Free on the right, free on the left, free everywhere.
—Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way, his 1971 account of circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat alone
For two years, three months, and 26 days, while the world economy crashed, and Barack Obama ran for and won the U.S. presidency, and Sarah Palin debuted, and Spitzer resigned, and Sully landed, and Jon and Kate split, and Haiti crumbled, and Avatar opened, and Apple unveiled the iPad to the waiting world, Reid Stowe floated alone.
He didn’t know what was happening elsewhere. He didn’t care to know. He wasn’t lost or stranded. He was alone at sea by choice, piloting a 70-foot schooner, the Anne, which he’d built himself, undertaking a mission he’d been dreaming of and planning for most of his adult life: to sail on the ocean nonstop for 1,000 days.
He had a routine. At night, he’d wake every hour or so to check the horizon for ships. He’d sleep until nine in the morning, then get up and put his coffee and oatmeal on to boil. He’d check the GPS and mark his location on the map with an X. He’d update his log, recording his position and conditions. Then he’d retire to a small wooden desk below deck and eat his breakfast and write. Thoughts. Impressions. Dreams. He’d spend the rest of the morning attending to an unending list of repairs: hand-stitching his wind-shredded sails, or jury-rigging a bent bowsprit, or fiddling with a broken electric winch.
At noon, he’d make lunch, drawing from a hold full of six tons of imperishable food—rice and pasta and lentils and peanut butter and Parmesan cheese—maybe adding a handful of fresh sprouts or some salted fish he’d caught and dried on the deck. He’d check his laptop, which received e-mail through a satellite-phone connection, his one tether to the land-bound world. He’d answer his messages, then send back a daily report to be posted on a website, 1000Days.net, being maintained by friends onshore.
“There are a myriad of life support systems to keep me alive and each one needs tending,” he wrote on Day 361. On Day 461: “The food is holding out great. I eat well. The electrical and mechanical systems need maintenance. Pulleys, shackles, turnbuckles and fittings are wearing down like I have never seen before. I had to push so hard to get this mission going that I have been through the aches, the anguish, the barriers, the doubts and fears and they go on. I go on too, it’s worth it.” On Day 842: “You are getting the unedited, live story from me as it happens, right off the cuff, wet off the wavetops and I don’t look back.”
Then he’d close the laptop and get back to the repairs. At 4 p.m., he’d take a coffee break. He’d meditate. He’d paint until dark, his favorite part of the day. At dusk, he’d venture out to the deck and watch the sunset blossom, like red ink dropped in clear water, over the endless horizon of the sea.
He stuck to this routine, perfected in every detail, for the next two years.
He went months without seeing another boat, let alone another human being. In the evening he practiced yoga on a small wooden platform in the salty air. He’d stand on deck and shout, “I love you!” as loud as he could at the waves as they crashed against the hull. He carried a shaman’s mask, a dragon’s head, with him on the voyage, and some nights he’d strip off his clothes, put the mask on, go outside, and dance naked, alone under the vast stars that seemed to belong only to him.
Now it’s August, nearly two months after Reid’s return to the city, and he’s on the phone with Sears. He’s trying to track down a new gas stove for the boat. He’s talking to an automated voice-prompt recording.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes. Large appliances. Large. Appliances.” He finally gets a person on the line. He’s put on hold. He waits. The person returns to tell him that the stove he’s looking for is only available to order online. “Okay, good. Can I order it with a credit card?” he asks. Yes, he can—which is great news, since his partner, Soanya Ahmad, has a credit card. Reid, who’s 58, has never had a credit card in his life.
He hangs up and says, without sarcasm or a trace of impatience, “Well, she seemed real nice.”
Day One: On April 21, 2007, Reid Stowe, then 55 years old, career mariner, adventurer, deep in debt and near dead broke, set sail from a pier outside Hoboken, on a mission to break the record for the longest continuous voyage at sea. He called this trip the “Mars Ocean Odyssey” because, at 1,000 days, it would last roughly as long as a round-trip mission to Mars. Reid had undertaken this kind of adventure before. When he was 19, he went to Hawaii to surf and wound up joining a bohemian sailor on a trip through the South Pacific. Later he built a 27-foot catamaran, christened it Tantra, and sailed it with another man across the Atlantic to Portugal. Then he sailed it alone to Morocco. Then he decided he needed to build a bigger boat.