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Jewish sailor Bill Pinkney, first Black person to circle the globe solo, dies at 87

JTA — Captain Willian “Bill” Pinkney, a Jewish sailor who became the first African American to sail around the world solo, died Thursday. He was 87 and had suffered a fall.

Starting in 1990, the Chicagoan’s 22-month, 27,000-mile journey aboard a 47-foot cutter captivated thousands of schoolchildren who followed his trip via an educational television channel. The footage was used in an award-winning documentary, “The Incredible Voyage of Bill Pinkney,” that aired on the Disney Channel, National Geographic and PBS stations.

The former cosmetics executive also wrote a children’s book in 1994, “Captain Bill Pinkney’s Journey.”

A very different journey also captivated readers in 2019, when Pinkney and his former wife, Ina Pinkney, were featured in a New York Times photo essay about their marriage and extremely amicable divorce. Bill, who grew up poor on Chicago’s South Side, and Ina, who grew up Jewish in Brooklyn and Long Island, married in 1965. It was his second marriage.

Ina was 21 years old when she met Bill at a coffee place in Greenwich Village. “As soon as I spotted him across the crowded room, I said to my friend, ‘Susan, I’m going to marry him,’” Ina told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Friday. “And I sat down and I talked to him for a little bit, and we went out and we had something to eat. And that was it. It was a done deal for me. And what even helped more is that he was Jewish.”

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Yet although Bill considered himself Jewish starting in childhood and converted to Judaism as an adult, her parents broke off contact with the couple and none of her relatives attended the wedding.

According to Ina, Bill was 12 years old when he came home from church with his mother, who divorced his father when Bill was six. “He said, ‘I can’t go there anymore.’” When his mother asked why, Bill explained, “Because all I hear about is that everything gets better after you die. It can’t be that way.” His mother encouraged him to discover something he could believe in, and after a visit to the library, the preteen announced, “I’m Jewish.”

Screen capture from video of Bill Pinkney during his circumnavigation sail, 1990-1991. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

When Ina, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, and Bill were engaged, Bill decided to go through a formal conversion, choosing the Hebrew name “Barak ben Avraham Avinu.” When Ina asked why he felt he needed a formal conversion, Bill explained, “Because without this I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery next to you.” Ina said that, late in life, Bill would regularly Zoom into services held at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and she would occasionally join him online.

The two were married for 36 years. The couple went their separate ways in 2001, when Bill decided to continue to pursue his sailing dreams and Ina her career as a celebrity baker and chef in Chicago.

“My life was on the sea, hers was on the land,” Bill told the New York Times in 2019. According to Ina, Bill would say, “If it doesn’t have a lobby, it would never be her hobby” – that is, she preferred a hotel or a cruise ship over the sail boats he favored. Ina used saltier language to describe how bored she felt on the water.

He later married Migdalia Vachier Pinkney. She survives him, along with his sister, Naomi Pinkney, as do a daughter from his first marriage and two grandchildren.

William Pinkney was born September 15, 1935, in Chicago. After serving eight years in the Navy, he became a makeup artist and designed a line of women’s cosmetics, eventually working as a marketing manager for Revlon and director of cosmetics marketing for Johnson Products Company. He became director of marketing for the Chicago Department of Human Services in 1980, according to the History Makers.

Pinkney first learned how to sail small cargo skiffs while stationed in Puerto Rico with the Navy in the 1950s. He began sailing in earnest on Lake Michigan when working in Chicago.

Pinkney also served, starting in 2000, as the first captain of the reconstructed Amistad, the Spanish schooner whose crew was killed in a revolt by enslaved Africans in 1839. The reconstruction of the ship was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, “Amistad,” about the revolt; as captain, Pinkney took schoolteachers to Africa on a route tracing the Middle Passage crossing by which enslaved Africans were taken from Senegal to the Americas.

In recent years he ran a charter boat business in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

Pinkney was also a senior advisor for National Geographic. In 2021, he was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame.

Discussing his round-the-world voyage on a boating website, Pinkney said that one of the highlights was sailing past South Africa two weeks after Nelson Mandela had been released after 27 years behind bars. “I sailed past Robben Island, where he’d been imprisoned, flying a red, black, and green spinnaker, the colors of the African liberation movement,” said Pinkney. “As an afterthought, I should’ve put a big yellow Star of David on there as well [laughing], because I’m Jewish.”