Training Astronauts at Sea

Training At Sea

He spent 2-plus years alone at sea. Now, he wants to train Mars astronauts on his schooner.


Play VideoDuration-:-Sailing crew has extraterrestrial hopesThe crew of the Anne, a 70-foot schooner from North Carolina, explains their experience and hopes the ship will one day be used to train astronauts for their mission to Mars. BY DAVID GOODHUE

Scientists estimate that if humans ever reach Mars, the one-way trip to the red planet alone could take up to a year.

Then, the astronauts would likely have to spend another year there to wait for Mars and Earth to realign before making the long trek home. 

“So, that’s almost three years together that you’re with the same group of people in a confined space,” said Soanya Ahmad, part of the crew of the 70-foot wooden schooner, Anne, which has been anchored off Virginia Key this week. TOP ARTICLESSKIP ADFort Lauderdale changed its spring break scene in the ’80s. Can Miami Beach do the same?

Ahmad is part of a crew of nine people onboard the Anne, which is getting ready to sail to Boca Chica, Texas, home to Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s launch site. 

They hope to convince the billionaire that they can train astronauts to make the long, lonely journey to Mars aboard the more than 40-year-old craft, which they call a “starship.”

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The leader of the expedition, North Carolina-based artist and sailor Reid Stowe, holds the record for the longest non-stop, at-sea voyage. He accomplished the feat aboard the Anne, which he built in 1978 and named after his mother. 

That adventure started in April 2007 from New Jersey with only Reid, 69, and Ahmad, 36, aboard the Anne. Stowe’s goal, for which he prepared for two decades, was to spend 1,000 days on the ocean without coming to port and without having to be resupplied. 

The major cargo on the boat was hundreds of pounds of food like nuts, pasta and sprouts, along with gallons of fresh water. John Wolfe, captain of the Anne, a 70-foot schooner based near Wilmington, North Carolina, shows the vessel’s galley. David Goodhue/ 

The first interruption of the trip came in February 2008 after 306 days while the Anne was between South Africa and Antarctica. Ahmad, the couple discovered, was pregnant with their now 12-year-old son Darshen. 

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“He’s the one who is leading the way toward Mars, and I’m going, ‘We’ve got the experience that the people who are going need to have. And, we’ve got the program that we can train the astronauts,’” Stowe said. “Before they go on a spaceship to go to space, they should go on a starship at sea and see how they get along together. And, see how they can handle it.” 

John Wolfe, the captain of the Anne, said the comparison of seafaring and space travel gets especially close at night.

“You’re dealing with isolation. You’re dealing with constant motion. You’re dealing with resources, a lot of the same stuff you’re dealing with on a spaceship,” Wolfe said. “And, you know, like we’re fond of saying, when you’re out sailing at night, you’ve got the whole firmament above. Also, you’ve got the phosphorescence, you know, sparkling in the water behind you. And, it feels like you’re in this big void, essentially.” 

Stowe said that training at sea for a long journey in space beats land training or training in a simulated environment because once you’re underway, you can’t just call it quits. 

“You have to have courage to be out at sea, and you know the sea has overwhelmed every type of boat through the ages, even the greatest boats,” Stowe said. “Therefore, you have to overcome fear to be out there. And when you’re in that situation, it’s very different from being in a [simulated] space capsule where you can walk out when you don’t like it.” 

The current journey is funded through Stowe’s art, some of which is exhibited in the Manolis Project studio gallery in Little Haiti.

Most of the crew on the journey to Texas has been with Stowe and Wolfe since before the Anne left the Wilmington, North Carolina, area in January. All of them have years of experience working on boats, from ecotour boats on the Cape Fear River, like Eric Goss and Andrew West, to crewing yachts, like Gwen Whitney and Kate Wicks.The crew of the schooner Anne stands on the bow of the 70-foot sailing vessel Thursday, March 25, 2021. David Goodhue/ 

Whitney, 31, is a recent arrival, having joined the crew about three weeks ago in Palm Beach when the Anne moored in the harbor there after a 20-day trip from North Carolina. 

“I was on a mega yacht, and the Anne got towed in right next to us, and I saw them all hugging as they arrived, and they were all very excited,” said Whitney, 31.

She and Wicks, 36, went over to the Anne on a dinghy and Reid and the crew cooked dinner for them.

“And I said I need to be part of this crew. About three years ago, I read an article about Reid, and I didn’t realize this was the boat. And he had this art show in Palm Beach. I’m also a painter. And there was this kind of connection, and I felt the need to join this journey.” 

Along the way, the old schooner needed repairs, and the crew continues to paint the vessel and maintain it themselves.

“This boat is historic,” said Goss, 34. “It’s really wonderful to see it being restored and brought back to life.”

The Anne will likely be in port off Virginia Key until the end of next week, Wolfe said. They wanted to get moving sooner, but the weather is forecast to be more favorable for making way by Thursday or Friday, said the ship’s captain.

Once en route to Texas, they hope not to have to stop as the ship sails past Key West and then north across the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. The crew fully expects to encounter some rough seas along the way. But, they consider themselves seasoned, and they’ve already seen that the Anne is able to tackle the unfavorable conditions. 

“We made it 20 days across the Atlantic in the middle of winter,” said West, 30. “It was a rough time, but we did it.” 

John Wolfe, captain of the Anne, a 70-foot schooner based near Wilmington, North Carolina, shows the vessel’s galley. DAVID GOODHUE/DGOODHUE@MIAMIHERALD.COM
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305-923-9728David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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