How a dream and a boat equals bliss

The Nansens smiling wide when they reached San Francisco after many days at sea.

There was the night that Phyllis Nansen sat in the dark with her cat on her lap watching as two whales swam along side the boat — their black bodies briefly highlighted in the moonlight.

There was the one legged Blue Footed Booby bird that hitched a ride for several days before Phyllis shooed it away.

“The birds make a mess,” she said.

There were the four months when Phyllis and her husband Ralph avoided the typhoon season by docking near a seven-mile-long island called Kanton.

“It was my favorite place,” said Ralph about the South Pacific island, which was a U.S. Air Force base during WWII. The Nansens could see the remnants of the old movie theater and houses soldiers once lived in.

“When we were there, only the animals lived in those houses,” Ralph said.

These stories and more inspired the book “Stone Boat Odyssey,” which chronicles the Nansens’ 14-year journey of not only having, but fulfilling a dream to take to the seas in a sailboat. Meet the Nansens and listen to their adventures on Saturday, Jan. 21, 7 p.m. at the library.

After purchasing their first sailboat in 1968, they both started fantasizing about taking it into the open ocean, but how and when? They soon realized the first step was to buy a bigger boat. So they bought a 46-foot ketch; the only problem was it needed seven years of repair work.

“While we were building we had lots of doubts of the wisdom of taking on such a big task,” Phyllis said.

When the year they had planned to sail into the blue arrived, Phyllis was diagnosed with breast cancer. So the Nansens continued improving the boat and fine-tuning their sailing skills as Phyllis battled cancer. That year, they circumnavigated Vancouver Island while Phyllis was undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

“It was hard for Phyllis,” Ralph said. “But it gave us confidence in our sailing skills.”

With her cancer in remission, the Nansens finally departed for their first ocean voyage in 1987 – on Ralph’s 56th birthday.

They originally planned on sailing around the world, but after traveling for six years around the Pacific Islands and landing in Australia they flew back to the U.S., so that Ralph could finish his book “Sun Power,” about solar-powered satellites.

After the book was published the Hansen’s flew back to Australia in order to sail their boat back home.

Then they spent 12 years sailing around the Pacific Northwest.

During all their time sailing more than 26,000 ocean miles and even during a two week stint in open water, the Hansens say they never got cabin fever. More specifically they say they never, not once, wanted to throw the other person overboard.

“We were already so used to each other, and so used to living on the boat,” Phyllis said. “It was our home.”

The Hansens also have a unique relationship. They had known each other since they were toddlers.

“We played together in grade school, dated in high school and got married in college,” Phyllis said. “We knew each other’s strong points and weaknesses and made adjustments.”

To pass the time on those long voyages, they read thousands of books and listened to music on tapes and records. Phyllis, who is a musician, said she “sang all the time. When the wind was blowing I would get behind the wheel and sing Neil Diamond at the top of my lungs.”

The couple moved to Lopez in 2001, but they still traveled on cruises all over the world.

Their dreams had been fulfilled.

“It was sad when it was over,” Phyllis said. “We had worked so hard and then it was just… finished.”

Now they are content to be back on land with family – watching their two grandchildren on Lopez grow up.

Phyllis is 78 and Ralph is 80, but they are bright-eyed and filled with a sort of youthful joy when they talk about their adventures.

“They say that every year you sail adds a year to your life,” Phyllis said.

Some sayings, it turns out, are true.

This library event is co-sponsored by the Library and Griffin Bay Bookstore.