A collective approach to voyaging

Typically, long-distance voyaging boats are crewed by a couple or a family, perhaps with the assistance of a friend or two. As I contemplate the 23rd season sailing our 34-foot sloop, Antigone, I realize that we have evolved a rather different model for our adventures. During the last two decades, Antigone has sailed from New York to Nain, Newfoundland, spending three seasons in Labrador and cruising Newfoundland (from our base in Marblehead, Mass.) four times.

The 34-foot sloop Antigone
   Image Credit: Rich Feeley

We have done this with modest incomes and without quitting our jobs, or even taking a sabbatical. We’ve developed a collective approach to voyaging that makes this possible. It may not get Antigone to Tonga or the Palmer Peninsula, but it allows us to stretch budgets and vacation time to reach coasts we would never explore individually.

The history of our collective voyaging goes back 40 years to two-week summer trips from Larchmont, N.Y., to Nantucket in my father’s 42-foot yawl. Two of my cousins who made those trips sail with Antigone today. This crew was augmented by friendships made in college, and on passages to Bermuda and races across the Atlantic in other people’s boats. In recent years, we have added a new generation.

At the heart of our arrangement is the joint ownership of Antigone by three partners. I did not start with the idea of a partnership. When the time came to sell my father’s elderly wooden yawl, he offered me the proceeds to continue sailing. But there was too little to buy a new fiberglass vessel with comparable capabilities. I could have bought a pocket cruiser. Or I could have purchased half of a more capable cruising boat. I wanted an inboard engine and a comfortable cabin with standing headroom. I also wanted this in a boat that would beat to weather decisively in a 20-knot southwester. A vessel of 34 feet seemed just the thing. Small enough to sail single-handed without a lot of artifice, but roomy enough for four or five friends to sail from Marblehead to Roque Island in Maine without intruding so far into each other’s personal space that we would never sail together again.

Antigone was the right boat. Only three years old, it had been purchased new in France and sailed across the Atlantic by a set of young owners, who left it in a yard in eastern Maine when they returned home. With the franc near an all-time low against the dollar, they could sell Antigone for a lot of francs, and I could purchase it for a reasonable number of dollars. If I had a partner. When one potential partnership fell through, I found a business acquaintance whose family of four had outgrown their J/24. We did not know each other well, but we took the plunge, slightly modifying a standard partnership agreement and wiring $40,000 off to France. Antigone was ours.

Since that day, Antigone has remained in joint ownership, and I have never regretted it. The partnership has changed. Bill, my original partner, was pulled away by other interests. He sold his share to Peter, my shipmate from ocean races in the 1960s. Kay, a business colleague for 20 years, recently joined us as a third partner.

The elements of our partnership are simple. We share operating expenses in proportion to our ownership. According to the agreement, prime summer cruising time is divided into similar shares, but we divide use in a more informal way. Capital investments are also divided pro-rata, after those holding a majority of the shares agree on each purchase.

Joint ownership provides some advantages. For me, it counters the temptation to sail too much — every weekend and all of my vacation time. This would get me in trouble with my family, who enjoy sailing in varying degrees, but none as much as I. And even the most single-minded sailor is forced ashore for weddings, family events and business trips. On those weekends, Antigone is used by another partner. So we each pay less per day on the water than we ever would if we owned the boat individually.

Another advantage is that this arrangement enables us to cruise hundreds of miles beyond those boats that must go out and back to their home port in a two- or three-week vacation. We string our vacations together so that Antigone is in motion for much of the summer season, each owner taking his or her turn as skipper and pressing out (or back) from the point where command changes. This past summer we took turns in June sailing in Bras D’or Lake with some of our less seaworthy family and friends. Then Crew A, with Peter in command, took the boat north from Baddeck, Nova Scotia, to Nain, the northernmost inhabited place in Labrador. At the end of their monthlong northward passage, I flew in and sailed back to St. John’s, Newfoundland, during the month of August. Even with the freedom allowed to me as an academic, I could never have managed the whole round trip with available vacation time.

Beyond the immediate partnership of the owners is our larger cruising collective. Because of our penchant for cold and foggy waters, this has been christened the Nautical Flagellation Society (or NFS) by one skeptic. Over the years, a few charter members of the NFS have swallowed the anchor but been replaced by new recruits or family members. Now there are 20 or so potential crew available for a voyage in northern waters each summer. All are proven seaworthy and know the boat — and each other — well. After more than 20 years, both owners and crew remain happy with our collective approach.

The rewards of our collective are apparent in the enthusiasm with which we share summer experiences at our winter meeting. Such rewards are personal and private as well, memories of superb voyaging moments shared with longtime friends.

I think now of an evening 15 years ago when Antigone left the St. John’s River, crewed by two longtime NFS members and me, each accompanied by a young daughter. A front was just blowing offshore, and a rainbow formed in the last shower of the day. As the northwesterly breeze swept us down the Bay of Fundy, we shared the sunset, then a display of Northern Lights, with our daughters. We approached Swallowtail Point near midnight and a pod of dolphins joined us, frolicking in the phosphorescent bow wave. Those memories, as they say, are priceless.

Rich Feeley is a faculty member at Boston University School of Public Health, working on health financing and HIV/AIDS treatment programs. He lives in Concord, Mass.

By Ocean Navigator