Monday, November 2, 2009

Boat Tests - Notes From A Sailing Life

Today I am writing a new boat review.  I have written a lot of these over the years, more than 100 I think. And although at times I struggle to find the right tone, the right adjectives, I always take the task seriously.  You can’t hastily knock off a review, you have to get it right, you owe that to the folks in the sailing business.  Last month I spent a few days after the Annapolis show sailing four different boats to be reviewed in upcoming issues of Sailing, and I was once again struck by just how devoted builders are to putting out quality, innovative boats.  I am convinced that that most sailboat builders see just one way out of the downturn, to build the best possible boats they can.  I am not sure that makes economic sense but it is the ethos that drives this industry we all love. Don’t get me wrong, this blog isn’t an advertorial, or clandestinely sponsored by a sailboat manufacturer, it’s based on almost three decades of observing the sailing industry come to terms with the sad fact that fewer and fewer people are interested in the product they sell. 


Sailing, as a mainstream recreational pursuit, is certainly not growing, yet the industry continues to put out products that represent the latest advances in materials, construction and in many cases, design.  Several boats at the show featured synthetic rigging, an idea that has gone from being talked about to reality quickly.  Carbon fiber has become widespread in applications from hull laminations, to rudder posts, to spars. Performance boats, like Barry Carroll’s Summit 35, have ingenious interiors that make the catch phrase, dual purpose, more than a catch phrase.  From Forespar’s Leisurefurl booms to Harken’s brilliant new winch designs, the industry continues to develop products that make sailing easier, safer and ultimately more efficient.  But will it matter?  I don’t know. I do know that sailing is more fun and more rewarding than ever before.  


“So how do you actually test a boat?”  I hear this question frequently.  Well, I am here to confess that it isn’t scientific but it is thorough.   The editors, Greta and Erin usually pick the boats to be reviewed and then photographer Bob Greiser arranges the schedule during the days immediately following the show.  I inspect each boat at the show, usually on the last day when the crowds are thin.   The next morning Greiser and I head out into the Bay on his 22’ inflatable photo boat and find our first boat.  Most boats are out sailing; waiting for journalists, conducting test sails, or just allowing the sales staff to blow off steam after an exhausting weekend.  We spot our boat, Greiser maneuvers along side, I climb aboard, and the test begins. 


We have to make the most of the conditions, logistics don’t allow for us to reschedule if there is no wind. Luckily this year the wind was fresh, we had four great sails.  I am always happy when the builder, designer, or other principals are aboard. I am able to get insights in person that would be tougher to glean later on the phone.  We chat, we sail, and do really put the boat through its paces.  We’ve been a lot better lately of setting chutes, code zeroes, and any other sail that helps inform readers.  And, let’s be straight, popping the kite is fun, and makes for better pictures.  I typically spend a few hours aboard, steering, trimming, probing around.  We try to sail on every tack and I try to find out just who the manufacturer envisions as his or her customer for the boat.  Ultimately, I evaluate a boat based on what the builder is trying to achieve, not my own set off criteria. That’s the key, I think, to boat testing – to understand what the builder was trying to do and to see how well they did it. 


When I am satisfied, I signal to Greiser. He pulls along side, I pitch him my notebook and scramble back in the photo boat.  We’ve been doing this dog and pony show for many years.  In Miami, I work with my friend, photographer Walter Cooper, and it’s the same process.  One year, Greiser and I had some heroics in blustery San Francisco Bay after the Oakland show, as he somehow managed to bring a small whaler alongside several boats in 6’ seas and I stumbled on and off. 


I know that one of these years I am going to make a misstep and end up in the soup. That’s going to be my sign that it will be time to bring some fresh blood into the boat review business. But until then, I will keep doing what has to be one of the best gigs afloat. 



Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Part 2 - Waypoints - Notes From a Sailing Life

Okay, I know, I didn’t keep up my part of the blogging bargain, as many of you have so kindly reminded me. I am sorry, really. But you should know that I started to blog, or started the blog, verb, noun, whatever, I swear I did. But then another stinking tropical storm spun to life, and then I had another passage to plan, and two articles were overdue, and then dolphins abducted me in the Cabot Strait, then…I know, woeful, pathetic excuses, the bloody blog just bogged down. Say that three times.

