The vessel is called the Sweetgrass. It's a 41-foot trawler class made by Roughwater Boats.

The vessel's captain is Jerry Reves, a modest-looking man with charcoal-gray hair, a ready smile and an adventurous spirit.

Reves and his wife, Jenny Cathcart, are about to embark on a journey as circuitous and lengthy as the path Reves has walked during his professional career: "The Great Loop."

The pair will travel by ocean, Gulf, interstate waterways, river and canal -- mostly one-way except for a couple of brief excursions that will require but a quick skip in and then back out -- returning to where they started, Charleston.

Home.

Early training

Reves, who turns 67 this summer, is dean of the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. He runs the show. After nearly a decade at the helm -- after improvements, expansions, a pivotal accreditation -- he is retiring, walking away from this last in a long series of leadership jobs for some well-earned R&R.

He says most serious jobs require about 10 years to accomplish one's main goals.

Reves, whose father taught math and coached tennis at The Citadel, grew up on campus and swam in the Ashley River. He attended the Gaud School for Boys at South Adgers Wharf and East Bay Street, then spent the 11th and 12th grades at the Darlington School for Boys in Rome, Ga.

Having The Citadel for a playground was great fun, he said. His bosom buddy was Joe Harrison, whose father taught English at the school.

Harrison said it was a protected, safe environment that had a lot to offer a couple of rambunctious boys. Pedestrians were respected. Large fields were available to play on. The boys played basketball, football and tennis.

"It was quite colorful," Harrison said. "There was plenty of nature around, trees to climb."

Football was a favorite pastime.

"We actually played on a team that was coached by a couple of Citadel cadets who had spotted us on the field," Harrison said. "Jerry was always quarterback. I was the end. We spent hours practicing pass patterns, which I still to this day remember."

When they were old enough, they double dated a little, then it was off to college. Reves went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Harrison attended The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., not too far away. Reves tried to get him to go to the Grand Ole Opry, but he resisted.

"At the time, I didn't like country music," Harrison said.

After college and during the years Reves was working in Birmingham, Ala., and the 17-year period he spent at Duke University, the two men lost touch. But when Harrison heard that his friend had been recruited in 2001 for a position at the Medical University, that he was coming home, they got back in touch.

"It was just like we'd seen each other yesterday," Harrison said.

Responsibility

Reves' father had gone to Vanderbilt, and now the son followed in dad's footsteps, majoring in English and minoring in philosophy. He was good enough at tennis to make the varsity team. William Faulkner was (and is) his favorite writer.

"I had been in a cocoon until then," Reves said. "It was the first time I'd ever heard a point of view different than what I'd grown up with."

He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1965. But it was doctoring that soon caught his imagination. He enrolled at the Medical University in 1969 to study anesthesiology, landed an internship and residency at the University of Alabama Hospital and Clinics in Birmingham, then decided the combination of medicine, academics and research suited him.

For two years, 1972-74, he worked at Bethesda Naval Hospital before returning to Alabama, where he spent 10 years as a professor of anesthesiology. He helped develop a sedative-hypnotic called Midazolan, which soon was marketed by the pharmaceutical company Roche and was called the new drug Versed.

It became the standard anesthetic used during surgery, replacing Pentothal, which had been most widely used since 1942. Pentothal, though, made patients feel like they were "being spun into oblivion," Reves said. The newer anesthetic provoked a more natural sleep, he said.

In 1984, he went to Duke University Medical Center, becoming first director of cardiothoracic anesthesia, then director of the heart center and later chairman of the department of anesthesiology.

Reves said being an anesthesiologist is akin to being the conductor of a big orchestra, calling on one drug, then another, adjusting inflow to achieve just the right effect.

The helpless patient relies completely on the doctors.

"It's like seeing a baby born," Reves said, "and realizing -- oh, my God -- that baby depends on me."

The coach

At the Medical University, Reves is a multitasker. Besides being dean of the College of Medicine, he is professor of anesthesia and perioperative medicine, professor in the department of cell and molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, and vice president for medical affairs.

He's recruited top people, such as Andrew Kraft, who runs the Hollings Cancer Center and oversaw the process that secured its National Cancer Institute designation. He ensured that the Medical University reached the top third of the medical schools recognized by the National Institutes of Health. He helped bring in millions of dollars in funding.

"What (all this) really does is puts you in the elite," he said, proudly crediting these successes to the many people who did most of the heavy lifting.

"I'm more like a coach, I select the players," Reves said. "But they have the talent, they have to perform, they have to perform like a team."

At Duke, his emphasis was on helping to advance careers, he said. At the Medical University, it's more about improving the institution.

Harrison said his friend has a great work ethic and is helpful, generous and honest. "I don't think anyone can push him around," he said.

Two hospitals in the South with the best reputations are Duke and Emory, Reves noted. That's where people with serious health problems historically have gone for specialized treatment.

Not so much anymore.

"We want to make it so Charlestonians don't have to leave Charleston," he said.

A big job

Kraft was recruited by Reves in 2004 from the University of Colorado. As director of the Hollings Cancer Center, he has worked closely with his boss to make the center a world-class institution.

"Being dean is a complicated job," Kraft said.

Reves is responsible for students, the clinical apparatus and the research scientists. "It's a big job," and it's people-oriented, Kraft said, which plays to Reves' strengths. "He's a good listener."

He marries his own abilities and experiences with those of others, empowering people and guiding them at the same time, Kraft added.

Reves also has worked hard to build bridges between departments, which tend to work in silos, Kraft said. Among other things, the dean has encouraged his colleagues in other departments to get their patients into trials. There are more than 100 trials under way at any given time, Kraft said.

More than half of all doctors in South Carolina were educated at the Medical University. During the past nine years, since Reves became dean, the school has turned out 1,200 doctors.

A decade ago, the university admitted about 135 people a year; today, it enrolls 165 annually.

About 40 percent of the graduating class is focused on primary care: family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, psychiatry and OB/GYN. The rest pursue more lucrative specialties.

Dr. Etta Pisano a radiologist and breast imaging pioneer from Duke Medical School, was hired to replace Reves. She will be the Medical University's first female dean of the College of Medicine.

The Great Loop

Next month, Reves and his wife will hit the waterways.

They'll take the Intracoastal Waterway to Chesapeake Bay, float their way to New York, head up the Hudson River to Montreal, cross the Canadian canals into the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron and pass through the Great Lakes to Chicago.

Then they will track down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River, turn southward and ride the great Mississippi current until they reach the Tennessee River, hop onto the Ohio briefly to get to the Cumberland River, which they'll take to visit Nashville, then find their way to the Tombigbee River. They'll float south twixt Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile, hit the oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico to get to New Orleans for a spell, continue on to Houston, where an old college roommate lives, then head back along the coast, down the Florida peninsula to the Keys and around the bend to the Intracoastal Waterway on the east side of the state, riding north until Charleston is back in their sights.

The Sweetgrass has a single diesel engine that will take them the full 5,500 miles at an average of 10 mph.

But don't think it will be all pleasure. Reves is conducting a medical research project during the cruise to learn about injury and illness. It's been approved by the Institutional Review Board.

"Nobody's ever done this before," he said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.