Meet the Kuhners. Scott, the dad, is retired now. But for years he made his living on Wall Street, among other jobs in the financial sector. Kitty, the mom, had been a teacher and later held various jobs. They have two sons, Alex and Spencer, now grown.
At the time of our saga, twenty years ago, the Kuhners were basically a typical Rowayton family. They had a comfortable home over on Cook Street, a sailboat that they enjoyed, and a functional, though rarely new, automobile or two. Despite their success and suburban comforts, mom and dad also had a certain wanderlust.
In the early seventies, when they were newly married, childless and fancy-free, Scott and Kitty left their jobs and all else behind to embark on a sailing trip around the world. Despite some challenging moments, they met wonderful people, saw fantastic sights and had the time of their lives. There had been more modest trips since, and Scott even competed in some hair-raising races sailing on the high seas. But something was gnawing at them; something was calling them back to the open ocean and distant ports; something they wanted to share with their boys.
“We had always had in the back of our minds at some point wanting to show the kids that there was more to life than Fairfield County,” says Scott. “Then — it was the end of 1986 — I got a new boss and the guy was a total jerk. Finally I told Kitty, ‘I can’t take this guy anymore.’ I had an offer from Kidder, Peabody to head up their sales office in Hong Kong. I said, ‘Either I’m going to take the Kidder offer or we can go sailing.’”
Scott, of course, wasn’t referring to a day trip around Long Island Sound or even a more ambitious voyage to some place like the Caribbean. He was talking about seeing the world again. And the choice he laid out between a new job or setting sail, when it came down to it, was hardly a choice at all: “I spent that next winter getting the boat ready,” Scott continues. “Then we quit, took the kids out of school, and went off.”
Saying goodbye wasn’t quite so simple. Their forty-foot cutter, named Tamure, after a type of Tahitian dance, had to be outfitted for every contingency. Provisions had to be rounded up. And matters like renting their house, selling their cars and finding someone to pay their bills for them all had to be arranged. “The hardest part,” Kitty would say years later, “is getting away from the dock.”
For all their attention to detail, the Kuhners refused to set any hard and fast schedule for the trip. Outside of heeding the seasonal weather patterns, they wanted to avoid undue pressure and keep an open mind. It’s a travel philosophy that the couple follows to this day. “We don’t have any plans,” Scott likes to say, “but we’re sticking to them.”
Their destination was New Zealand; they knew that much. They wanted the kids to see the South Pacific. Thus they would follow the Inland Waterway to Charleston, South Carolina. From there Kitty and the boys would fly to St. Thomas while Scott and a friend crossed the notoriously rough passage to the Caribbean. Then the family would sail to the Panama Canal, the San Blas Islands, the Galapagos, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, among other stops along the way.
They figured to be gone a couple of years. Where they went after New Zealand was open to discussion. Maybe they would ship the boat home and fly back. Maybe Scott and a buddy would tackle the dicey passage around Cape Horn and meet up with the family in Argentina. Or perhaps they would just sail on together. “We wanted to see whether we all really liked being on the boat and how it was going,” Kitty says.
As it turned out, the family spent seven months in New Zealand. Scott landed a job there, and the kids even spent a couple of months in a traditional school. Then they set off again. Any one of their stops — and there were many more than this space allows — would have been an invigorating vacation for most people.
Before the Kuhners were done, they would sail to New Caledonia; the Solomon Islands; New Guinea; Darwin, Australia; Timor; Bali; Singapore; Malaysia; Thailand; Sri Lanka; Oman; Yemen; up the Red Sea to Sudan; Egypt; Israel; Cyprus; Turkey; the Greek Islands; Italy; the Balearic Islands; Spain; across to the Canary Islands; and back to the Caribbean.
To keep folks at home apprised of their progress, they sent lengthy newsletters (no e-mail back then, of course), in large part written by Scott, to Rowayton Hardware. When the missives arrived, the store posted a sign and distributed copies. With the passage of years, those newsletters, and the many photographs the family took, would keep the journey fresh in memory — from their October 1987 goodbyes on the Five Mile River to their return three and a half years later.
“As we motored down the river, three of the kids’ friends — Mark Cavanaugh, Michael Markus and Peter Granville-Smith — were running along the beach waving goodbye,” Scott wrote in his first report. “They followed us all the way to the mouth of the river where they stood on rocks at the point and waved until we were out of sight.
“A few tears welled up in my eyes as I went below to get out the chart, [and] there was Alex lying on his bunk, crying too. I sat down next to him and we talked for a while about how sad it was to leave all of our friends and of the adventure that lay ahead.”
Technology had taken a big leap since Scott and Kitty’s first trip, when they relied on a sextant to guide them. Now they had a satellite navigation system, single-sideband ham radio and radar. And though space may have been at a premium, the boat had many of the comforts of home, including a refrigeration unit and propane stove. The kids also brought plenty of toys, games, tapes and books.
Alex and Spencer, ages eleven and eight when the trip began, were schooled on board through a correspondence course. The most lasting lessons, however, came from their travels.
In the Galapagos the Kuhners saw giant tortoises — “some almost as big as a VW Beetle,” wrote Scott — and swam with sea lions. Night diving around the reefs near Fiji, they witnessed spaghetti-like worms rising from the coral to propagate. In Sri Lanka there were fire walkers and snake charmers. On Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, they visited the sites of some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. In the Marquesas they saw the grave of artist Paul Gauguin. In Egypt there were the pyramids and King Tutankhamen’s tomb. And in Israel, the birthplace of Jesus.
