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.