Bas Jan Ader: Missing at Sea, Missing at Home
I began mourning my husband from the time he first started talking about the charts he was using to map out his sail. I knew that he was going on a single-handed sail to somewhere. It hurt that I couldn’t go with him, that he wouldn’t be in our bed for some time, that he would be out of my life for some time. I would be without the complications of us, but there was no joy in that. This is when I was still sure he would come back to LA and that we would pick up our lives together in a matter of months.
He had already sailed from Morocco to California with the owner of a beautiful 70 year old 45 foot gaff-rigged wooden ketch under extremely difficult conditions, enduring everything but total shipwreck—a hurricane, two broken masts, a failed engine, no radio or navigation equipment. It was an amazing story that was verified by the US Navy when they towed the mastless ketch into the port of San Diego. It was on that voyage that Bas Jan learned dead reckoning with a sextant, compass, clock, and charts.
When he told me his plans, a wave of fear came over me. “No, my love, it’s too dangerous, I don’t want to lose you.” He laughed and took me in his arms, whispering, “No, Phoxx, you are stuck with me for the next 50 years, no ocean can get in the way.” He loved me and he loved the sea. The sea was my only competition. He trusted me and he trusted the ocean—it would never harm him. His confidence gave me hope, a little. As he began making preparations, I began to believe that he could make the sail.
Bas Jan had two goals. First, he wanted to set the record for the smallest sailboat ever to cross the Atlantic single-handed. Having done as much as he could with our limited funds to make his 12.5-foot sailboat seaworthy, he was ready to head east to begin his sail from Chatham, Massachusetts to Chatham, England. We drove across the country towing the boat by car. I was on Valium to keep my calm.
Bas Jan wanted to spend the night before he sailed just loving me; it was a very tender night, a beautiful way to come to peace before we said “see you soon.” Soon didn’t mean never.
The next day, my mother, our dog Lhoopie, the Chatham boat harbor owner and I were on a motorboat towing Bas Jan in the Ocean Wave out to sea (his boat had no motor). When we released him, the emotion I felt was more profound than I’d ever known. He was facing the sea, away from me. I yelled “I love yous” until I knew he could no longer hear me. No tears would come, I was in shock. I would cry my oceans later. That was in July, 1975. I waited for word of his arrival and safety. It never came.
Nearly a year after his departure, I got a call from Interpol asking if I was the wife of Bas Jan Ader. They found my address and phone number in his papers on the boat. They told me Ocean Wave had been found by a Spanish fishing trawler off the coast of Ireland. They went on to describe the boat and its contents. I numbly listened and asked for details. Was the boat in one piece, was it bow down, was there any evidence of a fire? Yes, the craft was bow down, the rigging was missing, and there was a big hole in the back wall of the cabin, the wall his safety line would have been attached to. There was no Bas Jan.
I went that summer to Holland and to Spain. Bas Jan’s brother Erik and I took a train to Madrid, where the Dutch Embassy told us that the boat had disappeared from the yard of the captain of the fishing vessel who had found it. Erik and I looked through the contents they brought out, consisting of some unopened food cans, some clothing items, a small variety of things including the sextant Bas Jan used for navigation, and a pair of sunglasses. We each chose a memento: Erik the sextant and me, the sunglasses.
On the long drives to and from the community college where I was teaching at the time, I listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and especially, the “Concerto for Two Violins.” I looked at the freeway walls and contemplated driving into one. I blamed God for everything—I especially blamed him for not bringing Bas Jan back home to me.
I’ve never stopped drawing and painting Bas Jan. I think every work of art I’ve made since then is about him.
Bas Jan’s second goal was to use the sail as the middle part of a work of art—a triptych performance called “In Search of the Miraculous,” in which he would photographically document his walks around LA, his sail, and his walks in Amsterdam.
They say mourning has an arc, that it is bad at first but then dissipates. That’s what the experts say, but they didn’t talk to me. There is not one day that Bas Jan, that blond man with the beautiful smile, doesn’t enter my mind. I still have vivid dreams of him coming through the door. He never reaches the bed because I wake up too soon. I’ve never totally given up hoping that he will one day come back, and we’ll live the rest of our eighties together. We used to talk about that. We decided that we would be that dignified elderly couple with white hair, walking our dog but without walkers, chatting away! We’d be taking our dog for a walk right now.