They say you can learn a lot about a sailor just by looking at the type of boat he or she owns. However, I’m not sure our boat, Spirit, reflects the personalities of my wife, Claudia, and me as we try to live a quiet and simple life, taking each day as it comes. Spirit very much stands out in a crowd. She’s fast, complex to sail and definitely not quiet! She also sails incredibly well in light air, allowing us to sail 99 percent of the time. This gives us far more freedom and allows us to sail in those light-air latitudes where most cruising yachts motor.
Spirit, or Spirit of England as she was formerly known, started her life in the UK back in the early 1990s as the brainchild of Bruno Fehrenbachs. Bruno had previously worked with multihull maven Nigel Irens. Having appreciated Irens’s design of Tony Bullimore’s then newly launched trimaran Apricot, he decided to do a smaller 40ft version, based around the Formula 40 Class that was popular at that time. She was reportedly fitted out in David Irvin’s yard at Plymouth, England, around 1989, after which she soon came into the hands of an experienced sailor by the name of Peter Clutterbuck. Peter went on to employ a very young Brian Thompson (who would later become the fastest British sailor to sail around the world with Loick Peyron and the Banque Populaire team in 2012) to crew her and race doublehanded with him: they won many races, including the Fastnet, and beat many records, like the Azores and Back Race record in 1995.
Fast forward to 2008: I’d just turned 34 and my own sailing life was coming back into focus. I’d spent the previous 20 years working on yachts of all shapes and sizes, including 10 years spent working as a superyacht captain. As I was doing so I’d noticed how even those with millions at their disposal were no less lost or unhappy than the rest of us, and that focusing on money didn’t seem to offer any kind of solution. I’d also seen plenty of people in countries where they had only the basics but kept smiling. In fact, they were often a lot happier and more present in the moment than those I’d met with abundant wealth. There was something about a simple life, one not focused on money, that called to me, and cruising my own yacht seemed like a great way to do it.
Fortunately, it was at this same time that Spirit was on the market, resting on a mooring in Newport, Rhode Island, where Dave, an old friend of mine, lives. After watching Spirit for a few years being listed but not moving, I asked him if he would check out her condition. He returned a positive report, saying that while she needed some work there was nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a little elbow grease. In September 2010, I booked my flight to Boston, and a new life of adventure with Spirit began.
Before my departure, I organized a viewing with her owner, William “Bill” Foster, a pilot for Delta Air Lines. He’d been sailing Spirit on and off for years, but with his four kids now getting older, time was limited and she was suffering for it. It was late September, summer was over, autumn was in the air and the leaves were starting to change color. I knew if I was to buy Spirit I had a limited amount of time to get her ready and depart for the Caribbean before the seriously cold weather took hold. The passage south from Newport can be brutal and having done it near on 20 times I knew what we could be in for. I felt there was a clock ticking and an urgency to get moving if this dream was to become a reality.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
The first day I laid eyes on Spirit, it was pretty much love at first sight. Our sea trial on Long Island Sound was a magic one, with light winds and flat water. She also sailed extremely well. After going over her with a fine-tooth comb and working out what needed to be done, I added up all the costs and reduced the asking price by the same amount. I made my offer and Bill accepted. I’d gotten my dream boat for a fair price, and she’d found herself a new owner.
After that I approached my good friends at the Newport Shipyard and worked out a deal that would allow us haul Spirit quickly and start in on the work that was needed. Upon inspecting Spirit the biggest concern were the decks on the amas, which were rotten. The rest of her structure was in great condition; however, all the electrics needed to be replaced, and her interior needed to be stripped out, painted and cleaned up to make her more liveable. Her sails were also in good order and would get us going. There were a lot of other odds and ends that came with her, but they weren’t of much use for what we had in mind.
On hauling her out, we found that she had a lot of growth on her bottom, including some of the largest barnacle clusters I’d ever seen, which only made her performance on the sea trial more impressive. The shipyard found us a spot and work began ripping apart the decks.
At first I’d planned to replace them with plywood and then carry out a replacement in composite in Australia. However, after removing some large sections it was evident that a far more thorough job needed to be done, and after getting some solid advice and careful consideration I decided to employ composite expert Peter Kallman to help out. (I know Peter would hate to be called an expert but he truly is; we couldn’t have asked for someone better.)
