Live Like Alex

News of the untimely passing of Alex Rust in May left us shocked and saddened. We met Alex in 2010, when he was crossing the Pacific on his boat Bubbles. Alex’s zest for life stood out among cruisers, a crowd generally notable for their joie de vivre. It made his death at 28 seem all the more cruel, and reminds us to embrace living every day to the fullest, and to remember and the bubbles in our wake- to never take any one, or any place, for granted.

Jamie and I co-author the monthly cruising column at 48° North, a Pacific Northwest regional boating magazine. Our July 2013 article highlights a people who made lasting impressions on our family. Two have been covered recently on the blog, but it is Alex who inspired us to gather them together: this is dedicated to his memory.

Our article is below, but if you’re a sailor, you’ll probably enjoy getting the full edition of 48° North – available free online from their website. It has interesting content for all boaters, regardless of where you sail.

Thanks to Molly Smith for her photo of Alex

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Watching Bubbles

After more than 3 years, Totem recently returned to the northern hemisphere, crossing the equator for the sixth time. It’s possible that four of our crossings were two minutes of serpentine silliness that got the kids giggling. Pointing northward again, we settled into another slow day of motoring through latte colored water along the west coast of Borneo. The water surface was so slick from lack of wind that we watched bubbles shimmering in our wake fade from sight, but not from memory.

Like bubbles, on Totem we are buoyed by sea and bounded by sky; living simply and transparently in someone else’s space. Exposing ourselves as we do, that is to say drifting in to anchor by a village that doesn’t get visitors or embracing cruiser camaraderie with people that we share little in common with; we’ve met enough intriguing characters to make a novelist envious. The curse is that these encounters are too brief, and often only after we’ve moved on do we recognize their significance. We are changed by displays of tradition and pride, surprising generosity, and a zany lust for life; and all it takes is noticing bubbles passing by.

Mohamed Salim

Mohamed Salim is famous in his village. He seemed like every other fisherman passing by, trolling in the “no take” area of the protected islands along the northwestern edge of Bali, Indonesia. After a half dozen passes by Totem as the sunset colors peaked, we waved him over to ease his apparent curiosity. With a single stoic nod he pulled alongside and tied-up, his every movement deliberate, revealing more than mere skill. He had pride.

This was Mohamed Salim’s last night of a fishing vacation before returning to life as a small barge captain transporting cows between islands stretching from Java to Timor, 700 miles eastward. We listened to each other’s story and not once did he look directly at us, but stoically toward the sea. Moments of silence passed without awkwardness. As stars emerged through fading light, our visitor asked us about navigation. After hearing our answer, he began to speak of his navigation, traditional navigation. He was taught by his father, who learned from his father. He told of finding his way only by sun, stars, clouds, wave patterns, and birds. I asked him what the tide and current would be like in the morning and he looked up to the waning gibbous moon, and read it like a book. We were so captivated by this compassless navigator that as we watched him pull away, a silhouette in darkness, we had forgotten to ask why he is famous in his village. Looking up to the stars, I think maybe we already know.

Budi Wiratno

Budi Wiratno, with close cropped hair and impressive uniform under blazing equatorial sun, is a career Navy man. Indonesia is filled with people in uniform: government employees, police, and military everywhere, so after six months we’ve grown accustomed to omnipresent officialdom, bureaucracy on display. So, upon reaching our final destination in Indonesia to officially check out on our way to Malaysia, we expected more of the same. As if on cue, an 18’ speedboat filled with uniformed men approached. In this modest Navy boat though, was Budi Wiratno, captain and first rate human.

After a few minutes, Budi understood what we wanted to do and offered to bring us five miles upriver in his boat. Unknown to us at the time, it was a holiday and all government offices were closed, but Budi made a few phone calls and the office was open and ready for us. The forms, signatures, and stamps of bureaucracy went surprisingly fast; the only hiccups being a power outage that prevented photocopying of forms and a port official insisting on an extra 500,000 Rupiah ($50) because it was after hours. He wanted a bribe, but Budi spoke up saying that his office is always open – the point was dropped.

The next morning we invited Budi and his colleagues to Totem for home fresh made cinnamon buns to thank them for the help. When they arrived, eight stuffed sacks were carried up to Totem. Puzzled, we asked, “apa ini” (what’s this)? Budi had thought that we couldn’t possibly have enough food onboard, so he went shopping. In total, they delivered to us 50 pounds of beautiful, fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish – perhaps a week’s wages worth. Refusing anything in return, Captain Budi showed us unforgettable kindness, because as he put it, “we are all brothers of the sea.”

