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"Captain Cole journeys around North America"
By Lauren Kulchawik


Editor's note: The name Norman Cole, MD, is familiar to anyone who was a member of what was known as the American Society of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgeons (ASPRS) during the silicone breast implant crisis a decade ago. The leadership provided by Dr. Cole as ASPRS president stayed the ship of plastic surgery through some very challenging times that year. As a result of his stormy tenure, Dr. Cole went on to spearhead the National Endowment for Plastic Surgery, steering this vessel into record territory with contributions by the members of what is now known as ASPS. Dr. Cole has now gone on in retirement to captain a very different ship, one that doesn't need a metaphor to set sail. PSN managed to catch up with the seafaring skipper long enough to review his journey thus far.

Norman Cole, MD, has dreamed many dreams, and during his leadership at ASPS many of those dreams came true. But few know that he also has had a much bigger dream, and now in the first year of his retirement from his Louisville, Ky., private practice, this dream also has become reality - a six-month voyage at sea. "I had long desired to see places that I hadn't visited by boat," Dr. Cole says. "In years past, it seemed like taking an offshore trip would require a boat that was beyond my means. Now in the past five to 10 years, boats that are capable of going offshore like mine have come to be more affordable and very efficient for long-range travel. All of these elements unfolded to coincide with my retirement," he says. The crew - Dr. Cole, his 25-year-old son, Palmer Cole, and Palmer's best friend Adam Sloan - are soon to complete an extended version of what seafarers call "the great loop." Their boat, Pilgrim, a 40-foot diesel-powered trawler, embarked March 3 from Dana Point, Calif., close to where the boat was built. They cruised south along the west coast of Mexico and Central America, cut east through the Panama Canal, to the Cayman Islands and Florida, north along the eastern seaboard, along Nova Scotia, west to the St. Lawrence River and down through the Great Lakes. From Chicago, Pilgrim traveled down the Illinois River to the mighty Mississippi, on the way to the Tenn-Tom Canal, which ends in Mobile, Ala., at the Gulf of Mexico. "Dreaming about going through the Panama Canal suddenly became a potential reality [after retirement]. It could be done; I could do it. Because there have been so many incredible advances in navigation with global positioning systems (GPS), an average person can safely take a trip of this nature," Dr. Cole says. "When I first started talking to friends and colleagues about the trip, they would just smile and nod. Not one of them ever thought I'd really do it," he says. "I think we've surprised everyone, and that's part of the fun."

Setting sail
What does it take to prepare for such an endeavor? The primary element: time. "My son and his friend had just finished culinary school in Florida, so the three of us became 'loose' at the same time," Dr. Cole says.

Though the three-man crew had some previous boating experience and training before the voyage, boats like Pilgrim are mostly self-contained. The boat is designed with a computerized navigation system that works with the GPS to literally steer the course. "We decide where we want to go and how we want to get there. After we plot our course, we enter it into the computer, which translates commands to the steering instruments. I always had this idea that I'd be standing in front of the wheel, making all of the adjustments. Instead, we just activate the auto-pilot, like on a 747 jet, sit back on the settee, watch out the windows and the system takes care of everything else," Dr. Cole says.

"The boat we have is truly capable of going around the world," adds Dr. Cole. "The company took one of its own, exactly the same as ours, around the world - just to show it could be done.

Dr. Cole stresses that Pilgrim is very seaworthy. "With all of the things we've been through - rough seas, mountainous waves - I've never felt like we were at peril," he says. "The boat seems invincible, like a Sherman tank, so our adventures have been exciting rather than scary. We're delighted to have it and to be passengers on it.

"Before I left, someone asked me, 'Aren't you taking a big risk?' And I responded, in the words of Charles Lindberg: 'Life without risk is life not worth living.' I believe we're taking a very calculated and acceptable risk."

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Life onboard
Dr. Cole and crew have adapted well to life at sea. "We're getting used to being the captains of our own ship," he says. The past several months have been a whirlwind of visiting landmarks, from big city marinas to ballparks to untouched wilderness, planning meals, keeping night watch, passing time with movies and books, making new friends and visiting old ones.

"It's just been a fantastic trip," affirms Dr. Cole. "In every major city, the marina is usually right in the middle of it all. We've been able to step onto the dock and walk directly into Boston, Halifax, Quebec City, and so on. That's the unique thing about traveling by boat - we always have our own apartment right on the water. "This is my first boating vacation where I've been more than just a passenger. Now we get to choose how long we want to stay and what we want to see, without rush or deadlines," he says.

Freedom is not the only benefit. Cuisine onboard has been excellent, considering Palmer Cole and Adam Sloan are trained chefs. "They're superb," Dr. Cole says. "We catch fresh fish, cook it onboard and eat it 30 minutes later." To stock up on other needed supplies, the crew has on occasion rented a car to make trips to Costco stores in the larger cities. While the boat is technologically advanced, equipped with a satellite telephone, laptops and a VCR to play movies, some of the basic elements of sea life remain: night watch and seasickness. One of the boat's five bunks is located in the wheelhouse, where one crew member can sleep while another can keep watch for a three-hour shift.

"The boys don't get sick at all," says Dr. Cole of his younger crew mates. "On the other hand, I have gotten sick three or four times. I've learned to take precautions, watch what I eat and get up top when I start to feel seasick. I've found the electronic device you can wear on your wrist for nausea to be actually very helpful." Dr. Cole experienced one bout of nausea on Lake Erie, when he wasn't expecting rough weather.

