Marvin Creamer, a mariner who sailed like the ancients, 104

Had Marvin Creamer not been a geographer, he very likely would not have lived to be 104.

Mr. Creamer, who died at that age Aug. 12, taught geography for many years at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, in New Jersey.

His expertise helped him become a history-making mariner, the first recorded person to sail round the world without navigational instruments. His 30,000-mile odyssey, in a 36-foot cutter with a small crew, made headlines worldwide on its completion in 1984.


“I was considered to be crazy or stupid or just out of it,” Mr. Creamer said in a 2015 interview with Rowan University. “When I took off there were two people who believed I would come back.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

One was his wife, Blanche. The other, despite the welter of naysayers, was Mr. Creamer himself.

It is daunting enough to circumnavigate the Earth with the aid of modern global positioning technology, much less with medieval and Renaissance tools like a mariner’s compass and sextant.

But Mr. Creamer, in the grip of an obsession that had held him for years, shunned even those newfangled contrivances, as well as a radio, a clock, and a wristwatch. He chose instead to rely on his deep knowledge of the planet and its vagaries, and be guided by nothing more than wind, waves, the sun by day, and the moon and stars by night.

Under cloud-massed skies, he could divine his location from the color and temperature of the water, the presence of particular birds and insects, and even, on one occasion, the song of a squeaky hatch.


Skills like these, he long maintained, had let the master mariners of antiquity answer the seafarer’s ever-present, life-or-death question — Where am I? — and in so doing sail safely round the world.

“From everything I’ve read, the ancients didn’t feel uncomfortable out there,” Mr. Creamer told The New York Times in 1978. “They didn’t have navigational tools, but they didn’t seem afraid to go to sea. I felt they might have known what they were doing, that they might have made predictable landfalls and having once hit a coast could have returned there.”

The same skills, he had believed since his youth, would let him do likewise.

“I had taken oceanography and every geography course in the book,” he said in a 2013 interview with Rowan. “I said to myself, ‘I think I’m the one to do this.’”

Nevertheless, when the 66-year-old Mr. Creamer set sail from Cape May, N.J., in his cutter, the Globe Star, in late 1982, he was widely considered unhinged: No mariner in recorded history had traversed the globe without at least a compass, used by sailors since the 12th century if not before, or a sextant, introduced in the 18th.


His 513-day journey would entail nearly a year on the sea, plus time in ports for repairs and reprovisioning. It would take the Globe Star to Capetown, South Africa; Sydney and Hobart, Australia; Whangara, New Zealand; and the Falkland Islands off Argentina before its triumphant return to Cape May on May 17, 1984 — an event that Mr. Creamer gleefully described as “one small step back for mankind.”

Along the way, he and his crew braved lashing storms and long, directionless days with no wind; found themselves trapped in shipping lanes amid thick fog and the terrifying horns of oncoming tankers; had whales bear down on them like freight trains; rounded the treacherous waters of Cape Horn entirely blind; were at one point pitched nearly upside-down and at another arrested.

“A jolly romp,” Mr. Creamer called the whole thing.

He knew he might meet his death on the trip, but he was far more confident, he said, of his safe return. After all, he had been preparing for the voyage for years, making many Atlantic crossings, several without instruments, in the decades before.

He had been dreaming of the journey for far longer than that.

The third of four children of Sereno Todd Creamer and Grace (Parvin) Creamer, Marvin Charles Creamer was born on Jan. 24, 1916, on a farm near Vineland, N.J., about 50 miles south of Philadelphia. His father grew potatoes and peppers but had by the mid-1920s, with a downturn in the produce market, become a carpenter and machinist.

From his earliest boyhood Marvin was transfixed by the stars and grew fascinated with the idea that once, long ago, mariners had steered by them. By the time he was a teenager, fishing in small outboards on the Atlantic, he knew he would one day cross an ocean under sail.

“Once I got out there, I started wondering how the ancients did it,” Mr. Creamer said in 1980.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the New Jersey State Teachers College at Glassboro, as Glassboro State was then known. After working as a teacher and principal in Alloway Township, N.J., he earned a master’s in educational administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

But his first love had always been geography.

“It is almost an obligation to know the planet one lives on,” Mr. Creamer told The Daily Journal of Vineland in 2013. “How awful to die and never know what’s over the hill.”

He earned a master’s in geography from the University of Wisconsin, followed by doctoral-level coursework in the field there. A member of the Glassboro faculty since 1948, he helped found its geography department.

Mr. Creamer had been an avid sailor since 1930s. But it was not until the 1970s that he determined that sailing round the world without instruments would be possible.

