A penchant for the primitiveApr 30, 2018
Voyaging without all the comforts of home
Celeste in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
My husband Seth and I seem to have a penchant for primitivism. We’re not Luddites — Seth is a computer programmer and statistician by trade — but somehow we always end up voyaging aboard unnecessarily primitive boats. Some of it has had to do with being very young and having very little money. But I think more of it has to do with us and our personalities.
Outwardly it might appear that we’re a little masochistic or that we have to prove something to ourselves through needless discomfort. In reality, though, we’re just incorrigible optimists. We want to sail around the world? Sure, let’s do it! Who cares that the portholes leak so badly you could use them to shave? Who cares that the boom looks like Swiss cheese or that the masthead is cracked? Your bunk’s soaked? Wear your foul weather gear to bed!
Our second, or perhaps primary, big problem is that we both care far more about a lovely sheer line than pressure water, or even modern electronics. Again we’re not Luddites or wooden boat nuts; we don’t think that anything old and wooden is automatically beautiful, nor do we relish the idea of thousands of fasteners holding our hull together. Both of us did, however, grow up with the Wooden Boats calendar on the wall, Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design on the bookshelf and historic schooners anchored in the bays outside our windows. In my case, that bay was a fair-weather anchorage in British Columbia and the schooners included Robertson II, which once carried fishing dories to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. In Seth’s case, that bay was in Downeast Maine and those schooners were the windjammers that once took granite to New York City.
Seth Leonard navigating.
Impractical but beautiful
So, the natural result was that Seth and I set sail offshore in something a little impractical but very beautiful. Enter Heretic, our 38-foot cutter-rigged sloop copy of Sparkman & Stephens’ Finisterre. Built in 1968 of solid fiberglass to a 1954 design, she was heavy, wet and some would say cramped. Her short waterline (27 feet), tapering stern and low freeboard, combined with her limited headroom — the cabin sole was laid on top of her centerboard trunk — made her cabin very small compared with modern 38-foot production yachts, which tend to have high freeboard, LWLs nearly as long as their LOAs, and sterns as wide as the beam amidships. But she was simply lovely with her curving bow, wine-glass transom and varnished mahogany cabin with its oval ports.
At the time (summer 2006), Seth and I were 23 and 20 years old, respectively. While we had both grown up sailing and had been taught to navigate on paper, neither of us had been offshore. So when, with the callow assurance of all 20-year-olds, we announced that we were going to circumnavigate the planet, we were met with incredulity, naysaying and even ridicule. Consequently, we rechristened the boat Heretic. She had to be rechristened something — her prior owner had called her Le Bon Temps. Try that on the VHF.
Poor Heretic was rather the worse for wear and neglect. The ports really did leak enough to shave under, the bunks really were constantly wet, the propane system was so dodgy that we used a portable alcohol stove until we replumbed it, the rig really might have fallen over if we hadn’t replaced the whole thing, and the only wires we didn’t replace caught fire on one of our first passages. The holding tank was a bladder that leaked into the bilge (respirator required for that project!), the sheer clamp needed refastening and the tube through which the control line for the centerboard ran had rusted through at the waterline (it’s a miracle she didn’t sink before we found that out!). On the day we departed after months of restoration work, a mysterious fitting on the engine started gushing oil so badly that we plugged it up with the first thing to hand — an old, disused gimbal from the galley.
Seth during landfall at Hiva Oa.
Then there were the many “modern conveniences” that Heretic lacked and that, because we were 20 years old and knew no better, we didn’t miss. On account of all the repairs, we didn’t leave Maine until Oct. 31, 2006, the day after the first major winter storm (60 knots recorded in the harbor) passed through, and the morning of the first very hard frost. Heretic’s solid glass hull was uninsulated and she had no heater. She also didn’t have a dodger. We simply thought that a heavily condensating hull, a drenched cockpit and cabin temperatures hovering at freezing were normal for cold-weather sailing.
Heretic had no autopilot and, for the first 2,000 miles, no wind vane. It wasn’t until we started to meet other cruising boats that we realized hand-steering as if racing ‘round the buoys was not normal. Because we were hand-steering, we had two friends aboard with us, and the four of us (three boys and me) shared Heretic’s small, old-fashioned, open cabin. It wasn’t until we were invited aboard an Island Packet that we realized that Heretic’s layout — two small quarterberths, galley and chart table facing each other, table down the middle with two settees on either side, hanging locker facing the head and V-berth forward — and her utter lack of privacy were no longer standard issue. Seth and I also realized then that most voyaging yachts are crewed by romantically involved couples (which we already were) rather than groups of friends. We started looking for a wind vane.
With a tiny battery bank (270 amp-hours) and no generator, Heretic’s power requirements had to be kept to a minimum. So, although we did nod to the 21st century with her navigation lights and a small black-and-white GPS unit, we did without (ready?): chartplotter, autopilot, refrigeration, electric anchor windlass, watermaker, pressure water, hot water, shower, communications other than radio, and even electric lights in the cabin. We like to row and we didn’t want to bother with gasoline, so we had a hard dinghy with oars (we actually still do — we took it to the Arctic). The boat didn’t come with an oven and we didn’t install one. And, obviously, even the idea of having things like air conditioning, TV, a dishwasher or a washing machine was about as far from our minds as, oh I don’t know, settling down in a landlocked Midwestern cornfield.
