Stone shakes free to float around East

ON THE OUTDOORS

Outdoors

September 10, 2000|By CANDUS THOMSON

When you hear about Nat Stone's adventure, your first reaction might be, "Does this guy have both oars in the water?"

The 31-year-old schoolteacher sold his home in the high desert of New Mexico, unloaded most of his possessions, asked a friend to watch his dogs and narrowed his world to a space the size of a phone booth.

But then you realize that having both oars in the water is exactly how to describe what Stone was doing for 11 months and more than 6,000 miles.

Stone, a lanky free spirit, rowed around the eastern third of the United States, setting off from under the Brooklyn Bridge on April 24 of last year and winding up there again June 29.

For good measure, he kept rowing -- all the way to Eastport, Maine.

"The boat had to get back to New England anyway," he says.

Stone put his feet on terra firma for good in mid-August, and is now sitting in his father's house in Freeport, Maine, putting together a book proposal he hopes will intrigue a publisher somewhere.

"I'm proof that it's still possible to have an adventure in this country," he says, laughing.

He calls his trip "rowing the circle." Stone began in New York's East River, then went up the Harlem River, the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal and hugged the shoreline of Lake Erie. He continued on the Allegheny and the Ohio rivers and then down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. From the Louisiana bayous, he rowed down the coast to Key West and up the Intercoastal along the Atlantic seaboard.

The route was visualized by Stone as a youngster as he looked at an atlas. The eastern United States, he thought to himself, is a gigantic island.

A dozen years later, Stone stumbled upon the biography of Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester, Mass., fisherman who tried to sail a boat around the circle 100 years ago but failed when his vessel got stuck on a Mississippi sand bar.

Stone, an accomplished sailor who grew up in Marblehead, Mass., one of the self-proclaimed sailing capitals of the world, became infatuated with the idea.

But after graduating from college in 1992, he went off to New Mexico (go figure), where he taught school on the Zuni Reservation and started a 1,000-circulation community newspaper, ShiWi Messenger.

"The idea would just not go away," he said. "When I began thinking about starting a boat-building company, a friend said, `Don't you think it's time to get out of the desert?' "

He sold everything he could, paid his bills and bought a 17-foot scull-style rowboat and loaded it down with food, pots and pans, books and camping equipment.

The first day out, he rowed 25 miles "on sheer adrenalin. My hands opened up, I was whipped." Gradually, his muscles hardened and his hands developed deep calluses. He also realized he couldn't haul everything he had packed.

"Stroke by stroke, day by day, I pared it down," he said of all the stuff he mailed back home to his family.

Stone had a summer of waterfront property, pitching his tent on sandbars and along riverbanks. Some nights, locals invited him to their homes for a hot shower, full dinner and comfortable bed. He stopped at local libraries to update his online journal and e-mail family and friends.

"When I woke up, I would know absolutely nothing of where I would be that night, where I would get drinking water, who I would talk to, what navigational challenges awaited me," he said.

Cooking was not in the cards. "It was pretty dull. Peanut butter and jelly and every variation on that. Sardines. Saltines. Baked beans. Low-budget, sun-proof foods," he says, ticking off the menu.

Most days, he rowed about 40 miles, but with the powerful Mississippi currents, he could almost double that mileage. On Aug. 1 of last year, 100 days into his journey, he reached the Gulf. He pulled his boat out at Port Eads, La.

"I was out of money and I needed a bigger boat," he said. "But mentally, psychologically and physically, I knew I could finish."

He went to Maine and worked in his brother's silk-screening business for five months and saved enough money to buy a seaworthy boat: a $2,200, 17-foot, fiberglass scull to which he could attach a tent.

Setting off again in Louisiana on Jan. 31, Stone worked his way up the coast. He almost met his demise in June while rowing near the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, when a personal watercraft rider passed close by at a high speed and nearly swamped him.

Stone says he never had a chance to feel isolated and lonely. There was only one day on the trip when he didn't shake hands with someone, and his journal is filled with the names and addresses of more than 500 acquaintances.

During his adventure, he found the waters cleaner than he had expected ("no petroleum rainbows") and people friendly and trusting.

On the downside, he says, were miles of overdeveloped East Coast shoreline and the fact that he could never shake the sounds of civilization.

"It strikes you how culturally dependent we are on engines - cars, jets, motorized boats. It's tough to find natural silence," Stone said.

As he approached the Brooklyn Bridge, Stone says he was struck by how much he had changed.

"I had a very clear image of myself 6,000 miles earlier leaving and going under the bridge," he recalls. "I had learned how to take care of basic needs and deal with just the most important things. I had the feeling of a very different self coming back.

"The last 13 miles of the last leg, I could recount each of the days and who I met. How many of us on a Friday can remember everything that happened on Monday?"

Sounds like Nat Stone has both oars in the water.

NOTE: To see photos of Stone's adventure online, go to: www.hometown.aol.com/rowingthecircle.

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