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Seabird Lands Back In Oriental
Bernie "I'm Not a Sailor" Harberts Completes Circumnavigation
June 1, 2003

On Thursday afternoon a tree farmer and former steeplechase rider from Statesville sailed in to the harbor in Oriental and completed a very big circle he began in November of 1998 in Oriental.

Bernie Harberts had circumnavigated the globe. Around 12:30 Thursday, he tied up at the Oriental Marina, hugged his mother and rest of his family and then, as a gentle rain fell, leaned against the pulpit of his boat and cried.

Bernie hugs Mom, embraces Aunt, Mom & Dad….and the family dog too.

An emotional moment

Harberts figures that in the last 4-1/2 years he’s put about 24,000 miles under the keel of his 34 foot Colvin steel cutter.

And yet Bernie says, “I’m not a sailor.”

“I’m a damn farmer,” he laughs, and explains, “I just travel from land to land by boat.”

Those lands include St. Thomas, Colombia, French Polynesia, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Bernie says he’s working on a map of the world showing the various places where he “chucked over the fridge, and radios” and other boat parts and things he said he no longer needed and learned to live without.

Along the way he did not lose his tendency toward seasickness.

But he did return to NC with a New Zealand variation on a NC accent. And a greater appreciation for what a luxury time can be.

A Lake Norman Start
Bernie, who celebrated his 35th birthday in South Africa in January, says he got the idea of sailing around the world 15-20 years ago. He built small boats while he was working as a steeplechase rider and trying to keep his weight down; sitting around and watching TV was not an option, he says, so he set about building a boat in a barn, finding the hayloft a perfect place for laying out sails.

About 6 years ago, his steeplechase days behind and working a job in sales, Bernie bought a house on Lake Norman near Charlotte and within a day or two of moving in, he saw Sea Bird, “just sitting in the muddy water, semi-abandoned.” He decided at that moment that this is the boat he would take around the world.


Eighteen months later, he quit his job.

Bernie in the salon of "Sea Bird"

He says he took all his work pants and made shorts out of them. But, he laughs that he was new to hemming and all the pockets stuck out below. “So I went to the Salvation Army and bought some decent shorts.”

Meanwhile, he’d outfitted Sea Bird – he kept the name and the hailing port, Doolie, NC. He added a few touches of home. A gas tank was cut up, windows added and affixed to the companionway hatch so he would look out from below without getting wet. And a tractor seat that he found in a shed at the house on Lake Norman was lashed to the pulpit. A reminder of the farm, it also had a use. “What’s good about the tractor seat,” Bernie says, ‘is that it’s in FRONT of all the spray, so when you’re bashing to weather, it’s one of only two dry places,” on deck. (The other being the more difficult perch at the top of the mast.) “It’s perfectly dry, I highly recommend it. … give or take a gale.”

The tractor seat in the bow pulpit, and Bernie shows how it’s used…

On November 15th, 1998 Bernie took off from Oriental, and began to circle the globe.

Preparing to take that first passage out to sea can be daunting and it was for Bernie, when, a few days into his trip, he was in Beaufort. “I was feeling… Lord, just as nervous as could be.” He walked along the town docks, looking out at the boats from all over that were there.

Bernie says one boat in particular was an inspiration… and gave him yet another goal for his trip. “There was a little steel boat down there and it was from Whangerei, New Zealand. I thought, ‘My God, if he can get up here.. a little Kiwi doing that…I should be able to go down there.’”

After that, New Zealand became a destination. He ended up spending a year and a half on New Zealand’s north side, working with herders, traveling by thumb, and absorbing some of the accent.

Good Luck Being Unlucky

About ten days out of Beaufort on the way to St. Thomas, his engine — “this old hand-cranked Volvo… a great big old bloody thing ” — died after a line got caught in the prop and shot the transmission. “I needed a $10,000 engine and didn’t have a job,” Bernie says. He notes that welders and nurses are the kings of wage-earning ‘out there’ among cruisers, and he was not a welder or a nurse.

