ANNAPOLIS — Mike Welch now knows one universal truth.
“I have determined, to my own satisfaction, that the world is round,” he said.
Mike, 72, and his wife Marguerite Welch, 71, who live in Epping Forest in Annapolis, returned home July 19 from a 14 and a half-year circumnavigation on their Shannon 38 sailboat Ithaca.
Taking off in 1998 to head toward the Caribbean, the couple only intended for the trip to last a few years. They spent time in Guatemala and Colombia before traveling the Panama Canal. At that point, they felt they might as well keep going.
“It happened really without thinking about it much,” Marguerite said.
Marguerite, from California, met Mike, from New York, while he was in the Navy. A retired Navy captain and 1961 Naval Academy graduate, Mike was a fighter pilot and test pilot as well as the commanding officer of the Naval Air station in Patuxent River.
Despite his affinity for the air, Mike was intrigued by the aura of sailing.
“I’d always been fascinated by sailboats,” he said, adding his wife sailed in her own right.
After Mike’s retirement in 1990, the two decided to pursue their dream of long-distance sailing.
A few years later they began their journey, which would lead them to known and unknown countries, long-time friendships and irreplaceable experiences.
Heading across the Pacific Ocean, the couple spent 18 months in New Zealand while fixing their boat.
“It’s such a beautiful country and for people who love the outdoors, it was wonderful,” Marguerite said. “Hiking, kayaking — there were all kinds of great outdoor things to take advantage of.”
They spent three years in southeast Asia — Thailand, Malaysia, Laos. The couple visited Vietnam, a bittersweet stop for Mike.
“I, being in the Navy, was in the Vietnam War and flew a couple hundred combat missions,” Mike said. Two-hundred and three missions. “The last time I saw the Mekong River I was in an airplane carrying bombs.”
The couple also entered war-torn and rarely-visited destinations such as Oman, Yemen, Eritrea and Sudan.
“A lot of these places that are experiencing great turmoil right now we were lucky enough to see before that,” Marguerite said. “Those are places that the average tourist certainly doesn’t go and those gave us a fascinating insight to the way these people live.”
They also traversed the Mediterranean, visiting Italy and Turkey. Waiting out the winter, the couple traveled throughout the countries but lived on their sailboat.
Their waterfront home is filled with artwork and trinkets from their visits, all small enough to fit on the sailboat. They would bring these back on their yearly trips home, mostly around Christmas, to visit their family and friends.
Mike and Marguerite found themselves in the middle of history. The couple was two miles off the shore of Malaysia during the 2004 tsunami that devastated the area.
“We were at anchor the night that it happened,” Mike said. “We didn’t feel a thing.”
A few days later, as they sailed farther north, the destruction became apparent, and the couple joined with other “yachties” to organize relief to the small, destroyed towns.
As part of the Waves of Mercy organization, the Welches transported food, clothes, baby products and more down the small waterways that relief workers weren’t yet able to reach. They were touched by seeing all the people whose lives were turned upside down.
“We felt very fortunate that we are so lucky and have been so blessed with such a wonderful life that finally we were in a place where we could do something to help other people,” Marguerite said.
The couple stayed for six months.
Traveling across oceans, Mike and Marguerite found themselves faced with their own difficulties. Their engine took on water in the middle of the Indian Ocean and an intense storm in the Atlantic sent water over the bow.
They were most frightened, however, only a month ago. A storm, similar to Maryland’s recent derecho, caught Ithaca as they were traveling up the Intracoastal Waterway in the Carolinas. With little room on either side of the channel and no visibility, the couple relied on their teamwork — and luck — to make it through.
“We were just rats in a trap,” Marguerite said.
Their return to Annapolis, however, had perfect weather, as family met them at their dock.
The Welches plan on sailing again, but probably only to the islands in the winter or New England in the summer.
“Traveling to different places really opens your eyes to how big the world is,” Marguerite said.
Of the 45 countries’ flags adorning Ithaca, their favorite place is so much closer.
“When you say, ‘your favorite place’… it’s here,” Mike said. “Because it’s home.”