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One case where youth isn't wasted on the young

It’s not every day that I get a visit from an author, especially one who doesn’t celebrate his 17th birthday until August. But Alex Ellison is not your typical young writer — and given the five years he spent voyaging and living out of the country with his family, he’s probably not your typical teen, either, at least not in terms of life experience.

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For a young man, Ellison has put some water beneath his keel, both literally (25,000 nautical miles) and metaphorically. Ellison was just 8 in 2003 when he, his parents and his younger sister stepped aboard Promise, a Beneteau 473, on what was to have been a yearlong sabbatical from their home in Essex, Conn.

“But we all realized it was too good to give up,” says Ellison, who this fall enters his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, a private high school in New Hampshire. The 12-month hiatus turned into a five-year adventure broken roughly into three stages: 18 months cruising the Caribbean, three years living on the island of Nevis and 6 months crossing the Pacific.
The result of those years is the memoir “A Star to Sail Her By,” which Ellison wrote from detailed journals he kept daily while under way. (The book is available online through Barnes & Noble at (
Ellison’s parents are physicians who at one time or another have “lived off the beaten path,” according to the book’s preface, which was written by Marybeth Ellison, Alex’s mother. His father, Lee, was a Peace Corps doctor in Malawi for two years, and Marybeth worked for the National Institutes of Health in Ghana.
Marybeth writes that when she and Lee had children “we vowed to try and help them live differently, to help provide them with a unique and balanced perspective. We wanted them to see the tapestry of humanity in all its varied hues and become citizens of the world.”
I believe they succeeded. The young man who sat in my office was poised, thoughtful and well-spoken. He was reflective and told his stories without a trace of youthful braggadocio.
“One of the biggest things I learned,” the young sailor told me, “was resourcefulness.” And he describes that quality as ranging from conserving food, water and electricity to coming up with a fix for a leaky fuel line deep in the Pacific with a tropical storm bearing down on Promise and a real need to get the engine working. “I think we came up with a solution involving Teflon tape,” he recalls.
The details of the repair aren’t as important as the process. After all, Ellison was only 12 or 13 when the incident took place. The bigger lesson — and part of the lens through which he views life today — involves his approach to problem-solving. “I learned how to look at a problem,” Ellison says, “figure out what’s wrong and come up with a solution based on what we had to work with, which in our case wasn’t much.” That’s maturity.
He also learned to deal with disappointment, to understand that goals are like distant waypoints. Plenty can happen during the weeks, months and years. Reality intercedes. Dreams are modified. Course corrections are made. “You learn how to cope,” he says. “It teaches you to stay levelheaded. You really learn to work together as a team. Not getting along was not an option.”
We all know that it’s normal for the young to feel invincible. We felt that way once, too. It’s one of the fleeting trappings of youth. “I’m probably the exception,” Ellison says, and with good reason. The young sailor contracted a serious bacterial infection — leptospirosis — through a cut on his foot while swimming in a waterfall pool in Grenada. Ten at the time, he had to be medevaced to the United States for treatment.
“I would have died had I not come back to this country,” Ellison says.
“There is a certain fragility to life,” he continues, “but I also learned that the human mind and body can endure a lot.”
The young author says that when he gets to college he might major in writing, perhaps in some combination with math, physics and computer science. You guessed it: He enjoys programming.
And although his family does not now own a boat, Ellison vows that his days under sail are just beginning. “I have every intention of having my first house be a boat,” he says. “It had quite an impact on my life.”

"A tourist remains an outsider throughout his visit, but a sailor is part of the local scene from the moment he arrives." - Ann Davison

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.