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Sailors from groundbreaking mission reunite after 25 years

John Stone, captain of the Cutty Sark, prepares for a sailing day trip with other sailors from the Soviet American Sail on Saturday, as part of their 25th Anniversary reunion. - Photo by Michelle Beahm / Whidbey News-Times
John Stone, captain of the Cutty Sark, prepares for a sailing day trip with other sailors from the Soviet American Sail on Saturday, as part of their 25th Anniversary reunion.
— image credit: Photo by Michelle Beahm / Whidbey News-Times

Twenty-five years ago, 40 Soviet and 40 American citizens sailed from New York to Russia and back on a mission of peace and environmentalism.

The trip’s purpose was environmental research and one significant result was that the dumping of plastic trash in the ocean subsequently was made illegal, said Whidbey Island resident John Stone.

Stone participated in the first leg of the trip.

Stone said he also credits the project as having contributed in some way to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Stone said that the Soviet-American Sail was “the first joint Soviet-American environmental research adventure — also the last.”

The first leg of the trip departed New York June 4, 1989. That group returned on Labor Day Weekend that year.

This past weekend, 25 years after the second leg of the trip ended in New York, a reunion in Coupeville was organized by Stone.

About 12 of the sailors made it.

While most of the crew members live on the East Coast or in Russia and the Ukraine, people from Vermont, New Jersey, Boston, California and Portland, among others, attended the reunion. For some of those from the United Staters and Europe who couldn’t attend, a Google Hangout was planned for the weekend to reconnect with the group online.

“We’re eating, sharing stories, looking at old videos of the sail, talking a lot,” said Angela Jackson, co-organizer of the reunion. “...We are going on a hike tomorrow; we’re probably going to sail on The Adventuress.”

Al Nejmeh was one of the two people responsible for bringing together the U.S. crew for the research trip. He captained the ship “The Adventuress,” which was based in Port Townsend.

Nejmeh, a firefighter from Tacoma, died last year.

“Al was one of the organizers of this and brought a lot of people together,” Jackson said, “so we also want to honor Al.”

The original trip was big news, Stone said, and newspapers like the New York Times planned to run an article about it on the front page the day they left New York, but Stone said that the Tiananmen Square Protests in China, which happened the same day, overshadowed the journey.

“We were big news when we left,” Stone said, “but there was bigger news happening on the other side of the world the very day we left.”

This isn’t the first reunion the group has held, but it was an important one.

“It’s been 25 years,” Jackson said, “and that’s a significant chunk of time, the way people get reflective. Many of us have stayed in touch, but not all.

“It was just a perfect time. People wanted to come together. It’s a great time to reconnect and see how this experience has changed us and made us stronger and just, you know, have fun, reminisce, laugh, share values.”

Group members don’t know when the next reunion may be held, only that it will probably be on the East Coast, so more people can attend.

“We’re a very unpredictable group,” said Kate Cone, one of the crew members who drove across the country, from Vermont, to attend the Whidbey reunion.

“You spend four or five weeks on a boat, in a tiny little petri dish, no matter how long it’s been, you’ve bonded,” she said.

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