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He sailed the longest ocean voyage in history and turned it into art
The artist Reid Stowe with his works made from the sails used during his 1,152-day voyage, in Chelsea, New York, on Oct. 19, 2019. Stowe once hobnobbed with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but the sea was his true passion. Roshni Khatri/The New York Times.

by Alex Vadukul

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Along a Hudson River pier in 2010, a sailor docked his battered schooner as a crowd watched in quiet anticipation. When he wearily stepped onto land, he had finished a remarkable human journey: Reid Stowe had been at sea for 1,152 days, the longest nonstop ocean voyage in recorded history.

A decade later, Stowe is raising a family in suburban North Carolina and driving a 2005 Chevy Malibu. But he has also obsessively been making giant abstract paintings, most of them using the weather-beaten sails that carried his schooner across the globe. He was recently back in New York to visit the Chelsea gallery that is showing his art.

“All this time later, I’m still trying to tell the world the story of what I went through,” said Stowe, 67, during his recent stay in Manhattan. “I’ve departed the touch of earth longer than anyone else. All my paintings carry the vibrations and significance of that journey.”

Tall and blue-eyed, Stowe has chased adventure his whole life. He crossed the Atlantic twice on a tiny catamaran when he was 21; he sailed through icebergs in Antarctica; he was kidnapped by pirates on the Amazon River.

But in the 1980s, Stowe was a striving artist in the downtown New York art scene, hanging out in the same circles as Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel. Jean-Michel Basquiat painted a portrait of him, but Stowe later sold it to fund his expedition. (He accepted $20,000 in 1993; the painting sold for $94,000 at Christie’s seven years later.)

Stowe was in a couple of small group shows in the East Village, but he was always returning to the sea. He hopes this show, at the Paul Calendrillo Gallery, might be his second chance at the art world.

“I was painting on giant canvases before Schnabel was,” he said. “Warhol’s dealer told me I could be big, but he’d say, ‘Well, Reid’s going off on another trip again.’”

Stowe became obsessed with embarking on a 1,000-day journey at sea in the 1970s. His intention was to simulate a round-trip to Mars, and he spent years preparing for it.

His father was an Air Force lieutenant colonel, and he grew up on military bases around the world, but he seemed to show little interest in regimentation after that.

As a young man, he visited the South Pacific, and he later carved the figureheads of Polynesian spirits into his 70-foot schooner for protection. (His ship, which he built himself, is named Anne, for his mother.) He studied Taoist philosophy, and he claims that energy harnessed from tantric sex has powered his long-distance voyages.

In St. Barts, he was a pot smuggler (he spent nine months in jail), and in the 1990s, he lived rent-free on a boat moored to a dock in Chelsea. His three marriages to young women — two artists and a model — all ended in divorce because they wouldn’t commit, he said, to the 1,000-day trip.

Soanya Ahmad was different. She was a 23-year-old photography student when she met Stowe, who was then 55, and one of the first things he asked her was: “How’s your health? Can you spend a long time at sea? It’s important I know.”

In 2007, they departed from Hoboken on a boat stocked with 6 tons of nonperishable provisions and a sprout garden. On Day 15, a freighter hit their schooner. Around Day 300, Ahmad started feeling sick, and a boat picked her up near the coast of Australia. Communicating by a satellite phone, Stowe soon learned that she was pregnant. On Day 457, Ahmad gave birth to Darshen in New York. Stowe met his son for the first time when he arrived on the Hudson two years later.

Since returning to land, Stowe has embraced something close to domesticity. He now lives in the suburbs of Greensboro, North Carolina, at his father’s house with Darshen, who is now 11, and Ahmad.

He mows the lawn, and he likes watching thrillers on television. He takes care of his father, who has Alzheimer’s. Stowe said they all get by modestly on his father’s retirement funds and from his painting sales. Ahmad home-schools Darshen, and Stowe hopes to take his son sailing this winter to Haiti. “He was braver when he was younger,” Stowe said. “He used to laugh at storms. Now he doesn’t like mud. He likes playing a computer game called Fortnite.” Stowe’s schooner is moored on the North Carolina coast and requires serious repairs.

Stowe still thinks about his trip constantly, but he doesn’t miss the spotlight.

As his voyage gained international coverage, he became the subject of derision in a corner of the sailing community. Users of a website called Sailing Anarchy, which caters to regatta racers and yacht owners, started mocking Stowe as a narcissistic hippie with a knack for self-promotion. Still, they followed Stowe’s trip obsessively, and one message board reached over 30,000 comments.

“I guess Stowe is still bobbing around, people continue to give him enough stuff to get by, and he manages to lure in another young thing,” read a typically caustic comment. After Ahmad became pregnant, their scorn intensified. One commenter tracked down Stowe’s federal conviction for pot smuggling, and he also posted a report that Stowe once owed more than $11,000 in child support to the mother of his daughter from his first marriage. (Stowe insists he wasn’t behind on payments).

When the trip ended, the trolls faded away, but Stowe said he lost valuable sponsorship opportunities as a result. Since then, he’s also been trying to publish a memoir.

“They wanted to paint me as this guy who took a young woman to sea, got her pregnant, and abandoned her,” said Stowe. “The truth is I did something no one else had ever done, and I got to go do it with a beautiful girl, and they didn’t like that. They all wanted to be me, but they were stuck behind their computers.”

While Stowe made the trip to New York for the gallery opening, Ahmad, who is now 36, remained in North Carolina to take care of Stowe’s father. “People judged Reid for not being with me, but I supported him being out there,” she said over the phone. “He needed to get that trip out of his system so he could come back. All this judgment came down on us, but we’re all still together, and there’s nothing anyone can say about that.”

She said that suburban life has been an adjustment for him. “He’s had to get used to living in a house,” she said. “It’s difficult sometimes for us to relate to neighbors. They Google us and conversations can be awkward.”

But soon after settling down, Stowe felt compelled to start painting seriously. Every day, he works in a studio in his backyard, and the giant sail canvases he paints on hang from trees with pulley systems. “When a storm comes through, I hear the sails flap, and it makes me feel alive,” said Stowe. “When people see my art, I want them to feel the trip. I want them to walk into the unknown.”

At his gallery show in Chelsea the other day, Stowe reminisced about his days in the downtown New York scene. He was living in a loft on Broome Street, he partied with Keith Haring at Danceteria, and he got written up in a Japanese art magazine. And then there was the Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait session in 1985.

Stowe was in St. Barts on his boat, he recalled, and Basquiat joined him while he was there on vacation.

“He visited me and I showed him my studio. He asked, ‘Can I paint, too?’ I gave him some prime white plywood, and he painted me standing there. You know how he leaves eyes blank? He told me we were looking at each other through those eyes.”

Stowe doesn’t regret selling his Basquiat. “I needed to cut my ties to the earth,” he said. “I had to sell my Basquiat because I wanted to merge my spirit with something as high as God.”


“Art Transformations From the Longest Sea Voyage in History”

Through Oct. 31 at the Paul Calendrillo Gallery, at 548 West 28th Street.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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