Best of ExplorersWeb 2011 Awards: The wanderer, Henk de Velde

Posted: Dec 28, 2011 02:28 am EST

Why do we explore? Some write poems about it, others refuse to discuss it. "If you have to ask why, you'll never understand" said an old K2 poster.

Others again live the answer. Who knew why Henk De Velde set out for an expedition that would never end. Not that it mattered. Because when it did end, it was after yet another enigmatic voyage.

Leaving it all behind

De Velde is an old world explorer. The kind baffled by rowers frantically repairing their watermakers in the midst of a downpour. "I collect rainwater," he'd say. "25 years ago we had a baby on board and the rain was enough even to wash the diapers."

"We were sailors in the old times, now we walk around with a multimeter," he'd grumble. When failure is obvious to everyone, Henk still charges on. He's that kind of an explorer, the one who'd leave Earth to never return.

In 2007 at age 58, Henk set out for an expedition that has crossed many explorers' mind. His Never-Ending Voyage would...well, never end.

It was not his first attempt. In 1978 Henk took off in a boat with former wife Gini. "We left, and I returned alone after 7 years," he summed up.

About the meaning of exploration, "when we are born we discover life," Henk de Velde said. "When we get older we discover knowledge; later wisdom. We will discover till the end of life."

"What will you miss most from home?," we asked. "The truth is...I miss nothing, and that's the truth!" he said.

Fast forward four years.

The real cost of free

"I'm leaving with nothing, but then you need so much less out there," Henk told ExplorersWeb and left the Netherlands with all his money sunk in the boat.

Some months later he limped into a South American harbor finding that "having the rising sun, the moon, and the stars, all to myself" was not priceless. It wasn't even cheap.

Fixing a broken mast and a wrecked propeller, Henk stayed in Argentina for the rest of the year. Painting his decks; he wrote novels and a travel book titled "Nowhere is a place."

Boat repaired and with a new sailing season unfolding, at an age usually spent watching the clock winding down: Henk was about to realize his boyhood dreams.

The present day

Out on the Indian Ocean, halfway between South Africa and West Australia, Henk arrived Ile St Paul, a volcano with a crater and a narrow entrance only 7 ft deep. “25 years I have been thinking about this place,” he wrote.

Unsure if the weather would hold, he neared the island on engine waiting for daybreak. “But all turned out exactly how it had to be,” he said. “Here I am, at anchor in the crater of St Paul. This is one of the most amazing places where I have ever been and ever shall come.”

He went on shore. "This island does not belong to human beings," he said. "This is the island for the thousands of seals. And they are very noisy.”

He climbed the hill and looked down on the calm surface where Juniper was anchored. A full moon rising above the dark crater, Henk decided to spend the night.

It was his second score, after another isolated spot, Tristan da Cunha. Reflecting on the 9500 mile Atlantic/Indian Ocean crossing, Henk wrote. “All those days were living in 'today'. The present day was the most important. And all those days were more important than the rest. Today meant; I live, I do, I am, I am on my way."

Seeking purpose

Following 4 months in Australia and Tasmania, by late 2009 Henk arrived in Papua New Guinea.

Henk was not rich, but neither a beach-bum. “I cannot roam without a goal, “I can’t live without a purpose,” he said and plotted a challenging route.

The Happy Islands” a.k.a the Trobriands made famous by Paul Theroux. North to Witu, then Palhu, the island of the navigators. From Guam to Okinawa in Japan and then back to his old friend, the Arctic.

“Achievement of small goals leads to the achievement of larger goals,” Henk said about the sail ahead. He hoped the challenge would make him a better man, one who builds up others instead of tearing them down, "which is often the tendency when we don’t have a positive self-image,” he said.

In November he found paradise at Mioko Island in the Pacific, where the natives still navigate by the stars, birds, water color and currents. Henk deeply admired that. They admired his autopilot and GPS.


By July last year, the never ending sailor was headed to one of the most remote areas in the world; the demanding Aleutian islands in the Bering Strait. Dense fog allowed little rest. Mid September Velde reached Sitka, in mainland US. He got a heater on board and prepared for winter.

