Their wives, it should be said at the outset, do not entirely approve: Bob and Ralph Brown, two 50-something brothers, are planning to steer their 21-foot flats boat—a motorized fiberglass raft—across the Atlantic Ocean to honor three Marines who died for their country nearly 30 years ago.
The boat has a canopy roof, but no cabin. Crowded with gas cans and water bottles, it looks like a kind of floating bachelor pad—the brothers themselves have the demeanor of overgrown frat boys. Genial and straight-faced, they plan to live on fruit cocktail and "hand snacks" (potato chips, energy bars) for the next 48 days. They have fishing rods, but no cook stove; there's cereal in case of emergencies. They will take turns sleeping, outfitted in foul-weather gear and lashed to the boat, on a child-size air mattress. "The air mattress really makes it a lot better," says Ralph, a former Marine himself. "You just go ahead and lay down and get wet."
The trip, which is being pitched as a sort of Christian mission (its main sponsor is I Am Second, a Christian nonprofit founded by Norm Miller, CEO of Dallas-based Interstate Batteries), is part of a tradition of stunts aimed at drawing attention to ministry and good works. Earlier this year the controversial Christian television and Internet evangelist Bill Keller, of Tampa, planned to enter a shark tank at the Florida State Fair (the sharks were aggressive, and fair officials barred him from entering, according to the St. Petersburg Times). More recently, a pastor named Ben Dailey of Irving, Texas, promised his congregation that if more than 4,000 people showed up at church on Easter morning, he would spend three days and nights in a six-by-six-foot plexiglass box atop his Calvary church—à la David Blaine—overlooking Highway 161. They did, and he did—shooting video from inside the box and posting it online. In his video, he exhorts folks to "get out of the box" by "doing something, helping somebody, loving somebody."
Critics will say that the Browns, should they cross safely, will earn little more than a dubious achievement award: history is littered with failed crossings and the egos of those who attempted them. In 1992 two British brothers, Chris and Stuart Newman, took off from Portugal for America in a 21-foot canoe; they came ashore after 68 days—in Jamaica. They were malnourished, covered with boils, and reeling from a close encounter with a pack of sharks, according to an Associated Press report. Should the Brown brothers, with five children between them, fail to survive, what greater good would their sacrifice serve? "I'm not worried about dying," Ralph says. "I'm like most soldiers. Most soldiers are more afraid of being dishonored than they are of dying." Adds Bob: "I am more scared up on a ladder, painting a house."
It's hard to tell exactly how much faith informs the brothers' ambition. They say they're Bible-believing Christians, but there will be no Bible aboard the boat. The Browns, who already hold the world record for the longest distance traveled by sea in a flats boat, seem to want to put the title out of reach with this 6,200-mile voyage. Ralph, in particular, wants to memorialize the three Marines—Sgt. John D. Harvey, Cpl. George N. Holmes Jr., and Staff Sgt. Dewey L. Johnson—who died in Operation Eagle Claw, the botched attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980. "Everyone's complaining about 'Gimme, gimme, gimme,' " he says. He echoes Ben Dailey: " 'Do more' ought to be the philosophy: do more than just say thanks to the wounded heroes and the family left behind."
The blogosphere is certain to register its disapproval of the Browns, as it did of Dailey's pastor-in-a-box trick. "Even when I was a Christian I would've thought this terribly gimmicky," wrote Dan Florien on his Unreasonable Faith blog. "It's hard to take their religion seriously when they take it so lightly themselves." One could argue, though, that the connection between religious mission and exhibitions of physical strength—deprivation and derring-do, even to the point of insanity—is not as tenuous as it might seem. Today's monks and hermits were inspired by St. Anthony, the third-century Egyptian who went into the desert and, legend has it, shut himself in a cave, allowing himself no company and only the meagerest amounts of bread and water for 20 years. He battled demons—something that people on long boat rides frequently do—and emerged from his cave more vital and angelic than before. In the fourth century, another hermit, Simeon Stylites, sat atop a pillar day and night for 36 years, attracting crowds of sightseers and acolytes.
The lesson here may be that, in the fourth century as now, one good way to draw attention to an important cause is to do something that one's wife or mother might regard as colossally stupid. (According to legend, Simeon Stylites forbade his mother from approaching his pillar.) Some of these missionaries will go down in history as saints or martyrs. And others will be relegated to the ranks of middle-aged mountain climbers, seafarers, or race-car drivers who just want to have another excellent adventure.