Lots of people like to call life an adventure. Marvin Creamer doesn't need to stretch the truth a bit - or the meaning of that word, adventure - to say that.
Thirty years ago today, Creamer, a geography professor retired from what's now Rowan University in Glassboro, was sailing around the world in a 36-foot boat, the Globe Star. He left from Cape May and made the 30,000-mile trip with no navigational instruments except his knowledge of the skies, sea and Earth.
He didn't forget them. He just didn't want them. He and a small, shifting crew circled the Earth in 513 days, without a compass, a sextant or even a wristwatch to help them.
The old professor did that mainly to prove he could do it - even if no one in history was ever known to have done it before. But Creamer was confident he could navigate his way around the world, because by the time he sailed out of Cape May on Dec. 21, 1982, to try it, he had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean six times in a sailboat. He made three of those crossings without using any navigation equipment, but always found his way back to Cape May or, in one memorable homecoming, to Atlantic City.
And life is still an adventure for Creamer - even at age 97. He's still sailing, and says his last "fairly long" trip was in 2011, when he, his son and two grandsons sailed from Maine to Bermuda to North Carolina. That little voyage took the three-generation Creamer crew about three weeks, Marvin says. Still, most of his sailing time these days is much closer to home, now in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C.
But the Vineland-born Creamer is back in New Jersey today for an event put together by Rowan - which was Glassboro State College when he was a student and then a teacher there, for 29 years. The ceremony honoring his around-the-world accomplishment, at River Winds Restaurant in West Deptford Township, is a fundraiser for a university scholarship fund that carries his name.
And Creamer was back this week on his old campus, where the adventurer is still treated as something of a rock star 35 years after he retired. John Reiser, the coordinator of Rowan's Geospatial Research Lab, says there's a portrait of Creamer on his sailboat on display in the university's geography department. Incoming freshmen usually get a crash course in who he is and what he did, Reiser adds.
"We have Marvin as a great example of why geography is relevant," Reiser says. "Really, the point of geography is to get a better understanding of how the world works. ... I think a lot of students think it's about memorizing state capitals, and it's not."
But experts in geriatrics also may want to investigate Creamer as a case study in why aging seems to pass some people by as gently as a sailboat slipping through an open ocean. In a phone interview, he could easily have passed for 67 years old instead of 97.
In person, he looks a bit closer to his actual age, but he still could be TV star Larry King's younger brother. And Creamer's memory is stunning. In 2013, he can tell you on exactly what date he did something in 1983 - or in 1976 or 1978 or 1980, on one of his other Atlantic adventures. In more than two total hours of interviews in person and by phone, there was just one fact he was asked about he couldn't remember the answer to.
(What it was truly isn't important. And the interviewer, who's more than 40 years younger, can't even remember what the question was anymore. But hey, that was a few hours ago already.)
Creamer can keep separate in his mind, and in his richly detailed stories, all his big sailing adventures. They include one cruise in 1980 that started in Atlantic City, went to Dakar, Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, and included a return route through the Cape Verde Islands and Bermuda.
That was the start of Atlantic City's casino era, and the new giants in town were looking for promotions to generate publicity and draw crowds. Creamer managed to get hooked up with Bill Elliott, who was then Atlantic City's public relations director. Creamer sailed out of the Frank S. Farley State Marina with a splash - after the then-Miss Atlantic City smashed a ceremonial Champagne bottle on the bow of his 39-foot boat, the Navstar.
Elliott, of Egg Harbor Township, remembers a sailor trying to cross the Atlantic with no navigation gear drew enough public interest one Philadelphia weatherman was giving regular updates on the air about where Creamer was. The TV guy did that by showing a little drawing of a sailboat on a large map of the ocean.
Creamer says the U.S. Coast Guard "insisted" he carry a transmitter to relay his position - and to let worried family and friends back home monitor his progress. That's how the TV station got its readings on him. The Coast Guard also told him to have backup navigational equipment on board for use in a major emergency, but Creamer stowed the gear in a sealed container and had proof it never came out.
On his return trip, Creamer and crew made it back to Bermuda, as planned. The captain called Elliott, the PR man, from there. It was a Wednesday in July, Creamer recalls, and Elliott told him the best possible publicity bang for Atlantic City would be for the Navstar to get back home on a Friday morning.
"He said, 'Today is Wednesday. I know you can't be here this Friday, but next Friday, I want you to be 5 miles off Absecon Inlet at 9 a.m.,'" as Creamer remembers it - and again, this is a man who's good with his details. "Now I'm in Bermuda, with no instruments whatsoever. I said, 'Bill, I don't even have a clock on board.' He said, 'Marv, I know you can do it.'"
And Creamer did. On July 18, 1980, a raucous flotilla of boats, assorted helicopters and banner planes, escorted the captain/navigator and his crew back into the state marina. A band played, crowds cheered and a welcoming lunch - sponsored by one of the new casinos - greeted them.
"Everyone was pretty amazed by what he had done," says Elliott, who went on to a long career with today's Shore Medical Center in Somers Point. "It was a big deal. ... Marv had a little bit of P.T. Barnum in him, but he was also a serious sailor. So I admired him. He was a wonderful guy with a very upbeat personality. And he was very serious about proving that you could navigate by dead reckoning" - as instrument-free navigating is commonly known.
Back in Atlantic City, there was a press conference, of course. Creamer says the last question came from the boating editor of The New York Times - of course, he remembers the name - who asked if, based on his success crossing the Atlantic, he was thinking about trying to sail the whole world without instruments.
He answered honestly that yes, he had thought about that. He left out the detail that he had first started thinking of sailing around the world when he was a teenager, and he read a story saying all it would take was $1,000 to build a sailboat that would be seaworthy for the trip. (Sure, he remembers the author.)
A bit more than two years later, Creamer set out from Cape May. Seventeen months later, he made it back home with his crew and his boat in once piece.
He wrote a book about his adventure, but couldn't get it published. He was interviewed at length by the National Enquirer, he says, but the supermarket tabloid also apparently decided his story wasn't worthy of its pages. Its competitor, The Star, though, did write a harrowing tale of how Creamer and crew narrowly escaped death from a massive water spout - an incident that didn't impress the captain as much as it did the writer.
Creamer smiles and agrees with a suggestion that all those times he really did risk his life - for months at a time - may have somehow contributed to his longevity.
And even if he has cut back greatly on his sailing time lately, he admits he now owns two sailboats, which seems excessive for a man of 97. He really should sell one, he says - but it won't be his little 17-footer that goes.
"I'm saving that for my old age," he says, grinning.
Creamer can still describe, in painstaking detail, how he found his way around the world - and how his knowledge of geography and years of research figured into his safe trip. But his latest boat, he confirms, does have a modern accessory that could take a lot of the calculations and tribulations out of his navigations.
"I have GPS on it," he says, smiling again, "but I really don't know how to use it."
Maybe that can be his next adventure.
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