“I was a horse trainer in the Caribbean”

"Sea Bird" under sail – photo by Deni McIntyre

But he emphasizes, “I’ve had really good luck being unlucky. It’s the greatest thing.”

A water taxi driver in St. Thomas, hearing his story “said he knew some girl with a crazy horse on St. Thomas. So I spent a little time with this horse, then started with some more people there in stables. It snowballed.” Soon, he was giving clinics, judging horseshows, arranging for cruise ships to buy and train horses for passengers who came to the islands.

Buying and training horses became his on and off job over the next few years. “It was a riot, “ Bernie laughs noting that he would continue forward with his circumnavigation, leave the boat in a place, such as Grenada, Colombia, Tahiti and then “backtrack and fly over everything I’d sailed, just to train horses.”

“It is an odd way to finance a trip” he says, but in keeping with that idea of being lucky at being unlucky: “The moral of this is if I hadn’t run over that damn rope, I’d have missed that whole thing, that whole experience, those people, and not gotten any of those stories.”

When the TownDock crew got to the harbor Thursday we found 4 members of the media already assembled. We’re used to seeing the Pamlico News at events – but this was the Winston-Salem Journal plus two freelance photojournalists. They had cameras with huge lenses – rather more impressive than our Kodak. We were intimidated by those big lenses.

We were asked “Do people complete circumnavigations here often?”

This was our chance to intimidate them with our salty nautical knowledge.

"All the time" we replied with confidence…"but we’ve never seen a camera that big before."

Proving they shared our sense of humor, the "Oriental press corps" posed for a photo we won’t often see at the harbor – click here.


Tuna jerky, anyone??

On the day he returned to Oriental and completed his circumnavigation of the globe, Bernie Harberts reached in to the storage area behind the settee on Sea Bird, and pulled out a plastic container half filled with yellowy-brown strips.

This is what remained of the yellow-fin tuna he caught several weeks earlier north of St. Thomas.

Bernie shows off his Tuna Jerky supply

“I live off of rice and rain.” Bernie says, “and whatever I can catch with beer cans and ramen noodle wrappers. But I don’t have a fridge, so I dry it and make yellowtail jerky or dolphin jerky.”

How to Make Tuna Jerky
First, Get A Fender Board

Once he catches dolphin or tuna, Bernie filets it on a fender board, and cuts it in to strips a foot long, an inch wide, and a half inch thick. Then, he laps it over a line on deck, and dries it for a day or two in the sun.

“I eat it off the line. It’s great!”

Bernie is equally enthusiastic about re-hydrating the yellowtail jerky with rice in a pressure cooker. “It’s neat cooking yellowtail jerky on a Primus stove,” which he does on the floor of his boat. “You’ve gotta simplify these things,” he says, “cos no one else is cooking.”

The Primus stove

Not As Spartan As It May Seem
Pass the Wasabi


Bernie removes one of the strips of tuna jerky, taps it against the edge of the container and considers the other meals he had from the same fish.

“It was sushi,” he notes, “This stuff was absolute prime! So soft when you sliced it.”

“God knows what it would have been worth in New York! I could have financed five circumnavigations when I caught it!”

Instead, he ate it.

“I carry a little thing of wasabi, so if I catch it at lunch, I’ll eat raw fish that evening and then cook up a few big steaks to last for days. And I’ll dry the rest.”

Two things separate Bernie from those who fish for sport. “I don’t try to catch big fish cos it’s kind of a waste.” Five to twenty pounders suit him.

Nor does he use fancy lures. The fish now in the plastic container on board Sea Bird met its end by way of a fatal curiosity about a KitKat candy bar wrapper. Bernie explains that a KitKat wrapper is ideal as a lure because it’s ‘really shiny on the inside and red on the outside.’ He says he cuts it so it has fringes, then “wraps it around “this plastic thing. You just chuck it over the side. And that’s dinner.”

Savoring A Good Book With the Jerky

Talk with Bernie Harberts for a while and that idea of simplifying life comes up often. But there were luxuries too. There was more than sushi – and jerky – to savor.

