Larabeck home


 The Grafs Set Sail

An interview with Sharon and Michael Graf

The first night Dr. Sharon Graf spent on the open ocean on the Larabeck, the waves splashing up against the boat glowed purple in the dark. “It looked like light was shining on the crest of the waves, but then I realized the waves were lit up,” Sharon said. “The waves bring all this foam to the top, and there’s all this glowing phosphorous and plankton in it.”

It’s the first of many wondrous sites Sharon and her husband, Michael, expect to see as they spend the next year sailing in the South Pacific on the Larabeck, the 42 foot sailing vessel they purchased and outfitted for the trip.

While on sabbatical from her assistant professor position at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Sharon will conduct ethnographic field research in the South Pacific Islands and the southeastern coastal areas of Australia. By studying the cultural practices of the diverse inhabitants of the Pacific Island region, Sharon hopes to contribute to the scholarly body of knowledge on music and performing arts and bring her increased understanding of how people in the region communicate through music back to the classroom at UIS when she resumes teaching in Fall 2011.

Sharon will spend time interviewing local musicians, going to musical performances and recording music. She is particularly interested in string instruments such as the violin and guitar, which originally traveled to the South Pacific on boats.

“Not many people have paid academic attention to string instruments because they are more interested in finding untouched, traditional music. Yet the more scholars look at how culture works, they realize there’s probably not any time culture was untouched,” Sharon said. “So now I’m more interested in how it lives and breathes by connecting with other people and instruments.” Sharon plans to play her own fiddle along the way too. “In all aspects of this trip, not just the scholarly part, it’s a fun thing to be a musician. Even when language is a problem, you can play music,” she said.

Spending a year sailing has been a longtime dream for Michael, who grew up on the Baltic Sea in Germany. “For me, sooner or later, I needed to go,” he said. Early in 2006, Michael came up with the idea for the trip. “He was just really, really interested in doing this, and I thought, all right, I guess we better try it,” Sharon said. At the time, the Grafs had a house in the country and owned horses. Although they already had a sailboat, a Beneteau 350 (33.9), they needed to downsize their house in order to buy a sailing vessel large enough for the trip. So in 2007, the couple sold their house and bought the Larabeck which they then sailed from Wilmington,N.C. to Alton Illinois. Below deck, it has three bedrooms, one of which has been converted to a storage room, as well as a bathroom, kitchen and living area. 

Yet purchasing the Larabeck was only the beginning. Sharon and Michael spent the past few years gleaning information from a major sailing show in Chicago, taking classes on navigation, sailing, weather, and first-aid, talking with experienced sailors, and reading sailing books. At the same time, Sharon brushed up on her Spanish- and French-speaking skills. And Michael, an engineer, began preparing the boat for the trip. This involved tasks ranging from upgrading technical equipment and painting the bottom of the boat to replacing water pumps and preparing the rigging to handle storms. He even sewed a giant cover for the sail and built shelves inside the boat for additional storage. 

“I’m making sure that all of the stuff on the boat is the latest and greatest since we’re going places where we won’t have a lot of technical support,” Michael said. “If I had not had a technical background, I would have had to hire a lot of people to do work and it would have been very expensive. We pretty much did everything on our own.” Michael also installed an automatic steering system, solar panels and a wind generator. “It’s really nice to be self-sustaining there. We do have a 40-horsepower inboard engine on board, but the coolest part is the boat will sail under wind power and also regenerate with wind power. The engine is just for navigating into areas when wind direction isn’t helpful,” Sharon said.

Over the late winter and new year's holidays of 2009-2010, Sharon and Michael sailed the Larabeck from Alton, Illinois to Mobile, Alabama. While Sharon returned to UIS for the spring semester, Michael continued working on the boat. At her spring break, Sharon joined Michael in order to sail the Larabeck to Florida. There, Michael made final preparations while Sharon finished teaching. They left Florida on May 6. 

From the beginning, Michael and Sharon have been keenly aware of the importance of the weather. “Safety comes from knowing the weather,” Michael said. “It doesn’t really matter how big a boat you have. If you have bad weather, even big boats can get hurt. So it’s all about weather.” Avoiding major storms in the South Pacific, the Grafs will sail there from May until November, exploring the Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas, Tahiti,  and everything in between. Then they will make their way to New Zealand. “The only fixed points are the Panama Canal and New Zealand,” Michael said. “Those are the two musts on the trip; otherwise, we’ll hop from one point to another.”

While the Grafs wait out the cyclone season in New Zealand, Sharon will reconnect with a colleague she taught with at Kent State, who now teaches at the University of Auckland. She hopes to give some guest lectures at the university and dig into the Maori music archive there. Then it will be back to sailing for a few more months before the Grafs head home to Illinois.
Both Sharon and Michael know their journey won’t be all sunny days and smooth sailing. They said they are as prepared as they can be for tumultuous weather, long spans of time with no land in sight, the exhaustion that comes with sailing day in and day out, and the challenges that come with navigating around reefs, freighters and other obstacles. And they’re prepared for the inevitable cultural obstacles they’ll face as well. “It’s challenging to try to talk to people and learn their customs and ways, but that’s all the fun, too,” Sharon said.

The first time the Grafs sailed on open ocean, after they reached Florida, Sharon said the experience was potentially overwhelming but also thrilling. “We had wind, we had waves, we had our boat, and us. You could think, ‘oh my God.’ Or you could turn it right around and say, ‘Wow, it’s so cool we can do this,’” Sharon said. 

Now, they’re experiencing the thrill every day.

Julie Collins spent last year finishing her M.A. degree in environmental journalism and communication while serving as the graduate assistant for the sociology- anthropology and music departments. A highlight of her year was hearing about the preparations for Larabeck's trip and interviewing Michael and Sharon for a series of articles she is writing. Now, tracking their progress is a favorite diversion from working on her thesis and other writing projects.
If you want to know more about the journey of the Grafs
who are sailing from Illinois to the South Pacific, 
go to the Larabeck home