Sailor at Home

Fifty years ago, Robin Lee Graham made international headlines when he became the youngest person to ever sail solo around the world. Today, he and his wife Patti live a quiet life on the shores of Flathead Lake.

By Justin Franz
Robin Lee Graham is seen on his boat “Dove” during his solo trip around the world in the late 1960s. Courtesy photo

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2019 edition of Flathead Living.

Flathead Lake washes up to the edge of Robin and Patti Graham’s backyard in Somers. Sometimes, on a nice spring day, the water can be as still as glass. Other days, it can be as rough and wild as the ocean.

Those are Robin’s favorite days.

The whitecaps remind him of the five years he spent at sea as a young man. From 1965 until 1970, beginning when he was 16, Robin made international headlines by becoming the youngest person ever to sail around the world solo — a title he held for 17 years. Robin’s story was told in countless newspaper and magazine stories, including three cover stories in National Geographic, a book and a 1974 movie, “The Dove,” named after the two boats he took around the world.

Robin seemed primed for a life of adventure following his historic journey, but he and his wife Patti — who he met during his time at sea — chose a quieter life in the Flathead Valley, where they have lived for nearly 50 years.

Robin and Patti Graham pose for a portrait on their dock overlooking Flathead Lake at their home in Somers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Robin has always been drawn to the water. When he was a boy in California in the 1950s, when others were doodling spaceships and rockets, he was drawing boats. The interest was inherited. Robin’s father and uncle had started building a sailboat in the early 1940s but never finished it because of World War II.

When Robin was 10, he convinced his father to buy him a small dinghy boat, which he later described in his book as “beat up but beautiful.” A few years later, Robin’s father decided to finally live out his own sailing dreams, purchased a boat and took the family on a months-long journey.

Upon their return, Robin struggled at school and was more interested in the lessons he had learned abroad than the ones taught in a classroom. Robin’s father decided the sea was a better place for his son, so he invited him to be his shipmate on a trip to the family’s new home in Hawaii. The trip was a brief return to the sea life Robin loved so dearly.

In Hawaii, Robin continued to struggle at school but made two friends who also loved to sail. The three boys put their meager savings together to purchase their own boat, a 16-foot aluminum lifeboat, and hatched a plan to set sail to the island of Lanai. School was quickly put on the backburner.

“It wasn’t so much that I disliked learning — for I realized the need to be at least partially civilized and my grades were average — but that I detested the routine of school days, the unchanging pattern from the brushing of my teeth to learning English grammar,” Robin later wrote. “I came to hate the sound of the bell that summoned me to class, the smell of tennis shoes and sweat in the gym, the drone of history lessons, the threat of tests and exams.”

Robin and Patti Graham after moving to Montana in the early 1970s. Courtesy photo

On January 28, 1965, Robin and his friends set sail for Lanai. Before leaving he wrote a letter to his dad explaining why he didn’t tell him about the trip — “if I had done so you would have not let me go” — and that he loved him. But the trip quickly went off course when the three boys got trapped in a storm and spent a rough night at sea. The following morning, they turned on their transistor radio to learn that the U.S. Coast Guard was searching for them and that people back in Honolulu assumed they had died in the storm.

Amazingly, the boys made it to Lanai and found some picnickers on the beach, who drove them to the police station. The search was called off, and the following day they flew back to Honolulu. The boys were found guilty in a Coast Guard court of negligently operating a boat, a conviction that came with a $100 ticket, but the judge dropped the fine.

Most parents would be upset with their son for recklessly sailing the ocean with two friends, but Robin’s father took a different route: he got him a new boat. Robin’s dad reasoned that if he didn’t get him a real boat, the boy would end up going out again in “some other damn silly thing.”

Because the new boat was in California, Robin had to sail it from there to Hawaii. But why stop there? In the spring of 1965, Robin began to think about sailing around the world by himself. Soon the thought hatched into a plan, and that summer he worked on the boat and stocked it for an unbelievable adventure. On July 27, he set sail.

