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Sailing on the Wild Side



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Sometime in June 2004:
It’s the dead of night in the Pacific. Wildlife, a catamaran with a crew of three, noses right into a vicious storm — one of eleven it would meet head on between Chile and French Polynesia. A speck in the vast ocean, the boat dances wildly as it’s swallowed in the shadow of a rogue wave. The eighteen-foot liquid wall does its own dance, hovering, then lunging forward in a crushing arc. The crew scatter like marbles as the sea fills the vessel: John-Frederick (“JF”) Thye, the captain, flips out of bed and hits the ceiling; Kate Hagerman, the cook, catapults off the toilet, almost breaking her nose; and Daniel Michahelles, the first mate, hits the floor in the galley and tumbles down a flight of stairs.

Also in June 2004:
The boat is approaching Easter Island. It’s finally a perfect day. Wildlife is sailing under spinnaker and a mainsail that shouts Wildlifesail.org from sea to shining sea and carries its eco-friendly crew to the world’s most varied marine habitats. Suddenly four fin whales, characterized by their gray backs and white bellies, appear on the starboard side. “Whales!” yells JF. Everyone races up on deck to engage in a staring contest with some of the largest creatures on earth. One of the whales turns on its side and holds its gaze. Then, like a peacock spreading its plume, it rolls on its back and salutes the crew with its snow-white belly — an underwater white flag waving in unison with Wildlife’s sail. Tears of awe run down the observers’ faces.

These two scenes from one month in the thirty-three that former Greenwich resident JF Thye spent circling the globe (well, almost) capture the essence of the thirty-one-year-old’s dream voyage: It was a wild wrestling match with nature and a love story between man and marine life.

The 30,000-mile journey — from Europe to the Caribbean, around South America and across the Pacific to Fiji — yielded a string of adventures and, more importantly, an education in marine conservation for more than just the boat’s crew. Wildlife’s itinerary targeted Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) projects where researchers collaborated with the crew, who in turn educated students via content on the Wildlife Sail website. The forty-seven-foot catamaran provided a platform for research and transportation to remote locations to which scientists otherwise would not have had access. Sharing the boat and its resources with the scientists was like giving birds with clipped wings a chance to fly.

We first met up with JF in a sun-splashed room at his parents’ elegant white Colonial in Greenwich after he had completed Wildlife’s Atlantic crossing in 2003. The family came to Greenwich, where JF raced sailboats at Indian Harbor Yacht Club, in 1996.

“During the first eighteen years of my life, I had twelve major surgeries on my left leg,” explained JF, who was born with one leg shorter than the other. Wearing grey cargo pants and a blue sweater, with a goatee and a thin line of facial hair scurrying along his jaw, he appeared casual against the formality of the gated estate. His soft voice, average build and gentle demeanor defied the image of a daredevil sailor. “I would spend months in the hospital and a lot of time on crutches,” he said. “I kept having this recurring dream that I was flying across the water like a bird. Sailing a catamaran is exactly that experience.”

His girlfriend Kate Hagerman, a yoga teacher with a cascade of blond curls and a face like Kate Hudson’s, glided into the room. JF recounted their meeting at a gallery opening in New York the previous fall: “We just kind of collided, and it changed our lives.” Kate, a new addition to the crew that had sailed across the Atlantic from Spain in the French-built boat, chatted about her recent experiences on Wildlife in the Caribbean. She left us so that JF could continue with his story.

JF’s father is from Germany, which is where JF grew up until moving with his dad and American mom to Boston in 1987. “My dad sailed in the Baltic,” said JF, “but I was scared of sailing as a boy.” It was only when his father got a beach sailor — “a contraption with three wheels and a windsurfing sail” — that JF overcame his fear. Later on, sailing on a friend’s twenty-five-foot catamaran in Westport, Massachusetts, made him feel as if he had “wings to fly across the sea,” JF recalled, adding, “I have always retained my respect of the sea, but at that moment I knew I had to sail it.”

As teenagers, JF and Florian Wilken, a German exchange student who lived with the Thye family in Boston in 1992, hatched a plan to sail around the world on a catamaran one day. By this point JF, who had faced the possibility of never being able to walk normally, could walk and run. He had reason to believe in dreams coming true.

“Niam Expeditions, my company, came about because as our dream developed, we realized that sailing around the world was an experience Florian and I wanted to share with other people,” JF explained. September 11 initially stalled their plans, but they finally pulled together enough sponsors to supplement their own substantial personal investments. JF and Florian enlisted WCS as a research partner and secured the equipment they would need so the boat could serve as a floating research and educational hub. After more than a year’s collaboration between Christoph Bereau, a boat architect, and JF, a Cornell-educated structural engineer (who designed some of the boat’s interior, structural reinforcements and part of the solar-powered electrical system), Wildlife was ready to go to sea.

A crew of six, including JF’s and Florian’s fathers, sailed the first 3,800 nautical miles from Gibraltar to the Caribbean at the end of 2002. The trip took twenty-one days, during which they hit 50-knot winds and a sailing speed of 27 knots. “That’s pretty fast for a sailboat,” said JF, explaining two advantages of a catamaran: “It’s faster than a boat with one hull; and the two hulls, made of honeycomb, enable the boat to float even if it’s totally flooded.” One of Wildlife’s hulls contains two bedrooms and a bathroom; the other holds the captain’s quarters. The galley, dining area and navigation station, along with the Internet connection, are located in the middle of the boat. A large trampoline offers prime viewing within inches of leaping dolphins and pirouetting whales. A highlight of the first leg was spotting a pack of ten killer whales.

After a festive Christmas in Martinique, JF and Florian picked up Kate, and the trio sailed to the Grenadines where they met with a man called Brother King who’s trying to save hawksbill sea turtles, among the most endangered sea turtle species. King runs a sanctuary on Bequia Island where he collects hawksbill sea turtle eggs and rears the hatchlings to improve their chances of survival.

After exploring the Tobago Keys, Kate flew back to the States and JF and Florian geared up for the 2,800-mile treacherous journey down to Salvador. “You’re going against the current, wind and waves, so it’s a pretty uncomfortable ride,” said JF. “We made many stops on the way and met fishermen in log canoes who had never seen a yacht before.” In the ship’s log, JF reflected on the voyage.

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