PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Sharon Sites Adams is no stranger to doubters.
“I ran into constantly, ‘you can’t do it.'”
At 35 years old and about to embark on a historic sailing journey, the Prineville, Oregon native heard and read all the doubt thrown her way. From people who came down to the dock just to tell her she wouldn’t last a week, to the editorials in Los Angeles papers saying all she’d accomplish is a massive expense to taxpayers when someone had to go out and find her. To all this, Adams only had one response. “It just dared me even more,” Adams, who will turn 91 years old in May, explained. “‘Of course, I’ll be back.”
It’s the summer of 1965, Adams had learned to sail just eight months before, innocuously drawn to the journey that would define her life simply because of her proximity to one of the world’s most famous marinas. Adams was managing a dental clinic just down the street from the now-famous Marina Del Rey Marina.
“Patients coming in were talking about it,” Adams recalled. “I had never been to the ocean, and I couldn’t talk to them intelligently.”
Wanting to understand all the fuss, Adams when down to the marina. That decision would change Adams’ life. “I went down, and I found a few masts in the water and watched a little boat tack,” Adams shared. “I didn’t know the word was ‘tack’ but it got from there to here and I wondered how they did that. I saw a sign advertising a sailing school and found out that for four one-hour group lessons and four one-hour private lessons I could ‘learn to sail,’ and I thought, ‘why not?’
Adams poured herself into those lessons, taking extra time to hone her navigation skills. Boats had neither electricity nor GPS systems. Eight months later, Adams decided to attempt something no woman had ever tried before – to single hand sail from Los Angeles to Hawaii, all by herself.
“Honestly, I couldn’t see what there was about it that I couldn’t do.” That’s when the editorials and commentary started pouring in.
“People telling me, ‘we’ll see you in three days,’ or, ‘hope to see you again sometime,” said Adams.
But she tuned it all out as she prepared her boat, Sea Sharp, for the journey. The 25-foot Danish folkboat had to be prepared for weeks and weeks out in the rough open ocean. Adams planned out everything from the meals she would take to the backup gear and equipment she would bring in case she needed to repair or replace a part at sea. She even learned how to take photos and videos.
Finally, Adams had her affairs in order should the worst happen, Sea Sharp was ready, and they set sail.
“I didn’t doubt I would make it to Hawaii,” Adams insisted. “I just hoped I had learned everything I needed to from my navigation instructor, those islands are a pinpoint on a map.”
Thirty-nine days later, she landed right on the pinpoint.
Adams and Sea Sharp sailed into the record books – the first woman to single-hand sail from the mainland United States to the Hawaiian Islands. Many were saying she was the first woman to single-hand alone across the Pacific.
Adams was not willing to say that.
“I figured if I was going to say it- I better do it. Los Angeles to Hawaii is really not sailing the Pacific, it’s getting a good start.”
And so, preparations began again.
Four years later, Adams connected with a shipbuilder and struck a deal – she’d design one of his boats and instead of him shipping it from its boatyard in Japan, she’d sail it across the Pacific. The owner agreed, on one condition. If Adams survived the crossing, she could keep the boat for four months afterward, then he got it back. Terms decided, Adams was off to Yokohama, Japan to design Sea Sharp II.
For 10 weeks, Adams made every decision regarding Sea Sharp II.
She decided on superfluous details. “He agreed to all my three shades of pink.” And made key inventions – that would make her solo crossing simpler, including a plexiglass bubble built into the deck of the boat, just broader than her shoulders.
“I could get my head and shoulders into that bubble. And as long as I could see all of the rigging and see 360 degrees on the horizon, I didn’t need to go outside.”
By the end of the building process, Sea Sharp II was much more than just the vessel Adams hoped would help her survive her historic journey.
“It was my friend, it was everything.”
On May 12th, 1969, Adams set sail from Yokohama, Japan for her sister city of San Diego, California – a journey of six thousand miles. “I couldn’t tell you absolutely I was going to get home, how could I?”
She encountered her first storm just three days in.
“The wind is blowing 68 miles an hour and the waves are two stories tall,” Adams recalled of one such storm. “Fear is the unknown, so you don’t know how long the storm is going to last, you don’t know how strong the wind is going to blow, you don’t know if you’ve done everything that you can do.”
“You hope you’ve done everything for the boat, and you say a little prayer that the sun comes up the next morning.”
For 11 weeks, the sun did rise every morning. Adams’ faced three gales in that time, but the time between howling winds and Empire State-sized waves settled into a rhythm as calm as the morning tide. There were always chores to do, like greasing the rudder of the wind vane. “This was a daily must,” Adams said. “I don’t care what was happening or what you felt like or what you wanted to do or what you wanted to say or what naughty word you did use, you greased. You had to grease it every day because if you didn’t it might seize up and that would be it.”
Mostly though, there were ways to pass the time. Adams brought fabric and sewing materials with her, sewing a dress not once, but twice.
“I didn’t wear it because I wanted to go on sewing,” Adams explained. “I sewed all the seams again because it was fun.”