But maybe you’re lucky I didn’t blog as intended because while waiting for Hurricane Bill to arrive I was lying in my bunk reading a book of poems by Ogden Nash. It was a tattered volume of his collected works. I had found it on the bookshelf in the laundry-mat in St. John’s. It was an old hard cover, dedicated to Bill, which I found terribly coincidental, and it was from Ivy, who I assumed was a wonderful Newfoundland woman with a great sense of humor.

I love Ogden Nash and, “was inspired by his silly verses but would have been fired by my wet nurses, because, sadly my many attempts at rhyme turned out badly each time”…Hey don’t laugh, this stuff is harder than it looks. I warned you, okay here’s the Nash(ism) I was going to start the blog off with:

“Bill turned up in the middle of the night,
but he forgot to pack his called for might.
Darkness gave way to the breath of first light,
it seemed your blogging friend had slept through the night.”

I shouldn’t admit it after all the sheer drama of my previous blog, but I fell asleep just as Hurricane Bill arrived with a few moans and gusts. I woke once, I think, or maybe I dreamed I woke, either way, the next thing I knew for sure was that Bill was on his way to Ireland, the air was crisp and clean and Randy and I were having breakfast at Velma’s on Water Street. Hurricane Bill had more bluster than bite, the Canadian media makes as much of a circus of tropical storms as we do.

Greatly relieved, I left Quetzal tied to the wharf in St. John’s Harbor and dashed back home to give a lecture. The very next weekend Tropical Storm Danny followed in Bill’s wake and again took aim on poor old Newfoundland. This time I took the advice of my friends and stayed home. Randy, Frank, Peter, Hubert and others kept an eye on her and I knew she was in good hands, although unheralded Danny caused more of a stir in the harbor than big bad Bill the week before. Still, I was a nervous wreck and would have been happier reading Ogden Nash in my bunk then checking every 15 minutes. Don’t worry nothing rhymes from here to the end of the blog.

Less than a week later I was back in St. John’s making preparations for the voyage to Nova Scotia. This passage was great fun as we made our to Lunenburg via Cape Race, St. Pierre, Miquelon, Ramea, and the Bra d’ Or Lakes. And that’s where Quetzal rests now, lying on a mooring behind Alan and Anne Marie Creaser’s house. The storied port of Lunenburg is her home away from home – that’s what I call a waypoint.

Now lets talk about waypoints. I think of a waypoint as a point where something significant happened or may happen, or in my case of wandering the world, a place where I’ve encountered people who have become dear friends. I have been traveling, seriously traveling, most of my adult life. I am addicted to pressing on. And despite this need to keep moving, the nature of landfalls, stumbling headlong into a foreign port, is made for making friends, at least that’s how it works out for me. Even short visits turn profound and this seems more so as I get older.

As I rumble around the Atlantic, year after year, I find myself turning up at certain waypoints time and again. Of course some might call this just mooching off your friends but I’d like to think it’s more than that. Here are some of those promised waypoints.

Waypoint 1) Spring Cove Marina, Solomons Island Maryland

Okay, I have to admit straight up that this a family connection. My sister Liz and brother-in-law Trevor are part owners and full time managers of this beautiful marina and boatyard overlooking Back Creek. More than a few summers back Liz abandoned grad school to sail with Trevor across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and they eventually fetched up in Solomons and have been at Spring Cove ever since. Quetzal always finds her way here, and not only because I’m family. This is the nicest marina and yard combination on the Bay, really. The slips are shaded, the facilities terrific and the yard is staffed by sailors. From Alan, Trevor’s brother, to Don, Dorian and others, everybody who works in the yard has sailed across an ocean. Alan and Trevor have both completed circumnavigations. Don sailed over from California in his Ericson 41 and Dorian came up from South Africa in a handsome Herreshoff sloop he built himself. These guys know what they’re doing and Quetzal is much better off for it.

