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The Search For Shangri-La

By Shangri-La - Published September 01, 2007 - Viewed 857 times

I haven’t said the words “my boat” in 19 years, not unless it was in reference to the canoe, or the 14-foot sailing dinghy parked on its trailer out behind my house, or a charter boat. But, now I can. Twice the age I was with my first one, and with a bit more work put into finding it, I have a real boat again, my boat.

The search began in Trinidad, one of those end-of-the-road-and-dream and put-the-boat-up-for-sale locations that, I thought, also would be the ideal starting point for the voyage—we’d already be in the Caribbean and have the trade winds, we’d have no loss of weeks to slogging down the Thorny Passage. At the outset, my approach was pretty cavalier. I didn’t think for one minute that the next boat couldn’t be found in Trinidad, supposedly a used-boat buyers dream destination. I’d heard the inspirational bargain-of-the-century stories, and once the airplane ticket was purchased, the tour of online listings began. I half-heartedly bookmarked possibilities, and whole-heartedly believed the true gem could only be found on location, tucked away and forgotten in some corner I’d happen upon accidentally, immediately recognizing it as The One.

Making notes aboard the Hylas, owned by friends of mine. It was difficult to judge the scruffy boats I was viewing, from the vantage point of the air-conditioned luxury boat on which I was staying

Then, confidence wavered. Me, alone in Trinidad? Dealing with brokers and/or desperate owners? Where would I find informed and unbiased second opinions, somebody with whom to talk things through who knew me, my story, what I wanted?

Enter: Woody. We’d been friends for years; he’d heard many of my half-baked plans, rejecting, debating, and mostly, supporting. Plus, my boyfriend liked him, and he was one of the best sailors I knew. I’ll never forget watching from a friend’s apartment as he returned from a race and, under sail alone, backed the boat all the way to a slip in the marina. To me, this was more impressive than his circumnavigation. Even if no boat was found in Trinidad, a tutorial of asking about, looking at, and pounding hulls and decks with Woody would teach me enough to continue on my own.

October 2006. Chaguaramas, Trinidad, is all about one-stop shopping for boaters, tucked in a bay protected by large offshore islands. Here, the entire Trinidadian sailing world is concentrated, conveniently enough, within a couple of miles of clustered yards, marinas, and yacht-related services. Acquaintances let us stay on their boat, a brand-spanking new Hylas with the latest and best of everything, from an overflowing icemaker to central air-conditioning and vacuuming. It made for a great place to return to after hot and grimy days of snooping around yards and poking through boats. Conversely, its sparkling freshness also made it extremely difficult to discern the promise in the filthy bilges, grotty lockers, rusty engines, mangled wiring, and tired rigging of the used-boat market down at my end of the budget spectrum.

I clean up aboard the Hylas, which had central vacuuming!

Once you start doing the boatyard crawl, you get to know boats, especially underwater. Below the bootstripes, you'll see that they hardly ever look the same: full keels, cutaway keels, bolted-on keels, glassed-in keels, fin keels, double keels, winged keels, drop-down centerboards, skeg-hung rudders, foil rudders, regular props, folding props, sail-drive props, broken keels, broken props, and broken rudders. If you're with somebody knowledgeable, then you also get to learn how to understand the differing functions, what makes sense and what doesn't, what you want, what you don't want, and for what you’d settle. You make lists, lots of lists of possibilities, of equipment, of work that would need to be done, estimated costs. You gather information, try to keep it in order and still, it becomes a big blur.

Out on the breezier and cooler water, or baking up on the hard, we looked at homemade boats, fixer uppers, and obscure designs, built anywhere from the early 70s to the late 80s, nothing under twenty-something years old. We also saw recognizable names: a She, a Morgan, a Bruce Roberts, a Westerly, a Sparkman and Stephens. Some seemed okay, all felt in desperate need of facelifts. None felt cheap enough to be worth the infusion of cash and sweat equity needed for rejuvenation.

A typical fixer-upper

I could sort through all my notes, look at the pictures, and describe every single boat. For example, I made a lowball offer that was rejected for an Oceanis 38 needing a lot of work, thought semi-covetously about a custom-built Italian boat with John Malkovich passageways and cabins; otherwise it was in pristine and well-equipped condition. I dismissed an okay possibility because it was named G-String (I don’t believe in changing a boat’s name, an added search complication), kept referring back to pictures we took of a well-maintained but way-too-small South African steel cutter—but that would be almost as tedious reading as it was disappointing searching. It seemed as if my price range could only accommodate the quirky, the flawed, the filthy, all shades of inappropriate. As we melted away into the days, my confidence wavered. Would I find something perfect, or would I have to settle for potentially perfect?

I can still hear Woody as I kept intellectualizing what perfection really means and tried to fit one square peg after another into round holes: “Don’t you want to first find out what it costs to reset a keel?... Good headroom, but too light… No headroom, no good for the boys… Nice lines, but you want a skeg-hung rudder… No, pink will never work… You couldn’t live with the name G-String?”

Here is the French boat on which Tania made an offer.

