If you spend any time at all around sailors you’ll hear the proverb, “One hand for yourself, and one for the ship.”
But what if you only have one hand?
“Take it slow, and use a lot of duct tape,” answers Dustin Reynolds, a 41-year-old double amputee currently more than halfway through a solo circumnavigation of the world. Also, he adds with a laugh: “Don’t listen to the old guys at the bar, because they’ll tell you a million reasons why you shouldn’t go.”
That wasn’t a message Reynolds wanted to hear as he rebuilt his life after a drunk driver swerved into his lane early one Saturday morning on the big island of Hawaii. The impact knocked Reynolds off his motorcycle, crushed his left leg and sheared his left arm off at the shoulder.
When Reynolds came to, he thought that he’d avoided the oncoming truck. Then he tried to remove his helmet. “I couldn’t figure out why my other hand wasn’t helping,” he recalls. “I reached over and I grabbed this wet bloody stump, and that’s when I realized what happened.”
He yelled for help, but there was no one at the scene. The truck that hit him had rolled another 600 yards down the road and into a ditch. Reynolds reached for his phone, keyed 9-1-1—and hesitated.
“I just started thinking about the challenges that are coming up, and I questioned whether I really actually wanted to hit send on the phone,” he says. “I wasn’t really in any pain, but I had this realization of what happened and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to still live as a handicapped person, a disabled person.
“This whole thought process probably took 30 seconds, and then I hit send.”
In the hospital, doctors hardly knew where to start. Reynolds’ internal bleeding was so extensive that a CT scan couldn’t determine where it was coming from. A doctor told him his chances of survival were slim, and gave him a choice. “He told me, ‘Do you want to spend your last few hours with your friends or do you want to attempt to go in for surgery?’” Reynolds says. “And I told him, ‘I made this decision when I called you guys. I’m going to live.’”
He was released from the hospital 17 days later, minus his left arm and left leg below the knee. He couldn’t work for three years, and the portion of his medical bills his insurance didn’t cover amounted to more than $440,000. Around the time Reynolds’ own insurance company sued him into bankruptcy (Blue Shield, if you’re wondering) he stumbled across the website of the Joshua Slocum Society.
“It was all people who set records sailing around the world by themselves,” he says. “I thought, ‘There’s no double amputee on that list. I’m just gonna go do that. So I sold my two businesses and I bought a 46-year-old sailboat for $12,000.”
Reynolds didn’t know how to sail. He didn’t even know anyone who knew how to sail. He learned from YouTube and books, spent a month sailing around Hawaii and then set off to become the first double amputee to sail alone around the world.
He didn’t have a long-range radio, satellite phone or weather reports. When his motor quit in Fiji he sailed without it for a year. He was boarded in the Solomons, nearly dismasted in Indonesia, becalmed in Sumatra. In Thailand he finally sold the 46-year-old boat, put out a GoFundMe and bought a 34-year-old boat. He sailed it across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic. We spoke to him last week just after he dropped the hook in Bequia in the southern Caribbean, about three-quarters of the way around the world from Hawaii.
Adventure Journal: Twelve grand is a bargain for an oceangoing sailboat. Tell me about Rudis.
Dustin Reynolds: It was a 1968 Alberg 35, and the person I bought it from had just done a seven-year circumnavigation on it. It’s a really good seaworthy boat, but he ran out of money and didn’t maintain it that well. The very first time I lifted the mainsail, it ripped in half.
I spent a year working on it and the boat actually performed really well until I got to Fiji. Then it just started getting engine and transmission problems, so I ended up sailing through three countries with no engine.
You started the trip without any long-range communications. That’s pretty rare for anyone, let alone an inexperienced sailor in a $12,000 boat.
I did have an EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Rescue Beacon], so if I sank the boat and ended up in the life raft somebody would know. But once I left Hawaii I had no two-way communications and no weather reports. It wasn’t until I got to Fiji that I did a yacht delivery and the owner of the boat bought me a Garmin InReach, and that’s what I use now for my communication. I get weather reports off of that, 160 characters at a time.
Fiji is also where your engine went out. So you went from sailing without communications gear to sailing without an engine. How did that change your approach?
I was never worried if the motor went out, because I knew I could still sail. But then I left Indonesia four times and got towed back in three. The third time out of Bali, my forestay came down and if there was more than five knots of wind I could have easily been dismasted. That was the first time I really got spooked because my engine wasn’t working.
I wanted to stop in Borneo and go see the orangutans and then go across the Singapore Strait and Malacca Strait. But without an engine I didn’t want to risk it. The Singapore Strait is one of the busiest shipping channels of the world and I didn’t want to play Frogger with no engine. So I went out to Java and all the way around Sumatra to Malaysia. It took me 24 days to go 900 miles. I got becalmed in the South Java Sea for 12 days.
Most sailors these days wouldn’t dream of sailing that way, and here you are doing it with one arm and one leg.
Yeah. I mean, a lot of that was finances. I didn’t have enough money to buy all that stuff. But overall the boat was safe. I mean, somebody sunk it but it wasn’t me [laughs].
Was that after you sold it?
Yes, and it was pure negligence on his behalf. The chances of me going down were almost zero.
The old sailor’s mantra is one hand for yourself, and one for the ship. How do you manage with just one hand to go around?
