Dispatches, October 1998
Even in a port of call as exuberantly eccentric as the New York waterfront, Pier 63 on Manhattan's West Side stands out as an oddity. This afternoon, for example, the dock is covered with black rubber shower mats, upon which a troupe of sweaty, spandex-clad jazz dancers is lifting weights and practicing its choreography. At the head of the pier is the Chelsea Equestrian Center, where mounted debutantes are earnestly practicing dressage for $100 an hour. Down the boardwalk, there's a four-story open-air driving range where Wall Street traders exorcise their frustrations by savagely thwoking Top-Flites in the direction of New Jersey. And at the center of this extravaganza, gently rocking back and forth in the brown waters of the Hudson, bobs an old-fashioned, gaff-rigged schooner captained by a man so aberrant, so unorthodox, so astonishingly offbeat that he makes the circus around him seem downright run-of-the-mill.
Sometime next spring, Reid Stowe, 46, will slip his lines and pilot his 70-foot ship through the Verrazano Narrows on a sailing voyage of enviable purity and singular strangeness: 1,000 days at sea without resupply, without visitors, and in a striking twist, without ever, under any circumstance, venturing within view of shore. For almost three years, his only companions will consist of one French girlfriend, two stray cats, and the dragon mask he dons when he smears his body with rainbow-colored paint and cavorts around deck in wild bouts of shamanistic dancing. "I am into exploring the unknown, expanding the mind," Stowe asserts in a soft Carolina drawl that drops your blood pressure about 20 points. "I'll be out of sight of land longer than any human has ever been."
As overblown as that assertion may sound, no voyager in history, from Vasco da Gama to the Mir astronauts, has shunned contact with terra firma for the length of time Stowe plans to be at sea. (The existing record is held by the Australian sailor Jon Sanders, who from 1986 to1988 circled the globe three times in 657 days.) Stowe intends to better this distinction by sailing in large loops through the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans as he circumnavigates in an eastward direction, plotting a course that assiduously keeps him well offshore the entire time. He calls his expedition the Mars Ocean Odyssey, because 1,000 days is the expected duration of a journey to the red planet.
The venture has piqued the interest of several NASA researchers because keeping astronauts healthy and fending off terminal boredom are two key challenges for future space voyages. "It's a good analog for a long-term space mission," says Frances Mount, a lab manager at the Johnson Space Center's flight crew support division, which is hoping to get funding that would enable its researchers to treat Stowe as a floating lab rat. "NASA pays a lot for [isolation] studies in the Antarctic and Arctic," continues Mount, "but I think this voyage is closer to the real thing."
Judging strictly by his appearance (dirty blond hair, frayed shorts, bare feet), Stowe may seem more like a dockside vagrant than a modern-day Magellan. But there is plenty of saltwater running through his veins. At the age of 19, he tacked together a 27-foot plywood catamaran and shepherded it across the Atlantic twice. After eventually wending back to his parents' summer home in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, he spent a year and a half in their yard bringing to life his personal vision of the ultimate deep-ocean sailing ship. He launched the result in 1978, named it Anne (after his mother), and has lived aboard it ever since.
Boasting stout wooden masts and rugged construction, the 60-ton steel-and-fiberglass schooner is unlikely to set any speed records. Its interior panels — which are dominated by a whimsical menagerie of hand-carved genies, mermaids, and dragons — are also a far cry from standard yacht decor. But like the man who fashioned her, Anne is built to go places: Stowe has taken the little ship to Antarctica, around Cape Horn, and last year, on a successful 100-day trial run for his Mars Odyssey.
The roots of his present quest trace back to his encounter with one of sailing's most romantic heroes, the legendary Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, who seized the attention of the sailing world back in 1968 while competing in the first single-handed race around the globe. Shortly after rounding Cape Horn and well placed to post the fastest time, Moitessier found himself so sea-smitten that he couldn't bear turning north for England and the finish. So he simply kept on going, cheerfully circling the bottom of the world one more time. After 37,455 miles, he finally dropped anchor in Tahiti (where Stowe eventually caught up with him) and rocketed to cult-figure status among long-distance sailors. "Meeting him had a big influence on me," recalls Stowe. "He said you can just go on, live out there, and not think about the shore."
Like his mystical mentor (Moitessier was convinced that dolphins served as his guardian angels), Stowe seems to have mastered the knack of treating a voyage as both performance art and metaphysical statement. When not tending to his ship's needs, he is reading Jung, meditating on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or practicing tantric yoga on his gimbaled bunk. He also plans to stow bags of earth in Anne's cavernous hold so that he can keep himself "grounded" by occasionally stretching out on deck beneath a pile of dirt. "I continuously live in a spiritual state at sea," he says by way of explanation.
For sustenance, Stowe and his partner, Laurence Guillem, 26, will mainly consume dried oats, nuts, and fruit. The couple will also fashion salads from the sprouts they cultivate in a makeshift but thriving greenhouse tucked next to the portholes of Anne's stern cabin. There is a small water purifier aboard, but it will likely get little use because Stowe, a maniac for self-sufficiency, has always managed to inveigle more than enough potable water by catching rain.
Experts seem a bit taken aback by the venture. "I've never heard of anything so ambitious," says Phil Crowther, archivist at the Museum of Yachting in Newport, Rhode Island. "There's a first time for everything, but I think I'd lay odds against him making it." Stowe, however, seems to harbor no such doubts — supremely confident, it seems, not only in his seamanship, but also in his ability to wrest meaning and contentment from the emptiest of oceans. "It's about controlling your mind and your heart," he says, glancing in the direction of a Chelsea dance club whose throbbing techno-pop sound system is reverberating off Anne's steel hull. "To be ultimately seaworthy, we have to be able to live at sea without anything on shore bringing us back."