Petaluma man attempts around-the-world sail

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Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, English privateer Sir Francis Drake and Petaluma native Warren Holybee will soon share one thing in common — they will be forever known for circumnavigating the earth in a sailboat using only the wind to push them forward.

While the voyages of the first two names are the stuff of history books, Holybee’s journey is no less arduous. With no massive armada for support, Holybee’s only home since setting out from San Francisco in July 2018 has been the Eliana, a 38-foot sailing vessel.

Holybee is currently somewhere between Madagascar and South Africa, about as far away from Petaluma as one can get on the globe. He is a little more than halfway on his 30,000-mile journey around the world.

Having crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans, his greatest challenge yet may be raising the considerably steep fees needed to gain passage through the Panama Canal and ultimately unlock his route home.

For such an accomplished mariner, Holybee’s seafaring experience is rather scant. Five years ago he was a land-lover, dreaming about the open ocean on his daily commute across the Golden Gate Bridge to an IT job in San Francisco.

“I saw the sailboats from the bridge. It seemed a better place to be than in traffic,” he wrote in an email from Madagascar. “I took a vacation, and used it for a five-day sailing class from Modern Sailing in Sausalito. I knew after the first day I was destined to buy a boat and leave.”

Less than two years later, and $45,000 poorer, Holybee became the proud owner of the Eliana in October 2015. He sailed to Catalina Island. He sailed around San Francisco Bay. He even sailed to Petaluma, once, in the lighted boat parade of 2016.

“It was a fun experience,” he wrote. “I loaded the boat with family and friends and sailed under the D Street bridge. I came in at high tide, and my boat sat on the ground overnight. I understand it is worse now. The river is too silted for a larger sailboat to enter anymore. Hopefully the city will find funds to start dredging it again.”

Holybee grew up in Petaluma and graduated from Petaluma High School in 1993. After moving around, he came back to Petaluma in 2012.

Once he caught the sailing bug, he was hooked and knew he wanted to make an around-the-world trip. He kept putting it off until finally committing in 2018.

“I entered the Pacific Cup race (from San Francisco to Hawaii) to set a hard date so I couldn’t keep putting it off,” he wrote. “Many boat owners get set in the trap, ‘next year maybe.’ Entering the race prevented that. Also, the race has strict safety requirements and inspections, so by entering I ensured my boat was safe for the ocean.”

He sailed with a crew to Hawaii in 14 days, taking third place in his division. From there, Holybee picked up a new crew and kept heading west across the Pacific. The Eliana stopped in Christmas Island, American Samoa, Fiji before making it to New Zealand in December 2018.

After another crew change, he kept going, first back to Fiji, then Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Cocos Keeling Island. He crossed the Indian Ocean, arriving in Mauritius before heading to Madagascar.

Along the way, Holybee has had the adventure of a lifetime.

He fed lemurs in Madagascar. He watched a traditional “bungee jumping” ceremony using vines in Vanuatu. He was invited to dinner in a Samoan village and spoke to an English class in Indonesia. He has swum with fish, manta rays and sharks.

The best part of sailing the world, though, is the people, he said. Not just the locals, but also the other sailors he meets and the vagabond crew he picks up from place to place.

“The world is filled with happiness and generosity and friendly people,” he wrote. “It is amazing to meet and become friends with people from different backgrounds and religions, even if they don’t speak the same language.”

The language barrier has been the biggest challenge, especially in French-speaking Madagascar.

From South Africa, Holybee hopes to cross the Atlantic and make it to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in time for Carnival in February. Then, he will make his way up to the Caribbean and into the Panama Canal.

To raise funds for the rest of his journey, Holybee said he plans to teach celestial navigation to sailors in South Africa. His mother, Bonnie Merrill, has also started a GoFundMe page to raise $6,500,

“Sailing around the world isn’t cheap, but not many dreams are,” Merrill wrote. “Things are going well, but boat repairs and the costs when he ports are high. ... He will port in Brazil, and work if he can, for money to buy provisions to continue, but sailing through the Panama (Canal) will be extremely expensive with fees from various agencies.”

Sometime next year, Holybee will likely sail under the Golden Gate Bridge — the same span he once commuted over — and complete his around-the-world trip. But that won’t be the end of his sailing career or his relationship with the Eliana.

“It turns into a way of life, not just something you plan for and do. I live on my boat, and it is my home, and probably will stay my home when I reach S.F,” he wrote. “And aside from the challenge (which, so far, the sailing hasn’t been that hard) I get to have amazing experience after amazing experience. I get to meet and make friends from people all over the world.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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