Chapter 1 - CAPTURING THE FIREBIRD
Updated: Sep 17
20 CHAPTERS FROM VICKI'S CRUISING NOTES - 5 1/2 YEARS AND 40,000 MILES OF BLUE WATER CRUISING IN SOME OF THE MOST REMOTE ISLANDS OF THE WORLD
I swear, no one in his right mind would have done what we did, had he known what trouble lay ahead. Imagine that you are the small and solid, shiny pinball in an old-fashioned mechanical pinball machine, and the game is called “Dream on, Sucker!” The creature operating the flippers is a certified maniac. The scoreboard lights up and bells ring each time he slams you into big trouble. This creature kept us in play for nearly two years.
2001 - 2002
The U. S. Virgin Islands had been our home for several decades. During the previous four years we had been living on our yacht, doing charters during the tourist season. Phantom was a 72-foot Burger motor yacht—a floating five-star mini-hotel—with three guest cabins, a saloon, a large enclosed aft deck for dining, a fly bridge, a galley forward and crew’s quarters forward and below. She was posh—lots of Italian marble, over 350 square feet of mirrors in the cabins and heads, white sofas, white carpets, and oriental rugs.
WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?
Over the last fifteen years, doing charters in the Caribbean, we had met dozens of interesting, sometimes fascinating, people from all over the world, and all—well, maybe 96%--had become our friends. In the spring of 2000, we had an unusual booking—Paco Flores, the President of El Salvador and his family. We were nervous: he would be traveling “without security”. And he was a day late: President Bush was visiting Paco in El Salvador the day the charter was supposed to begin. Eventually, we picked him and his family up by dinghy off the beach of the St. Regis Hotel. Our nervousness, and the difficulty of boarding our guests from the dinghy, rather than the dock, had us all praying for good luck. But Paco and his wife, Lourdes, their two children, Gabriella and Juan Marcos, were so friendly and fun that the week went by in a flash.
One evening during cocktail hour, as the sky cycled through its fiery palette, Paco confessed that he dreamed of going around the world on a sailboat. A week of this sort of talk, and Jim was already rearranging our future in his mind.
But how could we go around the world? Phantom had a range of 1200 miles. She was more like a luxurious houseboat than an ocean trawler. We would need to buy a sailboat. I was hesitant: I did not know much about sailing, couldn’t imagine long distance passages with no sight of land for weeks. I hadn’t ever given thought to the islands of the Pacific or the mysterious countries that lay beyond it. And we would need some crew.
David Pritchett, the young South African man who had been working as crew during our charters for two years, jumped at the chance. Well then, I thought, let the guys sail off and wrestle with Mother Ocean. I could get a little place in Florida, and fly to join the boat when she reached an alluring destination. Besides, it was oh-so-far in the future; we had a full season of charters booked for the coming year.
HURRICANE SEASON – TIME TO SHOP
Hurricane season was approaching. July starts it off every year, but we feared September more than the other months. September had devastated our lives twice: in 1989 Hurricane Hugo had destroyed our 77-foot motor sailor, Criterion; in 1995 Hurricane Marilyn had destroyed our 66-foot Cheoy Lee trawler, Mustique. Our house, as well, was totally destroyed in each of these hurricanes. Every boat owner in the Caribbean had learned the new tricks: either take your vessel south, or store it on-the-hard. That summer Phantom was sentenced to five months on hard land in the Virgin Gorda Boatyard. We were set adrift, to find our way as landlubber tourists.
Our number one destination was Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We had lived and worked there, in a previous life, as restaurateurs. It just happened to be the best place on earth to shop for boats; its nickname is The Yachting Capital of the World.
The crazy creature pulled back the plunger. He let it go. Kapow! Our new life as a shiny silver pinball was launched.
Julien Elfenbein, our friend of more than thirty years, was delighted to see us. As one of the finest yacht brokers around, he had guided us through the purchase of three previous yachts—Criterion, Mustique and Phantom. We were not his best clients: we kept losing our boats in hurricanes to the insurance company, depriving him of a chance to resell them.
Shopping around is usually an innocent pastime; however, shopping for a second yacht is a dangerous business. Oh, it’s fun to climb aboard someone else’s boat, poke around, try it out for size and fit. But once you see a boat that feels just right, what can you do?
We looked at boats up and down the east coast of Florida. We found Firebird in Aventura, just north of Miami. The current owner, Ben Cart, had bought her three years before, sailed her down to Panama, through the canal and on to Costa Rica. Then a business opportunity turned up back in the states, and he returned with the boat to Florida.
Firebird was a big boat—an 84-foot Palmer Johnson ketch. What attracted Jim was the massive flush deck. He immediately imagined a dining table big enough for 8 people, with an awning above it. Firebird had an extra owner’s cockpit at the stern that once was a hot tub. The ship’s interior had more curved vertical surfaces than any boat we’d ever seen, and she had a fireplace. She was a jaunty little ship with five water-tight bulkheads. This was the one.
