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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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,”
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.
experiencing the thrill every day.