In Search of Serenity, Engineers Sail Nearly 20,000 Nautical Miles
Slice of MIT
This month, Laura Aust ’10 and Alec Marshall are wrapping up an extraordinary three-year journey that took them from Croatia to Fiji by way of such landmarks as the Strait of Gibraltar and the Panama Canal—with more than a few unexpected detours. Since 2018, they have lived on a sailboat they named after the mindset they craved: Serenity First.
Aust and Marshall, now married, met while living in the neighboring MIT sorority and fraternity houses of Alpha Phi and Phi Sigma Kappa in 2008. Marshall had come to MIT from the United Kingdom to study for a year through the Cambridge-MIT Exchange program. After their respective graduations, the pair were living together in London working as a management consultant (Marshall) and a parts developer for a luxury watch startup (Aust) when they started talking seriously about shaking things up with an extended ocean voyage.
They started by planning their budget and selecting a secondhand boat: a 43-foot Elan Impression 434 (“Imagine a big RV except maybe a little fatter and it happens to float and have a really big mast in the middle” is Aust’s prosaic description). Then came the hard work of preparing it for long months at sea, nearly all of which they did themselves—from upgrading safety and navigational gear to installing solar panels and rewiring electronics. Finally, they set sail, having mapped out a 20,000-nautical-mile itinerary with an end point in Australia.
But to quote one of Aust’s favorite sailing maxims, “All plans are written in sand at low tide.” As they traveled through the Pacific on the final leg of their journey in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic abruptly transformed the world. In the video above, Aust and Marshall reflect on how their three-year odyssey played out its final chapter in the context of a global pandemic, and how the rigors of MIT prepared them for choppy waters.
Even before Covid-19, they’d had their share of challenges on the open ocean, including a medical scare and a leaking fresh water supply. “There’s really not much you can do but try to figure it out yourself,” Aust says of these moments. “You can’t quit, you can’t say pause, you can’t stop, you can’t give up.” But while the experience taught them how to rely on themselves and each other, they say it also deepened their connections both with the global sailing community and with the planet itself.
“There’s been a broader theme running through the whole trip about becoming a bit more integrated in the natural world around us, in a way that we found so difficult to do living in a city,” Marshall says. “I think we are certainly now far more appreciative of the beauty of the natural world and, at the same time, far more aware of humanity’s footprint.”