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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 1: The Ship and Her Captain

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“Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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She was a marvelous old ship, rigged in the tradition of the gaffed working schooners that fished for cod on the Newfoundland coast: 68 feet on deck and 80 with the bowsprit, 60 tons registered with Lloyd’s, black hulled, cracking varnish on her spruce decks and her two fir masts. Occasional orange ribbons of rust dribbled down the white paint of the cabins.



She was the product of home and hand and heart. Built of steel, Ferralite and polyurethane resin, she was built in a boatbuilding shed that was cobbled together from old telephone poles on the sandy banks of a coastal river in North Carolina. Her birthplace was only a few miles from the open sea she would soon come to know, as she pushed the limits of mechanical endurance.

Captain built her as the ultimate heavy-weather sailing boat, ready for the two stormy capes of the world and everywhere in between. In her magnificent career, she would know intimately the warm placid waters of the Caribbean and frigid seas of Antarctica alike.

Although she wasn’t technically big enough to be called a “ship,” but rather a “sailing boat,” the captain and crew called her a ship in their hearts. She sung on long night watches far out in the Atlantic; the wind that drove her across the sea whistled in the open pipes of her stern railing in a way that was both beautiful and sad.

Captain was a shaman of the sea, and she was a magical ship. Not a hocus-pocus, rabbit-out-of-a-hat parlor trick; hers was the real magic that still exists in the same physical world as you and I. Her magic was found in the influencing force of intangible things, like love and luck—scientifically unquantifiable things we know exist. Her magic resonated in a part of my mind left over from when I was a bright-eyed child who had never known loss.

She sailed well and joyfully, for she had been carved and blessed by her master’s loving hands. In the 30 years he lived on and loved her, Captain labored to craft a floating gallery, a work-of-art in motion, an expression of his ability to create whatever his mind invented. Her interior illuminated with beautifully fitted tropical hardwood, vibrant, polished and alive. Her bulkheads burst with carvings of sperm whales, turtles, genies, and full-breasted mermaids. An ornate oriental dragon guarded the library in the cargo hold. A phoenix swooped down to rescue a sailboat from a maelstrom carved into the pilothouse wall, as a spurned steamship sank into the vortex. Her hidden magic, the blessing bestowed by her captain’s creativity, delivered them safely across the wild oceans of the world.

She and her Captain shattered every endurance record on the books, and followed the noble sailing tradition pioneered by celebrated men, like Sir Francis Chichester and Bernard Moitessier. They embarked on sailing odysseys where their course drew out giant works of art in the oceanic void, sea turtles, whales and enormous hearts. Their ultimate achievement was a monumental chapter in the story of humanity, a voyage of over three years—1,152 days, to be exact—without resupply and without sighting land.

On that voyage the ship became a floating hermitage. The captain grew sprouts. He did yoga. She kept him warm and dry. He prayed. She sailed on, counting miles beneath her keel. Together they discovered the Shangri-La of the sea.

Captain absolutely had no concern with the growing trend in the sailing community: to build faster boats, out of lighter, space-age materials that raced over the sea, from the starting point to the finish line, like skipping stones. Captain wasn’t interested in a pointless race. He found the mysteries of life too big and wonderful—and it demanded too much of his attention to waste time speeding around aimlessly. The ship knew she wasn’t fast, but she had patience. He enjoyed his time at sea and didn’t want to rush it. The ocean was big enough for both types of sailors, he thought.

The racing community, baffled by this seemingly backward progress, never fully understood his goal: to voyage the sea and eternal spirit of mankind, to push the limits of our species and see just how long people could last in the wild barren void of the ocean. The racing sailors may have spent an overnight sail or even a week at sea, but the ship and Captain endured it for three long years. Racers couldn’t wrap their heads around why.

Captain had faith his work would be applicable to space travelers in the future. Analogies easily could be made between the isolated schooner, sailing the void of the open ocean, and a gleaming metal ship hurtling toward a distant planet. Three years is the same time it would take for a manned ship to travel to Mars.

The racing community’s confusion grew to anger and resentment. They began to ridicule Captain. Their delicate egos wouldn’t let them believe anybody could do what he attempted. Some reached out to his sponsors with whispers of “scam!” Trolls who lurked in the dark recesses of the Internet racing forums waged cyberwar against Captain’s website, and spammed his page with death threats.

