For the past few days, I have been following the passage of Dave and Karen Crannell aboard Nordhavn 62 Adventure as they traveled from Mexico to Costa Rica through the Gulf of Tehauntepec.
Thinking about Dave and Karen reminded me of my two passages through that gulf – one southbound in 1971 and one northbound in 2002. The southbound passage was with my family aboard our sailboat Malabar VII and the northbound passage was aboard Nordhavn during my leg of the ATW project.
During my time on the ATW trip, I reminisced about the passage taken 31 years earlier and wrote about it during my spare time. I thought that the story might be the beginning of a small autobiography, but alas, it has just languished in my laptop until now.
Call it a “slow news day” at PAE, but I have decided to post my short story for those readers who might be interested. Remember, this was written in May of 2002 aboard the Nordhavn 40 during the ATW voyage.
Dan Streech, President
To dream the impossible dream
Upon passing Barinquilla Columbia, Nordhavn began retracing (backwards) the course sailed by Malabar VIIduring the Streech family cruise of 1970-71. As we cruise in relative comfort and safety aboard this modern Nordhavn, I marvel at the changes and developments in the ensuing 31 years since our cruise and cringe as I think of the hardships, danger and discomforts that we endured without complaint at that time. In the entire history of yachting, I don’t think there has been a period of greater change than in the last 30 years.
First, some background on how the cruise of Malabar VII came to be. While growing up in Chino, California, I became a SCUBA diver and bought my first boat at age 17 to get my friends and I out to Catalina Island for diving. It was of course a woody and I found it up on blocks in Huntington Beach. I was starry eyed as I plunked down $700 for a beater with a frozen up Greymarine gas engine that should have been scrapped. Basically, the guy rooked me, but in due course I got it rebuilt and launched. I only used it a few times before I saw another boat at the old Huntington Harbor Marina that caught my eye. It was a gorgeous but neglected old 31’ Monk classic built in the ‘30s. When it went up for auction for back slip rent, I was the only bidder and got it for $250. I sold boat #1 to a guy for $700 and thus ended up with a better boat and change in my otherwise very empty pocket.
Boat #2 was cleaned up and somewhat restored and my friends and I began making numerous trips to Catalina for diving, cruising and exploring. My boating skills were mostly learned by trial and error and believe me, there were plenty of errors. We also had to operate on a very tight budget. I remember buying gas for 23 cents a gallon at a service station and carrying it to the boat in jerry cans rather than pay the ridiculous price of 35 cents a gallon at the fuel dock. By this time, I was attending California Polytechnic State University in Pomona, so only weekends were spent on the boat. I was hungry for anything I could read on the sea and boats, so Chapmans, Royce, Sea and Yachting were devoured. The moment the germ of thought was born to go cruising came when I read the book by Eric Hiscock, Around The World In Wanderer IV. It was like a bolt of lightning. It made me crazy. I became obsessed. schooners such as Goodwill, Puritin, Queen Mab and Serena were the ultimate things of beauty to me. Naval architect John Alden was god-like.
I wanted to sail around the world on a schooner.
There were only a few minor problems. I had no money, I was a college student, I was engaged to be married and I had never set foot on a sailboat.
All on board
With complete absence of understanding the true enormity of what I was proposing, the “sail around the world” idea was a surprisingly easy sell to my family. My fiancé Carole was supportive and so were my parents. There was already a history of travel and adventure in my family. My paternal grandfather was a superb hunter and fisherman and traveled around the U.S., Canada and Mexico. He was a great storyteller and I never tired of hearing about the time the moose chased him, when the scorpion bit him, when he wrecked his boat in the Smith River or the time a catfish spine pierced his hand.
My parents were also travelers and we camped and traveled extensively as I grew up. The summer vacations grew ever longer each year and culminated with a great trip to Alaska in 1963. We made the trip in a homemade motor home, which my very clever and resourceful father built by marrying a Spartan Manor house trailer with an International milk truck. Brilliantly, it was a precursor to today’s motor homes. As if that wasn’t enough, he modified, shortened and cut down a BMW “Isetta” so that it could be stored crossways under the bed in the back of the motor home. Upon arrival at a campsite, the “dingy” would be launched and we would be off exploring. I was too young for a driver’s license, but that didn’t matter…
To make the nine-week trip to Alaska, my father had to quit his job as a machinist (which he had done several times before). After the trip, he decided to become a schoolteacher so that he could have summers off and so went back to college at California State University Los Angeles. I don’t know how he was financially able to manage all this, and really never thought about it at the time. Without asking, however, I know that it was accomplished through thriftiness, cleverness, and resourcefulness.
Fast forward to 1969. My parents had moved to Oregon where they were both schoolteachers. I introduced the sailing idea to my father in a letter and got an immediate positive response. My wonderful, stoic and ever supportive mother was soon on board.
