Byline: Taylor Hill
NEWPORT BEACH — After 29 years of sailing around the world aboard the 65-foot Alaska Eagle, captains Rich and Sheri Crowe are retiring from Orange Coast College’s offshore sailing program.
Over the years, the couple has taken thousands of students on voyages to destinations including Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, Hawaii, Alaska, northern Europe and South America, logging more than 250,000 miles on the water while overseeing a 12-person crew.
The decision marks the end of an era for OCC’s School of Sailing and Seamanship, as the offshore program was one of the first of its kind to be developed, giving sailing students the rare opportunity to experience long-distance voyages with instruction from two skilled Coast Guard-licensed captains.
“The program kind of developed itself,” Rich Crowe said. “Brad Avery (OCC Sailing director) is the dreamer here, and the rest of us try and implement the dreams.”
Alaska Eagle was donated to the school in 1982, following its participation in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race). Rich Crowe, who had been working as a sailing instructor and on fleet maintenance at OCC since 1977, was sent to bring the boat back to Newport Harbor after the race was finished in England.
“I was dating the right man at the right time,” Sheri Crowe said. Rich invited her to accompany him on the trip to England. The two had met a few months prior to that when Sheri — then enrolled in an intermediate sailing class at the school — brought in one of the Shields sailboats to the shop for repair.
The two started talking, and decided to meet for drinks at the Rusty Pelican later that night. A year later, they were married and both working at the sailing center, building a relationship that kept them nearly inseparable over the years, They completed nearly every leg of their offshore sailing trips together, with the exception of a one-month section apart during Alaska Eaglerecent South America circumnavigation.
“I think being together 24/7 strengthened us, to be honest, because everything has been a shared decision and responsibility,” Rich said.
“It’s incredible what they were able to do over the past 30 years,” Avery said. “They have taken thousands of students offshore, including more than 40 trips to Hawaii and other destinations, and have maintained a perfect safety record.”
If one person knows of the difficulties involved in captaining a long-distance sailing voyage with a 12-person crew for whom you are responsible, it’s Avery. He filled in for the couple for certain legs of expeditions, giving Rich and Sheri some time off during the two-, four- or eight-month cruises to “go home and do their taxes,” Sheri said.
“For each new trip, Rich and Sheri would take a group of people who had never met each other and build them into a team,” Avery said. “It’s extremely hard work, and they’ve been managing that for 30 years. It’s a huge responsibility, a huge amount of work, and when you’re out there, it’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
In the program’s early days, Rich, originally from Newport, R.I., and Sheri, a Newport Beach native, would have students interested in offshore sailing come over to the couple’s home for a barbecue, where a “screening process” would take place.
“We’d have everybody come over to meet and get to know each other,” Rich said. As the program grew in popularity, a more standard application process was instituted, and over the years, the average age of the participants heading out on voyages went from around 18 to 50 years old, the couple said.
“We’ve had students ranging from 17 years old to 74 years old,” Sheri said. “If you’re healthy and can be there, you were welcome aboard,” Rich added.
During their numerous cruises, the couple formed bonds and relationships with the students and made friends at many destinations along the way. Over the course of the program, the couple learned that while anybody can learn how to tie a knot, teaching manners and respect could be a little more difficult.
Every day, they worked to be role models for the students, demonstrating how to behave aboard the boat and respect fellow crewmembers — just one more task on the couple’s agenda.
“I wouldn’t say every day we were the best role models, but for the greater part of 29 years, I guess we did all right,” Sheri said.
While beach barbecues in French Polynesia and seeing the Milky Way so bright they could read by its light were a few of the couple’s highlights during their time aboard Alaska Eagle, they truly cherished the opportunity to work with younger groups of sailors “thirsty for knowledge.”
“For us, that was a really good thing when we got a group like that,” Rich said.
Two years ago, Rich and Sheri began to feel it was time to move on from the program, and they planned to have their last student sailing voyage be a big one, choosing a circumnavigation of South America.
The trip started in October 2010, and the route took them out to Easter Island, around Cape Horn, up to the Panama Canal and got back to Newport Harbor June 20 — just in time for the Transpac Race, in whichAlaska Eagle operates as the communications boat during the race.
Throughout their time in OCC’s offshore sailing program, the couple has also worked in boat maintenance for the sailing school, with Sheri managing the day-to-day maintenance of the sailing fleet and Rich — a master shipwright — handling high-end maintenance tasks and woodworking jobs. Together, the Crowes have built three yachts, including a 44-foot sloop, Tabu.
“It’s hard to find a husband-and-wife team who are both captains and who can really do it all,” Avery said. He pointed out that Rich also constructed all of the cabinetry and tables in the sailing center’s library during the facility’s 2000 renovation.
Currently, Avery does not plan on replacing the couple to continue the school’s offshore sailing program, opting instead to integrate Alaska Eagle into the school’s Professional Mariner School curriculum, where students will take day trips aboard the vessel.
“They made that program,” Avery said. “Without them, it doesn’t exist. If someone comes along who can do what they did, that’s great — but I’m not counting on that happening.” For now, Rich and Sheri are planning on continuing to do boat maintenance for the sailing center, staying on as “Mom and Dad” of Alaska Eagle as well, Rich said.
The couple noted that, over the years, one of the first things students learned while aboard Alaska Eaglewas how to handle and properly steer the boat — in both daylight and night cruises.
“Most people tend to rely on autopilot these days, and we didn’t have one,” Rich said. After 30 years of sailing through unpredictable waters to far-off destinations while continually training new groups of sailors, the Crowe’s future plans don’t allow for autopilot to be installed for the road ahead, either.
Their “retirement” officially starts in October, and the couple is planning to sail Tabu in the Baja Ha Ha cruisers’ rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. They also hope to visit Asia and Africa, the only two continents they have not yet explored.