Over the course of five years, Robin sailed around the world, making stops in Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa, and the West Indies. Sometimes he would spend a few days or weeks in a place; sometimes he stayed longer. Sailing solo was challenging, but over time Robin mastered it. One of the biggest challenges was constantly being alone. Another was getting rest.

“You don’t sleep soundly (on the boat),” Robin said. “Different wave motions will wake you up and you have to go and check things out.”

Robin Lee Graham using a sextant to measure distances during his trip around the world. Courtesy photo

The trip was not without incident. At one point, Robin was inside the cabin of the boat reading when he heard a rumble outside. Before he knew it, the boat was thrown sideways and water was pouring into it. The boat had been nearly flipped by the wave of a passing freighter. Thankfully, the ship righted itself and Robin survived.

“That was one of the worst experiences,” Robin said. “I mean, you’re in the middle of the ocean. What are the odds of that happening? You’re a thousand miles from land and suddenly you run into a ship. Then afterwards you might not see another ship for two weeks!”

During a stop in Fiji, Robin met his future wife Patti, an American who was traveling in the South Pacific at the time. The two quickly fell in love, and over the next few years Patti would frequently greet Robin at the various stops on his trip. On one such stop in South Africa, the two got engaged and were married soon after.

In early 1970, Robin went down the Panama Canal and then tracked north along Central America bound for home. On April 30, 1970, Robin arrived in Long Beach, California, having covered 33,000 miles at sea.

Soon after coming home, Robin and Patti’s first child, a daughter named Quimby, was born. The young family stayed in Southern California for a few months before Robin was accepted at Stanford University. But after one semester at school, Robin came to realize academia was not for him; nor was California.

“It was a culture shock,” Robin said of the first few months back in America.

Robin and Patti started to think about moving to a place where they could be closer to nature and try to live off the land. They had considered Colorado, Wyoming and even Canada when two different people told them about the Flathead Valley. The couple thought it was a sign that they should head north, and in early 1971 they did just that.

“We bought a $600 mail van at an auction in San Francisco, packed our family and all our possessions in it, tied our bikes on the back and (headed north),” Robin said.

After living in a small cabin overlooking Flathead Lake for a few years, Robin and Patti Graham built a cabin in the shape of a cross west of Kalispell. Courtesy photo

In March, the couple arrived in the “sleepy little town” of Kalispell. For a few weeks, the family lived in their van while looking for land, eventually buying a little patch of forest with a view of Flathead Lake in the distance. There they built a simple log cabin.

“We didn’t have any electricity or water,” Patti said. “It was primitive.”

“It was a lot like living on the boat,” Robin added.

They also became active in a church and made friends with locals, some of whom offered to help the young family. Patti jokes that the other church members were probably worried about “these kids from California” living in the woods.

A few years later, they moved west of Kalispell and built a larger cabin. They also had a second child, a boy named Ben. Robin started to wonder what exactly he would do with his life as he got older.

“I remember a lot of times where I’d be sitting in that house, my head in my hands, just wondering what in the world am I doing?” Robin said. “It was a depressing time.”

Robin eventually decided to turn the skills he had acquired building two log homes into a career and started constructing and remodeling homes across the Flathead Valley.

Robin retired about a decade ago, and today he and his wife spend most of their time at their home on the north end of Flathead Lake or with family. Their daughter Quimby lives in Oregon and their son Ben lives in Somers and is a firefighter in Kalispell. During the summer, the couple likes to take their speedboat out on the lake. Robin has been looking at getting a sailboat again, but he hasn’t found the perfect one just yet.

“I”m pretty picky,” he said.

This summer, two grandchildren are planning to learn to sail, and Robin said once they have the basics down he’ll be ready to offer a tip or two.

Forty-eight years ago, Robin and Patti had no idea where life would take them, but they knew they had found something special when they arrived in the Flathead Valley.

“God really blessed us,” Patti said. “We’re just so grateful for everything.”

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