Home Is The Sailor -- Karen Thorndike Nears The End Of A Two-Year, Round-The-World Solo Voyage With Mixed Feelings

ABOARD THE AMELIA IN THE STRAIT OF JUAN DE FUCA - This is a sailing story: a tale of heaving seas and roiling tempests at the Godforsaken bottom of the world, and of the woman who took their thumping and survived.

So where the devil's the howling wind to give this story its appropriate flavor?

Certainly not here off Dungeness Spit, where the zephyrs blew yesterday with all the lung power of a two-pack-a-day smoker - weak enough to make a landlubber hope that someone on board Karen Thorndike's boat would whistle up the wind.

Not even a few bars of "Blow the Man Down" passed Thorndike's lips, however. After 33,000 miles around the world, on a trip that included a life's share of close calls in red-flag weather, Thorndike was quite content to be becalmed, thank you very much.

"Believe me, I don't feel cheated," the Snohomish resident said of the bathtub conditions as she and her 36-foot sailboat, Amelia, motored leisurely from Port Angeles to Port Townsend, getting close to home after a two-year odyssey.

Thorndike is scheduled to arrive in Seattle tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Port of Seattle's Bell Street Pier - weather permitting, of course. She officially finished her solo journey around the globe Aug. 18 in California, where she had had to restart her quest two years ago after leaving Puget Sound in 1995 and running into rigging problems.

Doing it the hard way

In completing her trip, Thorndike, 56, became the seventh woman to sail around the globe by herself, and the first American woman to do it the hard way - by skirting past all five of the Southern Hemisphere's "great capes."

(At least one other American woman sailed around the world near the equator and went through the Panama Canal, where vessels are piloted by someone else.)

No wonder, then, that the soft sun and calm water pleased Thorndike.

Perhaps more surprising was Thorndike's ambivalence in ending an exhausting journey that had been her solitary focus for four years and included such challenges as 40-foot seas around New Zealand's South West Cape and a serious case of flu.

The Amelia still bears scars on her cap rail where sailors from a British frigate boarded her in heavy seas near the Falkland Islands and rescued Thorndike from an almost-fatal case of influenza in early 1997.

Instead of hoisting the mainsail and charging straight home when it was all over, Thorndike instead has retraced the stops on her original journey out of Puget Sound.

"I'm taking my time, because when I get that boat to Everett, everything changes," she said.

There is the expected: Checkbooks need to be balanced. A work desk awaits.

But Thorndike, quite simply, has salt water on the brain. "I'll probably go racing soon," she says and laughs.

Even in the final hours of the trip, as she motors through waters she knows like the back of her wind-chapped hands, the ocean doesn't bore her: A whale surfaces far off the starboard beam, and she grabs the binoculars to watch its breath linger in the cool morning air.

Off Dungeness Spit, she emerges from the hatch and spreads out a Rand McNally map of the world and begins pointing out spots - South Africa, Australia - where she didn't get to stop. "Aaah, so many places to go," she says, somewhere between wanderlust and anguish.

Storm-tossed style

She wears her strawberry curls in a storm-tossed style, and strands continually fall onto her face, where she brushes them back again. In her left ear is an earring placed there by David Hutto, a fisherman and friend who is accompanying her to Everett, her final stop.

After she rounded Cape Horn, Hutto visited her and pierced her ear in the old seaman's tradition of showing in which direction she had braved the cape and survived.

The ring went into her left ear because she passed the cape traveling from west to east, with the cape on her left. The earring is a small gold circle.

Lady's or pirate's earring

It might be a tasteful lady's earring or a pirate's hoop - an ambiguity that sort of seems right.

Thorndike did not sail by herself around the world to gain great metaphysical insight, though time in isolation can help a person sort out some things and get priorities straight, she said. Mostly, her journey is a work in progress, mentally speaking.

"Since the journey isn't over yet, the real meaning of what I've done is hard to get my head around," she tried to explain.

This, however, Thorndike knows for certain: She would retrace her route again but would never, ever sail alone again such a long distance, and never again in a boat so small.

For a social person who likes to laugh, the loneliness was crippling. Holidays were worst of all. E-mail didn't satisfy.

Instead, she read. Amelia's cabin looks like some waterborne bookmobile. The books tell the mind and temperament of the reader: Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" sits atop an account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's shipwrecked heroics in Antarctica.

Below that sit "The Collected Jack London," a joke book and adventure books by Farley Mowat.

Also in the cabin, amid the foul-weather gear and navigation charts, is "The Penguin Book of Firsts." A cynic might suggest - with a Web site dedicated to her trip, talk of a Guinness Book of Records mention, the mere fact of a publicity manager and the documentary and book that she plans to produce - that Thorndike expects her trip to bring her fame and fortune.

Friends helped

That would be nice, Thorndike said, but she doubts it. A friend and fellow sailor created the Web site. Another longtime friend in Los Angeles volunteered to send out press releases. Thorndike's work in photography and as a script supervisor made her think about the documentary.

But her trip wasn't about money or fame, she said convincingly. She sold virtually everything to pull together the money for the trip, dropped her job as a script supervisor for TV and movies.

"There are many, much better ways to make money than this," she said.

When asked why they have undertaken great feats, adventurers often struggle to answer, as if the question itself is the unintelligible thing, and not their response. Thorndike, in a sense, seems the same.

Because she wanted to

She sailed around the world, she said, simply because she wanted to, and because she wanted to try before it was too late to satisfy that desire, and because it was an adventure.

"Maybe it isn't necessary to have a reason," she said finally.

Sitting on the gunwale in the warming sunshine, Thorndike watched chum salmon surface beside the boat, felt the welcoming tide pulling her and Amelia toward the home that they would soon be eager to leave again. It was not hard to understand why she didn't feel greater need to explain herself.

The voyage's Web site is at: www.goals.com/amelia/karen.htm

Chris Solomon's phone message number is 425-745-7804. His e-mail address is: csolomon@seattletimes.com