At the appointed hour sometime this winter, when the tides are right and his resolve is firmly locked in, Stowe will ease his 70-foot schooner, Anne, out of its modest berth, sandwiched between a floating restaurant and the basketball courts of New York City's Chelsea Piers. He'll set sail down the last lick of the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty, and barrel his way into the North Atlantic and, he hopes, the record books.
The distance he plans to cover at sea is of secondary importance to the time it will take to get there. Except in Stowe's case, there is no there there, because the voyage will be based on a specific number of days and not on the nautical miles it will take him to navigate multiple circular loops around the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. His intended route will follow global trade winds from New York to the southern coast of Africa, past Australia, around the end of South America; ultimately, he will circumnavigate the globe in the Southern Hemisphere four times.
One-thousand days at sea is his magic number, and, as if that challenge was not stout enough, Stowe, 53, will add a level of difficulty designed to raise the bar a few pegs northward. There will be no stops in port, no sightings of land, no refueling, no reloading of food stores.
The idea for the voyage came to him as he prepared to lead an expedition to Antarctica in 1986. That trip lasted five months, had a crew of eight and went through some of the roughest conditions that any sailor could be forced to endure on the high seas. "You're dodging icebergs left and right in incredibly freezing temperatures," he says, with a sense of both awe and pride. "You're getting winds that are 90 miles per hour, 110 miles per hour. The biggest waves. Great storms, one after the other. Snow blizzards. You're geared up like an ice man, goggles, everything, not a bit of skin exposed. We had a gust of wind that blew the boat completely over."
As he reflects upon that trip, he realizes that what he once thought to be the ultimate sailing voyage has turned out instead to be merely a warm-up act: "It was only a shakedown cruise for a voyage that will be much more complicated, much deeper and much more revealing of where the human spirit could go."
Stowe's human inspiration? The sailors who comprise the elite fraternity of circumnavigators speak in hushed tones when the name Bernard Moitessier is brought up. Leading the inaugural Golden Globe round-the-world sailboat race of 1968, Moitessier, a Frenchman born in Saigon in 1925, held an insurmountable lead upon rounding Cape Horn (at the tip of South America), en route to near-assured victory and world celebrity status awaiting him at the finish line in London. For reasons known only to himself at the time, he decided not to sail on toward England, but opted instead to sail eastward across the Atlantic, under the tip of Africa and halfway around the world again to Tahiti.
The words he wrote in his log of his decision to turn his back on the race captured his feelings toward a society he viewed as too roughneck and greedy: "Last night was too hard to take. I really felt sick at the thought of getting back to Europe, back to the snake pit."
Moitessier later wrote of his pivotal decision in a manner that seems reminiscent of Colonel Kurtz (the part played by Marlon Brando) in "Apocalypse Now": "Why am I doing this? Imagine yourself in the forest of the Amazon. Suddenly you come upon a small temple of an ancient lost civilization. You are not simply going back and say, 'I have found a temple, a civilization nobody knows.' You are going to stay there, try to decipher it and then you discover that 100 kilometers on is another temple, only the main temple. Would you return?"
It was in Tahiti five years later that an impressionable Reid Stowe happened upon Moitessier and came under the influence of the man who would cement the ideal of experiencing the "purity of the sea" in his head. That notion of being a cosmic voyageur in search of transcendence, with the requisite nose-thumbing at modern civilization, stuck firmly in the 20-year-old's head.