours, in many conditions, on the city lakes of Minneapolis, on Lake Minnetonka, and even on Lake Superior. But July 16, when his boat’s self-steering unit snapped, he was not bobbing off Excelsior Boulevard — he was sailing south off the coast of West Africa. And it was midnight. And 35-knot following winds were driving him across 15-foot seas. And he was alone.
Amra, 43, grew up in Chaska and now lives in Bloomington, and his is the story of a man from the prairie lake country, his grand romance with sailing and the sea, and the chances he took in pursuit of his adventure.
This summer in Europe, Amra boarded a 36-foot sailboat that he’d bought sight unseen and joined the Golden Globe Race — a solo, retro, nonstop, round-the-world race that only allowed technology available in 1968. No global positioning system or satellite phone. In Minnesota, he could navigate by streetlights and apartment buildings; in the Golden Globe, he set out to circumnavigate the world, by himself, with a sextant, compass and binoculars.
His story is, improbably, not as reckless as it might initially seem.
“I am an impulsive guy,” Amra said. “But I don’t just take risks. I will take calculated risks.”
Indeed, Amra — slight, sunny, understated — over the last three years transformed himself from a U.S. Bank foreign exchange trader and Minnesota lake sailer to a fully outfitted global ocean explorer. That idea had apparently been percolating for years. He said that when he wasn’t thinking about sailing, he was reading the literature of sea adventures, from Sir Francis Chichester to Patrick O’Brian to Bernard Moitessier — an author who, by chance, was among the participants in the first Golden Globe Race in 1968.
So, Amra said, in 2015 it was in a way natural that he’d leap at the chance to sail around the world.
“At lunch one day, like everyone else, I was reading the magazines for free at Barnes & Noble,” he said. “In a sailing magazine I read about the [new Golden Globe] race. So I sent in my deposit. I was just hoping that no one back at my office stumbled on the website and came up to me and said, ‘Are you in a sailboat race that lasts a year?’ ”
He had other concerns. His ocean sailing experience was limited to Caribbean vacations, with other people. And he had no boat, other than the 23-foot sloop he and his brother moored on Bde Maka Ska, then called Lake Calhoun.
“The good news,” Amra said, “is that in Minnesota we are blessed with long winters when you can get a lot done.”
Methodically, Amra pursued the extravagant experience, skills, resources and equipment he’d need to survive a solo, nonstop circumnavigation. Among his first stops was Sailcrafters, a sailmaker in St. Louis Park, where owner Tim Carlson basically let him hang out, watch the work, and inhale the world of sails and rigging.
“He’s a very engaging guy, a good spirit,” Carlson said. “He was around a lot and we taught him about splicing and repairing sails, and he took our medical training course.”
Amra said he began to learn that “there’s nothing individual or solo” about global solo sailing. In addition to Carlson and his staff, friends such as Sandy Shipp of Minneapolis began throwing fundraising parties. Shipp and Amra’s girlfriend, Gina Cook, became his de facto volunteer managers. Friends with businesses helped arrange shipment of hundreds of pounds of equipment to and from Europe.
Hanging over the preparations was the daunting race requirement that Amra needed at least 2,000 hours of solo ocean sailing to qualify. So, in the spring of 2016, Amra said, “I decided to sail from Puerto Rico to Maine.”
This trip provided many lessons, about managing a boat by himself, and being alone. But the defining lesson came in bad weather off the East Coast. Amra had deployed a drogue, a kind of sea anchor that slows down and helps control the boat as it descends huge, steep waves. Somehow, the drogue’s lines became entangled in his self-steerer, which snapped.
“That was totally on me,” Amra said. “But it was awful. I was stuck at the wheel.”
Four days later, he diverted to Cape Cod for sleep, eventually arriving in Maine with a vivid lesson: Autopilots are a solo sailer’s crew. Without one, it becomes impossible to cook or maintain anything, much less sleep.
Safely home, Amra resumed preparations. Example: He needed nine months of dehydrated food — 600 meals — and he hated the commercial camp food. So he scrounged around the Twin Cities looking for the right foods, and he ended up with a lot of dehydrated hummus from Holyland and rice bowls from World Street Kitchen.
Amra went often to lakes to work with the sextant. “I got so the lakes were within 10 miles from where they were supposed to be,” he said. “And that was good enough.”
And he bought a boat in England, a Biscay 36 Masthead ketch, because it conformed to race rules and, “ I hate to say this, but it was also the prettiest.” He renamed it Liberty II and, with other Americans in the race, he chose to fly the flag of his parents’ homeland — Palestine, a place for which he said he hoped to provide some rare good news.
Lucky to start
When Amra left for Europe this spring to sail around the world by himself, his friends and family embraced their only option — cautious optimism.
“I thought if he could get down to South Africa, he’d be OK,” Carlson said. “By then, he’d have the skills and experience to finish, because he didn’t have those when he left.”
Amra arrived from England to the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne, only to be sent back out to sea. Even after, on appeal, race officials credited him for his time sailing on Lake Superior (“They are very condescending about fresh water”) he was still short of solo sailing hours. So as the other 17 skippers (16 other men and one woman) went through their final preparations back in port, Amra readied his boat out on the water, completing his qualifications. “Basically,” he said. “I was lucky to get to the starting line.”
That was July 1. Amra said the first two weeks were grand. He was still tacking among the other boats. He caught and cooked fresh fish. He was continually escorted by pods of playful dolphins. His navigational skills sharpened. “The scene,” he said, “was amazing.”
Until the weather and 15-foot waves came in on the 13th and he was jolted awake in the middle of the night with Liberty II bucking wildly out of control. Staggering on deck, the beam of Amra’s headlamp showed a self-steering unit flapping like a flag, it’s main steel arm somehow broken.
Too busy to panic, he said he spent 11 hours working on a fix that ultimately proved impossible for equipment under such torque and pressure. Race rules didn’t allow Amra to sail ashore for repairs, and any delusions about continuing were doused by his still-fresh ordeal on the way to Maine. His race was over. But, as Amra said, “I was out of the race, but I wasn’t safe.”
Off the coast of Western Sahara, apparently, a disabled boat has two real options — Cape Verde to the south, with few people and unpredictable resources, or the Canary Islands back 150 miles to the north, a farther sail but with sizable ports and connections home. So Amra tacked back north into the weather, staying at the helm for 50 hours until he reached land.
“That was my biggest accomplishment, getting there, “ Amra said. “I felt pretty good about that until I arrived; then I cried like a baby.”
Back home last week, Amra was reclaiming his life, making jokes about going into the dehydrated food business, and watching the progress of the 13 skippers still in the race. He’s made peace with his early departure (“I know there is nothing more I could have done”) and declined questions about the next Golden Globe in 2022 (“It’s too early. Now I know what saying ‘yes’ means”).
As Amra spoke, he was headed off to sail with a friend on Lake Minnetonka.
“There’s nothing better,” he said with a laugh, “than sailing on a lake!”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.