COMPREHENDING REID STOWE: His Various Purposes

Preparations for the return of marathon solo sailor Reid Stowe and the schooner Anne are proceeding apace. You can see a detailed float plan for Reid's June 17 re-entry into New York City at his 1,000 Days at Sea website. If you have a boat at your d...

3rd June 2010.
By Charles Doane

Reid Stowe aboard Anne

Preparations for the return of marathon solo sailor Reid Stowe and the schooner Anne are proceeding apace. You can see a detailed float plan for Reid’s June 17 re-entry into New York City at his 1,000 Days at Sea website. If you have a boat at your disposal and are in the area I urge you to join the welcoming flotilla. I suspect it will be an unusual experience. My current plan is to survey the madness with Hank Schmitt (of Offshore Passage Opportunities) and Tania Aebi (ex teen sailing prodigy) from onboard Avocation, Hank’s Swan 48. I will, of course, file a full report here for your perusal.

Meanwhile, let’s continue our perusal of Reid and his voyage. In our last episode I hoped to give you some sense of where he’s coming from by describing his early career as an ocean sailor. This time I think we need to confront the big question head on. As in: WTF is the point of all this? Why spend more than three years at sea without once touching shore?

Many people, I’ve found, are simply bamboozled by the concept. Indeed, bamboozlement is a reaction Reid has often had to confront throughout his career as a sailor. The first time I met him, when I interviewed him for SAIL in the fall of 2002, he admitted to me that even members of his own family have trouble understanding what he does. At the time he’d seized on a phrase I used to describe him in a sidebar to a story SAIL had published on record-breaking sailors. What I’d written was that Reid was seeking to “define and conquer new realms of sailing achievement.” I gathered from some of those who were helping to prepare for this current venture that Reid had adopted this as a mantra of sorts. An all-purpose explanation that might silence those incapable of comprehending his intentions. As the inventor of this tidy definition, I was, of course, flattered. But I knew, too, it in fact explains very little. To make any sense of Reid we must examine his purposes in some detail.

With respect then to the present voyage there are (at least) four different “realms of achievement” in which Reid is consciously seeking to make his mark:

 

1. Setting Sailing Records

This, of course, is the most obvious objective. From the outset Reid has sought to break at least some of the records that were set by Australian Jon Sanders when he completed his non-stop 658-day solo triple circumnavigation of the world back in 1988. Reid’s primary record target has always been voyage duration, and in this respect he has clearly been successful. As I’ve discussed previously, when he set out Reid believed Sanders’ 658 days at sea was the mark to beat. Critics subsequently cited Fridtjof Nansen‘s Arctic voyage (1893-96, with an estimated 1,067 days without touching land) as the controlling precedent. Whichever way you slice it, Reid’s projected 1,152-day record for duration of voyage will definitely take the cake.

In all other respects, Reid’s voyage, as planned and as it has unfolded, has been very different from that of Jon Sanders. For example, Reid originally hoped to sail multiple circumnavigations, as had Sanders before him. He never (to my knowledge) announced that he hoped to set a record by making more than three circuits of the globe, but Reid did several times publicly state and imply he’d be going around more than once. This has not happened. In the end Reid will have completed only one non-stop circumnavigation and can claim, if so inclined, that his is probably the slowest such voyage ever made.

There have been at least four limiting factors here. First: Reid, unlike Sanders, is sailing a very heavy, oversized gaff-rigged vessel with no self-steering apparatus. This wouldn’t be an issue if Reid had sailed with a full crew (as he once hoped he might) and could, if necessary, keep someone on the helm much of the time. But in fact he’s been alone most of the voyage, and even when he had company (just one other crew member, Soanya Ahmad, who had no prior sailing experience) he’s had to get the boat to steer itself with its sails balanced against its helm the entire time he’s been underway.

Deck of the schooner Anne

This in itself must be a record of some sort. There have been others (Robin Knox-Johnston comes to mind) who have set forth on non-stop solo circumnavigations that they’ve had to finish without self-steering gear due to equipment failure, but I know of no one else who has ever set out on, and completed, such a voyage without any self-steering gear at all. Reid (rather uncharacteristically) has never made much of this, but to have sailed a 60-ton gaff-rigged vessel so far and so long with so little crew and with no steering assistance is a phenomenal achievement. To do this, however, he has had to sail slowly and conservatively.