Waypoint 2) Marblehead, Massachusetts

Quetzal reached this lovely, bluff sided, sailboat stuffed harbor last July. I had been, by land, a few times before to visit my friends Dan and Linda Sullivan. Dan, who claims I saved his life, is one of the planet’s great people. Linda, is even better. Tadji and I were blissfully kid free when tied up at the harbormaster’s dock, and Dan and Linda invited us to stay in their guesthouse overlooking the harbor. Guesthouse is a bit misleading, for those that know Marblehead, it’s one of the ‘Grey Ladies’ perched out over the SW corner of the harbor, or as Dan calls it, haabaw. Moving ashore for three days was a tactical mistake on my part. After staying in this beautifully restored turn of the century so called cottage, Tadji was not enthusiastic about shifting back to Quetzal. Instead we stayed with Dan and Linda until it was time for her to go back to work and I enlisted the help of my friend Todd Sumner to sail on to Nova Scotia. Be wary of friends in Marblehead.

Waypoint 3) Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

My friends, and probably my enemies too are weary of me waxing on about Lunenburg. I love this place. It is as a nautical as it gets in N. America, tall ships and still a few fishing boats line the brightly colored wharves as the city tries to find its way forward now that commercial fishing is not what it used to be. And the city will because the sea runs through the veins of Lunenburg. Alan Creaser, who I met five years ago after tying up to the wharf next to his restaurant, The Old Fish Factory, has become one of my best friends. We traveled together in France this summer, he’s been down to Florida, and he takes care of Quetzal when she’s in Lunenburg. Alan traces his family ties in Lunenburg to the first wave of German immigrants who came in 1753. The haunting memorial on the waterfront, near the wharf where the Bluenose schooner docks, has plenty of Creasers inscribed in the black marble stele. All the families of Lunenburg are represented, for these are the fathers, brothers uncles and friends who have perished at sea. Some years are chilling and all too well represented, like 1926 and 1927, when hurricanes caught the fishing fleet unaware on the Grand Banks. When you drop anchor in Lunenburg, and come ashore for your first Dark and Stormy at the Grand Banker bar, you’ll know that you’ve come to one of the Atlantic’s best waypoints.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Part One - Waypoints - Where is Bill?

I am sitting below, wishing for the 1,000th time, that I had not pitched the table when I replaced the mast last year. It seemed like a good idea at the time, especially because I had trimmed the table with the delicacy of a Russian midwife, with a saw-z-all no less, while frantically stepping the mast after the Italian tornado disaster. You see, I had to hire a crane, a monster of a crane, the kind used for building hideous beachfront condos not for stepping masts, and the meter was running at 500 euros an hour. With 15 Italians gesturing frantically, we had to work fast or risk bankruptcy. When the new mast didn’t fit through the oval hole in the lovely table, I hastily enlarged it. It looked terrible. Three weeks later, in Spain, with the crew of an upcoming transatlantic passage egging me on, we removed it. No that’s not quite right, it was a mob scene, an angry crowd ripping the poor teak and ply table out of the boat like crazed revolutionaries. “Give us more space below, death to the table,” they screamed as they hurled it onto the quay like Romanians dispatching a former dictator. And yes, there is more space, but there’s nowhere to eat or write, alas.

Quetzal is tied to a ragged wharf in St. John’s Newfoundland. Although this blog is going to commit blogging treason by eventually working backwards, I am writing in real time now, as real as it gets, we just bounced off the wharf with a dull thud and I have to stop writing and adjust the fenders. I am alone, waiting for the arrival of hurricane Bill. Of course you are never really alone in Newfoundland. You don’t need a Face Book page to have friends, all you have to do is sail to Newfoundland. These people abhor the idea of a stranger. Anyway I am back in real time, hopefully the fenders will also stay in real time too.

Yes I did say hurricane Bill. What’s the matter with me? I always seem to be where the action is. It defies irony though to live in Fort Lauderdale and have to spend a ridiculous amount of money for a last minute air fare to Newfoundland to have fun with a hurricane. This should put an end to the global warming naysayer’s. Of course the Newfoundlanders are embracing global warming, it’s going to be good for an already good business scene. This place is hopping, what a difference from when I last sailed here 15 years ago. But that’s getting ahead of the story. I know, blogs are not supposed to be stories, they’re supposed to be spontaneous, immediate, intimate, detailed like a log book entry, but I am storyteller, I can’t help it, I have always written backwards.

