October 14, 2011
By Tom Morkin
Along the way, we have met a lot of extraordinary people.
One Christmas, we were fortunate enough to share an anchorage, and become friends with, one such remarkable pair, the well renowned 2 time circumnavigators Al and Beth Liggett.
|These former Californians, despite having more than 100,000 miles under their keels, showed zero sign of slowing down. They and their well maintained, bright yellow Polaris 42 Sunflower, are well known by yachties around the world, not only because of their extensive voyaging, but also, their prolific writings on sailing matters.
After 20 years of reading of their adventures, it was a delight to have them aboard Feel Free to hear first- hand, how they manage to do so well, for so long, what so many dream of doing. Beth and Al kindly agreed to an interview with us so we could share their story with others.
Where do you hail from and where did the two of you meet and start cruising?
I’m from Newport Beach and Al’s originally from Ohio. We met at a party in Newport Beach in the early 60s and after the usual small talk, Al said “How would you like to go sailing?” so, our first date was a sail in his 20 ft. sloop. Soon, we were talking about the idea of cruising and before we knew it, we found ourselves a boat, got married, took 4 months to get the boat ready and we were off. That was in November of 1966.
What kind of boat took you on your 1st circumnavigation and where did you find her?
We looked up and down the west coast, as far north as Vancouver, but couldn’t find anything suitable so we went to the east coast. It wasn’t easy but we finally found Bacchus in Annapolis, a 40 foot wooden ketch made of 2 by 6s vertically planked, with 7 ft. draft, long keel, heavy displacement, and hard chine. We ripped the inside out and completely renovated the interior. She was sturdy and low budget. She had one electric light, no fridge, didn’t go to weather well, but perfectly suited our lifestyle at the time.
How long did it take and what route did you follow?
We chose the classic westabout route from Annapolis to Florida, Jamaica, Panama, South Africa. It took 3 years and 3 days to be precise- fast, yes but we were operating on a shoestring budget at the time. In fact, when we arrived home, we had $50 left in our pockets. Our average daily expense for the 3 year trip was $7.00.
What kind of work did you do prior to that first voyage?
Various things but the main source of income was from importing Volkswagen station wagons before dealers could import them. Professionally, Beth’s a school teacher and I’m a land surveyor.
So what did you do when you got back?
We sold the boat in California and in 1970 said to ourselves “We really like the cruising lifestyle” and set up a 5 year plan, bought 2 four plexes, Beth got her old job back at the same elementary school and I picked up work here and there. In 1972 I landed a job as a land surveyor in Guam and Beth got a teaching job and Guam became our base. As a side line, we opened a Laundromat with 60 washers and 28 dryers, as well as a sail repair business and a drafting service. We were busy and basically boat-less for six years.
Your present boat is Sunflower, a Polaris 42- how did she come to be?
We couldn’t find the boat we had in mind so we decided to have one built. A friend sent us a design profile she found in a sailing magazine, of a Valiant 40, and then a whole barrage of correspondence with Robert Perry followed. We got the design from him and wrote a contract for 2 boats. Al redesigned the deck, cabin top and cockpit and drafted the interior. Then we picked a company in Taiwan to build the two boats.
Where did you go after she was built?
We picked her up in June 1976 in Taiwan and after a slow and painful trip as a result of a tropical depression, we arrived in Guam which had just experienced a terrible typhoon. The crazy thing is that we had previously lived in Guam for 5 years without experiencing one single typhoon! In December of that same year, we headed off for Palau, the Philippines, Japan and then back to Guam in ’77. From there we went to the Solomons to help them celebrate their independence, then on to New Guinea, Indonesia, Singapore, Borneo, the Philippines, Hong Kong for the China Sea Race 1980, and then on to Vancouver Canada via Yokohama Japan.
That’s a long one- how long did it take?
The 4,600 miles took 34 days. It was cloudy, foggy and basically uneventful. We actually had better weather than the boats that followed the rhumb line and headed north via the Aleutians.
So by that time you were well into your second circumnavigation, this time, eastabout. What route did you take from Vancouver?
Well actually, from Vancouver we went up to Alaska and then down to Lake Union, Washington.
You certainly didn’t take the shortest route for your second circumnavigation!
No, in fact, before we headed down the west coast to Mexico, we delivered a Cal 246 from Cypress to California- the 10,000 miles took 4 months. We then sailed down to Mexico and the Panama Canal and up the east coast to Newport RI in time to watch Connors lose the America’s Cup to the Aussies. It was then that we noticed our bank account looked overused so we sailed down to Florida to fatten the kitty. I worked at Charlie’s Locker and Al went back to surveying for two and a half years. Then we were off to Europe. For the next 3 years we became commuter cruisers, leaving the boat in Holland for two six month periods and in Tunisia for another 6 month period, returning to our jobs in Florida. From Tunisia we sailed east to Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Cypress where we spent 2 winters.
