He saw a robed man riding a tiny donkey in the remote Egyptian desert, one hand holding a switch, the other text-messaging. He listened on the radio to the panicked voices on three ships under attack from pirates off the coast of Oman.

 

He stood on the edge of a bubbling volcano in Vanuatu and made the trek to see the men who jump from platforms with vines tied to their ankles. He spent weeks touring Australia and took leisurely months to poke around every corner of the Mediterranean.

He tested his fear of heights and went skydiving in South Africa, and chartered a plane in southern Chile for jaw-dropping views of its mountains and long coast. And he saw for himself the tropical gorgeousness of Bora Bora, though he wasn't crazy about the touristy nature of the place.

Phil Phillips took five years and two days to meander around the world on the Indigo, his 105-foot motor yacht. As he pulled closer to home, he wondered, "What's next?"

And he had just one regret: that he hadn't added another year to the trip. There were some spots, after all, that he missed along the way — even after the Indigo made 261 stops, even after it traveled 45,467.9 miles.

But he knows this: "I've lived a blessed life."

Phillips is a 65-year-old Jacksonville developer of suburban office buildings. In business, he says, he worked hard, made mistakes, took risks and was both lucky and smart, selling his holdings to a German fund right before the crash.

He'd figured he'd wait until he was 65 to go around the globe. But then came the death in 2005 of his longtime friend, one-time U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler, who was just 62. That made him ponder the preciousness of time and what we do with it when we have it.

He left a year later, at age 60.

Phillips said he learned one big thing about himself on his round-the-world trip: "Discovering how wrong how many of the stereotypical judgments I'd developed over my life were."

About Muslims, for example. In the Middle East, he was invited into homes, ate with his hosts, met their families. He calls Oman one of his favorite stops.

"They were the most wholesome families. Gentle-natured. The kids were all well-scrubbed, clean." Society was highly regimented, to be sure, but in a way it was like old TV, like "Father Knows Best." He was impressed.

He spent two months in Thailand and became appreciative of Buddhist society, especially outside Bangkok. And he loved Mumbai, where he felt safe walking even the most impoverished street.

Not every part of the trip went smoothly. There were a couple places with scary bad weather — sudden winds out of Patagonia in Argentina tipped the Indigo practically sideways, and six days of high seas on the Red Sea tested the stomachs of all on board.

His crew quit on him right before the Gulf of Aden's pirate territory; he had to hire a new crew and a couple of well-armed security guards. And as he pulled from port, he heard attacks on the radio; he flew an Omani flag on the Indigo and walked the decks in Arab robes, trying his best not to look like a rich American.

His wife, Kitty, joined him at stops along the way, as did their son, Grant, 22, and family friends. But for much of the time it was just Phillips and his crew of six (captain, engineer, chef, stewardess and two mates), which turned over several times over the five years.

Phillip's adventures with motorboats — "I like to go fast" — began with an embarrassing trip to St. Augustine, where he could barely maneuver into a slip. Over the years the boats became bigger and the trips more adventurous, taking him to Alaska (his favorite place) and around both U.S. coasts.

So by March 27, 2006, he was ready to tackle the world, leaving port at Fort Lauderdale and heading south.

The Indigo, he says, is not a cocktail boat, though certainly cocktails were served. It's an exploratory vessel weighing 280 tons, with a steel hull and a range of about 4,000 miles without refueling. The usual speed was about 10 knots, burning 24 gallons of fuel an hour.

The trip was expensive. The total bill? He left it to his office in Jacksonville to handle. "To this day, I have no idea," Phillips says. "I mean, I have a rough idea. It was expensive."

Some friends wondered about his trip, says Kitty Phillips, a retired attorney who was part of the so-called "dream team" of lawyers in Florida's $11.3 billion settlement with the tobacco industry.

"People used to say to me, 'How can you let him go away for so long?' Let? This wasn't an issue of letting him do this. This was a life dream. How could anyone get in the way of that?"

He wasn't on board the Indigo the entire time. He came home every three to six months to see family. And at various ports he would rent a car or board a plane and travel far into the interior, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Fowler's husband, Buck Fowler, met Phillips in Italy for two weeks last year. "He was prepared," Fowler says. "He does all his homework, he knows the history. He also meets a lot of people — one of the things that he brought away from his trip is that he made a lot of friends along the way."

Phillips pulled into Fort Lauderdale March 29, safe — and already restless.

At 65, he's thinking of how he's seen men he knows — strong, active men — start to fade as they get older. "My world will start getting smaller one day when I get to a certain age," he says. "Until that happens ..."

The Indigo is due to join its owner in Jacksonville this week, where he'll anchor it downtown. But not for long: On Thursday, he plans to be gone again, heading north.

Destination: Greenland, then on through the Northwest Passage to his beloved Alaska, down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and on to home.

Home again, once more.

matt.soergel@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4082