03 September 2013

An Unlikely Voyage

Women With Ideas
  by John

I first met Eric Forsyth a few years ago on a cold winter night. Our local sailmaker had by organized a series of sailing lectures for those of us who pined for seas of the unfrozen type. Most of the talks, naturally, were aimed at the hard-core racers who keep sailmakers afloat. But slotted in amongst the go-go boys was a talk by a man who claimed to have sailed the Northwest Passage -- one of the first yachts to slip through when the Arctic ice began to recede. Others had talked of the possibility; this man had done it. I wanted to hear his tale.

So on that January night I joined a thin but steady stream of bearded men and adventurous-looking women who walked across an icy parking lot towards a door of light high on the side of a tall black industrial building. We climbed steep steel steps towards this beacon of warmth, muttering hellos to those last seen wearing shorts and flip flops, admiring the cavernous space filled with modern yet somehow traditional sailmaking things, and finally settled ourselves on folding chairs on the smooth wooden floor in front of a white movie screen.

The sailmaker introduced Eric, a small, quiet-spoken Englishman. He was whippet-thin, elderly, but obviously quite fit. He moved without that stiffness and uncertainty you expect to see in men of a certain age. He looked as though he could climb a mast, or sail a thousand miles without working up a sweat. But as light began to play on the screen, and that modest, self-effacing man began to tell the story of his Arctic adventure, it became clear that he could do more than that, if he wanted to. Much more.

After completing the North West Passage

After the lecture, I spoke to Eric briefly, feeling like a stage-struck groupie at a rock concert. I didn't want to gush, but I'm sure I did. It seemed to embarrass him.

Two years later, my uncle Marty invited me to a lecture at his yacht club. The speaker again was to be Eric. He'd just returned from an 'easy' circumnavigation of the North Atlantic, stopping off at places like Reykjavik and the Faroe Islands in the far north, Oban in Scotland and Dingle in Ireland, sunny Lisbon and Madeira, tiny St. Peter & Paul Rock in the middle of the Atlantic, on to Brazil and Devil's Island, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and home to Long Island.

What did it take to make voyages like that? I wondered afterwards. The right boat, of course. Eric's Fiona was a proven ocean-crosser: a Westsail 42. About as bullet-proof a boat as has ever been built. But something else was needed. Something that Eric left unspoken in his lectures, but which came through, nevertheless, in his demeanor, in his tone of voice. Not fearlessness, not reckless confidence... something else...

Determination, I decided. At least, that's the way it looked from my comfortable seat in the audience. The determination to carry out whatever plan he set his mind to. No matter how crazy.

I spoke to him again afterwards, determined not to gush. He still seemed slightly embarrassed by the attention, so I didn't linger, but he'd given me an idea, which I brought up with Helena that very evening.

Our son, Nick, was graduating with a degree in Biology that spring and Helena and I were anxious that he take a gap-year before rushing into years of graduate and post graduate work. You're only young once, we told him. Have some fun while you still can! Sell coconuts on the beach in Brazil. Go to Europe. Do something crazy! Like sailing to the Antarctic...

While wrapping up his lecture, Eric had revealed the outlines of his next adventure: a circumnavigation of Antarctica from east to west. That's opposite the way sailors have been going around the South Pole since the Age of Sail.  But Eric had been to the Antarctic continent twice, and while down there, he'd noticed that once he'd sailed through the Roaring Forties -- which blow from west to east around and around the globe, building up massive seas as they go -- he found a milder easterly... an easterly that could, he thought, carry a small boat around the world the wrong way.

That was his theory, and he was determined try it out. He needed crew to help sail Fiona -- to head south to Antarctica and turn west, keeping as close to the icy coast as possible. The perfect adventure for Nick, we thought.

Somewhat surprisingly, Nick agreed with us, so we went down to Weeks Boatyard in Patchogue, NY to see Fiona and to let Eric see Nick. Apparently, he liked what he saw, despite Nick's lack of sailing experience. Helena and I were elated. For a few weeks, we talked of nothing else. But then Fate intervened, as it does. A scholarship to Columbia University and the University of Sao Paulo; the chance to work with a Nobel Prize nominee -- one of the top men in viruses; promised adventures hunting virus-carrying bats and rats in the Brazilian jungle.

The Adventure was off. Nick left for Brazil. We were disappointed, but Eric, who was used to losing crew, sailed south with a different set of lads in the spring of this year. Following him on Facebook, we watched him cross the North Atlantic effortlessly. From Long Island to the Azores, from the Azores to the Canaries... it all seemed so easy.

But then family issues called his crew back to the States. Eric recruited two backpackers looking for a ride to Brazil, but they backed out. He reported that a live-aboard couple seemed interested, but it didn't work out. Bad news seemed to follow bad news. Would Eric have to single-hand from Cape Verde off the Moroccan coast, all the way to Brazil? Helena and I were riveted to Eric's Facebook page. What would happen next? Who could guess? The one thing I didn't expect was...

"We should do it," said Helena one evening.

"What?" I said, not quite believing my own ears.

"We should do it," she said, with that familiar, determined look in her eye.

Alea Iacta Est
  by Helena

It was a chilly late-winter morning in a deserted boat yard. I gingerly climbed a steel ladder up the side of a large sailboat called Fiona. The boat's captain, Eric Forsyth, helped me off the ladder and up onto her deck. John and our son Nick followed me up. We were high above the ground. I could see water over the top of the other, smaller boats.

