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Charleston friends embark on round-the-world sailing exploration to examine climate change

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Zach Bjur (right) and Tripp Brower clean the deck of J. Henry, a sailboat docked in Rockville, as they prepare for a sailing trip around the world. The two friends, who will have a documentary produced about their trip, will stop in coastal communities along the way to talk to people about how they are dealing with climate change. Lauren Petracca/Staff

They said they are trying to avoid regret.

So, holed up together a year ago, Prentice "Tripp" Brower and Zach Bjur took the measure of their lives as Hurricane Florence rolled landward just north of Charleston.

“We were getting deep,” Brower said.

They considered recent romantic breakups, current professional obligations, a long-standing friendship that went back 15 years, concerns about the state of the world, and a shared love of the sea.

“We were both looking for something different,” Bjur said.

An idea emerged: Perhaps this was the moment to sail around the world.

After all, Brower and Bjur were unattached, young, capable, comfortable on boats and familiar with the ways of the ocean. Surely they could find an appropriate sailing vessel. Surely they could muster a plan.

“Then we realized we could do it, so we’d be screwing ourselves if we didn’t try,” Brower said.

This weekend they begin a two-year, sailing circumnavigation with a mission: to examine how climate change and environmental issues impact communities and cultures around the world, and to celebrate local action that makes a difference, and that might serve as a model for others.

These guys are serious. They were both born in 1989 and grew up together in the Lowcountry. They attended the College of Charleston together. Brower majored in political science. Bjur majored in biology.

Eventually, Bjur got a job with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, working on oyster recycling and enhancement. He has helped build reefs from Hilton Head to Murrells Inlet. Brower started the Lowcountry Maritime Society, which offers educational programs to young students, teaching them engineering and math, through hands-on boat building.

He has sailed small and large boats since he was a kid, made a lot of deliveries and raced. He won the 2018 Rockville Regatta. Brower is the boat guy. Bjur is the science guy.

Both just quit their jobs.

“Don’t worry,” one friend told them, “it will all still be here when you get back.”

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On Wednesday, Tripp Brower and Zach Bjur left Rockville on J. Henry, heading towards Charleston Harbor. They planned to embark on their two-year voyage Saturday. Lauren Petracca/Staff

First: Find a boat

They knew of a nice Hinckley yawl, made in 1971. This Bermuda 40 Mark III was the Maine-based company’s flagship sailboat for 40 years, first built when fiberglass hulls were new. Solid, comfortable, designed with a full keel and adjustable centerboard, it set a standard for cruising yachts. With the centerboard down, the draft extended from about 4.6 feet to more than 8 feet, giving the boat extra stability offshore.

This particular boat, named J. Henry, had not been used much lately and needed a lot of attention, Brower said. They worked out a lease arrangement with the owner and, to finalize the deal, sought assistance from attorney Andy Gowder who, upon hearing about the plans, made a suggestion. “Talk to my son; he does film.”

They had not considered making a movie about their adventure. At most, they planned to take some pictures, maintain a blog of some kind, that sort of thing. They quickly reached a conclusion to which they were becoming accustomed: Why not?

“It wasn’t a careless ‘Why not,’” Bjur said. It was the result of thoughtful consideration with a dose of philosophical purpose mixed in, an approach they had applied to the whole project in their effort to counter regret.

Brower surely could have decided to stick with education outreach and boat building.

Bjur surely could have continued to build oyster reefs off the South Carolina shore.

But then, years hence, what would they think about themselves?

Second: Arrangements

So they met with filmmaker Grey Gowder to share their nascent plans and discuss some kind of collaboration.

“The guys invited me to come sit on the boat with them last January, and they had this big idea of going around the world on this voyage of self-discovery,” Gowder said. “I learned about their hopes and interests.”

They started thinking anthropologically, wondering about maritime cultures, about climate refugees about environmental degradation. Maybe they should record that.

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Filmmaker Grey Gowder is directing "Sea Change," a documentary about Tripp Brower's and Zach Bjur's two-year round-the-world sailing project. Grey Gowder/Provided

“But that was too depressing,” Gowder said. “We decided we wanted to make a story (about) a voyage that was built around learning and built around hope.”

So they are seeking out communities that are making a difference in order to learn from them, stimulate conversations back home and possibly help transfer ideas from one part of the world to another, he said. The emphasis always will be on local challenges and local solutions.

For example, coral gardeners in the South Pacific trying to cultivate more resilient species that can tolerate warmer seas. Or a public-private effort in South Africa to transform a hunting reserve into a nature preserve. Or a project to create a protected marine park in Fiji where the indigenous giant clam can flourish again.

To witness and record these efforts, and engage with the local people responsible for them, Bjur and Brower will work with Mission Blue, a California-based nonprofit that identifies “Hope Spots,” assigns “champions” to raise awareness and provides marketing and logistical support to conservation groups to help get the word out.

Shannon Rake, Hope Spots program manager for Mission Blue, said she was thrilled to collaborate with Bjur and Brower, and anyone else who can help “inspire the public to ignite support for marine protected areas.”

“Something protected today could become unprotected tomorrow,” Rake said.

Climate change is such a vast problem that it’s easy to avoid dealing with it, Bjur said. So he wants to achieve what he calls “ground-truthing” — to show people in the Lowcountry (and beyond) how climate change directly affects their lives, and how local action can make a difference.

“It’s about storytelling,” Bjur added. “It’s not especially data-driven; rather, it’s human-driven. We want to establish an empathetic connection.”

