Betsy and Nat Warren-White have sailed the Maine Coast, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, the Florida Keys and the Caribbean for more than 30 years. They often voyage with friends and family aboard Bahati, their 1988 Montevideo 43 built by Fred Scholtz Marine in Durban, South Africa. They have recently been joined by their 26-year-old son, Josh (named for Joshua Slocum) who came aboard in St. Martin last December and plans to sail with them as far as New Zealand on their current circumnavigation.
They spent their honeymoon in 1977 aboard Jim and Ruth Harvie’s Madrigal, a lovely black Hinckley pilot yawl known well on the Maine coast. Typically, they took a number of friends with them on that celebratory voyage and they have spent most of their 30 years of anniversaries moored off Flake Island just west of Doctor’s Point on Isle au Haut. Flake Island has become a touchstone for them over the years and they are convinced that the view at sunset of the Camden Hills from Flake matches any vista found anywhere on earth.
The boat is presently anchored off the small town of Fare on the French Polynesian Island of Huahine just west of Moorea and Tahiti. From Huahine, the Warren-Whites plan to sail to the Kingdom of Tonga and then to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand where they will put Bahati to bed and wait out the hurricane season while doing a little work to replenish the cruising kitty. Their plans then take them to Australia’s Barrier Reef, through the Torres Strait and on up to Bali and Thailand before heading south again across the Indian Ocean toward Durban, South Africa and thence back across the Atlantic to Brazil in hopes of recrossing their own tracks in the Caribbean sometime in 2009 before returning home again to Maine.
ON: Why did you decide to go voyaging?
NW: It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid growing-up in South Freeport, Maine, on the Harraseeket River and in Casco Bay and by watching other boats like Irving Johnson’s Yankee go round the world (I ran into him on the coast of Yugoslavia toward the end of his life — a real role model!) witnessing the schooner Bowdoin head into the Arctic captained by Admiral McMillan and with our next-door neighbor Capt. Janes on board (he gave me an Eskimo fishing lure made from whale or seal bone when I was about six years old and I still have it!)
I also read plenty of long distance sailing stories (Bernard Moitessier, Tristan Jones, Joshua Slocum, Herb Payson, Beth Leonard) and I always had it in my imagination that I could do that too. Then my wife Betsy retired from school teaching two years ago. She had learned to love sailing in the 30-plus years we have lived together on the Maine coast and was willing to indulge my dream, thank goodness! I wanted/needed a break from my work. And we were still young enough to do it without a lot of physical limitations. I also thought if we waited too much longer life’s issues would probably rear up and get in our way — so off we went!
BW: I did not grow up sailing like Nat did. I had only sailed on a sunfish in a small pond a few times prior to meeting Nat. I am not an adventurous person by nature so it took a long time for me to get comfortable on a sailboat. My first real sail was on our honeymoon.
From the beginning of our relationship I knew that Nat had this dream to sail around the world. But I hadn’t bought into it yet, so while he was scheming quietly to take on this voyage, I was silently trying to figure out how I was going to talk him out of it. But as the years went on and I grew to love cruising the Maine coast and had some experiences chartering in more tropical waters, I softened to the concept of a long-distance voyage. Mostly, I came to realize how important this was for Nat and, of course, I respected his skill and knowledge of sailing, so I stopped resisting and began figuring out how I could make this work for me.
I began to understand my personal limits and needs. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to be out crossing the big oceans or doing passages that were likely to be extremely challenging. And my family, home and garden are important for me to stay in touch with. So Nat and I agreed that I could take time off from the boat when I felt the need to avoid a long passage or to get home to visit with family and dig in my garden. I sailed on Bahati from Maine through the Panama Canal and have been home now since late May. I will fly to Tonga in a few weeks and re-join Bahati for some time in the South Pacific and the cyclone season in New Zealand. I feel refreshed and ready to get back aboard!
ON: How did you choose your voyaging boat?
NW: We knew approximately what we were looking for, a little bigger than the last boat we sailed (Morgan 386) with an aft cabin for privacy given the guests and family we knew we wanted to share the trip with. We also wanted a cutter rig for ease and flexibility. It needed to be a boat we could afford and that was rugged enough to do what we wanted her to do. But we still wanted a good sailing boat, on and off the wind.
We looked closely at about 35 different boats up and down the East coast and finally, with the help of a good broker, Rogue Wave in Annapolis (who understood what we were looking for and sailed themselves!) we found Bahati in Annapolis. She’d already been around the world and knew the way. Built to top standards in South Africa, Bahati is a proven blue water boat. We negotiated a reasonable price and the dream began for real!
BW:Besides all that Nat said, I was looking for a boat that had a workable galley. Bahati’s galley is located in the passageway between the main salon and the aft cabin. This made it very safe and secure, with the engine room door behind it to brace against while working.
