Not wanted on the voyage

Jade Chabot's learn-to-sail trip was supposed to be a life-changing journey. And it was: Adrift for nearly 3 months, she questioned everything she knew about herself, about love and even her marriage

sea voyage

You may have heard of Josée (Jade) Chabot, the French Canadian who, in mid-January, embarked on a learn-to-sail voyage in South America that was scheduled to dock in Coquimbo, Chile, about 40 days later. On February 27, disaster struck: a devastating earthquake in Chile, followed by a massive tsunami. When March came and went without any sign of the SS Columbia, Chabot and the four others onboard were feared lost at sea.

But on April 11, with no warning, the 45-foot sailboat arrived in Coquimbo. The story made headlines around the world: Sailors presumed dead show up 44 days late!

It turned out they had had no idea a massive search for the boat was underway, or even that there had been a tsunami. The captain, Boguslaw “Rob” Norwid, didn’t believe in turning on the radio. Or the motor. When the boat was becalmed in the Pacific, almost 1,000 nautical miles from shore, he barked, “I go with the wind, you knew that from the beginning.” In fact, he had a history of showing up late and sparking costly coast-guard searches.

It wasn’t a near-death adventure story after all — at no point did the crew fear for their lives — but it did have what seemed to be a fairytale ending: Chabot’s emotional reunion at the Montreal airport with her husband of three years, Martin Neufeld. A photo of their embrace made the front page of The Globe and Mail, and for a day or two the couple was everywhere. Then the media moved on. The story was over.

But one of the most intriguing questions hadn’t been answered, let alone asked: What happens to a marriage after a three-month separation, during which one of you concludes the other is dead?

Although many news outlets refrained from mentioning it, there’s more than a whiff of the Age of Aquarius about the couple. Neufeld is best known as the “hugger busker” of Montreal, which is to say that he used to stand on the street offering free hugs to anyone who wanted them, while Chabot is a practising shaman.

But she is no tiresome New Age zealot. Warm and prone to rueful self-deprecation, she volunteers that what she missed most on the boat was the opportunity to wear a pretty sundress. Slim and tanned, with a penchant for colourful braided bracelets, she is currently holed up at Kryta Deere wellness centre in the Laurentians, an idyllic 12-acre retreat dedicated to “the art of soulful living,” writing a book about her vacation from hell.

She had a traditional Catholic upbringing, and for 18 years Chabot worked at a Montreal bank, arranging financing for commercial real estate. “You would see a building rise and feel you were part of that. It was very fulfilling.” Then came the real-estate crash of the 1990s, and she “couldn’t handle seizing properties, having a 70-year-old man crying in my office because I’m destroying his life’s work.”

In 1996 she took an extended leave from her job, steeping herself in Deepak Chopra, channelling energy and becoming a reiki master, travelling to Bali and then Australia. On New Year’s Day 1997, she had an epiphany atop Ayers Rock: It was time to escape “the golden cage” of banking and follow her heart.

She wound up spending six years working on yachts in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, first as a cook, then as a hostess catering to the sort of people who think nothing of blowing $60,000 a week on a holiday, before meeting Neufeld on the internet — “the connection was instant”— and following her heart back to Quebec. But Chabot is ambitious, not a drifter, committed to “a mission to be a guide, a lantern, to help other people on their own journey toward love and light.” Over the years, she’s steadily racked up holistic credentials — teacher training in yoga, certified life coach in shamanic medicine, registered massage therapist — while dreaming of starting a wellness centre on a boat.

Neufeld, too, has a dream: sowing unconditional “loving kindness” far and wide. In 2004, after 25 years of steady employment in film and television, acting work had dried up so he took to the streets of Montreal in a natty suit and hat, with a sign offering “Free hugs.” By 2006, the hugger busker, as he called himself, was a tourist attraction and self-published author with a website, a registered trademark and a roster of speaking engagements. But then, an Australian — a hugger-come-lately, it turned out, who had the good luck to appear in a music video that went viral on the internet—popped up on the Oprah Winfrey Show as the spokesman for free hugging. Neufeld never got his 15 minutes.

Professional disappointments are hard on a relationship, even one between spiritual healers. Still thinking his book could hit the big time, Chabot quit her job running a hotel spa to help him manage his career. But within a year, regretting that their partnership had evolved into “more of a working relationship,” she immersed herself in shamanic training, which involved studying in Peru and Utah where she learned, among other things, “how to cleanse the sludge, the dense energy in relation to a past event or trauma, from your body.” In 2007 the couple wed, but by summer 2008, Neufeld, casting about for a new direction, had embarked on a 750-km “happiness pilgrimage” around the Gaspé Peninsula, walking from one fishing village to the next offering unconditional love and accepting whatever food and housing people felt moved to provide. He studied hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming, theta healing.

