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Solo sailor with a special message

With a new heart and kidney, Ardell Lein becomes the first transplant recipient to circumnavigate

With a new heart and kidney, Ardell Lein becomes the first transplant recipient to circumnavigate

Ardell Lein was used to the daily visit by Australian military helicopters as he sailed the coastal waters from Darwin toward the Indian Ocean during his recent circumnavigation. Knowing they would be asking for his identification, Lein didn’t wait for their call one day but radioed the name of his 27-foot sloop, Catalyst.

He was a busy man on a tight schedule. At age 71, he didn’t want to be at sea and away from his family forever. To his surprise, the chopper called back and told him to wait. They were trying to reach another boat, Peter Pan, which was a few miles behind him. Curious, he arranged a rendezvous with Peter Pan’s skipper.

“I thought I was the oldest dude [in the area] sailing the smallest boat,” Lein recalls. “He’s a 76-year-old Swede sailing a 20-foot plywood canoe — two free-standing masts with a 2-hp outboard.”

But Lein had his new friend, Nils, beat in one category. When he finished his 17-month, 12-day circumnavigation Oct. 19, Lein was the first heart and kidney transplant recipient to accomplish the feat. He had done more: The voyage, with stops around the globe, had drawn worldwide attention to the need for organ donations. And when it ended in San Diego, where it had begun, there was a huge media reception. That was Lein’s goal from the start.

Following his successful transplant surgery Jan. 2, 2003, Lein had volunteered to visit patients waiting in hospitals for transplants. “Then I started thinking maybe I could do something on a big scale and draw some national attention,” he says. He settled on a solo circumnavigation in a small boat. Just a few years before, however, neither a solo circumnavigation nor the acquisition of someone else’s organs had crossed Lein’s mind, he says.

Born in Minnesota in a “city” of 3,000, Lein married his wife, Maureen, a “farm girl”, 44 years ago. He spent 25 years in the army, working in intelligence. Then he and Maureen became real estate agents near Tacoma, Wash. Over the years, they had a series of powerboats, using them for sport fishing on the Pacific and occasionally for commercial fishing, he says. When they retired in the early 1990s, they switched to sail, buying a 40-foot locally built cruising boat. They moved aboard, cruised to Alaska the first year (1991) and then spent five years cruising Mexico, Lein says. But at about the time their cruising began, Lein was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

“It’s a progressive disease,” he explains. “The end result is not in question. It’s going to eventually kill you.” In the process of that slow death, he says, the kidneys are starved of blood and begin to deteriorate.

Lein was deep into his own demise but still aboard his boat, Moonshadow, when his sister made an urgent suggestion. “[She] insisted that I stop going to the Veterans Administration, where they were going to let me die, and go to the Mayo Clinic [in Minnesota], where they are going to give me a transplant,” he says. It was 1998. The Leins took the boat to San Diego, where they sold it quickly, and then went home to Minnesota.

Lein’s first appointment at the Mayo Clinic was in July 2002. Doctors said they could give him a heart, but they said he also should get a kidney transplant. If he took a kidney from the heart donor, the two operations could be done at once. If he waited for a kidney until his was failing, they told him, his wait for a replacement would be four years.

By October his health had deteriorated significantly, and he was admitted to await transplant. While they waited for his new organs, Lein and his wife saw other patients they had come to know die before a transplant was available. “I never expected him to leave the hospital,” says Maureen, noting that doctors felt her husband was two weeks away from death. “Maybe 13 percent of the people get a heart, of all the people on the waiting list.”

On Jan. 1, 2003, the doctors had a heart and kidney, and Lein was rushed to the operating room. The operation went well, says Lein. “The recovery was very, very fast,” he says.

For several years, a symptom of Lein’s heart condition had been cold hands. In the recovery room, Maureen slipped her hands under the sheets to hold her husband’s hand and told him his hand was warm. “The longest thing was to regain the strength you had before,” he says. “Within a week they put you on an exercise program. By the time I roofed my house five months later I was pretty well-off.”

Then Lein, with the heart and kidney of a 22-year-old man who had been killed in a New Year’s Eve accident, began paying back by visiting patients and giving them hope. The idea of the circumnavigation took hold over the next two years, and he began searching for the right boat. To draw the most attention, he says, he wanted a small boat with no crew. He found a 25-year-old Lyle Hess-designed Nor’Sea 27 on the Internet, for sale by the owner. “I wanted small and I wanted strong, and the Nor’Sea is both,” he says.

He bought the boat April 1, 2005, and set sail May 7. His route — financed entirely by the Leins but promoted by Lifesharing ( ), a San Diego non-profit that promotes organ donations — took him to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands and Darwin, Australia. Then he sailed to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, meeting Nils the Swede (who would not give his last name) along the way. Keeping his own pace, he sailed on alone to Mauritius, then to La Reunion and on to Durban, on the east coast of South Africa. “That’s where I left my boat for a while,” he says. The three-month hiatus included a trip home to Minnesota for Christmas and a visit with his Mayo Clinic doctors. In Durban, he says, “I got to have lunch with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston,” the legendary solo sailor who at 67 is sailing in the Velux 5 Oceans race.

He made the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in four legs, then sailed on to St. Helena — “great people, great stop” — Ascension Island, Brazil, Trinidad, the Panama Canal, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii, the longest leg of the voyage at 43 days. The last leg brought him back to San Diego, where Catalyst — he wanted to rename the boat Gift of Life but Maureen was superstitious — was escorted to shore by a helicopter, and Lein, accompanied by several doctors from the clinic, spent several hours giving interviews.

A couple of Lein’s doctors are lobbying to have Catalyst, still coated in salt from the voyage, displayed inside the hospital entrance. That wouldn’t change the circumnavigator’s plans, because he says he is finished with sailing. But he is not done with promoting organ donations.

“I would like to have a booth at some of the major boat shows around the country. Maybe Lifesharing could give me a hand with this,” he says. “That’s ideally what I’d like to do.”

“I guess he got this heart for a reason,” Maureen says, “and I guess that’s what he feels.”

As for boating, Lein says, “I think I’ll be limited to a 12-foot bass boat.”