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December 2, 2016

Can your first boat purchase be a big Nordhavn?

Yes, says PAE president Dan Streech, and it’s probably not as hard as you think

When the Nordhavn 46 was introduced in 1988, it was generally believed that the only way to travel long distances in open ocean was by sailboat. The early buyers of Nordhavns generally were "old salts" who had come up through the ranks of sailboats and had honed their skills of seamanship and dead reckoning or celestial navigation.  The boats themselves in 1989 were rather simple and the self reliant owners just "figured it out". Fast forward 27 years and it is a very different story.  Modern Nordhavns are, of course, even more exquisite in their decor and fit and finish but they are completely different animals when compared to their ancestors. They are packed with systems, complexity, conveniences and more. Generators, inverters, water makers, house hold appliances, air conditioning, hydraulics, davits, and BBQs have come to represent the bare minimum. Put that together with multiple fuel tanks and fuel management systems, toilet systems, fresh water systems, grey water systems, black water systems and more and the beast gets even more complicated, yet more comfortable and capable. If all of the above was not daunting enough, this is before we even talk about the electronics/navigation/entertainment packages that are aboard a modern Nordhavn.

While the skills of seamanship are and always will be important, the art of successful Nordhavn ownership in 2016 relies heavily on the Owner's comfort in understanding and operating the systems. While the lineup of flat screens, electrical panels, valves, switches, pumps, owners manuals and more can cause temporary emotional paralysis at first glance, it is actually much easier than most people realize to operate a modern Nordhavn. We are all very proficient now with our home entertainment systems, endless smart phone apps, modern vehicles and the easy and efficient use of the internet. These skills transfer to boat operation. Some of the intuitive actions used to operate your home TV are useful in operating the systems on your Nordhavn. 

Today, we see numerous cases of Nordhavns being purchased by people without previous boating experience or a boating background... in many cases, their Nordhavn is their first boat.  We see people who have come to a point in life where they want to experience and enjoy the wonderful pleasures and adventures of cruising and passage making and don't have the time or patience to "work their way up". How is it they can do it? Because they are generally familiar with and comfortable with complex things.  Additionally, these folks know how to use social media, the staff at PAE and fellow Nordhavn owners in the Nordhavn Owners Group to help them, encourage them, and remind them that they are not alone in stepping into what will (temporarily) seem like the great unknown.

Just as it is illustrated here, we see buyers with completely different mindsets purchase Nordhavns as their first boat. The stories travel along two different paths, but both have the same happy ending.

Jumping in with both feet
New owners select Nordhavn 55s as their first-ever boats

While Nordhavns have a reputation for being seaworthy, capable, comfortable and trustworthy vessels, they also come with an air of being systems-heavy, complex, and suited for a more experienced yachtsman.

But for two newbie boaters, when it came to searching for their first-ever boats, they bucked the trend of testing the waters with smaller, “starter” boats and put themselves in the captain’s seat of Nordhavn 55s. The circumstances and backgrounds parallel each other, but their journeys have proven radically different. This is a tale of two guys who wanted to sail around the world with their families. Neither had a huge boating IQ, but what they did know is they needed a boat that would keep them safe and comfortable.

For a number of reasons, the Nordhavn 55 fit the bill for both. Of course she’s spacious, state-of-the-art, proven to retain her value, and has the established track record of Nordhavn behind her. But the N55 is known for being a “big 55”, due to its cubic footage and displacement. In other words, most consider going from, say, a 40-footer up to the Nordhavn 55 to be a big jump. Going from no boat ever to the 55? That would be taking a giant leap of faith.

Or would it?

“I’m evidence that’s not true,” said James Phillips, a software engineer who spent 30 years at Microsoft, and flies planes in his spare time. Having achieved a level of comfort with technology and navigation systems, Phillips felt he had a head start when it came to tackling operating the boat. “It just wasn’t something that intimidated me even though I’m neither a seasoned yachtsman nor was I accustomed to handling boats,” said Phillips. And now, after just a few months of owning his first ever boat, he considers himself a fairly confident and capable Nordhavn owner.

Meanwhile, Jeff Wulff, also a private pilot, had the same thought, “If I can fly an airplane, I can surely float a boat around at 8 knots.” Still, it wasn’t specifically a matter of confidence but more of an ‘ignorance is bliss attitude’ helping fuel Wulff’s Nordhavn purchase. Operating a 55-foot Nordhavn was not a daunting prospect because he wasn’t aware that it was. Quite simply, “We really didn’t know enough to know what we didn’t know,” he said. “I never really thought starting our boating experience with this larger boat was that big of a deal, but we've certainly met a lot of people along the way who are surprised and sometimes even impressed that we've done what we've done the way we've done it.”

