Sailing quest tests couple’s skills and bond
A thousand days at sea-that was the couple’s dreamy plan. They’d crisscross oceans aboard their 70-foot sailboat, the Anne, never making landfall, never resupplying.
It would be an inspired adventure, which they viewed in different ways.
The voyage “is an experiment in the psychology of what it takes for humans to live in a dangerous situation, isolated and self-sufficient,” Reid Stowe told The Associated Press, speaking from the Anne in the rugged South Atlantic, with the satellite telephone line dropping several times.
His crewmate Soanya Ahmad, now back on dry land in Queens, N.Y., where she’s raising the baby son conceived on board, sums up the trip in a phrase: “A voyage of the heart.” That’s the title of a book she’s writing.
It’s quite a story, with an ending that’s still to be written, and a middle full of thrills, perils and even a quest for a world record.
The story’s beginning has a quirky, almost Hollywood quality.
Ahmad was a 20-year-old college student when she first met Stowe a half dozen years ago. She was photographing Manhattan’s West Side waterfront where he had docked his rugged, homemade schooner at Pier 66.
“He invited me aboard. It was my first time on a sailboat,” says the daughter of ethnic Indian immigrants from Guyana, both accountants who raised her and her two brothers in Queens.
“Reid was looking for someone to go with him,” says Ahmad, “And at first, I said no. But then…”
She says she was fascinated by this man who turned his flights of fancy into reality. When she first spotted him, she wrote in her journal, she was a rather shy young woman “unused to approaching strangers and asking them to take pictures of themselves or their belongings-especially strangers who have transparent gray eyes that seem to have seen distances far greater than I could ever imagine.”
Within several months, the delicate, 5-foot-tall young woman boarded the boat and put her life into the hands of the 6-foot-1 sailor, 32 years her senior, whose face is weathered by decades of adventures to every continent, including Antarctica.
Stowe had set out on his first sea journey as a teenager, dropping out of college in Arizona and sailing from Hawaii to the South Pacific with another young man.
For years after that, he found work at boatyards and as a skipper in the Caribbean, while selling some of his own sculptures and paintings. (Some of his carvings decorate the Anne today.) In 1999, he and his then French wife, also an artist, made it through 197 days together at sea.
He had fallen in love with the water as a boy on vacation with his grandfather, who owned a beach house on the North Carolina coast. That’s as grounded as Stowe ever was, the oldest of six siblings whose father was a U.S. Air Force officer who kept the family on the move around the United States, Germany and the Philippines.
By the 1970s, in North Carolina, Stowe and his relatives had built the 70-foot schooner Anne, naming it after his mother. With a fiberglass and steel hull and wooden interior, the boat was modeled after seaworthy 19th century American vessels-”round like a bottle, with a deep keel, so it floats like a duck in rough seas, and cuts through the water like a submarine,” he says.
In the past few years, the Anne has been tested to the extreme.
Before they pushed off on April 21, 2007, from Hoboken, N.J., which faces Manhattan across the Hudson River, Stowe and Ahmad crammed the boat with supplies.
The food ranged from rice and beans to tomato sauce, pasta, pesto, olives, chocolate, spices-plus one luxury: about 200 pounds of parmesan cheese. Ahmad also brought along some of her favorite Indian spices-cumin, curry, masala.
Provisions included coal and firewood for the iron heating stove and fuel for limited motoring, with solar panels powering the electronics on board. Water would be collected from rainfall and the sea, using a desalinator.
With small funds from friends and family supporting the record-breaking attempt, plus donated equipment and food supplies, the schooner disappeared into the sunset “on a warm spring day with a light breeze,” Ahmad wrote on their online log.
“Reid had the first watch from about 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and I woke up and watched from about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.”
That meant being vigilant for other vessels and braced for the fierce wind she called “our capricious master.”
Within days, heading south in the Atlantic, they hit stormy weather.
“I felt horrible enough to wish the waves would stop their rolling for a few minutes and I even took a pill,” she wrote. “I felt better later in the day and actually got some rice and beans down.”
In their bunk, pitching around on the violent ocean, “I clung to Reid and hoped he didn’t notice me clinging,” she wrote. But “I was more scared of losing Reid than of the storm.”
During the day, they had to fix leaks that sprung up-a task that tapped Stowe’s imagination.
“Many of the things that I do on the boat make me feel connected to ancient man,” Stowe wrote. “Like me, early man caught fish and prayed for rain. He also tried to stop leaks everywhere from his water bag to his log canoe.”
Ahmad endured both fear and isolation, she says, because however “unlikely” their relationship is, “from the inside, it is a perfect love.”
She and Stowe balanced one another as a crew at sea, she observed recently in her journal: “Where Reid might overreact, I was calm. Where I lacked the energy or manual skill to complete a task, Reid more than made up for it. We complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Stowe had proposed a trip of 1,000 days at sea without resupplying or stops, which he compared to interplanetary travel-”the Mars Ocean Odyssey.” But it nearly ended in disaster soon after it began.
Fifteen days after the couple sailed from Hoboken, they collided with a freighter in the Atlantic, smashing the Anne’s bowsprit and mast.
“It looked like everything was over,” Stowe says now by sat phone. “I got all stressed out, but Soanya was very calm. She steadied me and said, ‘Yes, we can go on.’”
