Harrowing tales of the South Pacific

October 04, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

IF YOUR IDEA of a big adventure is a ride across town to look at wicker furniture, you won't know what to make of Don Chiarello's story.

Four years ago, at the age of 60, Chiarello dropped out of the rat race for good. He quit his law practice in Towson. Sold his house in Federal Hill. Sold the furniture. Sold his Nissan 200 SX.

But Chiarello didn't exactly head off to spend his golden years playing golf and hanging around the Waffle House for the free drink refills.

No, he bought a 68-foot schooner called the Attua in New Zealand. And he took off with his girlfriend, an Annapolis real-estate broker named Sandy Huberfeld, to sail the South Pacific.

"There're all these great places!" Chiarello said when I wrote about him on the eve of his departure. "There's Tahiti! And Bali! And Tonga! And Vanuatu - like paradise! ... You saw the movie South Pacific. You know those girls in grass skirts? They're still there!"

Take me with you, I said. My editors are driving me nuts. I could use some girls in grass skirts.

So off went Chiarello on his grand adventure. Me, I went to High's for a loaf of bread. He said he'd stay in touch via the Internet. But I didn't hear from him for four years.

Then last week, I'm going through my voice-mail messages. I hear a familiar voice. It's Don Chiarello.

"I'm in town for a few days," he says. "I've had a few adventures, if you'd like to hear about them."

Would I like to hear about them? Are you kidding? Who passes up a sit-down with Indiana Jones?

So we meet at a coffee place in Federal Hill. At the appointed hour, Chiarello walks in with Huberfeld. They both look like a million bucks.

Chiarello, lanky and trim, looks like a guy who hasn't felt stress since the Beatles released the White Album.

"Been an interesting four years," he says.

Only it sure didn't start out interesting. It started out as the Retirement Plan From Hell.

On their very first journey in the Attua, a 10-day trip to Fiji, the wind howled the whole time. The seas were scary rough. The Attua was a Cuisinart.

"Unbelievable motion!" Chiarello says. "I can't describe the motion! The boat's moving up and down, side to side, and it's diving bow to stern."

Things were so bad the young Hungarian guy who hired on as mate spent the whole time throwing up and whimpering in his bunk.

But that's not the half of it.

A few hours out of New Zealand, the auto-pilot goes south. Chiarello has to hand-steer by compass. Then the light goes out on the compass. Now it's something out of Gilligan's Island. Chiarello has to hold a flashlight in one hand, steer with the other.

Suddenly, free refills at the Waffle House sounds like heaven.

But somehow, they make it to Fiji. They sail into Suva, the capital.

"Now, I'm expecting palm trees and paradise and everything to be stunning," says Huberfeld. "And it's like downtown Philadelphia! Big oil tanks everywhere."

But from there, things begin to look up.

In Suva, they were invited to a ceremony at a Fijian church, and then to the preacher's house afterward, where they sat on the floor with the islanders and drank kava from a single cup that was passed around.

And the next two years were idyllic as they sailed among the Fiji islands, to Vanuatu, to Australia, to Papua New Guinea, and drank in the lush, natural beauty at each stop.

But by June of 2003, Huberfeld was growing weary of the physical work aboard the Attua. The schooner had no winches, which meant the sails were hoisted by hand, including the 400-pound mainsail. She found herself longing for the amenities of home, too, including a real shower.

"I don't think most women would have lasted more than two weeks," she says with a laugh.

So with her daughter Nikki getting married back in the States, Huberfeld reluctantly jumped ship.

"It was hard. It was hard on both of us. We had some incredible times," she says now. Huberfeld moved back to Annapolis. The two are no longer a couple, but remain great friends.

Chiarello, though, still found life aboard the Attua exhilarating. He advertised on the Internet for crew members and continued sailing the South Pacific, marveling at how happy the islanders seemed in their splendid isolation.

"You have to picture it," he says. "No electricity. No money. No stores. No lights. No radios. No TV. They live in thatched-roof huts with no furniture. When it gets dark, you go to sleep, When it's light, you wake up.

"They were so happy! ... They had everything they wanted. And they needed very little."

So, for that matter, did Don Chiarello. Until last October, anyway.

Then at 4 one morning, as he sailed by himself in calm seas from the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, bound for Singapore, the Attua inexplicably started heeling, or leaning sideways.

A minute later, the mast was in the water. The schooner sank a minute later.

Chiarello scrambled aboard the Attua's life raft. Land was only six miles away, but the current was strong and paddling was useless.

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