And the hunt for a boat began.
The search for the perfect vessel
We ranged up and down the coast between Sausalito and San Diego answering ads and meeting annoying brokers. The first problem was getting respect. I was a 21-year-old guy looking for a 50+ foot boat saying, “don’t worry; my father is going to pay for it”. The pickings (in our price range of $20,000) were slim. One has to remember that the quantity of boats available was a tiny fraction of what exists today. Mass production in larger fiberglass boats had just begun and there were few if any FRP boats in the 50-foot range. We were left to look at woodies and mostly pre-war vessels. The boat we really wanted called Windwagon, was – at $40,000 – too expensive. During the Christmas break of 1969-70, my parents and sisters came down from Oregon and the search intensified. We finally settled on a sleek and gorgeous Alden yawl called Malabar VII. On Christmas Eve 1969, our offer of $20,000 was accepted. The broker questioned whether we really needed a sea trial. “Well, I guess not, “ I told him. Then he added that a survey was just a “waste of time” and suggested we skip it and save the money. At the time, the extra cash in hand was a dangling carrot. As it was, my trusting parents borrowed money on their Oregon house. Shortly after, they sent down the cashier’s check.
All that glitters is not gold
After the euphoria of acquiring this beautiful piece of history wore off, we realized that we had a big project on our hands. Underneath the glitter, Malabar VII was a very tired boat. She was one of John Alden’s personal boats and she was built for the summer racing season of 1926. She was originally rigged as a gaff schooner, but at some point in her life, the bowsprit was removed and she was rerigged as a yawl.
The first sailing experience was laughable but exciting. With “Royce’s Illustrated” in hand, we motored out and proceeded to raise the main and then the jib. The light mid-morning breeze was enough to get her moving and that was when we first experienced the magic and beauty of sail. The rest was intuitive as we went out as often as possible to gain experience.
We left her in the same slip in Marina del Rey and between January 1970 to September 1970 we worked on Malabar. Every spare moment was spent working on the boat although I was working at a gas station and still full-time in school. Carole and I were married in June 1969 and she was working for the phone company and helping the cause.
My parents duly sold their house and came south to Marina del Rey in August after my sisters Wendy and Becky finished that year of school. Becky had then just finished high school and Wendy, her second year of college. With my parents’ arrival, the work on the boat began in earnest. With a budget of $2,000, we did a huge amount of work on the boat including:
- Put in a new engine. The gas Chrysler Crown had to go. We wanted diesel. We acquired two discarded Mercedes 190 diesel engines (for free) from the Mercedes dealership in Pomona. One had a good head and the other a good block so we combined the two. My father fabricated a water-cooled exhaust manifold and an adaptor plate to marry the Mercedes to the Chrysler gearbox.. I am making a very long story short here when I say that it ultimately worked.
- Deal with rotten steel tanks. The water tank was in the belly of the boat and leaked. With huge effort, I managed to cut away frames and flooring and get it out of the boat. Forty-five years of scum and disgust were exposed which we mucked out. I had the tank sand blasted after which it looked like Swiss cheese with dozens of holes exposed. I spent two days at my father-in-law’s machine shop welding it up with a gas torch, steel rod and little plates of metal cut on his band saw. The fuel tank located port aft was a bigger problem. It was built into the boat in 1926, so we had to cut it out (with my father’s stern warning about the danger of working on old tanks – which has now been passed on to my son Trevor). It was also impossible to install a new tank, so we made one out of wood (actually Masonite) and built it in its place. Once the area was clear, we made patterns from cardboard and built the six sides of the trapezoidal shaped tank on the dock. Then piece-by-piece, the six sides were assembled in place by screwing together the pre-drilled cleats. The final piece was the 15”X 20” end. This meant that with arms forward, I had to slither into the tank to do my work and someone had to then pull me out. Gives me the creeps now just to think about it. The worst part was glassing the inside of the tank. I first made putty from flour and polyester resin to radius all of the corners and then glass taped the corners and resin coated the entire inside. I wore a diving mask and breathed through a snorkel connected to a garden hose to do my glasswork. I had to breath through my mouth and exhale through my nose (and thus the purge valve of the mask). I was happy when the final end plate was screwed onto its cleat stock (from the outside) and the homemade putty squirted out indicating that we had a good seal. The tank worked great although it always made me nervous because it had no baffles and fuel would really thump when the tank was about ½ full.
