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The Man Who Fell to Shore

How can I tell them…? Tell them and not frighten them, without their thinking I have lost my mind.
—Moitessier, The Long Way

When the English yachtsman Francis Chichester completed the first solo navigation of the globe with only one stop, in 1967, he was knighted by the queen. When Moitessier, a sailor from French Indochina, completed a trip around the globe, in 1969, he was hailed in France as a philosopher-poet of the sea. His boat, the Joshua, is still on display in a French museum. When Reid Stowe returned from his journey, he hoped the mayor might be there to greet him. Actually, he hoped the president might greet him, though he knew that was unlikely. But it didn’t seem entirely inappropriate.

Instead, he did some newspaper and radio interviews and got booked on CBS’ The Early Show (it was later canceled) and found out he’d only be allowed to moor his boat for one night in Manhattan. So he scrambled to find a friend with a space in Hoboken. Reid is still optimistic, still full of love for the world, but he’s also confused and slightly frustrated that, for example, not a single sailor has come to visit him to ask how he completed this record-setting voyage. It’s almost as if no one understands what he’s accomplished. When he first returned, he’d been surrounded by reporters asking questions like, “What did you miss most—a hot shower or ice cream?” And Reid, fresh from three years alone communing with the ocean and having nightly revelations on the nature of love, thought, When you’re in the presence of an illuminating gift from the heavens, you don’t think, Gee, I miss ice cream. I didn’t miss a thing out there.

Moitessier would understand. Moitessier, a great inspiration to Reid as a young man, was competing in a race around the world called the Golden Globe in 1968, and he was well in the lead when he decided to change course and simply keep sailing. He explained this in a note, which he flung by slingshot onto the deck of a passing ship, that read in part: “I am continuing non-stop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.” He later wrote that, looking back on his decision, he only regretted the inclusion in the note of the word “perhaps.”

“We’re going to have a good life now,” Reid says on the boat. “We don’t know what it’s going to be. We may not have much money, but we’ll be people who know we did something good for humanity, and everyone will know it, too. And we’ll be respected for that, and loved for that, and my son will grow up coming into that. What’s worth more than that?”

The three of them plan to live on the boat through the winter. They have a wood-burning stove, and there’s still plenty of food in the hold, another year’s worth at least, by Reid’s estimate. And at the end of that year, who knows? Reid is planning another voyage, maybe a slow tour of the sacred sites of the Atlantic Ocean, or a voyage down the East Coast that Reid wants to call “Keeping the Spirit of Adventure Alive in America.”

He’s also hooked up with a literary agent, who’s paired him with a successful co-author, so that’s good. The writer has several Times best sellers on his résumé, and co-wrote autobiographies of William Shatner and Johnnie Cochran. Reid also hopes to mount an art show in Manhattan of the 100 or so paintings he completed on his voyage. One day, he unpacked these paintings to show them to his friend, a curly-blonde French-Canadian art collector named Anne-Brigitte Sirois. Most incorporate collages of sea maps and cosmic swirls and photos of Reid at the wheel of the Anne. One of the collages includes a photo of him and Soanya embracing. When he shows that painting, Darshen wanders over, runs his hand over the photo, and says, “Mommy and Daddy.”

Later, Soanya sits alone on the deck and thinks about the ocean. Her parents were not happy when she announced she was leaving on a boat for three years with a man more than twice her age, but they took her in when she returned, a year later, pregnant, and helped her raise her son. As for life on the ocean, she both misses it and doesn’t. She’s not a sailor, she’s decided, not like Reid. She remembers how he would sit out happily on the deck and do yoga with the salt-wind licking at his face, and she’d retreat down below to do her yoga on the bed. Reid gets tremendous pleasure from pulling ropes and setting sails, but to her it’s just work; she doesn’t enjoy it at all. The one part of sea life she does miss, though, is how simple and direct it all was. Out there, you relied on yourself and no one else. If you were hungry, you’d fish. If rain was falling, and you were thirsty, you’d go out and catch the rain.

She’s done most of the parenting because, as she sees it, she has a two-year head start on Reid. He’s a patient father, sometimes too patient, letting Darshen toddle off toward unseen perils. But he’s getting better. And she’s started to see Reid in some of Darshen’s expressions. She’s noticed they’ve got the same mouth. And Darshen has really taken to the water. He welcomes visitors cheerily to the boat by name if he knows them, and if he doesn’t, he greets them by shouting, “Hi, person!”

On one recent afternoon the three of them sat together on the yoga platform, cross-legged under a bright and placid sky. Reid and Soanya closed their eyes and chanted Om. Unexpectedly, Darshen, sitting at their feet, joined in. They sat like that, eyes closed, chanting in unison, for a long, edifying moment.

Reid opened his eyes and shouted out joyfully—Hey!—and gave Darshen a big hug, and Darshen laughed. And Soanya thought, When you’re all together like that, it really doesn’t get any better. For that moment, the three of them, alone yet together, may as well have been a million miles from the rest of the world.