Over the course of many years, I've been asked hundreds of times what kind of boat I'd get, if and when I ever got one again, and the answer has been consistently: a cheap one. That was my main criterion. I knew I'd never be able to afford the Shannon fantasy, and instead, I'd paint the picture of one of those French built, hard-chine, flush-deck, go-anywhere steel boats. While pretty popular in Europe, American sailors don't like steel in general, I'd say, and yes, they do take maintenance to stay ahead of the rust. But, all boats require maintenance, and if you're not scared of some work, steel boats are much better value in terms of the price you pay to be dry and to feel safe.

I used these arguments on Woody, one of those in the fiberglass camp, and wore him down until finally, he began to humor me by starting to pay more attention to the steel options. I remember two in particular, parked side-by-side, decks cluttered with jerry cans, piles of junk and rust stains everywhere. Forget about them, said a broker who’d been taking us to all her listings. Terrible shape, lost causes. She had another one, she said, unfinished, but cheap, and worth a visit.

The rusty keel bolts of the Oceanis – a big no no.

In a forgotten corner of a yard stood a hard-chine, 39-foot cutter, buried under a mess of parts and pieces and stories. The French owner had disappeared off the face of the earth three years earlier, the broker said. And, it looked like he’d just gone out for a stroll, that he’d had every intention of returning to the pots and pans and clothes and bicycles and kid’s books and tools and photo albums and games and documents and electronics and a cell phone and spices and wine and linens and signs of unfinished upgrades and projects. But, something had happened before he could.

It was that easy. For me, it was a dream come true, the proverbial attic full of cool things to sort, only this was a boat. One little satchel was just for electrical tools: gauge, wire cutter, tester, pliers, soldering iron. There were boxes and boxes of meticulously sorted stainless nuts and bolts and screws. No head, but space to install one. A large area to put another cabin forward of a watertight bulkhead and lengths of teak lumber for getting started. No signs of any significant rust to worry about. The yard had tried contacting the owner through all the addresses he’d left, the broker said. Nothing. So, they were selling it. They’d refused an offer of $12,000, she said, but they’d probably take $16,000.

I thump the deck of the Oceanis to determine if it has any flex.

The portholes and hatches had been covered to protect the interior from light and all shut up under that Trinidadian sun, she was like a crockpot. Woody checked out the hull, deck, rigging, and the extent of the creeping black mold outside (that covered every boat that had been sitting in that jungly climate for very long), while I remained below on simmer, pulling up floorboards, looking behind cupboards, thinking, planning, sweating. Even if I had to put in another $30,000 to get her up and running, install a head, finish the forward cabin, rebuild the engine, she’d be worth it. All this boat needed was a thorough cleaning and sorting, some carpentry, attention, and a bunch of elbow grease. I could do that. Woody also saw the potential of a good deal and we homed in on her, had the broker present the offer, installed a padlock on the hatch just in case a pending sale became an invitation for last chance rummaging by others.

If she became mine, however, I’d also inherit a mystery. Where was the owner? His kids? The wife? Lots of pictures showed an entire family had disappeared without a trace, leaving behind what seemed to be all their worldly belongings. Sniffing tragedy, a chance to right some kind of wrong, I vowed to make the best effort to put everything personal in storage and track them down, then worried aloud to Woody that it didn’t feel totally cool. What about those kids?

Another challenging fixer-upper requiring too much time and money.

“What about them?” he asked. “You’re the best thing that could happen to them right now. If something happened to your dad and he had a boat somewhere that got repossessed by a yard, you’d want somebody like you to buy it more than somebody like me.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, you’re going to try and find the kids, you’ll take care of their things, make their story part of yours. Me? I’d just get rid of that whole old story, start my own new one. It wouldn’t be my fault the guy left his boat and the yard sold it.”

“Well, if you put it that way . . .”

But, I still had qualms. I’d gone to Trinidad to look for a deal, found one, but there is no such thing as a clean purchase with a good deal. There are always strings attached, whether they’re legal strings, moral strings, guilt strings, there are strings, and this string had me tethered to doubt for the next month and a half. After returning home, I was reluctant to act as if it were a done deal until it was, but started saying I thought I had a boat whenever anyone asked. I kept looking at the pictures, my offer was accepted and papers were being drawn up. Then came holidays, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian ones that kept holding up business in Trinidad, while I ran up the phone bill trying to find the owner, or one of his relatives, calling similar names all over France, with no success.

The French boat was also full of a mess of stuff.

December 2006. Just before Christmas, the broker rang. The story had finally found some kind of resolution. In the process of speaking with the French authorities about getting clear title on the boat, the broker had dredged up the owner who was, apparently, outraged that the yard had tried to sell his boat just because he’d walked away from it and not paid any bills for three years. Zee nerve of zee Trinidadians! And no, he wouldn’t even consider selling. Disappointing, yet just as well. The tragic family of ghosts that had been haunting me floated away in the shape of a fuming Gallic caricature. After finding something suitable in the mechanical, structural, and functional arenas, I’d learned that it was also important to peace of mind for my next boat to have not just an okay name, but a clean story as well. I had to keep looking.

The main saloon of the French boat was a mish mash of stuff, all just left there. Weird.




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