Spinning, rudderless, in 30-foot waves raised by tropical-force winds, Amanda Leese ’10 lay below deck in the 55-foot catamaran she was captaining from New Zealand to Fiji last June and wrote goodbye letters to her family members. After three days the storm died, and she and two other crew limped the boat back to port in northern New Zealand. Twenty-four hours later, rudder repaired, she couldn’t wait to sail again for Fiji.

“Once sailing gets in your blood,” Leese said, “it’s really hard to get it out.”

Sailing first got in her bloodstream when she was just 8 years old, tagging along after her brother, who worked on a bright yellow cutter-rigged ketch called The Sunshine in their hometown, Charlevoix, Mich. By the time she was 17, Leese was running the charter business, taking paying guests on tours of lakes Charlevoix and Michigan. On her 19th birthday she became the youngest woman licensed by the Coast Guard to captain boats up to 100 tons. 

Leese spent summers sailing The Sunshine. Just before starting her senior year at Calvin, the boat’s owner asked if she’d like to take two months off school and help him crew another boat in the South Pacific. She did, and two months turned into five.

“It was like pulling teeth to get me back to Calvin to finish my last semester,” she said. 

But finish she did, and just before graduation a boat owner she had met on that South Pacific trip called to ask if she wanted a job sailing a catamaran from New Zealand to Fiji. Leese had not a moment’s hesitation.

“There’s no way to simulate the feeling of peace and serenity I have when I’m in the middle of the ocean with no engine on, and I’m being towed by the winds across this huge expanse,” she said. “But then I can be in the middle of a storm, fighting for my life. It’s all part of the process and all about the rush.”

By last August, with two South Pacific crossings under her belt, Leese had met many other citizens of what she describes as the small world of long-distance sailors. Those connections have now put her on a 105-foot sailing yacht that left Florida in October with an around-the-world itinerary.

Hired as first mate, Leese hopes to captain the boat when it leaves the West Indies in May. To be qualified to do that, she spent February in Fort Lauderdale earning her 200-ton open-ocean license. Among the few female captains on the seas, fewer still have this license. 

“Lonely? Yeah, I’ve felt lonely at times,” Leese said. “Especially at Christmastime, I missed my family so much. But it’s been a good life lesson, teaching me independence and to rely more on God. It helps that now I have a Blackberry Global. My mom sent me pictures of the Charlevoix lighthouse in the snow.

“Also, this isn’t something I’ll do forever, but I have a few more goals I’d like to accomplish. I’ve done the Pacific, Mediterranean and Atlantic crossings. Now I’d like to captain a beautiful sailboat crossing the Indian Ocean to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Then I can say, ‘OK, I’ve sailed around the world, now I can be at peace about moving to the next stage of my life.’

“My philosophy is you only live once. I don’t want to regret anything. I want to do everything I can. I can’t get enough of life!”