Couple sails for parts unknown to 'escape this rat race forever'

It's a good thing Kay and Howard Kirkwood are still in love after 28 years of marriage. For the next several years they're going to be seeing a lot of each other.

A whole lot.

The Kirkwoods, along with their cat, Stacy, left Cabrillo Marina in San Pedro this week on a sailing cruise to Mexico, French Polynesia and parts unknown.

"We hope we can leave this rat race forever," Kay Kirkwood said, adding that they don't consider it an unrealistic goal. A couple they once worked with sailed away in the early 1960s, came back briefly about five years later, then departed again and have yet to return, she said.

The Kirkwoods began planning their trip seven years ago when they bought their 32-foot cruiser. The couple, who met while working on a banana freighter, have owned 13 other boats. They moved onto the sailboat three years ago, quit their most recent jobs three months ago (she was a secretary, he was in purchasing) and sold most of their possessions.

"It's a lot of hard work to get ready for something like this," Howard Kirkwood said last week. "Friends who have invited us over for a farewell dinner are disappointed when we tell them we can't do it. They don't understand that the preparations don't give us the time to socialize."

Preparations have included the addition of several safety features, such as a special harness that allows for more mobility than the traditional sailboat tether.

Storage space has also been added inside the cabin, which measures 25 square feet--about the amount of living space in a medium-sized recreational vehicle.

The Kirkwoods have put away a year's worth of food, mostly canned and dried, 42 rolls of paper towels, 35 pounds of cat food and 96 rolls of toilet paper. They will have to go ashore every six to eight weeks to refill their butane tanks for cooking. Although each is a smoker, they won't be taking any cigarettes along as they hope to use this as an opportunity to quit.

They also plan to do plenty of fishing, although Howard professes a profound dislike for the bounty of the deep.

"I'll learn to like it," he said, "although I wish I could teach cows to swim."

The Kirkwoods say they don't understand all the fuss that's being made over them. More than 100 people attended a bon voyage party for them last month.

"A lot of people do this type of thing," Kay said.

But a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Yacht Club said that it's unusual for anybody to plan such a trip for more than a year.

While both believe that the risk they'll encounter during their voyage is minimal, it is nevertheless there.

"Sailing is 99% pleasure punctuated by moments of stark terror," Kay said.

While at sea, one of them must be awake at all times to watch for freighters and other hazards. The boat is equipped with two radios, including a shortwave, plus a depth finder, a barometer, an automatic steering device and a satellite navigational device, among other features. Although they hope to avoid using it, the boat is also equipped with an engine.

The trip is being financed on a shoestring--"a frayed one"--according to her husband. Although the Kirkwoods have paid for their $100,000 boat, they have no income and only a small savings account, and it will be seven years before Howard, 55, becomes eligible for Social Security.

"We hope to write a book, sell pictures and that type of thing," he said. "You can't work when you're in foreign countries, so we're going to have to be very frugal."

The couple also hope to be able to barter fresh water from their desalination device--purchased with a Las Vegas slot-machine jackpot--to islanders along the way.

"Fresh water is a precious commodity in the Pacific islands," she said, "especially water that is free of bacteria, dirt and even bugs."

World yachting tours aren't for everybody, they warn.

"It is not something where you sit back and sail," he said. "It's damn hard work. You have to be versatile in electricity, diesel mechanics and just about every other facet of every other trade you can think of. You just can't put out a holler and get somebody to come fix something for you."

The couple hope eventually to sail to China.

"The chances are good that they'll let us in, but they're just as good that they won't," Howard said. "I don't know if anybody else has ever tried it."

The Kirkwoods say that a lot of married couples have made comments along the line of "I love my husband/wife but there's no way I could stand to be alone with them for that long a time." But they don't have that problem, they say.

"We're not only man and wife, but we're a team," Howard said. "We've worked long enough together to understand the closeness that's involved with this type of thing."

"We know when to give each other space," Kay said.

In any case, the Kirkwoods are convinced that this is the life for them.

"The reward is that you get to see sunsets and stars," he said. "People in the cities don't get to see that because of the smog, the lights, the tall buildings or they just don't have the time. Before our time is up, we want to see more of this planet than just freeways."

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