Gowder said the project lends itself well to a dramatic narrative: Two young men leave a familiar place in search of hidden elixirs. They seek prophets and wizards, wise counselors and allies. They struggle with hard questions and return with answers that might help save the people and places they love.

The filmmaker plans on meeting the sailors in three places during their voyage, then join them on J. Henry for the final transatlantic leg so he can capture footage of the return to Charleston, he said. The movie will be titled "Sea Change."

Brower and Bjur will be equipped with cameras, including GoPros, so they can post short videos to YouTube along the way. And they will be checking in with The Post and Courier every few months to provide an update.

Third: Fix the boat

J. Henry is a solid yawl, the sort of sailing vessel that’s got a central mast and also a shorter mizzen mast behind the tiller. Two masts give the fellas options: They can hoist three sails — a main, jib and mizzen — to capture the most wind possible and potentially reach speeds of about 10 knots, or they can shorten or eliminate any of these sails to reduce windforce and better control the boat. In a blow, they can drop the main and go with just the furling foresail and mizzen.

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Tripp Brower (right) fixes a sump pump as Zach Bjur puts a final coat of varnish on the sailboat's bright work as they prepare for a voyage around the world. Lauren Petracca/Staff

They have a storm jib to hoist up front when the weather gets bad, and a spinnaker they can launch for downwind runs. All the standing and running rigging is in good shape, the lines are new and the integrity of the hull is unimpeachable.

But when they first got their hands on the boat a year ago, it needed big upgrades: new electronic navigation systems, diesel engine and drive shaft repair; new head (bathroom), safety equipment, sump pump and gray-water tank; new VHF radio and LED nav lighting (“red over green is a sailing machine”); bilge improvements; fresh paint; and lots of bright work to protect exposed wood decking.

They checked every screw and every bolt, Brower said. It’s taken all year. On Tuesday, they were still attending to the engine and varnishing wood.

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Zach Bjur prepares J. Henry for a sailing trip around the world in Rockville on Wednesday, October 30, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

As with any grand, long-term project, the best laid plans often are subverted. Soon after Bjur and Brower decided to embark on this journey, something muddied the waters a little. Bjur met a girl. His relationship with Joanna Harrison quickly blossomed and J. Henry suddenly had competition.

Initially, the couple figured, well, OK, so this will be casual, no big deal, it can’t last with that big trip looming on the horizon. But love doesn’t work that way. Like the ocean zephyrs, it changes direction, surprises you, forces you to trim your sails and head up.

Bjur and Harrison hit it off.

But he has decided to stick with the plan, mostly. And she has decided to find a few opportunities to hop on an airplane and meet Bjur abroad, the first time in Tahiti, then maybe in Bali, followed by South Africa.

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Zach Bjur and Joanna Harrison will be separated for 18 months while Zach sails around the world. Harrison expects to meet him in three places along the way. Joanna Harrison/Provided

“You’ve got to be flexible,” she said.

Sailors know that’s true. Your itinerary and your relationships always are affected by conditions. Sailing is about sailing first, and everything else second. If you hope to enjoy a vacation in an exotic seaside locale and travel there by boat, be prepared for X-factors and altered courses.

Harrison works at Boomtown in the marketing department, and she plans to double down on the job in search of useful distractions, she said.

“I’m trying to look at this 18 months (of separation) as an opportunity to focus on my own goals, to use the time to my advantage, to stay married to the job for a little bit,” Harrison said.

And she plans to use her marketing skills to promote the sail. She will stay in touch, texting and emailing Bjur and writing a few old-fashioned letters. As someone passionate about the outdoors and intrigued by the scientific mind, she understands well how people might become obsessed with sailing, she said.

“I’m excited to get the word out, to operate as the boots on the ground,” Harrison said. “It’s such a cool thing to be happening, especially in Charleston.”

Fourth: Set sail

Early in the process, Brower and Bjur worked up a budget. Since then, they have been soliciting sponsors to help defray costs, branding their adventure “Apparent Winds,” building a website that provides information about the project and a way for people to contribute funds and track their progress around the world.

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Tripp Brower talks with filmmaker Grey Gowder about plans to film J. Henry's departure from Charleston. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Brower has passed the torch of the Lowcountry Maritime Society to Sam Gervais, who is working with 165 students on boat-building projects this fall. Bjur is trading oysters for coral reefs, giant clams, nurse sharks and other marine species in need of protection.

They’ve consulted Jimmy Cornell’s “World Cruising Routes” and determined an itinerary (subject to change, of course; this is sailing).

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No long-term sailing adventure would be complete with a collection of books to read. These are among the volumes Tripp Brower and Zach Bjur are taking along. Lauren Petracca/Staff

They will head first to Bermuda and then the Caribbean, maneuver through the Panama Canal, then bear west across the Pacific to French Polynesia, arriving there in March 2020. After that, they plan to visit New Zealand and Australia, make a few stops in Indonesia, then head across the Indian Ocean to Africa. After stops in South Africa, they will round the Cape of Good Hope and head north in the Atlantic Ocean, eventually making their way to the Mediterranean Sea.

From there, they will finish their adventure by crossing the Atlantic and returning to Charleston.

A flotilla of boats will accompany them offshore on Nov. 2 to wish them fair winds and following seas. Two years from now, it’s likely that a bigger flotilla will welcome them home.

And regret will be left in their wake.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.