A Mechanic Falls bridge may be named after solo sailor who vanished 40 years ago

Mar. 5—Forty years ago, Bill Dunlop of Mechanic Falls sailed away from the Cook Islands in Polynesia, determined to complete a circumnavigation of the globe in his tiny, one-man sailboat named Wind's Will. Nobody ever saw him again.

However, the 43-year-old man who vanished in the summer of 1984 remains an inspiration.

The Legislature's Transportation Committee took steps Tuesday to ensure Dunlop's story will remain visible for generations to come by endorsing a proposal to rename a bridge in his hometown the Bill Dunlop Memorial Bridge.

The Elm Street span, which crosses the Little Androscoggin River, carries the unmemorable name of Bridge #2540. It is slated for an overhaul in 2025, officials said, which makes the renaming timely.

Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican, who sponsored the measure, called Dunlop "an incredible adventurer and sailor" whose example still spurs people "to take adventures of their own."

The transportation panel unanimously agreed to back Bennett's bill, which had been endorsed by the Mechanic Falls Town Council and the town's historical society. It still needs the backing of the entire Legislature, but nobody expects any trouble passing the proposal.

Hailing Dunlop's "exploits and courage," Rep. Sawin Millet, a Waterford Republican, called the renaming of the bridge "long overdue."

"This has been a lifelong dream of mine," Kim Dunlop Davis, the sailor's only child, said.

She said because her father's body was never recovered, the bridge will provide a place of remembrance. Davis said it is fitting that it will be beside flowing water.

Before setting out on his bid to go round the world, Dunlop made a successful solo crossing of the North Atlantic in his 9-foot-long boat as well as another trip through what reports of the era called "the dangerous Bermuda Triangle."

He set a world's record in 1982 for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest boat, taking 78 days to sail 3,400 miles from Portland's harbor to England.

The following year he set out again from Portland on what he expected would be a three-year voyage that would take him, after thousands of miles at sea, back to the same spot in Maine.

He got a long way, sailing south to the Panama Canal and then halfway across the Pacific Ocean in what Bennett described as "a boat a little larger than a bathtub."

But Wind's Will and its solo sailor disappeared after Dunlop left the Cook Islands on June 23, 1984, with the intention of reaching Australia about three months later. He never turned up.

It appears that his boat was probably swamped during a vicious storm just a few days after his departure in Polynesia, a time when the little vessel christened with water from Auburn's Taylor Pond was loaded down with supplies for the long crossing in the south Pacific.

A note washed up in Australia at the time, written on block letters, that hinted Dunlop might be stranded and starving on an isolated island. But no trace of him ever emerged.

He had, though, already achieved a certain measure of fame, at least in Maine.

A 1982 celebration in Mechanic Falls drew a big crowd, including the state's top politicians, and a parade that crossed Bridge #2540. Bennett said at the time some locals called the town Dunlopville in his honor.

"It is fitting that this bridge," Bennett said, "be renamed for such a remarkable man."

"It's an important part of Maine history," Sen. Brad Farrin, a Norridgewock Republican, said.

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