Reid Soayna Stowe
A few weeks back, I received a phone call from a producer at a public radio station in Minnesota. She asked me if I’d do a follow-up interview to a sailing segment that the station had recently broadcast that ended up being more than a little controversial. To my everlasting chagrin, though I hadn’t actually heard the piece, I agreed to go on air. (Note: This seems to be what happens when someone considers you an “expert” on something. You endlessly find ways to prove that you aren’t.)
The subject of the story was artist/sailor/adventurer Reid Stowe, who’d been at sea for well over a year aboard his funky, handcrafted, 70-foot schooner, Anne, in his attempt to record the longest continuous nonstop passage ever. The previous mark had been set by an intrepid Australian named Jon Sanders, who spun himself around the planet three times in a voyage that lasted 657 days. Stowe was aiming for an even 1,000 days in a trip he’d dubbed “The Mars Ocean Odyssey”; that’s supposedly the time it’d take to fly to and from the distant planet. Stowe reckons future space travelers might learn something useful from his own isolated experiences.
Feel free to insert your own joke here. Plenty of Stowe’s detractors, I’ve come to learn, already have.
Actually, I did know a bit about Stowe and his voyage-just enough, as it turned out, to be dangerous (or, perhaps more accurately, stupid). Years before, while planning the expedition, I’d written about him for The New York Times, whose sports editors were intrigued by the rather mystical figure with the zany objective who, at the time, was living aboard on the Manhattan waterfront. Later, at Cruising World, I commissioned a story from him called “The Voyage of the Sea Turtle,” which told the tale of his rambling voyage through the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic, the intent of which was to carve the image of a giant tortoise in his wake. (Ahem. More on this later.)
Anyway, the interview went forth, and I mumbled a few utterances about how most sailors go to sea not to set records but for the joy and satisfaction of it. I’d sensed that the radio producer considered Stowe a bit of a wing nut, as had the majority of listeners who’d posted a follow-up opinion on the station’s website, and in retrospect, I did little or nothing to dissuade her of the notion.
Then, about a week later, from deep in the Southern Ocean, I received a chirpy, upbeat e-mail. The sender? Reid Stowe.
“My friends sent me the short NPR radio interview you did about me, and I wished that I’d kept up with you so you’d have been better informed,” he wrote. Magnanimously, I thought, given the reason he’d tracked me down, he wished me well and added a link to his website (www.1000days.net), which I clicked on with more than a little curiosity.
And I was absolutely, unequivocally, blown away. Though largely ignored by the main-steam media-and, for that matter, by the sailing press-I was totally unaware that he’d been under way for more than 500 days. Stowe was unquestionably in the midst of one of the most remarkable sea journeys of all time. If you don’t believe me, please, make your way to his website.
Has it been an eventful journey? Oh, yes. (And one in which I’ll write about in more detail in an upcoming print story for CW.) Fifteen days into it, he lost his bowsprit in a collision at sea. Off the Cape of Good Hope, in a vicious gale, he and his lone crew, his wife, Soanya, lost their mainsail and foresail. Then, mysteriously, Soanya became wracked with illness and nausea, which is what happens when one becomes . . . pregnant. After 307 days at sea, she boarded an inflatable off Western Australia commandeered by none other than Jon Sanders, whose record Stowe is after-you can’t make this stuff up-and soon after gave birth to a son, Darshen.
Stowe details all of this on his site, which is engrossing reading, to say the very least. That said, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. His wide-eyed wonder, his unabashed spirituality, and his vision of life-as-performance art doesn’t rest well with his critics. Since that first e-mail, Stowe and I have swapped several more, and I asked him what it was that made him such a lightning rod.
“The Internet allows a place for those of mean disposition to express themselves,” he said. “I’m not a perfect sailor, and they’ve found some flaws. That gives them a handle, and they don’t like my lifestyle, my philosophy, my woman, my personality, my boat, and perhaps the fact that I’m following my dreams. Perhaps it isn’t ‘me’; it could be seen as pure energy flow, a product of our times. I want to give out an inspiring story to the world, and they dampened it, and it’s been hurtful, but it’s caused me to dig deep for love.”
Meanwhile, Stowe sails forward. Currently, he’s several hundred miles west of Chile, on an eastward heading to complete Anne’s first circumnavigation. A few weeks back, he was headed in the trade winds and just decided to follow the breeze. What happened next was, at least to Stowe, nothing short of divine.
“Around October 2, I got an e-mail from an old sailing buddy that said, ‘Congratulations, Reid. You’ve drawn a whale with your course.’
“I looked at my map, and sure enough, it was a whale! It didn’t take me long to realize that if I changed course, I could draw the flipper and define it better. I was thrilled, having previously given up the possibility of creating more oceanic art with my course because without our bowsprit and with damaged sails, we lost our ability to go well to weather. This accidental art confirmed to me that I was in tune with the ocean, as my style of sailing created an unbelievable but true spiritual and technical wonder. This is where I am now, living out my lifelong dream close to the sea and the grace of the universe.”
On December 12, bound for Cape Horn, Reid Stowe recorded his 600th day adrift from terra firma. And while he’s certainly rankled numerous souls along the way, he’s also touched a few, as evidenced by this e-mail he received from a U.S. West Coast woman caring for an ailing mother that arrived at the same time as my “interview” transcript.
She wrote: “I’m calmed by your recent messages to your audience, about feeling love, expressing love, and also gratitude when there are frustrations and worries with no end. Although I was intrigued with your story and journey all those hundreds of days ago, I didn’t know what to think of you, but now, after all this time, I just go with it because, Reid, you truly lift me up.
“You radiate a warmth that speaks to me in a really lasting way, and I hope, in reciprocity, you can feel something similar from me in my thanks to you. I’m native to Southern California, a land rich in Mexican culture, so I send this for you, as you journey on, Reid. It’s a most positive and beautiful Spanish expression: Vaya con dios. Go with God.”