Alex’s radio interview

Approach with Caution

The sea, for all of its tempestuous moods, was often safer for a boat than nearing land. Especially in the coral strewn Pacific venturing towards a lagoon always proved to be more difficult than imagined.

As an ancient atoll, the tiny island of Mopelia was a ring of coral reef, and there was one point in this ring that could be passed through. Coming up to it, we realized our GPS was entirely useless, as it indicated on the virtual chart that we were right in the middle of the reef, fortunately inaccurately. We went by line of sight through the channel, which was under 100 feet wide (for our 50 foot boat) and had an outward current above five knots. As we approached, I put on polarized sunglasses and went to the bow to watch for coral heads. Dad sent me up with a frank, “Hold on tight in case we hit, Alex.” I had the best eyes of the crew, and had always been the one to watch for lobster pots, but this required an entirely different level of vigilance and focus… for all of us. Promise slowed as she passed into the coral jaws; I could see all the details of the hard reef six inches below the surface to either side of the hull. Our sails were down and I could hear the engine roaring some 5,000 RPMs above normal as we pushed through the current. We drew to a fork in the channel: a massive coral head to which we could go left or right. Left looked deeper.

I shouted, “Port! Go to port.” We passed the fork and made our way into the lagoon. Port was the wrong choice, we were quickly coming upon a dead end. The next moments were desperately frantic, as my parents and I shouted out ideas and facts about the situation. Flipping us into reverse, my dad managed to pull the tightest 180 and we wrapped around the fork and entered the lagoon. Shaking, I wrapped my arms around the forestay as I continued to call back instructions regarding frequent coral heads and pearl floats: slightly submerged baskets containing oysters growing pearls. Five miles later, we dropped anchor, ecstatic to have avoided any hull damage. We could relax, until ofcourse we made an exodus.

Sailing the Carribean

The Pacific turned out to be the ying of the Caribbean´s yang. The Caribbean had been a bunch of close islands, with predominantly western culture and an enormous boating infrastructure and community. The Pacific was the wild. The islands were scattered like dust on the wind, each was still fiercely linked to its Polynesian heritage, and the boating community consisted of a small group of tough, all-adult crews: hardcore sailors.

The sailing was more daunting, too, and it pushed me well beyond my comfort zone at times. I was thirteen, and I was inducted to the role of full crew member as soon as we made our first passage. I was woken up at three am our first night out by my mom, who had just completed her shift. I strapped down with a thick harness, a lifejacket and a large package of cookies for my watch. My dad was asleep in the main salon, and was just a shout away if anything should happen on my first shift. He had always told me night shifts were like flying through space. I saw why. It was a new moon, so everything was black, but the stars gleamed without any light pollution, natural or otherwise. The sky merged seamlessly with the black ocean below, which sparkled with its own stars: bio-luminescent plankton. We may as well have been in space. I could see about half the cockpit with the eerie lighting of the instrument displays. I knew the rhythm of the hull, and steering was not too different, but I was effectively blind. I turned on a flashlight every so often to check the sails’ telltales.Three hours later, the sun pierced my private abyss, and my shift was over; I no longer held all the responsibility of my family in my hands.

While the Caribbean had taught me the fundamentals of seamanship and of being a resourceful sailor, it really was the Pacific that thrust my coming of age upon me. By necessity, I took a larger, more active role in the crew, and that was equivalent to a share in the responsibility of our collective well being. We had no real support out there, so it was all on us. This was true on the personal level, too. We were almost always alone, and I saw someone my age (other than my sister) on a monthly basis at most. Yet somehow it never struck me as unfortunate, or that I should be lonesome. I knew how to entertain myself and I knew that more than ever I had to be resourceful with people; my crew became more important to me than ever, as they comprised virtually all of my human interaction. It was more than manageable in the context of travel, exploration and sometimes survival. I loved it, because I knew it was unique and extraordinary. Each night I spent between half an hour and forty five minutes capturing every aspect of the day, no matter how mundane. I knew I would want to share the tale someday, and for that I would need an auxiliary memory: the journals.

Expect the Unexpected

Tucked away behind the forested cliffs of Chaguaramas, Trinidad, we waited out Hurricane Ivan aboard our boat and home, Promise. It was not a particularly bad place for us to be. It was the safest hurricane hole in that region, and we were there with other crews we had gotten to know well over the past year. As the torrential rain drove through the forest of masts, the other sailing children and I sat below decks on one of the boats, talking. Our families were planning to start a circumnavigation together, and we were going to leave shortly after Ivan blew through. We’d sail north over South America, slip through Panama, and we´d be in the Pacific. We were pumped. We were all similar in age, I was 10, there were some 12 year olds, and some as young as 6, but that was just how our community was: age hardly mattered.
Later that evening, after all the other kids had gone, I sat with my mother at the nav-station, looking over the charts she had just bought for the trip we were planning. She traced out our route to Panama for me, letting me use the compass and slider to figure out the distances and bearings we´d take. We had not made a passage that long since sailing from Bermuda to the Caribbean, and I was looking forward to it. Our plan was real, and it was about to happen.

