In 1965, 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham set out to sail from California. At the time, he said he just wanted “to be on my own and explore.” But he returned five years and 30,000 miles later, as the youngest person to ever sail around the world solo. His only companion was an ever-changing crew of cats.
Robin was a nonconformist in search of something bigger. He was sick of the regimentation of the classroom and craved freedom. He wanted to see the world and find himself, so in 1965, Robin’s father purchased him a 24-foot sailboat which he named “Dove.” It was the 21st of July, 1965, when Robin set sail. He first sailed alone from California to Hawaii, where his family lived. He declared Hawaii his starting point and set out on his way. His only companions aboard the sailboat were two kittens named Joliette and Suzette that he had been given for company.
Robin’s journey wasn’t an easy feat and he suffered a lot of hardship. The treacherous winds of the Indian Ocean dismasted his sloop and threw him overboard, almost costing him his life. Nevertheless, Robin managed to survive. 1 Between New Guinea and Australia, he had a near-collision with a big steamer in the middle of the night. “It came so close to running me down that I could have reached out and touched it,” he said.2
In fact, Robin’s sailboat took such a beating that it had to be replaced. He purchased a 33-foot Allied Luders sloop which he named “Return of Dove.” He was able to purchase the boat with money he had earned from National Geographic, who had documented his trip.
Above all, however, Robin wrestled with loneliness, silence and near despair. Sure, he found that freedom he was searching for but nearly lost his mind in doing so. He learned all too well the terrors of isolation. “The loneliness and fatigue built up so much that I’d almost scream,” he said.3 He gained – and lost – a number of cats. Suzette deserted in Pago Pago and Joliette was run over by a truck in Fiji. Nevertheless, Robin was rarely without at least one cat throughout his journey; he had a crew of ever-changing feline friends. He persevered through the loneliness and speared fish and navigated with the accuracy of a marksman.
While sailing in the Fifi islands, Robin met Patti Ratterree, a young woman who much like himself was searching for a meaning in life. Patti had been hitch-hiking across the Pacific from suburban California when she met Robin while seeking a place to sleep for the night. “She looked gorgeous… She was wearing a brilliant blue island dress, very feminine. Her wheat-coloured hair was long on her shoulders,” he said.4
The two fell madly in love and cruised around the Pacific for five weeks, living off the land and taking in the natural beauty. But Robin had committed to sailing the world solo so the duo had to go their separate ways.5
Nevertheless, the star-crossed lovers continued to cross paths throughout the world and when they reunited in a fishing village in South Africa, they married in the magistrate’s office. Robin later described their romance as “a leapfrog courtship across the Pacific.”6 Picking up where he left off, Robin finished his trip alone.
His worldwide trip took him to Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Australia, South Africa, South America, the Caribbean and Panama. Nevertheless, Patti was not far behind him; following their marriage, she followed him by ship and air. Patti was completely understanding of Robin’s goal: “He started out single handed and he wanted to finish single handed,” she said.
When he returned, Robin had accomplished something many dream of but very few dared to attempt. He became the youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone. As he sailed in to California, he was met by Patti, his family and a large crowd that had gathered to witness his return. On board, he had four cats alongside him to see him to the finish line. Upon his return, he said he would never do it again. “I wouldn’t go alone,” he said. “I don’t like being by myself.”7 Two months after his return, Patti gave birth to their daughter, Quimby.
Robin remained a non-conformer and abandoned a Stanford scholarship for a log cabin in the mountains of Montana where he settled with his new family. He went on to write a book titled “Dove” about his escapades at sea. He and Patti had another child, a son named Ben, and Robin pursued a career as a builder and furniture maker. Today, the couple are still happily married and live a quiet life on the shores of the Flathead Lake.
- The Semi-Weekly Spokesman-Review, 31 August, 1980 – “Home from the Sea to Find a Separate Peace”
- Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 29 April, 1970 – “Young Sailor’s Solo World Voyage in Final Miles”
- The Los Angeles Times, 16 December, 1972 – “Voyage of the Dove”
- Dove by Robin Lee Graham”
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 July, 1972 – “Arriving at Manhood All Alone”
- Dayton Daily News, 24 September, 1992 – “Young Man May Sail into History”
- The Kansas City Times, 1 May, 1970 – “Globe-Circling Sailboat Voyage Ends Smoothly for 21-Year-Old”
Amazing story. I love that he was honest and didn’t romanticize his trip. The loneliness must have been a killer.
I love to see a feel good article on this website. I love it but the crime does always get me down. Nice to remember that life isn’t all awful 🙂