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Comprehending Reid Stowe: Early Voyages & The Moitessier Factor

Reid Stowe aboard the schooner Anne

AS OF LAST MONTH, as documented here on WaveTrain, Reid Stowe can rightfully lay claim to a record for longest ocean voyage in history and earlier toppled the record for longest solo voyage. But unlike most sailors who now play the record-breaking game, Reid's motivations and methods are, shall we say, not entirely linear. To understand the enigma that is Reid--a man who inspires some, infuriates a few, and leaves many others simply baffled--it helps to know something of his origins as an ocean sailor.

Though Reid first learned to how to sail and handle boats as a boy during summers spent at a house his family built on the North Carolina coast, his original entree into the world of ocean sailing was through surfing. On graduating from high school in the late 1960s Reid flew immediately to Hawaii where, as he has described it, he sought "to realize a dream of surfing and tropical island living." He returned to the mainland and briefly attended the University of Arizona, but soon dropped out and was back in Hawaii riding big waves on Maui. There he met another teenager surfer, Craige Fostvedt, who had sailed out from California on a 35-foot teak Cheoy Lee Lion named Moondance. Reid joined Craige on Moondance and with one other teenage crew member struck out west across the Pacific.

The South Pacific at this time was something of an epicenter of alternative sailing. The center of the epicenter, as it were, was Tahiti, where Bernard Moitessier landed in June 1969 after circling the globe one and a half times non-stop in his 39-foot steel ketch Joshua.

This was an extremely legendary voyage. Moitessier had reluctantly joined the list of those competing in the vaunted Golden Globe Race, a newspaper-sponsored publicity stunt that sought to channel and exploit the energies of the several sailors who sought in the aftermath of Francis Chichester's groundbreaking one-stop circumnavigation to become the first ever to sail around the world non-stop. From the very beginning, Moitessier, who had already sailed Joshua non-stop from Tahiti to Spain via Cape Horn with his wife Francoise in 1964, looked to be a front-runner. But unlike every other competitor, ocean sailing for him was as much a spiritual pursuit as anything else. In the end, he couldn't bring himself to play the game by anyone else's rules. Rather than sail north to Europe to finish the Golden Globe after rounding Cape Horn, Moitessier turned his back on an all-but-certain victory and just kept sailing east around the world again. As he put it at the time, in a note announcing his decision that he flung aboard a freighter via slingshot: "I am continuing non-stop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul."

Bernard Moitessier on Joshua

Moitessier later wrote in his autobiography, Tamata and the Alliance, that the only thing he regretted about blowing off the race was that qualifying "perhaps" he had inserted into his missive to the world. By the time he landed in Tahiti, having completed the most arduous and ambitious solo voyage in history up to that time, he was something of a Messiah to any sailor who suspected or hoped that an ocean passage might serve as a window on to the divine.

Reid and Craige never stopped at Tahiti on Moondance. They sailed from Hawaii to Fanning Island, then on to Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, where they met another young sailor, a 24-year-old Dutchman named Ivo van Laake, who had sailed out into the Pacific from California on a tiny 19-foot plywood sloop called Vlaag. Ivo had spent time in Tahiti with Moitessier and presumably was seriously influenced by him. Certainly Ivo made an impression on Moitessier, as Ivo and Vlaag are both referenced in a section on self-steering systems in the appendix of The Long Way, Moitessier's popular account of his great voyage.

Ivo van Laake in the summer of 1970

Ivo van Laake in Hawaii, 1970

Reid met Ivo again in New Zealand and moved aboard Vlaag after Craige announced he planned to marry and get a job there. The two young men lived together on the tiny boat for three months and formed a very close bond. During this time, Reid later wrote: "I received a series of spiritual illuminations that opened my mind and gave me guidance in my search for the great common mind of man." During his current voyage Reid has described this time in his life and his relationship with Ivo to me (via e-mail) as follows: "It was Ivo who brought the Bernard [Moitessier] influence in[to] my life. I did some yoga before I met Ivo and was already convinced I would do it all my life, but I had never read. Ivo had on board The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Carl Jung's autobiography, which became two of the most influential books in my life. The spiritual connection is what brought Ivo and I together."

