Nancy Griffith, a one-time West Marin resident and industrious sailor who circumnavigated the globe three times, passed away on Sept. 23. She was 79.
Nancy lived in Inverness on and off in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, between sailing expeditions with her husband, Robert Griffith, who worked as a veterinarian in Point Reyes Station in the 1950’s. She spent most of her adult life in Hawaii, when not on the open sea.
“She was the Amelia Earhart of the ocean,” said Marilyn Azevedo, one of Nancy’s stepdaughters and best friends, who lives outside Tomales.
Nancy first sailed as a college student in the Aloha State, when a colleague took a few girls out in the water and she was offered the chance to helm the dinghy. “It was freedom and it was free and it was in harmony with all of nature. The wind is blowing and you’re capturing the wind and you’re going deliberately to where you point the boat to; it was just magic,” she said in a video shot at a family reunion last year.
She met her husband and sailing partner in 1960, after he retired from his veterinary practice. He and his then-teenage daughter, Melouise Griffith, who now lives in Sebastopol, had sailed from West Marin to the Marquesas Islands and on to Hawaii. Nancy watched in awe as the 52-foot boat tacked expertly into harbor.
“Nancy said she fell in love with the boat, and then our father,” Marilyn said.
They married in 1961, and occasionally moored in Tomales Bay in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The couple, sometimes with Nancy’s son
Reed, embarked on a number of their seafaring voyages—including three global circumnavigations.
“We sailed longer and farther and harder than anyone we knew,” Nancy said at the reunion.
Although they journeyed for months and sometimes for over a year, the Griffiths and their friends kept West Marin abreast of their travels on their boat, the Awahnee. They sent a number of burgees, or yacht club flags, from around the South Pacific to the Inverness Yacht Club, which still has them. In the summer of 1962, the Light reported on a trip to the Red Sea, relaying a letter Robert wrote to the newspaper in which he said they had sailed thousands of miles.
“They tell of a whale that followed the boat for a while, like a porpoise. The two have been busy making friends and enjoying the islands in the wide Pacific south of us,” the Light reported.
There were two shipwrecks in that era: one in the Red Sea in late 1962 after the Awahanee ran into a coral reef, and another in early 1963, when the Griffiths spent 67 days on Vahanga Island, a speck of uninhabited land in the middle of the South Pacific, after hitting a reef during a storm.
Knowing that only a squall or reef stood between two of their loved ones and immediate peril became a way of life, the stepdaughters said. “They sailed away so many times and were gone for such long periods of time that we learned not to worry. You could become apoplectic with fear if you did, because you wouldn’t hear from them for six months or nine months or something, and then you’d get a letter,” Marilyn said.
The couple published a book in 1979, Blue Water: A Guide to Self-Reliant Sailboat Cruising, and a 1975 documentary, Spirit of Nuka Hiva, was made about the Polynesian voyaging canoe they built and sailed.
During the two decades they sailed together, Nancy and Robert went on 13 voyages, often transporting goods and scientists along the way. They won the prestigious Blue Water Medal, bestowed by the Cruising Club for America, for their accomplishments. These included undertaking the first Antarctic circumnavigation by sailboat, being the first small vessel to sail east to west around the world south of all continents, and sailing over 170,000 miles.
After Robert passed away in 1979, Nancy ran a heavy-weather sailing school in the early 1980’s. “She taught sailing on one of the most treacherous pieces of water on the planet,” said her son Teno, who lives in New York, referring to where Pacific Ocean waters are funneled between Hawaii’s various islands.
In the late 1980’s and 1990’s Nancy ran cargo sailing ships in the South Pacific.
“She did all kinds of crazy stuff on that boat,” Teno said of the Edna, the 135-foot freighter Nancy sailed for several years. She transported staples such as rice, flour and sugar, along with a various other cargo. Teno recalled one memorable trip when she transported a Cadillac to Samoa. “The crew had a couple of days of fun with it,” he said.
In the early 90’s Nancy acquired a new vessel, the 177-foot Avatapu, a Japanese fixer upper that a crew renovated. Teno put his studies on hold at the University of Hawaii to assist.
Nancy decided to start transporting cargo on the Avatapu in the Cook Islands, since many of the outlying islands had for some time lacked frequent supplies. However, just as she got started, two locally owned ships also started up; one soon folded, but the other provided stiff competition—especially since, as her son noted, she already had two strikes against her: she was both a foreigner and a woman. She succeeded, Teno said, because she ran an above-board business that didn’t swindle her customers. Nancy retired from the cargo business in 2000 and started a coffee farm, Aama Farm, in Kona, a district on Hawaii’s biggest island.
Nancy Griffith is survived by her son, Robert “Teno” Griffith, daughter Fiona Griffith and stepdaughters Melouise Pfeffer, Marilyn Azevedo and Maureen Rohwer.