Aluminum voyagers

In the early 1990s, while in mid-career, Jim and Jean Foley left their jobs and sailed to Europe on Mara, their Mason 44. They returned to the Caribbean and on through Panama to circumnavigate along the trade wind route. After several summers in the Canadian Maritimes they did a Great Lakes loop down the St. Lawrence to Lake Superior and back out the Erie Canal.

Their current boat, Onora, a Chuck Paine-designed High Latitude 63, was launched at Kelly Archer’s yard in New Zealand in 2004. After a yearlong shakedown voyage that took them up to the Solomon Islands and down to Tasmania, they left from New Zealand and crossed to Chile and across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.

The Foley’s spent last summer in Greenland and are now sailing in northern Europe.
When not sailing, Jim and Jean Foley live in Chicago. Jim owns and is chairman of The Dickson Company, a manufacturer of temperature and humidity instruments. Jean is a family councilor who now volunteers in the Chicago Public Schools.

ON: What made you want to go voyaging?

J&JF: I grew up on Lake Michigan. I crewed on boats from grade school. Each sail was a small adventure. Jeannie grew up sailing a Sunfish on Long Island. I met her when she came to Chicago for college. I borrowed a sailboat and we went sailing on our first date. It was a perfect full moon in September 1968. I told her that I planned to sail around the world. She liked the idea. A year later we were married. We raised a family and kept putting it off. Finally, in 1990 Jeannie circled June 1, 1993 as the day we would leave. We left on June 5th of that year.

ON: What advance preparation did you do before your circumnavigation?

J&JF: We had owned two boats on Lake Michigan and sailed as far as Lake Huron’s North Channel. We had read Hiscock, Coles, Hintz, Tabarly, etc. I took courses in basic electronics, refrigeration, navigation and diesel mechanics. We bought a great voyaging boat, a Mason 44, and put on offshore equipment and a mess of spare parts. I struggled through Morse code and passed my ham general license. Our finances were organized and wills completed.

We thought it would be good to meet experienced people so we flew to Fort Lauderdale for Seven Seas Cruising Association’s annual meeting. The first couple we met was Bill and Simone Butler. Our jaws dropped when they told us of surviving 66 days in a life raft. With their advice we ordered a bigger life raft and added a handheld watermaker, waterproof cards and a bible to our ditch bag. We did not follow Bill’s recommendation of carrying a pistol to shoot at the bridges of the freighters (during the Butler’s ordeal, they fired flares but ships failed to respond).

It really did not feel final until we put our house on the market. When it sold in two days we had nowhere to move except the boat. There was no turning back.

I did not sell my business, a manufacturer of chart recorders and data loggers. Instead, I promoted a manager to run it for the summer while we sailed from Maine to Newfoundland. I needed to see how he would do and how we liked voyaging. We had never been gone beyond two weeks before. The results were positive. He still runs the business and we still sail.

ON: Did you take any medical courses or get any medical prep before departing on any of your voyages?

J&JF: We took one of the first Ocean Navigator “Medical Emergencies at Sea” courses. We still talk of the first 7:30 am session on a snowy Saturday in the Weston O’Hare meeting room. The first question asked was “What if someone dies?”

I was amazed when our instructor (an emergency room doctor and sailor) told us we had to bring the body back. I realized he was right. Jeannie’s six brothers and sisters, all older and wiser, already thought we were nuts. If I buried her at sea I would be hounded to hell.

Our instructor went on to say that voyaging is a healthy lifestyle so medical problems tend to be sprains, cuts and breaks. He taught us to treat these. That has served us well.

We find our doctors back home in Chicago are interested in our adventures and love to follow our travels. They are very good about answering our infrequent medical emails.

ON: Have you experienced any medical emergencies while on board?

J&JF:  Nothing serious. There aren’t germs offshore and fortunately, we have not had a serious knockdown. Jeannie fell off a bike in France and I caught a bug in South Africa but we were onshore with local medical support.

ON: What equipment did you use for communication on your circumnavigation? How have you updated that for your most recent voyage?

J&JF: In 1993 we used HF radio for the nets and Inmarsat C for email. Our Inmarsat stopped in the Indian Ocean so we were out of touch with home for three months but no one missed us.

Now we still use the HF radio for SailMail, weather and talking to other voyagers but also have an Iridium phone for weekly calls to the family and the business. On shore we use Internet cafes. In each country we buy prepaid SIM cards for our unlocked GSM cell phone.

Being so connected is a plus but also a minus. It is harder to get the feeling of being out there when you can talk to anybody in the world from anywhere in the world.

ON: What features were you looking to change or improve on when you decided to have your present boat built? Does Onora meet your requirements?

J&JF: After a near disaster in fog and strong winds in Labrador we decided that we wanted a strong metal boat for the high latitudes with a pilothouse to shield us from the elements. We did not start out to build a new boat but as we looked at available boats we developed a wish list. We added a well laid out engine room, simple fixable equipment, good lines and low maintenance. Finally, I flew up to Camden, Maine, and talked to Chuck Paine. He gave us an ice-strengthened, medium-displacement version of his 63-foot design. We took our plans to several boatbuilders but stopped when we met Kelly Archer in New Zealand. Kelly and his team loved the project. It is a terrific boat.

ON: What are the pros and cons of having an aluminum boat?

J&JF: Onora is unpainted so we are often asked when she will be finished. Unpainted aluminum boats are difficult and expensive to build. The metal has to be fair. Nothing can be hidden with filler.

With this type of boat you have to be careful about electrolysis. Onora has a hull fault check for internal ground and I always test for stray current in marinas before plugging into shore power.

Finally, you have to put on a barrier coat or avoid metal-based bottom paint. A bump on the bottom that breaks the barrier coat can give you electrolysis. We use low-performance nonmetal-based bottom paint and have to scrape barnacles in warm water but the cold, high latitudes retard growth.

Aluminum’s two big advantages are strength and low maintenance. We never worry about tying up to fishing boats or hitting small chunks of ice. Sandpaper takes care of scrapes. Aluminum is several times stronger than GRP and bends before it breaks. Steel is stronger and easier to weld but it rusts. We are happy with our choice.

ON: What are the most important skills you learned while voyaging?

J&JF: You have to learn to relax and be patient. When you want to leave the weather is seldom right. You have to operate at the pace of the country you are in or you will never get checked in. When you fix something it is never as fixed as you think. Shipments never come on time. When you are in a storm and there is nothing more you can do, you just hang on and ride it out.

I believe you have to start with some mechanical aptitude and persistence. If you have Nigel Calder’s book and the maintenance manuals on board your mechanical ability will develop. Fixing things is the reality that no one tells you about.

ON: What are your future voyaging plans?

J&JF: We arrived in Ireland from Greenland last fall. This summer we will cruise Ireland and Scotland’s northern islands. Next summer we plan to head north to Svalbard and Norway. The following year we hope to see the Baltic before heading down the Atlantic coast and into the Med for a year. We are slowly making our way back to New Zealand. We love the country and plan to make it our base for exploring more of the South Pacific.       

By Ocean Navigator