While in New Zealand Reid also met Klaus Alverman, who was cruising the world in his own tiny wooden boat, Plumbelly, which he had built on a beach in Bequia. Like Ivo, Klaus had spent time in Tahiti with Moitessier (he, too, is referenced in The Long Way) and no doubt was also helping spread the gospel of alternative sailing. But what particularly impressed Reid about Klaus was Plumbelly herself. As Reid told me during an interview many years later: "Plumbelly had a huge influence on me. Her beautiful hardwood, the curves, the gracefulness of her. I decided then I had to build my own boat, too. I could see what my path was, and it wasn't the path being followed by other people on their boats."

 

REID RETURNED to the U.S. determined to build his own boat so he could go on "an enlightening ocean voyage." In October 1972, at age 20, he set up shop at the family homestead in North Carolina and started work on a 27-foot catamaran he ultimately named Tantra. The original design, which Reid pirated (he copied rather than paid for the plans), was by James Wharram, who was himself a great proponent of alternative sailing and had spent time with Bernard Moitessier many years earlier, in the late 1950s, when they were both shipwrecked in Trinidad.

Tantra was built of 3/8" plywood sheathed in fiberglass. Her crossbeams and spars were of Sitka spruce. She had one single berth in each of her 3-foot-wide hulls, no standing headroom, no electricity, and no engine. Her standing rigging consisted of 1/4" galvanized wire set up on deadeyes and lanyards. Reid installed a simple two-burner gas cooktop down below; water he planned to carry loose in 40 one-gallon jugs distributed through out the two hulls.

Catamaran Tantra

In building Tantra Reid demonstrated a great talent for assembling and effectively supervising large volunteer work crews that has served him well through out his life. At times he had as many as 10 friends on site helping to build the boat. These included a young woman named Iris, who later became his first wife, and also Ivo van Laake, who arrived on the scene from the Pacific early in 1973. Reid and Ivo evidently were both interested in Iris romantically, and Reid was rather surprised when Iris proposed marriage to Ivo. Apparently, however, this did not inhibit Reid's relationship with either party. Just one day after the wedding, on June 15, 1973, Reid and Ivo set out together on Tantra bound for Europe. "[Ivo] said Iris is my wife, and I said okay, she's my cosmic lover," wrote Reid. "But we both went to sea without a lady and our fantasy lovers existed only in our minds."

Catamaran Tantra under sail

I could describe Reid's time aboard Tantra at great length (I will restrain myself as best I can), as I have before me as a reference a photocopy of a book-length unpublished account by Reid entitled The Voyage of the Lightship Tantra. It is a remarkable document. Sailing on Tantra, particularly when conditions were rough, was often cold, wet, and very uncomfortable. Space inside the hulls was very tight, freeboard was quite low, and the boat leaked a great deal as well. At one point, Reid describes being on deck during strong weather as the equivalent of standing waist deep in breaking waves on a beach. But in fact very little of his text dwells on this. Instead he focusses much more on the sheer ecstasy of the experience. For example:

The endless movement has opened up new channels of feeling and a psychic world of motion brings on a series of unique illuminations. Wave after wave I ride, relaxing, feeling the roll forward, then backwards. There is no pause. Endless water rushes down the full length of each hull. Tantra gives with the movement, contracting and expanding, bending from one plane to the next. Wave after wave thumps against the cabins, and with each wave-bang colors explode before my eyes. Tantra is in tune with nature, dancing and singing in a musical concert.

Reid also describes how he and Ivo relentlessly practiced yoga and made mountains of art while sailing together. In a superficial way parts of his text seem to mimic that of Moitessier's The Long Way, though I don't know if Reid ever had a chance to read the book, which appeared in English in 1973, prior to writing his Tantra manuscript. Unlike Moitessier, however, he takes the "ocean passage as spiritual adventure" angle to a much higher, more technical level. Large portions of his manuscript are devoted to very detailed descriptions of his yoga and meditation practice, with precise instructions, for example, on how to keep from getting horny or feeling cold while sailing on the open ocean.

