Single-handed sailor visits the Vineyard

Dustin Reynolds aims to be first double-amputee to circumnavigate the globe.

Dustin Reynolds will soon set sail on the last part of his journey to become the first double-amputee to circumnavigate the globe. — Lucas Thors

On an October night in 2008, 30-year-old Dustin Reynolds was hit by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle home after an outing with friends. He lost his left arm and leg, and barely escaped with his life. 

“It was all just really strange, my memory of it. First I came to on the road, and tried to take off my helmet, but I realized my arm was missing. I was pretty confused, and all I really knew was that I had been in a bad accident, and I had lost one of my legs and one of my arms,” Reynolds said.

Now 41 years old, Reynolds was living in Hawaii at the time. A drunk driver swerved into his lane and made direct impact, flinging him out across the road, crushing his leg and arm, and causing massive internal damage. 

After a three-year recovery process, Reynolds had accrued almost half a million dollars in medical debt, so he was forced into bankruptcy after his health insurance company put a lien on him. He went from owning multiple businesses and living comfortably to barely being able to afford his payments for regular prosthetic fittings. 

Years after his accident, Reynolds set out on a moderate-size sailboat on a journey to become the first double amputee to circumnavigate the globe solo. He had no idea sailing would ultimately become his life.

“I was not in a good spot, and I knew I needed a big change,” Reynolds told this reporter, who got a chance to meet him out on his boat in Vineyard Haven Harbor. 

Reynolds said he used the Vineyard as a pit stop to resupply, do some fishing, and explore the Island shores while waiting for the Panama Canal to reopen. “The canal is closed because of the pandemic. I am hoping things start to reopen soon, so I can move on to my next stop,” Reynolds said. He said he anticipates there will continue to be stringent travel guidelines when traveling into other countries for the foreseeable future. 

About seven years ago, after the accident, Reynolds said he was reading online when he saw an advertisement for the Captain Joshua Slocum Society, a group of sailors who had sailed around the world by themselves and set various records for such feats. Captain Slocum was the first person to circumnavigate the world alone, and he did so on a tiny sloop. 

“It was really inspiring to see all these people doing these amazing things, and I wanted to do something like that too,” Reynolds said. “I said, ‘Oh man, there’s no double amputee on that list,’ and so with that, I just knew this is what I wanted to do. I was going to be that guy — the first double amputee to sail around the world alone.”

After making the decision in his head, Reynolds purchased a 1968 Alberg 35 for $12,000, and learned everything he could about sailing through YouTube and books. 

“I barely even knew anyone who could sail, so it wasn’t like I was getting lessons,” he said. “I am a self-taught sailor.”

His first boat was named Rudis, after the wooden training swords received by a gladiator who achieved earning his freedom or retirement. The sword was carried with him as proof of his ascent from slavery, and his attainment of freedom.

After about a month of sailing around the Big Island of Hawaii and testing the waters of his sailing capabilities (along with his vessel’s), Reynolds set sail to be the first double amputee to sail around the world alone. 

With no long-range radio, satellite phone, digital radar, or weather reports, Reynolds threw himself into the life of a solitary sailor. 

“It’s impossible to be completely prepared when you are out at sea, and when you sail as much as I do, there are always unexpected things that happen,” Reynolds said. 

When his motor quit in Fiji, Reynolds sailed without it for over a year. His transmission has also failed a number of times, leaving him stranded off the coast of Malaysia.

In Thailand, Reynolds finally upgraded from Rudis, which he said had become “unsafe” after logging so many miles. That’s when he purchased Tiama, a Bristol 35 that would become his floating home, and his friend.

“It was a huge upgrade from my old boat, so I was pretty happy with it,” Reynolds said.

With only one arm and one leg, Reynolds said, people are often surprised to hear that the only modifications on Tiama are self-tailing winches. “Otherwise I would have to use my teeth to tail the sail, and that’s no fun,” Reynolds laughed.

During his more than 30,000-mile journey that started in 2014, Reynolds said he has had incredible experiences that have changed the way he sees life. “You meet amazing people and see some of the most wonderful things when traveling to dozens of countries and different places,” Reynolds said 

The hard part, for Reynolds, is leaving those people and places behind, and traveling to an entirely new part of the world.

For him, the nature of his nomadic lifestyle comes with an inherent love-hate relationship. “There are a lot of days I hate sailing. On the days when there is a storm and you are in rough seas, it can get pretty uncomfortable, especially when you are really far out there,” Reynolds said. “But then there are the days where you have a nice wind and the sun is shining.”

Apart from the expected challenges of being a crew of one sailing across entire oceans in a moderate-size sailboat, Reynolds said being a double amputee doesn’t make things any easier, and he has had to gain enormous amounts of patience to stay on an even keel. 

“It’s always frustrating that something that might normally take two seconds with two hands takes five minutes with one hand,” Reynolds said.

And for someone as independent and self-sufficient as Reynolds, he said, it was hard for him to ask for help at first. “I didn’t really feel like asking anyone for financial support, but I knew I had to if I was going to actually do this,” Reynolds said. 

With that, he started a GoFundMe campaign, and began garnering financial support for his ambition. So far, almost $30,000 has been raised out of the $40,000 fundraising goal. 

“It was incredibly humbling to see people donating money to support my journey. It really shows the strength of community support through hardship,” Reynolds said. 

Reynolds said he is working on writing a book about his journey, both across the sea, and through his life experiences, that he hopes will raise awareness for people with disabilities and inspire people to chase their dreams. 

After the hurricane season is over and countries start to lift travel restrictions, Reynolds will travel to Panama to start the final part of his journey. 

Although Reynolds is roughly three-quarters of the way through his circumnavigation, he said he doesn’t plan on stopping sailing once he rounds the finish line. 

“I could see myself cruising on a sailboat for the next 10 or 20 years, maybe more,” Reynolds said. Apart from sailing, Reynolds said he is interested in environmental studies, and may consider conducting research projects surrounding ocean health, if he ever stops sailing.

Being such a social guy, Reynolds said the hardest part of living at sea is constantly having to leave behind cherished friendships and relationships and move on to the next port of call. “There is definitely a serious emotional fatigue about going back out to sea by myself. It’s like a social hangover — you meet friends and lovers, and then just like that, it’s time to pack up,” Reynolds said. “It’s getting harder and harder to do that.”

But with the support of his friends and family in Hawaii, and the generosity of fellow sailors and even strangers, Reynolds has plenty of wind in his sails to achieve his goal of being the first double amputee to circumnavigate the globe.