First mate Edwin McClanahan and his captain, Gordon. The end of the adventure, as recounted in the Nepenthe ship’s log.

Not So Average Joe: The strength of his father

A tale of survival at sea
“But in certain times when wind and sails and human courage could navigate around this menacing horn, great riches and pride and human history were earned...”

Longtime Big Sky local Ted McClanahan is so soft-spoken and polite he rarely gets to finish a story. I was floored and honored when he asked if we might be able to tell the tale of his father’s sailing adventure in the South Pacific. A sailor myself, I told him the beauty of this column, Not So Average Joe, is that it’s malleable – it can adapt to the story being told. We would find a way to work it in. McClanahan and I met at Sit and Spin Laundry Lounge where he was situated at a corner table, surrounded by bar napkins scribbled with notes and with a tablet in front of him.

I half expected the somewhat typical drill when we met: ask questions, receive answers, type into my computer, organize the story. That’s not at all what happened. McClanahan had written the most amazing prose I had encountered in a long time. He was visibly nervous before I read it – and after. I assured him his words were beautiful and the story was something anyone could appreciate – sailor or not. He said this story – the story of his father – got him through hairy situations in life. Being Army Airborne and a retired smokejumper, he’s certainly seen his fair share. He said he has consistently drawn strength from remembering his father’s resilience and sheer will to survive at sea. So now, I’ll step aside and let this humble and kind man tell his story.

“Lost at Sea”
 by Ted McClanahan

Every second, every minute, every hour, every day I believe we thank our lucky stars to be part of this amazing Big Sky community. Humans from every corner of the Earth travel to Big Sky to feel the power that mountain life gives us. The mountain lifestyle has its challenges and is not an easy thing to survive. However, many have come here and survived and – more importantly – flourished. So how does this happen for a relatively small group of humans? The answer is simple: Someone taught us all how to not only survive, but also to bring a special part of ourselves to this wonderful community. By doing so, this collectively increases the value of our home. 

This is a gift. This gift comes from our mothers. This gift comes from our fathers. This gift comes from our sisters. This gift comes from our brothers. This is a gift born from the powerful experiences and lessons taught from our families. Having realized that, I feel compelled to celebrate my father by sharing one his many adventures that forever will shape my life. 

Before the beginning the tale of my father’s adventure I feel it’s important to quickly describe the inspiration. I was looking for a birth certificate that I never found; which I needed for a job that I ended up not having the heart to accept, when I discovered the ship’s log of his adventure. I had looked everywhere for it for the last 10 years with no luck. For my family this is a priceless document, and acquiring a replacement would be difficult at best, and in reality, probably would never happen. 

Here’s the tale of my father’s incredible survival:

The phone rang right around 10 p.m. in my childhood home that evening. For the previous two weeks every evening at around 10 p.m. the old black rotary analog telephone in the kitchen had rang. This was my father’s check-in call for the day. His calls came through a HAM radio and were then somehow patched into the telephone system of the day. 

His check-in calls were from somewhere in the South Pacific from a small sail boat. His voice was always distant and there was a funny delay for each word spoken. It seemed like it took almost four or five seconds for each word to travel to our kitchen. It was a challenge in patience to get the hang of not talking over each other. I remember wanting the answers to my questions immediately. But somehow waiting for the answers made the unfolding adventure even more grand. 

I always heard excitement and contentment in his voice during these strange, brief, but inspiring conversations. Just thinking about all of the events that could not be prepared for in itself was adventure. 

My father and his shipmate, a longtime friend of our family, together set sail on not only an amazing adventure, but also a coveted sailor’s dream. Sailing around Cape Horn, the southern-most part of South America, has long been sailors’ most daunting and celebrated challenge and rite of passage. It is also considered a marine graveyard that harbors many ill-fated human intentions. But in certain times when wind and sails and human courage could navigate around this menacing horn, great riches and pride and human history were earned. 

My father Edwin (first mate) and the captain, Gordon set sail from New Zealand Nov. 7, 1991 on a Nor’sea 27-foot sailboat called Nepenthe. 

The phone stopped ringing about two weeks after Edwin and Gordon departed New Zealand. I remember the first evening the phone didn’t ring. I remember the first week the phone didn’t ring. 

I remember the months the phone didn’t ring. I remember not being anxious. I remember not being fearful for their safety. I only remember being excited to learn of the adventure they had when the phone rang 74 days later. 

On Jan. 13 of 1992 they reached safe harbor on the coast of Chile and the black analog rotary phone finally rang. And the story that came to our family home was one like many sea going adventures that have been told and retold. The true master of the universe is nature itself. Those that understand this might not only survive but somehow pass on knowledge and observations to anyone willing to understand. 

I remember feeling excitement and eagerness to learn the voice on the other end of the phone was my father’s and to hear of their adventure. But I do not remember feeling relieved that they were safe. This is because every cell in my body knew these two goofballs were having the time of their lives getting the crap knocked out of them by the South Pacific. 

And they were. And so it goes. Pieces of their tiny sail boat were torn off by the southern latitude gales and significantly crippled their ability to navigate. 

They played a game of survival: never stop fixing the boat, never stop moving forward, never stop living, and never stop taking the time to enjoy each moment and try to have fun. Even when – in that moment – you have been swept off of a small vessel by one giant wave after another. But in that wave, you realize a small diameter nylon line attached to a harness and attached to you will save your life – if you let it.

When I read this story and heard the tale told for the first time, I learned to understand those majestic points in time: whether it is success or failure during that moment; try to understand and plan for many more perfect moments. 

This is what Gordon and my father did day after day. This might perhaps be the true adventure they were each looking for – and they found it.

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