The repairs took a month, “and we drifted until we could sail normally again,” Ahmad remembers.
After crossing the Equator on the 90th day, an excited Ahmad wrote: “We’ve been picking up enough flying fish off the deck every morning to have fish with every meal.”
There were also romantic interludes.
“Full moon nights on the ocean are magnificent,” she wrote on the 186th day. “The sky is suffused with a soft luminosity as if dawn were arriving at any moment. The waves are mesmerizing.”
But on the 230th day, her tone was changed as conditions worsened, with strong winds that rocked the boat in the Indian Ocean. She wrote: “I’m not sure it’s healthy to take seasick pills every day for the next two months while we’re down here. … I spend a good deal of my day curled up on the pilothouse bunk trying not to move around too much unless I really have to. I hope it goes away soon.”
By Day 289, on Feb. 6, 2008, she knew pregnancy was causing this seasickness-and her fluctuating mood. “It’s not easy to be loving all of the time. It takes as much work to remember to be loving as it does to act out frustration or negative feeling.”
Still, it was wrenching for both to decide she had to leave.
On her last day aboard, she wrote, “I am parting from someone I care very deeply about who will face challenges that I have come to know well.”
“Together we have made memories we will never forget. … Here’s to the longest man and woman nonstop sea voyage in history and the longest nonstop time a woman has ever spent at sea.”
The two had sailed together for 305 straight days when, near Australia, Ahmad was helped off the Anne by a fellow long-distance sailor. From Perth, Australia, she flew home to New York, where on July 16, she gave birth to their son Darshen. His name is Sanskrit for a glimpse of something divine.
Stowe sailed on, and he’s still sailing. In February of this year, he had been alone at sea for almost a year, though he keeps in touch with a nearly daily log posted on a Web site by satellite phone.
To reach his 1,000-day goal, Stowe faces another eight months of solitude and, at times, terrors.
Gale force winds have blown huge holes in his sails, which he’s always mending.
“I am sending an extra update today,” Stowe wrote in his Web journal, “to take a little time off since my hands are so sore from constantly working, sewing sails and pulling ropes. But I am always ready if something comes up.”
One day in the middle of the South Atlantic, roaring seas capsized the Anne, submerging the sails and knocking Stowe into the cabin wall. The waves crashed over the schooner, “and had me hanging on with my heart beating,” he wrote. “I am a little gun-shy now, after capsizing, losing my staysail and blowing out my old red foresail.”
Ahmad, no longer there to help, supports him in spirit, writing daily e-mails, calling when possible, and sending digital photos of Darshen.
Also monitoring Stowe’s travels is Charles Doane, editor-at-large of Sail magazine. “I check his positions every day,” he says.
Already, Stowe “has set the record of the longest nonstop, unsupplied voyage at sea,” says Doane, adding that proof the schooner has not touched land comes from a GPS satellite system tracking the voyage, along with regular photos and videos posted on the Web.
“I want to inspire people to follow their dreams,” Stowe says. And in fact, the voyage serves as a vicarious adventure for some young virtual sailors-second-graders at a Virginia school whose teacher, Mindy Morrison, wrote to the wandering mariner that his Web site was helping them locate continents and oceans, making geography “more tangible and more importantly, FUN!”
Stowe has his detractors: authors of Internet posts who paint him as a fraudulent, Svengali-like figure who seduces women and spirits them into danger. One blogger pointed out that Stowe had been convicted of drug dealing.
He acknowledges having served nine months in prison for conspiracy to deal drugs in the Caribbean-helping transfer marijuana from a Colombian vessel to some yachts in 1987.
“But what I’m doing now is an honorable thing-working hard and keeping love in the forefront to guide my actions,” he says.
Doane likens Stowe to French sailor Bernard Moitessier, who in the 1960s completed the first nonstop round-the-world race. “He was a very spiritual person on a spiritual enterprise,” says Doane, and Stowe “is in that tradition.”
In his journal, Stowe has referred to Moitessier as “my lifelong hero of enlightened long-distance sailing.”
More than 700 days into the voyage as of April, Stowe’s many repairs are holding, sprouts for salads grow in boxes on the Anne’s deck, and he catches fish daily.
“I have an excellent diet,” he says. “And I feel very close to a universal god.”
He still wants to break the record of 657 days alone at sea set in 1988 by Australian Jon Sanders, who was part of the team that helped Ahmad leave the schooner near Australia.
Stowe himself aims to return in January 2010 after 1,000 days.
For now, the couple’s plans for the future are on hold. “I have to stay focused on the moment,” he says.
But they’re “still a couple, albeit from a long distance,” she wrote on the Web site. “We do plan to be together when he returns.”
“I’m her man,” he confirmed from more than 6,000 miles away at sea.
“I have no idea,” she says brightly, adding that he’s told her “all the stuff he wants to do with the baby when he gets back.”
Stowe says he’ll return to land “to be the best man and father I can. We probably will get married.”
Ahmad has no regrets about taking the trip, or about the separation. “When it comes to making certain life decisions, there’s a feeling, when you’re doing the right thing, that it’s the right thing-something solid inside.”
On the Net:
1000 Days at Sea: http://1000days.net/home
By VERENA DOBNIK
The Associated Press