When his voyage ended, and he stood on land for the first time in three years, a small group of friends and family—and the deafening silence of apathy in a changed world—greeted Captain. His sponsors abandoned him. The public, hearing only the ruckus of the racers, turned their backs. All he had to show for three brutal years of survival were scars on his battered ship, an empty bank account and aching body. Still, she was floating. He was alive. They succeeded.

Captain’s friend, who allowed him to stay at his dock, died during the captain’s absence. He couldn’t afford to stay in New York anymore, so he cast off again, and took his wife and young son with him. They drifted for a while in the void that follows a completed goal; Captain had drifted across the sea longer than any other man had. They sailed up a South American jungle river in Guyana to rebuild his boat and spend time together as a family. They lived happily.

One day the wind brought him word that his mother, Anne—whose lovely and simple name also christened his boat—died suddenly. His father, losing his mind at an advanced age, was left alone. Captain sailed back to the southern coast of North Carolina where he begun his journey many years ago. He docked at a small port city up the Cape Fear River. It was here, in the summer of 2013, I first met him—and our story began.

John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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  1. Clean

    January 13, 2016 at 8:06 am

    However lyrical, your story characterizes the sailing community’s response to the Reid Stowe voyage.

    Real voyagers ridiculed Reid because he was a liar and a creeper, not because they didn’t ‘get’ him. Had he set off to drift around the world longer than anyone else had drifted for, they’d have largely ignored him and let the lubberly swoon over this ‘goal’ if they wanted to.

    Reid tried to make his drift-a-thon into something it wasn’t, using the Mars bullshit and hyperbole about his attempts to scare up money from the ignorant. The sailing community called ‘bullshit’, and the press, public, and sponsors quite easily saw that it was, in fact, bullshit.

    Bullshit that you, Mr. Licensed Captain, have apparently consumed with gusto.

    • John Wolfe

      January 13, 2016 at 11:35 am

      Dear Clean,
      Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading. In response I’d just like to post a link to an article by well respected sailing writer Charles Doane which deals with several points you have made.
      From the article-
      “…I would say a part of what we are seeing here is a clash between two very different aspects of sailing culture. The macho competitive racing guys, who look up to sailors like Peter Blake and Torben Grael, versus certain crunchy granola cruising types, who look up to sailors like Bernard Moitessier and Jim Wharram. Some of the former, who are used to sailing over-powered lightweight modern boats with fine foils and laminated sails, apparently have little appreciation for the skills needed to manage a heavy under-powered gaff-rigged traditional vessel. Based on what I’ve read on SA’s anti-Reid thread, I would say too they have no appreciation of sailing as a spiritual pursuit.”
      Full text here-
      Again, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the rest of the chapters.

      • Sharkbait

        January 16, 2016 at 1:17 pm

        Has reid ever paid all that back cild support?

      • Clean

        January 17, 2016 at 10:47 pm

        Thanks John. Charlie’s piece addresses some of the more vituperative posts in the huge SA thread, but both Charlie’s piece and your cherry-picked quote ignore the thousands of posts by thousands of typical, non-macho sailors who make up the majority of the huge Sailing Anarchy community (which counts some 60,000 posting members and over 3 million readers annually, per Google Analytics). The vast majority of the sailors posting and reading that thread have both the experience to recognize hogwash and the spiritual connection to sailing to dislike it, and they are almost universally offended by Reid’s insistence on characterizing his voyage as something somehow important or serious rather than just yet another voyage of self-gratification.

        I’m 100% certain that no one would ever have noticed Reid had he not invented a pile of pseudo-scientific crap to justify begging for money to sail yet another heavily laden cruiser on yet another personal voyage. There isn’t a single Sailing Anarchy reader who begrudges an old sailor heading off to sea to cavort for years in the tropics with a young lady. Just don’t make up a bunch of bullshit about it. And for christ’s sake, don’t indoctrinate a microcult on the banks of the Hudson with your crazy ideas and expect no one to call you on it.

    • Beach

      January 14, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      “Real voyagers ridiculed Reid” doesn’t count as real voyagers, unfortunately. Internet usernames on obtuse forums don’t count as real voyagers either. Reid Stowe is not the most popular sailor of all time. He didn’t discover a new continent or invent sailing. He sailed by himself for a long time and broke a few records. The Earth isn’t going to stop spinning now, it’s not cause for alarm.

