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After a year spent refitting Saoirse, Fighter Pilot John Peltier set off on Oct. 20, 2012 to cruise south toward Patagonia. Photo credit Jules Norwood
After a year spent refitting Saoirse, Fighter Pilot John Peltier set off on Oct. 20, 2012 to cruise south toward Patagonia. Photo credit Jules Norwood

A Fighter Pilot Slows Down

“The most difficult difference to get over is the speed. I’m going from 500 knots to 5 knots.”

John Peltier is actually being modest. The F-15E Strike Eagles that he spent the last decade piloting for the U.S. Air Force can reach Mach 2.5 – well over 1,000 knots. Now retired from the Air Force and traveling aboard a Pacific Seacraft Orion 27, it will take him weeks – or more – to cover distances that he’s flown in a matter of hours.

“A slower life pace is what I was looking for, so I suppose it’s a good thing,” he says, laughing.

Peltier was drawn to flight for the excitement, and succeeded in his career as a pilot, rising through the ranks to become a trainer for the next generation of pilots. He deployed twice to Afghanistan and flew just short of 120 combat missions. The days were long and stressful, he says, and there was little time off. As he approached the 10-year mark, he had a decision to make between continuing his career for another 10 years or leaving to do something else.

A day of lake sailing on a Sunfish in early 2011 brought back a rush of childhood memories of sailing trips along the southern California coast, maritime museums, and seeing tall ships in San Diego.

“I was always drawing sailboats as a kid and dreamed of the day I’d be able to have adventures in a sailboat of my own,” says Peltier. “My first big sailing trip was a family bareboat charter in the British Virgin Islands when I was 16. I was definitely hooked.”

The same things that attracted him to flight drew him to sailing – travel, adventure, and adrenaline – even though the pace couldn’t be more different. But there was little time for sailing in the Air Force, although he was stationed near the North Carolina coast. If he was going to follow his childhood sailing dreams, he would have to do it now, he decided. A plan quickly took shape.

“I was a complete nerd about buying a boat,” he says.

He made a spreadsheet comparing the different qualities of dozens of boats, looking for one big enough to live on, but small enough to singlehand. He considered hull design, rigs, builder reputation and seaworthiness. And most importantly, she had to look like a salty classic boat.

In August 2011, Peltier purchased his Orion 27, which he renamed Saoirse.

“The name means freedom or liberty,” he says. “I wanted an Irish name to honor that side of my family, and freedom and liberty are exactly what the boat means to me.”

For the next year he lived aboard the boat at Carolina Wind Yachting Center in Washington, N.C., finishing out his time with the USAF while simultaneously refitting the Orion for his trip. He replaced the standing rigging and lifelines, added navigation equipment and self-steering gear, installed solar panels, and had new sails made. Pacific Seacraft, the boat’s original manufacturer, converted the steering from wheel to tiller, and the factory staff also provided invaluable advice.

Peltier sold or donated most of what he owned as he adapted to life aboard. Downsizing was daunting, but liberating in the end, he says. Reality really set in when he sold his Jeep.

“That’s when I knew it was really happening,” he says. “It was time to go.”

His plan is to sail through the Caribbean and then along the South American coast over the next few years, documenting the trip through photographs and articles.

“I’m going to take my time and see the sights and meet the people, sticking close to land,” he says. “I’m not trying to check things off of a list, but rather immerse myself in other locales and cultures. However, I am looking forward to seeing the lesser-known Caribbean islands, diving on wrecks and reefs, hiking Patagonia, and hopefully even making it to Easter Island and the Galapagos … but those are still years away.”

Reactions to his plans have ranged from excitement to concern and disbelief, he said. For him, it was simply a realization that now is the time.

“Just go!” he said. “So many people talk and talk and talk about doing things like this, but talking about it is as far as they get. You’ll never get another chance at it as certain as you have now. If you think that you can put it off for a few decades, you’re risking it because you never know what your life will be like decades from now.”

Peltier left North Carolina in late October. After hiding from Hurricane Sandy for a few days near Charleston, S.C., he sailed south to the Bahamas. After a stop in Haiti, he was in the Dominican Republic in late February.

Follow his journey and view the photographs he takes along the way at www.jmpeltier.com.

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