March 6, 2005 St. John sailor Peter Muilenburg is a born yarn spinner, a skill readily apparent in his recently-published book "Adrift on a Sea of Bright Light."
The book is a compilation of tales published in places like "Sail" magazine, "Islands," and "Reader's Digest" over the years plus a few new ones. The stories span the globe as well as decades of Muilenburg's adventure-filled life. The book is available at gift shops all over St. John and at "www.amazon.com".
Muilenburg, 59, has more books under way. He continues to charter Breath, and enjoy life with his wife of 38 years, Dorothy, at his cozy home on the Coral Bay side of Bordeaux.
His story begins in Ithaca, N. Y., about a year before his Dutch Reformed missionary parents headed off to China. The Muilenburg family spent five years there before fleeing to Hong Kong when it became apparent the Communist leadership wasn't welcoming missionaries.
From Hong Kong, the family took a steamer back to the United States before heading to the Philippines. The family moved back and forth between Hong Kong, the states and the Philippines, where Muilenburg graduated from high school.
After high school, he went to Dartmouth College, graduating in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in history.
"I dropped out once to work in the civil rights movement and another time to persuade my wife to marry me," he said.
Muilenburg said he spent a considerable amount of time hitchhiking between Dartmouth and Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, where his wife-to-be went to school.
Finally, with degrees in hand, they headed for a "hippie" life on St. John. After two weeks at Cinnamon Bay Campground, their money ran out. Learning from taxi driver Herman Sprauve that teachers were in big demand, they got jobs in the public school system on St. Thomas and then at Julius E. Sprauve School on St. John.
By the time they began teaching on St. John, the couple had acquired a 28-foot sailboat, the Venceremos. The Muilenburgs took up the sailing life, living aboard while teaching school. Soon sons Raf and Diego, now 34 and 28, respectively, came along.
Raf Muilenburg is a lawyer in the San Diego area and his brother is at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington, D.C.
While sailing Venceremos, Muilenburg was intrigued with the idea of building a bigger boat. He bought plans from sailor Paul Johnson, and in 1979, commenced building the 42-foot ketch, Breath, on the beach at St. John's East End.
"There was a real boat building frenzy then," he said, ticking off a list of other St. John boats built during that era.
After the boat was done, he and his family spent the next 15 years cruising from their home base on St. John.
In 1994, Rotary International honored him for his humanitarian trip to Haiti. Muilenburg said he and his wife had given Rotary member Dr. Alfred O. Heath a lift to a Unitarian Universalist service on St. John when he learned about Rotary's problems in shipping medical goods to Haiti.
Muilenburg volunteered to ferry the goods on Breath. With his wife and several Rotary members aboard as crew, he delivered the medical supplies. However, Haitian customs agents didn't want to let them leave. It finally took intervention by a Rotary member to get them off the dock.
"I liked the idea of using the boat for something besides tourists," he said.
There were trips to all points in the Eastern Caribbean, Venezuela, and twice across the Atlantic Ocean to places like Spain, the Azores, Turkey, and even two trips up the Gambia River in Africa.
The last trip to Africa was in 1995, where the Muilenburgs bought a boatful of calabashes and other artifacts to sell on St. John.
"I didn't make any money, but had a wonderful time. I've been sidetracked by smelling the roses," he said, perhaps summing up his life.
Learn more at "www.sailbreath.com".
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