Lessons From A Circumnavigation

Story & Photos By Scott Flanders

Big adventures start with baby steps, a yearning to get more out of everyday life, learning boating lessons the hard way, and a giant leap of faith.

Photo of the Egret in Biscayne National Park at sunsetEgret in Biscayne National Park.

"Life begins beyond your comfort zone. Live, or wonder." Before the holidays in 2012, I wrote this on a friend's bathroom wall, which had been decorated with other lofty words of wisdom. It seemed to epitomize what voyaging aboard our little white fiberglass ship has taught my wife Mary and me.

In February 2011, we made landfall in Grand Canaria, Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, and completed a world circumnavigation aboard our Nordhavn 46 powerboat, Egret. We'd been outside the U.S. for more than seven years, voyaging from our home in Florida, across to Europe and the Med; down to the tip of South America for a year; spent five extraordinary days in Easter Island; then north up through numerous remote and later more well known islands of the South Pacific; pausing in New Zealand for 14 months, and nine months in Australia; then around the bottom of South Africa, returning to the Canary Islands. Most of Egret's time was spent in the Southern Hemisphere, and she was the first small powerboat ever to pass under all five great capes, starting with Cape Horn. Years ago, a statement like the one I wrote on that wall and the voyage we've done would have seemed inconceivable to us. But each adventure built on itself, and by taking baby steps, we expanded our knowledge and comfort zone, traveling these miles in complete safety. Along the way, we've had the time of our lives.

Map of the circumnavigation of the Egret

Is This All There Is?

Mary and I began our boating career as complete novices, reading about the adventures of the cruising gods in various magazines and thriving on every word. When we were young and beginning our careers — I was in the boat-parts business and Mary was a pediatric physical therapist — we worked hard over the years to climb our various professional mountains. By the time the children were grown and our mountains climbed, we found ourselves in the routine of just making more money. For what? To buy more things? We wanted to change our lives to something more productive and stimulating, with a bit of adventure tossed in. Previously we'd owned a small Blackfin sportfishing boat and enjoyed fishing trips both offshore in the Blackfin and inshore with smaller boats, so naturally boating came to mind. To see if living aboard was for us, cautiously, in 1999 we bought a lovely 32-foot Grand Banks and renamed her Proud Mary. A year later we took an unprecedented month off work and went to the Bahamas. We came home hooked.

Our original intent was to sell our home in Ft. Lauderdale, keep a small weekend place in the Florida Keys, buy a used 42-foot trawler, and follow the sun north and south. But once the long-distance bug bit, we sold everything to buy Egret, gave what we could to friends and our two boys, then donated the rest to a veterans' charity. The process of buying Proud Mary and learning more about cruising; ordering and taking delivery of our little white fiberglass ship Egret; and then liquidating our possessions took four years. In April 2002, we retired. A few days later we left the dock for the rest of our lives — a decision we've never regretted.

How much is enough? That's everyone's big question as the years march on and you think about retirement. Mary and I spent more than a few sleepless nights worrying about it at first. Then we took a 40-hour course on retirement at a local junior college. One big lesson that came out of that course was that compound interest is the trustworthy friend of retirement. As a test we examined our credit-card bills and checkbook, then subtracted all shore-based expenses for a month, including yearly expenses such as homeowners insurance, auto insurance, and such. We were shocked at how much we'd save if we got rid of most of these expenses. These days, we live comfortably on a small fraction of our former income. The bottom line is: You spend what you have. Period. It can't be put any simpler. You have a lot? You'll spend more. You're on a shoestring? You'll spend very little. And it doesn't matter where you go on your boat. It's all good! So go sooner than later because, for many, later never comes. Life gets in the way.

Learning How To Handle Our New Baby

In August 2001, Mary and a Nordhavn delivery crew took our new 46-foot home on an overnight passage from Florida to Bimini in the Bahamas, where I met them. Our plan was that Mary and I would finish commissioning Egret and learn the ropes at our own pace. But first, we needed an official Bahamian stamp. The Reverend Doctor Pinder, a waiter at the Bimini Big Game Club, had The Stamp. We paid him $200 and a whole chicken. The chicken was tradition. Fee paid, chicken delivered, the good Reverend dropped the stamp, and Egret was free to voyage onward. Our feeling was exhilaration mixed with nervousness.

