There's No Place Like Nowhere
Thirty years ago this month, John Lennon left Newport on a small boat headed for Bermuda. He hoped the five-day voyage would unlock his musical writer’s block. It turned out to be the ride of his life.
(page 1 of 2)
As the Megan Jaye sailed into St. George’s Harbour in Hamilton, Bermuda, one of the passengers scrawled in the guest log, “Dear Megan, There’s no place like nowhere.” The forty-three-foot Hinckley centerboard sloop, lovingly named Megan Jaye after her owner’s daughter, had safely arrived after a seven-day journey from Newport, Rhode Island, with precious cargo. The dedication continued with a fond thank you to the yacht’s captain, Hank Halsted, complete with the writer’s trademark caricature self-portrait and a sketch of the Megan Jaye sailing into the sunset. It was signed “love, John Lennon.”
Only days before, the small vessel had been clobbered by waves driven by gale force winds, pitching it from side to side and up and down, one moment surrounded by twenty-foot seas, the next by sky. Strapped to the cockpit rails, Lennon, the novice helmsman, clung terrified to the wheel for dear life. The waves pounded over the bow of the boat and into the cockpit, knocking him to his knees and prompting him to scream back, “Take me away, God. I don’t give a shit.”
Despite his fame and fortune, he was facing the perils of a life and death situation, with no one to do it for him. Lennon found himself vulnerable, and solely responsible not only for his own life, but also the lives of his crewmates.
With his shoulder length hair tied back in a samurai bun, and the sea and wind thrashing his face, his courage gradually rose along with the menacing sea before him. Staying the course, he shouted back at the sea, singing old sea chanteys and sailor songs he had heard as a boy in Liverpool.
Surely, “There’s no place like nowhere” was not his primary thought when the former Beatle reluctantly took the helm in the midst of the powerful mid-Atlantic storm. Nor was sailing the tension-relieving experience he remembered while learning his way around his own fourteen-foot sailboat, Isis, on Long Island Sound. Regardless of his feelings at the time, though, John Lennon arrived in Bermuda a different man from the one who left Murphy’s Dock in Newport.
Lennon himself claimed that the experience at sea was one of the most important events of his life, a catalyst that inspired him to rise above his writer’s block and compose what would become his last material. And the one-of-a-kind signed guest log, a symbolic souvenir of that experience, would find a place in rock ’n’ roll history.
Nearly thirty years later, the Megan Jaye’s captain, Hank Halsted, is modest about his role in rock ’n’ roll history. Halsted is a principal of Northrop and Johnson’s Newport office, one of the largest yacht brokerages in the world. He was the president of the Yacht Architects and Brokers Association, and founding member of the International Yacht Council. He has also authored more than a hundred articles on boat handling and seamanship and has captained or navigated in dozens of Newport-to-Bermuda races and regattas, winning several.
Back in his twenties, he ran a drug clinic in Colorado and promoted concerts for the Allman Brothers Band and Big Brother and the Holding Company; just before he turned thirty he returned to his calling, sailing the world visiting exotic places. Because of his love for sailing, he would eventually cross paths with one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest legends.
While Halsted was sailing about the world, Lennon was burning out from the pressures of recording and his immigration hassles with the U.S. government. With all his troubles, the exhausted Lennon was in desperate need of a break. After the birth of his son, Sean, in late 1975, and through the spring of 1980, he did just that. For many, it seemed as if Lennon had fallen off the face of the earth. His self-imposed hiatus had cast him into a reclusive lifestyle hidden away in his Dakota apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, causing many Beatles fans to wonder what had happened and if they’d ever hear from him again.
He told an L.A. Times reporter, “Making music was no longer a joy. For twenty years, I had been under this pressure to produce, produce, produce. My head was cluttered. Every time I’d sit down to write, there would be a cloud between me and the source, a cloud that hadn’t been there before. I was trapped and saw no way out.”
Except for an occasional mention in the newspaper, there didn’t appear to be much happening with Lennon. In February 1978, he purchased nearly one thousand acres of land in upstate New York, intending to raise registered Holstein dairy cows. Later, one of his Holsteins fetched a record-breaking $265,000 at the New York State Fair. And in 1979, he reportedly donated $1,000 to the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to outfit policemen with bulletproof vests. Apart from that, Lennon spent the better part of five years watching TV, baking bread, reading countless books and newspapers, and writing song fragments that he was never inspired to finish. But above all, and most importantly, he spent time raising Sean while his wife, Yoko Ono, engineered all of the high-powered business and investment deals.
In the spring of 1980, after having recently acquired a waterfront home in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island’s north shore, Lennon confided to his assistant, Fred Seaman, that he wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream. “All my life I’ve been dreaming of having my own boat,” he told Seaman. “I can’t wait to learn how to sail!”
Lennon’s fascination with the sea began during his childhood days in Liverpool. Roaming the docks, he wondered whether his father, a merchant seaman, was aboard one of the returning ships. Lennon confessed to Seaman that he became distraught whenever his father was absent. To ease his pain, he thought of the exotic places the ships had been, or imagined himself a stowaway to escape whatever misery he was facing at home or school. Sometimes he got an overpowering urge to sneak aboard a ship, but in the end he was always afraid of the unknown and never followed through on his impulses.
In late April 1980, Lennon dispatched Seaman to acquire “a one-sail sailboat, i.e. the ‘dumbest’ and simplest.” On Lennon’s behalf, Seaman bought a fourteen-foot, single-sail boat from Tyler Coneys of Coneys Marine, a family-owned and operated marina in Huntington, New York. Coneys spent a good part of May showing Lennon the ropes on handling his new prize.
Lennon named the sailboat Isis after the Egyptian goddess of fertility, and after his and Yoko’s passion for Egyptian art. After mastering the piloting of the Isis around Long Island Sound, he was ready for a longer excursion. He quickly assigned Coneys the task of making arrangements. However, as many of the Lennons’ business and personal decisions were reportedly guided by the stars and similar methods of predicting the future, they consulted their directionalist, Takashi Yoshikawa, the world’s foremost authority on the Ki. The Ki, an ancient Chinese divination system, holds that life is determined by a combination of three hidden energies: earthly, heavenly and human. Yoshikawa suggested that for Lennon to escape the clouds that were casting a shadow over his life and his creativity, the only direction that he could safely sail to undergo his psychic healing was southeast. In his case, that meant Bermuda. Lennon boarded a chartered twin engine Cessna airplane with his crew and departed for Newport to meet Hank Halsted, the Megan Jaye, and his appointment with destiny.
“I had just got back from an extended trip from the Caribbean, when my charter agent, Paul McCaffrey, asked me to sail four New Yorkers to Bermuda,” Halsted recalls. “The last thing I felt like doing was going right back out to sea.”
Nevertheless, he agreed.
Halsted wasn’t aware of his principal passenger’s identity. “I went the better part of the day as I readied the Megan Jaye for departure before recognizing him. I said to McCaffrey, ‘What would you say if I told you that I think I have John Lennon on my boat?’ McCaffrey replied, ‘You’re full of shit.’ ”