Sebastian & Pam Blanchard: A love storyBy DAVID GUSTAFSON,
It’s the type of unlikely love story that Hollywood screenwriters spend their entire careers dreaming about..
After all, they were a beautiful young couple straight out of Central Casting.
She was a blonde bombshell. Born in Louisiana. Raised in Mississippi by a single mother who did her best to teach her three daughters to be strong, independent women.
She was a brilliant student. A natural teacher – just like her mama. Sweet. Sassy. Brave.
Hardworking with a heart of gold.
He was tall, dark, and handsome. Smart, but unassuming. Carefree. A free-thinking Southern boy through and through.
The son of a tugboat captain, he was always the friendliest guy on the block. Always the nicest guy in the room.
He was a self-admitted party animal who loved to have a good time, but he was also never afraid of rolling up his sleeves and putting in a hard day’s work. He, too, had a heart of gold.
The 398-word, abbreviated script outline would have sounded a little something like this:
It was a whirlwind courtship. Life on the farm. Life in the classroom. Life offshore. Life apart. Life together. A stint in New Orleans.
Money. Success. Happiness. Sadness. Emptiness. Loneliness. Trading the hustle and bustle for a life aquatic and a sailboat named “Night Moves.”
Just the two of them. Against the world.
Sailing to Florida. Life in paradise. Music. Friends. Contentment. Paradise rocked. Their lives blindsided by a terrifying, life-threating, life-altering, life-changing medical emergency.
A brain bleed. A hemorrhagic stroke. Chances of survival only 1-in-4. But survival, nonetheless.
Time to start from scratch. Learn how to walk again. Learn how to talk again. Learn how to live again. Just the two of them. Against the world.
An impossible physical recovery ahead. An impossible mental recovery ahead. An impossible – and seemingly insurmountable – financial recovery ahead.
Somehow, they managed to beat the odds – or so they thought.
Paradise rocked again – this time by a sucker punch from a Category 5 bitch named Irma. The weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed. But, no Skipper. No Gilligan. Just the two of them. Against the world.
Lost at sea. Left for dead. Rocked by 40-knot winds and 40-foot waves. They accepted their fate. Said their good-byes.
What’s that sound in the darkness? What’s that noise in the night? A bird? A plane? How about a 40-ton steel angel with a 132-foot wingspan? How about a $30 million C-130 Hercules? Made by Lockheed Martin. Built for high altitude, deep ocean reconnaissance.
Semper Paratus. Always Ready.
One more night alone. One more night at sea. There’s that noise again. This time, it’s an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter made by Sikorsky and piloted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Built for redemption and daring, dangerous, death-defying high seas rescues by Elliot the Rescue Swimmer.
Back on solid ground in the Quarter. Sailboat gone for good. Time to start from scratch. Time for a re-do. Starting over. Again. Just the two of them. Against the world.
But instead of a sailboat, this time in a 27-foot RV named “Daisy Mae.” Coast to coast and back again. Wanderlust. Life on the road, until they’re not.
Back in the Hub City. Back in the ‘Burg. New friends. New family. Putting down roots once and for all. A new house. A new home. Happiness. Contentment.
Now twenty-two years married. It’s still just the two of them. Against the world.
“Believe it or not, we met at Ropers, of all places,” remembers Pam Blanchard. “It was Halloween 1997 and we both ended up there – separately – with our friends. I can still remember the costumes. He was dressed as ‘white trash’ and I was dressed as ‘dead country’ and together, we made quite a pair.”
As it turns out, the two had a number of mutual friends, but despite being at the same place at the same time on more than one occasion, their paths had never crossed.
“We talked that night for quite a while and looking back now, I think there was definitely a spark,” said Pam. “There was something special about him.”
The following Tuesday was ‘Ladies Night’ so the pair made plans for their paths to cross again before Sebastian headed back offshore to report for work at Chevron.
“This was before we had cell phones or texting or even Facebook, so we didn’t have a lot of options for staying in touch,” explained Sebastian. “But I invited her to attend an Aerosmith concert with me the following month when I got back to town and we made plans.”
“Yeah, I told him the only way I would go is if I could take a friend,” said Pam with a chuckle. “I mean, I had just met this guy.”
So instead of buying two tickets, Sebastian bought three of them and the Nov. 26, 1997 concert at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum was the couple’s official first date and it went swimmingly.
“Although, I’m not really sure who the third wheel was,” said Sebastian. “I’m pretty sure it was me.”
For Pam, the chemistry was immediate.
