My father once said that “a sailboat is the most expensive way to go 3rd class.” Its true, I guess. Sailboats are, for the most part, uncomfortable, slow, costly and hard work, which is why it baffles me that so many people love them so much. I have sailed since childhood, and I expect that I’ll continue to sail until I can’t any longer. When I’m not sailing, I think about it, and I’d rather be sailing than just about anything else. It’s a curious affliction, and I don’t think I suffer this alone.
My boat is Susie, a 35 year old 24 foot, Hirondelle cruising catamaran. The first production catamarans built, there are probably fewer than 30 Hirondelles still sailing. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this one was sailed from England to Maryland in the late 1970s or early 1980s. If this is true, this is more courage or foolhardiness than I could muster.
I wasn’t sure I liked the name when I got her. She was named after her previous skipper’s wife, and that seemed somehow less grand or meaningful than it ought to be. I was going to change it, but my friend Tyler dissuaded me. “It suits her,” he said. “Susie’s like a Minnesota barmaid: sturdy, well-used, familiar, reliable. She’ll always come through for you.”
I chose this design because she makes a lot of sense for someone who doesn’t really plan to cruise long distances, but likes to sail alone and sometimes offshore. She’s a big boat for 24 feet, with a head and a small galley, plenty of deck room and a spacious, dry cockpit that is covered by a large retractable awning, an important piece of gear to shield you from the unrelentingly fierce Florida sun.
Each of the rudders have a daggerboard that drop down when you’re underway. There are leeboards on each side that also drop down. By adjusting these on different points of wind, you can get traction in the water, keep a truer course more easily, and the boat performs. With the boards down, she takes 36 inches of water, not much at all. With them up, she takes 16 inches of water, and you can get into areas no monohull could ever think about, and even beach her.
She’ll sleep 3 comfortably without any problem. There are few experiences that are nicer than sleeping on a boat that’s lying at anchor in a calm cove, with a soft breeze making the water lap around you. It’s blissful.
Susie has basic but very adequate electronics: a couple good VHF radios, a GPS, compass. and a depth gauge. With a 15 hp Mercury, I can cruise about 150 miles under engine power on the 17 gallons I keep onboard. My friend Brian Baker installed a Buck Rogers electrical system, so I have plenty of juice whenever I’m under way.
For a little boat, she’s fast enough. In a good breeze, she’ll go 7 knots, keeping up with 36-38 foot monohulls. That’s plenty fast enough for me. I learned a while ago that, when you go 4-7 knots for days at a time, you can’t help but slow down inside.
Catamarans sail flat, without heeling much at all, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you spend several days trying to work a boat that’s heeled over 25 degrees. Moving through a boat like that requires effort and concentration; you’re constantly having to watch your balance and fight to move forward while you’re being pushed to one side. The smallest tasks – cooking, bathing, doing a repair – become much more difficult and time consuming.
Susie’s main driving power comes from her gennaker, a 160% jib that I have furled around the forestay. It’s a wonderful arrangement. Untie a line, give a tug, and it rolls out and fills like a cloud. Easy and simple, like most things on this boat.
The main requires more work. You have to untie the sail cover, then hoist it up the 34 foot mast. It adds power and drive in a breeze, and its beautiful.
I put steps up the mast in case I have to go up and fix something. I’m terrified of heights, but when there’s a problem, there’s no alternative. I’ve been up several times, and while very strenuous, its never quite as bad a I expect it to be. I have a climbing harness that I use for safety to catch me in case I fall.
I bought Susie from a quadrapledgic in Miami, who had the companionway – the doorway between the cockpit and the cabin – opened wide so he could get his wheelchair through. His wife did the sailing, but they had rigged an interesting arrangement that allowed him to lock his wheelchair in place between the throttle and the helm so he could drive the boat under power.
After the purchase, I brought Susie slowly up the Intracoastal Waterway to Jacksonville, about 450 miles. I did only one leg offshore during that trip. I knew that she needed some work, and I was careful not to get into a situation that might be dangerous offshore.
It was a breathtakingly beautiful and happy trip. Florida in deep summer, hot as can be, but first through the congested area between Miami and Palm Beach, and then through what is often still wilderness, punctuated by towns and cities along the way. Every day was an adventure, rising just before dawn and getting underway, and then cruising as long as daylight would allow. The boat traffic was intense for the first couple days, but lessened to a trickle as I moved North. Dolphins and manatees would sound next to the boat all the way up. At sunset, I’d anchor out of the channel, take a shower on the foredeck, and then reward myself for the progress with a nice shot of rum. Then I’d lie out on the deck and watch the sky and my surroundings, and let myself fall asleep away from the normal worries of the world.
I first kept Susie at a marina off the Intracoastal in St. Augustine, but it was a 55 minute drive from my house and then it took about an hour to get out to an area that was roomy enough to sail. Now I keep her at Julington Creek off the magnificent St. Johns River. The moment I’m out of the docks I’m in an area 3.5 miles wide, plenty of room to catch a breeze and wander around. If I want to go offshore, its about 6 hours, an easy cruise.
Over time, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with Susie. She’s a boat I could have my whole life, cruising the coast as far in each direction as I can go. I’ll spend the next few years getting her ready while we play, and then we’ll plan to wander.
Sailboats are a meditation. You can spend all your time working on them if you’re not careful. But once out and underway, they require a discipline, paying attention to lots of little things. There’s satisfaction in running offshore and in making your way safely into port, and even in weathering a storm under way. It is a quiet time that stretches you and makes you always long for another nice breeze and the feel of the water and the waves moving under you.