Bahati had in-boom furling for the main, which we were a bit wary of at first. But we determined that in-boom furling was superior to in-mast furling for offshore passages and decided to take a chance with it. So far, it has worked out well, although it takes some tweaking when raising and lowering.
ON: What modifications or changes did you do to your boat before leaving?
NW: Too many to list. Bahati needed a major refit after non-stop global sailing for the last 20 years. We sailed her to Maine, took her to Phin Sprague at Portland Yacht Services, left her with him and his able crew (with the fine leadership and management of Tom Whitehead) and a long list of things we felt needed to be done.
These included: 1. complete rebedding of all deck fittings; 2. complete re-rig, her third in 20 years (we met the original South African rigger in Annapolis who had also managed the 2nd re-rig and he was a great help); 3. a new engine (it made sense not to invest in rebuilding the original which had already had one complete overhaul and had more than 4,000 hours on it and had a turbo-charger that we did not want); 4. complete rewiring for AC/DC; 5. new electronics; 6. new sails from Hallett in Falmouth, plus several more changes. The refit cost a lot but was well worth it and PYS did a great job for us. Led by Phin, an old friend, who had done the trip we dreamed of doing 40 years ago (I almost went with him then!), their experience was key.
PYS found things we never would have thought about, it was like peeling an onion! PYS has also followed-through beautifully whenever and wherever there have been issues…which there always are! They have helped us find parts in far-off places and even helped us fix some initial charging issues by sending their tech, Mike Smith, down from Maine to Panama when push came to shove. We couldn’t have asked for more!
ON: Did you have any strategy as how you handled provisioning and spare parts?
NW: Betsy has done a brilliant job with provisioning and planning in that department. The key was lists, lists, lists, plus lots of study and reading what others have done. We make careful inventories, which we maintain and update regularly. Now Betsy is off the boat, at home in Maine for the summer and our son, Josh, and his friend, Michael, have taken on that job and kept it going well. She’s still the master, however, and we’ll all be glad to have her back aboard when she rejoins us in Tonga next month.
We are still eating from supplies we stocked in Maine a year ago and we hear from others that they manage to keep stuff for five years or more. Then, en route, you have to catch what you can in different ports and at sea. Good fishing skills are essential and Josh and Mike have perfected them. We try to make good use of what’s available locally, which is often minimal, and also stock-up big again in places like Panama and Tahiti where the box stores allow it! It’s a big job and not cheap.
BW: I really didn’t know what I was doing. But thanks to Beth Leonard’s writing and conversations with other experienced cruisers I knew (Joanna Sprague, at Portland Yacht Services and Alison Nichols, a friend from Annapolis) I took a stab at it and kept refining it along the way. Bahati’s storage spaces presented a challenge.
When I left the boat in Panama City to return to Maine for the summer, I left a half dozen sail bags of non-perishable food on my half of the aft bunk, each labeled with its contents, which Nat had to sleep with on the passage across the South Pacific — a sad substitute for his wife. Thank God, our son Josh and his friend, Michael, caught on to fishing and kept the crew well fed with fresh fish. We only wish that we had a freezer! Learning what is available locally when you stop in port is always a challenge and fun. We found some wonderful supermarkets in places like Antigua, Guadeloupe and Cartagena. But the local produce markets are the best, not just for the produce you can find but as a glimpse into the culture and foods of the island. The market in downtown Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, was knock-your-socks-off amazing — the most colorful and visually pleasing shopping experience I have ever had. And the outdoor market in Panama City was an experience of a lifetime.
Aided by our taxi driver and a local young man with a hand-truck for hire, we were guided through the maze of vendors with skill and diplomacy. I was ready to take the young hand-truck operator back to the boat with us as cook.
NW: As for spare parts, no matter how many you have and how well you plan, you always need something you don’t have on board and then you have to beg, borrow or order over the Internet and by phone. Then we had to struggle with customs and duties. Of course, there are certain things, like filters and belts and pumps and switches you just want to have plenty of when you leave and have a way to get more when you run out. Crewmembers flying in from place to place can bring parts. A place like Portland Yacht with a good parts department is a great help and can facilitate finding and shipping and tracking. Finally, there’s always other boats who may have what you need and you what they need. Lots of trading and giving and trusting and generous helping-out in a pinch goes on out here. People are very willing cause they know they’ll get it back. Also, having good systems with global reach and support is important. Yanmar engines is a good example, they are used and respected everywhere and parts and expertise are generally available.
ON: What type of training, if any, did you receive prior to departure?
NW: Mostly life training, more than 50 years of being on the water. Plus great mentorship from fine sailors and navigators and seat of the pants fix-it guys like Harry Parker and Jim Harvie and my dad, John White, who all taught me so much over the years. Working in boatyards and on my own boats and those of other friends has helped a lot, and still the learning curve is huge.
