Madman across the water 1,152 days at sea

On many levels Reid Stowe’s recently completed non-stop 1,152-day ocean passage must command the respect of any serious bluewater sailor. For the first 306 days it was just him and one inexperienced female photographer, Soanya Ahmad, wrangling his heavy 70-foot gaff-rigged schooner Anne through the South Atlantic and across the Southern Ocean. The rest of the time (after Ahmad got off the boat 11 miles off Western Australia due to incipient nausea) it was Stowe sailing all by himself.

Stowe arrived back in New York City on June 17 and now claims any number of records: longest non-stop voyage by a couple (306 days); longest non-stop solo voyage (846 days); longest non-stop voyage (1,152 days); et cetera. But perhaps the most impressive bit is that Stowe did all this aboard a boat carrying no self-steering gear. Throughout the entire passage he kept his 60-ton vessel sailing itself by balancing its rig against its helm.

On certain other levels, Stowe’s accomplishment may seem overrated and even bizarre. A good chunk of his voyage (about nine months) was spent drifting under minimal sail in the Atlantic doldrums off West Africa. In spite of spending more than three years at sea, he completed just one circumnavigation (compared to his immediate predecessor, Australian Jon Sanders, who completed three non-stop circumnavigations in 658 days back in 1988). And his most significant achievement, beyond the mere duration of his passage, seems to have been the completion of two immense GPS track drawings: a giant whale in the Pacific, southwest of the Galápagos, and a giant heart, smack dab in the middle of the South Atlantic.

Stowe’s unorthodox sailing style, his complete lack of performance orientation, plus the fact that Ahmad was suffering not from sea sickness, but morning sickness, has infuriated a fanatical band of critics at the Sailing Anarchy (SA) sailboat racing Web site. Indeed, SA’s “Couple Cruise for 1,000 Days” comment thread has probably itself set some kind of record. As I write, the thread is 1,171 pages long, consists of nearly 30,000 comments, and has garnered about 950,000 page views. It seems fair to say that no other long-distance ocean sailor has ever endured such virulent public abuse while actively engaged in a voyage.

In Stowe’s defense, there was, in fact, much method to his madness. His slow progress was due in part to the fact that he suffered a collision with a freighter at the very beginning of the voyage (just 15 days out) and lost his bowsprit. The great reduction in foretriangle area required him to sail much more slowly under reduced sail in order to keep his rig balanced. His aged inventory of sails, plus some serious wear and tear on his standing rig later in the voyage, also led him to favor a very conservative passage strategy.

And though some may laugh at his giant ocean drawings, Stowe can take credit for pioneering a new art form that is gaining acceptance worldwide. Since at least 2001 or 2002, serious artists have been creating pieces of performance visual art by tracking their movements with GPS receivers. Known variously as GPS, locative, or position art, this new mode of expression was first invented by Stowe when he and his then-wife Laurence Guillem traced the figure of a giant sea turtle in the South Atlantic during a 200-day voyage in 1999.

I was fortunate to have the chance to sail into New York harbor with Stowe on the day of his return to Manhattan. I had sailed out to Sandy Hook, N.J., with Hank Schmitt of Offshore Passage Opportunities and Tania Aebi, the former teen sailing prodigy who made her own triumphant entry into New York 23 years earlier. I hopped aboard Anne to help Stowe get his anchor up, then stayed aboard after it became apparent he would have to short-tack the boat into a strong headwind to get up to Manhattan.

I can tell you one thing: Stowe is certainly a competent deck hand. All he wanted me to do was manage the engine and wheel and keep the boat’s head to wind while he first hoisted his anchor hand over hand (there is no windlass on the boat), then raised his huge gaff main, a large gaff foresail, a staysail, and finally a jib without assistance. Stowe relies heavily on rolling hitches to shift lines on and off his two undersized cockpit winches, and in all it took about an hour to get underway. Watching the methodical way he managed his schooner’s cumbersome running rigging gave me an appreciation for the endurance needed to keep a boat this size sailing non-stop for more than three years.

A large flotilla turned out to welcome us. By the time we got to the Verrazano Narrows, the wind was blowing at more than 20 knots. The schooner, however, in spite of her very bedraggled appearance, stood up to it well.

Stowe was very eager to greet his friends and family. His reception at Pier 81 on the West Side, where he at last stepped ashore, was extremely emotional. He met both his 2-year-old son by Ahmad, Darshen, for the first time, and also Lucy, his 3-year-old granddaughter (by his adult daughter Viva Harris). Facing a battery of cameras and reporters, he repeatedly broke into tears while speaking.

Stowe’s immediate plans are unclear. He told me during our sail up the harbor that he hopes somehow to capitalize on his voyage. But his first priority, he said, is refitting his boat. He planned first to pressure-wash the interior and then haul out as soon as possible. After that, ultimately, he’s hoping in the future to embark on other important voyages.

By Ocean Navigator