“When you know, you just know,” she said. “He was so kind and so sweet, and I just fell head over heels for him and within a few weeks, we were talking about getting a place together.
AN ADVENTURE FROM THE START
By January – just a couple of months after their first date, Sebastian said they were already seriously talking about marriage.
They tied the knot on March 13, 1998 at the Forrest County Courthouse – after paying $25 and sitting through a DUI trial so the judge could sign the marriage license.
She was 22. He was 25.
“It just sort of happened,” said Sebastian. “Neither one of us were trying real hard and everything felt right. I had never dated anyone who always made me feel like the most important person in the room and I knew it was special.”
Like many young couples, the first several years were a blur. They went back to college and both earned degrees. Pam taught English at Angie Junior High in Washington Parish (she was named ‘Teacher of the Year’ there in 2005) and later at a charter school in New Orleans.
Sebastian returned to his job offshore and spent his time at home building them a house on his parent’s land in rural Marion County.
With Pam having to commute back and forth to New Orleans each day, the couple finally decided one day to pack up and move to the Crescent City, a place they had always loved.
“We just closed the door and left everything behind. I guess that eventually became the story of our life together,” said Pam. “We’d get a wild hair and the next thing you know, we’re on the move.”
For Sebastian, the tight-knit community they found in New Orleans was something he had been searching for his entire life.
“Family has always been important to me,” he said. “But sometimes the bond you find with your closest friends is even stronger than blood. We love New Orleans to this day because of the friends we made there.”
But paying both a mortgage in Mississippi and rent in Louisiana eventually took its toll and after several years of living their best New Orleans life, they returned to the house they had built in Marion County with plans to raise cattle and build a bustling farm operation on the 120 acres they had acquired.
With Sebastian still working offshore, Pam eventually quit teaching and focused on the farm and their growing herd of heritage breed Piney Woods cattle.
“Pam has always been the most determined, the strongest person – man or woman – that I have ever known,” said Sebastian. “She has always been willing to take a risk and go along with my crazy ideas. Without her by my side, I would not have ever had the courage to do half the things I have done.”
COME SAIL AWAY
“We were down on the coast one day just walking around one of the harbors and I mentioned to Sebastian that I had always wanted to live on a boat,” said Pam. “He looked at me and said, ‘Me too.’ So, we made a down payment on a sailboat.”
Neither of them had ever sailed before, but the folks they purchased the boat from agreed to take them out on a maiden voyage to (literally) show them the ropes.
“The hippies we bought the boat from had painted a big alien on the back of it so, umm, that’s who was teaching us how to sail,” chuckled Sebastian. “That one lesson was pretty much the extent of our training,” but we didn’t look back.”
The plan was to work at the farm during the week and spend weekends on the coast, but that didn’t last long.
“I loved it so much that I didn’t want to go home,” said Pam. “So, you guessed it. We decided to sell everything we own and moved onto a 31-foot 1977 Bombay Pilothouse named ‘Night Moves,’ like the Bob Seger song.”
We were just young and restless and bored (Ooh-ooh-ooh) Livin' by the sword and
We'd steal away every chance we could
With a new floating address and plenty of work to do around the boatyard, Sebastian took an early retirement in the summer of 2016 and accepted a severance package from his employer that provided some steady income while they settled into their new floating life.
Later that summer, they sailed out for Marathon, Florida – a spot down in the Keys that they had fallen in love with on an earlier visit.
“It was paradise on earth,” said Sebastian. “It was exactly what we wanted and really what we needed, and we intended to make the most of it.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
But their stay in paradise was short lived.
A LIVING NIGHTMARE
There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about Sunday, Aug. 6, 2016.
“It was a great day,” said Pam. “We had been out that evening. Sebastian had been playing music at one of our local hangouts. I sang. He played guitar. We had gone fishing earlier in the day.”
They ended the night like any other – sitting on the boat with their feet hanging over the edge while looking up at the stars and contemplating how lucky they were to be living that particular dream.
They crawled down into the cabin and drifted off to sleep with smiles on their face as they thought about the sun-soaked day ahead of them.
Around 4 a.m. that morning, Sebastian woke up with a splitting headache that seemed to be getting steadily worse.
Twelve hours later, he was on a medical helicopter being airlifted to Miami.
“It’s really bad,” the doctor told Pam. “A neurosurgeon will be waiting.”
He had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, caused by the rupture of a weakened blood vessel in his brain. His chance of survival was less than 30 percent.
