European shakedown

Barb and Con Sprenger, two Canadians from land-locked Calgary, Alberta, have been sailing together for just two years. In April 2007, they tossed off the lines the moment the Baltic Sea thawed. They were in Turku, Finland, where they bought their 515 Nauticat sailboat, Big Sky. Con has sailed all his life. Barb’s sailing experience has involved one sailing course, two charters, and two years living aboard and voyaging.

The Sprengers retired early, gave away most of their possessions, and leased their house to live aboard Big Sky and sail into the sunset. Unfortunately, Con couldn’t fully retire until March 2009, working from Big Sky’s pilot house scooping WiFi from port to port.

Con was born in Holland after WWII, spent his youth in the Sea Scouts, and got his formal training in the Dutch Navy. He emigrated to Canada 39 years ago with $1,700 in his pocket. Today he is a shareholder in Eagle Pumps and Compressor Ltd., a successful pump and compressor company.

After a successful career in public affairs, Barb became a founder and was the National Executive Director of the Kids Up Front Foundation of Canada, a charitable organization. With the help of donors and a board of directors, she grew the charity from an idea to an organization serving thousands of kids in need across Canada.

Together they have toured 20 countries, so far. They have sailed through winds peaking at 50 knots in the North Sea, sail-surfed on a 15-foot wave into an Italian marina; battled cross-winds in an Estonian marina while caught on a Russian anchor, managed 40-foot tides on the Atlantic coast, and were nearly swamped when stuck in tidal mud in France.

ON:What prompted you to go voyaging?

B&C:We both have a huge curiosity about the world and a keen desire to explore it, so it really came down to “by land or by sea.” Sailing around the world was a childhood dream of Con’s, so there was no question that one day he would do it — by sea. I loved the idea of traveling like a turtle so to speak, with our house on our back, tucking into various communities and getting to know the culture and moving on. Seeing the world from port to port is the most fascinating thing.

We arrive usually right in the center of the old towns, and set off on foot or bike to explore. There’s something magical about using the waterways as our highways. You’re one with the heavens and if you’re lucky, dolphins come to visit at your bow, whales can be spotted, flying fish, exotic birds. Sometimes those highways can get really rough though and have come with challenges, but it adds to the realness and rawness of what we’re doing. Voyaging in this time of our lives is like the icing on the cake of an already beautiful life.

ON:What were your advance preparations before departing?

B&C: Getting ready was a bit like a snowball heading down a steep mountain. We started off slowly, about two years before leaving, I’d taken a basic sailing course, we’d spoken to the kids and to the people in our work world, so they all knew our intention.

We’d purchased Big Sky a year before we departed, so we’d gone through the tough job of naming and registering the boat. As we neared the departure date, that snowball was really gaining momentum and everything was happening at once. It was an exercise both physically and emotionally.

We’d prepared our beautiful yard for low maintenance, then leased out our home. Packing it up was more difficult for Con I think, as he had 30 years to sort through. I’d just moved in four years earlier so I’d identified the items in my life that I had to have and the rest were just things. We set about the task of sorting everything into three areas:

To give away: most of our things.

To storage: our photo albums, heirlooms, and odd little things.

To Big Sky: tools, Gill suits and clothes, fold-up bikes, voyaging books, reference guides, travel books, leisure reading, photos of kids, medical first-aid kit, English translation (from the Internet) of all the equipment aboard, as it’s a Finnish boat, previously owned by a German.

We researched every bank for the best international access and Internet system and found that the TD Canada Trust suited us best. We then cancelled our other banks, transferred funds, applied for new credit cards. We set up every bill for payment online, and for automatic payments. We researched for medical coverage and applied for an extension of our provincial coverage. We changed our address to our daughter and son-in-laws; prepared a garment bag of a few formal outfits for various occasions that may call us home; packaged up our ski gear for winter access when we’re home.

I had to wrap my mind around packing in my professional career. I absolutely loved the work I was doing, and was plugged into the pulse of the Calgary community which doesn’t happen overnight. It took years of socializing, smoozing, being seen and seeing people, which fed into the successes my organization was experiencing. To close that chapter was difficult too. Con looked internationally for the right person to take a portion of his day-to-day business so he could manage the bigger picture from Big Sky.

Saying goodbye to the kids was really emotional, it almost did me in during the first few months of sailing. I was so crippled by homesickness for them. They’re all adults and living away from home, but there was so much more to the dynamics. My daughters and I were still working through our grieving from the sudden death of my husband, their dad. We had just blended our families Con and me, so we hadn’t made a lot of “family history” together, you know Sunday dinners sort of thing, and now we were going. That for me was the most difficult part of going.