I wasn’t supposed to fly back up to the rock, as they call it up here, until early September when I have a passage back to Nova Scotia via Cape Breton. I have been on the move this past year and a half, and that‘s saying it quietly. Since last April I’ve logged 16,000 miles aboard Quetzal, visited 24 countries and taken 70 people on passages of one sort or another. Although I am always crossing oceans and always traveling, I am usually able to find a better balance. Last year was hard on my wife Tadji, my kids, and me. Typically I am away 90-100 days, which means I am home 250ish days. Or least with my family for 250ish days as we spend the summer sailing together. And when I am home I am really home, I am not at the office working. I lounge around the house, pretending to be a writer and planning new trips by throwing darts at a world map in the garage. I have plenty of time for soccer games and debate tournaments. Last year I was away 140 days. It was crazy. We retraced the route of Odysseus, sailed all over the Adriatic, led a charter fly and sail trip around the world, rerigged Quetzal and frantically sailed the length of the Med, crossed the Atlantic, sailed up and down the Caribbean chain three times, and then north and east all the way to Newfoundland.

I was really looking forward to the first day of school tomorrow. My daughter Nikki is starting high school and my step son Alex is starting middle school. But I am here, not there, waiting for Godot, oops, waiting for Bill. I was tempted to leave Quetzal in the steady hands of my Newfoundland mates, but with the Italy disaster fresh in my mind, and knowing that I’d be a wreck at home, monitoring NOAA, Stormpulse,Weatherunderground around the clock, I decided to come. Quetzal has been so good to me, and I have sailed her hard and put her away wet for years, I needed to be here with my girl. I am her captain, flat out. My wife thinks it is creepy that I think of the boat in these terms. She loves the boat but to her it is still fiberglass, stainless steel and teak. This is one of those things we agree to disagree about, because…she just doesn‘t understand, as my daughters would say.

Where’s Bill? Environment Canada, the excellent Canadian weather service is saying we should be having 30 to 40 knots out of the SE. It is supposed to blow 50 to 60 from the SW later tonight. We’re lucky, Bill will be a tropical storm when he arrives, not a hurricane, but what’s he doing, it’s calm. My friend Randy Gulliver, who runs a whale watching boat here in the harbor and who has been keeping an eye on Quetzal, actually left the dock for a midnight harbor cruise a few minutes ago. You have to love Newfoundlanders, they judge the weather by going outside and looking at the sky, not by watching the television or staring into a computer screen.

The name of this blog is “waypoints.” I am eventually going to write about waypoints, really. Of course anyone who has sailed with me knows I hate waypoint navigation. I am just not an A to B kind of guy. Staying on the “highway” or “roadmap” is no way to sail or navigate or live your life. I like charts, even electronic ones but mostly I like paper charts. I like to spread them out, I really liked it when I had a table to spread them on, but even using the galley counter I like to put position on chart. I like to see the big picture, to see where we are in relationship to something other than a waypoint. I like dividers and course plotters. I am like an Amish navigator.

Waypoints can be dangerous, blindly steering toward a waypoint in current swept waters can sweep you right onto the rocks. But it is more than that. A waypoint should be significant, someplace worth remembering. This summer I found my way to four memorable waypoints. I’d love to tell you more right now, I am in the mood for writing, but Bill might just be turning up after all. It is starting to rain, it’s starting to blow a bit. It’s getting late. I think I’ll put the tea kettle on, it may be a long night. I will say that these waypoints have little to do with latitude and longitude, just to keep you guessing..

So, lets make a pact. I promise to keep this blog going, to let you know about the waypoints and if Quetzal and I survive Bill. You promise to keep reading.

This is interesting. It’s been sultry, almost silly hot by Newfoundland standards all day, now it’s cooling off big time. Something is going to happen. I am glad I came up after all. Ciao for now.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Fountain of Youth

Originally published on

The search for the Fountain of Youth was not going well. The sailing, however, was about as good as it gets aboard Quetzal. We were flying, blasting before the stirred-up trade winds on a deep reach. The GPS routinely flashed 10, 11 even 12 knots. The main was double reefed, to steady the boat, while a poled-out genoa provided all the horsepower we needed. It was a rollicking ride, and that was the problem.

