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The Self-Taught: Distance Cruiser David Tunick

Rather than junior sailing lessons, David Tunick, 68, of New York City, learned sailing by “on-the-job” experience. While his family drove powerboats, he and a friend bought a Lightning in 1966 and started “sleeping-bag cruising.”

Rather than junior sailing lessons, David Tunick, 68, of New York City, learned sailing by “on-the-job” experience. While his family drove powerboats, he and a friend bought a Lightning in 1966 and started “sleeping-bag cruising.” In 1977, he purchased Thunderbolt, a 1961 40ft Sparkman & Stephens wooden yawl, which he sailed to Bermuda, the Bras d’or Lakes and Maine. In 1984, he bought his current boat, Night Watch, a 55ft 1967 Sparkman & Stephens aluminum yawl. In 2001, after many crewed and singlehanded cruises to Bermuda, the Caribbean and Down East, Tunick ventured transatlantic alone for two years of what he calls “commuter cruising.” Now, after extensive European cruising and racing, Tunick is considering Night Watch’s homecoming.

How did you start offshore sailing?

I had a friend who had an S&S Loki yawl, and I sailed a few times with him around Nantucket and the Vineyard. I fell in love with it. As soon as I could afford it, I bought a boat and started exploring the waters off Maine and Canada. I never hesitated going offshore to get places. I remember crossing the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod in 1977. We found Mohegan Island right on the bow—exactly where it was supposed to be. That was such a thrill and gave me confidence.

Did you have any other important

self-affirming experiences?

On my second singlehanded passage to Bermuda, my autopilot and engine both died. I struggled with the fix, but both were irreparable. So, I heaved-to and went to sleep, figuring I would regroup in the morning. The next day dawned bright and beautiful with the wind from abeam, so I set a course for Bermuda, tied off the wheel and used the mizzen to steer. We went straight as an arrow and four days later sailed right into St. George’s.

How have newer technologies 

changed cruisi
ng? 

Before GPS it was really exciting, especially in the fog. Every cruise felt like a passage of discovery. Newer technology makes cruising a lot safer, but you still have to be the backup. I regularly plot courses on paper charts—it’s important to keep these skills sharp. 

What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned sailing?

Don’t force things—some things are bigger and more important than schedules.

Have you ever been scared for the safety of yourself or your vessel?

I think it’s foolish not to have some healthy fear every time you go out. Anything can happen. The ocean is in charge. You need to work with it. 

What are your sailing goals?

I want to [sail] into my 90s, and I have no reason to think that I won’t. Sailing across the Atlantic singlehanded had been a goal since I was 22. Then, I wanted to circumnavigate alone without stopping. Now, I’m not sure. I’d love to circumnavigate, but work and sailing goals occasionally conflict.

Any advice for younger cruisers?

Don’t just talk about it—do it, especially while the kids are young. Buy the biggest boat you can afford, keeping in mind the economics and the kind of sailing that you want to do. And keep it safe.

Photo by Dan Nerney

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