“I learned to read on this trip. ” As he says this, he is sitting across the cabin from a stuffed bookshelf that he had to build during the voyage. He says he set out with a lot of CD’s and tapes (U2, The Clash, Doc Watson, Library of Congress Bluegrass Recordings, Sara McLaughlin.) “Over time, though, books replaced music and I just enjoyed the silences in between.”

Pondering reading, the ships fruit supply overhead.

“I guess it came late in life,” he says of books. “I was the guy who read stuff that had to be read only when I couldn’t get the Cliff notes.” Over the past four and a half years, he’s been catching up. Traveling alone on the boat has allowed that. “That’s luxury. Just to be able to read."

“You need time to read. You need time to get the flavor of a sentence, and then say, ‘Ooh, I liked the way that tasted. I’m gonna read that again,’ and put the book down and just maybe lie there a little while and read it again. Sounds a little weird these days, I know, cos we’re all racing around with books on tape,”


Knights in White Shirts

Fashion Tips from Cervantes

One sentence in particular stands out. “I was so thrilled when I read Don Quixote, where somebody said, ‘Don Quixote, you need to go out with a white shirt. Every Knight Errant needs a white shirt.’ I just loved that sentence,” Bernie says. “It’s just lovely to read that.”

“And when I got to port I went to a Salvation Army and got three white shirts and I’ve been trying to wear light ones since!”

Aside from the sartorial habit, appreciating the power of words, the way ‘others have wrestled them to paper’ has stuck with him too “That’s what reading’s opened up for me. Maybe if I keep reading I’ll write better.”

(Bernie notes that he hasn’t liked everything he’s read. There was one book about a polo player and an Eastern European rider. “God, it was horrible,” he says, “but I read it all the way through.” You won’t find it on his shelf. “I threw it overboard.”)

He’s read a number of the 100 classic books recommended years earlier in college, and yes, Bernie has now even read “War and Peace”. Bernie says he tackled Tolstoy’s classic while stuck in the doldrums in the Atlantic a few months ago. To give an idea of how windless the conditions were, Bernie notes that he finished the book, “And I’m a slow reader.”

65 Days At Sea
Three Full Moons and the Moon As Timekeeper

He left South Africa in February and 65 days later arrived in St. Johns in the Caribbean. It was the longest single passage Bernie has made.
He had no outside contact. No radio, no satellite connections. He doesn’t think he would have been in the right frame of mind for such a long time at sea if he had tried it when he first took off 4-1/2 years ago.

“I didn’t take off my tie and go sail 65 days alone. It would have been tough because (back when he started out) I was so used to stimulus.” Here Bernie speaks rapidly as he runs down the list: “TV-newspaper-drive-a-car-shave-go-to-work-check-the-email-check-the-voicex-mail-go-to-lunch-run-run-run-run-run.”

But after four years at sea, he says, — and 120 days making other passages in the past year — his own clock had slowed to the point where he was “taking in one stimulus at a time.. and there were so few stimuli left. There were stars and waves and the moon. The moon was like my timekeeper. So it wasn’t a shock. I eased in to it.” He also says the boat was at a point where, systems simplified, it didn’t need a lot of attention.

Bernie shows us his "monocular"

“I slowed my life down enough to make it absolutely magnificent.”

“I was out for three full moons. That’s the magnificent part of it. Three full moons,” he repeats, “and not seeing land. “ He’s said he doesn’t think of himself as a sailor and thinks of boats as a way to get from one place to another. Yet that time out in the Atlantic was “the most content,” he almost whispers, “I think I ever was.”

Rebirth and Thin Skin

In his 65 days at sea, he says he lost all the calluses on his hands and feet and legs. And that’s not all. “I almost lost my voice. My hearing got really sensitive; I could hear dolphins a long way off in the water. You get sensitive to air pressure. If a low is coming you feel it.” Tuned that way, he says, “you can absorb the massive expanse and pulse of the universe.”

A little boat out at sea for that long, Bernie says, is like a womb.