I had decided to call my latest training passage “The Fountain of Youth Passage,” not because I was feeling old and stodgy and looking for some rejuvenation but because we were sailing from Ponce, Puerto Rico to St. Augustine. This route paralleled the one Juan Ponce de Leon sailed nearly 500 years ago. Historical rumor has it that he was searching for a natural spring with restorative powers. Nobody really knows if Ponce was in fact looking for the fountain, but we do know that he made two pretty important discoveries. The first was a flat, hot, snake- and insect-ridden peninsula called Florida, which, ironically, has been a fountain of youth of sorts for many retirees. And the second was a relentless current that made sailing south from St. Augustine nearly impossible, the Gulf Stream. Yet everybody associates poor old Ponce with his fabled fountain.

My crew for this passage included a couple of repeat victims, some fresh blood, and a couple looking for, well, looking for the fountain of youth. This last couple had almost no sailing experience, but they were enchanted by the prospect of a sea voyage and were game to make a bluewater passage. It all seemed so romantic in Ponce. I think they believed those little placards in the marine stores declaring that time spent sailing is not deducted from your lease on life. Sailing was the next challenge in their lives and they were on a mission to pack in, like beer in a cooler, as many life experiences as possible.

Once we cleared the Mona Passage, the trades kicked in and we took off. Slaloming down the sides of heaped up seas, you had to hold on, both on deck and down below. You know the old saying, “One hand for you, one hand for ship, blah, blah, bla.” It seems simple to most sailors but it is a difficult concept for non-sailors. They don’t like it when their cups fly off the table, when they roll from one side of the bunk to other or when they are flung against a bulkhead and slammed into each other. Nothing is easy at sea. Holding on to your food is a challenge, actually getting it into your mouth an accomplishment. Showers? Forget it, washing your face is a big deal. Unfortunately, it was becoming clear that at least half of the couple wanted off the boat. Ocean sailing was proving to be a bit too real, too rough, nothing like the beautiful pictures in SAILING Magazine and not at all romantic.

We made landfall at Grand Turk, a once charming colonial outpost that was leveled by Hurricane Ike last September and still looks like a war zone. It was sad, most of the structures are still covered with blue tarps and the few trees left standing were denuded. The lack of shade and privacy are the aftermath of hurricane. There was, however, a nice beachfront cantina, with a friendly bartender, Mauve, and she bolstered the couple’s reserve. Things would get better she assured them.

We pressed on for Rum Cay, 250 miles distant. The wind continued to blow with a vengeance and we made landfall 30 hours later! What sailing! We averaged more than 8 knots. Still, somewhere between the peak and valley of a cresting wave a decision was made. We’d head to Georgetown in the beautiful Exumas where the couple could fly back to the states. I was sad, but they weren’t. He explained. Hey, they gave a sailing a shot, and although he might have come to love it, she didn’t, and he supported her decision. That’s what love is all about. I grudgingly agreed, but thought to myself, you’ll never find the fountain of youth that way.

The next morning we sailed into the dreamy turquoise waters of Elizabeth Harbor. We made it just in time for them to catch their flight. The rest of us sought sanctuary in the bar at the Peace and Plenty Hotel. The bartender, Lermon, like Mauve before him, lifted my spirits. He called himself the Doctor of Libation. Serving up one Kalik after another, I began to feel better. I had felt like I’d failed to show this couple the magic and majesty of ocean sailing. That was my job after all, to help folks live their dreams. But Lermon saw it differently. Everyone was responsible for his or her own happiness he explained, “nobody else can do nothin ‘bout it man, nobody.”

Lermon was happy. He bounded about the bar with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. I guessed him to be in his 40s. He had pictures of his wife and kids all over the bar. Wait a minute, his kids looked to be nearly my age and his wife was definitely not a young woman. Wait a minute. How old was he? Do the math he said. I was born in 1942! Yikes, the Doctor of Libation was 67!