Reid Stowe repairs bowsprit on Anne

Second: Just two weeks into his voyage, Reid suffered a collision with a freighter that severely damaged Anne‘s bowsprit. To repair the damage Reid (assisted by Soanya) had to cut away most of the sprit, shorten the headstay it supported, and recut his headsails to a smaller size. This greatly reduced Anne‘s foretriangle area and unbalanced her sail plan. To keep the rig balanced so the boat can steer itself, Reid has often had to fly considerably less sail aft than conditions would otherwise warrant, which has further limited Anne’s sailing speed. Reportedly, the truncated foretriangle has also inhibited the boat’s windward ability.

Third: Anne‘s sail inventory, though large, was much too old for a voyage of this type. The schooner’s youngest sails were built back in 1998 or ’99 and many are far older. Given Reid’s very limited budget, replacing even just the basic working sails (which likely would have cost around $100,000) was out of the question. Predictably enough, sails have been blowing out repeatedly during the three years of the voyage, and all repairs, unfortunately, have had to be made by hand. On a 70-foot vessel flying approximately 2,000 square feet of sail, with only one pair of hands available to ply needle and thread, this is a significant burden and has provided Reid with yet another major incentive to sail conservatively.

Worn turnbuckle pins on schooner Anne

Fourth: Anne‘s standing rig has seriously deteriorated over the course of the voyage. What has concerned me the most are the huge steel pins securing the turnbuckles, which have almost completely worn through (see above). There are other weak points as well. After Anne was capsized in early February 2009 after rounding Cape Horn (on day 638 of the voyage), it seems apparent Reid faced a serious choice. He could carry on in high southern latitudes and try to complete at least one more circumnavigation, at the risk of losing all or part of his sail inventory and/or rig. Or he could play it safe and spend the rest of his time at sea babying the rig in lower latitudes in the mid-Atlantic. Given that Reid’s primary goal has always been to maximize voyage duration, it is hardly surprising he chose the latter course.

One record Reid never expected to take from Sanders was that for longest non-stop solo voyage. But since he lost Soanya as crew on day 306 of the voyage (she had been chronically seasick and later turned out to be pregnant), he has been forced to sail alone. As I’ve discussed earlier, Reid surpassed Sanders’ solo record back in December 2009. By the time he returns, the new record should be 846 days.

(I should note that Jon Sanders has expressed support for Reid’s voyage in correspondence with Reid and his ground crew and by helping to evacuate Soanya from the schooner Anne off Western Australia. Sanders has, however, never responded to my repeated efforts to contact him for comments on the voyage.)

Reid has also claimed that he and Soanya, during the 305 days they were together on the boat, set records for “longest man-and-woman non-stop voyage” and “longest non-stop voyage by a woman.” These, however, are difficult to verify. It is not inconceivable, for example, that a 19th century whaling ship might have spent in excess of 300 days at sea with a captain’s wife aboard. To prove otherwise would require much research and might well be impossible in any event. It does, however, seem likely that Reid and Soanya have set a record for longest non-stop voyage by a two-member male-and-female crew. As noted on Reid’s website, their 305 days at sea easily eclipses the famous 126-day voyage (Tahiti to Spain non-stop via Cape Horn) completed by Francoise and Bernard Moitessier in 1966. (Note: the website erroneously puts the Moitessiers’ voyage at 191 days.) I personally know of no other potential claimants to this title.

 

2. Simulating a Voyage to Mars

Soon after he first began dreaming of making a 1,000-day ocean voyage back in the mid-1980s, Reid realized and hoped such a journey might provide insight and guidance to those planning very long space flights, specifically to the planet Mars. In May 1990, together with Dr. Albert A. Harrison, a social psychologist at the University of California at Davis, Reid published an article in Ad Astra, the journal of the National Space Society, that describes his original vision of his voyage and how it might serve as a useful prelude to a flight to Mars. As Reid and Dr. Harrison wrote in their conclusion to the article: “A 1,000 day voyage is a daunting undertaking. However, if we are not ready to spend 1,000 days at sea, how can we expect to complete a 1,000 day mission in outer space? Anne‘s voyage should help launch the learning process.”