You’re surrounded by salt water and the “boat protects you”. And then, when you reach land, he says, “you have to learn to walk again. It’s like this whole rebirth.”

He says his senses had become unclogged. The uncallused skin on the palms and on the bottoms of the feet became more sensitive than before. Still speaking in an awed tone, Bernie says that after going ashore he would, “step on a piece of wood and think ‘wow.. this is great wood.’ Or you walk down a gravel road and feel it under your feet.. your skin is so thin.”

“And that is kind of what appeals to me about the boat. In every country, I’m reborn. New ears, new smell, new sights, new skin. I can see things I hadn’t seen before. That’s the kick of sailing in a boat like this… you get to start over. You get a second, and a third and a fourth go at life.”

And so, what about that question of being alone with yourself for so long?

Bernie describes himself as “very self-contained… very comfortable being in solitude without being lonely. I’ve felt a lot more alone at the office Christmas party,” he says, “than I have after three moons in the ocean.”

The Gulf Stream By Cooking Timer

More practically speaking, he says, ‘sleep is the biggest challenge for single-handers” like himself. Bernie says that crossing the ocean he did not keep watches at night (even though he says his parents may think he got up every 15 minutes to look for ships.) “A week or ten days would go by without seeing a ship.”

But on crossing the busier traffic lanes in the Gulf Stream, he says he set a cooking timer to go off every fifteen to thirty minutes. “And I conditioned myself to not ever sleep through it. Whenever I heard the egg timer ding, my feet would have to hit the floor. “


Reaching Home

Bernie arrived in the Caribbean, at St. Johns, on April 23 and made it to Beaufort, NC a month later. On May 29th he returned to where he’d put the boat in the water.. at Oriental.

A light rain was falling. And so were some tears. After hugging his family Bernie, standing on the dock, wept over the pulpit of his boat. It was a cry of joy that came from having done something he had felt, “driven to do for 20 years and by God, here I was, after all the aloneness of being out. To be around people again, I think brought it out.”

Ten years ago, he says, he’d have pushed those tears back and hidden them. Now he calls it “a lovely, cathartic thing to let out.”

Next Up – Selling the Boat

Just about 24 hours after he arrived in Oriental, Bernie had moved his boat to the Oriental Harbor Marina. And he strung two “For Sale: Just Circumnavigated” signs on Sea Bird’s pulpit.

“That’s a hard thing to digest.”

In his circumnavigation he says, he met some ‘absolutely lovely women’ who for various reasons didn’t want to travel or couldn’t travel. Sea Bird, he says, “was the one woman who would travel with me. It’s been a great 4-1/2 years, we’ve had lots of adventures. We’ve run over shipwrecks, hit logs, run across ghost ships in the horse latitudes.”

All of which makes it difficult now for him to, as he puts it, ”turn around and say, ‘well honey … you gotta go.’ But he is.

“I need to take a break now.” Bernie says he plans to spend time with his family at their tree farm – and work on a house in Caldwell County. He doesn’t want to split time between his inland home and a boat on the coast. Not yet anyway. And being on land is important at the moment.

Bernie says he wants to “catch up a bit with the mainstream, come back to the base.”

Avoiding Eccentric Old Man in Old Boat Syndrome

That idea of a base is important. As much as he liked being in solitude, Bernie suggests that for travelers who go “winging off alone” there is a risk of going off in to “deep space. And I don’t want that to happen.”

Or, as he puts it more bluntly, “I don’t want to be an eccentric old man on an old boat, who can’t connect any more.” ( Asked about that he noted that he had seen one two days earlier. ) "I don’t want to become an eccentric old man… or even a 40 year old one!”

Chatting with boaters at the Town Dock

“One of the big things I‘ve learned out on my alone so long is, I really like people. People are fascinating,” he says emphatically. Being isolated on ocean passages for so long, he thinks may have made him “ thrown myself in twice as hard” when he would get to land and talk to people.

