To understand Karen Witter, you have to ignore the fact that she’s pretty. What you see in Karen is cosmetic glamor, fresh wax on a Formula I. An attractive sheen that belies the power and deeper sense of purpose underneath. The impoverished people of Jaramillo in Baja California, for instance, wouldn’t recognize this Karen Witter. They do know a blonde dynamo with dirty fingernails who gave up a Long Beach summer to build them a schoolhouse a couple of years ago. But this glossy gringo is a stranger. Poised, straightforward and razor-sharp, Witter hates labels but an “adventurer” tag would not be far off the mark. Consider her recent job as a stewardess on a hot-air balloon, casually serving champagne to joy riders high above the California desert. “I’m not afraid of doing most of the things others are afraid of doing,” she tells us. “I’d rather do something physically dangerous than go along on an even keel.” That’s an apt metaphor. Karen is a sailor. More than that, at 20, she’s a sea creature, at home on or in the water. She has made a pact with the ocean that weekend tars and motorboat dilettantes only dream about. “I like being on the ocean away from people; you wake up and look out and there’s nothing around you but water. You could be on your way to China if your navigation were off. Sailing is sensuous. I love the smell of the water, the feeling of the wind and the sun. If there’s a storm, it’s even more exciting. You know the boat could die at any moment. Or fog. I’ve been in fog so thick at night you couldn’t see the bow from the stern.” Indeed, the only thing Karen cares as much about as sailing is learning. She has virtually conquered Spanish and is taking a bead on Greek. Her current college courses will lead her to a degree in either medicine or psycho-physiology, the study of the relationship between mind and body. “It’s a fairly new field that I find especially interesting,” she says. In typical Witter fashion, she is low-key about her considerable intelligence. “I think it’s harder to be dumb than to be smart,” she laughs. “I mean, you really have to make an effort to be dumb.”
Following a brief stint at the University of California at Irvine, Karen decided to pursue her education, and her boyfriend, Peter, in the palm-shaded halls of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. There are two ways to get to Hawaii. Karen and Peter opted for the more difficult. With another couple, they sailed the 44-foot sloop Luthien out of Newport Beach across the big pond.
Two weeks on the Pacific is not a Sunday sail. On a well-equipped boat with an experienced crew, the odds of making Waikiki harbor change minute to minute with the whims of the sea. At best, it could be boring; at worst, fatal. But Karen, Peter and their friends made it in 16 days. She is now on campus at the university, suffering the banalities of physics, Spanish, pharmacology and physical education. But we don’t think it’ll be long before Karen strikes out on another adventure. As she told us: “I’d rather not follow any path that someone else has already taken.”