A small boat, a lot of gratitude

Two brothers set sail for Europe with the goal of raising money for America's troops.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Robert (l.) and Ralph Brown passed through Boston on July 14 on their way across the Atlantic in a fishing boat.

The Coast Guard has called it an ill-advised voyage. The flashy green boat – built for fishing in the sandy, shallow waters of the Carolinas – is only 21 feet long, and doesn't have a cabin or enclosure of any kind.

And it's headed across the Atlantic.

Ralph Brown and his brother Bob have planned the 6,200-mile trans-atlantic crossing in the hope that their trip will raise funds and awareness for military charities.

"The truth is, it sounds dangerous," Ralph concedes. "But it's nowhere near as dangerous as a soldier standing guard in Iraq."

It's a voyage 29 years in the making. In 1980, Ralph, then a US marine, was told he would be a part of the team sent to rescue 53 American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. At the last minute, Ralph was told to stand down.

The rescue, known as Operation Eagle Claw, went famously awry. Three marines and five airmen were killed when a rescue helicopter crashed into a supporting airplane. There was no direct confrontation with Iranian forces, and the hostages were not rescued.

When Ralph heard the news that the mission had failed and three marine gunners had perished in the process, he promised himself that they would not be forgotten.

"They died in my place," says Ralph.

But Ralph did forget – until 25 years later. At his stepfather's burial in Arlington National Cemetery, wreaths on a memorial to the fallen of Operation Eagle Claw caught his attention.

Still, it took another four years for Ralph to make good on his promise. With Bob, a salty surfer happily along for the ride, Ralph is skippering the fishing boat he designed in an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest unaccompanied oceanic voyage in a flat-bottom boat. They left Tampa, Fla., on June 27 and aim to arrive in Frankfurt, Germany, by the end of August. He hopes the attention paid to his daring and dangerous trip encourages supporters to "do more than just say thanks" to those who serve in the armed forces.

To this end, they're also selling T-shirts printed with the same slogan. The proceeds will be divided among eight military charities.

The Browns will conclude their voyage – which takes them up the US East Coast, into Canadian waters, along Greenland's shore, and into Europe – at a military hospital in Germany, after 48 days at sea.

Lacking a cabin, the Browns will sleep in shifts on an inflatable raft on the boat's stern, kept dry by a surfboard bag lashed to the legs of the boat's bench seat. They'll bathe in the ocean and layer wet suits, survival suits, and foul-weather gear for warmth.

"Unfortunately, this is not a comfortable ride," says Bob. Most of the small boat's deck is crowded with extra gas tanks and red jerry cans so they can carry enough diesel for their longest open ocean stretch – 1,000 miles. Two dry boxes, a surfboard, three fishing rods, and a beanbag take up any remaining space.

But there are upsides, too. "It's an adventure," says Ralph.

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