August 19, 2019

School, fortune thrown to winds by Maine man

This, I think, comes close to a mother’s worst nightmare:

The only son returns from Washington, D.C., to proclaim, “Mom, I’m dropping out of Georgetown Law School.

“And guess what, I’m sailing around the world in a 55-foot sloop with some college buddies!”

Donna Stern, the mother in question, admitted that her first reaction was a total “freakout.”

Stern is the widow of Bangor attorney Marshall Stern, who was killed in an automobile accident three years ago. Her son, Jason, was a passenger in the vehicle and escaped death by the grace of God. The Sterns have done a good job of dealing with their grief. In October 1996, mother and son organized a tribute to Marshall that raised enough money to fund a scholarship program in his memory.

Still, it was a shock, Donna said, when Jason broke the news to her last year about his plan to circumnavigate the globe.

“He’s very close to my parents. They were afraid they would never see Jason again. … The first time I hear about another El Nino storm heading toward the Panama Canal, I’ll think about heading to a mental hospital,” said Donna, who now resides on Mount Desert Island.

The first circumnavigation of the world was led by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed from Spain with five ships and 270 men in 1519. He died in the Philippines and only one of the ships and 17 of the men finished circling the globe in 1522.

In recent decades, circumnavigation has become quite common. Every two years there is a race involving 20 to 30 one-person sailboats that compete in a race around the planet which originates in Australia.

Even so, it’s a daunting 25,000-mile journey, utilizing a technology that hasn’t changed much since the 16th century. The group’s leased 55-foot sloop, “First Light,” will average about 10 miles per hour, traveling from St. Martin in the Caribbean through the Panama Canal, the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Red and Mediterranean seas and the Atlantic Ocean. The trip will involve 150 days on water. Stops on land in more than 25 countries across six continents will extend the trip to about a year and a half, Jason calculated.

The trip gets under way sometime in mid-April.

“He’s always had an adventuresome side,” Donna said. Jason backpacked across Israel and spent a month in Japan while in junior high school. When it came time to enter law school, her son sailed from Maine to Washington, D.C., in his own boat, the mother related.

It takes more than just wanderlust, however, to plan and pay for an 18-month sailing trip around the world. The idea arose from conversations with four other young men — Damon Tassone, Mike Litter, Michael Wexler and Kyle Kaufman — who decided to turn their postcollege fantasy into a viable commercial project. The aspiring sailors set up a Web page on the Internet and began pitching their proposal to sponsors. The outdoor clothes maker, Patagonia, donated prototype foul-weather gear. If things go according to plan, the items will end up in the company’s catalog in photographs taken during the voyage. Rockport, the shoe company, sportswear-manufacturer Body Glove, the Breitling watch company, and several firms that make yachting equipment cut similar promotional deals. Jason will be the crew’s photographer and cook, his mother said.

The five young men incorporated themselves as the Ledyard Group, which is named for John Ledyard, a legendary Dartmouth College student who on a fall day in 1774 decided life had more to teach him than what he was learning in the classroom; so he chopped down a tree, carved from its trunk a canoe, and paddled down the Connecticut River’s 250-mile run to the Atlantic, commencing a life of travel and exploration.

The sailing team has objectives above and beyond a high-seas adventure. At each of their land stops, the young men will give lectures and slide shows developed by the Center for Marine Conservation and Surfrider Foundation to encourage the preservation of beaches and sea resources. It’s also hoped that schoolchildren will track the sailing journey via the group’s Web site ( on the Internet, which will post photographs and the ship’s log.

Donna Stern admits it took her a while to warm up to the idea.

Initially, she thought: “Such a little boat, such a big ocean.” She worried about drug smugglers and Indonesian pirates, who have been known to commit ruthless crimes against those sailing in small boats.

On the other hand, the crew members’ families are looking forward to hooking up with their sons at various stops along their 18-month sea odyssey. They’ll stay in touch through a satellite e-mail hookup.

“I’ve just upgraded my computer,” said the proud, but still concerned, mother.

She is certain of one thing.

“These young men will be involved with each other, in one way or other, for the rest of their lives.” — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is

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