Vows: Love Sets Sail, Come Rain or Come Shine

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Vows: Love Sets Sail, Come Rain or Come Shine

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Vows

By LOUISE RAFKIN

To fall in love with a sailor is to court a broken heart. But in 2009, when Lauren Sloss spied Alex Kleeman in a Bay Area bar, she never guessed he harbored a dream to sail the world.

Outwardly, there was nothing salty about Mr. Kleeman, a tall, skinny mathematician, who worked for a climate forecasting start-up and spent workdays knee-deep in algorithms. In fact, Mr. Kleeman, an affable Midwesterner from suburban Chicago, was known to his many friends as a man who never swore.

Like many millennial San Franciscans, Ms. Sloss, now 29, was also working at a start-up, in advertising. That night, she stared at Mr. Kleeman, a handsome guy in a Black Keys T-shirt, trying to work up the courage to tell him that the Black Keys were her favorite band.

But when urged to make a move, she balked. Her friend Irene Yuan made it for her.

“My friend Lauren is your soul mate,” Ms. Yuan said. “Can she have your card?” Mr. Kleeman, slightly flummoxed, obliged.

The normally bold Ms. Sloss left the bar in a burst of shyness. Later that night, she sent Mr. Kleeman a witty email. In response, he sleuthed her online.

Her Facebook photo showed three women, all beautiful, but which was she? Flattered by Ms. Sloss’s attention, he agreed to meet — even though he was avoiding relationships.

Mr. Kleeman, now 33, had graduated from Stanford University with a master’s in computational and mathematical engineering after attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an undergraduate. A difficult long-distance relationship was behind him and he was focused on his large circle of friends, who liked his laid-back manner and adventurous spirit.

He was known for gathering friends for unusual events: a backpacking trip where dinner was an elaborate paella cooked on an open fire, a “tourist” pub crawl that required participants to wear cargo shorts and not enough layers for the Bay Area’s chilly weather shifts, an “awkward” party where food was served without utensils.

Ms. Sloss wasn’t seeking to settle down, either. A native of San Mateo, Calif., she had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a dual degree in English and history. She, too, had a voracious social life centered around a dozen best friends with whom she was in constant contact.

She had mixed feelings about relationships. “I didn’t want to be tied down,” she said. Fiercely independent, she feared a serious beau might dampen her dreams, including her hope of moving to New York City to be a writer. She dated lightly, yet sometimes yearned for a big love.

At their first date, the two found common passions: music, food, friends and travel. Ms. Sloss was charmed by Mr. Kleeman’s ever-ready, body-shaking laugh. Mr. Kleeman delighted in Ms. Sloss’ smiling eyes and confident style (she is known to wear the same chunky motorcycle boots for all occasions). A second date ignited chemistry, but upon parting, Mr. Kleeman offered a peck on the cheek.

“What was that?” Ms. Sloss said she wondered.

“I was being cautious,” said Mr. Kleeman as a way of explanation.

Still they continued to hang out frequently, and became part of each other’s circle of friends. Mr. Kleeman abandoned some of his caution.

“I was falling in love, but resisting,” he said. “This was different than anything I’d known. Lauren is totally open about everything.”

That spring, Ms. Sloss announced her acceptance to a master’s program in magazine writing at N.Y.U. Undaunted by distance that would be between them, she persuaded Mr. Kleeman to stay together.

But he had an announcement, too. At long last, his dream of sailing the world with his younger brother, Nick, now 31, was going to come true. Soon. Or soonish.

This was news to Ms. Sloss, who had no idea of Mr. Kleeman’s oceangoing plans. Taking a deep breath, she suggested they take things step by step. “I mean, there wasn’t even a boat yet,” she said.

The year apart was challenging. Mr. Kleeman, who stayed true to a flip phone well into the smartphone era, hated digital communication. Still, scraps of conversation carried their love, and multiple coast-to-coast visits renewed their commitment.

She returned to San Francisco for her summer break, moving in with Mr. Kleeman and beginning her career as a freelance journalist focusing on food and lifestyle. She regularly writes for Lucky Peach, Vice and Punch.

His departure was imminent. The brothers had bought Saltbreaker, a 32-foot sailboat, and were prepping and provisioning her for a September 2011 trip. The destination and duration of their voyage: unknown.

Now Mr. Kleeman was convinced they should breakup. He knew how difficult communication would be at sea. “I thought the chance of us being together after the trip would be better if we had no expectations,” he recalled telling her.