“In 1974, I was on my way back from the Azores, headed for Cape May,” he recalled in 2017. “There were two things that happened. One is that the compass light, out in the saltwater spray, began to fail every single night. Now, when you’re sailing without a compass light at night, you’re sailing without a compass. The other thing was, we brushed through the side of a hurricane, and the heavy seas wrecked our self-steering gear.”

He completed that voyage anyway, steering by the stars. And if it was possible to navigate without instruments by night, he reasoned, perhaps it was possible to do so by day.

“By the time I got back to shore 2 1/2 weeks later, I had figured out that daytime steering was no problem at all,” he said. “We would use the wind as a reference; we would use the waves as a reference.”

The prospect of doing so on a round-the-world journey would consume him for the next decade, despite a flood tide of naysayers.

“I talked to the Rotary Club in Woodbury, New Jersey, before I left: one of those luncheon things,” Mr. Creamer said. “And one of the members said, ‘Professor’ — it’s always ‘Professor’ when they’re poking you in the chest with their finger — ‘What do you think your chances are?’ And I said, ‘About 95 percent,’ and the whole room burst into laughter.”

He began training for the voyage in earnest after retiring from academia in 1977. The next year, he sailed his 30-foot ketch, Scotia, from Ireland to Cape May without instruments. Two years later, aboard the 39-foot cutter Navstar, he sailed from Dakar, Senegal, to New Jersey via the Cape Verde Islands and Bermuda, again with no instruments.

On Dec. 21, 1982, he sailed the Globe Star down the Delaware River toward Cape May and the first leg of his round-the-world voyage.

“When I had finally figured out that I could do it, it was far easier to go than to stay home and not try it,” Mr. Creamer said. “People talk to me about courage. I don’t know anything about courage. All I knew was I just had to go out there and try it.”

He carried ample provisions, including tinned meat and eggs coated in Vaseline to keep them fresh. As a condition laid down by Blanche Creamer, he also carried a sextant, clock, compass, and radio. Those instruments, however, were kept in a sealed locker below deck, to be opened only in an emergency. It never was.

It must be reported that Mr. Creamer did have an hourglass on deck. Its only function was to tell crew members keeping watch when to change shifts.

On March 30, 1983, the Globe Star arrived in Cape Town, where Mr. Creamer found 22 letters from his wife waiting.

On Aug. 12, they arrived in Hobart, in Tasmania. There, local fisherman were so awed by the crew’s achievements that they held six parties for them inside of a week — every week. Mr. Creamer and his mates stayed for six weeks, 36 parties.

On Dec. 13, a day of no visibility, the crew rounded Cape Horn without being sure that they had done so. The next day’s entry in the ship’s log offers a masterly demonstration of how they figured it out:

“It is believed that we rounded the Horn at noon yesterday and have amended our longitude accordingly. We were not able to sight any landmarks so have based our conclusion on (1) the presence of an extremely cold north wind of relatively short duration, and (2) the change of water color from blue to a fairly dark, transparent green to a lighter, less transparent green and back to a quite dark transparent green as we proceeded from west to east at an estimated latitude of 56°55’.”

On Dec. 22, working their way up the eastern edge of South America, the crew made port in the Falklands and were promptly arrested. The islands were still on alert from the war there between Britain and Argentina the year before, and without realizing it, Mr. Creamer had made landfall in a clandestine British military base.

He soon got things sorted, and was sent on his way with food, supplies and astonished good wishes from the Royal Air Force.

In some ways the most challenging times of all, Mr. Creamer said, were the long, irritating stretches of calm, with neither wind nor waves to impart direction.

On one occasion they sat, becalmed, bothered and bewildered, until his geographer’s ears came to their aid. As the wind started up again, a crew member happened to open a hatch. It emitted a loud squeak.

That sound told Mr. Creamer unequivocally in which direction the boat was facing: Only dry air from the Antarctic, he knew, would have caused it. Moist air from the opposite direction would have lubricated the hatch, yielding a more congenial noise.

Through it all, he said in 2017, there was never a time when he thought they were done for.

“I had a cousin who married an undertaker whose name was Frank,” he said. “And I used to say, when things got rough in the middle of the Indian Ocean: ‘Not yet, Frank! You’re not going to get me yet!’”

On May 13, 1984, as the Globe Star negotiated the Atlantic, the crew received a visit from a housefly. They recognized it at once as a humble emissary from land. Sure enough, they arrived back at Cape May four days later.

Mr. Creamer continued sailing well into his 90s. In later years, he owned a boat that came equipped with global positioning technology.

He had no intention to learn the technology, he said.