ON: How did you choose your boat?

B&C: The two main criteria were safety and comfort. Safety meant that the boat had to be capable of withstanding almost all weather conditions. Comfort meant that it had to have a pilot house so that we would not, as the French call it, live in “la cave.” Although we had always been impressed with the Nauticat design, we were open-minded and with the aid of the Internet searched the world. We met with yacht brokers in Seattle, Boston, Fort Lauderdale and The Netherlands, viewing dozens of boats. Once we boarded a Nauticat 42 in the Boston area, we knew it would be a Nauticat. On the Internet we spotted a slightly-used 515 stored in the Nauticat Factory in Finland. After negotiating the price, we flew to Finland to inspect it, loved it and finalized the purchase. We took possession and haven’t regretted a moment of our decision.

ON: Did you take any medical courses before you began voyaging full time?

B&C: We did. There were a few courses to choose from: a half-day basic course; a one-day; and a three-day, eight hours per day course. That’s the one we took, but in a medical situation, it really comes down to common sense. In the Baltic states, Scandinavia, Europe and Northern Africa where we traveled so far, we’ve always been close to great medical care if we had needed it.

We consulted our doctors about what medications to take along, researched which inoculations to get and got them. Mind you, we had a lot of bruises, bumps, scrapes and cuts the first few months adjusting to the living aboard. It’s about knowing where the top of your head and your toes are in relation to the various spots on the boat.

ON: What equipment do you use for communications?

B&C: On the boat we have a VHF radio which we monitor while underway, but it’s rarely used as a communication tool with marinas, they prefer cell phone contact. We buy a new SIM card for each country for our cell phone which gives us phone calls around the world, SMS, and most importantly, acts as a modem with our laptops for Internet access. The Internet is our biggest communication tool, and generally we find WiFi spots everywhere. We now use Skype (Internet telephone) as an inexpensive way to make phone calls to family and friends. It’s becoming increasingly easier to get reasonably priced Internet connections. We’ve watched the progression of this communication tool in the past two years and anticipate it to be even better in the future.

ON: Do you have a watermaker on your boat?

B&C: We do. It has never been used and probably never will. According to the factory it was the worst model they ever built; spare membranes and parts are no longer available. We have been able to get good fresh water in every port as part of the marina fees (except Gibraltar). We’ve used chemicals from time to time to sterilize the tanks, but water has never been an issue and bottled water is really inexpensive. We anticipate things to be different when we get to Greece.

ON: How much repair and maintenance work do you do yourself?

B&C: Other than complicated mechanical or electrical problems, we do most of the work ourselves. The biggest issues we face are understanding how the various systems work and interact with each other. It’s also learning how to get access to the various locations where problems occur. For instance, we’ve been experiencing recurring problems with our hot water hoses splitting at the connection points. Finding the actual location of the split is a challenge, then gaining access, at least in one instance, meant cutting through the floor under the stove. Complicated problems such as failing battery chargers has required us to hire experts in that field.

We’ve shopped around for quotes for annual maintenance, cleaning, waxing, polishing, antifouling, replacing zincs, etc. So far, we’ve managed to find affordable prices, and the prices sure vary from place to place.

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

B&C: Well, for Barb, it was finding ways to cope with homesickness — being away from my family and friends, handling adverse conditions at sea, and even how to drive Big Sky in and out of a marina during rough weather. For Con, it was learning to handle a boat bigger than he’d ever sailed in his life, and the complex mechanical, electrical and electronic equipment on the boat. We have learned to overcome language difficulties and can now communicate in every language with a smile and a gesture. We’ve gained a wonderful skill “listening.” So often people think they don’t know the language so they close their ears and don’t hear the words. We’re not intimidated by language and respond to whomever sometimes using five or six different languages in one sentence! But most importantly, we communicate.

ON: What are your future voyaging plans?

B&C: We plan to continue sailing for as long as we’re having fun doing it. If we wake up one day and feel like it’s over, then we make a new plan. We’ll leave Tunisia for Malta in a few weeks. I’ll fly home from there for a month to be with our youngest daughter and her husband for the arrival of their first baby. Con will carry on to Corfu with his brother and sister-in-law, then our daughter and her eight-month old grandson will join Con in Corfu for a few weeks. For the summer and fall, we’ll explore the Adriatic Sea (Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, east coast of Italy) then look for a warm spot for the winter, like maybe Crete or Marmaris, Turkey. In 2010, we’re thinking about exploring the Black Sea, then transiting the Suez Canal and heading into the Indian Ocean. In general, we’ll see where the wind blows us.

By Ocean Navigator