Make a freezer. Malabar VII had an “ice box” and it really was an icebox complete with the tray for holding the block of ice. The cork insulation from 1926 was lousy, but we proceeded to install a primitive holding plate freezer system. We got the idea from the owner of Windwagon who had made a system for his boat and we basically copied what he did. My father found a junked ice cream freezer and dismantled it for parts. The two “plates” were bent up out of galvanized steel at a local sheet metal shop. My father bent up an intestine like grid of about 20-feet of ½” copper tubing for the inside of each plate and then silver soldered them closed. Each plate was filled with a mixture of water and antifreeze. The compressor from the ice cream freezer had an auto air-con compressor clutch adapted to it and then mounted so that it was belt driven from the engine. The expansion valve from the ice cream freezer was used. The heat exchanger was a problem. We didn’t want to pay for a nice SenDure, so we used the fined radiator from the ice cream freezer. It was placed in a box (built from wood and then glassed as usual), which was filled with antifreeze. Some copper tubing (1/2” left over from the two plates) was looped through the coolant and seawater was pumped through that tubing to cool the antifreeze, which cooled the radiator. Incredibly, it worked.
Recaulk the fir decks. This was a huge job in which we routed out every seam using a skill saw guided by battens nailed to the deck and filled them with polysulfide. The polysulfide was purchased by the gallon and activated by mixing with a separate catalyst. The resulting mix was poured into empty tubes and injected into the seams using a hand caulking gun. We often joke down on the PAE commissioning docks that if there is spot of wet polysulfide (or 3M5200) anywhere on a boat, you will soon step in it or find it on your elbow, shoulder or in your hair. As you can imagine, I was covered from head to toe with the material and it was weeks before I was free of it.
- Paint the hull.
- Make various covers and an awning – on my mother’s sewing machine.
- Replace batteries.
- Try to make the ancient Wood Freeman autopilot work. It actually had a vacuum tube in its “brains”. It never did really work. We hand steered all the way.
Since there was almost nothing in the way of “electronics” on Malabar VII that work list was pretty short. Our electronics package consisted of:
- A “flasher” depth sounder.
- An “AM” radio transceiver. Only those who have been boating for more than 25 years will remember these as they were phased out and then outlawed in the early ‘70s and replaced by the VHF radio that we know today.
- A VDO “Sumlog”. This unit showed speed on an analog round bezel gauge and recorded mileage on an “odometer”. It was mechanically powered by a flexible “speedometer cable” which was connected to a small propeller mounted on the hull.
- A Bendix radio direction finder (RDF). This unit was powered by C batteries and one would rotate the antenna to find the “null” and thus the bearing to a radio beacon. Two such bearings could be plotted on a chart to fix your position.
The longer list would be the items which were not on Malabar VII as I look back using today’s standards that we apply to a modern Nordhavn:
- Water maker. RO units as we know them today didn’t (I think) exist and if they did, we had no AC power or sufficient DC power to run one.
- Radar. The units available were clumsy and power hungry.
- GPS- didn’t exist yet.
- Inverter- didn’t exist yet.
- Wind speed and direction.
- Plotter or computer.
- Telephone- Didn’t exist yet
In due course, most of the work was completed and we set a date for departure. The ladies (my mother, wife and two sisters) made an all-day shopping trip for all supplies using a basic guide, which had been worked out by the owner of Windwagon during his passage to Tahiti. It was an enormous amount of food, which made a commotion at the super market and on the docks, as it was being unloaded and stowed aboard Malabar.After several parties and an endless stream of friends and family stopping by to say good-bye, we were ready to depart. On October 15, 1970 with many tasks incomplete, the deck littered with boxes and unfinished work, and the below decks area cluttered with unstowed items and unopened gifts, we departed…but only after an inglorious delay. With numerous people standing on the dock to wave goodbye, the engine wouldn’t start! (I had forgotten this part until reading Wendy’s diary). I can’t remember what the problem was (I think the starter), but it was several hours later that we finally pulled out of the slip and by then, most of our send-off crowd had dissipated.
Not exactly the ATW
The first leg was an overnight passage to San Diego to meet our haul-out appointment at Kettenburg. That passage (our first overnight passage) was scary and exciting and I remember being spooked by a tug with a double tow, which crossed us. Remember, this was all done without radar or MARPA. We had only lights, binoculars and a compass to work with and it was all new to us. And the cruise of Malabar VII began…
As I look out the windows of the comfy pilothouse in Nordhavn, I note we are in an area that gave us great misery during our cruise on Malabar VII in 1971. As I peruse through the Malabar logbook and the daily diaries of my two sisters, Wendy and Becky, and that of my first wife, Carole – all of which I brought with me to read on this leg of the Around the World trip – the memories of that epic cruise become more and more vivid.
While the basics of seamanship have remained unchanged over the years, so many other things have changed, and it is difficult to comprehend how primitive it was only 30 years ago. Malabar was archaic partly because of our tiny budget and lack of money, but mostly because the gear and equipment that we take for granted today simply was not available for yachts at that time.
Amenities? What amenities?