Jim had been sailing his entire life, (he sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1961), so he was quite knowledgeable in all aspects of sailing. But maintaining and sailing an 84’ ketch to the other side of the world would be a little daunting.
Jim called David, who was now in South Africa, and asked him for a commitment to a voyage around the world. Yes, he was in. And he was absolutely certain that Becky, his fiancée, would be just as enthusiastic. Jim called our friends, Jeff and Cheryl Pytlarz, to ask if they would join us for some charters in the South Pacific. Yes, they were eager, as were other charter guests.
MAKING THE COMMITTMENT
We canceled the rest of our vacation and made an offer on Firebird, which was accepted. Ka-bing! His first score. We put down the requisite deposit, which gave us the right to take a closer look at her. A sea trial was scheduled. The owner was out of town but the captain of a previous owner was located to operate the vessel. We set out with Julien aboard, as well as the owner’s broker and an engine surveyor. A few hundred yards from the marina, on our way to the Intercoastal Waterway, the engine shut down. Ba-ding!
Firebird drifted to the side of the canal; Jim jumped ashore and tied her off to the palm trees in someone’s backyard. The mechanic discovered that the fuel filters were contaminated, thus cutting off fuel to the engine. The owner’s broker called someone to find the neighborhood we were in and come pick him up. He jumped ashore and off he went to get some fresh fuel filters. Several hours later the engine was working again. The tide had dropped and it was too late to proceed; we ended our miniature sea trial. A few days later we tried again. Made it out the Dania Cut into the Atlantic Ocean and had a successful sea trial.
Then the marine surveyor began his inspection. Within an hour he had found several places where the aluminum hull had some unusual corrosion and was flaking off in layers. He informed us that he could not pass the boat on survey; in other words, the vessel did not qualify for insurance. Ka-ding! We spoke to the naval architect at Derektor’s Boatyard. He was intrigued by the situation and suggested a lab analysis. We took a hatch cover that was showing this flaking to QC Metallurgical Labs in Hollywood, Florida. The flaking, called exfoliation, was the result of the alloy that was used when the hull was constructed. At the time she was built in 1968, Firebird was the largest aluminum-hulled sailboat in the world. Palmer Johnson Boat Builders had, in fact, overbuilt the hull, making it much thicker than it really needed to be. And the alloy was experimental, one that was normally used in aircraft. Finally, we decided the exfoliation was not a significant structural problem. We hired another surveyor and he passed the vessel.
What if we could have foreseen the many problems that still lay ahead of us? There were going to be at least a dozen. But we had no vision of the future, only a dream of grand adventure, so we continued full steam ahead. Much to the delight of the pinball creature.
Despite the problems so far, we bought Firebird on August 31, 2000, Ka-ding! and immediately began an ambitious and expensive refit. We had to get it done in three months, because in November we had to go back to St. Thomas to put Phantom in the water and begin our busy charter season.
Firebird needed a lot of work. I hardly saw my husband, Jim, and all the workers who had become like family—they were in the engine room most of the time. Even though I was rushed, I redecorated the entire boat—four cabins, the saloon and the galley—with great joy.
Meanwhile, Paco had invited Jim and me, David and Becky, to visit El Salvador as his guests in October. This unforgettable visit involved several body guards carrying machine guns always traveling with us, numerous helicopter flights, and a week’s retreat in the President’s country home in the mountains. Afterwards, Jim and I worked another two weeks on Firebird in Fort Lauderdale, then flew to St. Thomas.
TWO BOATS IN SAINT THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS
We lined up a crew to sail Firebird down to St. Thomas in mid-November—David, Jeff Pytlarz, Becky’s father, and our friends, Frank Hobble and Charlie Morrisett. The passage was a fiasco. There was very little wind so they had to motor. The engine worked well: the whole drive train had been extensively overhauled. But the belts on the drive pulley kept slipping and the propeller would not turn. Boing! The boat lumbered along, rolling gunwale to gunwale, making everyone seasick. David and Frank spent days in the engine room and eventually found a way to get the 30” drive pulley back in place. Firebird arrived in the Virgin Islands on November 19, and Jeff joined his family already aboard Phantom for a charter in the Virgin Islands. A few weeks later, Joe Duggan, our good friend and expert engine mechanic, flew down with some custom-made sleeves to correct the problem.
Just before the Christmas holidays, David came to us with bad news. Becky was refusing to go on the voyage. Dinga-ling! What would she do with her horse? And her dog? And Firebird was so big! She couldn’t imagine even doing a man-over-board drill. Besides, she wanted to go around the world on her own boat (she didn’t own a boat!). She threatened to break up with David and throw him out of the house if he insisted on going. He gave in to her, and we had no one to crew for us.