I tether myself whenever I leave the cockpit. Other than that, I just use my teeth as my other hand. Things I have to do, I’ll use my teeth or my toes to try to make things work. People are always asking questions like, what’s the most difficult thing? There’s nothing really specific. I mean, my oil filter would be a lot easier to change if I had a left hand.
You must have had a few close calls.
I got boarded in the Solomon Islands. People came on board at night trying to steal stuff off the boat, and I was able to scare them off. I just put a spotlight on them and told them I have a gun. I don’t have a gun.
I was up all night keeping watch, and then my engine wasn’t working so I had to wait until about 10 in the morning to sail off the anchor because I had to wait till I got enough solar power to use the anchor puller. So I sail off the anchor and I’m tacking all day trying to get out of the lagoon, and it starts getting dark. And I didn’t make it. So I had to turn around and sail back to where I got boarded and then try to do it again the next day. It made me nervous because I just told these guys I have a gun, which would be quite valuable for them to come back for. And then what am I going to say? ‘No, just kidding. I don’t have a gun.’
What about weather? You can’t sail three-quarters of the way around the world without dealing with weather, can you?
I had one storm in particular going into American Samoa. It’s something that wouldn’t hit me today, because now I have weather prediction and I know more. When the trade winds die that normally means a storm is coming. But I didn’t know that at the time so I just waited for the wind to come back. I was only about 100 miles from American Samoa and this was before my motor went out, so I could have just motored in, but I was in no hurry and just sat out there waiting and then got hit by the storm.
I was out there weathering the storm for two days. At first I put a drogue out and just let the boat drift, but it was pushing me toward land, so I had to get the drogue back in and put the storm jib up to sail away from the island. That was one of the more difficult things I think I’ve ever done.
You’re describing a style of sailing that most people would dismiss as too risky, even with a crew of able-bodied sailors. You’re doing it single-handed—literally, I guess, with one hand, one leg, no motor and minimal communications gear. Did your accident change the amount of risk you’re willing to accept?
To be honest, when I started the trip was the only thing that I had. I’d sold my businesses, and with the amount of money that I was making off Social Security, I would just be in extreme poverty if I was living in the United States. So I really didn’t have anything to fall back on.
As far as taking risks, I don’t know. I was always pretty gutsy and a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I don’t really even like sailing that much, but I love the lifestyle, and even with my limited funds and now due to crowdfunding, I live pretty well.
Do you ever think where you’d be if the accident didn’t set you on this trajectory?
I’d probably still be cleaning carpets and fishing in Hawaii. I told my dad this right after the accident, because my dad was obviously angry, and I just wanted to calm him down. I told him that I’ll never know if this happening to me will be a good or bad thing in my life. My life has obviously changed, but doesn’t necessarily have to change for the worse.
I loved my life before. I loved living in Hawaii. I loved having my motorcycle and my fishing boat, and I enjoyed the jobs that I did. So I was happy then and I’m happy now. But this is a pretty special thing. I love this lifestyle, and there’s almost no way I would’ve committed to this with what I had before. And if I was doing this with both of my limbs, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the crowd funding boost that I got. And if I’d tried to do the crowd funding before I’d already sailed halfway around the world for two years, it probably wouldn’t have done well either.
Tell me about the GoFundMe campaign.
At first I resisted the idea because I don’t like asking for help. I’m a little bit prideful in that way, I guess. But it was overwhelming the amount of support that came through, and people’s personal messages that came along with it was really, really special. About 90 percent of the money that came in was either someone I knew directly or one of their friends.
I thought about this too at the time of my accident. When you get knocked down that hard—to actually need help, and get it, in that sort of magnitude—is something that not a lot of people will ever experience that in their lifetime. It’s something completely unique and special. It was very humbling.
I read on your website, The Single-Handed Sailor, that when you first realized you’d lost your arm you weren’t sure whether you wanted to call 9-1-1.
I don’t remember getting hit, and so when I woke up it didn’t register that the truck actually hit me. I thought that I avoided him. And then when I realized that my arm was gone, I was like, ‘Oh, crap, the truck hit me.’ I just screamed for help a few times and there was no one there. The guy drove into a ditch. So, at that point, I pushed myself out of the road and I got my phone out of my pocket and . . . I started thinking about it.
I dialed 9-1-1 and right before I hit send, I was like, wait a minute. What am I doing? You know, my arm’s gone and I can’t stand. I just started thinking about the challenges that are coming up. And yeah, I questioned whether I really actually wanted to hit send on the phone. I wasn’t really in any pain, but I had this realization of what happened, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to still live as a handicapped person, a disabled person.
You’re not just alive—you’re really living.
Yeah, you know I turned 40 when I was in Sri Lanka. And from there I stopped in Chagos and then Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa, where I went around the Cape of Good Hope. Then I flew to Chile to crew on a boat to Antarctica and Cape Horn on the way back. I sailed across the Atlantic and turned 41 on Ascension Island. More people go to space than to Ascension and Chagos, and I knocked two of them off the list in one year, plus the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Horn and Antarctica. It was the best year of my life. I got to see so many amazing things just in one year and all of them because of sailing.
I’ll finish the circumnavigation and keep sailing. I’m working on a book, and if I can get a good book deal I’d like to get a steel boat and sail the Northwest Passage. I’d like to circumnavigate the Americas, go from Hawaii around Cape Horn, then come up the east side of South America and through the Northwest Passage and back down to Alaska.