Depending on your appetite for alternative-healing modalities, all of this may sound pretty kooky. But strip away the New Age trappings, and you have a standard portrait of a shared mid-life crisis, with both partners seeking a new sense of purpose. In fact, though they’d wanted an unconventional marriage, by the end of 2009 the couple found themselves in a most traditional predicament, leading increasingly separate lives. Hoping to rebuild their connection, Neufeld asked his wife, via Skype, to join him on an extended yoga retreat in Koh Phangan, Thailand. But Chabot, who’d just led a Canadian group on a shamanic tour of Peru, decided to opt for Norwid’s sailing program, which would bring her one step closer to her goal of creating a floating holistic retreat.

Neither wanted to change gears. What might look like inflexibility or even selfishness from the outside was, in the narrative they’d created about their marriage, a rather selfless willingness to support one another’s growth. Besides, as Neufeld puts it, “If you have to give up a dream, it only creates resentment.”

Typically, earning a yachtmaster’s open ocean licence requires extensive classroom study, followed by logging 2,500 nautical miles. Rob Norwid, however, offered a two-in-one program that, at 3,000 Euros (then about $5,000 CDN), appeared to be cost-effective: Study while sailing from Ecuador to Chile, which would take about 40 days, and finish the voyage with a licence.

Chabot, who is big on signs, saw plenty of good ones: The French-Polish captain had built his own boat and had a lot of experience on long sailing trips. He and his Chilean wife, Marisol, seemed nice, and the other two trainees — 22-year-old Lisa Hanlon from B.C., who’d never sailed before, and Mitchell Westlake, 23, a dive instructor who’d served in the Australian navy — got on so well with Chabot, then 49, that the trio shared a hotel room while the boat was being readied to sail. When they finally lifted anchor on January 18, the mood was ebullient: The trip of a lifetime had begun. But that was the first and last good day. The Canadians were seasick for more than three weeks; Norwid’s wife never seemed to find her sea legs and spent much of the voyage in bed. And Norwid quickly revealed himself to be short not just on patience but teaching ability. “I am your captain! You don’t have the right to question me!” he bellowed when anyone asked a question. His preferred pedagogic technique was to watch silently until the crew blundered, then tell them they were stupid, ugly, incompetent.

Although Norwid didn’t trust the trainees — they weren’t allowed in the galley, even to make a cup of tea, because he worried they’d burn themselves or leave the gas on — they had no shortage of responsibility, rotating at the helm throughout the night while he slept. They were also on watch in the afternoon, which the captain declared “quiet time” during which they were forbidden to speak to each other. Being at the helm was frightening for Chabot, who was still learning how to handle the ship, and dreaded Norwid’s insults and reprimands.

At the end of the first week, Norwid reviewed the crew’s performance. They were, he began, “terrible, selfish people.” Chabot, he promised, was on notice because she’d declined chicken at the dinner he hosted in port. Hanlon, too, was an ingrate: She’d failed to provide her passport while still debating whether to take the trip. Westlake’s crime was failing to dress properly.

Today, remembering the captain’s tirades, Chabot rolls her eyes and laughs. Trapped with a whacko on the high seas! But on the boat, there was no getting away from him and she was dependent on him for sustenance — and he alone would determine whether to grant the licence that was the whole point of the trip — so it didn’t feel funny. At all.

“I went onboard feeling strong, but within weeks, he’d broken me down,” Chabot says. The other two trainees would get angry momentarily, then blow off the captain as a jerk, but she was “slipping into a severe depression.” The more Norwid berated her, the more flustered she became, the more mistakes she made, and the worse she felt about herself. Stressed and nauseated, cut off from everything she knew, Chabot explains, “I went into survival mode.”

And then, as it will in the South Pacific, the wind died down. Norwid ordered the crew to keep the sails ready for any wind that came along, then blamed them when they were blown off course, repeatedly, and had to spend days backtracking. It was soon clear they wouldn’t make Coquimbo on schedule, and the captain began rationing supplies more severely. The fresh fruit and bread were already long gone, so from day 30 on, the diet consisted of increasingly meagre portions of porridge, rice, pasta and beans mixed with cabbage or potatoes. When Hanlon complained of hunger, the captain snapped, “You’re a fat pig.”

