Bert Chamberlain learned to swim on the Mississippi River. More than five decades later, the 64-year-old Moorhead man will return to the mighty river this weekend, captaining a 15-foot boat he built himself.
Chamberlain spent most of Friday at a St. Paul marina, preparing for the 1,700-mile solo trip to New Orleans that he’s planning to start Sunday morning. Docked alongside much larger pontoons and motorboats in shades of white and beige, he moved back and forth across his tiny turquoise sailboat, making adjustments.
Another man with a boat docked in the marina — a “boat person,” as Chamberlain calls them — walked up and took a look at the sailboat.
“That’s a Yankee Girl!” he said, referring to the 10-foot home-built sailboat that Minnesotan Gerry Spiess sailed solo across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The man asked if Chamberlain had read Spiess’ memoir, “Alone Against the Atlantic.”
“Oh yeah,” Chamberlain responded.
Chamberlain, who’s originally from Anoka, grew up watching the journalist-adventurer Lowell Thomas on television and dreaming of adventures of his own. Visiting Devils Tower as a boy, he looked up at climbers scaling the sheer rock and thought, “I want to do that.”
He did. He also climbed Grand Teton, Mount Fuji and Mount St. Helens. He taught himself to sail in his 30s, then got a black belt (inspired by Bruce Lee) and a scuba license.
“He’s always been adventurous — always wanted to try different things,” said Chamberlain’s wife, Barb. “And then he just goes ahead and does it.”
The trip down the Mississippi has been a longtime dream. Chamberlain’s son, Kevin, said he remembers seeing books about boatbuilding stacked on the coffee table when he was a child.
“This was just something that he was always talking about,” he said.
Chamberlain has prepared for this trip with a lot of reading about everything from avoiding barges to staying safe in a thunderstorm. Like chess, he said, sailing is a matter of thinking a few moves ahead.
The sailboat, called the Box Turtle, took three years to build. It’s outfitted with two solar panels that power an electric motor, as well as a bright red sail. He’s got a sleeping bag and enough food to last about half of the 60-day trip.
Chamberlain is planning to sail until two hours before sunset each day, then find Wi-Fi to update his blog.
A former teacher, coach and assistant principal, he said he hopes this trip will inspire others — especially young people — to have a dream and go after it.
Onlookers of all ages have stopped to stare and ask questions as the boat has sat in Chamberlain’s driveway, he said. A city bus driver stopped his route on three occasions to take a look, finally deciding to look into buying a sailboat of his own.
This trip will give Chamberlain a chance to explore places he’s never seen and meet people he never would have encountered otherwise — a little like Lowell Thomas.
“I wanted to do something similar,” he said. “To see the world, to see people.”