Mary and I were alone aboard for the first time. Now it was up to us. The ripping Bimini harbor tide had swung to outgoing and Egret's stern faced the tide. We'd been small-boat boaters for years, yet I had no idea how to get Egret off that dock. Finally, we tried a midship spring line. It worked! The next hurdle was to clear the shoaling harbor entrance on the falling tide. Our electronic charting was useless, so we eyeball-navigated from the flybridge, driving through the nearly imperceptible depressions of deeper water into safe territory. So it started a bit shaky for sure, and then it got worse.

Photo of the Egret anchored in Golden Bay, Stewart Island, New ZealandEgret anchored in Golden Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand.

After an overnight at anchor in nearby Gun Cay, we launched the dinghy to visit a boat we knew from Ft. Lauderdale. But they'd left early to go diving, so we decided to tow the dinghy to Nassau, a day's run away. Driving from the flybridge, we'd look back from time to time to check the dinghy. The last time we looked, all we saw was a long yellow polypropylene line. Instead of tying a bowline to the tow eye, I'd whipped the towline instead of splicing it. (To this day, I still can't splice.) We searched for hours for the dinghy, but with no radar, it was hopeless. We had to buy a new dinghy and outboard in Nassau.

The next three weeks in the Bahamas were a dream. And then it was back to work for six more months. During all this, we had no plans beyond cruising the Chesapeake the first summer and wintering in the Bahamas. This we did. Even getting to the Chesapeake was intimidating, but we were determined. Egret departed Ft. Lauderdale the first week of April 2002, and headed offshore for St. Mary's Inlet on the Florida-Georgia border. We were so nervous about being offshore for the length of Florida. We'd plotted a number of bailout inlets if weather was approaching. In the end it was a wonderful learning experience standing watches and such. We were so proud of ourselves when Egret entered St. Mary's and dropped anchor off Cumberland Island, Georgia. Accompanying Mary and me was my father, 84 at the time. He spent a wonderful two-and-a-half months aboard Egret, and said the cruise was one of the highlights of his later life.

Within a few weeks, Egret went aground a couple of times, we got lost for a while, and bashed a few docks, but all the time we were learning and no damage was done, except to our pride. It was great fun cruising the Chesapeake, and meeting other cruisers. For the first time in our lives, we could do anything we wished without having to put on a parental face or vocational face. It was enlightening. With no schedule, we were free! We were having an adventure, breathing clean air, and most importantly there was No Stress. And so the summer went, step by step.

Next up was the Bahamas for the winter, most of it in the Exuma chain. It was magic exploring the clear water and white-sand beaches. Mary and I caught fish for lunch from the dinghy. Was that great or what? We met people the first year in the Bahamas we're still friends with today. We only went aground once. We were getting better.

With Sea Miles Comes Knowledge

Do you see a common thread here? Mary and I started as every boater does, at the beginning. We made plenty of mistakes, learned from them, and kept pushing our comfort zone. But we never felt at risk. This discipline of learning continues to this day. With sea miles comes knowledge. With knowledge comes physical and mental comfort. Your comfort level at sea is a constantly moving target, increasing by the mile. Directly associated with comfort and your natural desire to expand your cruising territory is your boat. There are as many different personal situations as there are boats, so no single boat, brand, or size is perfect for everyone. We bought a boat that could "do it all" in case we wanted to head offshore. For us it was the right decision and there's no boat we'd rather have than Egret. Her 130-horse "Happy Little Lugger" main engine has never missed a beat in more than 11,000 engine hours and more than a few miles. She's a fine little ship, and takes good care of us.