Thirst was an even bigger problem. Every evening, Norwid and his wife celebrated happy hour with rum and mango juice on the deck, but juice or soda were out of the question for the crew, who received just one cup of tea and one 500-mL bottle of water a day. Then one day Westlake didn’t finish his water, which the captain took as a signal to reduce their rations further. If challenged, the captain became vitriolic: “You only care about yourself, not the welfare of the whole boat!”

He was hardest on Chabot — chewing her out for her toilet-paper consumption, for example — but, she had to admit, she did make more mistakes. A few times, she forgot to turn off a valve in the bathroom that, theoretically, might have permitted water to come into the boat during a storm. “The punishment was that I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom during the day. I had to use the toilet seat suspended over the side of the boat” — not only public but also, in high seas, scary. “I was wearing a harness, but a few times, I was afraid I might wind up in the ocean.”

Scariest of all for a woman who had spent 13 years following her heart was what was going on inside it. “It was a personal hell, because of all the anger and hatred I was feeling, and fear — of doing wrong, of being scolded. The worst was, ‘I’m a fraud. I’m somebody who teaches love and forgiveness — how can I hate this man?’”

On day 50 she realized, “I’m doing violence to myself, having all these negative feelings.”

So that night, she pulled out her medicine bag and performed a ritual of cutting cords with her past wrongs, sending love and asking for forgiveness. The next day, she was able to disengage emotionally. “The captain told me I was stupid, and for the first time I thought to myself, ‘What if he is the stupid one?’ I was able to laugh, inside.”

In Thailand at the end of February, Martin Neufeld was watching CNN out of the corner of his eye and noticed something about an earthquake and tsunami in Chile — right about the same time his wife was due to arrive. He called the Canadian embassies in Chile, Peru and Ecuador while a friend in Montreal also got on the phone: They soon learned that the SS Columbia hadn’t been heard from, and also that the boat had vanished for weeks on a previous trip from Vancouver to Mexico. (In fact, trainees on earlier voyages, who set up a Facebook page for “survivors,” had a few nicknames for Captain Norwid: “Bogus Bob” and “psychotic militaryhead.”)

This could have been reassuring — the boat was late because tardiness was the captain’s M.O.—but it wasn’t. As with Chabot, Neufeld’s attunement to the world of the spirit appears to have rendered him more, rather than less, vulnerable, emotionally. He had nightmares and just felt in his bones that something was very, very wrong. He contacted the Montreal Gazette and, coordinating with Westlake’s father and grandfather in Australia, pushed to keep the story in the news, ensuring the Australian and Canadian governments got involved and the Chilean coast guard began searching.

Neufeld also posted an appeal on YouTube, seeking the help of “gifted intuitives and remote viewers.” One by one the emails arrived from people claiming to have channelled Chabot. “Deceased, deceased, deceased,” he remembers tearfully. “You get a dozen of those and, yes, you conclude that they are picking up on some energy out there, and they must be right.”

By March 28 — Chabot’s 50th birthday — he believed, “I’m living a lie, pretending I have hope.” Busking, he had learned to face hard truths, like the fact that sometimes, when you’re standing on the street with a sign that says “Free hugs,” someone is going to view that as an invitation to slug you.

Chabot’s death seemed like another, much harder truth he’d best accept. “I didn’t want to be in denial,” he says. “I started to mourn.” Via the internet, he’d organized a sort of pray-in for her birthday, with hundreds of people around the world beaming positive energy to Chabot between 6 and 9 a.m. EST. In Thailand, Neufeld himself performed a series of rituals that involved swimming naked into the ocean with a package of pebbles wrapped in banana leaves and lighting a huge bonfire on the beach. “It was a letting go, allowing her to be in spirit.” He tried to take the attitude, “At least she died pursuing her dream.”

Halfway around the world, Chabot, too, was letting go. She’d figured out there was a connection between the abusive captain and her relationships with men: “Because of my personal baggage — having men in my life, starting with my father, who were at times very authoritarian and controlling — it was as if, in every interaction with the captain, all the bad moments from my entire life were being compressed in a very intense way. Daily, hourly, he was pushing my buttons, reactivating things from my past.”

This was, of course, just the kind of sludge a shaman is trained to flush out of a person’s soul. And her first ritual had been such a success that a few days later she performed another one: “cutting cords with all the men in my life, and asking forgiveness for my share of our discordance.” She didn’t make an exception for her husband. Although earlier in the voyage she had been missing him, she was increasingly in touch with the ways that even a hugger busker could sometimes shore up the patriarchy.

