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His dream sank, so now what?

The Newport Beach sailor whose dramatic rescue ended his globe-circling quest is back to square one.

January 15, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

With each swimming pool Ken Barnes Jr. scrubbed, a worry inside him grew that he would someday die having never truly lived.

After cleaning more than 75,000 pools over two decades, Barnes, 46, used the money from the sale of his business and Newport Beach house to escape his midlife doldrums with the help of a 44-foot ketch. In October, he sailed out of Long Beach Harbor for what he planned to be a nonstop solo voyage around the world.

At sea, Barnes' obsession about never experiencing life to its fullest was slowly torn away by the wind, the cold and the roar of the ocean as he climbed the mast of his boat, inch by inch, to cut the sail during a ferocious Pacific storm that pitched his boat 60 degrees from port to starboard and back again.

"I'm alive," he thought.

Days later, a monstrous wave flipped his boat 360 degrees, ripped off his two masts and busted two hatches, allowing water to rush inside.

Now he faced a choice.

He stared at the bright-yellow cube in his trashed cabin, which was slowly filling with water. He had to decide whether to activate the distress beacon to summon rescuers to his aid 500 miles off Chile or go down with the boat that would always hold his dream.

"I can pull that pin and accept all this help from everybody when that is exactly what I don't want, and I don't [care] whether I make it through this or not," Barnes remembers thinking. "But, damn it, I got a family. At this point, I can't think of myself anymore."

He pulled the pin and was rescued three days later by a Chilean fishing trawler. When he finally folded himself into one of the crew's tightly packed bunks, he stared at the next bunk a foot away and wondered what, if anything, had been accomplished by wagering his entire fortune on the trip.

*

Barnes decided a decade ago to plan a solo trip around the world, at first secretly. He was in his mid-30s, married and the father of three young children. By 2006, he thought, he would have the money, and his son and two daughters would be in their 20s. A late-October departure would allow him to reach Cape Horn -- the voyage's gravest challenge -- during the warmest and calmest weather.

Over the years, the dream slowly came together. In 2001, he cashed in on the beginnings of the latest real estate boom and sold his house. Last year, he sold the one-man pool business that he had built over 20 years.

"I had to jump off the merry-go-round," Barnes said.

"Every single day, you get up to go to work ... and the next thing you know, you're 70 years old and you look back and you go, 'How come I never got off that merry-go-round? How come I never lived life?' "

The sales left him with no bills and $250,000 to buy and outfit the vessel that would carry him around the world.

Twice a day, every day, he searched websites for the right boat. He traveled to Rhode Island, San Francisco and around the Southland. He considered building his dream boat himself before finally finding a 44-foot ketch in Georgia.

Named Hummingbird, the boat had been designed for long solo voyages, but the two previous owners had seen their dream to circle the world thwarted by family illness.

Barnes bought the vessel primarily for its steel hull, a feature that was difficult to find and one he believed was essential for the waters around Cape Horn, where harsh weather, icebergs and other perils could break weaker material.

He rechristened the boat Privateer to match his mission. "It was private. It was what I wanted to do. I'm doing it myself. I'm paying for it myself," Barnes said.

He sailed away Oct. 28, as he had planned a decade before, under a radiant sky from the same Long Beach Harbor where he first learned to sail on a small dinghy as an 8-year-old. He planned to return to the harbor in about seven months. He had never sailed alone for more than a week.

When he hit the open sea, Barnes finally started to feel like he was living his dream. He read stacks of true crime and mystery books. He sat doing little for hours. Never had he felt more free.

It got even better as the boat slid farther south, and the computer showed increasingly foul weather. As he pressed forward, he learned to change to smaller sails or take them down altogether until the weather passed. He made errors by sometimes choosing the wrong combination of sails and slowing his progress, but he felt he was quickly learning to stay outside the worst of the storms.

His retreat was the cabin, built to be an impenetrable refuge. There, he celebrated Thanksgiving by eating a can of nuts.

As he reached the waters off South America, the weather cooled, sometimes dipping below freezing. The steel-hulled boat became an oversized ice box. Barnes reveled in the extremes that most people never experience in life.

"You don't know hot until you know what cold is; you don't know one extreme until you know the other," Barnes said. "You realize, 'I'm in here! I'm seeing things most people don't see!' "

By Christmas, the storms became more frequent, and Barnes embraced them.

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