Mars-bound and down: Aboard the “Anne” with the Mars Ocean Analogs


From left: Andrew West, Gwen Whitney, John Wolfe, Reid Stowe, Kate Wicks, Oliver Parody, and Eric Goss aboard the “Anne.” Photo by Gaige Davila.

By Gaige Davila
Special to the PRESS 

Port Isabel is no stranger to sailors, but the depths of one group of sailors’ mission could not be more stranger.

The schooner Anne and its crew–Andrew West, Gwen Whitney, John Wolfe, Reid Stowe, Kate Wicks, Oliver Parody, and Eric Goss–sailed from Miami, Florida, to Port Isabel early April, to tell SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that they can train astronauts via sea travel.  

Oliver Peabody and John Wolfe show the ship’s navigation system. Photo by Gaige Davila.

This training is called an analog mission, meant to replicate the physical and mental conditions of space. The Anne’s journey from Florida to Port Isabel was the second voyage in the Mars Ocean Analogs, the first being from Cape Fear River, North Carolina, to West Palm Beach, Florida.

From Miami to Port Isabel, the crew spent two weeks at sea in the 70 foot ship, built by Stowe, who used the same schooner to sail for 1,152 days between 2007 and 2010. It was the longest continuous sea voyage without resupplying and without docking on land in history. 

But these journeys do have a destination in mind, whether metaphorical or Martian. 

“We felt like we were heading to the heart of where we should be,” Stowe said aboard the Anne. “It was so exciting for us to come here, considering what’s happening here. This is a destination, I say, that something few people in the world know about, but we felt that we were in on something and we were coming to the greatest place we could possibly come.”

Andrew West slices apples in the ship’s galley. Photo by Gaige Davila.

That heart was the Laguna Madre, towards Boca Chica Beach, where SpaceX has a rocket launching facility. Stowe and the entire crew insist that extended sea travel, on one vessel, in one communal area, without resupplying, is the closest astronauts can come to experiencing traveling to Mars on Earth. 

The missions, which are two weeks long, would extend gradually, Stowe said, noting that any group going to Mars likely needs to spend at least a year at sea together. Travel to Mars takes 9 months, according to a calculation by Earth and Mars realign every two years, creating a short window for a nearly-year-long return journey . 

The Anne was docked at the Port Isabel Logistical Offshore Terminal (PILOT) at the southernmost end of Port Road.  The crew docked there after contacting Port Director, Scott Brown, who allowed the crew to stay there, thinking their journey and idea were incredible, Wolfe said. From the deck of the Anne, SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility can be seen in the distance. 

Oliver Peabody stands near his bunk, fitted with a tarp to prevent him from falling out during rough seas. Photo by Gaige Davila.

The crew explored Port Isabel while docked at PILOT, roaming Market Square and eating at Will & Jacks Burger Shack on Maxan St, they said. The crew is very close with one another, unsurprisingly, after thousands of ocean miles among them. Outside of space training, these analog missions are a powerful bonding experience.

“The lessons that are learned on analogs we hope can be put into practice for the people who do actually go (to Mars), that’s what we’re aiming for,” Wolfe, who is the longest serving of Stowe’s crew, said. ‘An important thing, too, the analog astronauts who sail with us help pitch in and do the work of the boat, because that’s what we’re really trying to teach. It’s how you can find that power within yourself to do what needs to be done.” 

Kate Wicks ascends the mast of the Anne. Photo by Gaige Davila.

The crew has uniforms and patches, too, meant to display a sincere effort for group dynamics and team building while completing analog missions aboard the Anne. All the crew have captain’s licenses, meaning either all or some can be present during an analog mission. 

After seven months of planning, the Mars Ocean Analog made their way to Boca Chica Beach, sailing the Anne into South Bay and docking on a marsh. The crew hiked through the sand dunes, put their uniforms on while on the beach, and marched to SpaceX’s entrance, carrying a flag bearing their mission name. Stowe, using a conch shell, blew a long note at SN15, the current SpaceX prototype rocket. 

As of this article’s writing, the Anne, Stowe, Peabody, and four new crew members–Luis Diaz, from Peru; Marcos Bruno, from Argentina; Danton Bazaldua, from Mexico; and David Mateus, from Columbia–are sailing back to West Palm Beach, Florida, the third mission of the Mars Ocean Analogues. In June, Stowe is leading an all-women crew from Florida to New York City, led by space enthusiast Alyssa Carson. 

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