Downloading ice charts for Alaska.
Of course, many sailors have girded the globe in similar conditions, but today and even 10 years ago, most cruisers think you’re some kind of grumbling old gaffer if you do, or that you’re a cash-strapped 20-year-old, which we were. But for four years that’s how we lived. New Zealand was a bit cold, and rounding South Africa’s Cape Agulhas in an unpredicted Force 10 storm in such a heavy-displacement boat was very wet and a little frightening as successive breaking waves filled the cockpit. But the voyage was, nonetheless, one of the happiest times of our lives.
So when we raised Mount Desert Island, Maine, in June 2010 when I was 24 and Seth 27, it was again a bittersweet moment. We’d done what we set out to do — circumnavigate the world — but we didn’t want it to end. Then we moved ashore, reluctantly sold Heretic and Seth started his graduate studies.
Soon, however, we set out to find a replacement for Heretic. It took us a long time, constrained as we were by our budget, our wish to be able to voyage literally anywhere on Earth and our hopeless addiction to classic lines.
Fifty degrees in the cabin.
We found Celeste in British Columbia in the spring of 2013. Once again, we fell for her lovely lines. Francis Kinney, editor of Skenes and longtime designer for Sparkman & Stephens, had drawn her in 1985 as a private project for a sailor in Victoria. She was then custom built in cold-molded wood by Bent Jespersen and, from the outside, she looked very similar to Heretic: 28 feet LWL but 40 feet LOA, low freeboard and beautiful varnished cabin with oval ports. Below the waterline, however, she was much more modern with a fin keel and separate skeg. Made of cold-molded wood rather than solid glass, she was also lighter displacement. Both these attributes meant less wetted surface and greater speed. (On the flip side, though, lighter displacement also meant a bouncier ride and thus a higher chance of seasickness.) Below decks, we were amazed to find a fairly modern layout: double quarterberth in a small aft cabin to starboard of the companionway, and galley with fridge and oven to port. Navigation station, settee, chart drawers and pilot berth faced a curved dinette amidships, followed by hanging locker, head with shower stall and V-berth as you walked forward.
As for modern conveniences, wood insulates much better than fiberglass, and she already had a forced-air heater and a “bus” heater that ran off the engine. Also running off the engine was a hot water tank that, combined with a little pressure pump, made for lovely showers after puttering into an anchorage. A Cape Horn wind vane was proudly mounted on the stern and a big canvas dodger kept her cockpit dry. So we already thought Celeste was pretty luxurious before we even started work on her.
What Celeste didn’t have were electronics. We replaced her no-longer-functional VHF, tiller pilot and radar, and we installed a little GPS unit like the one we had on Heretic as well as a chartplotter. (Both chartplotters and autopilots had gotten a whole lot cheaper than they were 10 years prior.) We redid most of her old wiring and mounted solar panels. Still conscious of power draw, we replaced her lightbulbs with LEDs and installed a Refleks diesel heater, which unlike the forced-air one uses no electricity. We also replaced her engine (which, judging from the clouds of blue smoke it emitted, was burning a lot of oil). Thinking ahead to where we’d take Celeste, we plumbed in the smallest Katadyn PowerSurvivor watermaker, which we could run off our solar panels. Finally, with the backing of OCENS, we installed an external antenna and set up a satellite phone communication system for receiving weather files and ice charts. Because what do you do when you finally own a boat that’s not primitive? Take it somewhere where it will be primitive!
Filling the water tanks.
Yes, we planned to take our 30-year-old, cold-molded wood, low-freeboard, open-cockpit cutter with her lively motion to the Arctic Ocean above Alaska. This time, though, we knew it wasn’t normal. We knew that normal high-latitude sailors have metal boats with enclosed pilothouses. High-latitude boats can be steered from inside these heated pilothouses. Sometimes they even have those nice Plexiglas bubbles so that you can look out “on watch” while wearing just your long undies. High-latitude boats have really big heaters and really big engines. Our little heater, by contrast, would usually get the inside temperature up to almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit if it was 35 degrees outside. Almost. Usually mid-40s. And our engine was only 30 hp. But that incorrigible optimism and that willingness to suffer for beauty meant we pointed the bow north. Really north. Up past the Aleutians to the Bering Strait. Up across the Arctic Circle to Alaska’s North Slope. And then up to the polar pack ice in the Beaufort Sea. Which is where, at 72° N, we found out just how much clothing you really can wear all at once. The flashy yacht Celeste didn’t feel so flashy after all.
Once again, though, we had the time of our lives. Seeing the Arctic, its people, its wildlife, its frozen ocean and its wild weather was unforgettable. And doing it on Celeste, a primitive boat for the place, didn’t put us off; we’re already scheming for Greenland someday. In the meantime we’re in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where we’ll feel like we landed in the lap of luxury. Maybe we’ve finally — at 31 and 35 — grown old and wise.
Ellen Massey Leonard is a circumnavigator and a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator.