Hold the Rocks
On their postgraduation transatlantic voyage
Chris Brignoli '92 and Rebecca Claxton Brignoli '92 share a passion for sailing and for other lands.
by Maura Stephens
The campus pub on a Friday afternoon seems rather a humdrum place to meet your life partner. But their first meeting was probably the last time anyone could say Chris Brignoli and Rebecca Claxton did anything humdrum.
The two met through friends during the second semester of their senior year. Both of them had just ended relationships with other people, and neither was ready for a new one. So the philosophy major (Chris) and the speech communication major (Rebecca) became friends.
After graduation Rebecca flew to Europe for a 14-week Eurail vacation that took her around the continent. Chris also headed for Europe but he took a different route and used a different means of transportation: he sailed a boat.
With his father, Richard -- who had introduced Chris to sailing before he could walk -- IC classmates Karin Leuthy and Mark Matthews, and three other intrepid souls, he took off from Greenwich, Connecticut, on a 43-foot Tanton for Ireland. From there they sailed to England, France, Portugal, and Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean, where they docked in Morocco, Spain, Malta, Corsica, Tunisia, Sicily, and Greece.
From one of these ports Chris found time to mail a letter to his friend Rebecca, now back in the United States after flying home from her final European stop in Greece. He invited her to come and spend "up to a month" sailing with them in the Mediterranean. "I'd been left with a free one-way ticket from the United States to anywhere in Europe," says Rebecca. "Chris's letter said he'd be in Greece at about the time it would take me to get ready to go. So I decided to use the ticket, meet the boat, and worry later about how I'd get home."
By the second day, she says, she was no longer worried: "We knew." They knew, that is, that "home" for her would always be where he was -- and vice versa. "That's how my one-month invitation extended to 16 months," she laughs. The two, sometimes with the companionship of other crew members and sometimes alone, sailed to Turkey and Cape Verde and from there to Brazil and then north, eventually wending their way back up to Connecticut.
"When we crossed from Cape Verde to Brazil, there were three of us," says Rebecca. "From Brazil to Martinique, it was just the two of us." She is quick to point out that this isn't necessarily as romantic as it might sound: "Somebody's always on watch, so you don't get to see each other that much."
This was quite an introduction to sailing for a young woman who'd previously only experienced the sport on a Sailfish. Chris did most of the navigating, also teaching Rebecca celestial navigation. They used nothing but the stars to guide them on the Brazil-to-Martinique leg of the journey.
"My passion," says Chris, "is being out at sea, isolated. You feel like you're in a different world; time goes by at a different pace. It's pretty amazing, really being out there in nature and not dependent on society or anything. It's like being your own island, but absolutely at the mercy of the elements. You really feel how fragile life is. You could be in trouble by something that was more than you could handle. But the odds are probably better that you'd get hit by a bus than have a fatal accident on a boat."
"The boat is your home, so you have everything right there with you -- but you have others' culture," adds Rebecca. "We love that."
When they finally returned to permanent dry land in New England after so many months at sea and immersed in other cultures, "We went through 'double-reverse culture shock,' " recalls Rebecca, a Massachusetts native. "It was hard returning to the East Coast." They stayed a while, working odd jobs and saving up about $1,000. "We thought that was all the money in the world," she says.
What the two adventurers did next was right in keeping with their desire to visit new places and people: "We got in our Chevy Citation, packed all our stuff in a dinghy on top, threw a tarp over it, put the dog in the back, and decided to go look for a place to live," Rebecca says. "We stopped to see friends along the way. We did temp work. In some places we found little homes to live in for a while. For example, we went to see a friend in Santa Fe, then got a small place for ourselves. We traded the Chevy for a van and camped out. Eventually we drove to Seattle. We liked it, so we stayed."
Five years later, wanting to be closer to the open sea, they moved to Port Townsend, a two-hour trip from Seattle (some of it over water by ferries). Soon after their marriage in 1996 they opened their own marine electric business, Aubergine Marine. "Both of us come from self-employed families, so it wasn't such a weird idea," says Rebecca. "We struggled. Our prices were low, so bit by bit we got well known, and we got better. All along, our whole idea was to buy a boat."
They did buy a boat in 1995: an aluminum Mason 33 sailboat named the Aubergine. For years they worked on it in their spare time -- it needed a complete refit. "We removed everything that could possibly be removed -- every wire, all the systems, and the entire interior," says Rebecca. Just when they thought they could do no more, they discovered that the keel needed replacement. "So Chris went to welding school, fabricated a new keel, cut off the old one, and welded the new one on." In summer 2002 they decided to call a shipwright, and this past December they closed their business to devote as much time as possible to making the Aubergine seaworthy. Chris went to work with a marine repair cooperative venture that gives many of the benefits of being self-employed without quite as much stress.
Their plan had been to spend 10 years traveling around the world. But an August 5, 2003, event may alter those plans a bit: the birth of their daughter, Hope Iris. They still plan to launch the boat this year and begin a new seafaring adventure that may take them months or years. "We'll figure it out as we go," says Chris.
It's almost certain that Hope will sleep well: the movement of a boat can beat even the most lilting lullaby for rocking a baby to sleep.