Hal Holbrook (1925—2021)
Most everyone knows Hal Holbrook as a quintessential actor of television, movies, and the stage. I guess the roles that stuck out for me were his portrayal of Deep Throat in the 1976 film All The President’s Men, as Commander Rochefort in Midway that same year; as Lt. Briggs in the 1973 film Magnum Force; and, of course his portrayal of Jeremiah Denton in the 1979 film, When Hell Was in Session. Hal’s stage and screen career was as incredible as it was diverse.
And for all of that, one of Hal’s greatest passions was sailing.
He loved sailing. He loved sailing singlehanded, and he loved sailing with a close-knit group of friends and family. For over 40 years Hal voyaged out of Marina Del Rey for far-flung destinations across the Pacific. Most of that time he was aboard his beloved 42-foot Yankee Tar.
Hal bought the Cheoy Lee-built Gulf 40 from Peggy Slater, one of the legendary sailors around southern California. If you’re not familiar with her, grab a copy of her biography Peggy: An Affair with the Sea. He named the boat Yankee Tar for “his no-nonsense New England ancestors,” who had grown up on the sea.
Not one to let moss grow under his feet, Hal set his sights on sailing solo to Hawaii not long after acquiring the boat. Peggy convinced him to take on an experienced sailor. Thus began a lifelong friendship with New Zealander Bob Rossiter.
After a successful round-trip sail to Hawaii with Rossiter and fellow actor Steven Keats, Hal again began planning a solo voyage. In 1980, he entered the Singlehanded Transpac Race to Hawaii. Over 35 years later he still vividly recounted that experience. On two occasions I had the pleasure of spending some time aboard Yankee Tar as Hal regaled me with voyaging stories.
Participating in that race really made an impact on him. There were some very harrowing moments during the trip as evidenced by this self-portrait following a couple of days sailing in 55 knot winds.
Although the solo voyage was at times stressful for both Hal and Peggy, who was trying to follow his progress by radio, it only deepened his passion for cruising. Over the next twenty years he sailed throughout the Pacific with his wife Dixie, Rossiter, Bob Carmen, and James Carter.
I first met Hal in 2008, when he and his crew came out to the Museum to film aboard Yankee Tar as they reminisced about their sailing adventures. It was a terrific week, just listening to everyone’s stories. Being actors, Hal and Dixie were great storytellers, both often attempting to tell it “the right way.” Sometimes, Rossiter would interject and add some details that of course led to further recollections.
The essence of time spent with Hal, Dixie and the crew centered on Yankee Tar. The boat was such an important part of Hal’s life that it became a touchpoint for him as he came ashore and gave up long distance voyaging. I saw it on a couple of occasions. He had performed his Mark Twain production the night before he visited the Museum and was visibly tired, until he got aboard his cherished boat, and he came alive. Alive with stories told with great passion and humor.
Like Hal, Samuel Clemens was more than just an author, lecturer, and humorist. He too was a mariner. Clemens got his Mississippi riverboat pilot’s license in 1859. He even took his pseudonym, from the nautical term mark twain which indicates two fathoms, or twelve feet depth of water. Actually it’s a pretty important term: twelve feet of water is fairly shallow for the large paddlewheel steamers plying the Mississippi!
It’s been said that Hal spent as much time being Mark Twain as did Twain himself.
Hal visited the Museum for what would be the last time, three years ago. It was a poignant moment when he walked around his old friend Yankee Tar again. Curators often talk about the power of an object, for its ability to create a personal connection. Something is triggered in the memory. Some event, or time where the object and its user formed a relationship that becomes as fresh years later as it did when it first occurred.
As quiet and personal as that moment began, Hal immediately launched into the great story of his solo voyage to Hawaii.
We all had a great laugh as he recounted his attempt to enter Hanalei Bay in heavy seas and gale force winds. Peggy had flown out to Hawaii to meet Hal, and was on the radio as he tacked back and forth outside the harbor.
She kept warning him not to enter the harbor without an escort due to the coral reefs. So he was stuck until someone could come out and bring him in. Trouble was, he hadn’t slept in two days and Peggy was at the wrong harbor, watching another boat attempt to come in! Once she realized the error, she sailed down to where he was and escorted him into the bay.
I never got to sail aboard Yankee Tar with Hal. But it was always a pleasure to spend some time with him just talking about sailing and the adventures that he had experienced. We never wasted the time talking about TV, movies or Hollywood. Just voyaging, his favorite cruising music, exotic ports of call in the Pacific, and his companion, Yankee Tar.
This is one of my favorite photographs of Hal, and how I will remember him.
Hal Holbrook was above all, a mariner. Rest in peace.
- Slater, Peggy with Shelly Usen. Peggy: An Affair With the Sea. Santa Barbara: The Edens Publishing Group, 1992, xiv.
- Ibid., check out the full story in Hal’s forward to Peggy: An Affair With the Sea.