The Five-Year Voyage: Exploring Latin American Coasts and Rivers
by Stephen Ladd
Seekers Press 241 pages; $16.95
This is not a book written in the tradition of the great classics of blue-water voyaging—tales of writer-adventurers battling heavy Atlantic seas or running free before the Pacific trades in their wood-or-steel schooners, yawls or ketches.
The Five-Year Voyage is hardly a sea story at all. It is instead a riveting account by author Stephen Ladd of the pleasures and pain of international coasting and river cruising in the equivalent of an oversized fishing dory.
Based on an old Herreshoff design, Ladd’s 1985 flat-bottomed Sea Pearl had an LOA of 21 feet with a five-foot beam and nine-inch draft. The enclosed cabin was little more than a crawl space. Propulsion was oar-powered later supplemented by a small Honda outboard with an assist — when the wind was right — from a pair of loose-footed sails.
Navigation was by GPS and Google Earth, and nightly stops were in what Ladd optimistically calls “refuges” — coves, beaches, reef openings and river mouths. He’d set up camp when at all possible after wading ashore, or booking an occasionally unappealing hotel while his boat lay at the dock of a riverside town.
Ladd, a 54-year-old sailing enthusiast from Bremerton, Wash., and his 29-year-old partner, Virginia Phelan, set out in mid-December 2009 from Fort Meyers, Florida. In fluent uncluttered prose he tracks the route of what would become an 18,000-mile, 60-month odyssey that carried the two of them and their tiny craft along the coast of Central America and through the great river valleys of South America as far south as the River Plate, between Argentina and Uruguay. From there they sailed, rowed and motored north, to Belem, in Brazil, springboard for what would turn out to be any yachtsman’s nightmare: shipwreck.
The high points of the couple’s extended outing in tropical waters included the joy they had had in sailing together and their long-contemplated and eventual marriage, in Belize. There were, too, the beauty of countries visited and certainly the birth in 2013 of their son in a city at the mouth of Brazil’s Iguassu River. He weighed eight pounds, 11 ounces, and his delighted parents named him George Iguassu Ladd.
The downside centered mainly on physical discomfort, a mugging in Costa Rica, encounters with officious border guards — and of course the journey’s unexpected end.
Virginia and toddler George had flown home from Belem. Ladd, sailing single-handed in open ocean, had cleared out on what should have been the final leg, northwest to Florida. Fate intervened. On Dec. 1, 2014, off the east coast of the Dominican Republic, a huge breaker capsized his boat. Ladd broke the surface unharmed; yet he knew the voyage was finished.
“What other vessel could have taken us to all those places?” he writes. “Her every detail was honed to perfection in the rough-and-tumble of shoestring voyaging.”
His wife, attempting to console him via Skype after he was safely ashore, said:
“It’s time to let her go.”