Colombia I (1961-63) group was the first to go to Peace Corps Training and these PCVs had the first of the many famous CDs who served in the agency. In some ways their director was the most famous of all. His name was Christopher Sheldon and he is the sort of person legends are made of, and books written about. In fact, a book and a movie were written about Christopher Sheldon. If it had been his book, it would have been a love story about himself and his wife, and how they met on Capt. Irving Johnson’s last voyage around the globe, and how his new bride perished at sea.
It was typical of Shriver to select someone like Chris Sheldon to be a CD, but it was Mary Bunting who suggested Chris Sheldon to Shriver. Bunting was on the Peace Corps Advisor Board. She was also the President of Radcliffe College, and the woman responsible for fully integrating women into Harvard University. Bunting raised her hand at an early Advisory Meeting and said to Shriver, “I have a young men for your Colombia project! Chris Sheldon.”
Christopher Sheldon was Shriver’s kind of guy. He had attended private schools and graduated from the University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru. He earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, then a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Madrid.
A sailor from the age of 15, Sheldon, in 1956, went to work for Capt. Irving Johnson on his last voyage around-the-world. On this two year trip (19’56-’58) Sheldon took pictures for National Geographic magazine, and he met Alice Strahan, one of the first women to graduate from Cornell Medical School. Alice was the medical doctor on the Yankee.
Alice would become Sheldon’s wife in May of 1959 and together they founded the Ocean Academy as a sailing prep school. In 1959 they bought a 92-foot brigantine Albatross as their floating school house. Sheldon believed that the sea was a “great molder of character.” Students paid $3,250 for an academic year of study, including Spanish and celestial navigation, taught by Sheldon.
On September 20, 1960, he picked up his third group of student in Bermuda. At the beginning he was worried about Hurricane Donna, but it turned out to be a rainstorm. There was no way, however, to predict a squall, a short, sharp storm of wind. Sailors use the term ‘white squall’ because of the whitecaps that sometimes precede such a story, which meteorologists call a microburst.
About 8:30 a.m. on May 2, 1961, the Albatross was gliding through a slight mist in calm seas 180 miles west of Key West on the way to Nassau. Suddenly, a single bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, and a blast of wind smacked the ship.
“It was as if a giant hand took hold of us,” Sheldon said in a 1996 interview with People magazine. “In 15 second the Albatross was on its side. In 60 seconds it filled with water. And then it was gone–the ocean was calm.”
Four students, the ship’s cook, and Alice Sheldon vanished. Sheldon, 11 students and an English and math teacher scrambled into lifeboats. They were rescued a day later by a passing Dutch freighter. One of the survivors was William P. Bunting, the son of Mary Bunting, the president of Radcliffe College.
Only months after the terrible accident, President Bunting told Sarge Shriver about Sheldon and Sarge offered Sheldon the job of Peace Corps Country Director of Colombia. Sheldon was fluent in Spanish and had lived and studied in Latin America. Later he said that the job as Peace Corps Director in Colombia kept him alive.
In 1965, Sheldon left the Peace Corps and bought a 130-foot ship, the Verona, for use as another floating school. On its second voyage, the Veronacaught fire near the west coast of Central Africa. The fire destoryed the vessel, but all aboard escaped.
Returning to the Peace Corps in 1967, he took charge of the training center in Puerto Rico. After that tour, he moved on with his life and served on the board of the Institute of General Semantics, which is based on the language theories of the philosopher Alfred Korzybski.
A book about this tragedy, The Last Voyage of the Albatross, was written in 1963 by Chuck Gieg, a student who survived the incident, and then in 1996 a movie, White Squall, directed by Ridley Scott, came out. Jeff Bridges played the part of Chris Sheldon.
Chris Sheldon never remarried, he never started another school, and he never stopped sailing. At the age of 76, on October 5, 2002, he died of pancreatic cancer in Norwalk, Connicultt.