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Column: Setting sail to find his peace on the ocean

A compass affixed to a table below deck of the sailboat Ness points south as the steel-hulled boat gently rocks while docked at Mitchell Park Marina in Greenport. Phillip Sax, the lone crew member aboard the boat, positioned the compass at the ideal spot, next to the narrow bench that serves as his sleeping quarters.

He can view the boat’s direction without even lifting his head.

On long voyages across oceans, Mr. Sax relies on the wind vane self-steering system to guide the 44-foot boat. As the wind changes, the boat’s direction can change with it. A quick glance at the compass can confirm what he feels.

“You become attuned to the boat,” Mr. Sax says. “I can feel everything that’s going on. I can feel if it’s going faster, slower, if it starts moving in reaction to bigger seas, or transversely, if I’m sailing 15 knots and then all of a sudden I’m not sailing at all. I feel that.”

Mr. Sax has spent nearly the entire past five years at sea aboard Ness, sailing solo for 34,000 miles. His journey recently brought him to the East End of Long Island. He set up home briefly in Greenport while he awaited delivery of a new sail before setting off across the North Atlantic toward Scotland.

As he has moseyed about the village in recent weeks, people have drawn a connection to him and the boat, he says. He’s 71 with a long, white beard and shoulder-length hair, the kind of look one might expect from a man who’s been at sea for months at a time.

In a marina filled largely with modern fiberglass boats designed for comfort and weekend cruising, Ness is an old-school, no-frills double-ended ketch that weighs about double that of a more modern, sleek boat. It features a gaff rig and no winches, let alone electric winches. While he does have a GPS navigation system, he still largely relies on nautical charts to map out his route.

“This is the turtle,” Mr. Sax says of Ness. “It ain’t going to win the race, but it’s going to get there. It always does. That’s why I love it.”

The name Ness came from the boat’s original owner. Mr. Sax kept the name, but adopted a different meaning for the word. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

To purchase it, Mr. Sax, a New Jersey native, traded in the house he had built in the small seaside city of Port Townsend, Wash. He lived there for 15 years before beginning his adventure aboard Ness five years ago.

He had been to Greenport once before, about 30 years earlier, and remembered it as a quiet little town.

“The reason why I came here, not Greenport per se, but the East Coast, was to complete a circle in my life,” he says. “I wanted to sail this boat on my own to the East Coast without going through the Panama Canal and then get here, perhaps Long Island or New Jersey, and see what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

He faced poor weather as he approached Montauk in late May, with “in-the-face gales” of 35 to 40 knots. It was one of the most challenging trips he’s faced. Part of his sail was shredded, so he needed it repaired before he could embark on another long trip. He knew of Bob Mills, who runs William J. Mills & Co., a family business in Greenport that was founded in Scotland by his great-grandfather.

Mr. Mills told him it would take four to six weeks to complete a new sail, which was delivered last Thursday. The wait put Mr. Sax in a holding pattern. He left the boat in Greenport for a week and traveled to New Jersey to visit his 95-year-old aunt. He sailed some short trips up near Massachusetts and Connecticut and all around the East End of Long Island. He’s walked around Greenport and loaded up on new books at Burton’s Book Store.

“Everybody who lives here is friendly,” he says.

Nautical charts used by Mr. Sax aboard Ness. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

On his trips at sea, Mr. Sax is largely cut off from the world. He spends much of his time reading. The boat’s cabin is filled with books. He enjoys nonfiction, biographies and history. A reading light is affixed above his bed, powered by a solar panel on the deck. He doesn’t have a computer, but did get an iPhone about a year ago, largely to appease his sister so she can keep closer tabs on him. The iPhone has become a necessity for traveling, he admitted. Train tickets in Europe, for example, often require a mobile device.

He was married twice and never had kids. The allure of the open sea and the ability to travel wherever and whenever he wanted ultimately weighed down the marriages.

“I have fully accepted my lot in life and who I am and what I do and I am grateful for all the people that I have had in my life,” he says.

He paused to think when asked if at this point in life he’s more comfortable at sea than on land.

He loves crossing the oceans, he says, but he still enjoys the company of other people.

A chart mapped out where Mr. Sax sailed along the coast of South America. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

“I enjoy being everywhere that I am, but then there’s always the drive to go on,” he says. “All of a sudden paradise gets stale for one reason or the other. If I want peace, it’s in the ocean.”

With his new sail ready to fly, Mr. Sax planned an early-morning exit from Greenport Saturday. His goal was to make it far enough off shore to be in the clear of any other vessels by nightfall. It was a later start to his North Atlantic journey than he would have hoped, but the conditions seemed to be aligning for him to make a fast trip. If all goes well, he’ll arrive in Scotland in four to six weeks. He’ll then make his way to Norway to spend the winter with friends.

Next spring, he’ll set sail again, destination unknown.

The author is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].