Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife

Open Mic is the series on BLISTER where we invite various people in the outdoor industry to say what they have to say, and share whatever it is they feel like sharing at this particular point in time.

Today, we hear from Pete Willauer

Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife, BLISTER

Throughout my early childhood, a mysterious pirate-looking fellow would show up from time to time at major family gatherings. I have many uncles, but standing six-foot-four, with broad shoulders, bronze skin, and a 12-inch Bowie knife hanging from his hip, Uncle John was “the one with the knife.” I remember wondering if he was an actual pirate.

Uncle John sailed around the world on a replica Viking knarr, (or Norwegian merchant ship) the Saga Siglar, and again on the Søren Larsen, a Brigantine tall ship. He also crewed on many other large historical and educational vessels over a ten year period.

During his rare visits to the US, he would always share stories from far-off oceans and recount magical interactions with wildlife, treacherous ocean conditions, and the raw beauty of the natural world – all of which fueled my imagination for years.

Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife, BLISTER
Uncle John

I grew up steeped in ocean tradition and outdoor education. My parents, with their own illustrious sea stories and inspiring life experiences, shaped me daily with their presence, but Uncle John shaped me in his absence. He wasn’t at the forefront of my childhood by any means, but he represented someone who was inherently trustable, yet was so different from anyone I had known, stretching my perception of what I thought possible in life. Exploring beyond the horizon of both the physical and meta-physical worlds, John was unfiltered, he loved unapologetically, and smelled like tar from the traditional rigging of ships. He carried a Bowie knife in public.

Now, years later, I recognize that the quality in him I most admired was that he was so clearly guided by his heart. He went all in on his pursuit of exploration. He sailed around the world for a decade, following his passions and making lifelong friends wherever he went, and then returned home to start a family. In 2016, however, he was tragically killed in a car crash a few miles from his home in Massachusetts. John’s life (and death) inspired me to explore beyond my perceived horizon and to let my heart be my compass.

Currently, I find myself sailing around the world on my own 40’ steel sailboat, living an unconventional lifestyle and being a somewhat absentee Uncle. Last week my niece turned seven, and I’m thousands of miles away on a small boat in a foreign land. I see photos of my niece and nephew growing up so fast and sometimes wish I could be more present in their lives. In those moments, I think of Uncle John, the way he expanded my possibilities and exemplified a life forged by the fire of one’s own heart. My hope is that even in the slightest of ways, I can carry that same torch forward.  

Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife, BLISTER
Photo by Pete Willauer

While refitting our boat, Sea Bear, in a wet Panamanian boat yard, I met a sailor, surfer, and gem of a human named Eli. For the past seven years, he’s been living a similar lifestyle on his own boat and, after completing our time in the boatyard, we surfed together for a few weeks.

One particular morning, we sat anchored in the dark for a few minutes, watching the swell and drinking coffee as the thunderous rumble of the empty waves sent shivers down my spine.

Eli took a sip out of his mug and I laughed at the engraving on the side: ‘Best Uncle Ever’ it read.

“Did you get that from your niece and nephew?” I asked.

“Nope”, he said with a smirk, “I found it on the side of the road in El Salvador.”

“Ahh, but are you the Best Uncle Ever?”

“I try to be — I don’t see them as much as I would like,” he said and then chuckled as he paddled toward the empty break, “but I like to think I’m doing ok.”

Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife, BLISTER
Sailor, surfer, and gem of a human named Eli
What IS our responsibility to the people we love? What is the best way to balance showing up for the people we care about and pursuing our passions fully? I don’t have the answer, and I don’t always know what to do. What I do know is that time and energy spent waffling in the middle — worrying that I’m not showing up enough, while also not fully buying into my passion — is unproductive. I also know that of ALL the people with potential to shape my young mind, present or otherwise, John had a huge impact on what I am doing now. As a kid, I sure as hell didn’t think about how he wasn’t around; I was just hoping that when he came back, he’d share more stories and If I was lucky, he’d let me hold that knife.
Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife, BLISTER
Pete Willauer and Angel Collinson, sailing the world

About Pete Willauer

Pete Willauer is an outdoor adventure photographer and filmmaker. He seeks out artists, athletes and artisans in their flow state, and aims to use dramatic natural lighting, composition and subjects in their element to capture the magic in between. He and his partner are sailing around the world on their 40’ sailboat “SEA BEAR” and they are currently in BOCAS DEL TORO.

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5 comments on “Pete Willauer: The One with the Knife”

  1. Love the writing Pete! Resonates for me being an uncle often in places far away from the nieces and nephews. Keep up the good work!!

  2. Being in the middle, not committed to one or the other, no matter what those “others” are is the worst choice. I’ve been following you and Angel throughout your journey and have been fascinated and inspired the whole way. This was a great piece. Peace and love to you both.

  3. I really, really enjoyed reading this, Pete. Especially as one who feels the wind sailing in both directions, pulling me towards exploration and wonder but also the longing and wonder of missing time and experiences with family. Thank you ~

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