The Boat


The Owners

John Atkisson was a federal government lawyer when he retired in the Spring of 2005 to begin Kestrel’s Atlantic circle. He had first sailed in San Francisco Bay at age 13. His wife, Kathy Sawyer (Atkisson), was a reporter for the Washington Post for 28 years. She left the Post in 2004 and has continued to work as a free lance writer and author. [See]

UPDATE: >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> In August, 2009, after returning from a summer of sailing Kestrel in Maine, John was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He kept sailing through that fall with family and friends. Upbeat to the end and busily maintaining Kestrel in hopes of “at least one more season on the Bay,” John died at home on February 19, 2010.



John Atkisson; After law career, he sailed across Atlantic.

John Atkisson had a 32-foot sloop, Kestrel, harbored on the Chesapeake Bay, which he loved cruising with his wife. (James A. Parcell/for The Washington Post)

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2010

John Atkisson was at home and at ease in a congressional hearing or a courtroom, in the offices of a federal bureaucrat or on the deck of his sailboat. He earned his living as a lawyer, but his friends would tell you that under his pinstripes was the soul of an 18th-century seaman.
Mr. Atkisson, 68, died Feb. 19 at George Washington University Hospital, six months after a diagnosis of lung cancer. His family said he faced the end of his life with serenity because he had already lived "the dream" -- which included a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a small boat and such unintended "growth experiences" as a collision with a whale on an earlier sea voyage to Bermuda. Both man and whale survived.
As a Washington lawyer for 35 years, Mr. Atkisson worked in Congress, the private sector and the executive branch. He retired as executive counsel from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in 2005.
He then set out to sail the Atlantic circle -- from the East Coast of the United States to Ireland, Scotland, the Iberian coast and home again -- aboard his 32-foot sloop Kestrel. He was joined by his wife or other crewmates for parts of that adventure. But he often sailed alone. On one leg, from the Azores to Ireland, he had a freak collision with a 150-foot steel fishing trawler. Each continued onward -- Mr. Atkisson sailing with the prow of his boat twisted and mangled. He later said the accident was in some ways fortuitous because of the close friends he made upon arrival in County Cork, where his boat was dry-docked for months of repairs.
In late 2006, Mr. Atkisson completed a 3,000-mile-plus solo crossing of the Atlantic, from Tenerife to Martinique, in 22 days.
"Emphatically, it is not man-against-the-elements," he told The Washington Post in 2007. "That attitude can get you killed. I wanted to go with the elements. At every sunrise in the tradewind passage, I silently and prayerfully asked the ocean for permission to be its guest that day, hoping not to offend those who live there -- whales, for instance."
There was a unique sense of personal freedom in that time alone at sea, Mr. Atkisson would later tell friends. "One late afternoon, about a thousand miles southwest of the Canary Islands," he wrote in a message from sea, "the boat very nearly surfing in front of 22 knots of wind, temperature about 85 degrees . . . the hi fi system cranked up as high as it would go, I found myself standing in the cockpit buck naked, gyrating to Patsy Cline and veritably yelling the lyrics of 'Walkin' After Midnight' to 20 or more madcap dolphins playing in the bow wake."
He also loved the Chesapeake Bay, where his boat was harbored, and was said to have equaled the zeal of an evangelist in his warm but importunate entreaties to nonseafaring friends to accompany him on one-day sails around local rivers and rustic anchorages.
John McElroy Atkisson was born in Sanger, Calif., near Fresno, on July 2, 1941, and acquired his love of sailing after his move to Marin County, near San Francisco. He attended Princeton University, studied acting in New York and graduated in 1966 from the University of California at Berkeley. He received a law degree from San Francisco State University in 1970.
He practiced trial law in San Francisco before moving to Washington in 1975, where he served on the staff of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, then became chief counsel to the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. Later he was in private practice, including five years with the firm of White, Fine and Verville from 1979 to 1984.
In 1993, Mr. Atkisson became executive counsel to the Interstate Commerce Commission where his work required the attainment of a rare expertise: how to litigate the abolishment of a federal agency. In the mid-1990s, the remaining functions of the ICC were transferred to the much smaller Surface Transportation Board.
Mr. Atkisson and his wife, author and former Washington Post science writer Kathy Sawyer Atkisson, had acquired the Kestrel in 1978. Over the years, they cruised Chesapeake Bay and gradually extended their range to New England and Bermuda.
A recovering alcoholic, sober since 1988, Mr. Atkisson was active in recovery efforts, including a Georgetown University medical school program to teach medical students how to work with alcoholic patients. Mr. Atkisson said he was energized by his exchanges with these young people.
Babette Wise, assistant professor and director of Georgetown's Alcohol and Drug Program, said of Mr. Atkisson, "The students learned so much from him, unique skills that will help them in their medical careers, whatever their specialty."