Dr. Albert A. Harrison of UC Davis

The voyage described in the Ad Astra article, however, turned out to be very different from the one Reid is now completing. Reid’s original plan called for a crew of 6 to 8 persons, substantive funding, a full course of serious environmental and psychological research, and a rigorous route leading primarily through high latitudes in the Southern Ocean. None of these ambitions were realized, but Reid never gave up on his dream of somehow making the voyage a reality and has always actively promoted it as a “Mars Odyssey.”

Dr. Harrison, too, has always remained interested in the voyage and still sees it as a useful antecedent to a Mars flight. He referenced Reid’s proposed voyage in his 2001 book Spacefaring: The Human Dimension and is at work now on an article that cites Reid’s voyage (he credits both Reid and Soanya as co-authors) to be published as a chapter in a forthcoming book about human performance in extreme environments. He also gave a talk on Reid’s voyage at the NASA Contact Space Conference (in which Reid and Soanya participated telephonically) in April 2009.

Harrison has long studied marine voyages, specifically those made in whaling ships, submarines, tankers, and long-distance sailing yachts, for insights into the psychology of spaceflight. He concedes he knows of no one at NASA who has been seriously following Reid’s voyage. He also admits that several aspects of Reid’s voyage as it has been carried out, particularly the very small crew size and lack of a formal research regimen, have limited its usefulness as an analogue to a Mars flight. But, he notes, the most important feature of Reid’s voyage, its very long duration, is what makes it most valuable.

“In most other spaceflight simulations, duration is not at all analogous, and this is where Reid, I think, is making an important contribution,” Dr. Harrison told me in a recent conversation. “People aren’t taking him seriously because he’s doing this on a shoestring, and he certainly isn’t telling us everything we need to know to go to Mars, but I’m hoping others in my field will see some value in what he’s doing. Personally, I’m learning a lot from following this voyage.”

Specifically, Harrison cites Reid’s transcendent spiritual experiences while at sea (evidently these are characterized as “oceanic experiences” in psychology literature) as being very similar to the “overview effect” experienced by astronauts, wherein their off-world perspective incites a feeling of unity with the universe. Harrison is also interested in episodes described by Reid in which he has sensed other presences aboard the schooner. Harrison anticipates, too, that any “post-mission let-down” experienced by Reid after he returns to land will be very analogous to what astronauts can expect to feel after completing a very long flight.

 

3. Making Art

As I described in my last post on Reid, he has created visual art while sailing since his earliest days as an ocean voyager. Besides pursuing a conventional career as a fine artist, he has also sought to fuse his ocean sailing and his creative life into a single entity. As a young man he was content merely to draw and paint while sailing, but later he sought ways to make his voyages themselves into works of art.

This urge, I believe, first manifested itself in 1986, when Reid took the schooner Anne south to Antarctica on what he called “The First Arts and Cultural Expedition to the Seventh Continent.” This was a demanding Southern Ocean cruise, during which Reid and a group of eight artists, musicians, and comedians (only one of whom had ever been to sea before) toured Antarctic research bases staging performances for base personnel. (Reid has often claimed that Anne on this voyage became the first American sailing yacht ever to visit Antarctica, but in fact she is listed in the Antarctic Sailing Chronology as being the second American yacht to do so. The first was Awahnee II, sailed by Bob and Nancy Griffith, in 1970.)

Subsequently, Reid took the notion of conceptual voyaging one step further when, in 1999, he set out aboard Anne with his third wife, Laurence Guillem, on a 200-day non-stop voyage he entitled “The Odyssey of the Sea Turtle.” Reid intended this to be a prelude to a 1,000-day voyage, but he also set himself the goal of tracing a gigantic figure of a sea turtle over much of the South Atlantic ocean. He was largely successful and hailed his turtle as the largest work of conceptual art ever created.

Likewise, on his current voyage Reid has also sought to draw pictures on the ocean with his boat. After first setting out with Soanya from New York, he hoped to draw a giant heart in the South Atlantic, but the schooner’s crippled rig (thanks to the freighter collision) made it too difficult to sail the windward legs needed to complete the figure. Much later, not long after Soanya left the boat in Australia, Reid found himself sailing disconsolately in a circle near the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, when a friend alerted him via e-mail that his GPS transponder track as displayed on his website looked something like a whale. Energized by this revelation, Reid spent nearly a month working to complete the whale, first drawing in a side fin, then sailing many miles out of his way to a precise point to complete the figure. He then carefully sailed out of the area on a course reciprocal to the one he’d sailed in on so as not to mess up the picture.

