Pensive and focused, Prentice “Tripp” Brower ’12 grips the helm firmly as he surveys the inky sea surrounding him. For miles, nothing is visible except the ocean waves that rise and fall, forever buffeting the hull of the 40-foot sailboat that’s been his home since late 2019. In his wake lies a rambling odyssey, measured by nearly two years, 30,000 nautical miles and myriad interactions with residents along a good portion of the planet’s coastline from the Atlantic Seaboard to French Polynesia.
Adventure. That’s the lure that brought Brower to this remote patch on the Pacific Ocean. As the vessel creeps southward, tracing the California coastline, his grey-green eyes are difficult to read. Vigilance is always just beneath the surface. That’s a given in the seafaring life. And Brower knows that he’s far from the homestretch. To arrive safely back in Charleston by Christmas 2021, he must still navigate the entire coast of Central America, transit the Panama Canal, cross the Caribbean and sail a span of the Atlantic before savoring what’s sure to be a bittersweet homecoming.
It was late November 2019 when Brower and Zach Bjur ’12 and ’16 set out from their Lowcountry home on a quest borne of a philosophical discussion. Just a year prior, the roommates had hunkered down in Charleston to ride out Hurricane Michael. With their city shut down and life at a standstill for five days, they had ample time to indulge in conversation.
“Zach and I have always enjoyed deep, philosophical talks,” says Brower as he deftly steers the boat and scans the horizon. “We got into a discussion about perspective, about really understanding life. Through the course of that, we realized that – to better understand something, to understand this world – it would help to actually go around it. If you could do that, we concluded, you’d have a better perspective. We asked ourselves, ‘OK, we’re both young and single, what’s holding us back? If we want to understand the world, let’s just make a plan and go around it.’”In that moment, the two made a pact. They resolved to shove off in a year’s time, embarking on a sailing trip around the globe.
Both Brower and Bjur grew up in the Carolina Lowcountry. Friends since high school, they came of age exploring the creeks and rivers that define this region. Their passion for the natural world set the course for their careers, Brower running his nonprofit – the Lowcountry Maritime School – and Bjur conducting educational outreach as a biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ oyster restoration initiative.
When they realized they could combine their lust for adventure with their professions and endow the journey with greater purpose, the duo recast their globe-girdling plans as an awareness initiative, which they dubbed Apparent Winds. With his scientific background, Bjur would collect weather data along the route and they’d both interview coastal residents to chronicle how each community had been impacted by aspects of climate change.
In early 2019, the duo signed a two-year lease for J. Henry – a Hinckley Bermuda 40 sailing yacht known for being stable and seaworthy – not fast, but solidly built and reliable. That is when they met documentary filmmaker Grey Gowder, who, as it turns out, was more than ecstatic about the opportunity of fashioning a film based on the voyage.
And so, they inked a contract with Gowder, who would compensate Browder and Bjur for providing footage and commentary for the film, titled Sea Change, and intermittently join the vessel over the next two years.
One of Gowder’s initial passages on board stands out.
“It was mostly smooth sailing until we got into the southern Caribbean,” recalls Brower as he moves about the cockpit to adjust the trim on the mainsail. “Just a day out of Bonaire, en route to Cartagena, Colombia, it got wild. We ended up with 65-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot seas for about 12 hours. That really pushed us to the limit. At one point, I remember Grey down below clinging to the mast.”
If Brower’s account of that episode is chilling, Bjur’s blog post is downright harrowing.
“We were cascading down 20-foot waves and the wind speeds were closing on 40 knots, but the sailing was thrilling,” he wrote in the Apparent Winds blog. “As the day wore on, the wind kept rising and the thrill began to wear off as we watched the mizzen mast shudder with each gust.
“As the wind built, the gusts became deafening, strong enough to shake the skin on my face and make my ears ache,” Bjur continues. “At some point, I had a visceral realization that I was closer to death than I’d ever been, and my consciousness moved past the point of fear. I’m not boasting of bravery. If anything, my body had become so saturated with fear that there wasn’t room to even feel it anymore. Something primal must have kicked in; something that understood fear was useless here.
“One of the most terrifying waves was a 40-foot, moonlit nightmare,” the blog entry went on. “Sheer and vertical, it barreled toward us black and shimmering. J.Henry’s stern climbed its face until we were nearly vertical, our bow pointed directly at the sea floor.”
