SULLIVAN, Maine — When Joseph Petterson was 23, he decided he wanted to go to Europe.
It sounds like a common-enough plan — but it was 1947, firmly in the aftermath of WWII and all its attendant devastation. European nations were struggling with conditions including food, heat and electricity shortages, and there were no such things as cheap student Eurail passes. Petterson, who had served in the merchant marines in the war, didn’t have a lot of extra cash on hand to make the arduous journey.
Then the University of Maine engineering graduate and Bangor native hit on a novel solution: He and his former English professor, Stanley Cressey, would purchase a sailboat and cross the Atlantic on the cheap. They found an old wooden yawl for sale in Blue Hill, fixed it up and the rest, said Petterson’s former wife, is history.
“It just should be an inspiration for people to go ahead and do what they dream,” Susanna Simpson, 85, said Sunday morning from her home in Sullivan. “They did it. I love it. And they bought this old wreck, which I thought was more fun, because nobody thought it would make it.”
She sat at the wooden kitchen table in front of a window that looked over stormy Sullivan Harbor and the looming snowy peaks of Mount Desert Island in the distance and looked through boxes that held the journals and photographs from Petterson and Cressey. A 1949 Portland newspaper clipping detailed the trip. Simpson said she dreams of somehow turning the wealth of material into a book that would detail the adventurous, can-do spirit of her former husband and the times. In part, she wants it so that her 12 grandchildren will understand what Petterson could, and did, do.
They divorced in the 1960s, and he is now living in Oregon, but has lost his memory, she said.
“The grandchildren don’t know what a special person he was,” Simpson said. “He’s been out of touch for awhile.”
Cressey, who served in the U.S. Air Force and spent time in Germany in a prisoner of war camp died in 1984, she said. She believes he left no heirs.
“You’ve got to read it,” Simpson said of the men’s journals of their sailing adventure.
They launched the 1912 yawl called the Seven Seas from Webber’s Cove in Blue Hill in July, 1947, divvying up the labor according to the abilities and interests of each. Petterson, who had previous sailing experience, was captain. Cressey was the cook and the navigator, using the stars to guide him east, and a born writer whose plainspoken words sing on the page.
“That first night watch sailing down the Maine coast was a terrific experience for me. And lonely too,” he wrote. “For four hours while Joe was below sleeping, I steered the yawl over choppy seas, with a bright moon spreading a white page across black waters. It was the first time that I had ever sailed at night and the only sounds were of the water swishing along the side of the hull and the wail of the wind in the rigging.”
Some days they made 100 miles in steady winds. They lost a halyard in August in rough squall, and Cressey climbed the mast to replace it, “hanging on for dear life” while the Seven Seas seemed to try to buck him off.
And although even the prior owner of the Seven Seas doubted their ability to make it to Europe, by October, they had sighted the coast.
“At noon on the eighth the pink cliffs of Portugal hove into sight, and we just stared at them spellbound,” Cressey wrote.
Though the journey did not include momentous events like shark attacks or storm capsizes, Cressey did break an arm on the way, Simpson said.
“It is not the sort of voyage that I would recommend to increase one’s life span, but I wouldn’t have missed those adventures for anything,” he wrote in his account of the voyage.
Cressey did try to have the account published in various magazines, but was turned down on “humanitarian grounds.” Editors told him that publication of such an experience would be “liable to encourage other novices to take even greater chances with unsound boats,” he wrote.
The two men stayed the winter in Paris. Cressey found work and Petterson met Simpson and the two fell in love. The following spring, he sailed the yawl home by himself while Simpson took the Queen Elizabeth II, keeping a close watch for a small sailboat somewhere in the Atlantic, far below the cruise ship.
Petterson’s own accounts of his journeys seem to focus on the food that he ate from his store of canned goods. He didn’t write about the time he had jumped off her in a calm sea to go swimming, but when the wind suddenly picked up, found himself watching his boat start sailing away without him. It took him several tries to get back on the escaping Seven Seas, Simpson said.
“He was very steady. Nothing bothered him,” she said of her former husband.
His attitude could teach something to today’s generation, she said.
“I’d like it as an example of what can be done if you make your mind up,” she said. “An example for the young.”