“When you’re isolated in the ocean, there’s no place to hide,” he reflects.
The veteran boat captain and his fledgling young crew had been on a steep learning curve to complete the 5,000-mile trek from San Diego.
Sears guided his four proteges through offshore lightning storms, negotiated the Panama canal, and “found a needle in the haystack” to pilot into Manhattan despite treacherous fog.
“They have learned what only sailing can accomplish, which is better than anything I’ve ever encountered in my life — sailing has the ability to convert fear into confidence and to create a sense of self-reliance that’s kind of absent today.
“Kids today, they go to their cellphones every time there’s a problem, but when you’re out there in the middle of the ocean and a gale comes, you’re in it and you have to make it happen so you can safely return to port. And these kids did it with us.”
Sears is the owner/operator of the 139-foot schooner America — a replica of the boat that won the first America’s Cup in 1851.
In April, it began a voyage that will conclude in Bermuda mid-2017, when the 35th edition of the oldest international sporting contest takes place.
Sears has more than 8,000 hours on the water under his belt, having started sailing as a nine-year-old after buying his first yacht with money earned from delivering newspapers. However, the four “kids” — as he calls them — had never gone offshore before this adventure.
“They’re doing such a fantastic job, and they have developed so much courage out there,” he says.
“They all come from such different walks of life, and yet on the boat we’re just one big family.”
Chris Childers is the most experienced of the quartet. He teaches sailing in San Francisco, having overcome a car accident which resulted in his left leg being amputated below the knee.
“He doesn’t let that affect anything he does on the boat or his state of mind,” Sears says.
“He’s taken a challenge and said, ‘I’m going to move on in life and keep on going,’ and that’s also really inspiring.”
A New Jersey native, Childers was delighted when America dropped anchor in Manhattan for May’s leg of the Louis Vuitton World Series — the first time an America’s Cup event had been held in New York since 1920.
“One thing I always tell my students out in California is that seeing your home from a different perspective is incredibly powerful, liberating and brings a whole new light to what you’re living and doing,” he tells CNN.
“Seeing New York from this perspective is one that I haven’t before, so it was really, really neat.”
Coming into the fog-shrouded harbor at 6.30 a.m. was also a new experience for Brie Busey, who grew up over 4,000 miles away in Anchorage, Alaska and had never before visited the Big Apple.
“I walked out on deck and saw the Statue of Liberty, so that was a pretty amazing entrance,” she recalls. “Wow, just wow.”
“Brie has the most amount of courage on the boat of any of us, and I’m constantly having to remind her to tone it down,” Sears adds. “She’s by far the strongest person on the boat. She has the strongest personality and the most confidence.”
If Busey is providing the bravado, then Tasha Ellis keeps the crew’s spirits buoyant.
“I hired her exclusively because she has an infectious smile and laughter, and that’s so important to have,” Sears says.
“She’s responsible for attitude on the boat, and the more her personality can rub off on us, the better people we’ll be.”
When bad weather struck during the 5,000-mile journey from San Diego to New York, even Ellis’ enthusiasm was put to the test.
“The storms are the craziest part. First we saw small waves crashing onto the boat, then it started going crazy — it was like the elements were out to get us!” she says.
“It was really hot, then a couple of days later it was freezing, then raining and lightning. We cuddle, we sit in the cockpit and hold each other and hope the lightning will go away.
“I tell a lot of jokes — I have a lot of sea puns that just come to mind. So it probably makes people a bit annoyed, but they’re laughing so it’s okay.”
After the lightning — “It was an incredible light show, it lasted for hours … like I’ve never seen before,” says Sears — came a fierce gale initially undetected by the weather forecasters, then dense fog in the Ambrose Channel threatened to scupper their deadline for arriving in Manhattan.
“It really made me pause,” Sears reflects. “The original captain of America in 1851 was a pilot from New York Harbor, and it just showed what an incredible job they did in the mid-19th century dealing with the conditions out there.
“It’s incredible they did it at all — no GPS, nothing that would tell them where to go. And here we are in the middle of fog where you can’t even see the bow of the boat in the middle of the night …”
‘Sweet, sweet relief’
For Cragan Smith, the adventure has been a big step up from sailing dinghies at college and high school. Before this, she had been working in a coffee shop.
“Being on the ocean is awesome,” she says. “I’ve never sailed on big boats before, so that’s my favorite part — learning.”
Sears believes Smith, the daughter of a navy sailor now stationed in Washington D.C., has “grown the most” of the quartet.
“She had a lot of fear earlier but every day you can see how much she’s growing in confidence as a person,” he says.
Smith describes arriving in New York as “sweet, sweet relief” after barely sleeping the previous 48 hours.
Though the conditions have at times been dangerous, the seasoned Sears has experienced backup on board in the form of Mark Stevenson — a former US Naval Academy graduate who flew jets on an aircraft carrier before studying for a PhD in physics and returning to navy work.
“If anything breaks on the boat, he can understand how to fix it, and that’s a very valuable skill to have out in the middle of the ocean,” he says of the San Diego native.
Stevenson adds: “There’s a sense of fulfillment, accomplishment, a sense of how men felt a thousand years ago when you do this kind of thing and bring a boat across the ocean.
“Most of it is just work — you’re trying to do a job and do it safely.”
Sailing is just one part of the adventure — the overall goal is to promote awareness of Bermuda 2017 as an official ambassador for the America’s Cup.
Every time they call into port, the crew gives guided tours on the boat, and Sears takes the opportunity to explain the contest’s history.
“It is a tremendous privilege to take individuals who’ve never been on a sailboat and expose them to sailing,” he says.
“Sailing is not that common in the United States right now. I find they enjoy hearing where the America’s Cup intersects with history.”
The original America was built to showcase US naval architecture at the first World’s Fair in London, Sears says, at a time when relations with the UK were strained — the White House was burned down by British troops in 1814.
The first series was held around the Isle of Wight, with America beating 15 entries from the host nation.
“Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came on board very publicly to congratulate the crew and make sure the press was there and reported it,” Sears says.
“That was seen as a catalyst of improving relationships between England and the United States.”
After leaving New York, America began the next leg of its mission up and down the East Coast seaboard.
Arriving at Rhode Island, they took part in the historic Newport to Bermuda race, which began in 1906.
“We are all very excited to return next year for the next edition of the Cup. It’s going to be a really incredible venue.”
For Sears, this is another chapter in his love affair with the America’s Cup. The idea for this tour came when he was with Oracle Team USA for its first title win in Valencia, Spain, in 2010.
Instead, he will be watching the races from the island that succeeded in the bidding war — but that won’t detract from his sense of achievement in guiding his young crew to its end goal.
“It’s not just that we made the journey, but how we made the journey,” Sears concludes.