Around the world in seven Years: Lake Oswego resident John Colby reflects on his 42,000-mile journey and the remarkable people he met along the way

Published in the Lake Oswego Review October 20, 2016

John Colby remembers sitting on a log inside a common building on a South Pacific island, the guest of a tribal chief who had invited the Lake Oswego resident to a 40-day celebration of his son's death.

Colby and his wife Janet had just anchored their boat in front of the small village in the island nation of Vanuatu, their latest stop on a seven-year journey that took them around the world.

"I entered the men-only side of the building, which was made of palm fronds and had a dirt floor," Colby recalls. "A local intoxicating drink called kava was ladled out of a container with half a coconut shell.  Light came through openings between the leaves; otherwise, it was dark after being in the bright sunlight. After drinking the liquid that looked like dirty dish water, a young man asked me, 'Sir, would you like another?'

"I only had one more," Colby says.

It's moments like those, Colby says, that he thinks of most when people ask about his nautical adventure that covered 42,000 miles. "Sailing the globe is a unique chance to meet and develop a connection with locals across tremendous cultural and economic chasms," he says. "It was special."

Several people joined Colby at various points of the voyage, which ended in the summer of 2013. Janet was with her husband for 16,000 of those miles.

"We actually were on the boat for five years," he says. "We came home each Christmas for at least six weeks. At one point, we left our boat, 'Iris,' in San Carlos, Mexico, for five months during the summer hurricane season."

Colby grew up in Southern California and started sailing out of San Diego and Newport Beach. He moved to Oregon to attend law school and has lived in Lake Oswego for 40 years. After retiring as a Multnomah County prosecuting attorney, he became the current Commodore of the Portland Yacht Club

The Colbys have three adult daughters - and after the couple's seven-year trip around the planet, they have five new grandchildren, too.

Colby says his days are more mundane now.  "I mowed the lawn this morning," he says. "I'll rake leaves. I'll try to get out of yard work like many husbands."

And when it comes time to visit those grandkids?

"We drive to the Bay Area and Tacoma," he says.

But the Colbys still own 'Iris' - in fact, John entered a club race in June and the couple has sailed to the West Coast of Vancouver Island for several weeks each summer since returning home. And they still have remarkable memories of the places they visited and the people they met while circumnavigating the globe.

"I very much enjoyed the freedom and simplicity of life and of being my own captain in every sense of the word," Colby says. "Life was reduced to essentials -- such as where the public markets are, how do you catch a bus, where are the trash bins and is the local beer good."

There were scary moments, such as the night at sea in the South Pacific when winds topped 55 knots and waves crashed on the deck and cabin, causing some damage. There were embarrassing moments, too, like the time Colby grounded "Iris" near the Las Pearles Islands in the Gulf of Panama and had to wait for the tide to come in.

But mostly, there were the people - and that was always good.

"Developing friendships with other cruisers was very special," Colby says. "It is difficult for many to understand the common bond many cruisers can develop after crossing oceans."

One of the people Colby met on his circumnavigation was a young woman named Laura Dekker, who also followed her dreams around the world. At the age of 14, Decker became the youngest person to sail solo around the globe - a journey that lasted 12 months.

Dekker, a Dutch woman, is now 20, married and lives in New Zealand. A movie about her trip, "Maidentrip," won the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival in 2013; she's also written a book about her adventure, called "Laura Dekker: One Girl One Dream."  

Colby and Dekker first met in Durban, South Africa, after she had sailed 6,000 miles from Darwin, Australia, in 47 days. They met again when they docked next to one another in Port Elizabeth, where bad weather kept their boats in port for six days.

Dekker had just turned 16 and Colby was a grandfather, but the two struck up an immediate friendship. They shopped for supplies together and explored the area, including touring an animal preserve. Later, in Cape Town, Dekker and her father took Colby to the airport for one of his Christmas trips home to Lake Oswego.

"My first impression of Laura was through the eyes of others," Colby says. "The South Africans working on the docks were very excited and impressed when she arrived in Durban. My later impression was of her pure determination to accomplish the goal she set out to do." 

Dekker still lives in New Zealand, where she makes a living by delivering items with her boat and giving presentations about her circumnavigation.

"My life is pretty great," she says. "I have a wonderful husband with whom I am now living on 'Guppy' (the same boat I sailed around the world with). We are now trying to sell 'Guppy' so we can buy a bigger boat to take out people who would like to see what the ocean and sailing is like."

Last month, Dekker visited Portland as part of her speaking tour, and Colby welcomed the chance to host her in his hometown -- and to talk about the shared dream that took them both around the world.

PJ Clark lives in Lake Oswego, where she likes to talk to strangers, eat chocolate, fall off things and collect bruises - and write. Her "In Real Life" column appears monthly in The Review.