The man who conquered the Atlantic and the Pacific was ultimately beaten by Parkinson’s disease.
Gerald F. “Gerry” Spiess, 79, died peacefully at home in Pine County, Minn., on June 18 after a long illness.
He is best known in the Twin Cities for his ocean treks in the 1970s and 80s that he took in the tiny “Teacup” sailboat he built himself.
“He was unique,” said his wife, Sarah “Sally” Spiess. “He was kind of a Renaissance man. Independent. The brightest person I’ve ever met. Intellectually curious, determined with patience and perseverance.”
Born in 1940 in St. Paul, he was the second son of Louis and Jeanette Spiess. Due to his father’s career with 3M, he traveled the world extensively as a child and through his teen years.
He carried that spirit of adventure and travel into his adult life, successfully crossing the Atlantic Ocean alone in a 10-foot sailboat called “Yankee Girl” and later accomplishing the same feat on the Pacific Ocean. He became an engineer, but eventually quit to pursue his trips. He was also a motivational speaker.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press did numerous stories on his sea quests, which were famous internationally. His arrival in Falmouth, England, in July 1979 was met by a crowd of thousands and a fleet of boats that tooted their horns and celebrated his record-breaking voyage.
The adventure, which Spiess wrote about in a book called “Alone Against the Atlantic,” tells about him weathering storms, bouncing in 10-foot waves for days at a time, being so sea sick he couldn’t eat, being washed overboard, feeling depressed by loneliness, being menaced by a shark and nearly colliding with an ocean liner.
“You have to be an impulsive person willing to spend 2½ years planning a 7½ week voyage,” he told the Pioneer Press when the former White Bear Lake resident arrived home to a cheering crowd at the airport. He was given a parade and honored at a congressional reception in Washington, D.C.
His wife would say impulsiveness had nothing to do with it. Spiess was a meticulous planner.
“He appears to be a risk taker,” she said, “but they were calculated risks. By the time he had researched everything, he had pretty well mitigated the dangers.”
She said he was fine with risking his own life, but he could not risk the lives of others, which is why his trips were always solo.
Spiess learned this about himself when he attempted to circumnavigate the globe with his wife as a first mate in 1970. When they came upon a pod of whales that nearly upset the boat, Spiess quit the voyage and sailed solo from then on.
“He recognized that there were some aspects of these adventures that were beyond his control,” she said.
Once he mastered the sea, he decided to master the air. He got a pilot’s license and flew a small plane all around the U.S. perimeter and to all the lower 48 states. He biked around Europe and the U.S., took a personal watercraft down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and rode a snowmobile from his backyard to Dawson Creek, Canada.
He also built the house he and his wife retired in and where he took his final breath. His wife said the effects of Parkinson’s were devastating to a man like Spiess, but he kept his sense of humor to the very end.
“He was in his own home, listening to the frogs at night and the birds in the daytime,” she said about his final days. “It was as peaceful as such a thing can be.”
One of his last wishes was to visit the Polynesian Islands. Honoring this wish, the family plans to scatter some of his ashes on the islands that he so loved.