As we stood awkwardly in the cockpit, Eric began telling us about Fiona and his next voyage -- a voyage around Antarctica. His placid blue eyes were just that, placid. His tone of voice matched his eyes: placid, calm, confident, no big deal. “Been there done that..." his tone said. "And I am doing it again, just for fun.”

I gripped the big steering wheel, afraid of the way the boat seemed to sway in the breeze, looking across the blue waters of the Great South Bay, trying to imagine an endless blue ocean all round us, the wind on my hair, the sun warming my face. But then the others climbed down into the boat's cabin, leaving me alone, and the image popped like a bubble. Fiona was 42 ft long. It was not a large boat. A large boat had five swimming pools and eighteen dining rooms. Enough said. I followed the men down the companionway steps, listening to them oooh and ahhh over the engine room, the captain's cabin, the navigation equipment, the sails... go figure.

It wasn't for me, but it was a fantastic opportunity for Nick, I thought. We pushed him and encouraged him, and for awhile it looked like it might happen, but in the end, Nick left for Brazil, and Eric left for the Antarctic. John continued to follow Eric's progress through Facebook and Eric's website, and kept me up to date. It was summer, and I was busy, and it seemed like the voyage was routine -- at least routine for circumnavigators! But when Eric lost his crew, I began to take interest.

"All alone! Poor captain," I thought. Then I remembered Captain Eric's complaints about Brazilian Customs. “... that was a nightmare, they gave me such a hard time and I don’t even speak Portuguese, what a pain!”

His troubles in the Canaries seems to drag on for days and days. I felt so sorry for him. What if, I fantasized, we could sail with him to Brazil? I speak Portuguese; I am a Brazilian; John has a visa (since we are going to Brazil in October anyway for a Scottish Ball)... What if we could make Eric’s Brazilian experience so much nicer by helping him through customs? What if...

"We should do it," I said.

John seemed somewhat surprised.

"I'm going to help Eric sail across to Brazil," I said. "You can come if you want to."

"What? Hold on a second..."

Well, we didn't meet Eric in Cape Verde. The plane tickets were $2500 each. One way. We didn't have visas. We'd have to leave practically immediately. John was in the middle of a big project that he couldn't just abandon. After a few days, John decided, no, we just couldn't do it.

Wow, what a relief! What was I thinking??? I put my dream aside, feeling like I had had a near miss.

The Captain couldn't find crew in Cape Verde. But he had a schedule to keep with the Antarctic summer. He set off alone, poor man. I began to think again... just for the fun of the dream... What if we joined the Captain for his trip down the beautiful coast of Brazil. What if the timing was right so we could arrive in Sao Paulo just in time for the Scottish Ball? Wouldn't that be the coolest thing?

Instead of keeping this dream to myself (which I strongly recommend to anyone out there with weird ideas), I shared it with John. Again he looked surprised.

"We need to do something crazy," I said. Was it a mid-life crisis?

My engineer husband consulted a calendar. We were going to Brazil, anyway. The tickets were paid for. Just need to change them a bit... He made some calculations... If Eric held to his schedule, he would arrive in Sao Paulo the day before the Scottish Ball. The stars were aligned!

"I think we might be able to do it," said John.

Noooooooo, it was just a joke, just a question, just a fantasy, just something to talk about while dinner, while safe on land...

"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked.

"I really do."

Remember those beautiful brown eyes that got me into sailing lessons? Well, those same eyes began to fill with excitement -- an excitement that I couldn’t stop sharing. After many more discussions, John sent an e-mail to Eric, far out at sea, asking if he needed crew for his trip down the Brazilian coast.

"He probably has crew lined up," John cautioned me. "It's the best part of the trip. Sailing down the coast of Brazil -- who wouldn't want to do that?" But no, he didn't. Eric wrote back and said he'd be pleased if we joined him.

Nooooooooo! I can’t go, I have students and bills and a house and who will take care of the cats and water the plants and what if I get sea sick? Besides all that, just a small detail: I can’t sail! (I should remember to ask my doctor cousin Marilia, how long one one live with adrenaline shooting through the body. I'm sure I broke the world's record that night.)

The next day, I booked the flights to Rio de Janeiro, with connections -- one way -- to Salvador, Bahia.

The die had been cast, the river had been crossed, my fate had been sealed.

Alea iacta est.

We are leaving on Friday, September 13, 2013.  A bit too many 13’s for my taste, but I am not superstitious. It’s time to pack. Oh, I should remember to bring my lucky scarf.

Next Episode: D Minus Six


  1. wow! good for you! go for it!

    Tim Coughlin
    SV Encore

  2. Stay warm. Enjoy!
    SV Slip Jig

  3. I wish I could go too. I don't speak Portuguese, I've never sailed anything other than a (very) small dinghy. I just wish I could go too.

    Good luck and take my best wishes and envious thoughts.

  4. I am so looking forward to reading your reports!

  5. Go for it the pair of you - You'll regret it forever if you turn down this chance - its a life changing experience and life is not a rehersal - you only get one shot


  6. What a great plan! You seem well-prepared for this fantastic adventure. Keep in touch. ELO

  7. Great adventure! This time, I'll follow your progress in your posts. Fantastic idea - go for it. ELO

  8. I can't wait to hear the news from you !


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