“Like all great ideas, it started in a bar,” wrote Blair Charnley and Zeke Wigglesworth, two staffers for the Minneapolis Star, the city’s afternoon paper.
In August 1971 the two of them sat in a now-defunct watering hole and joked about an idea. Among the beer bottles and noise of the jukebox they drew plans on their bar napkins to build a boat.
“Then one of us said, ‘Why not?’ ” they wrote.
Four years and “tens of thousands of bendy little bronze boat nails” later, the two, along with five others, would sail down the Mississippi and into the Atlantic Ocean in their home-built “Whynot,” chronicling their eight-month journey for the paper.
Charnley died on July 5 at age 73 from cancer after a life and career as a journalist and traveler.
He got his start at the Star after growing up in Minneapolis and studying at the University of Minnesota, where his father was a well-known professor. The two eventually would co-write updated editions of the book “Reporting,” which served like a bible for journalism students at the time.
Charnley worked as an editor for the paper until 1982, when it folded into the Minneapolis Tribune. His bosses offered him a job, but he said, “I’m going to take my severance and go to someplace warm,” said his wife, Lynne Domash.
The two got to know each other over anchovies in 1987 while they worked at the Orange County Register. After a coed softball game, they wanted anchovies with their pizza, and their colleagues exiled them to the end of a table. A week later, he asked her out on a date.
They retired in 2006, married in 2007, and bought a pickup truck camper in 2009. They traveled the country, singing ’60s folk songs together and journaling their trips on Facebook. Together, they drove to 49 states and northern Canada, spending 593 nights in the camper (Domash kept an exact count).
She said it was Charnley’s trip down the Mississippi that fostered his love of travel.
“It gave him the ability to look beyond the day-to-day,” she said. “It gave him the realization that there was more out there, more to life than just working.”
As Charnley wrote with his friend, Wigglesworth, the arguments against building a boat to sail to the Caribbean were endless. They lived in the Midwest, “had a little money, but little sailing experience.” They decided to build a 38-foot trimaran — a three-hulled boat used by the Polynesians for hundreds of years, but something that they had never actually seen.
“We, who have never built anything more impressive than a coffee table, were going to knock out three hulls in a year and a half in our spare time.”
It took them four years, but in the late fall of 1975 a crane hoisted the Whynot into the Mississippi River, leaving Minneapolis to the cheers of friends and family. Not the best time to start a river adventure, Charnley would later write, “but we were just ready to go by then,” said Susan Wolkerstorfer, a former Star editor who was also on the voyage.
A snowstorm hit them a few days into the journey, Wigglesworth said. Time and again the engine would sputter and fail.
“You can measure your trips in many ways,” Charnley and Wigglesworth wrote. “We have come to measure ours in mechanics.”
But gradually, “as the river kept going south, confidence grew.” After 53 days they made it to New Orleans. By February, they found paradise off the shores of Punta Gorda, Fla. They sailed the Caribbean from Key West to the Bahamas and back to Florida. But after eight months of what was supposed to be a one-year trip, they decided to call it quits. They missed home. The two kids with them, ages 10 and 12, “led long discussions about what we wanted for our first meal when we no longer faced budget, refrigeration and supply problems.”
“So it’s over,” they wrote. “An unqualified success? Of course not. A bust? Don’t you believe it.”