Moving slowly south along the Alaska coast, late October Henk moored in the tiny settlement of Coffmans Cove. The windswept village had 150 inhabitants and a library. There, Henk found Hollywood star Sterling Hayden's classic seafaring book Wanderer.

Hayden, who quit his acting career to go sailing, explained his choice:

"To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen, who play with their boats at sea --'cruising', it is called."

"Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about."

"Little has been said or written about the ways a man may blast himself free. Why? I don't know, unless the answer lies in our diseased values. A man seldom hesitates to describe his work; he gladly divulges the privacies of alleged sexual conquests. But ask him how much he has in the bank and he recoils into a shocked and stubborn silence."

Hayden: Choice is the answer

Continuing his reasoning, Sterling Hayden wrote:

"'I've always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can't afford it.' What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of 'security'. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine---and before we know it our lives are gone."

"What does a man need---really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in---and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all---in the material sense."

"And we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade."

"The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed."

"Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?"

Finding Kapingamarangi

Sometimes though, a choice becomes obvious only after all other paths have been explored. "Where and how would you picture the last day of your voyage, if you had a choice?" we asked Henk before he left. "Somewhere in Kapingamarangi...and Kapingamarangi can be anywhere," Henk said.

Turned out anywhere was home.

Perhaps it was the fading sun, perhaps the thoughts of another wanderer. Or it was the old friend who told Henk before he left, "I hope you know the difference between the words can and must. You don’t have to come back but you always can come back.”

By January Henk had decided to end the neverending journey. He was an explorer, he had found, and as such he wanted to do expeditions with a beginning and an end. "And those expeditions have nothing to do with a life-long voyage along the Pacific Islands," he dispatched. "Those travels are for cruisers and I am not a cruiser."

Headed for the Panama Canal and over the Atlantic to his native Netherlands, he told ExplorersWeb that after a while he had found that just sailing aimlessly made him feel more like a retiree than an explorer. "And I'm too young to retire."

He still refused to be buried, in the words of Hayden, "beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, and preposterous gadgetry."

"My plan is to NOT rent a house or apartment but to live on-board, Henk said.

"I will read and write more, give some more lectures, take my motorbike and go off somewhere for a couple of days, camping along the road. I don't have money or a house, but I have a boat."

Previous Awards in 2011

6. Himalayan knights: Abele Blanc

Special mentions:

Adrian Ballinger: Manaslu ski descent
Erden Eruc: Indian Ocean row finish
Arjun Vajpai: youngest on Lhotse and Manaslu
Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry: kiting the NW passage
Erik Boomer & Jon Turk, Ellesmere Island
Irena Mrak and Mojca Svajger, Nanga Parbat Diamir face
Christian Eide, South Pole Speed Record
Ueli Steck - Shishapangma speed climb

We have covered hundreds of expeditions in 2011. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who continue to linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 6
expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2010.

By their performance, these expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:

- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

62 years old, Henk already plans new projects, "to see how far now I can get north?"

There's the Northwest passage, Greenland, a motorbike ride across Iceland, or just a quest to find the remotest spot back home. "I know some unreal places there, with clean air, and no noise."

Henk first made waves at ExplorersWeb when ice floes almost crushed his Campina in the Laptev sea. The Northwest Passage "Impossible Journey" won a special mention in the 2004 ExWeb awards for his battle to the bitter end.

The greatest moments in his 6 world circumnavigations included the first time he crossed the Atlantic in 1979, the birth of his son on Easter Island in 1981, his first Cape Horn in 1989, the 2003 winter in Siberia and many more. His darkest moment was in 1988 when a capsize killed one of his crew.

Henk earns his living giving lectures and talk shows. Book him at

Book him at

#Oceans #topstory #choice

“Achievement of small goals leads to the achievement of larger goals," said Henk.
Henk de Velde nearing the Kuro Shio/ Black Current/ Japan Current, a warm, fast-moving current in the western Pacific Ocean.
Henk's boat, the Juniper.
Image by Henk de Velde courtesy Henk de Velde, SOURCE
The windswept village had 150 inhabitants and a library. There, Henk found Hollywood star Sterling Hayden's classic seafaring book Wanderer.
Image by Public library courtesy public library

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