The Incredible Lightness Of Being Ganymede

By Ben Zartman

When you dream big and you're willing to make sacrifices, anything is possible, as this young couple discover. They built a boat and, with their three little girls, headed out into the wide world to see it all.

"It's been almost six years," Danielle mused, looking at the calendar spread on her lap.

"Since what?" I said. A half-step behind my wife at the best of times, I had a good deal on my mind. Our newly completed boat, Ganymede, was on a hydraulic trailer on the way to Stockton, California, to be launched, and my head whirled with logistics.

Photo of building the boatOther than the bare hull, which they purchased from Cape George Marine Works, Ben built every bit of the boat himself, on a shoestring budget, teaching himself as he went along.

"Since we left Capella, and moved ashore. It seems like forever, but when I look at all we've done, I wonder how we fit it in."

I thought back over the years that had passed since we last slid shut the companionway hatch of Capella, the 27-foot Irwin sloop that had taken us from Florida, all the way south to Cartagena, Colombia, then as far north as Downeast Maine. Though not designed for blue water and sparsely fitted out, she'd done well as a first cruising boat. In the two years she'd been our modest home we'd done some unforgettable cruising and accrued a lifetime's worth of friends and memories. But the discovery that Danielle was pregnant had shelved our plans for a Bahamian trip and we put the boat up for sale instead.

Danielle was right, it did seem a long time, but every nook and cranny of it was packed with activity. Our main concern — our one lofty goal while we lived far from the ocean at Danielle's father's house in central California — was to get back to sea. It was a simple plan, really: have the baby, save up for a sturdy fiberglass hull, deck it over and finish it, and be ready to sail when Antigone, as we'd decided to call the new arrival, was weaned and potty trained and perhaps even knew how to swim.

Photo of Ben showing off his boatbuilding skills Other than the bare hull, which they purchased from Cape George Marine Works, Ben built every bit of the boat himself, on a shoestring budget, teaching himself as he went along.

But the simplest plans are often fraught with the greatest complications. The money from Capella's sale was to have jump-started our savings toward the next boat. But Capella wouldn't sell. In the end I flew to Fall River, Massachusetts, where she waited at a broker's, and sailed her to Maine to give her to an old friend. I had half a mind, as Capella slipped quietly east along Maine coast, to call it off and keep her, but she really was too small for three.

But once Capella was gone, we were not only further from another boat, savings-wise, we didn't even know what boat to get. We wanted a kit boat, a bare hull to finish how we pleased. A new boat was out of the question and an affordable fixer-upper would require almost as much work as building our own from a hull. Besides, this would be our one chance to make something uniquely ours. While cruising on Capella I'd designed in my head the Perfect Cruising Boat, fitted out with all the coolest stuff: gaff-headed sail, synthetic rope rigging, sculling oar socket for going short distances though calms, even those most nautical of all marine accessories, belaying pins!

Photo of sailing on Ganymede

There were any number of kit hulls for sale, but none seemed just right. The Bristol Channel cutter 28 was too small; the Falmouth 34 and Heard 35 too big. It wasn't until Antigone was almost two that we found the Cape George 31. Short ends, full keel, lots of ballast, and, most surprising, reasonably priced. Perfect! We scraped together a deposit for Cape George Marine Works. But then, no sooner was the hull under construction, than Danielle turned up in a family way for the second time.

"No problem," I stuttered. "It'll be cozy with four, and Antigone needs a playmate anyway." We were just in the drawing stage, and sketching another bunk into the aft cabin only made things symmetrical. Emily arrived several months after the hull did, and while Danielle spent her days hip-deep in diapers and teething biscuits, I gave every hour I could snatch to grinding fiberglass and then slapping on more to grind off later. Some evenings I'd go to my job waiting tables at the Mountain Room Restaurant in Yosemite National Park with clumps of hair fused together by resin drips.

Photo of Danielle and Ben Zartman

I was fortunate to have that job. Not only did it allow me most mornings free to work on the boat, it gave me time, especially in the off-season, to make money in other ways, as we needed every penny to pour into Ganymede. Before moving off Capella I'd begun to write magazine articles; sales were sporadic but helpful. We also attempted building dinghies, but found after building 15 that we couldn't sell enough to make a living. However the business license gave me access to wholesale pricing on the fiberglass and marine supplies that went into Ganymede, and I gained expertise in fiberglass building techniques.

The boat took every penny we could earn, even in the busy season when I'd make heaps of overtime pay on top of catering weddings at the restaurant in the morning and waiting tables at night. Those were exhausting times. Often nothing would get done on the boat for a week while I worked eight shifts in three days, snatching some sleep between them in the back of my Subaru.

