Sailing, sailing to give thanks for son's life | March 14, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - March 14, 2008

Sailing, sailing to give thanks for son's life

Sailors on a Mission deliver the whole wide ocean to sick children

by Natalie O'Neill

In the middle of the night, Stephane Plihon woke to find his 5-month-old boy had stopped breathing. The color had been drained from his face and his tiny chest was still.

"His lips were blue and his face had changed color," the Danville father remembers.

Born prematurely, his son Evan Luc had underdeveloped lungs - a source of stress for his parents, especially during the night. Preemie babies sometimes stop breathing in their sleep, and Plihon, now 37, knew how crucial it was to monitor his newborn's breath.

"Sometimes you can just wake them up and they will come back," he said.

But not this time.

After a frantic phone call to 911 - and the anxious minutes that followed - emergency technicians were able to supply Evan Luc quickly with enough oxygen to snap him into consciousness.

Evan Luc is now an active 7-year-old, speaks three languages, and loves to sail with his dad. But Plihon hasn't forgotten about the close call.

That's why he began Sailors on a Mission, a nonprofit group that raises money for Children's Hospital Oakland through sailing adventures. It provides much-needed funds to the hospital to help with things like the intensive care unit and kids with no health insurance.

"I always wanted to do something; to be thankful," Plihon said.

The organization is just getting off the ground, but volunteers eventually plan to take sick or recovering children out on a boat with their family. It also gives patients education about the ocean, boating, marine life and environmental impacts.

"It really kind of gives them a chance to view life from a different angle," Plihon said. "When you're sailing, it's like you're dreaming. There are no buildings to block your view."

The group is targeting the Bay Area sailing, boating and yacht clubs and communities. It's looking for volunteers and donations.

Donations are made through an online fundraiser Web site that offers high e-commerce security. The money goes directly to the children's hospital.

Suzanne Beauregard, director of corporate relations for the foundation branch of the hospital, said organizations like Sailors on a Mission keep the hospital afloat. Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland turns no child away - insured or uninsured.

"We have needs every day for every kid," Beauregard said.

Another way Plihon will raise money is through accepting pledges for the Pacific Cup, a roughly two-week-long sailing race from San Francisco to Hawaii. On the journey, he'll use a 24-foot sail boat called Le Flying Fish. The global software director will take with him one sailing partner, two weeks worth of freeze-dried food and a "piece of cloth" for a bunk.

"The comfort level will be almost zero. There is barely sitting room. The toilet is a bucket," he said.

They will bring about 30 gallons of water for drinking; they will use ocean water for showering.

Growing up in Brittany, France, Plihon's friends had posters of soccer players and pop stars on their bedroom walls. He had pictures of sailboats.

Long distance sailboat racing was popular in the coastal region, and in some circles, the top sailors were as glorified as Bay Area NBA stars. Plihon sailed a few times in France but didn't start taking lessons until he got to the Bay Area in 1997.

Once in California, he tried out small boats at the Cal Sailing Club in Berkeley, before he moved to racing keel boats in the Bay. After much training, he made his first journey from San Francisco to Hawaii on a 39-foot boat in 2006.

This year his boat will be smaller. And the smaller the boat, the bigger the challenge.

"We have the skills to do it. Now, it's just the preparation; the mental work," he said. The adventure begins in July.

Additionally, Sailors on a Mission will bring boats into the parking lot at the Children's Hospital Oakland to help kids learn about sailing and to raise awareness about the ocean and the environment.

Bringing a boat onto hospital grounds is a way to let sick children - many with brain aneurisms, tumors and sickle cell anemia - to see something outside of the hospital walls.

It gives them a reason to get out of bed, Beauregard said.

The second mission of the nonprofit is to raise awareness about the ocean, pollution and endangered marine species. Plastic gets into the ocean and, since it doesn't biodegrade, it's broken down into small pieces. Sea creatures then ingest the toxic material.

"It's basically destroying the marine life," Plihon said, explaining the importance of recycling and using paper or cloth bags at the supermarket, as opposed to plastic.

Sailors on a Mission has given similar educational presentations to students at St. Isidore School in Danville, where his two children attend. When it comes to kids and the ocean, their curiosity is flowing fast, he said.

"These kids get captivated," he said.

For sick young people at Children's Hospital Oakland, igniting that spark of curiosity - or just giving them a reason to get out of bed - can do a whole lot for their will to live.

"It opens their minds to new horizons," Plihon said. "It makes them dream."

To find out more about Sailors on a Mission or to make a donation, visit