My foot reaches across the void between dock and ship. I step aboard and, though I can feel my heart pulse, the push and pull of its normal beat stops as my foot neither falls, nor rises again like I expect that it should. This is the first true blue water ocean voyaging vessel I have ever met, and she is different than anything I’ve experienced before.
A few weeks prior, we had written one last check to Fannie Mae, and after seven years of attacking debt for laundry machines, student loans, and an underwater mortgage we were finally free…to go looking for the sailboat that would take us around the world.
For years, we had been perusing the endless internet vortex of Yachtworld, looking for the perfect boat. In the early years, we had dreams that we would simply trade the house, like for like. That was until the housing crisis and years of recession. After that, our expectations moderated, and we were prepared to purchase a generally well kept 1980s vintage ocean going boat. We weren’t certain our anticipated price range of $100,000 would prove to give us the purchasing power we needed.
“Maybe we should go visit a few boats in person and see how they line up with the marketing materials,” I suggest. “Make a weekend in San Diego out of it.”
This idea was well received by my Captain, and so he calls ahead to a yacht broker in San Diego who seemed to have knowledge about the majority of makes and models we had chosen to inspect. We schedule a weekend to meet, and our plan is set in motion.
…until we realize it’s Pride Week and every hotel within a reasonable proximity of San Diego harbor is booked solid.
“We don’t have a guest room, but you are more than welcome to pitch your tent in the back yard with LaVerne, Shirley, and Squigee.” A friend of a friend who was also quickly becoming our friend had recently moved to San Diego, and it took only a nanosecond for us to take her up on this offer. Who doesn’t want to pitch a tent in the backyard with three chickens? So, we packed up our duffle, grabbed the tent, put Osmond in charge of navigation and hit the road.
We arrive in San Diego at the dark of night, cool humidity rolling off the bay. The chickens were already asleep by the time we pitched our tent, so we easily had the run of the yard. It looked to be a dry evening, so we forwent the rain fly and left the roof of the tent open to the stars. I lay on my back, listening to the chicken coos that must be the equivalent of snores, imagining what it might be like to lay on the deck of my very own sailboat to watch the stars from a mid-ocean passage. (The experience had far fewer waves in my imaginings.)
“Peck, peck….peck.” I wake to whom I now know to be LaVerne pecking at my head. We must have laid our tent in the prime bug hunting spot, as she is quite keen for me to move. I roll over, just as our morning alarm pings. “Sailboat hunting time!”
As we parked on the street outside the broker’s office, the spikes and spires of one thousand sailboat masts prick skyward behind the buildings. Which ones are the masts of the boats we will see today? We climb a set of wooden stairs and find ourselves in the office of our boat broker. He peeks from behind mounds of paper work and piles of nautical charts.
“Good morning,” He laughs good naturedly through the raspy breath of a chain smoker’s throat. He offers us coffee, but we get straight to our task. “Now, the first boat we’ll look at is a Valiant 40 named Sonrisa. She is listed a little above your price range at $125,000. She has already sailed across the South Pacific fairly recently, and so she is already fitted with a lot of great cruising gear.” We climb down the stairs again and pace ourselves around the corner of the first dock finger. “A good blue water cruising boat is narrow inside. Everyone wants the boats you can dance a waltz in these day, but you don’t want all that space in the cabin. You want good hand holds and lots of storage instead.”
We all remove our shoes, and Steve boards the boat to unlock the companion way. I climb along the side deck. Against all prior history, this boat does not dip beneath my foot with the weight of my step. For a moment, my equilibrium is thrown a kilter, the ground not acting in the manner I expect. Instead, my stomach drops out from under me as I get the first physical sense of just how heavy a blue water sailboat is to stand a fighting chance at sea. I take a circuit toward the bow, wrapping my hand around the shrouds, wire rigging that holds the mast up. They are a full ¾” in diameter, and the feel of them triple the size of any sailboat rigging I’ve held before.
“That rigging is very strong, perfectly oversized for handling ocean sailing.” Steve tells me. That’s easy to see. Tuning a full circuit above deck, I note all manner of sailing equipment already installed and in place: two roller furling drums, one to wind up and unfurl two different sizes of headsails, a spinnaker pole, four anchors (that maybe a few too many) each of a different variety for different ground holding, a life raft, dodger, bimini, and even a windvane!
“A windvane!” I tell Andrew.
Windvanes are old school auto pilots. They are machinery that will sail the boat without you hanging onto the wheel, using wind power alone. They are excellent cruising menagerie because they do not take up a lot of electrical power like a normal autopilot, and they are beefy and strong in a blow. I do not know how to use one, yet, but I know I like the concept.
“Sweet!” Andrew says.
Andrew is climbing around knocking on various parts of the deck and hull, testing for a dry, strong core to the fiberglass. I step down below and stand at the bottom of the companionway stairs. It is cool inside, dark, and silent. I walk from stern to bow, and I get the sensation “Yeah, I could do this.” I sit on the salon bench, and imagine.
“All right, let’s go take a peek at a second Valiant. A little bit newer.” Steve says.
As I climb the stairs from this boat, I pat her bulkhead. She seems like a nice gal. “Thanks for the tour, Sonrisa.”
Next, we looked at a 1989 Valiant 40 named Alma listed at $119,000. She didn’t have as much cruising gear already installed, and didn’t seem to have as many miles under her keel. We looked at AES Triplex, a 1977 Valiant 40 that was a blister boat. This means that her decks and hull were covered by these strange looking bubbles caused by a flaw in the fiberglass resin. Valiants are famous for the problem. It was listed for $75,000. We looked at a smaller boat - a Cavalier 37 named Kiwi and a Whitby 42 Center Cockpit in rough shape, both around the price range of $60,000.
We spent a full 8 hour day looking at boats. As we traveled from boat to boat, Steve regaled us with tales from his first life as a professional hockey player, his time served in law school, and his second life purchasing and owning car dealerships. He chain-smoked at least one cigarette per boat we reviewed, and laughed heartily at his own jokes and ours. I could never tell when he was pulling my leg, but he was cheerful and I enjoy cheerful people.
Boats, boats, boats!
Andrew poked and prodded at engines, deck joints, keel bolts, and all the menagerie of structural aspects that he wanted to analyze. I looked around, too, imagining what each boat might be like to sail to far off places. Could I imagine myself sitting in this cockpit, sailing this boat at night, by myself, in the middle of the ocean while Andrew slept below? What would it be like to cook in this galley, sleep in this bed, shower in this tiny enclosed shower. Where will I store this, that or the other? What will it be like to launch the spinnaker from this bow or that one?
It was exciting, overwhelming, scary, encouraging and disappointing all at the same time. First, exciting because we are taking a really concrete step toward the goal. Overwhelming because the first time you step onto a blue water sailing boat, you can feel how big the ocean can be. Scary because I question whether I can hack it. Encouraging because we found one boat that would be a reasonably good option to sail in (Sonrisa), and discouraging because we confirmed that nothing (new, used, expensive or cheap) will be perfect immediately upon purchase.
Besides that, we had a nice trip to San Diego and enjoyed the nice cool weather at the beach.