Canon had given her video cameras to document the journey, which she did plenty of, and on May 29th, 1969 Sharon filmed her solo birthday celebration. She had a Betty Crocker cake mix, no milk, no eggs but she had candles, water, and a stovetop. “People had given me some presents to open, but I had to sit with my arm across [the plate] because I didn’t want the boat to kick and send it into my lap.”
As you might imagine, a cake with no milk and no eggs is not the tastiest thing.
“So, I tied a string to the paper plate and I trailed it behind me and the gooney birds ate the cake.”
Nearly 11 weeks later, the world was celebrating a historic moment when Sharon had one of her own. “I arrived off the coast [of California] on July 20th, 1969, 45 minutes after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.”
Five days later, Adams docked in San Diego’s Shelter Island Harbor having become, officially, the first woman to sail across the world’s largest ocean, alone. Seventy-four days, 17 hours, and 15 minutes after setting sail from Yokohama, Japan she rang the Friendship Bell in San Diego, California.
“That was just me ringing friendship back to the people of Japan.”
Adams’ record-setting sail was national news. She was named the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year in 1969 and had multiple speaking engagements and interviews on all the major television shows, including The Today Show. Despite her meteoric rise to celebrity status, the most important part of her journey, Adams couldn’t bring with her.
Having successfully made the crossing, she had just four months with Sea Sharp II after they docked in San Diego. In her book, Pacific Lady, Adams details how difficult it was to say goodbye to the friend she felt was as engrained in her as the wood it was built of.
“I can’t say that I didn’t forget or keep remembering that it wasn’t my boat,” Adams explained. “But I was there all the time it was being built, we were together, and it was my friend.”
So attached was she to Sea Sharp II, Adams couldn’t even bring herself to watch her sail away when the four months were up.
“I just couldn’t do it.”
For the next 50 years, Adams’s life moved with an easy breeze behind it. She married her soul mate, opened a coffee shop and then a hot dog stand on the California State University campus at Heyward in 1986.
“The kids called me the hot dog lady,” said Adams. “I was ‘grandma’ to the basketball team.”
Eventually, she returned to Oregon. In all that time, she never caught wind of what had happened to her friend, Sea Sharp II. Then, five years ago she got an email.
“The man introduced himself as the manager of a boatyard in Oakland. He said he was sure that Sea Sharp II was there. He said it was in bad shape but it was there and I broke out crying.”
Adams wasted no time contacting the current owner of her long-lost friend.
“The thought was to bring it back up here and redo it but he wouldn’t talk. I don’t know [why] to this day. He wouldn’t do any negotiating or anything, so I just gave up.”
With no way to get her friend back, Adams tried to put Sea Sharp II out of her mind, and the boat’s condition only worsened. Eventually, unbeknownst to Sharon, the boat sank where it sat. John Fredericks, the diver at the marina saw it all happen.
“It looked terrible,” Fredericks recalled. “The harbormaster would mention it was a famous boat and it was the first woman to sail across the Pacific and I didn’t believe him, especially in the state it was in. I was like, ‘no way.'”
But once the boat sank, Fredericks paddled his kayak for a closer look at it and saw something that made him rethink what he’d been so certain of.
“That was the only boat that had a plexiglass bubble on it,” Fredericks explained. “I looked at pictures, I did a lot of research and I’m like, ‘that’s the boat.’ There’s no other boats with a plexiglass bubble so I was convinced, I knew it was the boat.”
It was the same plexiglass bubble Adams had invented nearly a half-century before to help her and Sea Sharp II on their Pacific crossing. At low tide, Fredericks wrestled the helm off the boat, wanting to save a piece of its history. He started searching for Adams.
“I wondered if the woman who sailed the boat across the ocean was still alive because it happened so long ago.”
Fredericks connected with Adams’ friends Lilli and Carol through social media. In fact, one of them, Lilli, is the same woman we featured last summer in this AJ In Action special. That was in July of 2020, with the world fully engulfed in the COVID-19 pandemic so John couldn’t make the drive to Oregon to deliver the helm himself and instead mailed it to Adams’ friends. Her friends hadn’t told her about connecting with John, or the piece of her long-lost friend he’d recovered until lunch one day.
“[Carol] said, ‘do you like surprises?’ And I said, ‘I love surprises,'” recalled Adams. “There was this big brown box on the table, and it was tied with a rope. I untied the rope and opened the box and burst into tears.”
That piece of Sea Sharp II now sits where it rightfully belongs — in Sharon’s apartment in Southeast Portland, where she’ll celebrate her 91st birthday on May 29th.
“I can look over and see her all the time,” says Adams with a smile. “Every morning I open the blinds and I caress the king spoke and say, ‘thank you, John.’ And every night when I close the blinds, I do the same thing.
“It’s a part of me, you know. At my age, I figure I don’t have too much time left on this earth and to have it, it’s kind of closed a circle.”
If you’d like to learn more about The Pacific Lady, Adams wrote a book about her adventures, her childhood growing up in Prineville and the records she set. You can find it here.