Employing savvy seamanship, the three intrepid mariners managed to survive that ordeal largely unscathed. A day later, J.Henry made landfall at Cartagena, taking refuge in the inner harbor.
“You might say we’ve been blessed with good luck,” says Brower as he lowers himself through the companionway, into J.Henry’s interior. From down below he continues: “I mean, getting a lease on J.Henry and linking up with Grey to do the documentary, those were key, but it wasn’t just luck.”
Now back in the cockpit, once again behind the helm, he adds, “In my view, if you believe in an idea and you have the passion, you can fulfill it. That was the case when I started Lowcountry Maritime School. You need a vision; you need to believe in it and be passionate about it. Then, you just follow your heart and work hard to fulfill it. That’s what Zach and I have done with this trip.”
After sailing for more than a month from the Panama Canal, the duo arrived in the South Pacific in March of 2020.
“When we first got to the Marquesas, to Hiva Oa,” recalls Brower, his eyes lighting up, “it was magical. We had been sailing for almost a month from the Galapagos, and arriving there was amazing. I remember it was pre-dawn with a three-quarter moon in the sky when we started seeing land. We had the spinnaker up and we were charging along with dolphins escorting us, cavorting just off the bow. At some point, I started to smell the flowers on shore. That moment really sticks with me. Later, when we got the anchor down and had J.Henry sheltered in the harbor, I felt like we’d really accomplished something.”
But that elation was short-lived. After a week of relative freedom, all the transient boaters in that harbor got a call from the local police – the gendarmerie.
“They asked us all to assemble on a hillside above the village,” recalls Brower. “So, we stood there in a circle, and the police told us, ‘You guys have to leave. We’re shutting down the country due to the pandemic.’ Of course, the immediate reaction from almost every sailor was, ‘That’s impossible.’”
That was not Bjur’s reaction, however. Before departing Charleston, Bjur had met someone special, and in the intervening months, a strong love had grown between them. Now, faced with global uncertainty and the possibility that there would be extensive quarantines in each future port, Bjur felt the best option would be to retrace their steps back to Charleston. Brower wanted to continue westward, so Bjur flew back home to Charleston for five months.
“The two of us clashed regarding our next move,” recalls Brower, who – under the authority-imposed quarantine – spent a month moored in the harbor. “Eventually, they granted people weekly access to the grocery on shore. I had to check in with the gendarmerie, buy my food and then return to the boat. After about two weeks of that, they slowly began to relax the restrictions and I was able to do some inter-island sailing.”
Alone, Brower treated himself to some mesmerizing passages throughout the Marquesas. He spent time surfing, fishing and visiting the few inhabitants who live in the remote bays where he anchored.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered that I am in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he wrote on the Apparent Winds blog. “The terrain and ocean are stunning. The Marquesas are a mountainous archipelago with a strong cultural heritage. The people are beautiful and proud, and their kindness has absolutely stunned me.”
Despite his growing affection for the Marquesas, Brower didn’t hesitate when the remainder of the French Polynesian islands began opening to foreign vessels. He made his way back to Hiva Oa, provisioned J.Henry and hoisted sails for the westernmost islands in this archipelago.
Throughout this sector of the world, southeasterly breezes comprise the dominant wind pattern, and Brower used these to great advantage, working downwind to the west. En route to the Tuamotus, he caught fresh fish – mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna – and got to swim with whales. He began spearfishing and collecting coconut and other edible vegetation on shore. Besides the delectable sustenance, each successive anchorage offered unparalleled scenery and natural beauty.
“Here, in one of the most remote locations in the world, we skipped through harbors with crystal-clear water, white-sand beaches, beautiful snorkeling and great fishing,” he wrote in a blog post. “Until the world reopens, I am soaking up this region known as Oceana, a world apart from the rest.”
Five months after he had departed, Bjur flew back to rejoin J.Henry. What the duo had originally planned as a two-week stint in this part of the South Pacific was turning into a nine-month sabbatical as the world remained closed.
“We sailed as far west as Bora Bora,” says Brower, his eyes alternately examining the horizon and observing the sails as J.Henry lumbers over the Pacific. “Privately, I was maintaining the most westerly position possible just in case the pandemic subsided and we could continue our circumnavigation.”
