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Lake Oswego resident John Colby reflects on his 42,000-mile journey and the remarkable people he met along the way

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lake Oswego resident John Colby first met Laura Dekker in Durban, South Africa, during his circumnavigation of the globe. Their two families have remained friends, and Colby played host to the New Zealander last month when she visited Portland on a speaking tour.   SUBMITTED PHOTO - John Colby's boat, 'Iris,' heads into the South Atlantic Ocean after leaving St. Helena, the tropical volcanic island where Britain exiled Napoleon in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo. John Colby remembers sitting on a log inside a common building on a remote South Pacific island, the guest of a tribal chief who had invited the Lake Oswego resident to a 40-day celebration of his son’s death.

Colby and his wife Janet had just anchored their boat in front of the small village in the island nation of Vanuatu, their latest stop on a seven-year journey that took them around the world.

“I entered the men-only side of the building, which was made of palm fronds and had a dirt floor,” Colby recalls. “A local intoxicating drink called kava was ladled out of a container with half a coconut shell.  Light came through openings between the leaves; otherwise, it was dark after being in the bright sunlight. After drinking the liquid that looked like dirty dish water, a young man asked me, ‘Sir, would you like another?’

“I only had one more,” Colby says.

It’s moments like those, Colby says, that he thinks of most when people ask about a nautical adventure that covered 42,000 miles. “Sailing the globe is a unique chance to meet and develop a connection with locals across tremendous cultural and economic chasms,” he says. “It was special.”

Janet was with her husband for 16,000 of those miles.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - John Colby points 'Iris' toward the sun as he travels across the Indian Ocean.“We actually were on the boat for five years,” he says. “We came home each Christmas for at least six weeks. At one point, we left our boat, ‘Iris,’ in San Carlos, Mexico, for five months during the summer hurricane season.”

Colby grew up in Southern California and started sailing out of San Diego and Newport Beach. He moved to Oregon to attend law school and has lived in Lake Oswego for 40 years. After retiring as a Multnomah County prosecuting attorney, he became the current Commodore of the Portland Yacht Club.

The Colbys have three adult daughters — and after the couple’s seven-year trip around the planet, they have five new grandchildren, too.

Colby says his days are more mundane now. “I mowed the lawn this morning,” he says. “I’ll rake leaves. I’ll try to get out of yard work like many husbands.” And when it comes time to visit those grandkids?

“We drive to the Bay Area and Tacoma,” he says.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - John Colby carved the name of his boat into a flip-flop that washed ashore on the windward side of an island called Cocos Keeling in the Indian Ocean. Yachts traditionally leave their boat name on the coconut trees there, he says.But the Colbys still own “Iris” — in fact, John entered a club race in June and the couple has sailed to the West Coast of Vancouver Island for several weeks each summer since returning home. And they still have remarkable memories of the places they visited and the people they met while circumnavigating the globe.

“I very much enjoyed the freedom and simplicity of life and of being my own captain in every sense of the word,” Colby says. “Life was reduced to essentials — such as where the public markets are, how do you catch a bus, where are the trash bins and is the local beer good.”

There were scary moments, such as the night at sea in the South Pacific when winds topped 55 knots and waves crashed on the deck and cabin, causing some damage. There were embarrassing moments, too, like the time Colby grounded “Iris” near the Las Pearles Islands in the Gulf of Panama and had to wait for the tide to come in.

But mostly, there were the people — and that was always good.

“Developing friendships with other cruisers was very special,” Colby says. “It is difficult for many to understand the common bond many cruisers can develop after crossing oceans.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO - New Zealander Laura Dekker sailed around the world by herself when she was just 14 years old. Now 20 and married, she recently visited Portland to talk about her adventures aboard her ship, 'Guppy.' SUBMITTED PHOTO - John Colby snapped this photo of one of the San Blas islands as he cruised on the Caribbean side of Panama.One of the people Colby met on his circumnavigation was a young woman named Laura Dekker, who also followed her dreams around the world. At the age of 14, Dekker became the youngest person to sail solo around the globe — a journey that lasted 12 months.

Dekker, a Dutch woman, is now 20, married and lives in New Zealand. A movie about her trip, “Maidentrip,” won the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival in 2013; she’s also written a book about her adventure, called “Laura Dekker: One Girl One Dream.”

Colby and Dekker first met in Durban, South Africa, after she had sailed 6,000 miles from Darwin, Australia, in 47 days. They met again when they docked next to one another in Port Elizabeth, where bad weather kept their boats in port for six days.

Dekker was a teenager and Colby was a grandfather, but the two struck up an immediate friendship. They shopped for supplies together and explored the area, including touring an animal preserve. Later, in Cape Town, Dekker and her father took Colby to the airport for one of his Christmas trips home to Lake Oswego.

“My first impression of Laura was through the eyes of others,” Colby says. “The South Africans working on the docks were very excited and impressed when she arrived in Durban. My later impression was of her pure determination to accomplish the goal she set out to do.”

Dekker still lives in New Zealand, where she makes a living by delivering items with her boat and giving presentations about her circumnavigation.

“My life is pretty great,” she says. “I have a wonderful husband with whom I am now living on ‘Guppy’ (the same boat I sailed around the world with). We are now trying to sell ‘Guppy’ so we can buy a bigger boat to take out people who would like to see what the ocean and sailing is like.”

Last month, Dekker visited Portland as part of her speaking tour. Colby says he welcomed the chance to host her in his hometown — and to talk about the shared dream that took them both around the world.

PJ Clark lives in Lake Oswego, where she likes to talk to strangers, eat chocolate, fall off things and collect bruises — and write. Her “In Real Life” column appears monthly in The Review. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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