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“Lauren has always been determined, and some might say stubborn,” said Brittany Cowing, a close friend since elementary school. “In second grade she announced she would be a writer. Nothing stops her when she puts her mind to it.”

Although Ms. Sloss feared Mr. Kleeman might find someone else, or permanently settle on a deserted island — or just simply not miss her — she argued her case for them to remain a couple, with a few tears.

“Alex is the kindest man I know and the furthest from being a player,” said Omar Elafifi, a close friend of Mr. Kleeman. “He thought it was unfair to Lauren to leave everything open-ended.”

But as departure day approached, Mr. Kleeman’s resolve lessened. “We were good, so why end it?” he said. “It was more likely Lauren would meet someone here or get bored waiting for me.”

After a gala send-off, the brothers sailed for Central America. Ms. Sloss finished her degree months later and joined them for several weeks of not-so-smooth sailing. Fierce winds off the coast of Nicaragua tossed Saltbreaker like a top and the slam of waves was incessant. Despite the conditions, including not a shred of privacy, Ms. Sloss embraced life on board, earning both her sea legs and Mr. Kleeman’s admiration.

After another emotional parting, Saltbreaker set out across the Pacific. “I knew Alex well but not well enough to know if taking off for the tropics would mean he might never come back,” she said. “I now could see how sailing does crazy things to people.”

As Saltbreaker snaked through the Pacific, the brothers were often joined for morning swims by pods of dolphins. They became excellent spear fishermen, and ended their days watching jaw-dropping sunsets.

They found community with other sailors; nights moored in pristine bays were accompanied by the strum of ukuleles and passed bottles of Jack Daniels.

But there was also stress. Their engine broke down more than once, winds shifted and died and supplies were difficult to source. “Living on a boat is constant work,” Mr. Kleeman said. Despite their best efforts, communication, often via ham radio, was sporadic and unreliable.

“If I missed a call from Alex, I’d cry for two days,” Ms. Sloss said.

As 2013 rolled over, Ms. Sloss joined the brothers, now flat broke, in New Zealand. With Mr. Kleeman restocking the coffers by working remotely for his previous employers, when ashore, he considered his options.

If he sailed again, he thought Ms. Sloss may leave him. So while Saltbreaker went to Bali with only his brother at the helm, Mr. Kleeman took a break from his adventure to return stateside to enjoy a soft bed, cold beer and the companionship of his patient girlfriend.

But he was not quite ready to give up sailing. By 2015 he had persuaded her to sail, just the two of them, around the Indonesian archipelago. “We had gotten to the point where Lauren subtlety reinforced my good ideas, and dissuaded me from those that were actually bad,” Mr. Kleeman said. “This was a good one.”

They reunited with Saltbreaker in Bali, and set off again heading north. During the trip, they fell into a lovely rhythm: reading, singing, fishing, swimming and waking up the next day to do it all again.

But the sea had its rough days. One afternoon, the bolt on the tiller sheared and they lost steering under full sail and with the engine running full speed. As they sped toward a reef, grabbing at sails, an uncharacteristically rattled Mr. Kleeman even spat expletives. The anchor finally grabbed hold, saving them from crashing into a wall of coral just yards away.

Afterward, Mr. Kleeman’s hands shook. “But Lauren kept her head,” he said, final proof this was the woman he wanted to marry.

One night while she slept, he made an engagement ring from anchor wire. A few days later he suggested a bonfire at night on a deserted island.

On that uninhabited island, with the fire crackling and the tide inching up, Mr. Kleeman produced his homemade ring. His intentions were clear, “but I can get another ring,” he told her.

“No, this is what I want,” an ecstatic and truly surprised Ms. Sloss recalled saying, especially because “it’s hard to have a secret on a tiny boat.”

On Oct. 15, with a storm threatening and the choppy San Francisco Bay as a backdrop, the couple were wed before more than 200 family members and friends on the lawn of the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. Gillian Quandt, a friend ordained by the American Marriage Ministries, led the ceremony.

The rain held off as the groom, who now works for Swift Navigation, had predicted using a computerized weather model he made for the wedding date, and the party moved into the nearby general’s residence. On the bay, the few sailboats that had braved the weather headed for safe harbor as the wind whipped up.

After cocktails and briny oysters, the wedding party picked up tambourines and raucously paraded to a nearby gallery for dinner. The groom, wearing flip-flops, and the bride, now in her beloved motorcycle boots, led the procession into a downpour that drenched everyone but left spirits undampened.

“Our lives will always be full of adventure,” the bride said. “Why would a little rain stop us?”

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