That second circumnavigation took considerably longer than the first, didn’t it?
Well, yes but it wasn’t until we reached Cypress in 1990 that we realized that if we crossed the Indian Ocean, we’d have another circumnavigation under our belts. So, after the Gulf War ended in Feb. 1991, we figured it was safe to go and set off for the Red Sea. Egypt was fantastic, Aden to Kenya was a miserable trip against wind and current, as it was too late in the season (April-May), but had a super time in Kenya for 4 months. From there we went to Sri Lanka, then Langkawi Malaysia and finally to Singapore on Oct. 31, 1992 where the 2nd circumnavigation was completed.
What were some of the differences between the 2 circumnavigations?
Both were easy. We don’t really recommend one over the other. If you are in a hurry, westabout is better. Going eastabout, we had almost no trade wind sailing. We sailed well but not with consistent trade winds, and it was more weather dependent. On our eastabout route, we were never south of the equator.
What were your favorite spots?
Cypress, Turkey, Alaska, Chagos, Langkawi.
What have you been up to since your last circuit of the globe?
Well, we went back to work in Guam for 5 years. During one 4 month period in 1992, we experienced 4 typhoons! From there we sailed to Borneo and the Sulu Sea- then back to Guam where we worked for 5 years, until 1997. After that, we sailed to Yap, the Philippines and Hong Kong for 5 months, then back to the Philippines, Borneo, Singapore and finally Langkawi which became our base, in 1998. From Langkawi we’ve sailed to Chagos twice, the Andaman Islands twice and the east coast of Malaysia.
Why is Langkawi, Malaysia your base?
Friends, good anchorages, lots of variety of places to go, friendly locals, small population, easy access to cheap flights around Asia and back to the U.S.
How has cruising changed over the years?
Dramatically! People are older and more affluent, sailing on bigger boats and have less spirit of adventure. Fewer people have a multiple of skills. Equipment has totally changed. More “clump cruising” or “flotilla sailing”. More radio scheds. People are less competent and less inclined to fix their own boat problems. Lots more marinas with cruisers going from marina to marina.
Over the years, there have been lots of technological innovations that have resulted in plenty of new boat “toys”. Which are some of your favorites?
GPS, cell phones, computers- we had our first one in ’89 and by the way, we don’t use C Map- takes too much electricity, no safe place to put it when under way, and lacks the reliability of a paper chart. We love our electric windlass and roller furler (hardly new technology), didn’t have them on our last boat but wouldn’t be without them now. You might be surprised to hear that we don’t have an electric water pump, and therefore we have no shower, but we do have refrigeration.
What’s your favorite piece of boat gear?
Al: Beth. Beth: Al. (Laughs all the way around.)
Let’s talk about self-steering systems. What do you use: autopilot, wind vane, or both?
Since 1990, our Wilhamn Autopilot, built in Seattle, almost exclusively, very sturdy and very strong.
What would you tell people just setting off, about self-steering?
Buy a good autopilot, have a back-up, and leave the vane at home.
Can you comment on your annual budget in light of those who might want to follow in your wake?
We spend it all! No, seriously, there are too many variables: boat size, number of trips home, location, insurance, etc. etc. to answer the question meaningfully. It really depends on how comfortable you want to be, and also, you need to choose your destinations according to your budget.
Do you ever get tired of cruising?
Beth: yes. Al: sometimes.
What’s the hardest thing about it?
Beth: Anxiety about the unexpected, re-entry anxiety, health concerns.
Al: Deciding when to quit, thinking about what we’ll do when we can’t do this any more.
What is it about cruising that keeps you at it year after year after year?
Beth: the freedom and independence, although, as a couple we are very dependent on each other. Every place and every thing is a brand new challenge. It’s very rewarding personally to know you have a task and can accomplish it. It’s the many small achievements along the way.
Al: you become more alert and alive when you are facing new challenges like night approaches and dealing with foul weather. You face a wider variety of challenges than you would in suburbia.
What have been the scariest moments?
Beth: being boarded in the Andaman Islands by the military and watching guns being pointed at Al.
Al: a 60 hour storm in the Tasman when the seas were so big, we entertained ourselves watching the barometer needle rise as we rose with the crests of the waves and drop as we descended into the wave troughs. The wind was so strong that it created mini low pressure systems in the troughs where the wind didn’t penetrate.
Do you have any words of wisdom for those wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t be too enthralled by all the technological paraphernalia available. People are encumbered by all the high tech advances. You don’t have to have all the things.