On her birthday, which she celebrated by sharing with the crew a few of the increasingly precious cookies she’d brought onboard, she came to another important realization: She was 50 now, too old to put up with any more crap. Her inner peace and self-respect were worth more than a skipper’s licence.

So on day 72, Chabot told Norwid, “You’re right, I’m not skipper material. Take me off the program.” Hanlon had already been kicked off: She talked back to the captain one night and woke to find he’d declared her a non-person, stripped of all responsibilities and any chance of getting a licence. The two women felt guilty that their mutiny, if that’s what you could call it, meant so much more work for Westlake, but enjoyed whiling away the hours playing cards on the floor of their tiny cabin, finally free to ignore Norwid. They knew their families must be worried, but mostly they just felt the listless deflation of travellers at the end of a bad trip, stuck in transit.

They had had the adventure of a lifetime, after all, one they’d remember forever. It just hadn’t unfolded quite as they’d hoped.

When the authorities boarded the boat in Coquimbo, it was clear the jig was up for Norwid: He’d entered Chilean waters without making his presence known and he’d cost a few governments money for the searches. (Later, he was investigated and the yacht was stripped of its flag.)

Any pleasure Chabot felt about this was forgotten, however, when she phoned home and got an earful: Her family believed Neufeld had been trying to cash in on her “death” for media attention. Neufeld, who felt he’d successfully leveraged media coverage to pressure the Chilean government to search for the boat, all while grieving his wife’s passing, was furious: His in-laws were saying he was some kind of vulture?

None of this sat well with Chabot. “I thought, ‘Oh no. Did Martin make hell for my family the way the captain made hell for me?’” After three months under the thumb of a guy who sneered at “f–king stupid females,” she wasn’t too high on the opposite sex.

Which is why, a few minutes after the photographers snapped their picture at the Montreal airport, she turned to her husband, who had driven 13 hours to meet her flight, and announced, right there in the parking lot, “I’ve had it with men. I have no desire to be in a relationship with a man. Maybe I should turn to women!”

This sequence of events would test any marriage, but was especially jarring for a couple whose shared identity revolves around sending positive energy into the world. Neufeld was already in the throes of a spiritual crisis: “My healing work is based on my intuition, and I was wrong: I chose to believe she was dead.” Chabot was trying to emit light and love, but she kept getting stuck on the whole gender thing, the way that men can sometimes just be, well, jerks.

Competing narratives emerge in most marriages, of course, but theirs had 84 days of silence to develop uncontested, which made them especially powerful. He’d told himself he was a bereaved husband valiantly struggling for closure; she’d told herself she was a woman struggling to escape male oppression. In a weird synchronicity, they’d each written each other out of the story. And both narratives had a prophetic quality — or, perhaps, their authors found them so compelling that they made sure they came true.

The happy ending, of course, would be that they treated Chabot’s return as a miraculous reprieve, and clung to each other more tightly. Instead, Neufeld stayed in Montreal while she retreated to the Laurentians. Then, on a warm, clear day at the end of June, he reluctantly agreed to drive up to the Kryta Deere wellness centre with divorce papers. They still loved each other deeply, each declared separately, but apparently even an unconventional marriage couldn’t be stretched to accommodate Chabot’s desire “to be celibate for a while, because I’ve realized that sexuality and relationships with men take me away from my focus on my spiritual path.”

She seemed at peace, ensconced in a cozy log cabin, writing a book she hopes will be something like Eat, Pray, Love. Women, she explains with a beatific smile, will be inspired by her own “profound, positive transformative journey, from personal hell to a sort of rebirth through finding the light and being able to choose me, myself, over a licence, a piece of paper.”

Neufeld, too, attempted equanimity, explaining that divorce need not be viewed as a failure. However, he admitted to being “in a downward spiral emotionally. Jade is bouncing back much more quickly than I am.” Part of the trouble was facing up to the fact that he had only his own over-active imagination to blame for the suffering he’d experienced when he thought his wife was dead. Nevertheless, such was the explanatory elegance of the narrative he’d fashioned that he was still using it to make sense of events, despite the presence of his soon-to-be ex-wife in the next room. “Part of Jade did die on that boat,” he insisted, and later she concurred. It just wasn’t, in her own story, a part she missed, and in any event, she had already turned the page.