When John Lennon Almost Sailed to His Death
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some of John Lennon’s last songs were inspired by this episode.
By Sean Braswell
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s brand new weekly podcast, unlocking a series of linked histories starting with the murder of John Lennon and stretching all the way back to the Russian Revolution. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
Many men do something bold or adventurous as they approach the age of 40 — some buy sports cars, others take up new hobbies — and even famous rock stars succumb to the urge. John Lennon, whose father and grandfather had been seamen, long dreamed of embarking on an ocean voyage. So in June 1980, the restless 39-year-old, struggling to re-emerge after a five-year hiatus from music, chartered a 43-foot yacht to make a 750-mile, seven-day journey from Rhode Island to Bermuda. Along the way, the former Beatle would rediscover his muse, but only after an experience at sea that proved far more challenging than he had imagined.
For years, Lennon had been at sea in his own life. Even while he was writing some of the world’s most beloved songs in the 1960s, he had struggled with depression, drug addiction and the perils of youthful celebrity. His first marriage had failed, and he had been a lousy father to his first son, Julian. So when his second son, Sean, was born in 1975 to him and second wife Yoko Ono, Lennon made a bold decision: to take a break from music to be a house husband and full-time father. “He was one of the very first celebrities to say … ‘I’m going to take a break from my career and actually devote my life to my kid,’” says Tim Riley, author of John Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music.
Lennon’s initial trepidation turned to exhilaration.
And he did it. The global icon receded from the public eye for almost five years. But by early 1980, he was ready to start writing songs again. The only problem was that he had a major case of writer’s block. So he decided to take a journey. Lennon and Ono often consulted astrological charts and tarot cards before making big decisions, and this time the signs pointed to a southeastern voyage: to Bermuda. Fate, as it turned out, had placed Lennon in the path of a major tropical storm.
Less than 48 hours into the journey, as Gary Tillery chronicles in The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon, the rock star and the three-man crew — a captain and his two cousins — encountered a nasty dayslong storm. The two cousins got seriously seasick and eventually the captain needed a break from piloting the vessel in the rough waters. Lennon, a novice sailor who had done some sailing on Long Island Sound, was the only one aboard who could take the wheel.
Lennon reluctantly agreed. For a while the exhausted captain supervised the singer, but he too began to feel ill and went belowdecks to rest, leaving Lennon tied to the helm and alone to weather the storm. As Lennon gripped the wheel, waves pummeled the ship and crashed aboard the deck, sending him to his knees and drenching him to the skin. There was no place to hide from the storm, or his own fears. But Lennon’s initial trepidation turned to exhilaration, and the feisty side of the British legend emerged. He started belting out chanteys at the top of his lungs, screaming at the sea and the sky. “Once I accepted the reality of the situation,” Lennon later told Playboy magazine about the episode, “something greater than me took over and all of a sudden I lost my fear. I actually began to enjoy the experience.”
For six hours, Lennon kept the vessel on course as it was punished by the storm. When the captain emerged, he found a new man at the wheel. The storm finally abated, and when the crew stepped off the boat in Bermuda, Lennon felt reborn after his battle with the elements. New waves — this time of creativity — overtook the singer. “I was so centered after the experience at sea that I was tuned in, or whatever, to the cosmos,” Lennon told Playboy. “And all of these songs came.”
During the next few weeks on the island, Lennon wrote almost all of the songs that would appear on his hit album Double Fantasy later that year, as well as the posthumous album Milk and Honey, including such tracks as “Watching the Wheels,” “I’m Losing You” and “Beautiful Boy.” Unfortunately, the rejuvenated Lennon and his triumphant return to the world of music were cut tragically short just five months later, when he was shot dead outside his New York City apartment complex on Dec. 8, 1980.
But the music inspired by his Bermudan voyage lives on — reflecting a time when Lennon stepped out of his comfort zone and the lyrics came pouring out of him.