I first met Jim Greene when I was working on an obituary last summer for Ovid Ward, the Edgartown painter, sculptor, and boat designer. Jim and Ovid were close friends, and the more I talked to him, I realized that Greene would be a good candidate for a story himself, given that he had sailed around the world three times.
Recently, Greene and I sat down to talk, and it turned out he not only had some stories, he was a story machine. Greene is 77 years old, speaks with a faint Boston accent, and has grayish-brown hair he wears in a ponytail.
He told me that he grew up in the well-to-do town of Dover, and putting Dover and yachts together, I asked him, “Were you rich?”
“Hardly,” he said, he grew up on a farm that raised pigs. There was an Andy of Mayberry aspect to his childhood as well. His grandfather had been police chief of Dover, and when people tried to call the police, the phone would ring in Greene’s house.
After graduating from high school in 1963, Greene took a shot at college, didn’t like it, got drafted, and served in Southeast Asia for two years. After returning home, he worked in sales for the Roxbury Gazette, and briefly as a heavy equipment operator, and then one day while sitting at a car dealership he came across an article in National Geographic that would change his life. It was about a 16-year-old boy who had sailed around the world. The idea appealed to Greene’s spirit of adventure: “If he could do it, then so could I,” Greene thought — regardless of the fact that he had never sailed a day in his life. But seeing this as his true calling, in March 1969, he found a nine-meter sloop, about 44 feet long, built in 1950 in Fredrikstad, Norway, and bought it.
“I sold everything I had,” Greene said, “and offered the seller about a quarter of what he was asking, and that’s how I got Tango II, as she was called.” In retrospect, it was probably not the ideal boat for sailing around the world; she had a huge mainsail, so it was physically very demanding.
Nonetheless, Tango II would take Greene around the world three times, once from 1984 to 1987, once from 1991 to 1994, and once from 1996 to 2001.
But in 1969, Greene didn’t even know how to sail, so he hired someone from an ad in the back of Sail Magazine to teach him, and after 15 years of sailing around the Caribbean, he was ready to head out for the other side of the world.
The first leg of his trip would take him from St. Barts in the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and from there to the Galapagos Islands. He planned to stay at the Galapagos for a few days, then head to the Marquesas Islands, the most eastern islands of French Polynesia.
That’s if he could find it. In the Galapagos, Greene’s navigation system stopped working. “In those pre-GPS days, we had satellite navigators that would pick up satellites as they went by,” Greene said, “but suddenly mine stopped working.” Greene was faced with the option of going back to Panama to get it fixed, or forge ahead to the Marquesas and try to learn celestial navigation on the fly. Greene had taken a navigation course from Davis Instruments in California, which he had never finished, but they gave him a beautiful sextant, and he had all the manuals he’d need.
The Marquesas are 3,200 miles from the Galapagos; it’s about a three-week sail, so Greene figured he’d have plenty of time to figure everything out. ”My main cabin was just full of books and stuff,” he said. “And after three weeks, I finally got it together and I took a reading and climbed the rigging and up ahead I saw the Island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas on the horizon. I figured I’d sail in and anchor,” Greene said, “but it got dark, and I just decided I’d do it anyway, and nearly wrecked. I missed the harbor, there were no lights and it was a very narrow entrance. Then I saw a big line of white which turned out to be breakers. I was heading for the beach, and then I saw some spreader lights flashing from a boat in the harbor, and I followed that to the anchorage.”
I asked him if he was scared?
“No, I was way too busy to be scared,” he said.
The next day, he had the time to take in the natural beauty of the islands.
“Marquesas is just like Hawaii, but not many people,” Greene said. “There are giant mountains and waterfalls, and very few people there; I remember seeing wild horses coming over the hill down to the harbor.”
Greene explained to me that the French had settled in Marquesas, but the natives drove them out, and they left their animals behind. Greene did some exploring on Nuku Hiva, where he found a small store, and someone who wanted to know if he’d like to go wild bull hunting with a .22. “No thanks,” said Greene.
Greene would spend the next two or three days heading to Pape’ete, the capital of Tahiti, but once there, Greene didn’t find Pape’ete to his liking. The water was dirty, and it was too built up for his taste. There was, however, an incident that showed the special bond shared by the sailing community.