Eventually, however, reality set in: East was the only direction to travel if they were to get J.Henry back to Charleston before their lease expired.
“It was definitely disappointing,” admits Brower. “But the funny thing was, it took just one short passage from Riaitea to Huahine for us to realize that going to windward wasn’t really an option. Right away, we were reminded how poorly this boat performs when you sail against the wind. We even broke some deck hardware that day, which hammered home how hard upwind sailing is on the boat, too. So, on our second night in Huahine – at a rare social gathering – I went up to Zach almost randomly and said, ‘I really think we should change plans and sail to Hawaii.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been thinking the same thing.’”
Quite abruptly, J.Henry’s agenda morphed. That long passage north to Hawaii – over 2,700 miles – gave the duo time to consider a revised itinerary, which ultimately involved a lengthy stay in the Hawaiian Islands. As it turned out, the Pacific weather patterns dictated that J.Henry remain there until summer.
The stay wasn’t quite as lengthy for Bjur, who flew home two weeks after arriving in Honolulu – sticking to the original plan of returning to Charleston in April of their final year on board. That left Brower to explore the Hawaiian Islands and capture segments for the documentary for the next six months.
Stretching himself across the cockpit, Brower continues recounting the saga.
“Hawaii was strange. Don’t get me wrong. It was beautiful, and I met extraordinary people doing really important work in environmental conservation. I got to see so much. But it was also where our circumnavigation essentially ended. It was where I had to reinvent this project, so my stay there was tinged with emotion. With Zach gone, I really wanted to make the most of the time I had left. I started thinking, Well, what’s the best way for me to squeeze every last opportunity out of this voyage with only half a year remaining? And I realized, of course: Alaska!”
With just one other crewmember on board and J.Henry fully provisioned, Brower set sail for Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, nearly 2,000 nautical miles to the north.
“It was a really long passage,” he says from his perch at the helm. “We had periods of no wind; had to dodge huge gales and then a week of solid fog. All of that wears on you. After sailing in the South Pacific and Hawaii for so long, the temperature change was tough. On top of that, I tend not to get much sleep on passages. That’s just how it is when you’re responsible for the vessel and everyone on board. When we made landfall, it was an amazing moment, absolute reverie.
“We came in between these enormous rock walls,” he continues, throwing his hands up to mimic the structures. “And it was so foreign. Being at sea for so long, it seemed weird to see land, and those walls were massive and so close. Luckily, the sun rises around 3 a.m. in those latitudes, and somehow the wind just turned on right when we were trying to make our way through this skinny channel. Those inlets are known to produce standing waves and wildly swirling whirlpool currents. Once those get going, you just can’t beat them, so the wind was a godsend.”
Passing through that channel, J.Henry emerged onto the Bering Sea.
“That was cool as hell,” says Brower, a broad grin bursting through his beard. “Definitely a high moment. As a rule, on J.Henry, we never drink when we’re at sea, but I told my crewmate, ‘As soon as we fetch up on the harbor entrance, we’re having a beer!’”
On the Apparent Winds website, you can trace J.Henry’s subsequent route from Dutch Harbor east past Kodiak Island, up to Seward and on to Prince William Sound. Vast and daunting as the Alaskan coastline is, the little vessel made steady progress south throughout the summer of 2021. By early fall, Brower had checked in and out of Juneau, Alaska; Port Townsend, Washington; and San Francisco. Not bad for a boat that moves at about the pace of a fast walk.
As J.Henry threaded its way homeward, Brower made plans to continue this peripatetic lifestyle aboard an 80-foot steel research schooner he fell in love with in Hawaii.
“There’s so much good work taking place out there,” he says with excitement, “but so much more that needs to be done. To witness these environmental problems and get to know the people working on them is powerful. It’s had the kind of impact I hope Sea Change [the documentary] will have on everyone who sees it.”
And Bjur, too, has found a way to extend the environmental outreach that sits at the core of Apparent Winds’ mission. Back in Charleston, he joined the staff of Conservation Voters of South Carolina as the land, water and ocean project manager.
“Being directly involved in the fight to protect our natural resources just seems fitting,” he says. “After everything we’ve done and experienced on J.Henry, it’s the right next step.”