At Christmas time, our friend, Frank, brought his family to St. Thomas for a cruise aboard Firebird. The first day Jim, Frank, and the rigging guy took the boat out in some heavy winds for a sea trial. They motored out of the harbor, then set the sails and had a good run, while the engine was idling in neutral. The boat heeled in the strong wind. The exhaust outlet back-filled. Water ran back into the engine, creating a hydraulic lock, and the engine seized. Bada-bing!
We learned later that the new exhaust system had been installed after Ben Cart’s voyage, not before. Finding it too expensive to do it correctly, he had hired someone to construct it simply. It was shiny and impressive, but it had no high rise to keep the seawater from back-flooding into the engine. We had to cancel the only charter we had booked on Firebird. Ka-ping!
Now we had both yachts at the dock in Yacht Haven Marina in St. Thomas—a total of 156 billable feet. Jim found some mechanics on St. Thomas, GM specialists, who said they could rebuild the engine. We redesigned the exhaust system ourselves and had it rebuilt. All this took four months. Meanwhile, we were doing charters on Phantom. A total of thirteen weeks of charter in six months.
HURRICANE SEASON, AGAIN – TIME TO SPLIT UP
Once again hurricane season was approaching. We could not leave Firebird in St. Thomas: she needed to be further down island. Jim, David, and my brother, Larry, took Firebird and headed down-island. During the passage, the newly rebuilt engine kept spitting out oil. Once they reached Trinidad, it had to be rebuilt a second time. Boing! Gotcha again!
So far Julien had not found any buyers willing to fly to St. Thomas to see Phantom; we needed to get her up to Ft. Lauderdale. Jim and I and two friends, Bruno and Karen, did the passage in seven days, stopping briefly in The Exumas. We put her in the same marina in Aventura Florida, in the same slip where we had found Firebird. A quick sale of Phantom would mean we could begin our voyage on Firebird. She was such a beautiful boat; surely it would not take long.
But our plan was slipping out of gear. We were in neutral and sliding off course. We owned two boats and had no charters on the books. Jim and Firebird were down-island. I was in Florida on Phantom. Two years had gone by and we still were not on our way.
Two years had gone by and we still were not on our way.
YACHT PHANTOM FOR SALE – THE WAIT
We stayed in Aventura, living aboard Phantom, taking care of her and showing her to potential buyers. One was an ex-priest from Arizona. He toured our boat and said he wanted to buy it. The broker he had engaged became suspicious when he drove him back to his hotel, a Motel Six. He soon discovered that other brokers knew this guy and had also been fooled. He got his jollies looking at boats, though he had no money at all. He had borrowed cash from a friend to fly to Fort Lauderdale to see Phantom. Ping! Another guy named Ray kept saying he was going to buy the boat but each time, at the last minute, something came up and the transaction never took place. Ping again!
I had been studying for my ham license. I had passed the first test, for a technician license, and a second test, for general class, and on the evening of September 10, 2001, I took the final test for Morse code. I passed by the skin on my teeth and the kindness of the examiners. Now I was qualified to use the ham radio frequencies and the Winlink network weather reports and e-mail once we were underway.
The next day, 9/11, was a turning point for everyone in the world. Unfortunately, it was a turn in the wrong direction for us. Ka-bang! The creature was dancing on his toes. Buying an expensive motor yacht like Phantom was no longer on anyone’s to-do list. Our hopes for selling her any time soon were shattered.
On a sunny day in October, Jim and I dragged our luggage to the parking lot of the Aventura Marina in Florida, planning to fly to Trinidad, where Firebird was located, only to discover the rear windshield of our Florida car was shattered. Kabang! A single coconut lay nearby, even though there was no coconut tree in sight. As we drove to Joe Duggan’s shop (he was going to keep our car while we were gone), we called the insurance company and arranged for a windshield replacement. Our ancient Mercedes sedan, unfortunately, was so full of rust that it took months of work before Joe could get the window installed. We sold the car to Joe for zero dollars.
We did a couple of down-island charters on Firebird and then Jim, David, and I brought Firebird back to St. Thomas. All along we had thought that David would then leave us to begin his new life with his fiancée, Becky. He had not told us, but they had broken up for good before he had gone down-island. Still, he was not up for the voyage. We said our goodbyes and he took off for London.
LET US GO!!!
Firebird had been ours for sixteen months and we still owned Phantom. The year brought several charters on Firebird, but nothing like the lucrative charters we had done on Phantom. We needed a buyer for Phantom and a new crew member for our voyage. I was juggling our credit cards, moving our debts around like shells on a table, trying to keep the interest costs down. At least we no longer needed a buyer for our St. Thomas car. We had lent it to our friend, Bruno, while we were away. He was driving up a hill just after a truck accidently spilled oil on the road. He lost control; the car slid down and crashed into a retaining wall. A total wreck. Poing! That was fun!