Nursing my latest Kalik and gazing out at my beautiful boat swinging to her anchor I realized that Lermon’s bar was the fountain of youth. If only the couple had known how close they were to sipping from the magical tap.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lauderdale: A Canal Level View

Originally published on

I have done a lot of sailing in the past 12 months. I’ve logged more than 9,000 miles aboard my Kaufman 47 cutter Quetzal. I’ve sailed from Turkey to Gibraltar, zigzagging my way around the Mediterranean. I’ve crossed the Atlantic, completing an easy 18-day passage from the Canary Islands to Antigua. I’ve had some terrific north and south reaching in the Caribbean, calling at nearly every island between St. Martin and Trinidad. Plus, I have sailed in Tahiti, Australia and Thailand on last summer’s around-the-world jaunt. So why am I blogging about Fort Lauderdale?

Good question. You see, I maintain two worlds, or maybe I should say, parallel universes. I have my sailing program, and the home front. I conduct training passages aboard Quetzal and then leave the boat wherever the passage winds up. Yes, it makes me nervous to secure my boat in a marina and then hop in a cab to the airport and fly thousands of miles away from her. But leaving the boat in different locations all over the world has not only liberated me but also helped me keep my sanity. When I get home, I am really home, for weeks or even months at a time, time that I can devote to my family and, although my lovely, caring, generous editor at SAILING Magazine will probably go into convulsions when she reads the next line, my writing. Yes, writing is just about as important to me as sailing. And yes, this blog is heading back to Fort Lauderdale.

So now I am home. Quetzal is in Trinidad, and I am on deadline to finish a boat review for the above-mentioned editor. But I am sitting at my computer and not writing a word. I am doing what I usually do, thinking about sailing. Although my house is not on the water, it’s pretty close, and with the current drought killing trees all over the neighborhood, I can see masts from my window. The deadline was still looming this past Sunday. Yes, all of two days ago. I was sitting at the computer. The kids were out of the house, they had regattas, soccer games, debate tournaments and batting practice. A perfect time to write, right? Not really. I needed inspiration.

My wife Tadji, who clandestinely communicates with the above mentioned editor when I am out of town, suggests that we go for a paddle in our kayak, to get a bit of exercise and maybe a bit of inspiration. She phrased it differently, something about getting off my butt and then coming back and doing what I should have done weeks ago. She’s been brainwashed.

We schlepped the kayak down to the river and took off downstream. There was plenty of traffic as illiterate powerboaters were obviously unable to read the NO WAKE signs. We paddled past the sad remains of the former Summerfield Boat Yard, now just an ugly field bordering dilapidated seawalls. The developers who bought the property booted the sailboats out, tore down the old wooden docks, put up signs announcing that they were going to build a $3 million superyacht condominium slips, and then went broke.

We then veered across the river, into the basin at River Bend Marina. Fortunately the guard at the gatehouse couldn’t see us. Ambling along we checked out the boats, one of life’s great pleasures, and of course, a good way to inspire a boat test writer. Tucked between the sad floating hulks were some lovely boats. An old Centurion 32, one of my favorites. An old Swan 41 that somebody was restoring; she looked great. A new Hylas 54 looked out of place, but very nice. We both admired the stainless steel railing that ran all around the boat instead of lifelines.

Back in the river we rode the current downstream, detouring into canals with interesting boats tied up in back yards. We saw the battered Valiant 47 that Ed Pinckney sailed around the great capes years ago, she needs love. We scoped out a handsome Sabre 402, and not far away was a beautiful Hinckley B40. Right across the canal was a salty Tayana 37 and, next to it, a beautiful Camper Nic 35. There was even a Kaufman 49, sistership, but for a stretched stern, to Quetzal. She looked sleek in the water.

We continued beyond the Davie Blvd. bridge, and the current made paddling easy. We saw a Slocum 43 that a friend had recently purchased, another friend’s Hylas 49 and a lovely Bowman 46. Then we turned around. Downstream was the inspiration, upstream was the exercise, or so it seemed. Actually paddling hard, I thought about this unique perspective of Fort Lauderdale. Yes, the city has lost some its sailing luster, not all cruising boats pass through anymore, and the city has worked diligently to scare away liveaboards. Still, if you get down to canal level, and take a look around, there are some amazing boats tucked away in Fort Lauderdale.

