By Jill Fredston
Katherine Serena Laird died Sept. 26, 2023. She packed an extraordinary amount of vibrance, cheer, grace, wit, and wisdom into her 55 years. A voracious learner, she was teaching herself Korean right up to her last days.
The only child of Daniel and Sally Ford, Kate was raised in Durham, New Hampshire where the sea cast a hold. While in high school at Philips Exeter Academy, she ventured to Washington, D.C. to intern with a U.S. senator. Remaining passionate about civic engagement, Kate always found time to add her articulate voice to community and political concerns. Kate graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1990 with a history degree and a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard master’s license. While there, she was captain of the water polo team, worked on a whale watching boat, and developed friendships that withstood distance and decades. Her roommates remember her wielding a sextant for a celestial navigation course, and becoming proficient in Morse code by tapping out the banter of a radio disk jockey.
Kate’s first teaching job began immediately after graduation as tutor for a family sailing across the Pacific Ocean. From sailing dinghies as a youngster, to climbing the rigging of a tall ship, to single-handing a 28-foot sloop, Kate’s zeal never wavered. After earning a rare female crew spot in the BT Global Challenge yacht race and proving herself so capable that she was entrusted with the helm on the most extreme leg¾more than 6,000 miles upwind from Australia to South Africa¾Kate knew at her core that she could do or figure out just about anything. In 1998, Kate seized an opportunity to sail to the Antarctic Peninsula, planning to finance the trip using skills she had honed during two years teaching English and earning a master’s degree in writing at the University of New Hampshire. Kate smiled often, but her grin was especially luminous when recalling this voyage. “It was life-changing,” she liked to say. “For starters, I ended up marrying the captain.”
Kate and Hamish Laird spent the next two years running Pelagic, one of the first charter sailboats to offer trips at the exacting southern fringe of the globe. Then, undaunted by what most would deem undoable, they launched plans for a new boat and a family nearly simultaneously. With toddler Helen (Lenny) and weeks-old Anna (AJ) in tow, Kate and Hamish began building Seal, a 56-foot, aluminum, high latitude expedition sailboat. They hauled the bare hull to her parents’ front yard and spent a year fitting out the interior, including an electrical system designed and installed by Kate. Following a shakedown cruise to Belize, the family sailed to Greenland and the U.K. before changing hemispheres to offer charters around Cape Horn, into the intricate channels of Patagonia, and across potentially fearsome swaths of ocean to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands. Kate’s evocative accounts of these journeys, and some of the other 85,000 miles eventually logged together as a family, jumped off the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Sail, and other publications.
The children grew up thinking that the planet was populated by penguins and fur seals, with pockets of humans in between. Kate fanned their curiosity and committed herself to providing them with both a practical and an academically rigorous education. Her book, “Homeschool Teacher,” published in 2016, became a lifeline for many parents during COVID. When the time came, Kate could not have been prouder to watch her teenagers head ashore to pursue their own interests at Dartmouth and Yale.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2008, Kate resourcefully found ways to manage her treatment while still living and working remotely. Migrating north via New Zealand and Japan, the Lairds embraced Cordova, Alaska as their home port in 2013. The wildlife-rich waters of Prince William Sound, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Aleutians became treasured haunts explored by sail, foot, ski, oar, and paddleboard.
Kate is survived by Hamish, Lenny, AJ, her father Dan, and a deep roster of friends and family worldwide. Donations in Kate’s memory can be directed to lobular breast cancer research (https://www.justgiving.com/page/kate-laird-lobular-cancer-research).