While Greene was sitting on Tango II, a man in a Boston Whaler pulled alongside and said he had a letter for Greene. It was from a friend he had met while cruising, announcing that his wife had just had a baby on an uninhabited atoll. Greene was able to speak to his friend on his single-sideband radio, then buy all sorts of baby things in town and sail out to the atoll to deliver them. From there, Greene was off to Samoa, where a chance encounter would have a huge impact on Greene’s itinerary.
Off the coast of Samoa, Greene was invited for lunch onto a freighter that had been chartered by the BBC, which was shooting a documentary on the most remote island they could find in the Western Pacific. “They showed me two documentaries about the little island of Tikopia in the southeast Solomons,” Greene said. Unlike the hustle and bustle of Pape’ete, Tikopia struck Greene as being the quintessential small South Pacific island, and he made a pledge that he would have to see Tikopia for himself. Having visited Tikopia, it made such a big impression on him, he would later name his daughter Tikopia.
Greene visited Tikopia on both his first and second trips around the world. After the reception he received from the first trip, you can hardly blame him for going back again.
“Tikopia is a small island, about a half a kilometer square,” Greene said, “and it’s inhabited by Polynesian people who were shipwrecked there hundreds of years ago. They have their own language, and no concept of time or money.”
Greene learned that the protocol for visiting the island was to bring gifts for the chief, and he stopped in Pago Pago, Samoa, to pick up some things.
As Greene approached Tikopia, he sailed around to the back of the island, and men came out in canoes. “It was just like a scene from that movie, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty,’” Greene said. “They sang songs, brought fruit and flowers, and tied up alongside my boat. Then they showed me where to anchor to be presented to the chief. I was to bring my gifts to the chief, and he would tell me if I could stay or go. Once ashore, the reception was unbelievable.”
The chief’s name was Chief Daddy, and he was an imposing man wearing a sarong, yellow orchids behind his ears, and had tattoos on his chest that looked like zipper tracks. “He had electric hair,” Greene said, “kind of like Don King the fight promoter.”
Greene presented his gifts to Chief Daddy: 50 pounds of onions, 50 pounds of potatoes, five gallons of kerosene and some pinup posters of Polynesian girls. And once he had settled with the chief, he had another bag for the kids. “I brought Frisbees, rubber balls, and bird call whistles I had bought in Pago Pago,” Greene said. “God, they loved those Frisbees.”
Six years later, on Greene’s second trip around the world, he returned to Tikopia (only five boats had been there over those six years) for another visit, and this time he brought a huge bag of fine mesh netting from the bottom of a purse seine net, which could be used to catch fish.
And this time, Greene invited the chief out to visit his boat, and was surprised to find that the chief brought about 50 friends and relatives with him. “They were hanging everywhere,” Greene said, “looking in hatches — it was really great. And I gave them something they’d never seen or had before — I turned them on to popcorn.”
This time, the chief brought his son Edward, who spoke English, so he could act as a translator. Greene asked Edward how old he was and Edward answered, “Oh, 30 or 40, I guess.”
“He didn’t know,” Greene said — “remember, no concept of time.”
In three trips around the world, there would be countless adventures and memories, ranging from the mundane to the magnificent, that would stay with Greene over time.
There were countless heart-stopping sunrises and sunsets.
There was the time he rode a log down a crocodile-infested river.
The time a Komodo dragon jumped out of a bush chasing a chicken and scared the hell out of him.
There was the strange time outside Samoa when a nuclear submarine surfaced next to him, and a man in a cabin cruiser boarded the sub carrying a briefcase, and off they went.
There were the two trips where Greene sailed single-handed up the coast of Africa and around Cape Horn.
And there was the time he sailed to Fredrikstad, Norway, to meet the family of the late Bjorn Aas, the designer of Tango II.
So many stories.
Certainly there have been other people who have circumnavigated the world three times, “but to the best of my knowledge,” Greene said, “I haven’t been able to find anyone who’s done it on the same boat.”
Reflecting on his life, Greene said, “Tango II and I were meant to hook up. I’ve had her now for five decades, and how we ended up being together, I can only describe it as fate.”
I asked Greene if he’d ever consider sailing around the world again. “I’m 77 now, so I’m not getting younger,” he said, “but hey, you never know.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ovid Ward. -Ed.