Dodge Morgan, 1st American to complete nonstop solo sail around world, dies at 78

By David Sharp, AP
Friday, September 17, 2010

Round-the-globe sailor Dodge Morgan dies at 78

PORTLAND, Maine — Dodge Morgan, who became the first American to sail solo around the globe without stopping — and did it in record time — has died of complications from cancer. He was 78.

Morgan, who died Tuesday at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, turned his small marine radar company into the successful Whistler brand of detectors before sailing around the world. Hobbs Funeral Home in South Portland is handling the arrangements and confirmed the death.

He set a world record in 1986 when he completed the solo sail in his 60-foot American Promise in 150 days, 1 hour and 6 minutes, beating British sailor Chay Blyth, who took 292 days to accomplish the same feat in 1971.

Ted Hood, who designed Morgan’s boat, said the American Promise was a rugged sailboat with two of everything, including a spare generator and a spare rudder, and was designed for sturdiness, not speed.

“Everyone said there’s no way that boat is going to get around the world in record speed, but it did,” Hood, a 1974 America’s Cup winner, said Friday from his office in Portsmouth, R.I.

Those who knew Morgan described him as a genuine American hero, a larger-than-life character who didn’t mind taking risks, led inspirational discussions and became outraged by injustice. Andy Devereaux, a venture capitalist from Boston who was friends with Morgan, called him a “grass-roots philosopher.”

Peter Bragdon, who served as headmaster of Governor Dummer Academy, now known as the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass., while Morgan was chairman of the trustees, described him as a “wild and wonderful guy.”

“He could not stand the nay-sayers. He could not stand the people who resisted change, who never made mistakes because they never did anything,” said Bragdon, of Exeter, N.H. “He celebrated the ‘yay-sayers’ who took the risk, who dared to be great, who made things happen.”

Morgan was the kind of guy was quick with the one-liners and could make light of dangerous situations, like the time he crashed his F-86 fighter jet, Bragdon said.

Morgan told Bragdon he was trying to land at Presque Isle Air Force Base when his engine flamed out and the plane crashed into the woods of northern Maine. The canopy became jammed, and Morgan’s rescuers had to use an ax to get him out, Bragdon said.

Bragdon asked him about the threat of fire from the fuel tanks in the wings. “He said, ‘No problem, the wings were about 300 yards behind me when the fuselage finally stopped,’” Bragdon recalled.

Manny Morgan, a former wife who remained close to Morgan, said he loved the sea, nature, business and, most of all, his children. She called him energetic, enthusiastic and irreverent.

“He would certainly surprise you with his outbursts,” she said. “When he was doing his public speaking, he’d leave the audience shocked — and laughing.”

Before inspiring a new generation of sailors, Morgan drew his own sailing inspiration as a boy working at his uncle’s boat yard. The Malden, Mass., native later became part of the sailing scene in Marblehead, Mass., where Hood remembered him as both a free spirit and a driven sailor.

As a buinessman, he built a small company that started in a two-car garage with a handful of employees into what became Controlonics, a radar detector company.

The Massachusetts-based company’s name was later changed to Whistler, named for the whistling sound made by its earlier marine radar systems, said John Nolan, who went to work for Morgan in 1979 and now serves as project manager for Whistler Group in Bentonville, Ark.

Morgan eventually brought his love of sailing to Maine, where he lived in Cape Elizabeth and then on Snow Island in Harpswell, where he spent his later years.

Morgan, who held a journalism degree from Boston University, bought the influential alternative weekly newspaper the Maine Times in 1985. He also owned the Casco Bay Weekly.

Edgar Allen Beem, who served as a staff writer for Morgan at the Maine Times, said Morgan went through life as a big kid “with all the virtues and vices that might suggest.”

“He was always looking for an adventure,” said Beem, an author and newspaper columnist. “He had that kind of ‘gee-whiz, let’s-do-something’ attitude.”

(This version CORRECTS the location of the funeral home to South Portland, instead of Portland.)

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