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From This Day: Couple find safe harbor, at last

ST. PETERSBURG

Lisa Benson noticed the ship's officer even before she shepherded two tots aboard the Sorcha. He certainly wasn't around the last time, she thought, when they cruised the Galapagos.

She was there as nanny to the two children of guests on the boat. Calum Woolner, she learned when he lent a hand with the kids, had joined the crew of the 152-foot yacht in Tonga, near the end of a two-year, 52,000-mile Pacific adventure.

"He was cute," she said, recalling their meeting in March 2007 in Surfers Paradise, Australia. "But I never expected to see him again."

Certainly not standing outside the Independent, a downtown St. Petersburg bar, six months later. She gave him a lift back to the marina where the Sorcha was berthed. He was thrilled to see her again.

Over tapas and sangria, she learned that the burly Brit grew up near Blackpool. Upon graduating from the University of Leeds, he trekked most of Asia. Since then, shipboard work had taken him throughout the south and north Pacific Rim.

Benson, now 29, drank in his travelogue and photographs. Woolner admired the free spirit and open mind of the Shorecrest Prep and Auburn University graduate, daughter of Keith and Dr. Beth Benson of St. Petersburg. Her mother is an ob-gyn, her father a retired pilot.

Woolner settled into life as a local. Benson embarked on two more degrees, a bachelor's and a master's in social work at the University of South Florida.

In January 2009 he had chosen a dramatic backdrop for a proposal: a mighty glacier in Whistler, British Columbia, during a ski trip. Instead, the ring remained in his pocket while an emergency room doctor sewed 18 stitches into his foot.

"I jumped out of a hot tub straight onto a glass," he said. Keeping her from finding the ring when she searched for his insurance card worried him more than the pain. At dinner, he maneuvered from crutches to one knee. Not at all the grand gesture he had planned.

They set the wedding date: March 13, 2010, three years to the day they met on the Sorcha. No one predicted rough seas ahead. Two words, pronounced upon their return from a holiday in London and a romantic Bastille Day in Paris, changed everything:

Entry denied.

But for a customs agent, landing at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in July 2009 would have just added another entry stamp to Woolner's crowded passport. "He said I had the wrong visa, that I needed the one for cruise ship crew,'' Woolner said. It got worse when he tried to explain the error. "He ticked the box that banned me from the United States for five years.''

Woolner spent the night in a Dallas jail. Homeland Security escorted him onto a flight to Manchester, England, the next day. She returned to St. Petersburg, nearly hysterical.

In the next 16 months, they would spend 20 days together.

"Immigration is confusing by design," said Woolner, also 29. "It's a convenient gray area so they have the freedom to kick people out.'' His visa, issued to work in the private yacht industry, had never been questioned in dozens of transits.

Days turned into weeks. The couple met with immigration lawyers instead of wedding planners and spent thousands of dollars on legal fees instead of photography and flowers.

"We postponed the wedding, missed birthdays, graduations and family crises," she said. "Good or bad, it was really hard not to have that hug at the end of the day."

They gave thanks for the satellite technology that allowed them to see each other and talk every day. "Skype saved us,'' she said. When she put her laptop on the floor, their bulldog, Thatcher, joined the conversation.

The forecast was six months to a green card solution. Thinking perhaps the immigration gods would smile upon a husband rather than a fiance, they decided to move up the wedding.

With only his father, Ross Woolner, a retired dentist, and her parents present, they married in St. Lucia in September 2009. The newlyweds honeymooned at the beach before returning to their respective continents.

The groom found temporary work in ports around southern Europe. They celebrated Christmas and started 2010 together in Malta.

That spring, with resolution no closer, he joined the emir of Qatar's private fleet in the Seychelles. Now his wife added piracy to her worries as she juggled school and work on the home front.

The summons came from the U.S. Embassy in October 2010. He gave the emir a month's notice and flew back to London. She arrived to help him prep, the couple's third time together since the ordeal began.

At the meeting, officials never opened the thick folder. He received a temporary visa until a green card could be issued in Tampa. No apology on their part. No anger or malice on his. "I appreciate I'm here as a privilege, not a right," he said. "One guy caused the whole mess; the rest was just bureaucracy."

Mr. and Mrs. Woolner renewed their vows on March 26 at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort. The bride wore her mother's restyled Priscilla of Boston wedding gown; the groom wore the family tartan. They expect to cast off soon, to live and work in Fort Lauderdale.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

From This Day: Couple find safe harbor, at last 05/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 8:13am]

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