Starting boat ownership with smaller boats and working their way up was never an option – for either Phillips or Wulff. As a boy, Phillips spent plenty of time on the water messing about. That experience didn’t really translate to the operation of an N55 but he didn’t want to take the time to babystep his way into his dream boat. “I figured learning and becoming comfortable with the N55’s systems was a faster path than stepping into it.”

For Wulff, the decision to go right into the N55 was more straightforward: he and his wife, Leslie, had no interest in local cruising. “Should we have tiptoed into the whole experience by working our way up from smaller boats? That would certainly have made the journey less stressful,” says Wulff. “But we've never really had an interest in puttering around in a smaller boat on Saturdays. It wasn't interesting to us before and it's not really interesting now.”

So this past summer, two never-before boat owners took delivery of Nordhavn 55s, to begin what was – for each of them – family adventures of a lifetime. And their paths to adventure couldn’t have been more different.

Phillips’ first order of business was getting some serious training, and he signed up for an intensive training course in Seattle. After booking vacation time to spend the month of August boating with the family, he knew he needed to be ready once his training session was over. “I was confident, though slightly apprehensive,” said Phillips. “But I left there able to dock stern-to with an 18-inch clearance. I could turn the boat on a dime!” The family traveled from Southern California up to Victoria, BC, Desolation Sound, down through Vancouver and the San Juan islands.

The trip wasn’t entirely smooth sailing; Phillips dealt with his share of issues underway. But he was able to handle them without trouble. “My feeling is that if I can do it, anyone can.” Besides that, any boat problems they encountered were far outweighed by the enormity of the trip itself.

As a busy executive who doesn’t get to spend a lot of quality time with his tween-aged kids, the experience was invaluable. “The kids said it was the best vacation they ever had,” marvels Phillips. It gave them the opportunity to see the world from a unique vantage point, but more importantly, it allowed them to be a family together. “We played games, swam in lakes, kayaked,” said Phillips. “It was focused time together doing new and interesting things.”

And by the end of the trip, his confidence as an owner/operator had grown infinitely.

After handing over the keys to Wulff in May, Nordhavn salesman James Leishman – who sold both Phillips and Wulff their boats – went through the entire boat with him, giving him an introduction to the boats’ systems. A month later, Wulff, wife Leslie and their 9-year-old son left Dana Point on a 15-month journey, first heading north to Juneau with a training captain (PAE salesman Devin Zwick) on board. At the 5-month point, they had already put 1,000 hours on the engine. “It’s been both more stressful and more work than we thought it would be!” exclaimed Wulff. But he chalks everything up to lack of experience. That, and having to anchor. Before this trip, Wulff had never set an anchor in his life. “Anchoring was brutal for us in Alaska,” he recalls. “We’ve since anchored dozens of times in all sorts of locations, always the first time we’ve ever been to that location and almost always with some funky geographic characteristic that results in our stress. I just think anchoring is one of those things that requires experience, which we don't have yet.”

One funny story Wulff recounts is having ‘earned his badge’ at stern-tying at an anchorage in Bishop Bay Hot Springs in British Columbia. After ‘successfully’ tying off, Wulff wound up “doing circles in the bay for six hours until the sun came up because the stern tie didn’t work so well. It’s all been new to us which keeps it interesting for sure.”

Despite this, Wulff remains more than positive about the experience. The journey has had its highs and lows, but happily, the highs are much more impactful. He and Leslie sold their house and are homeschooling son Biskee during the trip. They’re also joined on board by their 23-year-old niece. “It’s been an adjustment for everyone but I am actually very pleased with how it’s all gone. We’ve kind of found a rhythm that seems to work… and have experienced things that can't be experienced elsewhere.

“We all keep a journal, and when we sit down and review our entries from months past it reminds us all how much cool stuff we've seen and done.”

Does Wulff have the same confidence level as Phillips at this point? Probably not, but things definitely are getting easier, he says. “Anchoring is getting better every time but we are still always anxious about some element of the anchorage.”

The moral of this story? Yes, it is absolutely doable to purchase a larger scale Nordhavn as your first boat and run it yourself. However, different people have different success rates, just as they do with anything. For those with a level of navigational training, a technical background, an adventurous nature, says Phillips, it’s relatively easy to get the hang of operating a big Nordhavn. “I’m quite certain there are a million things I don’t know, so challenges do and will appear that I didn’t think of,” he says. “But I stand ready.”

Wulff, who wasn’t sure which was the spring line five months ago, has increased his boating knowledge and aptitude, and enjoyed being immersed in the boating subculture. “I don't think that what we've done is unreasonably difficult, but it's not for the faint of heart. If one has the desire to see the world from offshore, and the aptitude to learn new stuff quickly, I'd say go for it.”


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