Alexandra Cousteau: A Legacy Lives OnBy Ann Dermody
Published: April/May 2012
If the average human body is two-thirds water, Alexandra Cousteau's is arguably a few percentage points higher. The granddaughter of legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, and daughter of filmmaker Philippe Cousteau, she went on her first watery voyage at just four months old. "I accompanied my parents down to Easter Island for that trip, and was pretty much on expedition with them until I was four years old, and my father passed away," she says.
A bit of background here: The Cousteaus are used to doing everything rather early. Alexandra learned to swim at just a few months old, and her father, Philippe, a documentary filmmaker with a background in oceanography, had become a professional diver by the time he was seven, having taken his first dive in an aqua-lung at four or five. He died at just 38, in a flying boat crash in Portugal. Up until then, Alexandra and her mother had followed him and her grandfather, aboard his research vessel the Calypso, around the world, filming for the popular TV show "The Underwater World Of Jacques Cousteau".
Jacques Cousteau taught his granddaughter to dive in the Mediterranean when she was seven. "That was obviously special and a gift, and it shifted my perception of the water," she says. At 11, she went on expedition with her grandparents to French Polynesia. "We'd sleep on the Calypso at night, but for the most part it was docked in port, usually at a Navy yard for security and so my grandparents wouldn't get mobbed, and because of the expense. For the most part we went out on the Zodiac during the day."
Despite her nomadic upbringing — between expeditions she spent time in California, Paris, and Connecticut — she says her childhood was really quite normal. "I remember traveling a lot but I don't remember dinner table conversations being all about the expeditions, or what the Calypso was doing. My mother never had a problem pulling me out of school to go traveling," she laughs. "She always made sure I made up the work when I got home, but she thought traveling was an education in itself."
Given a childhood that was spent as much in water as on land, it's hardly surprising that Cousteau only ever wanted to work in something related to the family business. After studying political science with a focus on environmental justice at Georgetown in Washington, DC, she spent several years traveling the world, making films about sharks in French Polynesia, dolphins in the Bahamas, and whales in Maui, among other things. That was followed by two years in Central America working on an anti-shark-finning campaign, and lobbying heads of state to protect marine mammals.
"When I came back to D.C. in 2007, I realized I could spend all my time looking at what was happening in the ocean, but if I didn't realize what was happening on land first, then we'd never really solve anything. I started thinking about how all of our water is connected, and how we need to get people to value their everyday relationship with water no matter where they are." That led to her creating Blue Legacy, a D.C.-based non-profit initiative in 2008, to inspire people to take action on critical water issues.
"All the ways people love the water, whether they're boaters, or swimmers, or divers, or fishermen, the places they can go to have those experiences and their water-quality are dwindling. I've come to understand that we all live on the waterfront. Even if our house doesn't back onto the ocean, or a lake, or river, our water's so connected that even the storm drain in front of your home is waterfront in a way, because it leads directly to the watershed."
Visual and interactive storytelling has been Blue Legacy's mode of communication through expeditions around the world — she's a Cousteau, after all — and she's been invited on several occasions to testify before Congress on water-related issues.
The nomadic lifestyle persists. For the last few years Alexandra Cousteau has been traveling seven months a year, although 2011 was more home-based while she and her husband Fritz awaited the arrival of another very important crewmember. Daughter Clementine Cousteau, the great granddaughter of Jacques, was born in the summer, no doubt another future advocate for the ocean blue.
Bub Norris: Powerboat Racing Pioneer
Jim Norris has heard the family stories about his late grandfather, Burt "Bub" Norris, who built sleek powerboats and raced them to fame across Maine lakes in the early 1900s. Although he never met the man, he knew the boats, especially Atosis, a 23-foot racer with a 3.5-foot beam and a 20-hp Roberts engine.
Bub Norris built Atosis in his spare time while working as an electrical engineer at General Electric in Lynn, Massachusetts. The boat was lightweight cedar covered in canvas, with a mahogany transom, engine hatch, and framing near the steering wheel. It comfortably seated two. The engine was forward of the cockpit.