New systems, modern technology, always more to learn every day — thank God for the Internet and good professional support everywhere. There’s always expertise if you are willing to seek it out and not be afraid to ask questions and make mistakes. Plus Betsy, Josh and I took some weather classes with Lee Chesneau and Ken McKinley that were very helpful.
Betsy took a basic navigation course with the CG auxiliary which she enjoyed a lot and gave her big confidence and expertise. I took a diesel fix-it course at Brewer Marine in South Freeport. I try to work with experts when they are doing jobs on the boat so I can learn from them, they are the best teachers. Also Betsy and I took a weekend seminar on offshore cruising and planning with John and Amanda Neal which was extremely helpful. We both have done basic first aid training and we take advantage of MedLink, a phone consultation service for offshore medical issues which has come in handy many times. We had trouble finding a good offshore medical course that fit our schedule though they do exist.
ON: What type of communications do you use? How do you get weather information?
NW: We are lucky to have an Iridium sat phone and several different sources of weather data including OCENS and also AirMail. We also use SSB nets which exist everywhere and are very helpful. We have a Pactor modem that allows us to download both e-mail and weather data easily (we received great support in setting up these systems from Dan Piltch at marinecomputer.com).
We have used professional weather routers like Ken McKinley in Camden (firstname.lastname@example.org
) and the famous Herb Hilgenberg out of Montreal who covers the Atlantic region and is amazingly supportive and dedicated at no cost. Also, Chris Parker at email@example.com
is terrific in the Caribbean and offers his services on a subscription basis that is very reasonable.
These guys plus lots of links through other boats and nets and SSB stations make the whole weather thing much easier these days. And communications in general, thanks to services like SailMail and OCENS, are extremely accessible. We love being in touch and are grateful for the connections available now.
ON: While voyaging, do you often attempt to make repairs yourself, or do you rely more on boatyards?
NW: When I can do it myself, I like to and I will always try. When I can’t, I seek help from individuals, yards, other yachties, there are experts everywhere. One recent example: our windlass, (Lofrans Tigre) after much use and abuse finally quit after more than five years. It happened as we were about to head through the Panama Canal. We got it going again briefly with the help of a good electrical engineer friend who happened to be aboard at the time (thanks Kirk Jackman) but then it went down for good in the Galapagos. Finally, in Papeete, I bit the bullet and tore it out (after my crew was ready to mutiny from hand-weighing 200 feet of 3/8-inch chain and a 65-pound plow for several weeks).
I was able to ascertain that it was probably an electrical issue but after pulling the motor out I couldn’t get any further. I looked for help at the local marina and happened to find a wonderful fix-it guy named Michel who was willing to work with me on it. After about eight tear-downs and some tinkering, he found the problem and he was able to make it right. I was lucky I found a guy who knew this windlass well and was willing to have me help him so I could learn. Next time, I hope it’ll be easier!
The same scenario has occurred in several other places: Point-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe; Cartagena, Columbia; Santa Cruz, Galapagos. Local individuals with expertise were willing to share their knowledge (for a price) but always reasonable and always helpful. Also, I call the team at PYS with questions often they’ve been terrific at long-range support. Thank goodness for good communications — particularly Iridium sat phones and the Internet.
ON: What is the most important thing about voyaging that you have learned while on a passage?
NW: Be conservative, cautious, take things one step at a time, trust your instincts and listen to your crew. Not to mention that the old adage, “when you first think about taking a reef it’s time to do it,” stands firm. Also, taking advantage of good weather planning before leaving and being as prepared as possible. You should always keep a constant vigil for chafe and other issues. You can’t stop watching things closely, including the crew and yourself, for signs of stress and wear and tear. And finally, staying flexible, being willing to change plans in the moment, being ready to jump when needed.
BW: Probably to just stay cool. If things get uncomfortable or weather conditions are not very favorable, just stay focused and remember that it won’t last forever. Things will improve in a matter of time. And in the meantime, look for something to appreciate, the color of the water, a bird that is hitching a ride, the stars on night watch, an
e-mail from home, etc.
ON: What are your future plans?
NW: Try to remain flexible and take things as they come. Each day we’re out here there’s something to marvel at and something to learn. We want to finish the circumnavigation, including taking Bahati “home” to Durban, South Africa if possible. We also realize that life creates change so from here (French Polynesia) we plan to head for the Cook Islands and then Tonga and then New Zealand where we’ll spend the hurricane season. Then, next spring, hopefully to the Great Barrier Reef, Torres Strait, Bali and Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, South Africa, Cape of Good Hope, Brazil and then recross our steps in the Caribbean before heading home to Maine sometime in 2009. “God willing and all things remaining equal,” as Betsy’s old Aunt CooCoo liked to say.