Deborah McElwain Rapp has made fewer regular stops in Niagara Falls in the years since her parents died.
But even now , the city where she grew up is still influencing her passion for water that gave her life its current focus of love and adventure, and soon a 4,000-mile sailing trip from the Caribbean.
It all started last summer when Rapp, 63, married John Rapp, a fellow boater she met online, as they sailed the outer harbor on the Spirit of Buffalo, a replica of an old-fashioned schooner.
Their plan of a new life together included selling their individual boats – her racing sailboat and his motor boat – and buying a new one they could use to travel and explore the tropics and Great Lakes.
As a racer of sailboats for 34 years, Rapp’s boating life included the three years she spent living on her last boat while it was docked in the outer harbor after her divorce a few years ago.
Her childhood home of Niagara Falls gets part of the credit, she said.
“I think when you grow up around so much water, it becomes a part of your comfort level. That is, you seek it out wherever you go, because it is familiar and reassuring to be near,” she said recapping an email conversation. “When I travel, the river and lake or ocean is the first place I want to visit. Like your favorite childhood meals, the water is ‘comfort food’ for the soul.”
She bought her first sailboat in 1976, years after buying a calendar with a picture of a boat and tropical island. “I saw that picture and I visualized myself in that spot,” she said. “It’s corny and goofy and stupid, but that’s the truth. That calendar sat on the wall until it became our life. I truly believe in visualization. I visualized my life exactly as it is today, and it has become beyond my wildest dreams.”
About a week after her sailboat wedding, her visualizations kept working as the couple’s first married adventure began when they left for the British Virgin Islands to start shopping for a big new sailboat, which they found 200 miles away on the island of Antigua.
When their 44-foot sloop needed repairs and upgrades, their boat-finding honeymoon turned into a four-month Caribbean adventure, ending in October when they left their new boat parked in Grenada, 75 miles north of South America. They flew home and will return to pick it after the ski season ends. Lately, Rapp, a retired public affairs coordinator from the state Office of Developmental Disabilities, has been teaching skiing part time at Holiday Valley with her husband. At end of March, the Rapps will fly down to pick up their boat and spend about six months slowly bringing it to New York.
What did you get out of last year’s trip?
It was a 24/7 chance, every minute of every day to get to know each other. I married the right guy. He didn’t turn out to be as perfect as I thought he was, and I’m sure he felt the same about me.
How did it affect your marriage?
We learned more about each other in four months than people do in four years. We found out how each other would be in some rough situations. One of them was when the main sail got stuck while we were out sailing. It got stuck heading into the harbor. It got stuck in the mast. We had to send the other person on the boat to the top of the mast while I was under sail. He had to stay up there 45 minutes .
We learned how we can act together in an emergency. What things we communicated well to each other and ways we didn’t. I thought he understood more than he did. I had to exercise my patience, which is not my strength. I’m getting better at it.
What’s next for you, your husband and the boat?
We are flying back to Grenada on March 26 and starting the 4,000-mile adventure back to Buffalo, and this will mean taking several multi-day overnight passages. You leave one city and you sail three days until you get to the next point of land.
How do you feel about that?
Apprehensive, but we will hire extra crew to go with us. I think what John and I are developing, for one thing, better communication. We’re starting to understand the little nuances about each other that will help us. It won’t all be sunset sailing along a coconut-fringed beach ...
We learned that we can overcome all those things because we have a very deep love for each other. We can let go of the little stuff and put the marriage on top of it, making it more important. Our love overcame those things. All those ups and downs. Now we truly believe we can do anything together.
What is the boat’s name?
Mahayana. It means, in Buddhist scripture, great vehicle. The Mahayana is the Buddhist scripture that leads you to enlightenment. The boat is going to be our great vehicle to find out more about ourselves, our relationship and the depths of our spiritual understanding.
You spent weeks in two islands – Antigua and Saint Martin – waiting longer than you expected for work on your new boat to finish?
One day in U.S. time equals two weeks in island time. They’d say, “Oh yeah, we’ll get done tomorrow.” We’d see it completed in two weeks. Americans want things done immediately.
Island time, they take their time. They do it right. We have the perfect boat now. The boat of our dreams.
After boat friends told you to slow down and explore, you extended your trip by taking a detour south. This included a stop in Dominica to find a friend of a friend, a woman whose address was “on the top a mountain, near a red shack”?
We found her. You wouldn’t believe how we did it: By talking to people on the beach. We climbed up this mountain in a pickup truck. It took us forever to get there, but we found her. We can’t believe we survived the ride. She had grapefruit trees and coconut trees and avocados as big as your head. She just lived on this little platform.
Is there a lesson in that?
The lesson is to abandon your plan and go with the flow. Our plan was not to stop in Dominica. At the last second we decided to anyway, just to take an adventure and find this mystery woman named Chitah. We took a shot in the dark and it paid off.
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