Mr. Atkisson is survived by his wife of 34 years, of Washington; and a sister. His first marriage, to Eileen Drechsler, ended in divorce.

A news reporter once asked Mr. Atkisson about the fear factor during some of his more harrowing moments at sea. He said that, as a recovering alcoholic, "I am at pains . . . to, as we say it, 'stay in the now' -- i.e., don't dwell on the past or obsess on the future. . . . Nothing keeps one in the moment like single-handing a small boat across a big ocean. Hard to explain, but when you are that deeply set into the moment, you just cannot fear the future."



'Kestrel' is a 1976 32-foot Bristol sloop, continuously improved over 28 years by owners, always with serious blue water work in mind.

After a shakedown cruise from Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda and back in 2001, Kestrel was prepared for more ambitious plans. In the late Spring of 2005, she set sail for Ireland, which was the first leg of a 2 - year Atlantic circle. Since that first trans-Atlantic passage, Kestrel has toured Scotland (the lower Hebrides in June and July of 2006), then, after a brief return to Ireland, Spain (La Coruna), Portugal, Madeira, the Canary Islands, then finally back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. For that classic trade-wind passage in December 2006, John single-handed Kestrel the 3000-odd nautical miles from Tenerife in the Canaries to Martinique, where Kathy came aboard for the ensuing five months of cruising up the Antilles and Bahamas before the final leg home from Green Turtle Cay to Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina, thence up “the ditch” to Chesapeake Bay. Kestrel has been at her home port in Deale, Maryland, since June, 2007.



The boat was listed for sale on March, 2 2011. Sale was completed on March, 12. She now has a new home in Florida.


Bristol 32 Specifications (1976)

  • LWL - 22' 0"
  • LOA - 32' 1"
  • Beam 9' 5"
  • Draft (keel) 4' 7.5"
  • Ballast 3900#
  • Displacement 10,800#
  • Sail Area (sloop) 464 sq. ft.
  • P=33.05' P2=38.5' B=13.48' J=12.58'


The Cape Horn Windvane people, thought enough of Kestrel’s installation to include it in their Owner’s Manual:

"Ideal size of the servo-pendulum.
Power generated by the servo-pendulum is proportional to its wetted area and to the square of the speed of the boat. From this, we see that servo-pendulum area is critical only at low speed. At higher speeds, the pendulum generates considerably more power than needed to steer the boat.

Experience has shown that the wetted area of servo-pendulum needed to steer at 2-3 kts to be somewhere between 8 and 12 % of the yacht’s rudder area. Closer to 8 for a high aspect-ratio, partially balanced rudder steering a well balanced boat, and closer to 12 (or more) for a low aspect ratio rudder, on a boat that is not so well balanced, or has a wheel steering system with a lot of internal friction. We normally take into account the yacht’s rudder dimensions and the height of the horizontal axis above the waterline in determining the length of the servo-pendulum for a given boat, but if you find that your pendulum does not generate adequate power to steer your boat at slow speeds, please contact us and we will provide you with a longer one.
A sailor concerned with reducing drag to a minimum could order two steering oars : a longer one for light air or slow speed, and a shorter one for higher speeds."

