Set as it is among photographs from Sharon Sites Adams’ travels and the stack of memoirs about them, the little blue bag doesn’t look like much. But when Adams describes the bag as the suitcase that accompanied her on global journeys, including a visit to a tribe of cannibals, you understand this is no mere sack.
Fifty-three years after Adams became the first woman to sail solo across the Pacific — spotting land on the same day she listened to Walter Cronkite broadcast news of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon – the 92-year-old can still mesmerize a crowd with her tales.
Adams, who wrote Pacific Lady: The First Woman to Sail Solo across the World’s Largest Ocean, paid a visit last month from her home in Portland to the Barbey Maritime Center in Astoria, a guest of the Astoria Yacht Club and the Columbia River Maritime Museum. It was a visit two years overdue, and her first since March 2020 when COVID-19 brought her presentations to a halt.
Her story is one of adventure, daring, endurance, and luck.
Born in Battle Ground, Wash., and raised in Central Oregon, Adams didn’t see the ocean until she was a 34-year-old widow working in a dental office in Southern California.
Though she was just a mile from the ocean, she’d never found reason to visit it.
“But all the patients coming into the office were talking about the new Marina del Rey,” Adams recalled. “It was the talk of Los Angeles. It was the talk of everywhere … and I couldn’t talk intelligently because I hadn’t been down there.”
So, in October 1964, instead of taking the turn toward home after church, Adams drove straight and got her first view of the Pacific. Sailing and navigation lessons followed and eight months later, amidst much fanfare, she set sail alone for Hawaii in her boat, Sea Sharp, a 25-foot Danish folkboat.
She encountered her first test when she hit a storm only two weeks into the trip. In her 2008 memoir she writes: “From the depths of the trenches, I looked up toward the next mountain of water, nearly as high as my mast…. Later, a wave lurched the boat and threw me against the coaming, stealing my wind. It hurt to cough or breathe, and I wondered if I cracked a rib. I looked up at a wall of water and saw a log aimed straight at me like a torpedo.… It could have killed me six different ways, but it flew right by.”
She awoke days later, unable to account for five days, not sure how long the storm had lasted or how long she’d slept.
Thirty-nine days after leaving Marina del Rey, she arrived in Hawaii with a wrist badly injured from a flare gun mishap and unable to walk unaided after so much time at sea on the small Sea Sharp. While crowds gathered to celebrate this new female celebrity, others were not as enthused. “A Honolulu paper quoted a prominent boater who called my voyage a silly stunt…” Another California paper called her “irresponsible.”
But Adams wasn’t deterred, embarking next on what was to be a 3-year world journey with three men, including one who planned to make a documentary. The mission failed through no fault of Adams’ – “Ladies, never go anywhere with three men” she said to much laughter at the Maritime Center – and Adams kept going. She signed on as a hand with a family on a 92-foot ketch in the South Pacific. When she learned about a tribe in the rain forest rumored to be cannibals and called the “pig people,” she packed her blue bag with enough food and water for six days and hiked into the forest.
“I found a man who could speak a little pidgin English and another man who made some grunting noises…,” she said. On the second day of hiking, they arrived at a clearing and the guide motioned Adams to stay put, then returned, shaking his head. He led them to another clearing and stopped again. Soon, she sensed she was being watched. It seemed they were alone, but she could feel eyes watching. As Adams stood waiting, one man stepped from the edge of the forest, and in time, another, then another, and soon she counted 37 men wearing not so much as a leaf. She smiled, but no one smiled back.
“One got very brave and he reached out and went down my arm…. It wasn’t long before I had 74 hands feeling everything. And I did not realize or even think about it until later. They weren’t feeling a woman. They were feeling clothes. They had never seen anyone wear clothes,” she said.
Four years after her solo trip from California to Hawaii, Adams announced her plans to solo from Japan to San Diego. She negotiated with a boat builder to build her a 31-foot craft “not too big, not too small, and with standing headroom and rigging for single-handing.” The boat, the Sea Sharp II, would be hers for four months, then she would return it to the builder. She also requested he modify the boat with a round bubble of Plexiglas. This was inspired by her frustration on the trip to Hawaii when the flat Plexiglas hatch cover limited her to looking straight up. “If I could stand in that bubble and see 360 degrees and assess all the rigging, I wouldn’t have to go outside to check that everything was as it should be.”
For the fabrication of the bubble, she turned to a company that made salad bowls. The bubble turned out even better than she hoped, but the head carpenter was none too happy about “gouging a wound into and sticking a plastic bandage over the middle of the wooden masterpiece.” Adams, however, got the bubble.
In May 1969, Adams again set out with great ceremony. It was to be more than two months alone at sea punctuated by broken parts, turbulent weather, and loneliness – at times nearly incapacitating.
“The doldrums could get a sailor. Self-destruction was less likely in a storm because something was always happening; there was always something to fight. But from the drudgery of a windless week or an eternity of gray days, you could go right out of your mind,” she recalled in her memoir.
When she wasn’t dealing with equipment problems, poor weather, or low spirits, she passed the time reading, writing notes, and recording her thoughts. She sewed a dress in her favorite color, pink, and celebrated her 39th birthday with a stovetop cake she fed to the gooney birds.
Seventy-four days, 17 hours, and 15 minutes after departing Japan, Adams sailed into the San Diego harbor, the first woman to “single hand” across the Pacific.
“Because of sailing, I have been around Cape Horn, I have 30,000 miles under sail,” Adams said. “I sailed across Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. I’ve been to 71 islands in the South Pacific and Japan twice and a whole bunch more and all because my car went straight on a Sunday afternoon, instead of turning left and going home.”