Together, Peter and I went further than originally expected, eventually replacing all the ama bulkheads and decks with a layer of Divinicell sandwiched between two layers of unidirectional carbon, which improved overall strength and stiffness while reducing overall weight. One of my goals from the outset had been to add value to Spirit with any of the work we decided to carry out. We didn’t want to just replace things, but also make Spirit a better and stronger boat overall. Joining us in our efforts was my 16-year-old nephew Brayden from Australia. He was a little lost at the time, and with a vision for adventure he took up my proposal of a leisurely bit of boatyard work followed by a wonderful sailing trip south to the Caribbean. Wasn’t he in for a shock!
With Peter in charge, we used the old decks as molds and quickly laid up the new ones. We also ripped out all the interior wiring and anything else that wasn’t needed and was therefore just unnecessary weight. Finally, we took off all the redundant deck gear, replaced it with all-new Lewmar stuff, thereby simplifying the layout, replaced the two aft shrouds and had all the rigging checked. Most of it was in good order, and it was only the dynamic-loading rear shrouds that were worn, with broken strands on each and lots of surface rust.
Throughout, Brayden and I learned a lot and enjoyed our time in the shipyard. Turning your dreams into a reality is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives, and in our case, no matter how hard the endless grinding (or how itchy we were later that same night trying to sleep), the following day we’d wake ready and eager to get back to work and be on our way south.
Winter was now also starting to close in for real, motivating us to push that much harder. Soon after hauling Spirit, we’d built tents around each of the amas as we didn’t have time to wait for the right weather. (We needed to be able to work, rain or shine!) We also decided to use fast-curing epoxies and commercial heaters to heat the tents to keep things moving. Luckily we were well prepared for the job at hand and Newport offers some of the finest tradespeople and marine-services people in the world. It was therefore fast and easy to get anything we needed, which helped immensely as we painted the interior and ran new wiring, replaced the batteries and fully serviced both the 20hp Lombardini diesel engine and our Gori folding propeller. Once the decks were made, we vacuum-bagged the edges down for extra strength, after which Peter went inside and laid up the interior deck-to-hull joints.
By now, with two months of hard graft behind us, Spirit was starting to come together. At the same time it honestly couldn’t have come fast enough, as the days were getting shorter and the temperatures were only just bearable, with snow starting to fall. As someone who has spent most of his life in the tropics, living with the cold isn’t easy. It gets into your bones, and the gray days start to make you feel gray in general. Brayden and I were both dreaming of the warm sun’s rays and the deep blue turquoise of the Caribbean!
Finally, after 10 weeks on the hard, it was time to get Spirit launched and back in the water. Everyone was incredibly excited to finally go for a sail and see how well she performed following all our work.
READY FOR SEA
It was now well into December. The breeze was icy cold, and the air was heavy and dense as we bounced Spirit’s mainsail to the top of her 62ft carbon wing mast. She flopped from float to float and felt like she was ready to take off with every puff. Hauling in the main, we bore away and as the jib was unfurled she leapt into high gear. With little aboard apart from our crew, she was much lighter than on our test sail and with her clean bottom she just took off. We threw in a few tacks between Jamestown Island and Newport, then headed north under the Newport Bridge. The breeze was blustery, and Spirit handled well. All systems were working. She was as ready as she’d ever be to begin the journey south.
For weeks, now, I’d been watching the weather on my iPad—a new way of navigating for me, as it had only just been released along with the weather app Weather4D Pro. The combination proved incredibly simple and smart. Having everything at my fingertips was especially appealing since the ability to perform multiple tasks on a single piece of equipment was very much in line with my simplistic approach to sailing.
With respect to our upcoming passage, the weather windows in December are often short. With only two to four days between lows it can be hard to find a suitable window to get away from the coast and across the Gulf Stream and into Bermuda, our first stop before continuing on the St. Maarten. From Bermuda, it would be easier, as the conditions are warmer, and you’re away from the stream with far more room to run off should conditions dictate it. We lined up our crew of four: Brayden; my friend Colin; Simon, a veteran monohull sailor; and myself. For better or worse, I was the only one aboard who’d been to sea on a boat with more than one hull. It was going to be a fun and wild trip south, that was for sure!