“I was devastated,” remembers Pam. “One day he was fine. The next day, he’s being wheeled into brain surgery and I’m being told he may not live. I could see how badly he was hurting and I was terrified I was going to lose him.”
Although Sebastian remembers some of what happened, much remains a blur.
“I had accepted the fact I might die,” said Sebastian. “But I never was really scared. I know that sounds strange, but for some reason I just knew everything was going to be okay. And if that meant me dying, then I knew it was still going to be okay. I was at peace.”
As he was being taken to surgery, Sebastian told Pam that he loved her one last time and did his best to comfort her.
“He kept telling me that I was going to be okay,” she said. “There he was. Headed to surgery. And even in that moment of uncertainty, he was thinking about me.”
There would eventually be three brain surgeries. Twenty-eight days in the neurological intensive care unit. Extensive physical therapy. He had to re-learn how to walk and talk and perform even the simplest of tasks.
A year later, there were more surgeries and the slow road to recovery continued – all while Pam did her best to navigate the tangled web of health insurance, deductibles and bureaucratic red tape.
“We were used to starting over, but this was something altogether different,” said Pam. “It was exhausting.”
Back on the sailboat, they did their best to make sense of the cards they had been dealt. Unable to work or be alone for extended periods of time, Sebastian struggled with depression and Pam was left to care for them both as well as a Miniature Schnauzer named Layla that had to come to live with them to provide some much-needed comfort during the slow rehabilitation.
In addition to the “normal” day-to-day caretaking responsibilities, there was also the added challenge of doing it while living on a sailboat and everything that comes with it – including keeping an eye on the weather.
In late August 2017, weather reports began to surface in the Atlantic about a storm brewing that could potentially be heading their way.
Even though the projections indicated the storm would head up the East Coast and away from their protected harbor on the Gulf side of Florida, they decided to leave the Keys out of precaution and sail back to Mississippi to see family and knock out some scheduled boat repairs.
It would be good for them both to be back home and they set sail for home an entire week before the storm was expected to hit landfall.
It wasn’t enough.
Several days into what should have been a routine trip, a rogue band spun off from the storm – which had since been declared a Category 5 Hurricane named Irma – and it began dumping torrential rains onto the vessel. Gale force winds rocked the boat while 30-foot waves crashed into the sails and sent water into the cabin below, where Pam was hunkered down with the dog.
Sebastian was top side, tethered to the boat and doing his best to keep them moving in the right direction, but a broken rudder left him unable to steer and they found themselves dead in the water.
“We were at the mercy of the wind and sea,” said Sebastian. “And they were pissed.”
They were 100 miles south of Apalachicola, Florida when they sent an emergency distress signal and a C-130 reconnaissance plane was sent out to search for them – along with other boats trapped in the storm.
By the time they found the sailboat, night had fallen, and rescue attempts would have to wait until the next morning.
“I think it was the longest night of our lives,” said Pam. “All we could do is just wait as they boat slammed back and forth from the waves.”
Early the next morning, a Coast Guard rescue helicopter arrived and airlifted them to safety.
Back on dry ground in New Orleans, Petty Officer Elliot Ross, a seasoned rescue swimmer, described it as one of the most-difficult high seas rescues he had ever tackled.
Sebastian and Pam had lost literally everything – including their home. The sailboat was never spotted again and most likely ended up at the bottom of the ocean, which is where the Blanchards would have likely ended up, too, had they not been rescued.
“We think about that a lot,” said Pam. “To say we are fortunate is not adequate enough. We are blessed beyond measure. Everything happens for a reason – even things like Sebastian’s stroke. Had we not been where we were when that happened, I would be sitting here alone. We have always been exactly where we needed to be. Somebody is looking out for us.”
After a short stint in New Orleans and some time travelling the country in a 27-foot RV they purchased after the storm, Sebastian and Pam made their way back to the Pine Belt and eventually to Hattiesburg, where they found a new community of friends that have become more like a family to them.
And just like that, in a blink of an eye, more than 22 years have passed.
Maybe it was Sebastian’s stroke or perhaps it was the storm or maybe it’s simply a collection of all the things they have seen and experienced along the way. But, regardless of the reason, it’s clear in many ways that Sebastian and Pam Blanchard are not the same people they were when they first met all those years ago.
They’re even better.
Somehow through it all, they have managed to find peace and strength within themselves – and in one another.
And in spite of those incredible odds, their love has not only endured, it has prospered.
Surrounded by friends in a community they love dearly, Sebastian and Pam no longer feel alone.
They no longer feel like they’re on their own.
Just the two of them.
Against the world.