Back at my desk I felt inspired. Two days later I e-mailed the boat review. You can’t rush art.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Back from the tornado

Originally published on

Somewhere near the middle of the Atlantic I realized my world was right again. Quetzal was slaloming before a feisty trade wind, skidding down rolling seas like a Gold-medal skier who’s had a bit too much to drink, in control but making it exciting all the same. She was flirting with double-digit speeds as she chased flying fish aglow with phosphorescence. Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper framed Polaris. Perched two fists above the horizon, the North Star was surprisingly bright and hovered just behind my right shoulder. Orion’s belt was nosing above the horizon directly off the stern. I didn’t need the compass, I didn’t need the GPS, but I could have used a rear view mirror. I had a perfect steering axis, keep Polaris on the beam and the hunter’s belt on the stern. And I was steering. The autopilot had performed tirelessly but this was a night for hand steering, a night to balance my accounts, a night to feel the power of my beautiful boat, a night to think bout my friends, a night for renewal. For the first time since the tornado had knocked Quetzal off her feet four months earlier I was content. My boat was back in her element and so was I.

Last August Quetzal was in the wrong place at the proverbial wrong time. Standing on the hard in snug boatyard near the very top of the Adriatic, she was knocked over by a freak tornado that ripped through the yard at midnight. Miraculously her hull was only slightly damaged but her proud mast was crumpled. My wife, Tadji, and I had just returned home from our around the world charter and travel adventure when I received the first of two e-mails from the yard.

“No, no, no this isn’t possible, no,” I was crazy, angry, and confused.

“What,” Tadji asked, what is it?” She was frightened by my rage.

“Quetzal is destroyed.”


“Destroyed, my boat, my beautiful boat, destroyed in a tornado, a freaking tornado, a freaking Italian tornado.”

“Oh baby,” she sympathized.

Bounding all over the house like a madman, I was beside myself. Then the second e-mail arrived.

“Wait, wait, read this,” Tadji insisted. “It says the boat is not destroyed, just the tree.”

“The what?”

“The tree. Maybe the boat fell into some trees.”

“There are no trees in the boatyard.”

Then we both realized that the tree meant the mast. And while a broken mast was no small matter, it was a lot better than a broken boat. I started to breath again. I never realized how attached I was to my boat until I almost lost her.

With the help of several dear friends, supportive and loyal clients, new friends in Italy and the crew at Selden Masts, we put Quetzal back together again. This was not a small project. I booked the first flight back to Italy and surveyed the damage. Andrea and Gianfranco Pizzan, the father and son owners of the yard, were as upset as I was, it wasn’t their fault but they acted like it was.

“There has never been a tornado in Grado,” Andrea said, “I don’t know if there is a word for tornado in Italian.”

They opened the yard and their homes to me through the course of three visits and today I count them as close friends. Andrea’s English was a lifeline and Gianfranco’s word was cast in marble. They agreed to repair the hull where it was scratched at their cost, and they went above and beyond a simple repair. Quetzal’s hull looks better today than it did when we first brought the boat to the yard.

Armed with the specs of the old mast I went in search of a new one. Longtime friend, Tom Sharkey, the General Manager of Selden USA, responded to my pleas for help and calmed me down.

“We can make this happen John, we just need some information.” Tom and his sales manager, Bernie, understood my unique problem. I needed a new mast, I needed it fast and I needed it in Italy. Selden is Swedish company with facilities throughout Europe. Tom and Bernie arranged for the spar to built in their factory in France and then trucked to Grado, the tiny costal resort near Trieste. The mast and all the bits and pieces were waiting for us when we arrived on October 27.

Rick Thompson, my dear friend and very able mate, flew with me and we met Bob Pingel and Dan. These guys know me well, we’ve sailed together often, and they knew I needed help. Bob is immensely talented and he took command of the mast project. While I looked at the massive shipping crate that accompanied the two pieces of the mast, Bob went about laying out all the bits and pieces systematically. With Dan at his side, he starting riveting tracks and lights and setting up the running and standing rigging. Rick and I attacked the mast stump that was stuck sadly but defiantly in Quetzal. From a distance it looked like the boat was giving the finger to the broad delta from where the tornado sprang.

Five days of back breaking labor later Quetzal was floating for the first time in months, the new mast was standing, the sails were bent on and we were ready for the Adriatic. Gibraltar was still 1,800 miles away, and that’s where I was to meet the six hearty sailors that were scheduled to meet me for a transatlantic crossing.