North, Again, to the Night
Before this week is through, Alvah and Diana Simon are going to row out to their 36-foot steel boat, Roger Henry, drop its mooring off New Zealand's North Island, and set sail. This simple act will no doubt be repeated by countless sailors in distant harbors the world over in the next few days, but probably not with the same sense of departure or adventure. For the Simons are off to a destination few sailors think about, and if all goes according to plan, the next time they pick up that mooring will be in 2010. Yes, 2010.
Oh, did we mention they were headed for Siberia?
"When I was in school only two things interested me in the slightest-girls and geography," said Alvah, when confronted with the inevitable question: Why? "The priests and nuns discouraged serious study of the first, and didn't need to explain to me that the Earth was round. I could actually sense the curvature. I could run my mind over the contours of mountains, watersheds, basins, deltas, continental shelves and the open ocean.
"I would pore over maps and pronounce those evocative names: Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Pago Pago, Borneo, Siberia. I devoured accounts of bone-in-the-nose adventures of Papua New Guinea, Afghan warlords, the bangs and blowpipes of the White Raj. From the fierce heat of the Ar Rub' al Khali (The Empty Quarter) to the frozen wastelands of the Arctic, it was remoteness that most stirred my soul. Even now, in a world made small by air travel and interconnectivity, the Kamchatka Peninsula of eastern Russia qualifies as remote in an Old World way."
Okay, gotcha. Now it might be tempting to dismiss Alvah's ramblings as the dangerous rant of a man verging on the unhinged, except for two things. First, he's got a pretty good track record. The fourth of nine children, in his late 20s he set off from Key West in a leaky plywood sloop and went on to sail many of the distant shores of his boyhood dreams. Second, he's got Diana, an eminently sensible New Zealander who plays the role of steady yin to her husband's wild yang. Or, at least on the surface.
"As to why she agrees to [trips like this]," said Alvah, "I'd like to claim it's my animal magnetism, and the poor girl just can't help herself. But the truth is that she had the incessant wander bug long before I met her."
The Simons know more than a little bit about voyaging off the grid. In 1994, they sailed Roger Henry into the Arctic Circle, 100 miles north of the nearest settlement, and into an epic winter that took on a life of its own. Alvah's critically acclaimed book, North to the Night: A Year in the Arctic Ice, tells the story in vivid detail. Without giving too much away, on that journey Alvah hoped to interact with a polar bear, and he got his wish in spades. This time, he again is hoping for a special rendezvous.
"I've found it helps to have a specific and narrow objective to help me stay focused," he said. "For this trip it's simply to see a wolverine in the wild. It may seem a long way to go for such a fleeting moment, but I think the density of an experience is a better measure than the duration."
So far, Alvah hasn't secured the proper clearance from Russian officials, but he has a contingency plan. "I'm a graduate of the Jack Daniel's School of Diplomacy," he said. "Whenever an official asks for my permit, I'll pull one of the 12 permits from the case."
I had the chance to sail with Alvah and Diana last February as they were shaking down Roger Henry for the trip. The boat is strong, sea-tested and immaculate. She's also stacked with travel books, dictionaries, history tomes and natural-history guides for all the countries she'll call on. For Siberia is only the outbound target for the voyage: the three-year itinerary has been drafted to include only new landfalls for the couple, and includes New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the eastern Solomons, Japan, Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Fiji. Diana, a craftswoman with a love of textile arts, is focused on the intricate basket weaving of the Banks Islands, and the ancient indigo cloth of Japan. But Alvah says they're budgeting most of their time for remote atolls in Polynesia and Micronesia, the tropical Pacific hideaways most long-distance cruisers only dream about.
"And I know it's only trophy hunting, but with a landfall in Alaska, I will have finally visited all 50 states of my homeland," he said.
It's probably, of course, too early to ask about extended plans, but what the heck: What's next, Alvah? "We'll no doubt limp back into New Zealand drained physically, financially and emotionally," he said. "That will be a sign that we gave it our best. Then we'll charge up our batteries and bank account and turn our attention south to the grand continent of Antarctica."
Um, one more question. Does Diana know?
Herb McCormick is a Crusing World editor at large.