From Cape Horn Owner’s Manual, © Yves Gélenas

Cape Horn Windvane



Please click on the thumbnails to enlarge

New battery bank: the old batteries were mounted in the starboard coaming locker, putting a whopping 200 lbs high above the waterline, far outboard, at an already heavy aft end. The boat was chronically out of trim
The new 325-AH house bank is made up of six Rolls 2-volt modular cells, placed amidships, below the waterline and near the centerline. The system is fused at the batteries, and again down-stream in front of each of three branch circuits. A separate start battery (65 AH) is on the other side of the boat, close to the engine
A fan (on automatically at 14 volts) carries gasses aft to a cowl vent. Also seen here is part of the copper foil RF ground system for single sideband radio
New hatches, new opening ports, new 26-inch high stanchions & lifelines
When the deck stepped mast base was found to be sinking into the cabin trunk, serious reengineering was required. Now there is a ˝ -inch thick, 2-foot square steel plate inside the headliner, on top these mahogany arches, which are rabbeted into a newly shorn-up compression post and nearby bulkheads. An Alpenglow red/white light, one of three aboard, can be seen on the heads ceiling
Interior view of a new Atkins-Hoyle opening port. Alpenglow xenon cabin light on the bulkhead
New Groco seacocks were fitted throughout. One, under the heads sink, has an integral filter to protect the seawater washdown pump from Caribbean sand. At top (out of focus), a hot water return valve gets water hot at the tap without wasting a drop
Kestrel was completely re-rigged in 1998, adding an inner stay with running backs for staysail or storm jib. Stayloks and toggles are at both ends of every stay on the boat, as here, attached to the Wichard inner stay tang
A new British product, the SeaMe radar target enhancer and detector-alarm, provided a comforting extra margin of safety on the Atlantic crossing. The tricolor and anchor masthead light contain LED clusters instead of conventional bulbs.
Closeup of the Cape Horn vane. For the Atlantic crossing we carried a spare 6 pounds of propane on the quarter.
A new power windlass for our 150 feet of chain (on 250 ft of line). To port is the seawater deck wash outlet. In the center, the Wichard double padeyes for the inner stay.
Cockpit features: ST 40 winches added, aft turning blocks for spinnaker, rigid rails instead of lifelines in the cockpit area, bulkhead instruments configuration.
Ham radio, email modem, and computer bin. This ICOM 718 ham rig has been opened up to handle marine SSB frequencies, to serve as backup to the boat’s SGC 2000 SSB radio. A Pactor modem rests under the radio. Laptop swing-out table on the left
14 Old hatch
New hatch (Hood Systems, stainless steel).
Old galley.
New galley. A major refit in 1998
New galley under construction
Buster Phipps (Phipps Boatworks, Herrington Harbour, Deale, Maryland), who did this work, saw 2 inches of dead space and couldn’t resist filling it with a pull-out spice rack
Bird’s eye view of the new galley and companionway area – ice box to port. Sink fixtures include taps for filtered fresh water, unfiltered fresh water, and sea water
New galley construction allowed easy access for re-plumbing the engine and hot water tank
22 The power plant today, with Sea Frost refrigeration system, 105-amp alternator, and backup charging regulator. Scupper seacocks at top have diverter valves for capturing rain water. At lower left, the two galley foot pumps are for separate fresh water and sea water taps
Rigid rails aft, upgraded winches and cleats, new longer toe-rail genoa tracks
Kestrel has three sets of running lights: deck level (the original, barely visible at any distance), LED illuminated tri-color at the masthead for off-shore sailing, and these new rail-level power hungry monsters
All Bristols, no matter the size or generation, share a design defect: a low-threshold companionway which, off shore, can admit huge amounts of sea water to the interior. This new bridge deck solves the problem
The “hybrid” self-steering system: a Ray Marine ST 1000 Tillerpilot hooked up to the Cape Horn wind vane’s lever, protected from weather in the lazarette. The black box is the single sideband radio’s antenna tuner
Cockpit sole with two large inspection ports. One allows access to steering systems. The other is directly over another access port in the top of the diesel tank. The custom bracket on the mainsheet traveler is for both boom crutch and cockpit table
Dodger, bridge deck, instrument configuration, including Alpha below-decks autopilot control panel



Please click on the thumbnails to enlarge

Kathy at the helm, reaching toward Bermuda, 2001

Running home from Bermuda under the chute, 2001, crewman John Rayburn in the foreground. Hours after this photograph was taken, with the chute still up, Kestrel was hit by a whale.

See Article

Beautiful Fall day on the Chesapeake, a light air down-bay run toward Solomons Island
The Pride of Baltimore crosses Kestrel’s bow, Chesapeake Bay, October, 2003