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REID STOWE: Longest Voyage in History (Undisputed!)

Reid Stowe aboard schooner Anne

The record might be broken as of today (according to his harshest detractors), or it may actually be broken less than two weeks from now on Saturday March 27 (according to my own calculations), but either way Reid Stowe is now (or soon will be) the unequivocal record-holder for longest non-stop voyage of any type ever undertaken by a human being.

You may recall I mentioned Reid last December, when he broke Jon Sanders' record for longest solo voyage. This target at least was always clearcut and well defined, though it wasn't originally one of Reid's goals when he set out from New York Harbor aboard his 70-foot schooner Anne on April 21, 2007. Back then Reid had crew (a young photographer from Queens, Soanya Ahmed, who later left the boat after becoming pregnant) and he believed he would capture the title for longest voyage (solo or otherwise) if he beat Sanders' mark of 658 days non-stop at sea. To do this he proposed to stay at sea for 1,000 days.

Much water (pardon the obvious metaphor) has passed beneath Reid's keel since then. One thing that happened early on is that Reid's voyage provoked relentless ridicule from a small band of anonymous critics who, among other things, asserted that the real record for longest voyage was set not by Jon Sanders, but by the crew of Fridtjof Nansen's Fram back in 1896. Though Sanders, who sailed three solo non-stop circumnavigations in 1986-88, is commonly believed to have been the prior record-holder, Reid's critics sort of have a point. Of course, the record Nansen was shooting for when he set forth from Norway in July 1893 was not for longest voyage, but for first to reach the North Pole. His plan was to sail as far east as he could along the northern Siberian coast, then head north, freeze his ship into the Arctic pack ice, and drift very slowly with the ice across the pole.

Fridtjof Nansen

In many ways Nansen's journey was obviously not a proper sea voyage. During most of its transit his ship Fram, which was specifically designed by Colin Archer with very round hull sections so that it would pop upwards and resist being crushed as pack ice gripped it, wasn't even afloat, but hard aground (or hard a-ice, as the case may be). The crew actually spent much time off the ship, hunting polar bears, making scientific observations, and practicing their skiing and dog-sledding in case they had to abandon ship.

Drawings of Fram

Fram during Nansen's expedition

Indeed, once Nansen realized the ship would never make it to the pole, he and one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, actually did abandon ship and set off for the pole on foot. They made it as far as 86 degrees, 13.6 minutes north before having to turn back, which was the closest to the pole anyone had ever been up to that time. In the end, because they were so much more mobile, Nansen and Johansen made it back to shore a full year before Fram, in August 1895, when they reached the Franz Josef Land archipelago, where they were forced to winter over before proceeding further south. Fram and her crew meanwhile reached Spitsbergen in August 1896, and by the end of that month both the ship and Nansen were safely back in Norway.

Because of the unusual nature of Fram's "voyage," I originally resisted the notion this was the benchmark Reid had to beat in his quest to claim a record for longest voyage. I said as much to Verena Dobnik of the Associated Press last spring, and she cited me as sole authority (primarily because she herself was intimidated by the ferocity of Reid's critics) for the proposition that Reid had broken the record when he reached day 659 of his voyage. As far as I knew (and still know now) no member of Fram's crew ever claimed they set a record for longest voyage, and prior to the emergence of Reid's detractors, no one else ever did either. But since then I've adjusted my thinking a bit. After Reid went into what he calls his "sacred sideslip" and started drifting in the Atlantic doldrums off West Africa last summer, just killing time and making art, an analogy to Fram's drift across the Arctic, whether she was floating or not, began to seem more apt.

Which raises the question: exactly how long was Fram afloat or aground on ice without her crew touching dry land? According to Reid's detractors, per a blog they have created entitled Reid Stowe and 1,000 Days at Sea - Reality Check, the answer is 1,056 days. The only authority they cite for this figure is a link to a map posted by the Fram Museum in Norway, which notes the date Fram was first frozen into the ice (September 22, 1893) and the date she broke free of the ice near Spitsbergen (August 13, 1896), which interval does indeed add up to 1,056 days. (According to the site, day 1,056 of Reid's voyage fell on March 12, but according to my math it actually was yesterday.)

Map of Fram's route across the Arctic

Unlike Reid's detractors (apparently), I have actually read Nansen's account of his voyage, Farthest North (it's a great book, which I heartily recommend) and on revisiting its text I'd say the last day any member of Fram's crew set foot on land prior to their drift across the Arctic Ocean was September 10, 1893. It may actually have been later than this, but I find no other references to anyone going ashore subsequent to that date, until August 14, 1896, when the crew landed at Spitsbergen, the day after they broke free from the ice. Lacking immediate access to Fram's log for better data, I would thus put the record at 1,067 days, which, as noted, Reid should exceed by the end of this month.

One irony here is that Reid's critics, while taunting him with the precedent of Fram's voyage, have also abused him unmercifully for not covering more distance during his voyage. They fail to note that Reid on Anne, having made one leisurely circuit of the globe, has in fact covered much more distance than Fram.

The other irony is that this picayune counting of days spent aboard Fram matters little, because Reid in the end will blow the old record away, whatever it was, by a large margin. He decided some time ago not to end his voyage at 1,000 days, because he didn't fancy returning to New York in January. Instead he has set his return date for June 17, which means (barring the unforeseen) the new record for longest voyage ever made will be 1,150 days.

In the run-up to Reid's homecoming I'll be reprising and discussing various other aspects of his voyage and achievements in future posts here on WaveTrain. So stay tuned.

PS: If you like this post and think I should get paid something for writing this blog, please click here. The link will take you to the same post at BoaterMouth, where you will find lots of other blogs about boats.

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