Now for more good news. If you're worried about sticking your precious in the mud, getting lost, or doing something silly, you have a big advantage over Egret's early days. Electronic navigation today is spot-on versus when we started years ago. It's amazing to watch the little red boat march across the screen, and feel confident knowing exactly where we are, 24 hours a day. Radar is a good friend, and never lies. One relatively new safety item is AIS — Automatic Identification System. All commercial ships at sea and many pleasure craft these days have AIS, including Egret. It once saved us from a probable collision with a high-speed ferry off the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

Photo of Ponza, ItalyPonza, Italy, on the way to a favorite ristoranté.

And yes, of course you'll stick your precious in the mud if you live on the U.S. East Coast. It's inevitable for us all. In fact, last year Egret was a mud puppy twice in the ICW. It's no big deal. We all do it. Everyone thinks the world is watching your mishaps. Get over it. It's no biggie. You can't compare an occasional bit of embarrassment to the freedom you enjoy. And while we're rolling along here, here's a pet peeve. Don't Yell. Yelling at your significant other isn't productive. Squinty-eyed hate comes to mind. To this day, I drive while docking and Mary runs the deck without help, even if we have experienced boating friends aboard. Just develop your own routine, stick with it, and it will work every time.

A Precious Moment In Cruising Time

In 2007, Egret spent a year on the Beagle Channel separating Chile from Argentina in southern South America, about 80 miles north of Cape Horn. As foreigners, we're allowed 90 days in each country, so the routine for the handful of winter-over cruisers is to trade one country for another every three months. The Argentine harbor of Ushuaia is 28 miles west of the Chilean village of Puerto Williams, where there's a Chilean Armada (Navy) base with a few small businesses and local fishermen.

During a visit to Puerto Williams, we happened upon Chile's Independence Day, with parades of students, a school band, firemen, military colors, and young gauchos with their moms. A group of Argentine Prefectura (Navy) sailors arrived to challenge the Armada sailors to a friendly dinghy race around the buoys. At the start of one heat, a sailing dory overturned, dumping the crew overboard. A few days later, while checking out of Puerto Williams, we presented a photo CD of Chilean Independence Day to the duty officer. He slid it into his computer, and one of the first photos was that capsized dory. He was in that dory and was thrilled.

Months later, Egret returned and asked for a zarpe (cruising permit) to visit a corner of the island that was off limits to private boats. The request was presented to the duty officer, even though the young sailor presenting the request said there was no way we would get the zarpe. Guess who the duty officer was? Right! And what was the zarpe all about? Trout. Giant trout. During the 1920s, a U.S. group stocked some southern Argentine and Chilean inland lakes with trout that grew to gigantic proportions, the German brown trout up to 22 pounds. Egret anchored with two lines ashore in a secret freshwater stream fed by two connecting lakes. The anchorage was completely protected from screaming weather by the wind shadow of tall shoreline trees.

After dinghying as far upstream as the rocks allowed, Mary and I took to foot, crossing small streams on top of beaver dams, and after an hour we reached the stream that connected the upper lake. We used light spinning tackle with bonefish wiggle jigs that ride up with the hook to avoid snags on the rocky bottom. Fat trout snapped on nearly every cast.

Mary climbed a tree hanging over the creek, cast, and hooked a giant trout. During the fight she lost her balance and fell below a small cliff to the side of the stream, landing on her backpack. She looked like an upside-down turtle trying to right herself, but never quit fighting that trout. I took photos of her holding her prize, and we cooked our catch on a flat rock atop hot coals while beer chilled on ice flows in the stream. This was a magic moment in our lives. It was life beyond our comfort zone and it felt great.

OK, you've now read about Egret's beginnings. You know where we started. You see some of the places we've been lucky to go. I promise, we're no smarter or braver than you. You can do something like this, too, if you choose. Your boat is your ticket. Your experience level is something that you'll ramp up every single day. Follow your imagination and see where it takes you, one small step at a time. 

Scott and Mary returned to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland this summer with Egret for their second season in the Maritimes, then headed across to Greenland. Egret will winter in northern Iceland. BoatUS Magazine will carry more of their stories in future issues.

— Published: October/November 2013

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