Bruce Kessler Dies at 88

He logged more than 100,000 nautical miles and was among the first Americans to circumnavigate the globe on a motoryacht.
Bruce Kessler
Bruce Kessler, who was one of the first Americans to circumnavigate the globe on a motoryacht, died on April 4. He was 88 years old.

Bruce Kessler, who logged more than 100,000 nautical miles as a captain and was one of the first Americans to circumnavigate the globe on a motoryacht, died April 4. He was 88 years old.

Born in Seattle, Kessler lived most of his life in California. He became a race car driver at age 16, and he drove for Ferrari at age 22 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After several crashes, he retired from racing and made the film The Sound of Speed, which was the U.S. entry in its category at the 1962 Cannes International Film Festival. It was the world’s first film to use the technique of car-mounted cameras to show the driver’s point of view.

Kessler became known in Hollywood for shooting car chases, and he went on to direct four movies and multiple television series, including episodes of Mission Impossible, The Rockford Files, MacGyver, Knight Rider, Hart to Hart and The Commish.

He also was a lifelong boater and angler. His first boat was a 26-foot sport-fisherman in 1960, and he eventually owned sport-fishers as big as 48 feet. His homeport was San Diego, and he went on excursions deep into the Mexican state of Baja California, before deciding to move into trawler-style yachts.

Kessler hired naval architect Steve Seaton to design a boat that Delta Marine built. Zopilote—named for black buzzards—was 70 feet long with a 20-foot beam, 10-foot draft and 116-ton displacement. It launched May 1, 1985, and was painted a deep, rich, British racing green. Kessler cruised aboard Zopilote with actress Joan Freeman from Seattle to Alaska, then down the West Coast to Panama, through the canal, on to Florida, then to Maine and the Caribbean before returning to Southern California.

In 1990, the couple departed California bound for the South Pacific on what would become a 35,000-mile circumnavigation. When they arrived in Fort Lauderdale from Europe in 1993, Zopilote became the sixth powerboat to complete a circumnavigation. Zopilote appeared on the cover of Yachting twice during the trip.

Kessler became a popular speaker at boat shows, yacht clubs and other events. He also helped to create and promote powerboat rallies, including the FUBAR rally (now known as the San Diego Yacht Club’s CUBAR rally) and the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally.

After Zopilote struck an uncharted ledge in Alaska and sank in 1994, Kessler built the 64-foot Seaton design Spirit of Zopilote. It was Northern Marine’s first build, delivered in 1997. For the next 27 years, Kessler and Freeman lived and cruised aboard from Alaska through the Panama Canal and on to Florida, the Bahamas and the Canadian Maritimes. They made Maine’s Southwest Harbor their homeport during summers.

Kessler was the first powerboater elected to membership in the Cruising Club of America. He also was a member of the Ocean Cruising Club, the Del Rey Yacht Club, the Southwestern Yacht Club in San Diego, the Marlin Club in San Diego, and the Tuna Club on Catalina Island. He was an Honorary Commodore of the Seven Seas Cruising Association.

Where to send donations in lieu of flowers: Del Rey Yacht Club Youth Sailing in California, Mount Desert Island Community Sailing Center in Southwest Harbor, Maine, or to any local yacht club youth sailing program.