In 1907, she was lost for six months while being rail shipped to the Norris homestead in Monmouth, Maine. She later turned up in a Kansas rail yard; the following year she was racing the lakes. But Norris was unhappy with the 15-hp engine so he swapped it for a 20-hp and the boat, named by Norris' sisters after a mythological Native American serpent, gained a reputation as the boat to beat.
The legendary boatbuilder John Hacker ended her reign by designing a competitor with a planing hull — faster and more efficient than Atosis' displacement hull. "My grandfather ran up against one of those Hacker-Crafts and Atosis couldn't defeat it," Jim Norris recalls. "His answer was to build the Cobboseecontee Kid, and he wiped the Hacker-Craft out." By then, GE had transferred Norris to Schenectady, N.Y., where he raced on the Mohawk River. "Most powerboat racing in those days was done by the well-to-do who had boats built for them. My grandfather had the know-how to build his own," says Jim Norris, noting that the Cobboseecontee Kid was upgraded with a 60-hp Roberts aircraft engine to improve performance, but its owner was still dissatisfied until the iron pistons were replaced with aluminum to boost power.
Bub Norris died in 1938. Cobboseecontee Kid was sold and Atosis was stored in the family barn, where she remained until 1985 when grandson Burt "Skip" Norris trucked her to Jupiter, Florida. In January 2011, the Norris family donated Atosis to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, N.Y.
"Atosis has been stored most of her life," says museum curator Dan Miller. "She was completed in 1907, so she's 105 years old. That was the early days of powerboat racing. What makes her so important and exciting is that she's never been modified or repainted. The only damage occurred in the 1980s when a lead battery tipped over and acid burned the canvas." Of the legendary museum's 320 boats, Miller ranks Atosis among the top 10 and plans to make her a major exhibit.
"We were all raised on stories about our grandfather, and my brother and sister and I all raced powerboats. Maybe it was ancestor worship," says Jim Norris. "After he died the boat's location was kept a secret so nobody would mess with it at the Maine home. He was already gone before any of us were born, but if he were alive, I'm sure he'd want to know what all the fuss was about."
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Rick Stelzriede: California River Route Mail CarrierYou can't hurry doing Rick Stelzriede's job, and that's just fine by him. The California Delta water mailman arrives at the Stockton post office at 7:30 a.m. six days a week, sorts his mail, and leaves an hour later to make 25 land-based stops before picking up his boat, a 1998 14-foot Fishrite at Herman and Helen's Marina. Then he chugs upriver for a further 10-13 stops by 3 p.m. "I like the pace," he says. You can't force anything. You have to go with Mother Nature."
This Delta route has been operated since the late 1800s. The U.S. Post Office has 61 water routes with the Delta one the only in California. As an independent contractor, Stelzriede spent $10,000 on a new engine and outdrive last year, and he's responsible for all his own expenses. Fortunately, he gets compensated extra if gas prices increase.
Born in the Bay Area of San Francisco, an invitation in 1973 to go waterskiing with a friend on the Delta got him hooked. "I kept coming back to this magical place. The Delta is just like it would be without man," he says.
Five years ago, he was asked to help deliver the mail one day a week. It developed into a fulltime job. "Today my route covers Medford Island, where they raise corn and bell peppers, and Tinsley Island where the St. Francis Yacht Club has its private island. From there it's across Frank's Tract area to Bethel Island for seven more waterfront addresses on Bradford and Jersey Islands." Although summer months in the Delta offer near-perfect boating on usually smooth waterways, Stelzriede has been caught off guard with fog and big cruisers' waves.
In 2001 he bought his own Delta Island, and he's since planted fruit trees and firmly settled into a river-rat lifestyle. Even on his time off he's out on the river, working part-time for BoatUS Vessel Assist, based at Bethel Island.