By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST May, 2020
A career long-distance mariner, frequently alone, Reid Stowe was practicing self-isolation long before it became a new global norm. He was 20 when he built his first boat, Tantra, a 27 foot catamaran, beside an inter-coastal waterway in North Carolina, financing his early voyages by smuggling pot from the Caribbean. “That was before the cartels.” he says. An artist, who often paints on sail canvas aboard, Stowe would sometimes take paying groups on voyages. These lengthened, and while he was on a five month expedition to Antarctica with a mixed group of seven he resolved to make the next a record breaker: A thousand days non-stop.
It was on July 20, 1989, some months after Stowe’s return that President George H.W. Bush announced plans for a trip to Mars. “They were planning to send 6 to 8 people. Men and women,” Stowe said. This was to take a thousand days too. Perfect. “I always saw my boat as a starship because I’m sailing with the stars above and the stars flickering and glittering below,” Stowe said. “And what I realised was that seafarers of today could provide a role model for spacefarers of tomorrow.”
He wrote a text to that effect, got it published in the national space magazine, Ad Astra, and was invited to speak at the Case for Mars Conference in Boulder, Colorado. He kept it to basics. “Going to space for three years and being in a boat at sea, of course there are a lot of differences,” he said. “But in a boat with a group of people, it’s a life or death situation, you make a mistake and you can die. You go on, knowing that. You continue.”
This got attention. “I spoke at about five space conferences,” Stowe said. “You meet all the people. And in the evenings everyone goes to the same bar. So I had pocketfuls of cards, and then I had meetings where I had to go to Washington.” Carter Emmart, a designer close to the Mars project, became one supporter and on December 12 1991 Stowe got a letter from William L. Smith, Director of Exploration Technology at NASA, which began: This letter is to express NASA’s interest in the Endeavor 1000 expedition titled “Sea Planet Odyssey: 1000 Days Non-Stop at Sea.” The letter ended: We look forward to future discussions concerning potential areas of mutually beneficial cooperation in Endeavor 1000 as the objectives, configuration and timeframe for the project are further defined.
The following winter Stowe’s second self-built boat, Anne, a 70 foot schooner, 16 foot wide, was tied up on Pier 62 on West 23rd, alongside the party boat, The Frying Pan. We had met some years before and I would sometimes drop by. He was living in a SoHo loft, making big paintings, and putting together the trip, now formally named the Mars Ocean Odyssey, when there was a hammering at the door one morning. It was the DEA, there to arrest him for importing 30,000 pounds of pot. “This was almost five years after the last group of boats that I loaded with Colombian pot,” Stowe said. “A number of people who had worked with me had been busted. Under mandatory sentencing guidelines they were facing 40 years to life, so they told on me.”
There was nobody left to get into trouble. “So I told them everything I did, starting in 1970 when I was a freshman in Tucson, Arizona, backpacking pot across the border,” he says. ”I was given a year with no probation. I am convinced I got a light sentence because I was going to sea to gain human knowledge relevant to the proposed Mars Mission.”
The bust hit the tabloids. The partnership with NASA went pffft!
“It was a subtle disappearing thing. They wouldn’t talk to me anymore, the official ones.” Stowe said. “But the other were like, that’s too bad.”. He did a year and was back working on the Mars Ocean Odyssey immediately after his release.
Carter Emmart, who was running the Space Show at the Hayden Planetarium, arranged for a 3D model of Anne to be built before he took off on the three year sail. Stowe, 55, and Soanya Ahmed, his 23 year old fiancée, left from a pier on Hoboken on 2007. “During the voyage Carter would call us on the satellite phone. He would say, okay, I have an audience here, and fly the virtual schooner down to the ocean where I was. And he would say, look, how Reid’s schooner is about the same size as the cubicle in the space station where the spacemen live.”
Soanya became pregnant and, as both thought best, was picked up off the Australian coast on day 307. This had been the longest recorded journey for a woman and Stowe didn’t see their son, Darshen, until he docked at a pier on the Hudson in 2010, after 1,152 days, the longest uninterrupted ocean voyage on record. A remarkable achievement, yes, but it is Stowe’s fervent belief that his voyage on schooner Anne should not just be considered a one-off event on Planet Earth but as a learning experience for the continuing journey into space.
Which is on the verge of take-off. NASA dropped the ball - “Congress wouldn’t fund it. Because it was too dangerous and people would die,” Stowe says - but along came two rich kids, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. “And they both get the idea in their heads that we’re going to send people to Mars. And we both have the money to build these re-usable spaceships that’ll make it go well. And in 2024 we’re going to send the first people to Mars.”
As I write, Elon Musk’s Space X is on the verge of take-off from the Cape Canaveral launch sites from which the Apollo Program moonflights took off half a century ago. This will be a test for Musk’s first flights. The Mars flights will be where Stowe feels he has information to provide. “I’ve taken a long-duration, space analogous voyage,” he says. “And I’ve taken mixed groups of people to sea with me on long voyages. What people are like when they’re on land and when they are on the sea is different. Young guys and girls who are so smart and so into it and work so hard, on the sea they become distracted, they become afraid, they become lethargic. I’ve seen this happen over and over again.
“A boat can be used as one step amongst many to train people to go into space for an extended time. I would also say that the person should winter over in Antarctica or the North Pole in a small habitat and spend six months in a freezing temperature where they can’t do anything but sit there. Because that’s all that they are going to be able to do on a space ship. Are they going to be able to perform? Or are they going to break down? Because in those situations, those things happen. Some people thrive in isolation and scary death-like circumstances. And some people break down. And people who are going to Mars need to be put through all of these tests." WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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