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Hope can sometimes beat an ailing heart

Risking death at sea, John Otterbacher and his family made a ‘life-giving’ passage across the Atlantic

Risking death at sea, John Otterbacher and his family made a ‘life-giving’ passage across the Atlantic

Some mariners venture to sea with inadequate vessels. The engine is old and suspect. The sails are thin as spider webs. The planking is rotting, and the bilge pumps don’t work.

John Otterbacher left Florida in 1999, sailing for Ireland aboard a well-found 50-foot cutter with his wife and two young daughters as crew. He cast off knowing he had a damaged heart that, months before, was a candidate for replacement. In truth, Otterbacher’s old pump, after several surgeries, didn’t work right and never would. But Otterbacher and his wife, Barbara Craft, of Grand Rapids, Mich., had a dream, and they set sail. The family made it to Ireland. The heart kept pumping. They spent the next four years crisscrossing the Atlantic on their boat, Grace.

The ticker kept beating.


 Otterbach wrote a book about his family's voyage aboard the 50-foot cutter and the positive effect it had on his damaged heart.

In a book that he self-published last year called “Sailing Grace” ($19.98, Samadhi Press) Otterbacher, a private-practice psychologist, unwinds an uncomfortably riveting tale of his affliction, of a disease that was taking him down toward his grave, and of an approach to living that buoyed him through a stormy passage and allowed his family to experience their dream.

“It became increasingly clear that the dream of going sailing was life-giving,” says Otterbacher’s friend, Barry Johnson, a bystander who witnessed the medical descent and the salvation of sailing. He says it became apparent that the “trip itself was life-giving.”

It was a “risk” going offshore with a husband who could die at sea, says Craft, an attorney. “But I’ll tell you, living two very demanding professional-career lives and trying to raise a family was so stressful that I felt we were all in a better place at sea than staying at home,” she says.

Otterbacher, 65, who claims more Irish ancestry than his surname suggests, says he inherited heart disease. “I had been running 20 years prior to these heart attacks, trying to insulate myself from a family history of cardiac problems,” he says. But in 1997, his friends saw his usually frenetic pace slowing and knew something was wrong.

“At that point, he had a full-time clinical practice,” says Otterbacher’s friend and sailing companion Dan Hendrickson. “John, on a good day, has lots of energy. He’s a dreamer. He’s always got new ideas for things he wants to do.”

The next dream was a trans-Atlantic sail with his family, but then Otterbacher’s pace slowed visibly, Hendrickson says. When he was finally admitted to a hospital, the plans were put on hold, as was his practice, Hendrickson says. “He couldn’t work. He couldn’t function.”

Otterbacher’s description of his illness in “Sailing Grace”

( ) is vivid, though not maudlin. There were surgical procedures — angioplasty, the insertion of stents, open-heart surgery — and medication. For a year, his consumption of nitroglycerine was an almost daily event.

“I have a damaged heart,” Otterbacher says. “Where everybody else has three arteries to their heart, I have two, and the one I don’t have is the one you can’t live without,” the left ventricle, which feeds the “pumping portion” of the heart.

In Otterbacher’s case, tiny blood vessels took over the work of the artery, delivering a not-always-adequate supply of blood to the left ventricle. The first signs of trouble arrived in 1997, as Otterbacher and Craft were plotting their escape on Grace, their second sailboat, a Bill Tripp-designed cutter.

The first boat, a C&C 40 they named Outrageous, was almost the first boat the psychologist had sailed. Johnson, a friend since 1970, had a daysailer. “I took John out on my sailboat as a part of his early exploring [of] sailing,” Johnson says. “He loved it instantly.”

Soon, Otterbacher, Craft and friends were sailing Outrageous on Lake Michigan in a make-or-break introduction to the sport. “We literally didn’t know how to sail,” says Hendrickson. “The first time we took it out, we entered it in a race … an across-Lake-Michigan race. Our sense was if we could get the boat out of the slip, we could figure out what to do when we got out there.”

Out on the water, the crew watched those on other boats and mimicked them. They made it across the broad lake to the finish line near Milwaukee, but they had to be towed to the dock because they had drained their batteries, Hendrickson says.

Otterbacher already had a dream of sailing across oceans — even before he had sailed with Johnson, he harbored a fantasy. “I’d been watching these coffee commercials on TV,” Otterbacher says. “Guy’s behind the wheel, fog is burning off. She comes up the companionway, has that look [of] ‘We had a great time last night,’ and she hands him a cup of coffee. That’s where the sailing thing came from, as well as I can understand.”

When they had sailed the Great Lakes for several years, Otterbacher, Craft, Hendrickson and Johnson hatched a plan. The three men took Outrageous to Norfolk, Va., and then crossed the Atlantic to Gibraltar. The crew then changed, with Craft; her infant daughter, Katie; and John Ryan, Otterbacher’s son from a previous marriage, replacing the two men. They cruised the Mediterranean and north coast of Africa until 1990, when Otterbacher single-handed across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. There, his family rejoined him for an extended winter cruise. The plan for another long voyage was brewed in the Erie Canal on the return to Michigan.

In 1999, still experiencing chest pains after his year of hospitalization and surgery, Otterbacher and his family — now missing Ryan, a college student, but including a new daughter, Erin — set sail on Grace. Some of their friends and family doubted their wisdom.

“It was clear to me that he needed to slow down seriously,” Craft says. “As we got away from the dock and further into our living-aboard experience, it was also apparent that he was doing better and better. We all were.”

Otterbacher says that even as a child he wanted to live his dreams. “In the classroom, on the playground, at family gatherings, when I heard the elders in the family talking about their lives, it just seemed to me sad that anybody should reef their sails to a degree they didn’t have to,” he says.

“When I saw people talk about things they hadn’t done or things they wished they had done, there was a part of me that always thought ‘Why not do it?’,” Otterbacher adds. “The answer always was there was some severe downside of trying to live your dreams. As I got older, it just seemed to me that you can look at dreams as some cruel game that the universe plays with us. It gives us the capacity to dream, but we have to be reasonable and not live those dreams. I don’t buy it.”

Otterbacher says that everyone who has read “Sailing Grace” assures him there are principles embedded in the book. If there are, he says, “one of them is that all of us deal with heavy weather. Nobody gets a pass on it.”

Now speaking to corporations and other groups about the themes of his book, Otterbacher says he tells them, “we shouldn’t let fear dictate our behavior. As we try to point out to the girls on an ongoing basis and our son, who is older, courage has nothing to do with a lack of fear.”

The key, he says is “not letting fear dictate your life.”