In the spring, we had a serious buyer for Phantom. He made an offer and we accepted. He put down a deposit and commissioned a survey on our boat, to be done by Guy Clifford of Patton Surveying Company. Guy spent an entire day scouring every nook and cranny of our beloved Phantom, and he then came back the next day to do more of his nosing around. The result: a nineteen-page report with over 200 items “to be noted”. Ka-bling! Ha! The buyer was going to break out in a sweat just plowing through the document. Some items were absurd – “The main galley oven is in poor cosmetic condition.” (Several rust spots). Some were lies – “No copy of International Collision Regulations at Sea and Rules of the Road on board.” (He never asked to see them.) Some were sheer stupidity – “Could not operate the hailer horn.” (He didn’t know how to turn it on.) On top of that, during the haul-out inspection, this man told the buyer that he would need to sandblast the entire bottom and have it repainted—a project that would cost over $30,000—another huge lie. Pa-ding! We lost that buyer but had the bitter pleasure of writing an excoriating letter to the owner of the survey company.
HURRICANE SEASON NUMBER 3
Yet another hurricane season was approaching. (Have I said this before?) We had to begin the voyage, with or without a crew member to help us, with or without selling Phantom. There would be no cozy little home in Florida for me. Blang! Jim and I flew to St. Thomas, leaving Phantom on her own, to begin our voyage preparations.
In June Julien called, telling us we had another potential buyer. Jim flew back to Fort Lauderdale for the sea trial and survey. Despite the rather disappointing sum, it was an offer we could not refuse. Phantom was sold. Oh, the creature was not happy!
During that trip, Jim was in the Blue Water Bookstore when he heard someone speaking with a South African accent. Jim approached him and asked if he would like to go around the world with us on Firebird. No, he said, he was the captain of a large sailboat, but he knew someone who might be interested. The next morning, a Sunday, Jim met Dylan Thomas at a Denny’s Diner for tea. They talked for several hours. Jim very much liked Dylan and they made a deal. Dylan would fly down and start out with us. If at any time, he felt it was not working out, we would fly him back to Florida. Oh, the creature was moaning!
We needed extra crew for the passage from St. Thomas to Panama, so Frank came down from Oregon with his son, Eric. Two days later, Dylan arrived. Oh, the creature was screaming and tearing his hair out!
The hurricane season had begun and it was time to go. We said our goodbyes and left Charlotte Amalie Harbor, St. Thomas. With big grins and loud, contented sighs, we set off for Road Harbor, Tortola, British Virgin Islands, just 20 miles away, to pick up some bottom paint.
Half way there, disaster struck again. Suddenly all electrical systems failed and the generator shut down. Bada-bing! Now the creature was jumping for joy! The engine room was smoking and steaming, so Jim shut down the main engine. We were adrift.
The guys started to hoist the sails, but we were being blown down onto a rocky shore, so Frank quickly dropped the anchor. As the smoke cleared, we discovered that the electrical panel had shorted out, causing the generator to shut down. Jim restarted the main engine and the problem became obvious. Salt water was spouting from a slit in a brand new two-inch, heavy-duty hose on the main-engine raw-water cooling system. It was not dripping water into the bilge, it was not spurting off to one side, it was shooting directly at the electrical panel. The whole thing had fried and burned up.
We shut down again, put a temporary patch on the hose and started up again. But we had no electricity. We devised a hand-winch and brought the anchor up, chain-link by chain-link. Firebird limped into Road Harbor. Everyone in the crew felt crippled too. Would the creature ever let us be on our way?
We arranged for a new electrical panel to be delivered to St. Thomas. We returned to our homeport and said “Hello, again!” to all those who had wished us “Bon voyage!” a few days earlier. A week later the panel arrived and was successfully installed. We could leave the next day! But, while rewiring the system, the electrician shorted out the inverter; it sizzled and burned up. No, he was not going to let us go. He had to score one more time. Kabang!
OFF TO SEE THE WORLD
Luckily, we had a spare inverter on board. It was installed and everything was in working order. Our voyage finally began. All of our future turning points would be marked on the charts of the world’s oceans, and they would be turning in the directions of our own choice. No more being slammed, pushed and shoved. No more clanging and banging. We would sail with the wind, on and on and on, slowly and softly and silently. For the next five years and 40,000 miles, we never had a failure aboard Firebird that we couldn’t fix ourselves. The creature watched the pinball fall through the chute. He stayed hunched over the machine, reading again the name of the game— “Dream on, Sucker!” He had scored big time, but the game was over for him.
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