Destined to fulfill a promise
Some promises take longer than others to fulfill. Ralph Brown made his 29 years ago. Last Saturday, the Spring Hill man and his brother, Robert, departed from the dock at the Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa on a daunting seafaring adventure to raise $3 million for military charities and break three world records. As we celebrate the precious freedom we have in this country today with fireworks and picnics, the Brown brothers are putting the spotlight on the servicemen and women who make it all possible.They're calling it: "Do More Than Just Say Thanks." Right now, if all is going according to plan, they're powering full speed ahead on a 48-day, 6,200-mile voyage from Tampa to Hamburg, Germany, with 20 stops for supplies along the North American and European Atlantic coasts. And they're doing it on the Intruder-21, a 21-foot flats boat Ralph Brown designed and built at his Hudson-based Dream Boats Inc. Consider that this type of boat is typically used for fishing in shallow waters. It has no cabin. He's equipped it with a buoyant roof, so if it does capsize, it will lie on its side. He's also got two 15-foot poles to right the craft if the worst happens. They've got GPS trackers, survival suits and satellite phones. And if they get in the path of a hurricane? "We'll just outrun it," he says. Then there's spending long, long hours at sea with his 51-year-old sibling, a Merritt Island painter and father of two teens. The brothers, raised in Cocoa Beach, are close, but this could put them to the test. "Oh, we get mad once in a while, but then shut up and let it go," Ralph Brown says. "We're going to be just fine. We're going to be too busy." If the Browns make it, and they are confident they will, they could get in the record book three times: for the first Atlantic crossing in a flats boat; longest ocean journey in a flats boat; and longest unescorted flats boat voyage. They may also get recognition for succeeding at a seemingly impossible and risky adventure. But Ralph Brown, 50, a deeply spiritual man who feels God is right at his side on this voyage, will tell you that the main mission is not about world records and promoting his company. It's about that promise. In 1980, when he was serving in the Marines, three of his comrades died in a botched mission called Operation Eagle Claw, in which several branches of the military attempted to liberate the American Embassy in Iran after terrorists took the ambassador and his staff hostage. Brown was supposed to be deployed to Iran at some point in his four-year stint with the Marines. He never got those orders. But he knows it could have been him instead of Sgt. John Harvey, Cpl. George Holmes and staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson who died in that operation. He made a vow then to never forget the sacrifice they made and to find a way to honor them. Remembering the promise But time went on. He got out of the service, married, had three kids. He did forget. Then a few years ago, he visited Arlington National Cemetery with his children and came across the memorial plaque erected in honor of Operation Eagle Claw. "I broke down and cried and cried," he recalls. "It all came rushing back to me and renewed my determination to do something." When he returned to Florida, he put up a sign in his office with the men's names on it. He toyed with a plan to build a yacht and auction it off. But that would take too long. After he and his brother made a 1,700-mile trip from Atlantic Beach, N.C., to Bermuda to New York Harbor in the Intruder-21 - which landed them in Guinness World Records - he decided on this new voyage as a fundraiser for wounded and fallen military. "Dangerous? Not compared to the person stationed at a checkpoint in Iraq searching for contraband in vehicles," Brown says. "It's not even the same ballgame. What I'm doing is a fun adventure. What they're doing is life-and-death work." He's created www.crossthe atlantic.com, where supporters can track the voyage in real time and donate to the cause. For a donation of $30 or more, you'll get a polo or T-shirt with the slogan "Do More Than Just Say Thanks." He's identified several recipient charities, including the Special Operations Wounded Warrior Foundation, Disabled American Veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project and Britain's Help for Heroes. His goal: to sell 150,000 shirts. But without corporate sponsors, this journey would not be possible. Securing that financial support was Brown's full-time job for nearly a year, and he's still seeking them via his Web site. The estimated cost of the trip is $300,000. His big break came when Norm Miller came on board. He's the chairman of Interstate Batteries and one of the founders of I Am Second, a nonprofit Internet outreach ministry that features video faith-based testimonies of hope, inspiration and transformation on its Web site. The campaign, which is designed to help people discover their purpose in life by putting God first, has drawn nearly 1 million unique visitors from 192 countries on www.iam second.com since launching in early December. Interstate is supplying funding and equipment, including three of its batteries to power the boat. I Am Second will be a venue for the Browns to share their story of faith and the challenge of the high seas. "We've got outrageously dependable batteries, and this is an outrageous trip," says Miller with a laugh, playing upon the company's slogan. "Really, we were so impressed with their idea of raising money for our fallen and wounded heroes who serve this country. We hope this catches on and encourages people to support this." Doing it for the Lord Miller may even join the brothers on one of the voyage's legs. "I'm 70 and a chicken with a big mouth," he admits. "I haven't ruled it out yet." On the home front, Anne Brown, Ralph's wife of 19 years, says "everything in my body goes against" what her husband and brother-in-law are doing. But she also knows that she could not deter his dream. How could she stand in the way of that promise? "When he first talked about it, I said, 'Oh no, you're not.' Then I turned to prayer," she says. "Once the funding started to come in, I figured it was something the Lord wanted him to do." Besides, with the recent rash of unexpected deaths in the Bay area and across the country, Anne Brown is taking a pragmatic view. "When the Lord decides to call you home, that's when you're going. Whether you're home sleeping in bed or out at sea, when it's your time, it's your time." For support, she'll depend on her church community at Northcliffe Baptist in Spring Hill, and their three children, ages 13, 16 and 19. Ralph Brown promised to be home in time to help deliver their eldest to his first year in college. "He's got drive, he's got desire," Anne Brown says. "The only thing I worry about is the exhaustion." Last Saturday's sendoff by friends and family was a joyous occasion. The Brown boys got hugs, cheers and a prayer from Sarasota evangelist Tresa Milville . "Prayer works," Milville says. "They will need all they can get." Check the Web site to see their progress. And help Ralph keep that promise. We wouldn't be celebrating our freedom today without the brave men and women who have made it possible.
Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613. Keyword: Voyage, to get more on this high seas adventure.