Usually, the crew takes precautions to avoid dangerous weather conditions. Before leaving a harbor for a long stretch at sea, they download weather predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration's (NOAA) web page. "That makes a huge difference as to when we go, or whether we go. We've stayed in harbors for several days at a time, waiting for a front to pass," Dr. Cole says. "We planned it so that we would follow the warm weather up to Canada."

After planning the day's events, checking weather and e-mail, preparing meals, cleaning, writing in his journal and getting some sleep, Dr. Cole has found he has less free time onboard than he expected. "I'm surprised at how full our days have been. I thought I'd have more time to read and listen to all the audio books I brought," he says. "We're constantly busy on excursions. Believe it or not, I almost feel like we haven't have enough time to see and do everything possible."

Adventure of a lifetime
Dr. Cole has a novel's worth of tales to tell, and he hopes to share with them his grandchildren someday.

One of the most memorable experiences was passing through the Panama Canal, he says. "We had two pilots help to guide us through the canal. That was just amazing. We felt like our boat was a little Volkswagen 'Bug' among all the other enormous ships." Another rare moment was approaching the New York skyline and seeing its "unfortunate void" of the Twin Towers, Dr. Cole remembers. "It's not the same skyline, but it's still a beautiful one," he says.

Though the boat does not travel fast (averaging only 7.5 knots, which is about 8 miles per hour), Dr. Cole believes he's been able to see more than he would by plane or car. "I tell people, 'I've never gotten places so fast, going so slow!' It's like the tortoise and the hare. We make progress at night, while everyone else is sleeping," he says.

After April 15, when the boat was docked for a two-week break in Fort Myers, Fla., Pilgrim stopped in notable eastern cities such as Savannah, Ga., Charleston, N.C., Norfolk, Va., Annapolis, Md., Atlantic City, N.J., and New York City, making its way to Rhode Island and arriving in Boston to celebrate the Fourth of July.

"The boys find the 'hot spots' in every town. They seem to meet a new girl in every port," Dr. Cole jokes. "There's a bit of a generation gap. But we all have fun exploring new places, new streets. I grab brochures wherever we go, enjoy sitting and listening to the street musicians, and going to the fancier restaurants my wife would usually say 'no' to."

In addition to exploring sea towns, the crew has taken off-boat excursions, including a visit to Niagara Falls and the three oldest baseball stadiums still in existence: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. "An old friend of mine, Frank Wolfort, MD, in Boston arranged for us to see the Red Sox play. We rode on the subway along with everybody else, cheering and hollering." In New York, Sherrell Aston, MD, provided the crew tickets to see the Yankees play the Mets at Yankee Stadium. "An unforgettable experience," Dr. Cole says.

Friends, family and colleagues have visited the boat throughout its voyage. In Montreal, H. Bruce Williams, MD, past president of ASPS, met Dr. Cole for dinner, and in Cleveland, ASPS president Ed Luce, MD, did the same. Dr. Cole's daughter and son-in-law stayed for a weekend visit when the boat was in Canada.

Meeting new characters along the way has also made the trip unforgettable. "We meet people without even trying," Dr. Cole says. He has a notebook full of e-mail addresses: friends in Costa Rica who took the crew to a local grocery store, the taxi driver in Panama who was excited to practice conversing in English, a couple taking their children, ages 6 and 9, on a yearlong sailing trip, a political activist who lives on a boat in a marina in Toronto, a man named Reed who has followed the same track as the Pilgrim, and many more.

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Solitude at sea
While the crew has made many stops in populated areas, periods of isolation give them time to reflect on the beauty of their surroundings, and the challenge faced by the explorers and seamen who made the journey before them and without current technology. "When we traveled up the St. Lawrence River, which is 100 miles wide at its mouth, we had the technology to see ourselves moving in real time on the computerized map. But hundreds of years ago, ships had to rely on using the river villages' church spires as markers," Dr. Cole says. "If there's anything I've learned to appreciate on this voyage, it's the people who did it by sail, with no control tower, no radar, no charts, no warning when the tides are changing. It really makes you stop and think, 'How in the world could they have done that?'"

One of the longest periods of isolation was Pilgrim's passage through Canada's North Channel. "We didn't see anyone for days, gliding by some of the most beautiful islands I've seen. There are still some parts of this world that are untouched and unspoiled," he says. "When we anchored in Bear Drop Harbor, we were completely sheltered by granite cliffs. We climbed up one granite bluff to watch the moon settle on the water. My son said, 'This feels like being at the creation of the world.' And it really did.

"What is most striking is the silence. I now understand the phrase, 'deafening silence.' In many areas where we anchor, there is no background noise, no 18-wheeler in the distance, no air conditioner humming. The loudest sound is probably the water hitting the boat," Dr. Cole reflects.

Dr. Cole also appreciated seeing wildlife: whales along the Mexican coast, wild monkeys and parrots in the jungles of Costa Rica, and alligators on the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

"Many of the world's beautiful places are being invaded by human beings. I feel so lucky to see such natural beauty, before it is spoiled. A lot of retirees are stuck doing what all tourists do - waiting in line and getting herded on boat and bus tours, like cattle."

Future voyages
What does the future hold for both the Pilgrim and her crew of three? Palmer Cole and Adam Sloan have enjoyed their cruise so much that they plan to study for a captain's license and combine their cooking and boating skills into a career at sea. As for Pilgrim, she will soon be moored in the Florida Keys awaiting the next dream - the Bahamas and the West Indies are beckoning. For now, Dr. Cole is content to return to his retirement home in Charlotte, N.C., where he can relax his sea legs and spend some long-awaited time with his wife. "I miss her," he says. "And I'm not sure she'll recognize me when I get back!"

Used with permission of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons

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