Alex Rust

Alex Rust is the type of sailor that you hear about well before meeting. When we crossed the Pacific in 2010, stories about Alex and his ever changing crew of twenty-something crazies, floated around the anchorages of French Polynesia. They went something like: Did you hear about that guy named Alex from the American boat that got kicked out of the Galapagos because he killed and ate a lizard? Yeah, and I heard that he killed a feral goat here (in Nuku Hiva) to cook on the beach for a big party tonight. These stories seemed too weird to be true. What kind of jerk sails around the oceans looking to party by killing and eating local fauna? In hindsight, what he did was no different than me spearfishing to get fish for a beach barbeque, but at the time it seemed grotesque.

We never really met Alex, though we shared anchorages here and there; and I was once abruptly hoisted atop bar stool by Alex to better read a roast I’d written for a friend’s birthday. So Alex was real and liked fun, but seemed altogether more tangible than the stories about him, that is, until Bastille Day (French Independence Day) in Bora Bora.

The atmosphere was festive with a parade followed by traditional dance and competitions. We cruisers were invited to parade dressed a pirates. Our role was like a bad cliché, but we gathered nonetheless as old pirates, young pirates, and so many wenches; King Neptune even made an appearance.  When the parade finished, the competitions began when the President of French Polynesia took his seat in the dignitary section, as far from pirates as possible.

Thanks to Robert Budd for this photo

Being very hot and embracing the pirate theme, our mob was distracted from the organized games; but focus shifted (by the women at first) when a bunch of buff Polynesian men began preparing nearby for competition. This was to be a running race with each man carrying two huge stalks of bananas fixed to a pole and balanced over one shoulder. With a bang the banana runners were off. Out of nowhere appeared a pirate running hard and waving the skull and crossbones flag atop a 10’ pole. The reaction is hard to describe except to say that I’ve never seen anything the spontaneous fits of laughter that erupted -howling laughter and people falling on the ground saying, “Oh my God, Alex!”

Alex kept pace with the runners until reaching the far side of the track, where he stopped abruptly in front of Monsieur President. Stunned, we thought, oh no, what is he doing? Clearly winded, Alex stepped up to the President’s seat and pulled out… a bottle of rum, and a shot glass. As he poured a shot of rum, we felt squeamish and awkward, it was too much. Yet without hesitation the President downed the shot, followed by Alex as if they were old drinking buddies. Then with a nod, Alex hoisted the pirate flag again and finished the race.

As Alex sailed further west, his adventures carried on: rivers in Papua New Guinea, reefs in the Philippines, and across the Indian Ocean with one zany story after another. Last year he completed his circumnavigation, literally getting towed the last mile because his propeller had fallen off. It wasn’t done in Bristol fashion, but it was real, it pushed the limits, and it was imbued with his wacky, unexpected manner that brought people together in a genuine and positive way.

Thanks to Reed Whiting for use of his photo

A few days ago we learned that Alex took to a new journey. He traveled to India to work in an orphanage -where his story abruptly ends, as he succumbed to Typhoid and died at the age of 28. Alex shared his world, his way, on a sailboat named Bubbles.

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We find it hard to stop thinking about Alex. He had the brand of optimistic enthusiasm (relived on a Facebook memorial page- Live Like Alex) that the world could use a whole lot more of! If he made us slightly uncomfortable on occasion, it was impossible not to be caught up in his exuberance – for it was all about lifting people up. Don’t let this paint a one-sided image of the man, though. His crew members remember him as a patient and gentle captain. You simply cannot do what he did without being a good leader with a dose of grace, seamanship, and a sprinkling of good fortune. The blog that he (and the occasional crew) kept up for Bubbles is on Sailblogs. The understated adventures make for some of the best cruising reading around. 
Alex’s family has set up a memorial fund: according to the obituary, contributions to the fund will go to support an orphanage in the northern India – the work he was planning to begin when he died. There’s a merchandise site for t-shirts and bracelets, and I’m told the proceeds from this venture are all intended for the fund as well.
From Alex’s Facebook photos; taken at La Reunion, 2011

6 Responses

  1. Very TOUCHING and BEAUTIFUL story Behan, hope to meet those kind of people too… thanks for sharing this at least give us hope somewhere out there, there are people just like my sister who past away 2 years ago, that i thought no other can do what she did. An open arm even not ask to help but always there to give help to people who was in need and she know somehow to help you by physical, financial, or moral support that touch every person who know her or just meet her once.Just amazing and inspire me so much! Thanks again for this BEAUTIFUL blog and GOD bless you and your family always.

  2. Such a sad story, but what a great life he lived in such a short time. Alex is a true inspiration … we could all learn from him! Thanks for sharing his life … we had never heard of him!

  3. I cant believe incredible Alex is dead!
    I ve had the pleasure of running into him in Tahiti where we ve had some mad parties.
    In one occasion we stripped down to undies and climbed up a little waterfall in Morea. We took our time and followed the fall, crossing pools and little rapids until we eventually reached the spring where the water came straight out of a huge steep cliff.
    There we rested our chins on a rock and let the water run straight into our bellies…
    What we should adopt from his lifestyle is the lust for adventure and fun.
    Love not fear

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