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- April 05, 1999
- Vol. 51
- No. 12
A Self-Imposed Ordeal in the Arctic Ice Tests Alvah and Diana Simon's Survival Skills as Well as Their Marriage
"I knew we had to make a truce. If we focused too long on anything but the daily task of survival it could mean disaster for both of us," recalls Diana, 47. "So I got the sled and prepared it with tea and cookies—and a gun, in case of polar bears. Then I put my skis on and just met him halfway."
Not exactly a recipe for romance as described in The Rules. But ever since meeting at a party near Australia's Great Barrier Reef in 1982, the Simons had been writing their own rule book. That year they shared their first Christmas aboard the 31-foot sloop that Alvah, a native of Upstate New York, was sailing around the world. Together he and Diana, a New Zealander who had spent the previous decade on the road, would dodge pirates in the Sulu Sea, prevail over mountainous seas off Cape Horn and survive riots in Panama. Says Alvah, 48, who married his soulmate on a Philippine beach in 1983: "It just got wilder and more interesting."
Indeed, over the next 10 years the couple would cover more than 65,000 miles and visit some 40 countries, financing their travels with a variety of temporary jobs: rebuilding a marina, laying underwater pipe, stripping logs. But nothing would test them—or their relationship—more than the journey Alvah began dreaming about in early 1992, inspired by stories he had read since childhood of explorers who struggled through the long Arctic nights with their boats trapped in the ice. "The truth was, I had to do it," says Alvah of the odyssey that would win the couple a Cruising World magazine Outstanding Seamanship award and become the subject of his recently published first book, North to the Night: A Year in the Arctic Ice. "I crave physical adventure," he explains. "I need to get frightened every once in a while just to wake up."
Diana was initially less than thrilled. "The books on that area are all full of doom and gloom," she says. "Something about Alvah though—he can convince you that black is white. In the end, I was afraid I'd miss out on something."
She needn't have worried. In ice-locked Tay Bay aboard the steel-hulled Roger Henry—named for Alvah's late father, a tough-minded former Marine who took his nine children camping nearly every weekend regardless of the weather—Diana had enough close calls to cost her and the couple's feline companion, Halifax, several lives each. There was, for instance, the burly polar bear who relentlessly stalked the boat until Alvah finally scared him off with an air horn. Or the time the Roger Henry's stern inexplicably started sinking, and the couple had to whack away at the ice until the boat rose again. Then there was the day Diana fell overboard into a crack in the ice—and Alvah ignored her cries for help at first, thinking they were part of the Emmylou Harris tape the pair had blaring.
But those weren't the trip's most harrowing moments. The truly desperate hours came during the five months—three of them in perpetual darkness—that Alvah was forced to spend alone, save for Halifax, after Diana was helicoptered out in October '94 by the Canadian Coast Guard so that she could join her terminally ill father, Clive, back in New Zealand. "Time and darkness flow over you like water would over rocks or sand and just wear you down," says Alvah, who found himself slipping toward madness. "We thought the most dangerous part of the journey would be the beasts outside the boat, but we learned the hard way it was the demons within."
In April 1995, Alvah heard voices—but this time Halifax heard them too. Diana had returned, dressed in traditional Inuit garb by the villagers of Pond Inlet, who brought her to the boat by snowmobile. "I was initially overjoyed to be back," remembers Diana. "But when I found that Alvah was—not standoffish, but reserved in a way—I felt a little out of place. Like I was entering his world, and I was no longer a part of it."
The process of readjustment, just before the spring thaw, would prove good practice for the more radical transition ahead—when on Oct. 20, 1995, some 17 months and 8,000 miles after their journey began, the couple pulled the Roger Henry into Camden, Maine. "We were truly overwhelmed at first," says Alvah, "coming from the solitude and the silence."
Though Alvah "felt like a beached whale," the Simons gradually began to get their land legs. They rented a house overlooking Penobscot Bay, where Diana could work on her weaving, Alvah could watch the passing fishing boats as he wrote on his laptop, and Halifax—bulked up to a muscular 14¼ pounds—could wander without fear of polar bears. But even in such an idyllic spot, that old wanderlust has been building. There's a special place in the Central American jungle that Alvah simply has to experience. South Georgia island in the remote south Atlantic also beckons—and Burma. So as soon as the Roger Henry is once again seaworthy, look for the Simons to embark on another adventure.
"If the point was sailing, I would have quit this long ago," says Alvah. "But it's not. It's about this wide, wonderful world and the people in it." What some may regard as reckless behavior, the Simons see as their kismet. "Death is only one of many ways to lose your life," Alvah says. "The dangers of not doing what you perceive as your destiny are greater than anything else."
Mark Dagostino in Camden
- Mark Dagostino.
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