Reid and Ivo took about 30 days to reach the Azores, then another week or so to reach Portugal. Here Ivo left the boat for two months to visit the Netherlands while Reid continued south on to Morocco on his own, his first experience as a singlehander. Ivo then rejoined the boat in Morocco, and the two voyaged together to the Canary Islands. They sailed into the harbor at Arrecife, on Lanzarote, and were so disgusted by it they at once sailed right back out again and continued on their way south. They set course for Mauritania in West Africa, a very challenging destination, but were thwarted by bad weather and continued on instead to Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands. They landed there 17 days after leaving Morocco. After a brief stay, they then struck out across the Atlantic again to Brazil, where they landed at Salvador after a 26-day passage.

It was in Brazil that Reid's relationship with Ivo at last began to unravel. After bringing Tantra north from Salvador to the Amazon, where they settled down with some friendly locals at a riverside farm outside Belem, their mutual paramour Iris suddenly arrived from the United States, proclaiming her love for both of them. In the end she chose Reid over Ivo, and the two sailed off together for a river cruise on Tantra. Ivo meanwhile consoled himself by inviting another girlfriend, Moea, to come from Tahiti to join him. (Ivo, I should note, now refuses to discuss his time sailing with Reid. He says he does not think it is interesting and prefers instead to live in the present.)

At the conclusion of their river cruise, Reid and Iris decided to join another boat sailed by a Belgian couple, Peter and Zaza, who were heading north to the Caribbean. Reid left Tantra locked up on a mooring in front of the farm outside Belem and asked Ivo to keep an eye on her. Their first night aboard with the Belgians, however, as they were heading out the river for the open sea, Reid, Iris, and their hosts were all taken prisoner by a band of pirates. These were led by an ex-mercenary named Horst, who had been stalking Peter and Zaza for some time and hoped to take their boat for his own. After holding the two couples at gun point for two days, Horst at last relented and merely plundered the boat, warning his victims he would kill them if they returned to the river. Reid in his manuscript described the denouement of this ordeal:

[The pirates] planned to leave when darkness fell, but the weather was too rough for them to leave in their fully loaded open motorboat. So they had Peter motor the sailboat into a protected river mouth at the very entrance to the Amazon. When they were ready to depart, [one] young pirate came inside, grabbed the sextant, and started to climb out the hatch. I shouted in Portuguese: "You leave that sextant. We need it to leave Brazil." He put the sextant back without looking at me and climbed outside. As the pirates left, we loosened our bonds and quickly hoisted anchor and motored away. The water was shallow and we passed rows of fish trap poles. Alive and free! We weren't enthusiastically overjoyed. Our hands and arms hurt and we still had to navigate past big sand bars to get out to sea. It began to rain heavily and we motor-sailed out. Peter used his lead line, and when it suddenly got shallower we tacked the other way. We did this for hours until we reached the safety of the open ocean.

The next morning was Thanksgiving and we were thankful. We were lucky to have a good Thanksgiving dinner of fresh Spanish mackerel. The fish jumped aboard, clanged the ship's bell, and fell into the cockpit. The water was already getting clearer. How nice it was to leave that muddy brown water. We wondered how Ivo and everybody was doing back on the farm and wondered how they could live there so close to our place of calamity. That experience muddied our vision of the Amazon River.

Fourteen days later the two couples reached Martinique, where Reid took a job teaching yoga at the local Club Med. Later, after contracting hepatitis, he flew home to North Carolina to recuperate. Once there he received word from the farm in Brazil that Moea had arrived from Tahiti and that she and Ivo had left for Bolivia, leaving Tantra untended.

Agonizing over all he had invested in Tantra, and all the original artwork and the journals he had stored aboard her, Reid concluded he had no choice but to return to the farm to retrieve his boat. His Belgian friends, Peter and Zaza, warned him by letter of the danger: Horst, who had informants in the area, would likely know of his return to the river; it was unlikely Tantra would be ready to immediately go to sea; and it would be very difficult, during the windless Brazilian rainy season, to get the little catamaran out of the river without an engine.

Reid flew to Belem and returned to the farm regardless and found Tantra in a sorry state. He quickly prepped the boat as best he could and with two others who'd been staying at the farm, after many consultations with the Tarot and I Ching, set out again for the open sea. It took several days to escape the clutches of the river mouth. There followed a passage up the coast to Parimaribo in Suriname, then on to Barbados and Martinique, where Reid's crew left him.

Reid sailed on to the Grenadines and after cruising for a while there stopped in Carriacou, where he hauled Tantra on to a beach for a thorough refit. After again assembling a large volunteer work crew, Reid rebuilt key parts of the boat over a period of a month. He was then joined by his brother Bobby, who helped him sail the boat back to North Carolina. Prior to leaving, however, during a hilltop session tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, Bobby and Reid made a revelatory decision: "We will sail home, and in our front yard we will build a big schooner for our family to go sailing on all together."

And this, in fact, was the genesis of the 70-foot homebuilt schooner, first named Tantra, then Anne, after Reid's mother, on which Reid has been sailing ever since… and is sailing now, more than 30 years later, on his record-breaking voyage around the world. As he and Bobby envisioned, the boat was built in front of the family house in North Carolina, without plans, in less than two years and was launched in March 1978.

 

ALL OF WHICH (I hope you'll agree) makes for an interesting tale. If Reid only had a bit more writing talent, his Tantra manuscript would likely have been published and might have become a classic of sailing literature in its own right, jammed on to shelves alongside Bernard Moitessier's work. What struck me most when I first read it, however, is that it never once references Moitessier. This surprised me, because when I first met and interviewed Reid, back in November 2002, he was quick to claim a strong connection to the legendary French sailor.

By sheer coincidence, Reid then had Stephan Moitessier, Bernard's son, working aboard helping him to prepare Anne for his 1,000 day voyage. There was also a young Estonian volunteer, named Ivo, helping out as well. In Reid's mind this was terribly significant. He told me he felt as though the spirit of his two mentors had come forward through time to encourage him in his efforts. He also told me then it was Bernard Moitessier himself who turned him on to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, during a meeting in California, prior to the building of Tantra. Years later when I queried Reid again, after reading the Tantra manuscript and learning more about his relationship with Ivo van Laake, he still insisted he had met Moitessier in California during the late 1970s, after the Tantra voyage, but before he built his schooner. When I pointed out Moitessier had never been to California prior to the early 1980s, Reid claimed to be confused, but still insisted he had once met the man.

Stephan Moitessier

Deck repairs on schooner Anne

Which may or may not be true. So significant among ocean sailors was the phenomenon of Moitessier, it is quite natural now for folks to inflate any connection with him. The obvious parallel would be the 1969 Woodstock rock concert: about 300,000 people attended, and now there are several million who claim they did. In the end, whether they did or not isn't really so important. The Woodstock Nation, so called, effectively encompasses all who were there, or wish they were.

As for Reid, whether he received the gospel direct from Bernard Moitessier, or (as seems more likely) via Ivo, it clearly has had a strong influence on him. In designing and building the schooner Anne, he told me he intentionally mimicked the cabinhouse of Moitessier's Joshua. And if you look at the cabinhouse of Anne, you can see this is obviously true. After Reid hit a freighter and broke Anne's bowsprit shortly after embarking on his current voyage in 2007, he also quickly drew a parallel to Moitessier's Golden Globe voyage, during which he, too, struck a freighter and damaged his bowsprit, yet managed to make repairs and carry on.

In the end, I think it is not unfair to say that Reid Stowe seems to have sought quite consciously, at least since he started planning his 1,000 day voyage nearly 20 years ago, to emulate and surpass Moitessier. It can also truthfully be said, at least with respect to the intensity of his spiritual practice and the cosmic scope of his voyage, that he has succeeded to some extent. Unfortunately for Reid, it seems, too, there are many fewer sailors today who are inclined to empathize with such an effort.

PS: If you like this post and think I should be paid to write this blog, please click here. The link will take you to the same post at BoaterMouth, where you'll find many other blogs about boats.

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