On January 9, 1971, we departed Salina Cruz Mexico on a non-stop run to Puntarenas, Costa Rica, a distance of 750 miles. We had spent the previous five days in Salina Cruz waiting for a Tehaunapecker to blow itself out. Ten days later we finally dropped Malabar’s anchor at the island of Jesuscito across the bay from Puntarenas. Before departing Salina Cruz, we took on fresh water (of course no water maker) which was a laborious process of lowering 5 gallon glass bottles down into the dingy from the commercial pier, rowing out to Malabar, hoisting them onto the deck and pouring them through a funnel into the tank. We loaded 4 bottles per trip and the process took several sweaty hours.
Nordhavn has a washing machine and dryer and a wonderful large stall shower. With the Spectra water maker, we have essentially unlimited amounts of fresh water, which is still difficult for me to get used to. On Malabar, we constantly worried about fresh water. Dishes were washed in salt water and rinsed in fresh. Clothing was washed in a bucket on a “wash board” and hung out to dry. Showering was a “bathing suit” shower, which took place on the small area aft of the cockpit. A bucket of salt water would be scooped up and the individual would scrub with Joy dish soap and rinse with salt water. Then the call “rinse me” would go out and two quarts of fresh water would be poured over your head to wash off the salt.
On Nordhavn (or any Nordhavn), one has complete confidence in the basic structural integrity of the boat and most people don’t even appreciate that it is not always this way. Not one second is spent worrying about the hull, the bulkheads, the rudder, engine mounts or windows. On the 45-year-old wooden Malabar, I had constant anxiety about the boat breaking up and sinking from under us. The swollen and rusty steel chain plates, the mysterious leak in the garboard seam that got worse and worse, the hogging deck and the questionable rudder. One never knew if the creak groan or snap that you heard would be the last. If Malabarhad broken up and sunk, we would have tried to get into the Avon dinghy, but probably we would have drowned. I cringe when I think back to the danger and risk that we subjected ourselves to on Malabar. Nordhavn, on the other hand, is a tank, which will almost certainly never sink due to simple structural failure. If she should sink due to collusion, fire or some unforeseen chain of events, we would (if we had time) call Mayday on two kinds of radios (SSB and VHF) make telephone calls on two kinds of phones (Iridium and Wavetalk) and then launch and enter our Switlik life raft bringing our abandon ship bag, survival suits, EPIRB, the Iridium phone, hand held VHF, and the hand held GPS. We would probably be rescued within a few hours and then start thinking about the insurance settlement. Malabar had no insurance and represented my humble parents’ entire net worth.
On Nordhavn, we always know precisely where we are – down to the nearest 15 feet. We have two GPS units and three different navigation programs, which display on the Raymarine plotters or the computer monitor. We have two radars, which can overlay on the plotter to verify landmarks. On Malabar, we almost never knew where we were unless we were sitting in port. We navigated by dead reckoning, shore landmarks, light beacons and the occasional radio beacon using our Bendix RDF. We had a sextant, sight reduction tables and an Accutron watch, but our skills at celestial navigation were minimal. There was constant anxiety about our position- it was always on my mind.
On Nordhavn, we sit in a pleasant pilothouse protected from the elements (it is pouring down rain as I write this). Our screens, computers, radios, telephones, electrical panels and instruments are arranged in logical order on the upper and lower consoles. One has a sense of security and feels in command of the vessel. On Malabar, we sat in an open cockpit and hand steered the boat no matter what the circumstances. We had an awing for protection from the sun, but in rain or worse yet, salt spray from beating to weather, we had to wear the hated foul weather gear. On Nordhavn, we are IN the boat – staying within the protection of the Portuguese bridge. On Malabar, we were ON the boat protected only by the lifelines. Trips to the bucking foredeck to change sails were always a time of high risk.
On Nordhavn we are nearly always well rested and clean. On Malabar we were nearly always tired and often times delirious with fatigue and seldom as clean as we wanted to be. I often say that one of the overlooked safety benefits of a cruising power boat vs. a sailboat is that on the powerboat, you are going to be less fatigued and therefore have better judgment at those crucial times when you need it.
The most important boating component: spirit
Back to Malabar’s passage from Salina Cruz to Puntarenas. Nearly all of the deprivations described above occurred on that passage. We motored in blazing sun until our fuel was nearly depleted, we got hit by a “Papaguyo” which is the evil twin of a Tehaunapecker, our main, jib and Genoa were all torn, we became “lost” for two days when Punta Guiones did not appear as we expected, we nearly ran out of water and had to severely ration and we had to lay “a-hull” for 12 hours in winds estimated to be over 50 knots while poor Malabar issued forth death groans and her leak increased in volume.
As I read the logbook and diaries of that passage (and numerous other passages just as horrendous), I marvel at the optimistic sprit and lack of complaining that shows through. Yes, some of the misery was due to our ineptness and poor planning, but most of it was accepted as the norm for that time- only 31 years ago.