Found at Sea
Embarking on an offshore voyage on a 27-foot sailboat they bought and prepped themselves, Theo Aris ’17 and Zee Ali ’17 take experiential learning to a whole new level.
Watching the muddy tide come and go on the Chester River, few people realize that setting foot on a well-found boat right from Washington College’s waterfront boathouse can lead you just about anywhere. And while they didn’t cross an ocean or circle the globe, the adventure that Theo Aris ’17 and Zee Ali ’17 undertook this past summer on a 27-foot sailboat they bought for $31 had everything to do with that belief in all that’s possible, if you’re just bold enough to take the first step.
The two—both members of the College’s men’s rowing team and accomplished students and mentors—sailed with Aris’ longtime sailing buddy Nathan Arndt from Chestertown to Southport, Connecticut, about 500 miles, to challenge themselves, to witness things that a rare few are privileged to see, and to achieve a dream.
“The trip for me was life-changing, and I was humbled by the ocean and the power of everything around us,” says Ali, captain of the rowing team and a biology major with a minor in physiology and organismal biology. “I have never seen a better canvas of the night sky.”
“When I was preparing for this trip, it really hit me that I was responsible for two other lives on the boat. The preparations were not only for myself, but also my crew,” says Aris, an economics major and mathematics minor, who’s been sailing since he was nine years old and is a US Sailing Level 2 certified instructor for small boats. (The trip’s ostensible purpose was to deliver Aris to the Housatonic Boat Club in Stratford, Conn., where he’s been a summer instructor since 2013. Also, he had more resources there to continue making improvements to the boat.) Any trip on the ocean “is still risky, but we knew that we could take fewer risks with certain preparations. We were always aware of the things that could go south. We had the life raft on board, and checked weather reports and navigation readings at the top of every even hour.”
Aris says he had always dreamed of finding a little boat, fixing it up, and taking it sailing. Through Sailing Associates in Georgetown, on the Sassafras River, he and Ali in January bought a Cal 27. They named her Navigant, after the Latin for “they sail,” and spent several months with the help of Ben Armiger, the College’s waterfront director, prepping her for an ocean passage.
The trip north—up the Chesapeake, through the C&D Canal, down the Delaware Bay, through the Cape May Canal, up to Atlantic City, then offshore around the eastern tip of Long Island to Block Island, Rhode Island and then Pequot Harbor in Southport—took ten days. Among other marvels, they saw a zillion stars, a mola mola (also known as an ocean sunfish), and a grey whale that surfaced nearby. They also got blown east by a squall off Atlantic City, and had a long, violent, stormy night in Long Island Sound that drove them into the protection of Port Jefferson, New York.
On the way back, Arndt and Aris traveled the inshore route, down Long Island Sound and through New York City, then back down the coast to Cape May and up through the Delaware and C&D Canal. (Ali, who’s a resident assistant director, had to be on campus for training and missed the return voyage.)
In addition to multiple American Sailing Association certifications, Aris is a performance sailing graduate of Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School, and is CPR/AED certified. Ali brought his life saving and life guard certifications; during the summers, he’s a lifeguard at the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. Arndt is also a lifelong sailor.
Armiger credits the students’ attention to detail in preparation, and Aris’ and Arndt’s sailing backgrounds, with helping them succeed. But he notes that it takes something more to embark on this kind of singular adventure—and it’s that something more that makes such a journey a much larger life experience.
“There are two elements to being prepared for an offshore voyage,” Armiger says. “The first is knowing how to sail. The second element, equally important, is something that is not taught but it’s something all three young men possess, and that is having a strong character, the mental fortitude to do a journey of this scope, smart and safe, and to be responsible for all of your actions.
“These same characteristics are what’s required to be successful at top levels of leadership,” Armiger says. “I’m extremely proud of these students and what they’ve accomplished.”
As for the next adventure, Aris says he’s looking at charts for going south, sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida.