A young man can learn plenty about himself and the world by taking the type of coming-of-age odyssey John Kretschmerundertook at age 25. Oddly enough, one of his lessons was that second-tier celebrities can be unkind.
It was 1984, and the sailor had just logged 16,000 miles from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn in a Contessa 32 sloop, retracing the route of the legendary gold-rush clipper ships of the 1850s in the relatively small sailboat.
His feat attracted media attention, and the resultant famous skipper found himself on the talk-show circuit. On one program he told his tale of adventure and slid to the far end of the couch when Dr. Joyce Brothers, the pop therapist, followed him as the next guest. "She tore me up," recalls Kretschmer, laughing at the memory. "She said, 'These adventurers are invariably hiding some kind of sexual hangup.'"
The Fort Lauderdale seaman and author, now age 41 and married with two kids, says the Brothers story is one he likes to recount during lectures about his life at sea. He'll include it when he speaks in Fort Lauderdale March 9 during the First Annual Bluewater Adventure Series.
In the case of Kretschmer, Brothers had the adventurer-motivation thing all wrong. His maritime expedition wasn't some feat of machismo. It was his fulfillment of a lust for life sparked in a then-17-year-old kid from Michigan when his dad, a retired Air Force pilot who had turned him on to sailing, died of lung cancer at age 53. "His passing had imparted a powerful sense of urgency into my existence," Kretschmer wrote in Flirting With Mermaids, his second book, which came out in April. "Life was something that had to be devoured because at any moment it might be snatched away . I also knew that going to sea was no longer just a child's dream; it was my mission and there was no time to lose."
For a time he attended college and toyed with the idea of getting a "real job," but he was pulled out to sea by his dream. By age 21 he owned a small boat and was living on the ocean. Publicity from the Cape Horn voyage brought plenty of job offers as a boat captain, and it opened the publishing world to him. He wrote a book about the experience, Cape Horn to Starboard.
Working for someone else would have defeated his quest for personal freedom, though. So he went into business for himself, delivering other people's yachts to far-flung places like Japan and Europe. Annals of those trips are the subject of Mermaids.
Once he'd arrive somewhere and get paid, he'd stroll into town, feeling rich with, say, $6000 in his pocket. He'd hit a bar, then write up his most recent trip for a sailing or travel magazine.
"Like a lot of guys my age, you get wrapped up in that Hemingway bullshit," he remembers. But, he says, "I'd realize I'd blown through my money and get back to [Fort] Lauderdale and drum up some more business."
It wasn't all smooth sailing, including a close call in 1991. "I was taking six inexperienced sailors on an offshore navigation course coming up from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands bound for Nassau in the Bahamas, and we just literally got overrun by Hurricane Bob," says Kretschmer. "We got into this eerie sequence, and you get into the eye. You get buffeted by wind, then it gets virtually calm, and you look up and the clouds are in a circular pattern all around you. Then you hear the back side of the storm coming."
These days Kretschmer's biggest fear is deadlines. He writes two columns a month for Sailingmagazine and is a columnist for sailnet.com, the largest sailing site on the Internet. Numerous book deals are also in the works.
He's far from being a landlubber, though. "I still do five to ten thousand miles every year" delivering boats, he says, "which for some people is a lifetime's worth of sailing. But compared to the old days, it's a trickle."