I’ve heard of a woman without fear before. She lived a life most of us only dream of living and only movies seem to portray. From the ocean floor to mountain peaks and everything in between, Donna Matson explored it all. Born in 1930 in Southern California, she lived in an era that makes her life as a world traveler even more impressive and path-paving for others to now follow.
I would love to be able to sit down for coffee with Donna and hear first-hand the stories she would tell.
It’d be obvious to ask what it felt like to be the first American woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or what it was like learning to ski on the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. But more than anything I’d want to hear her stories about sailing on the seas aboard Whistlin’ Riggin. From its construction in 1979 until her dying day, Donna owned Whistlin’ Riggin’, a 36’ Union Polaris sailboat. Aboard she sailed in waters of all conditions and was known for throwing caution to the wind as she lifted her sails in weather of all kind – foolish or fearless, who’s to say? Over the past year I’ve been given the privilege to peel back the layers of these adventures, project by project, as my husband and I restore Whistlin’ Riggin’ to live a second life on the water.
Peeling Back the Layers
The first day I ever saw Whistlin’ Riggin’, it felt like I had been transported back a few decades. Everything about this sailboat was classic from beautiful bronze port lights to a towering wooden mast and teak decks. Most everything on board was as Donna had last left it, just a few years back before she passed away in 2015. She loved this boat well and sailed all the way into her 80’s, continuing as she had in her younger years, single-handing the cutter rig from Southern California around the Pacific Ocean. Over time, repairs and updates had been made but it was now clear that some of the bigger issues that had slowly developed had to be addressed if Whistlin’ Riggin’ would ever sail the distance again. My husband and I agreed that together, we would take on the restoration and relocate our lives 2,700 miles to the opposite U.S. to do so. Donna may have lived a life without fear, but when we made this choice, I was full of it.
Our Adventure to California
Just a month after our wedding, our car was packed and we were enroute to the West Coast. We left behind us our first sailboat together that we put on the market to sell so we could begin this adventure out west. We prayed it would sell by the winter for a reasonable price and our risk-taking would be rewarded. If it wasn’t, we’d be forced to incur additional costs to maintain it until the winter passed and buyers were eager to get on the water once again. Fear took a strange form at this point, one I did not recognize, as the possibility of being financially unstable with my largest-ever purchase sitting all the way across the country. What if it never sells? What if a storm comes and leaves behind toothpicks? We left that boat with trusted friends and headed out with the acknowledgement that this would be a “see you later” rather than “goodbye.” We were all sailors with dreams of traveling our world’s oceans, so it was understood that as we took off we would meet once again in what remained an undetermined location.
Since that day, it’s been about a year and a half and at times throughout the journey of fully restoring an old boat, once loved so well, I really thought we might not make it. It seemed that every time we began one project, we uncovered three more that we didn’t know about. “What if we uncovered something that was just too much?” fear whispered.
I was kept going by both our vision for what’s to come and the foundation for adventure laid by Donna. With her love for travel, adventure, and learning along the way, Donna created an educational film company that produced and distributed instructional films in schools all across the world about topics like “Exploring South America” and “Lands and People of Our World.”
It is through her inspiration that we have started Neverland Ocean Learning.
Our desire for it is that we are able to create educational content that excites youth about the ocean, to live their lives just as adventurously as Donna did. Whenever I sit back and think I may just be in too deep with this one, I consider the many times I’m sure Donna felt this way as she pioneered her way as an entrepreneur through the film industry;