      Your extremely quick summary of events is entertaining, perhaps Hollywood would accept your dramatized screenplay of “The 1,000 Day Voyage.” Meanwhile, in reality, there are more important points to consider. Spending 1,152 days at sea is pretty neat, you have to admit. It’s even record breaking. But Reid isn’t a record breaking adrenaline junky, he’s just a sailor with a working phone and GPS and an artistic look on life.

      You’ve spent too much time on the internet Clean. Get outside, learn to sail! Don’t believe everything you read about someone, try meeting them or emulating them first. Or, the easiest and most realistic choice, stop caring and worry about your own life.

      • WOOD

        January 14, 2016 at 7:04 pm

        Thank you! It’s refreshing to hear a reasoned voice put things in perspective.

      • Mike

        January 16, 2016 at 4:31 pm

        Truth be known no one of sailing anarchy ‘Hated’ Reid. Quite the opposite, most of us were very fond of him as he gave us endless entertainment for several years. His ‘voyage’ was the nautical equivalent of the pointless ‘pole sitting’ records so popular in the 70’s by people who suffered from attention deficit syndrome, decades before the condition was identified. The true haters in SA thread were one or two of his handlers that missed the point of our ridiculing of his pointless drift around the world. Your comments about our lack of understanding of seamanship only show your ignorance of the subject. If one puts one self in the public eye to try and crowd sorce funding to pay for a few years living on a boat, then satire and ridicule are a natural by product in this world with social media. He certainly achived his main goal. Attention seeking.

  2. Sharkbait

    January 16, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Anyone interested in Reid Stowe should read this

    The prose is much better than the overwrought tripe being peddled here

  3. Shaggy

    January 16, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Spoken form the mind of a true believer I see, Do you people even get what clean said?? Weedo impregnated a girl, (yes girl) on his voyage and left her to her own devices whilst drifting for 1000 days. He took $$ from dozen’s of people that were tricked into thinking that his voyage had something to do with people going to mars. He hit a tanker whilst napping and blamed it on said tanker. There are numerous other instances where he failed to display even an inkling of competence when it came to the boat and actually sailing said boat where he wanted to go( did you see the part where he wanted to go around cape horn, but turned around and hung around the equator for the rest of the drift because he was unprepared for the extreme weather and seas?). The Macho competitive racing guys whom you refer to above are mostly good sailors that have actually put in the miles to comment on such things, so do yourself a favor, sit down and read the entire thread before commenting on all the wonderful things your Captain did…. It will open your eyes….

  4. Clean Heart

    February 19, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    The readership of Sailing Anarchy, spurred on by their executives, engaged in a multi-year smear campaign vituperative enough to engender some death threats, Internet stalking and countless instances of inflammatory hate speech directed against any individual who dared to express a positive sentiment about the 1,000 Days at Sea Adventure by Reid Stowe, and of course against Stowe himself.

    Mr. Stowe was admittedly not without his uniquely different aspects, as would befit anyone attempting an endeavor such as this one. He tended to stretch the truth- often. His date to set sail was released to NY dailies numerous times before he actually successfully departed on what became over way 1,000 Days At Sea, without resupply. He was and remains a rather unique character in the annals of modern sailing. However, he remains a man of good character. Something many of the adherents of Sailing Anarchy, based upon their words and actions, cannot and should not be called.

    The endless vicious attacks by the Sailing Anarchists, enjoying themselves when following the lead of Clean and Regatta Dog in condemning, ridiculing, shaming, stalking, salaciously satirizing, encouraging a mob atmosphere of scapegoating the entire group who might have helped, supported or been befriended by Reid in any way as completely contemptible, destroyed the peace of mind of many, and affected many lives adversely because of their organized multi year campaign of unmitigated hate.

    Any other characterization of the campaign by Sailing Anarchy to discredit the vagabond sailor in his sailing efforts and anyone who dared say a positive word about him on the Internet, would be attempting to white wash the truth.

  5. Clean Heart

    February 21, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    This link should amply indicate just how much the so-called “sailing community” called bullshit.

    The incredibly angry mean spirited bullshit from Clean & company never ends. Somebody should sue ’em.

  6. Steve

    April 5, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Spokern like a true Rebel Heart. Another shining example of sailing prowess.
    BTW… it would appear that Stowe’s drifting record has been upstaged by a German sailor found mummified on his boat earlier in 2016. They haven’t any record of him making port since 2009.

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