Community Health & Wellness Sports

Senior sailor seeks to circle the globe — again

Posted on February 8th, 2024 By: Chapin Day

Sailor Jack van Ommen turns 87 on Feb. 28.

A former resident, he lists Gig Harbor as his home port, although he hasn’t been around here much in recent years and probably won’t be here for his birthday.

He’s sailed around the world in two 30-foot sailboats, finishing just after turning 80.

He wants to do it again on a voyage into the record books. During a recent holiday visit to a daughter’s home in Federal Way, he outlined his goal to Gig Harbor Now.

Jack van Ommen visits the lighthouse on the spit at the entrance to Gig Harbor. Photo by Chapin Day

Back by 90

“I want to become the oldest man ever to sail alone around the world,” he says, setting off in the not-to-distant future and returning after his 90th birthday.

All he needs now is a proper boat, sustaining income and, crucially, time. He seems certain that all three will materialize. They have in the past.

“God seems to take care of me,” he once told a reporter after a boating mishap, “…I have no fear of death.”

But even he, a self-confident optimist buoyed by his faith, admits, “It’s a bit of dream.”

Survivor of three shipwrecks

His dreams have foundered before.

He’s survived at least three shipwrecks, including the sinking his plywood-hulled, kit-built Naja 30s he named (pun lovers note) Fleetwood and Fleetwood II.

He’s survived bankruptcy, three marriages and an equal number of divorces.

He’s survived the loss of one of his five children.

At present, his only boat, Fleetwood III, is in his homeland, the Netherlands. In a uncharacteristic burst of salty language, he describes that boat, a Waarschip 30, as “a piece of crap.”

Jack van Ommen gestures toward a slip at Arabella’s Landing in Gig Harbor where he lived aboard Fleetwood II before leaving in 2016 to sail to Florida to complete his sail around the world. Photo by Chapin Day

Similar, not identical, in design and construction to the Naja 30 boats, he discovered too late that the Waarschip was riddled with deck leaks and dry rot.  Even repaired, it would be unsuitable for the voyage he’s planning.  Moreover, it could be a key piece of evidence in a possible Dutch courtroom squabble with the fellow who sold it to him in 2022.

“I got suckered,” van Ommen wrote in his voluminous blog.

Prolific writer

That raises another thing to know about van Ommen. He’s a prolific blogger, boat log keeper and book writer. He’s on Facebook where, tongue jammed into a weather-warn cheek, he lists his home as “Timbuktu, Tomboucktou, Mali.”

If you choose to do a deep dive into his ocean of words, here are a just few of the other things he will tell you about himself in writings and conversation.

You will learn detailed and often engaging accounts of dozens of countries and hundreds of ports and people he has encountered along the tens of thousands of nautical miles he has logged.

You will learn of his abundant gratitude to family, friends, strangers, sailing magazine editors, and others who have pitched in to help him thrive or even jumped in to save his life.

You will learn of his family’s struggles during and in the wake of the World War II Nazi takeover of the Netherlands.

You will learn of his interest in churches in every part of the world.  You’ll learn that he loves to sing, particularly in choirs, including, at times, Saint Nicholas Church in Gig Harbor.

You will learn that he’s a skier. (He met two of his three ex-wives on ski lifts.) You will learn that he’s a photographer with a good eye.  You will learn of his deep religious beliefs, among other things, a comfort fending off episodes of fear and loneliness on long ocean passages.

“I sail solo, but never alone,” he writes.

Jack van Ommen on the Main River in Germany in 2010. Photo courtesy Jack van Ommen

Had it all, lost it all

And you will learn a bit of his history.

Dutch born with a twin brother. Childhood during World War II, bouncing among schools and relatives. Late teens spent thumbing through Europe. On a technicality, excused from Dutch military draft.

Emigrated to U.S. in late 1950s. In southern California, an entry-level lumber yard job led to career and life-long interest in wood and wood products. Met and married first wife. Drafted into U.S. Army.

Sent to Vietnam in 1961, before most  Americans knew where it was. In 1962, joined by his wife in off-base Saigon apartment. Balanced being an enlisted supply clerk with married life and a continuing job lining up suppliers in Southeast Asia for his lumber boss in California.

Discharged from the Army in 1963. Moved to the Northwest. Adopted two children; fathered two more. Worked for Weyerhaeuser in the U.S. and Europe.  Later set up his own lumber products firm.

Built two houses in or near Gig Harbor, one in La Conner.  Along the way, married, fathered another child, divorced, married, divorced again. Made a million or more. Lost it. Business and personal bankruptcy by the year 2000.

Epiphany and self discovery

Settlements left him with little of value with one exception: his beloved “Fleetwood,” then out of the water in Gig Harbor and largely unattended.

Limping financially on scant and irregular sales commission jobs, he admits he even had trouble paying his rent.

His dollar drought eased markedly when, in 2002 at age 65, he began receiving monthly Social Security payments.  With that boost — and seeds of a cruising-life dream — he began paying attention to his boat and turning it into what would soon evolve into his home for years to come.

During his turn-of-the-century personal and professional crises, he says, a religious epiphany and a burst of self discovery led him to abandon his previous lifestyle of pursuing success measured by financial gain. He underwent a sea change, literally and figuratively.

Jack van Ommen and his daughter, Lisa, aboard Fleetwood II in Puget Sound in 2014. Photo by Shelia Schultz Murdue

Self-taught sailor

He was first introduced to sailing by an uncle in a 20-foot daysailer at age 12.  They sailed on a Dutch lake.  After that, he did some sailing but did not own a sailboat until the mid-1970s.

Then, with only his slight sailing experience and knowledge, he bought a Ranger 29 fiberglass sloop. Unable to find moorage near his South Sound residence, he leased land with a dock on Swinomish tribal lands at Shelter Bay, eventually adding a home to the property.