The following morning I woke up nauseated and with a blinding headache, but the storm had passed, and I wanted us to start preparing for our prospective voyage. Instead I went to the hospital. The first hospital I went to didn´t have all the necessary facilities, so I went to the larger, prison like Mount Hope hospital. It was open air, and after several scans and twenty attempts to draw blood from my body, I fell asleep next to an open window. That next day, I was lying on an aerial ambulance, bound for Hartford, CT. My disease quickly unfolded into a potent combination of leptospirosis, encephalitis, meningitis and hepatitis. I was dying, but I did not really grasp that at the time, so I was really more distressed at the fact that we would not be sailing for Panama that week. That was when I first really, profoundly realized that plans cannot always be expected to be followed.

Challenges of Sea Life

Five years at sea and on an island were hardly a typical upbringing, and I loved it for that reason. I loved the constant variety and the range of experiences I was exposed to. But of course not all variety was easy and in retrospect, those challenges were sometimes the most important experiences.

We were crossing the Pacific, and it was my third time ever doing night shift. In my brief experience up till that point, it had never been very dramatic. I’d steer, adjusting to the rhythm of the waves and feeling my way through the black, and every so often I’d put on autopilot and I’d take a look at the sails and the radar. Nothing had ever gone wrong. The third time was the charm. Driving through the night I heard the sails luff slightly, and the digital arrow indicating wind direction in the instrument display rotated. I clicked autopilot on, but before I’d risen the deluge was upon us, and the wind had changed direction and picked up. Blind in the night, I ran below seeking backup. That’s what family and crew (here one and the same) are for. I had never had a problem at night before, but life at sea had taught me never to work alone. Years of my father’s advice ran through my head as our boat torpedoed over the crest of a wave into the rainy abyss. I was glad I had heeded the advice; it was good to have him in the cockpit that night.

Often though, the challenges of life at sea were not as dramatic as late night squalls. This was definitely not the case when we first set out; back then the challenges were learning not just how to sail but how to be a cruiser: someone who lives aboard full time. The first thing that springs to mind is water conservation. It was a game with simple rules: four people, 200 gallons of water, see how long we can make that last. We could go about four weeks, but that entailed few showers, quickly washed dishes and being obsessive about never letting the taps run. Some of it was the logical elimination of waste and some of it was a sacrifice at first. After a few months though it became my life and routine, and living in a shell of salt actually isn’t all that bad.

Those challenges were what made our trip an adventure, not a pleasure sail. The key was learning; be flexible and you can overcome most of what the sea deals you.

Adventures at Sea

In 2003, casting their fortunes— and their lives—to the wind, my family embarked on what we thought would be a one-year voyage aboard our forty-seven-foot sloop, Promise. It really took five years and more than 25,000 nautical miles later before we returned to the dry land of the United States. We sailed for weeks on the blank ocean, feasted with local hosts on remote atolls, danced with hula girls, plummeted down a tube of coral due to fierce currents, and navigated natural minefields in atolls and came too close to death for comfort once or twice.

One of those instances was during our second year at sea. We had forgone the plan of returning to the United States months earlier, and we had made the resolution to perform a circumnavigation with several of the other crews we had met along the way. That plan was unfortunately interrupted when I contracted a tropical disease in the Caribbean which planted me in a hospital for two months and altered my family’s route through life in the most unforeseen of ways.

In this memoir, I’ve attempted to chronicle our adventures at sea. I kept a daily journal during that period of my life, and from those I’ve culled A Star to Sail Her By. The narrative reveals my transition from an enthusiastic child to capable sailor. Those were five years that have defined my life up to this point, and I realized they had been a gift that had completely changed my life. When I finished the journey at the age of thirteen, I asserted that I would publish a book on it: realizing the pipe dream I had each night as I scribbled away in journals in my berth. That book took three years to manifest itself, and it was as much of a learning experience as the trip itself. It forced me to try and find what the larger significance of the trip was to my life, to focus on not the narrative as much as the lesson. It had been a rich course in sailing, survival, and intercultural relations. The most basic and supported tenant was that the only thing you can count on is change, that it happens when you least expect it, and that it enriches your life in unexpected ways that are all too worth it.

It’s a unique, intrinsically interesting story, and I have no doubt that it appeals to a variety of audiences: arm chair sailors, families planning similar ventures, and adolescents looking for something to read that’s different, interesting but is very much real.

A Star to Sail Her By: A Coming of Age at Sea

This family of two physicians set off with their two children: Alex, age 8, and Lara, age 7, who has Autism, for a one-year sabbatical, sailing from New England to the Caribbean and South America. They ended up sailed over 25,000 nautical miles and the journey turned into a 5 year odyssey of adventure and growth for all of them.  The family left in June 2003 with the Bermuda Race and returned in the summer of 2008, when Alex was turning 14 and entering Phillips Exeter Academy, where he currently is in 11th grade. The story is told by him from his point of view, and includes the transition from enthusiastic child to capable sailor and reflective young adult. It includes amazing adventures, exposures to remote, exotic cultures and a near fatal bout of encephalitis, which required a medical evacuation and a prolonged hospitalization in the middle of the journey. Alex kept a daily journal for almost 6 years and this forms the core of the book, with some additional rewriting of earlier stages to elevate the level of the composition.