Ten days after the sea trial there looked to be a small break in the weather. A big low was forecast to cross the coast, after which the forecast called for the wind to go into northwest. The seas would be heavy, the breeze still gusting up around 30-40 knots, but it would give us an opportunity to make the run for Bermuda with a following wind and get safely into St. Georges before the wind went southwest again.
As fate would have it, the forecast was spot on, and on the day of our departure, there was a stiff 25-30 knots from the northwest as we left the Newport Yacht Club Marina where Spirit had been moored. It was icy cold, and we were rugged up in every bit of kit we could find. We flew over the water in Newport Harbor and out to sea, making great time in the stiff breeze. Spirit was handling incredibly well with a fourth reef in the mainsail and the staysail up. The reduced power allowed her to handle the seas well and keep her bows up, with no sign of burying—even with the short and solid 12-15ft seas running. We would launch down the face of a wave, surfing at up to 24 knots, and then come gently into the trough where she’d slowly make her way up the back of the wave in front and do it all again.
Three days later we pulled into Bermuda after completing the 600-mile passage at an average speed of just under 9 knots. Spirit had proved herself and then some. Even though the conditions were still fairly large the first few days out, she never once made any of the crew feel unsafe. She sailed incredibly well. Her fine entry and minimal volume surprised us with their seakeeping abilities.
BERMUDA TO ST. MAARTEN
After gorging ourselves on every type of cuisine we could get our hands on in Bermuda, doing laundry, drying out the boat and enjoying that greatest of luxuries, a hot shower, it was time to watch the weather again in anticipation of the passage to St. Maarten. Although it was much warmer now than it had been in Newport, the danger of a severe system moving off the coast was still there. In fact, the day after we arrived in Bermuda a massive low came through, bringing with it huge seas offshore and 60-knot gusts in St. Georges Harbor. Bermuda is such a strange place, like a little boat floating in the North Atlantic, totally exposed to the elements. It’s a colorful spot, but also brutal at times, thanks to winter lows from the west and summer lows from the Caribbean.
Fortunately, the system passed quickly and with it, we felt we should set sail again. The best part of departing in the wake of such systems is the favorable wind direction. The worst part is that it can get pretty boisterous out there—something we learned the hard way on our passage to St. Maarten. Nonetheless, though Weather 4D was forecasting 30-40 knot gusts, we still wanted to get south as fast as we could before we entered the trades and would have to contend with 25-30 knots off the bow. I’m a firm believer in never arguing with the weather, and the plan is to always try and run before it, even if it’s blowing in the 30s or more, especially if it also means avoiding punching into 20 knots later on: sll the more so aboard a boat like Spirit, since the latter can feel like being on a submerging submarine!
With the crew at the ready, we departed the following afternoon, giving ourselves plenty of time to get well away from Bermuda while it was still light out. What surprised us most was the fact we were still getting a solid 30-40 knots of wind two days later when it should have started to drop off. The seas were also still big, with solid swells up to 25ft rolling down upon us from the northwest.
On our second evening out we had squall after squall pass us with the wind topping out at over 52 knots, screaming through the rigging and pushing Spirit fast into the darkness. It’s moments like these you just have to hold on and hope there’s nothing in front of you. It’s exhausting, and afterward, you crawl into your bunk without even removing the wet weather gear. As they say, though, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! (Though I’m not sure Brayden would agree, as he didn’t eat for the first two days out of Newport or the first day out of Bermuda.)
Luckily, we eventually had lovely conditions as the wind dropped off, and we even ran the engine for a bit to motor through the calm. At one point a pod of dolphins jumped and wove its way around Spirit’s three bows, and we even managed a few hours of clothes-drying during the midday heat. The morning after that we spotted the hills of Marigot on the horizon and were soon sailing into Simpson Bay, completing a passage of just under four days, and covering the roughly 850 miles at an average speed of just over 10 knots.
As you can imagine, back onshore the showers and hot water had never felt better and the food had never tasted so good. For sure there were hard moments, but in life there are always hard moments. It’s just working out what ones you’re prepared to go through to make your life what you want it to be.
After leaving the Caribbean, the author and Spirit continued on to Australia and have since raced and cruised throughout the South Pacific and Asia, covering over 40,000 miles. Jason and his wife, Claudia, are currently cruising aboard Spirit in Southeast Asia. You can follow their adventures at trimaranspirit.weebly.com.
Photos by Jason Gard
MHS Winter 2019