Commuting by car back and forth between the north and south and, often alone, he taught himself to sail.

By the end of the ’70s, his love of sailing, his interests in wood, and his appreciation of the success of the Gig Harbor-born Thunderbird wooden sloops, colluded.  They led him to order from England a kit to build a 30-foot plywood sailboat called a Naja 30.

He received it, started assembling it, and loved it.  Sensing a business opportunity, in 1980 ordered three more kits to sell.

Sailing solo

By 1982, he had enough confidence in his personal boat Fleetwood — and his abilities — to compete in a solo race from San Francisco Bay to the Hawaiian islands.

Over time, all three of the other kits sold and were built.  Of the four Najas he imported, the present whereabouts of two remains a mystery.

However, he certainly knows what happened to the other two Najas.  He was the solo skipper when each died at sea.

In 2013, his first smashed to bits on island cliffs during the night off the east coast of Spain, ending his first attempt at circumnavigating the globe.  That trip began in Gig Harbor in 2005.

In 2014, after his return from Europe to Gig Harbor, he bought another of the Najas from its then owner “for an advantageous price.”

The wreckage of Jack van Ommen’s first Fleetwood in a cove on a small island off of Spain’s east coast. Photo courtesy Jack van Ommen

A trip home

Restored as Fleetwood II, it became his home in Arabella’s Landing marina until 2016, when he set out from Puget Sound to complete his circumnavigation in by transiting the Panama Canal to travel east to Florida, crossing all the meridians he had missed on his earlier voyage.

In 2022, he lost Fleetwood II when it ground into a reef off a Cuban port, also at night, ending what he had announced to his blogging audience would be a trip “home” to the Northwest.

Atop his blog not long after the Cuba accident, his self-deprecating humor surfaced in the headline: “Confessions of a Geriatric Shipwrecker.”  In the blog, he called the loss “My third and last shipwreck.”

By his count, his second shipwreck, also at night, was in 2017 on a barrier island off the coast of Virginia, five years before the Cuban calamity.  A Coast Guardsman jumped from a chopper to save him from the Atlantic.

The badly damaged Fleetwood II was towed to a Virginia port and repaired during the following year and a half, allowing for van Ommen to resume voyaging along the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Coast and into the Caribbean until his ill-fated trip “home.”

Looking for a Naja

Where are the other Najas he imported?  One, bought by a Californian, van Commen has lost any trace of.  However, he has reason to believe the other remains somewhere in the Northwest, possibly in British Columbia.  A friend spotted it in storage near Sechelt, northwest of Vancouver, some years ago.  It once bore the name Soul Fisher.

Can you help find it?  He hopes that someone will discover it soon and let him know so he can consider its condition and potential as his next home and craft for his planned circumnavigation.

About that plan: It’s part of a bigger plan he laid out in 2022 for living aboard for the next 15 years. He says prefers a home afloat rather than ashore.

“It’s affordable housing,” he tells our reporter, “and you can’t beat the waterfront view.” A wide, winning smile flashes across his handsome face, the sort of expression that doubtless helped him create instant friends and gain oft-needed assistance here and across the world after he adopted his self-described “vagabond” ways.

Jack van Ommen in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 2006. Photo courtesy Jack van Ommen

Assuming he finds the right boat at the right price, his financial situation is somewhat rosier now than when he set off on his first circumnavigation attempt.  Then, at age 68, he says he had just his boat, $150 in a checking account, and his Social Security income.

Pursuing his dream at any age

In regard to his age and his fitness, he tells Gig Harbor Now, “Physically, I’m up to it,” a claim backed by his sturdy build and a firm, strong handshake as our reporter left.

In an introduction to his book, “SoloMan, Alone at sea with God and Social Security,” van  Ommen writes of wanting to inspire others “to realize that we are never too old or too poor to pursue a dream.”

Why, for a man who so obviously enjoys people, a solo dream at sea?

“To be totally free to set my own schedule,” a preference he honed and enjoyed in his teen hitchhiking years.

That preference manifested itself in his business life as an aversion to meetings and team efforts.  Whatever the task, he says, “I was convinced that I could it better by myself.”

Defining ‘circumnavigation’

What about his dream of setting a new circumnavigation record at age 90?

In the sailing world, as in other sports, that’s where it gets a bit sticky. Who is to judge? By what rules? There are national and international organizations monitoring and promoting sailing competitions, but their goals and standards differ.  Some honor circumnavigation feats, some don’t.  Some define circumnavigation differently than others.  Some don’t want to encourage hazardous voyages by sailors considered too young or too old.

In a way, van Ommen has set his own goal, creating his own challenge.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists an Australian, Bill Hatfield as the Oldest Solo Circumnavigator.  Hatfield was 81 years, 39 days old on Feb. 22, 2020, when he finished his trip in 295 days and satisfied all the Guinness rules.

But van Ommen, who admiringly follows the achievements of other solo sailors, credits another  fellow who claims to have done a circumnavigation at age 89 without Guinness recognizing it.

Setting his own bar

The heck with Guinness.  That 89-year-old’s trip is the bar van Ommen has set for himself to best. That’s why he aims to finish after his 90th birthday in hopes that Guinness, or someone, will notice.

Van Ommen was honored in 2020 by the UK-based Ocean Cruising Club with an award recognizing “a noteworthy singlehanded voyage or series of voyages made in a vessel of 30 feet or less, or a contribution to the art of singlehanded ocean sailing.”

Fine words.  Came with a nice wooden plaque.

Appreciated.  But van Ommen wouldn’t mind a bit more.

“It’s about time,” he says in an exaggerated, mock offended voice, “that I get some respect for bungling my way around the globe.”

Then there’s that smile again.

Fair winds, Jack.

And Happy Birthday!