(Editor’s note: We asked you to tell us your story, and we are so honored Valerie Palmer took us up on that offer.)
Dreams have no expiration date. Too often, our will to chase them down is what finally gives out. Valerie Palmer was determined to not let the rigors of life extinguish her dream. It just took her 18,250 days – 50 years – to make it a reality.
Water has always been in Palmer’s blood. She was born in Salem, Mass., across the street from The House of the Seven Gables, the seaside mansion built in 1668 by Capt. John Turner, one of the world’s most successful maritime families ever.
Her grandfather was the long-time harbormaster in Salem. Her mother was the New England champion for single skull racing, having beat out a man for the title.
“I don’t remember a time not being able to swim,” said the 87-year-old Hilton Head Island resident and mother of long-time islander Laurie Bunting. “We didn’t have the money for a boat, but I always found a way to be on and in the water.”
As a junior at Marblehead High School in 1951, she saw a film about the Yankee Clipper, a vessel that was taking students for a two-year trip around the world. Palmer knew this was her destiny.
“I called Irving Johnson, the skipper, and said, ‘I want in.’ I’ve never wanted to do anything more,” she said. “Problem was the price was $4,000 and I didn’t even have close to $40.”
Palmer found a way to quench her thirst for adventure and wanderlust on land at first. She heard of traveling jobs with the government and ended up working for the Air Force stationed in Japan in her early 20s.
Palmer constantly worked for much of the next four decades, got her masters degree in psychology and provided as the single parent to four kids after “a marriage that never worked” ended after 20 years. She spent many of those years in a Victorian house in the Philly suburbs, dreaming of a day when she’d move to Cape Cod. She fulfilled that dream in moving to Chatham before a family tragedy forced a life change.
A mid-1990s trip to a Marblehead High reunion would change her life once more.
“I remember talking to a woman talked about her dying Mom and how she said, ‘I feel as if I could have done so much more with my life,’” she recalled.
Valerie, then in her early 60s, was determined to not follow that path. So she set out to making her childhood dream a reality.
“My kids supported me all the way,” Palmer said. “And when I really truly went after it, it’s as if the seas parted and let me through.”
For much of the next five years, Palmer sailed the Atlantic, Pacific, Mediterranean and Caribbean seas. Her first journey was with church friends down the Intracoastal Waterway.
“I lived on their boat, I made connections and I heard about this Caribbean 1500 Rally,” she said. “This man, he was looking to take his 37-foot Tayana on the 1,500-mile trek and needed crew. I told him I had no experience but that my qualifications were that I’ve never been seasick, I’m a quick study and very easy going and hard working. Somehow he picked me along with one other crewmate.”
The third crewmate got deathly seasick right from the start of the sail, so Palmer propelled from greenhorn to relief captain when the skipper needed sleep, and worked the deck the other 12 hours each day until, after two weeks at sea, the boat arrived in the British Virgin Island of Jost Van Dyke.
“It was exhilarating and exhausting and a dream come for me, but I just felt so bad for the other fella,” Palmer said of her maiden voyage.
That led Palmer to connect with the Seven Seas Cruising Organization, a group that matches skippers with crewmates for journeys all across the world.
She traveled west to start, meeting up with her son before heading out on a 2,500-mile journey from to San Diego to Pearl Harbor, the longest offshore passage on the planet – and all done with just wind power. She and a Belgian couple immediately got “con man” vibes about their skipper on the trip.
“The Belgian woman was a carpenter, her husband was tireless, the three of us were a great team over those 21 days. We fixed up his boat better than when he met us,” Palmer said. “But that captain, he was suspicious and we heard plenty of stories once we got to Pearl Harbor. I’m usually a spot-on judge of character, and being taken is part of the risk of these trips. It was a huge learning experience. I told myself I was never going to be taken advantage of that again. I’m lifelong friends with that couple, spent a month at their house in Belgium, but that skipper, we got him dismissed from Seven Seas.”
Palmer kept making new friends at every port, networking to find the next adventure. She made repeated journeys across the Eastern Caribbean, with stops in spots like Trinidad and Venezuela. She even flirted with the idea of dropping her life anchor in the tropical locale. She was a deckhand for a skipper in the Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally, a battle among some of the richest boat owners in the world, and was treated like royalty when she visited Syria, Lebanon, Israel and, her favorite destination in all her travels, Turkey.
“Marmaris was our port there. Everywhere I went was just magnificent, like a never-ending museum,” Palmer said. “I stayed with a Turkish friend from a past trip there for a month, just saw everything I could of that amazing land and people.”
She saw the worst the seas had to offer as well, faced 22-foot squalls in the Pacific and a “Perfect Storm” scenario that could have ended her life at sea.
“It was an inky blackness squall, the type that takes away the horizon. The backstay snapped in the worst of it. My other crewmate, he was too scared to stand but I didn’t have time to be scared – you just get through it. I always dreamed of seeing what was beyond the horizon as a child, but in those moments, I never wanted to see the horizon more in my life,” she said of the defining moment.
And when she encountered another squirrelly skipper, this time in Guatemala, Palmer had a backup plan.
“The guy thought we were slaves there to serve his every need. He was an eccentric who painted his engine pink and never liked to get too close to the dock, so I was always jumping off to tie us up,” Palmer said. “I hurt my knee real bad on one jump, was using a broomstick as a crutch, but he wouldn’t take me to a doctor. So I made contact with a friend who arranged to get me on another boat and got away from that situation. Life is too short to deal with that.”
In all, Palmer said she made 10 epic journeys in those five years, figuring that she made it about halfway around the world. When she was ready to return to land for good, Palmer headed to Hilton Head Island to be with daughter Laurie.
“She told me it was 360 days of sun and that’s just what I wanted. It was like the Caribbean but I got to be with family, and there’s nothing better.”
Palmer lives at The Seabrook of Hilton Head these days, in a 450-square-feet studio that she says feels like a mansion compared to some of her on-ship quarters. She has piles of journals and pictures of his adventures that keep the memories fresh.
“Few people here know any of this, I’m not a bragger,” she said. “It’s so hard to believe it’s been 20 years now. I’m not always as sharp as I used to be but thinking back on those days, it all feels like yesterday.”
Palmer said she shared her story to show her island neighbors that age is merely a number, that dreams never die.
“It took me 50 years to fulfill the dream, but it is never too late. I have amazing kids and grandkids, and I love being here. I am so glad I never gave up on the dream,” she said. “And it was every bit as spectacular as I’d always imagined it would be.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.