Photo of life aboard GanymedeHome sweet home! The Zartman family, down below in Ganymede at long last.

While cutting no corners to make Ganymede's structure as strong and seaworthy as possible, we saved money every way we could. All the carpentry, instead of being teak and mahogany and other expensive unpronounceable woods, was done in Douglas fir and redwood, which were cheaper. Most of the metal fittings — chain plates, mast tangs, tiller head, mooring bits — I made myself from plate, rod, bar, and tubing stock. For ballast, because lead prices had soared to astronomical heights just then, I obtained a truckload of spent bullets from a rifle range for a trifling sum, and melted them down. It was still an expensive project, but when three years were gone and Ganymede was ready to launch, we'd spent less than one-fourth on her construction than what it would've cost to buy a new Cape George cutter.

But before the launching came this stunning bit of timing: Danielle was pregnant again. There before us was the endless round of doctor visits, maternity clothes, blood tests, and a thousand and one things that culminated late one night in a tiny, wrinkled creature nuzzling gently at her mother's breast. We called her Damaris, and while I worked like a mad man on the inside of the boat I wondered where we would put her.

Photo of Damaris covered in inkDamaris, complete with head-to-toe ink stains from raiding
her sister's art box, has become a water baby.

"She'll sleep with us for a couple of years," said Danielle calmly. "After that she can sleep on the settee."

It was too late to do much redesigning of the interior. Most of it was finished, and we'd already done as much to maximize space inside as possible. Back aft I'd built a flush cockpit, and where the inboard engine normally would go was a tidy cabin with two seven-foot bunks and plenty of room for the storage of clothes, water, and lamp oil. There were all the necessities: galley with gimbaled stove and oven, a tiny head, nav station, heating stove, settee and dining table, bookshelf, and double berth forward with storage underneath. But there was no room, anywhere, for another bunk or berth. "We're in for it either way," I told Danielle. "We'll just go with what we have."

Danielle shut the calendar with a sigh as we pulled into the boatyard parking lot. There were still too many variables to be able to make any sort of concrete plan. We wanted to sail away before winter rather than try to survive another slow restaurant off-season, but hadn't managed to put much money aside. There was no telling whether we five could cruise on our target $500 a month, plus my writing income. There was nothing for it but to press ahead and hope for the best. We were at the boatyard early for what turned out to be a launching anticlimax. None of the boatyard staff seemed to appreciate the momentousness of this event, and calmly, competently put the boat in the water and stepped the mast with a crane in spite of my best efforts to get underfoot. In no time, Ganymede was in her slip, with mast stepped and guyed, and I was left to spend an afternoon splicing rigging in the broiling August sun — an otherwise happily frazzled man.

That marked the beginning of a summer of driving to Stockton every Saturday night from the restaurant to stay on the boat until Tuesday morning. November 2 had been set as a tentative sailing date, and nothing makes time pass like having a deadline approach for which you are in no way prepared. We knew from experience that actually leaving has less to do with whether you're ready than with the weight of all the external factors that impinge on departure. Those factors were the onset of winter, our eagerness to get to sea, and my shakedown cruise crew's narrow time window.

The children being too young for offshore sailing in southern California waters, the plan was that three friends and I would sail down around the Baja peninsula and north into Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Danielle would drive to meet us with the girls and we could cruise those sheltered waters to give the children and ourselves a chance to get used to Ganymede before tackling longer passages.

The voyage was all one could ask of a shakedown. Ganymede weathered winds from mere whispers to a shrieking near-gales, and with some trial and error we found a workable sail combination for every condition. I was also keen to see how the interior would fare: whether four grown people would be able to cram into it for any length of time. But when we arrived in Cabo San Lucas 13 days after leaving Half Moon Bay and were still friends, I no longer feared that the boat was too small.

We stayed in Cabo only one night before heading north into the Sea of Cortez, sailing when possible, motoring through calms and hunkering wherever the north wind blew. The push ended at Conception Bay. Though not quite halfway to where we'd planned, it had become evident that the weather would only grudgingly allow further progress, and the nights were getting chilly.

I'd been away almost a month, and I wasn't used to being away from Danielle and the girls for so long. So leaving my crew with the boat, I took an all-night bus to San Diego where my little family waited at a relative's house. It was a long drive back down the peninsula, but Danielle and I had as much to catch up on as though we'd been apart for a year. Damaris had begun to stand up, and could almost take a step; Emily had barely eaten while I was gone; Antigone had spent hours sitting in the parked car pretending they were on their way to meet me. We spent a week in Conception Bay finding places to stow all the things Danielle had brought and letting the girls settle into life afloat. There were beaches to explore, shells to gather, and limpid water to swim in. We let them slowly get used to sleeping in their little cabin before sailing south.

