Williams Solos to Hawaii—and Back

By LAUREL BUSBY

Staff Writer

 

16-Chris Williams in cabinFor 48 days, Christian Williams sailed alone on the Pacific Ocean. Or rather he tried to sail alone and found it wasn’t so easy to actually be alone.

The voices, images and music of the people he loves and even people he’d never met sailed along with him.

“The remarkable conclusion was that I was a complete failure at being alone,” Williams, 72, said. “We carry all the people we’ve ever met in our heads. I never really felt alone.” He added, “One of the big fears is abandonment, but even if they put you in a paper bag, you’d still have with you all the people you love.”

Williams, a Pacific Palisades writer and life-long sailor, turned 13 hours of video from his round-trip journey to Hawaii into a 29-minute documentary titled Alone Together for his YouTube sailing channel. The gently amusing piece became an Internet hit with more than 577,000 views, and subsequently engendered a book of the same name, which was published by East Wind Press.

“I was planning on making a home video,” said Williams, a retired writer who worked at the Washington Post, created the show Hercules, and also wrote episodes of Hill Street Blues and Six Feet Under. “I wasn’t planning on getting a big audience. I didn’t even want to write this book . . . The video really caused the book as much as anything else because people had so many questions.”

Both the book and the documentary provide an invitation to have an adventure with Williams, ranging from joining him for a drink to helping him untangle the rigging on his 32-foot boat, Thelonius, which he named after the jazz musician.

Williams also provides some musical accompaniment to the video’s score, playing along with a fork and knife at times, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor that makes him a fun guide to the ocean journey. He mentions the flying fish that regularly hop aboard his boat to their demise and shows the large pile of bagged trash he accumulated on the trip.

Based on emails that he’s received, he estimates that half of his viewers have no interest in sailboats. “What interests them is an ordinary guy having an adventure,” Williams said. “They would like to have an adventure.” And the sailing aficionados who enjoyed the video have told him, “I appreciate you’re telling the story the way it actually is. It isn’t heroic. It isn’t really, really dangerous. It isn’t really, really scary, and you’re not a god.”

16-Thelonious northWilliams’ hardest moments on his journey included seasickness the first few days, anxiety about whether he could actually sail alone so far for the first two weeks, and some tangled rigging that took him about six hours to untangle, he said. “It’s very useful to realize that you have to solve the problem yourself. There’s no option. When things went wrong, I thought, ‘This is on you, bud.’ It’s a good feeling . . . Nobody’s judging you and you’re not judging yourself, because you are surviving.”

Williams grew up sailing in Cape Cod and the New York Harbor, and his first solo journey happened when he was 10 years old. It didn’t go nearly as smoothly as his recent trip. He had begged his father to go out in a wooden sailing dinghy that his dad had built from a kit. When his dad finally agreed, the supremely confident Williams sank the boat about 100 yards from shore to his immense embarrassment. But the sailing bug never left him.

“Some people are just wired to be interested in something,” Williams said. “Wind and sails and boats grabbed me as a child. You get tired of things in life, but I have never gotten tired of it. It’s an amazing thing to be moved by wind. Even as a child, I was amazed that the wind was pushing me along, and I was just sitting there.”

However, he found sailing on the East Coast to be much easier than sailing in California. On the East Coast, boats tend to be smaller, he said, and sailors can generally go for a couple of hours and arrive in a different harbor, while in California, it can take 24 hours to get to Santa Barbara. “Most Easterners have no idea how long and rugged and empty the California coastline is.”

When Williams lived on the East Coast, he imagined sailing across the Atlantic, but on the West Coast, Hawaii became his goal for this first long solo trip, which he made in the summer of 2014. For the journey, he bought most of his food from Trader Joe’s, although his pickles came from Costco. Unfortunately, he ran out of them on the journey. “It’s not fair running out of pickles,” said Williams, who also got dangerously low on Myers’s Rum.

He did have an adequate log book, in which he detailed about 100 pages of information about the weather and sailing issues, such as checking for leaks and noting items that needed repair. He also had three GPS devices for navigation, and each day, he sent his family a position report via satellite phone. In addition, he brought books to read and found himself drawn to ancient writers like Plutarch and Heroditus, who sometimes seem out of place in our modern world.

But when “you’re alone, these people fit right in; the lives of the ancient heroes don’t seem so remote anymore,” said Williams, who estimated that about 50 people make the solo journey to Hawaii and back each year. “You have the sense of being a part of the universe that has contained Heroditus and Sigmund Freud and President Obama. You realize you’re all just people and you’re a really small part of the waves and the birds. It makes you feel good. It’s a revelation. I’m just part of this enormous soul.”

In his Palisades life, Williams, who moved here 27 years ago after two years in Brentwood, found that many people thought he was crazy for attempting the trip, but he enjoyed it so much that he is planning a sequel to another part of the Pacific. He also found that he came away from the journey with both a newfound respect for himself and an appreciation for those he left at home, including his wife, Tracy Olmstead Williams, who runs the publicity firm, Olmstead Williams Communications, his grown children, Tandy, 48, Alexandra, 45, Drake, 25, and Christian, 23, and even his dog.

“I was proud of myself, which was new for me,” Williams said. “I set out to do what I said I would do. That’s worth all the tea in China, and also on a cornball, sentimental note, which is not supposed to be my thing. I realized I love my family and my dog and my friends. I really didn’t take them for granted. I recognized them as part of me. So yeah, it’s a big deal.”

 

Christian Williams sailed along on a round-trip journey to Hawaii on his boat the Thelonius.

 

Williams inside the cabin of his boat.

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