Later, after rounding Cape Horn and re-entering the South Atlantic, Reid looked at the tangled maze of tracks he and Soanya had previosuly laid out in this part of the world and saw he might combine his current track with older ones to at last complete the figure of a heart. As you can see in this Google image here, both the Atlantic and Pacific drawings stand out clearly amidst the record of Anne‘s wanderings.

Track of Anne with heart and whale

Chart of Reid Stowe showing heart

Chart of Reid Stowe showing whale

This all may seem a bit too conceptual for some, but in fact Reid can take credit for pioneering a new art form that is gaining increasing recognition worldwide. Just type the terms “GPS art” or “position art” or “locative art” into your Google search bar and you’ll see what I mean. Since at least 2001 or 2002, serious artists (and many not-so-serious types) have been creating pieces of performance visual art by tracking their movements on the face of the planet with GPS receivers. Ironically, this new art form got its biggest shot in the arm in 2008 when an artist named Erik Nordenankar perpetrated a hoax and claimed to have created “the biggest drawing in the world” (a self-portrait, purportedly) by shipping a GPS unit all around the world via DHL. Since then awareness of GPS art has skyrocketed both on the Web and in mainstream media.

In that Reid created his first piece of “position art” in 1999, it seems he can legitimately claim to be the inventor of this mode of expression. So far, to my knowledge, he is also still the only locative artist to have created drawings on the open sea in a sailing vessel. It also seems, however, that no other locative artists are yet aware of his work. Ironically, too, Reid apparently did not know others had entered the field, at least as of July 2009, when I raised the subject in an e-mail with him.

Painting of ray by Reid Stowe

In addition to creating large-scale locative art, Reid has also been drawing and painting aboard Anne during his current voyage. His most productive period was during what he has called his “sacred sideslip,” when he essentially drifted for about 9 months in the Atlantic doldrums off West Africa during the latter half of 2009 and the first few months of this year.

 

4. Seeking Spiritual Fulfillment

As discussed earlier, this too has always been one of Reid’s major objectives when sailing offshore. Reid through out his career has practiced yoga and meditation while sailing (Anne has long been equipped with a gimbaled yoga platform) and in preparing for his 1,000-day voyage he always emphasized its “cosmic” potential. As he explained to me when we first met in 2002: “I don’t pose it in terms of a challenge. What I ask is what can I do whereby I will evolve spiritually? I decided I didn’t want to just sail from point A to point B. That shouldn’t be the point of sailing. This is about something much larger than a destination.”

As noted by Dr. Harrison and many others, those spending prolonged periods of time at sea often find themselves uniquely susceptible to spiritual insights and experiences. As Bernard Moitessier once aptly put it (I paraphrase here): at sea a man feels at once that he is only an atom but also a god. Though the sea is certainly not the only physical environment on this planet capable of provoking such states of mind, it may be the most powerful and effective one. (Be warned! I have developed my own crude theories on this subject, which I may well inflict on you in a future blog post.)

Reid Stowe praying aboard Anne

It is probably impossible to quantify what Reid has “accomplished” spiritually during the course of his voyage. He set himself no concrete goal in this respect and thus far has not claimed to have had any novel revelations or experiences that might influence or shape the spiritual practice of others. He was already very spiritually aware himself before he set out on the voyage, so it cannot be said this voyage has “enlightened” him in the conventional sense. But if you read through the many blog entries Reid has posted during the voyage, you’ll see most are of a blatantly spiritual nature. Viewing the voyage as a whole, it is this element that forms its dominant theme, in spite of all Reid’s efforts to spread other purposes and objectives on top of it.

The one important question to ask here, I suppose, is whether Reid’s voyage has changed him spiritually. Has he in fact evolved in some way? Personally, I’ve seen no hint of this in all that Reid has published online since he first set out in April 2007. But I may have missed something. Or Reid may be keeping certain things to himself.

I look forward to posing the question to him directly upon his return.

NEXT EPISODE: His Rabid Critics

BoaterMouth link: here

 


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About the author:

Charles Doane

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Charles Doane is an editor-at-large for SAIL, where he previously was a senior editor. He also served as managing editor at Offshore and associate editor at Cruising World. Charles has logged more than 40,000 miles as an offshore sailor, including six transatlantic passages and some single-handed passages. His blog posts appear courtesy of his website www.WaveTrain.net.
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