Two months after leaving Conception, having daysailed in leisurely fashion down the peninsula to Los Frailes, midway from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas, the girls got their first taste of overnight seafaring. This was the big test, to see whether Danielle and I could handle the boat and girls while sailing offshore for a few days. The sailing, it turned out, would have been a challenge for a seasoned crew; boats were damaged during the gale that saw Ganymede scurrying under bare poles and later storm canvas; torrents of rain pelted us, but inside the cabin all was peace. No one got seasick or toppled over, nothing came adrift. In the warm glow of the gimbaled lamp I could see through the companionway, three little heads snuggled into the big berth forward, surrounding the sleeping form of their mother.

Three days and nights after leaving Los Frailes, Ganymede fetched the lee of Isabella Island and we gratefully dropped the hook into glass-clear water. The boat was a mess. Every sail had been used and needed stowing; down below things were in a jumble. But here we were in port, in spite of frightful weather. We'd done it; our planned cruise southward along the continent went from an idea to a reality. Even the budget had not proven unreasonable.

These days, as we press toward Panama, I sometimes look at the girls playing in the cockpit under Danielle's watchful eye. It's different than before, traveling with three small children, and one of them learning to walk — more different than we could've imagined. But the world seems wider than it did when it was just two of us, vaster and more wonderful because every new discovery is seen by three other small pairs of eyes. Yes, we've been gone from the sea for six long years. But now that we're back, those landlocked times are a quickly fading memory, and we can honestly say that all we've gained made it worth every minute. 

To read more from the Zartmans, check upcoming issues of BoatUS Magazine. We'll learn exactly how they're instilling a love of boating in their little girls, tips that might be useful for our own children and grandchildren; and we'll hear from Ben how he keeps onboard systems utterly simple aboard Ganymede, and how you can too.

— Published: August/September 2010

A Young Couple Chases A Dream

When Ben Zartman was in his early 20s, he spent lots of time hiking and camping in the mountains of California's Yosemite National Park, paying for his hobby by working for a window-cleaning company. At a local restaurant, he met a waitress, Danielle Powers, just out of high school. The couple found that they shared a deep love of the outdoors, of their families, and both dreamed of a life of exploration. Within a year, they got jobs crewing on a catamaran in Florida and a taste of all the possibilities offered by the boating life.

"One day," said Danielle, "we saw a little boat for sale on Ebay. No one bid on it. A couple of weeks later, we found it at a flea market and bought it."

"For 13 months, we lived aboard while we did the refit," said Ben, of the 1967 Irwin 27 named Capella. "It was an itchy life. We took out almost every screw, put on a new rig, and re-did the deck. We worked on the boat every spare minute." To earn money, Danielle waitressed while Ben worked at Ace Hardware.

"Someone stopped by one day while I was sewing," said Danielle. "She asked if I was making a sail. No, I said, it's my wedding dress!"

With their life savings in the boat — purchase and refit totaled $3,700 — Danielle and Ben took their maiden voyage on March 25, 2001, from Fort Meyers, Florida, to Isla Mujeres, Mexico — wedding dress swaying in the main cabin. After arriving in the Yucatan, their families flew in for the wedding.

Photo of Ganymede anchored off the Mexican coast at sunset

Capella, named for the star, had only a handheld GPS and VHF, kerosene lights, and battery-operated short-wave receiver for time ticks, but no electricity or self-steering. Navigation was by sextant. "We only turned on the GPS if we got scared," said Ben, "to check ourselves." They cruised the western Caribbean — exploring the ancient ruins of Mexico, the reefs of Belize, the rich culture of Guatemala, the Bay Islands of Honduras, and lived among the native tribes of the San Blas Islands of Panama. Eventually they reached their southernmost landfall, the walled city of Cartegena, Colombia.

In Punta Sal, Honduras, their dinghy was stolen — a huge loss to a couple on a $300-a-month budget; they anchored off Roatan for four weeks while a generous fisherman built them another for cost. "Everyday we'd swim ashore holding dry clothes over our heads in Tupperware," said Ben. "Later we'd swim back to Capella with groceries over our heads."

When their money ran low, and Ben and Danielle, by then 25 and 21, sailed north. They docked in Newport, Rhode Island, and put Capella up for sale. It was time to head home to California, to work, and to a new chapter about to unfold.



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