When we moved to Seattle following our big drive, Sheena went to work at the REI headquarters. Each morning she braved I-5 traffic and came to rest in front of the Whittaker Building, named for the company’s first full-time employee and longtime CEO, Jim Whittaker. REI began as a one-man operation in a cramped second story loft downtown, where mountaineers would congregate and order gear from Jim. And who better to sell them mountaineering equipment? Early in his career, and on the heels of Edmund Hillary, he became the first American to summit Mount Everest. Later, while waiting out a storm in his tent as he led the first American ascent of K2 in Pakistan, he stumbled upon the inspiration for the name of his future sailboat, which would later replace mountaineering as his passport to discovery and adventure.
The name S/V Impossible emerged not from the hardships encountered on K2, but rather from the pages of an old French novel. In Jim Whittaker’s memoir, A Life on the Edge, he explains:
“When you’re snowbound, unable to move because of avalanche danger, you lie in your tent desperate to read anything. Labels on clothes take on a new significance. Directions on how to prepare food become a good read. A book you’ve read a mere half-dozen times is a treasure. If you have a good, unread book, you are in heaven…or at least on a journey to somewhere beyond the tent. We had such a book, Mount Analogue, written by French climber-philosopher René Daumal. Published in the 1930s, it is a whimsical parable about a mountain higher than Everest and said to be the link between heaven and earth. It was undiscovered, so the story went, because it was hidden in a kind of space-time warp. However, a series of mathematical deductions had indicated that the mountain would be on an island, also hidden, somewhere in the South Pacific. A group of scientist-climbers set sail from France on a yacht named Impossible to penetrate the warp and find the magic mountain.”
Years later, aboard his very own Impossible, Jim set sail from Port Townsend to points south, making the Big Left Turn at the end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on an around-the-world sailing expedition. On board were his wife, Dianne, his son Joss, and his other son Leif—author of My Old Man and the Mountain, and whose name still denotes one of our bilge pumps on the pilothouse instrument cluster.
Impossible is a 54-foot 1982 Bruce Roberts-designed steel ketch. Ketch—for those, like us, who are new to the life aquatic, describes a type of sailboat having two masts. The fact that there are two masts means that we have five sails at our disposal—a mizzen, main, two genoas, and a spinnaker. The sixth, of course, is the Iron Maiden: an 80 horsepower John Deere Lugger diesel engine that lives beneath the pilothouse, and which is the size of an adolescent rhinoceros.
She (and I guess she’s a she since this seems a non-negotiable trait assigned to boats by their captains) was constructed in a shipyard in Alaska, and then sent to Port Townsend to be fitted with a custom interior of mahogany and teak. The fact that our boat was built in a shipyard makes it rare among Roberts sailboats, which are most often built by individuals from a set of plans. It shows in the workmanship, and in the well-thought-out (and extensive) systems that live just below the surface. If the fuse panels and engine room are any indication, I will have my work cut out for me in learning the intricacies of the systems that make this boat tick. But if there’s one thing that should have become apparent after having observed my relationship with Nacho, it is that complicated systems are my joie de vivre.
Jim Whittaker came of age in the 1960’s when the world was embarking on all sorts of new frontiers. We had only just reached space, and the world’s highest peaks were virtually unexplored. When he returned from Everest in 1963, astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, famously made a toast: “To Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest. And a chimpanzee didn’t do it before him!” A close friend to the Kennedys, he held Bobby Kennedy’s hand as he died and was a pallbearer at his funeral. He led the first American expedition to the summit of K2, and led the International Peace Climb—a joint Russian/American/Chinese expedition to Everest’s summit amid the tension of the Cold War. JFK called him a national hero.
Jim’s memoirs, which read like a Forrest Gump screenplay in which he finds himself entangled in a web of significant historical events, were written “in bursts, between watches at the helm and during our sometimes extended stays in the extraordinary places we’ve visited so far” while sailing around the world aboard S/V Impossible. But now the baton has been passed, and we will venture to do our best not to sully the writing desk of one of America’s great explorers and storytellers.
Near the end of his book, Whittaker talks about our boat and the hard decision to let it go.
“Back in Port Townsend, we had to make some big adjustments. While enjoying the cruising life, we would joke that we were ‘sailing around in our children’s college education.’ The years blew by and now college was around the corner. Our lives would necessarily be rooted on land for the next few years, and Impossible was built to sail the oceans of the world. So we sold our beloved boat and bought a small house, being unable to afford both. The saying goes that a boat owner’s happiest time is the day he buys a boat, and the second happiest is the day he sells it. That was not the case for us. We shed tears when the new owners stepped aboard Impossible.”
And while we feel for the man, we are nevertheless overjoyed to have stumbled upon Impossible and made it our home and conduit to new adventures; to join the cast of an ongoing Forrest-Gumpian epic.