THE FARTHEST STAR AT SEA
story Jena Addison photography George Fuller
Kennedy McLeod is wearing a shirt the color of pink cotton candy. At 71 years old, his hair is a shade of snow; his black spectacles seem to magnify the eyes that twinkle behind them, alternately stretching wide with wonder as he talks, and squinting low with thoughtfulness as he remembers. Maybe it is because we are sitting on a wide front porch overlooking Mobile Bay at sunset, or because we are talking about his five-and-a-half year journey sailing around the world alone. But I look hard into McLeod’s eyes as I listen, and I discover that these eyes are not just wide, but deep; deep blue, like the waters he traversed solo for more than 2,000 days at sea on his sailboat, the Far Star. Eyes so blue, you could drown.
Before I know anything else about McLeod, I want to know if he was sailing toward something, or away from something. I want to know what he ate, and where it came from; and if a person is compelled to blare Jimmy Buffett music way out there on the water, even when he is about one bajillion nautical miles away from the nearest beach. I want to know if he survived any storms like the one from Forrest Gump that brought in all those shrimp and caused Lieutenant Dan to find religion.
He makes it clear that he was not sailing away from anything, per se, but powerfully toward: “Adventure,” he says, incredulously, leaning back with a wide grin. “Most people don’t care to know what is beyond the horizon,” he explains thoughtfully, a tinge of sadness lapping up in his voice. His eyelids lower as if they are flying at half-mast, in quiet observation of a tragedy that only he can know. “They are not curious, or they are too afraid.” But McLeod is varsity at curiosity, at whimsy and at wonder; and he is definitely, most certainly, not afraid. “I want to know what is beyond the horizon, even if it is only more blue water.” When this Eastern Shore resident set sail from the Fairhope Yacht Club on December 8, 2008, he intended to find out: for the journey, he equipped the Far Star with the latest radar and sonar devices, a HAM radio, a cache of books he had been meaning to read for the last 30 years, and not a single television set. He reminisces fondly to me on experiences he never imagined he’d get to have – visiting the island of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar, where the dodo bird once lived and died (“because it was flightless, and too plump, and too delicious, and too slow, with eggs too desirable to be resisted by hungry sailors in order to survive,” he teaches me), sailing across the Indian Ocean (“which is harder than it looks,” he muses) and nearly getting the bottom torn out of his boat after colliding with a coral reef outside of Turks and Caicos. An egg timer set for two hours ahead would wake him up to check the weather and to experience the sunrise each morning, a miracle he acknowledged as coming from a higher power, a being he seemed to be getting closer to the farther out he got.
For as much as his journey was enriched by the places and the sites, he tells me, it was positively made by the fellow explorers he would meet out where the water was wide.
He tells me about the first rule of the sea – “take care of one another, because we’re all out here alone, together” – and carefully explains a concept called Buddy Boating to me. Buddy Boating is when you happen to meet someone at port or over your radio who you discover to be traveling in the same direction as you, so you make a pact to go together.
“Challenger, Challenger, this is Far Star, over,” McLeod remembers radioing to his buddy somewhere out near Tonga (which is about 300 nautical miles east of Fiji, I come to understand) only to have the transmission picked up by another befuddled sailor.
McLeod still gets a big kick out of this, although it’s not immediately clear if it’s on account of the funny mishap or the badge of honor that must inherently come when one is mistaken for, well, an astronaut.
When I become acutely interested in the specifics of Buddy Boating, McLeod explains that your Buddy may be 150, 200, or even 300 miles ahead of or behind you at any given time; but as long as you’re traveling in the same direction, or toward the same general location, you belong to and lookout for one another. When I think about the loneliness he says he never once experienced out at sea compared to all of it that tends to pile up here on land, I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we’ve forgotten to remember that, even though we’re standing on solid ground, we’re all just out here alone together, too. Maybe we have forgotten that the only rule to Buddy Boating is just what Captain McLeod has said: there are no rules, except to acknowledge that we are all travelers.
Kennedy McLeod has lived a fascinating life; and when I ask him what his proudest accomplishment has been so far, (“is it this?” I probe expectantly about the trip), he corrects me to say that the trip has been the most fulfilling. He calls that trip a gift, and he speaks with the same grateful reverence when he refers to the good health he is still able to enjoy and the joy he derives from being active in his work as an attorney, and in his community through volunteer work with fellow military veterans.
McLeod is a proud father to one son and two daughters, both grown, as well as two grandsons whose births he got to be there for upon his return five-and-a-half years (and 38,000 miles later) after departure from Fairhope. He is not married, but lives a happy, busy and fulfilling life on the Eastern Shore. Many nights, like tonight, he can be found at the Fairhope Yacht Club where he set sail ten years ago this December, surrounded by friends, colleagues and neighbors – reveling in the very same feelings he experienced most profoundly while out at sea: peace, gratitude, wonder, and the self-assurance that comes from just being alone somewhere, but together.
He is in the process of writing a book that details his trip around the world, to be called Harbor Fever, which is due to be released… well, whenever he finishes it, he says with a playful nudge.
As the final rays of light disappear over Mobile Bay, McLeod tells me about the next exploration he has planned beyond the horizon: a navigation off the coast of the British Virgin Islands this fall.
As he talks, it’s as if he is at the helm already, his eyes holding the same sparkles that appear on the waves when the sun hits them just right.
And I like to imagine him somewhere out there, the farthest star in a much bigger constellation, sailing toward, not away from, something beautiful.