They spearfished, snorkeled, explored caves and nibbled on delicacies like cooked iguana. To commemorate his sons’ first time crossing the equator, Scott initiated them into the “Order of Shellbacks.” True to tradition, he dressed like King Neptune and emptied a bucket of Southern Hemisphere seawater on them.
As they cruised about, the family met up with other “yachties.” Often these fellow sailors were traveling with their own children, giving Alex and Spencer some other kids to cut loose with. Many of the travelers the Kuhners met, from both trips, would remain friends over the years.
Still, the family usually sailed alone or with a buddy boat that might be heading to the same port, as opposed to joining a big contingent of sailboats. This way they could meet the locals on their own terms, and many times they invited these new friends onto the boat for dinner or joined them in their homes.
The sailing life, meanwhile, had its own rhythms and pleasures. Their longest time at sea was twenty-three days, from the Canary Islands to Antigua, some 2,600 miles. Even then the hours passed fairly quickly. After all, there were meals to prepare, navigating to tend to, fellow yachties to check in with.
Which is not to say the Kuhners had no trouble. “They have always had the ability to roll with the punches,” says friend Bill Fish of Rowayton, whose son David, one of Alex’s classmates, flew out to join the Kuhners in Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. “They’re flexible. That’s the best way to put it.”
Just before the family arrived in New Zealand, Kitty received word that her mother had passed away, and she flew home for the funeral. Earlier in the trip, Scott needed attention for a kidney problem. Later he cracked some ribs. Upon Kitty’s return to New Zealand, she broke her ankle, which extended their stay in that country.
Occasionally, rough weather battered them. Off the coast of New Caledonia, remembers Alex, the Tamure got caught in a severe storm. “We were hove to and it was blowing really bad,” he says. “I woke up and saw Mom bailing with a bucket and I went back to sleep. I thought, ‘If Mom’s not panicking, then forget about it.’”
Everyone got seasick sooner or later. Mechanical woes, including a transmission that all but died upon entering the Red Sea, also cropped up. In the Canary Islands, someone filched their passports. And though Scott shrugs off the threat today, his newsletter reveals great concern at the time about the possibility of being boarded by pirates on the way to Singapore.
One night when Spencer was on watch on the Suez Canal, he woke his father to report that a boat with no lights was circling them. “Just what you want to hear, right?” says Scott. “I went up on deck and sure enough, I could hear this boat going around. So I got on the VHF and I called for the Israeli navy, but there was no answer.
“Then all of a sudden a big searchlight — I mean, a huge light — shines on us. And the radio crackles to life. It was the Israeli navy circling us. They wanted to know who we were, where we were from, whether we had any Arabs on board. They told us we were too close to Gaza.”
The Kuhners officially arrived home on April 29, 1991. (Scott came back earlier to start a new job while Kitty and the boys stayed in Florida. He then flew down for the journey up the East Coast.) After working back on Wall Street for a while, Scott accepted a position as head of sales for an investment bank in Brazil, for which he traveled to South America once a month. He would work for two more firms before retiring in 2001. Around the same time, Kitty left her part-time job with a company that represented hotels in the Caribbean and Bermuda.
In the fall of 1991, Alex and Spencer entered tenth and eighth grade, respectively. Initially they felt a little out of sync with their classmates, but they soon found their place, academically and socially. Both graduated from Brien McMahon High School, then earned degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, their dad’s alma mater.
The trip would have a lasting impact on every member of the family.
Today, youngest son Spencer is captain of a private yacht based in the Caribbean. And though he hasn’t made another circumnavigation yet, it is probably only a matter of time.
Alex, meanwhile, is project manager for an education technology company. After he returned from the trip, he got heavily into sailing, and he and his brother both competed on the sailing team at Penn. (These days, Alex favors auto racing over sailing. A few years ago, in fact, he was crew chief for a rally racing team.)
But it would be the big-picture lessons — the very lessons Scott and Kitty wanted them to learn — that stuck with them. “Putting visuals on it and seeing how people lived in other countries really changes your perspective,” Alex says. “You realize how different life is out there.”
Hardly a day goes by that Alex isn’t reminded of the trip in one way or another. Not long ago, for example, a friend e-mailed him to report that he and his bride-to-be were planning a South Pacific honeymoon and wanted recommendations for places to go.
One lesson that has rippled outward beyond the family is that it is possible to follow your dreams. Alex finds that mention of the trip often strikes a chord in folks. Many people come away from hearing about it determined to take that long backpacking trip or other journey they have long talked about. “People are always interested in it,” Alex says. “I’ve been in my current job since January, and they already want Dad to come in and give a slide show.”
Back from their “Great Escape,” Scott periodically gave slide shows of the trip for local organizations, including as a fundraiser for Roton Middle School. To this day he discusses the trip — and his and Kitty’s earlier expedition — for interested groups. And a couple of years ago, with the help of his sons, Scott posted pictures of their trip online (pbase.com/akuhner/greatescape).
Although Scott and Kitty spent last winter and spring in Rowayton, their actual home is the boat. In recent years they have contentedly passed the time in places like Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, the Azores and the Bahamas. When asked about a third circumnavigation, they shake their heads no. “We’ve gotten sort of wimpy in our old age,” says Kitty.