Traveling Many Miles For A Camel

On the day he returned to Oriental Bernie talked about visiting with a group of Aborigine men in Australia and trying to explain the distance he had traveled to get there. Lacking a piece of paper, a pack of cigarettes was brought out (though not as an illustration of the crop of Bernie’s home state) and opened up to draw upon. With only one of the men in the group having seen a compass, describing his boat travel was a challenge.

Bernie’s been doing a lot of describing. The Winston Salem Journal has published dozens of his dispatches sent along the way. Now, he wants to do a lot more of that. To write not only about the places and people he met and photographed on this trip but about travels in the future. He has taken to keeping a small note pad in his pocket.

ISO: Editor. Must Travel

Bernie is not planning another circumnavigation.. But he’d like to sail again to faraway places, some of the ones he missed this trip.

And in another departure, he says next time he goes out he doesn’t necessarily want to go by himself. Somewhere along the way on this trip, when discussing writing and photography with some other travelers, he says he hit a turning point. “I’d really love nothing more than to be able to travel and have a partner who’d be able to write and collaborate on projects like that.“ He laughs that his reasons may be self-serving. “It’s tough to edit yourself. It’s a pain in the ass!”

So, was that a Personal Ad ISO an Editor?

Bernie laughs. Yeah, he says, and he’d like that person to be a photographer too.

“I’ve lightened up”

It’s a good bet Sea Bird weighs less coming back than it did when Bernie left Oriental 4-1/2 years ago.

“I’ve lightened up.” He says. The fridge and radio are gone. The oven, over the side. The autopilot, he says, never made it out of Iredell County. The big wind generator did, but didn’t come back. Nor did the acetylene torch. Nor the radar. His grandmother’s Singer sewing machine “hit the water in the Bay of Islands,” New Zealand. For that one, Bernie says, “I’m definitely gonna burn.”

In the salon of "Sea Bird" – note the giraffe next to the heater.

And in their place, he’s not added much. He says he’s not a collector and didn’t stuff his boat with relics or a lot of things from places he visited. Down below on Sea Bird there isn’t much evidence that he and the boat have been around the world, other than the mola pinned to the varnished wood near a port light and the three-and-a-half foot tall wooden giraffe he got for three dollars off of a ‘scrap heap in South Africa’ which stands next to the heater.

The collection of music he began with is down to “one Gore Vidal tape and John Boy and Billy’s “RockNRollRadio”. Meanwhile, ‘The Bee Gee’s Greatest Hits’ wind indicators, he notes, “blew off the shrouds Good Hope way.”

“Sometimes silence is better.”

There is of course, the bigger collection of books than he set out with. Which is appropriate. What Bernie Harberts has brought back from the 4-1/2 year trip are stories, and a desire to wrestle them to paper.

So, why did Bernie Harberts start and end his circumnavigation in Oriental? He said he had been through Oriental years earlier with a plywood boat he built and he and his father had started another trip here. “And I just liked the name, Oriental. You sail around the world, you want to go to Oriental. You don’t want to go to.. “ Bernie chose his words “ I don’t’ want to put down Beaufort. But Oriental? They have a dragon in the pond! Have you seen that thing?” Local reporters on board Sea Bird cast a glance and Bernie asked, “Is it still there?”
Told that the dragon was last seen in the Duck Pond a few years ago, Bernie asked, “You do sill have the Croaker Festival???”
When one reporter suggested he might work toward bringing back the dragon, Bernie asked if he could judge the Croaker Queen contest instead.


Photos of the return of Bernie Harberts and "Sea Bird"

Bernie sets out the sails for a reach across the Neuse River Thursday to complete his circumnavigation. (photo by Deni McIntyre)

Homecoming celebration…

Bernie shows off a "global chart kit" – 6" inflatable globe

Following his arrival, Bernie toasts champagne at a a reception held at The Cartwright House

"Sea Bird" is now docked at the new Oriental Harbor Marina. Bernie plans to head back to the farm and will sell his Colvin 34 cutter. More info at yachtseabird.com

Posted Sunday June 1, 2003 by Keith N. Smith

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