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Couple's eight-year sail around the world ends in Hudson

Henry and Mattie McAlarney are still unloading the 2 Extreme, which they keep in Tarpon Springs. The couple left Key West in 2001 and sailed around the world, surviving the tsunami of 2004, encountering pirates off Tanzania and meeting African tribesmen who lived in twig huts and had cell phones.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Henry and Mattie McAlarney are still unloading the 2 Extreme, which they keep in Tarpon Springs. The couple left Key West in 2001 and sailed around the world, surviving the tsunami of 2004, encountering pirates off Tanzania and meeting African tribesmen who lived in twig huts and had cell phones.

Christmas 2004 found Henry and Mattie McAlarney in paradise, surrounded by clear blue water and new friends who shared their same sense of adventure.

They partied in Langkawi, an archipelago off the coast of Malaysia. Life was good, and they couldn't be happier about the decision they made a few years earlier to live aboard a 39-foot sailboat and travel around the world.

When they awoke Dec. 26, the first order of business would be to replenish the beer supply.

As it turned out, that might have saved their lives.

Merchants in Langkawi got moving slowly in the morning. Stores didn't open until 9 a.m., so the McAlarneys delayed their planned sail to the marina on the other side of the island.

Three minutes after loading 20 cases of Tiger beer and pulling anchor, they heard a distress over the radio. The marina had just been destroyed by a tidal wave.

Henry dropped sail and cast out the anchor on 16 feet of rope, which quivered like a guitar string. The tide rose 10 feet within seconds, and the McAlarneys feared it would swallow their boat.

In an instant, their paradise became ground zero in one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

• • •

Henry and Mattie met in 2001 while working in an office at the state Department of Corrections in Fort Lauderdale. He was 50, a former shop teacher from Brooklyn who had worked a series of odd jobs in Florida since the 1970s. He was divorced and had two children. Mattie, 60, was a widow with two children. She once owned a childcare center in Louisiana.

She had married at 17 and had always been occupied with work and raising children. But in the back of her mind, she said, there was always this dream of living on a boat.

Henry read boating magazines, filled with stories of sailing around the world. "Why not me?" he wondered.

Their common dream brought them together.

"Sometimes,'' Mattie said, "things just click.''

They had two dates. Then on Oct. 6, 2001, they married. A month later, they left Key West aboard the 2 Extreme. They sailed through the Panama Canal on April 6, 2002 not knowing what to expect day to day, but happy to be on an adventure and an extended honeymoon. It would end in May 2009.

• • •

Mattie had never sailed before she got married. There would be moments that she would regret her decision — when they were battered by gales in the Atlantic, when she was in the men's ward of a Maldives hospital with a kidney infection, when they were awoken by pirates off the coast of Tanzania, or when they were arrested at gunpoint in Eritrea.

Henry's father taught him to sail as a boy growing up in Brooklyn, and as a teenager he drove 300 miles to race boats. He knew all about boats, but that doesn't mean he knew what to expect.

How could he have imagined tracking an elephant on a safari or racing down rapids in a bamboo boat? They danced with the natives in Vanuatu and haggled for a weather jacket in the labyrinthine suq of Casablanca. They swam with sting rays and humpback whales, ran with lions and cheetahs. They peered over the rim of a volcano.

They met African tribesman in twig huts who unexpectedly pulled ringing cell phones from their robes. They met a technician in Mombassa, Kenya, who fixed the motherboard of McAlarney's laptop. They met people who had never seen blond hair and were eager to touch Mattie's.

"The thing about a continuous trip without a break is that sometimes you really have to stop and take stock and say, 'I'm standing in the middle of the Serengeti,'?" Mattie said. "You take your adventure for granted and have to stop and shake yourself and say, 'I never thought I'd be here.'?"

• • •

Most memories bring them smiles. But they could never forget that Christmas season in 2004.

For the first couple of days after the tsunami, the McAlarneys heard reports speculating about another tidal wave. They stayed put.

Henry put out the anchor, snorkeling around it afterward, as he always did to make sure everything was secure. But this time he saw the bottom of the ocean littered with paperback books, beach umbrellas, dishes and picture frames.

"It could have been me," he thought.

After a week, they sailed around to visit the marinas that had been wiped out on the other side, and to check on their friends who were there. "Everything was everywhere," Henry recalled. Debris littered the beaches; people sorted through it, trying to piece their lives back together.

The tsunami claimed 225,000 lives in 11 countries.

The McAlarneys volunteered for two months with relief efforts, loading food onto ferries and sorting supplies.

Then they moved on, frustrated by waste and inefficiencies of uncoordinated and disorganized relief efforts. They were exhausted of daily interactions with devastation.

• ••

When the newlyweds set out to cruise around the world, they said that if they found a place they liked enough along the way, they would settle down.

There was certainly no shortage of options as they passed through 70 countries over eight years. There was Odessa, Ukraine, which McAlarney says is the most beautiful city in the world. There was Malaysia, where they spent a year, and Turkey, where they spent another. And there were six months in New Zealand, where McAlarney got all the immigration papers and said he wanted to stop, but Mattie didn't take him seriously and never filled them out.

Three weeks ago, they finally settled down — in Hudson. They had a house there, and they both have family in the area.

Their boat is docked in Tarpon Springs, and they are gradually moving their global collection of artifacts and souvenirs into their house. Still aboard are pots Mattie used to cook, the freezer in which they stored three months' worth of meat, the guidebooks and nautical charts they read, the hand-painted sheets of dried elephant dung they bought in Thailand, and the laptop computer they used to navigate, read and send e-mails, and store some 6,000 digital photographs they took.

Already, they are restless.

Henry says he'd like to see Yellowstone.

"I want to see Alaska, and the Grand Canyon, and the Redwood Forest," he said. "I want to drive on the highway along the Pacific coast, to see the whole thing."

They're eager to set sail, but this time the mode of transportation will be different, if every bit as cramped.

They're looking at RVs.

Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at iarnsdorf@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6232.

Couple's eight-year sail around the world ends in Hudson 06/12/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 14, 2009 7:44am]

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