By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society
When I was tending bar at the no name, back in the early 90s, it seemed that every other patron had been aboard Sterling Hayden’s schooner Wanderer when he kidnapped his own kids and sailed them to Tahiti. For a free drink, each one offered to tell me the story.
Instead, I chose to read Hayden’s own account in his critically acclaimed biography Wanderer. And now, a new book by Lee Mandel, sheds some additional light on this gripping sea saga.
In the 50s, Hayden was a reluctant movie star embroiled in a brutal custody battle with his ex-wife Betty. He decided that drastic action was called for. The following excerpts from Mandel’s book, Sterling Hayden’s Wars, provide some juicy details:
After turning down several film opportunities, Hayden decided to act on his instincts. In March of 1958, he began to arrange his break from Hollywood. His first step was to take his schooner Wanderer, which he had purchased on Christmas Day 1955, for $20,000, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In June, he hired a first mate, Spike Africa, an unconventional free spirit not unlike Hayden.
Hayden had actually been contemplating the journey for two years. He would secure financial backing and then take a largely amateur crew and sail from California to Scandinavia, transiting the Panama Canal. They would film the entire voyage, capturing the flavor of the voyage and then break the film into segments suitable for television. He ran into a brick wall in his attempts to obtain financing for the voyage. He approached over eighty possible investors, but each one turned him down. "Why risk capital in such a venture," he ruefully recalled, "when the sponsor and the network cried for blood and guts and sex?" Undaunted, he proceeded to begin to select a crew for the voyage.
In June of 1958, Hayden had placed an ad in the personal columns of the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Territorial Enterprise, Saturday Review, and Christian Science Monitor. It read:
VOYAGE UNDER SAIL 100-ton ex-Pilot schooner sailing from San Francisco August 15 for Copenhagen Sept. 15, 1959 [sic]. Need six active intelligent young men and women. Send details to Sterling Hayden, Box 655—Sausalito, California.
He received two thousand replies within a month of the ad's appearance. In addition, several people just showed up at the pier, gear in hand and ready to go. Some of the applicants were real eccentrics not fit to take to sea with him. Most were just good people who, like Sterling Hayden, searched for adventure, loved the sea, and were genuine free spirits.
One of the respondents to Hayden's ad was a nineteen-year-old college student named Dennis Powers. Powers was an art major and mentioned in his letter that his favorite authors were Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. Shortly after that, Hayden contacted him and arranged a meeting in Hollywood. The interview, which lasted twenty minutes, went very well. Towards the end, Powers provided a detail that he thought would be the showstopper: He didn't know anything about sailing. Unfazed, Hayden replied, "Well, you've read about it and for me that's very important." As they parted, Hayden told him he would be in touch. Almost immediately after that, Powers was delighted to receive a card from the actor, inviting him to come up to the San Francisco Bay Area to see the Wanderer.
Arriving in San Francisco later that month, Powers remained in awe of his new acquaintance. "I felt like Ishmael. I didn't know anything and here I was meeting with Ahab!" There were already several other applicants working on the schooner, performing all the required nautical tasks such as painting and helping to properly maintain the decks. It soon became obvious that Hayden was using the interview process as a way of providing free labor to prepare the schooner for the long voyage.
Mandel goes on to detail Hayden’s frustrations with the custody fight and his attempts to obtain financing for his voyage. He finally received a last-minute advance of $10,000 from Republic Pictures, with the understanding that he was only planning to sail from Sausalito to Santa Barbara. Mandel continues:
He reported back aboard the schooner as the sun was starting to set. Prepare to get underway, he informed his crew. They were going to take their last voyage together—to Santa Barbara.
At 11 p.m. on January 18, 1959, Wanderer got underway with the four Hayden children aboard, allegedly for Santa Barbara, 310 miles south. Hayden guided the ship to a point just outside of the twelve-mile limit. There, he assembled the crew and made an announcement. They were not going to Santa Barbara; they were bound for Tahiti. Explaining his reasons and concluding by saying, "This is what I want to do," he then asked the crew for their input. As Dennis Powers recalled, "After all we had done together in preparation, were we going to say no?" As Hayden would recount to Parade magazine that summer, "There was a moment of silence, followed by a faint cheer." Wanderer set a course west for Tahiti and Sterling Hayden, in violating the court injunction, became a fugitive from United States justice.
If you’re interested in the full story of that fantastic voyage, I recommend reading Wanderer or Mandel’s Sterling Hayden’s Wars.
Next: the story of Hayden’s Pullman Car.