SV Dagny stands for “Sailing Vessel Dagny.” A name I chose to convey self sufficiency and individuality. I would have kept her original name had it not been changed a few times from “Fancy,” “Rachel,” and “Carol Anne.” Dagny was to be the name of my previous attempt at restoring a 32ft. steel ketch I do miss dearly, but that story will be for another post. “She,” I guess in keeping with good maritime tradition, is a Morris Frances 26. Designed by Chuck Paine in the early 70s, the Frances 26 is a proven blue-water double-ender sloop with a flush deck and a full keel.
You can live a cookie-cutter life, comfortable and safe, or not… I almost had one. I would have loved children, a family. I think there are few greater adventures than raising children. Unfortunately it did not happen. I had tasted travel by spending a few months in Australia and the Philippines. It has been twenty one years since I arrived in the United States. Comfort isn’t good for you. It makes you weak, swells the belly, and before you know it, you’re using a walker, or you’re dead. Routine takes its toll. I was never interested in following the herd. I have many good friends here and love this country. Unfortunately, the American dream is not what it used to be. My heart will have to catch up with me, because I have decided to go, before it is too late, like Moitessier said, “to save my soul.”
The first time I set foot on a sailboat was in the North Sea, in cold rain and chop when I was about seventeen. We didn’t even hoist the main sail. I thought that would have been the last time I would ever want to be on a boat. It wasn’t just the bad weather, diesel smell and sea sickness… There is a general feeling, I suspect in all of Europe, that life is preordained and dreams will remain fantasies, as we labor trying to keep our heads out of the water. Bureaucracy and taxes keep but the most rebellious in line, to provide for those who feel entitled to other’s lives. I failed to see sailing as a way to escape the rat race.
My first job was as a correspondent for a regional newspaper, zipping around between two towns on my motorcycle with a bag full of cameras and lenses. I also liked to ride aimlessly on the plains of Flandres. Invariably I would end-up at the local airport of Bondues, a small grass strip where people liked to fly gliders when the weather cleared long enough to create thermals on which these gracious birds soared for hours. I approached a hangar to have a closer look at the planes. “Would you like to sit in it?” That man knew what he was doing… I slipped in the cockpit, in a comfortable, rather gynecological position and immediately knew I wanted to fly. “You can get a short flight and see if you like it, then we have ten-hour blocks…” “I’ll take a ten-hour block.” “But you don’t know if you’ll like it!” “I will,” I replied, and that was how I started flying. A year later I had not soloed yet but one night waiting for the train I bought a magazine on ultralights, those “widow makers,” or so they were called by airplane pilots who’s status could not be threatened by a cheaper form of aviation. So it goes in France for everything else. Anyone with any status, especially bureaucrats, will exert much effort in keeping everyone else below themselves. There was an article in that magazine about towing advertising banners with ultralights. I went looking for customers, never mentioning that I did not have a license nor a plane. An amusement park on the coast signed a two-hundred-hour contract and gave me a twenty percent deposit, enough to convince the bank to give me a loan, buy a plane and get my license. Five months later I was taking off with a banner in tow. I think I had about thirty hours in my logbook. It all went very well for about three years, adding a new plane to my fleet every year. I was twenty one at the time and had just gotten married, way too soon. When invariably the relationship ended, I came to a cross-roads. The government was taking about sixty percent of my income. I was the one taking great risks to make a living, and they just took most of it, as simple as that. Another magazine gave me a way out in the form of a small ad with a little plane and a palm tree; it said “Learn to Fly in Florida.”
All I knew about Florida was from the show “Miami Vice.” Reality was a bit different, but I wasn’t disappointed. The first morning was bright and sunny, warm in February. So was the next day, and the next. You don’t realize what the sun does to your mood until it shines on you daily and puts a smile on your face. You don’t have to keep your head down because of the constant drizzle and rain. Just imagine the North of France, just like England, or Seattle, though Seattle is a beautiful town. So I learned to fly bigger airplanes, and English, as an afterthought… I felt at home. Everything was easier. It is hard to explain. Everything seemed possible with nobody making you jump hoops all day to do anything. Even flying was much easier, accessible and cheaper than in Europe.
I will skip ahead a bit to get back to sailing. I went on to college here but kept flying for pleasure, realizing that working as a pilot wasn’t something I would enjoy much. I had some computer programming skills from my teenage days and decided to take on that career for the time being. I befriended an old man at the airport who used to be a P51 Mustang pilot during World War II. He was also a sailor. Sailing wasn’t something I was interested in, but he needed someone with him for safety, being eighty five… When he shut the engine off after hoisting the sails the first time out I knew I was hooked, the same way I knew I had wanted to fly.
It slowly dawned on me that a sailboat was the ideal getaway to freedom. As with everything else, I started researching the matter, essentially spent years learning about boats and the sea. I read all the books from the best navigators, I can’t list them all, especially about what would be called “Pocket Cruisers” and the men who sailed them across oceans. It became clear that what I wanted was a classic double-ender made of steel and about thirty to thirty-two feet in length. The obvious choice was the Tahitiana 32 by Weston Farmer, for which I bought a set of drawings from his son. I also promptly enrolled in a welding class at the local technical institute. In the mean time I was doing more research on the Tahitiana when I stumbled upon one for sale in Fort Lauderdale. To make a long story short, I bought the boat, restored it then lost it to a woman I married. A couple years after the divorce I saw the boat floating in Sarasota Bay, found the current owner and bought it back for a song. I resumed the restoration but there was rust along the waterline from the inside out. It was repairable but the boat was ransacked in the marina, while on the ground. Everything was stolen. They even cut out the ten bronze ports with a jigsaw. I was devastated. There was no way forward from there so I let it go for scrap.
As the economy and political situation kept getting worse, the urge to take to the sea came back. I bought a set of plans for a Fafnir, by John Welsford, a 13ft. blue-water pocket cruiser and started construction. It quickly became apparent that it would take forever to complete. Having saved a little bit of money I started looking for a boat that could go anywhere. The first one I looked at was a Southern Cross 31. Unfortunately the survey uncovered a rotten deck. Again, it would have taken too much time and money to fix, as I wanted to leave in April, before hurricane season. The next one was the Morris Frances 26. The boat has all the attributes I wanted, double-ender, full keel and built like a tank. It even has a wind vane and came with storm sails as well as a working inboard diesel. The deck needed painting, and other than a few small repairs and touch-ups, it was ready to go.
I am now in the process of upgrading a few things for hopefully a long voyage. Where, I do not know. I will start with the Bahamas. Too many things can go wrong and this may be the last post on another failed attempt to clear the dock. If I do make it to the open ocean my intent is to document my peregrinations with pen and camera. You probably shouldn’t expect videos of women splashing around half naked in tropical locales, though one can always hope. I won’t however spare you of my inevitable mistakes, hoping that it will help you not make the same ones. I am pretty sure it won’t be always happy, as I will be leaving with mixed feelings, hope and fears for the present and the future. I do worry about storms, lightning, loneliness, health, safety, finances and many other concerns; but I worry more about regrets I would have if I didn’t leave.