Dropping the hook in remote Bahia Magdalena—on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula—I was instantly attracted to Puna, a plucky little cutter anchored nearby. There was nothing sexy about her—no long overhangs or come-hither tumblehome to get my heart racing—but she was beautifully functional, clearly tough and purpose-built. The colors of her fire engine-red hull and bright-white hard dodger were intensified by the late afternoon light of a December sun.
More often than not, I’ve found that the people aboard interesting boats in interesting places have interesting stories to tell. Kim Bushnell and her partner Arnie Lang were no exception.
Kim rowed over to our boat Del Viento in a pert little hard dinghy, drawn to the sight of our kids playing in the water. “Cruising kids are just the coolest!” She looked squarely at my two daughters, “Don’t you hate it when grown-ups ask you if you know how lucky you are to be cruising? Yuck!” My 10-year-old daughter smiled.
Kim knows about such things; she remembered the freedom of her own seaborne childhood. She was 10 when her parents loaded her and her sister onto a boat and sailed south down the Mississippi River from Ontario, Canada. “My sister and I just kind of ran wild—a great way to grow up, none of the stress and responsibility and all of the joy.”
For an anxious cruising parent, her words were a salve.
“We eventually circled the globe, took us seven years,” she said.
Kim told me about how, in the Cook Islands when she was 12, cruising legend Tom Neale taught her to garden in a place without bees. “Tom took me around—in shorts, no loincloth—and showed me how to pollinate plants using a tiny paint brush.” By 14 she was designing her future sailboats and at 15 lived through a knock-down off Cape Horn. “Three other boats were lost that day, but we were only dismasted and lost our dinghy. We rolled over three times. I still have a bump on my head.”
Now 51, Kim is cheerful and assertive. In her I could easily see the 18-year-old who once stood up in a Long Beach boat show audience and gave Lin and Larry Pardey a piece of her mind. She didn’t know the famous sailing couple behind the podium, but she’d just heard them deride ferrocement boats and that didn’t sit well with her. It was the fall of 1982 and Kim had recently completed her circumnavigation with her parents aboard the 31-foot Dove, a cruising boat her dad built with his own hands, in ferrocement.
“Larry chuckled and asked if I was Winston’s and Carol’s daughter.” Kim smiled as she recalled the encounter. “He said he and Lin had just met my folks at the Toronto Boat Show and that he was pleased to meet me. I turned beet-red.”
“After that, I began visiting the Pardeys in nearby Lake Elsinore and helped Lin apply coat after coat of varnish to the nearly-completed Taleisin.”
Kim married early and started a life that mirrored her upbringing. She and her husband spent seven years building their own 39-foot cruising boat, Shilo. By the time they finished their daughter was one year old, and they took off with her across the Pacific. Within two years they returned home and added a son to their family.
“But I moved north to Nanaimo, BC, in 1998, a single mom.” Her folks lived nearby and her then 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son had five open acres to run around on and explore. Kim taught sailing and worked at West Marine to pay her way through school. In 2001, she and her father began building Puna, a 27-foot steel-hulled Brent Swain design characterized by its frameless origami-like construction. “My dad built her sister ship, Dove III, and sailed her through the Northwest Passage. I told him I wanted to help build the same boat for myself, something small and sturdy that can be my home until I’m 80. We worked together from the bare hull.”
I asked her if she regrets not voyaging with her kids at an older age. “A bit, but I didn’t want to be out there alone with two kids, it’s much harder than singlehanding.” She did spend four years aboard with her kids and four summers cruising the Salish Sea and Desolation Sound, but by then they were ready to move on and start their own lives.
“That’s when I started planning to sail south—and here we are!”
I turned to her partner, Arnie, “But how did you guys meet?”
“I bought Dove in 1985,” Arnie said, “the boat she grew up on—that’s how we knew each other. When she was ready to take Puna cruising, she asked me to come with her.”
The couple squeezed in close together for a picture; Puna’s warm interior brightwork gleamed.
Photos by Michael Robertson