92: Introducing 'Isbjorn'

Buying a bigger boat and using it to take people across oceans has long been a dream of mine. I can’t pinpoint when exactly this happened, but it was probably in the mid-2000s when I was working on the schooner Woodwind in Annapolis. That was the first time I realized that it might be possible to have a career not in sailing, but as a sailor. 

So at Christmastime I did a yachtworld.com search, just for fun. I typed in ‘Swan’, set the length to 40-50 feet, and capped the price at $150,000.00. Mia and I had been able to save a fair amount of money over the past couple of years, to the tune of about $35,000.00, and this was a number I thought we might be able to afford.

This is the beginning of the story of how Mia and I came to own a 1972 Swan 48, hull no. 2, which we've named Isbjorn. I'll follow this up with regular podcast and blog updates on how the business is developing and how the refit is going, in real time, as we embark on the next stage of our sailing careers. Wish me luck! Read on for the transcribed audio below, or click the player above to hear it.

HUGE thanks to Lisa Jodensvi for drawing the amazing polar bear logo! This is just a first draft, but I had to share it! The final version is coming soon...

Introducing Isbjorn

Buying a bigger boat and using it to take people across oceans has long been a dream of mine. I can’t pinpoint when exactly this happened, but it was probably in the mid-2000s when I was working on the schooner Woodwind in Annapolis. That was the first time I realized that it might be possible to have a career not in sailing, but as a sailor. 

My friend and fellow Woodwind crewmember Pete Horner introduced me to John Kretschmer’s books – Cape Horn to Starboard, At the Mercy of the Sea – and here was a guy who’d made a living, as he puts it, ‘making landfalls.’ 

So I decided I wanted to be a delivery captain. I remember seeing a Soundings magazine at Fawcett’s in Annapolis, when the store was still on the waterfront in Ego Alley. On the cover were listed the top jobs in the marine business, with ‘delivery skipper’ ranked number 1. That was it, I wanted to do that – to get paid to sail, and nothing more.

So I did it. Over the next few years I got my licenses, volunteered as crew on as may trips as I could get, and started making friends in the business, including Kretschmer himself, who taught me celestial navigation at one of his workshops in Ft. Lauderdale. I got my first passage as a crewmember onboard a Jeanneau 40, recommended by Steve Black, the founder of the 1500 (that’s another story, but it ultimately led to a chance meeting with World Cruising Club, who unbeknownst to be, was in the process of acquiring the 1500. Six year’s later, and now running rallies with WCC is half of my career).

All the while this idea of essentially copying Kretschmer’s model and buying my own boat to take people offshore – essential still acting like a delivery skipper, but creating my own schedule and going where I wanted to go – remained in the back of my head. But to be honest, it always seemed like a pipe dream, something that would be very nice to have happen, but wouldn’t actually happen.

Fast forward to this past Christmas. I have a habit of not being able to relax when I have time off. Not in a bad way. My brain is just constantly creating new ideas and figuring out new ways to do stuff, and when I’m out of things I actually have to do, I get some space freed up in there to think about these ideas that always linger back there somewhere in my gray matter. 

So at Christmastime I did a yachtworld.com search, just for fun. I typed in ‘Swan’, set the length to 40-50 feet, and capped the price at $150,000.00. Mia and I had been able to save a fair amount of money over the past couple of years, to the tune of about $35,000.00, and this was a number I thought we might be able to afford.

To my surprise, more boats that I expected came up on the search, and in better shape that I’d expected. In particular, five Swan 48s, which immediately caught my eye. They had the right layout down below – 8 proper sea berths – and an absolutely gorgeous hull shape that I immediately fell in love with. Swan’s have long been one of my favorite boats, but I wasn’t too familiar with the 48 until this Christmastime search. Other models that came up were the smaller, older 43, and a few slightly newer 47s. The 43 was great too, flush decks and a small doghouse aft, but they seemed a bit small to run a business on. The 47 was, by the numbers at least, a better sailing boat than the 48 (and in fact was apparently the evolution of the 48, coming afterwards), but I didn’t like the looks as much, and the companionway was too far forward of the cockpit. 

Of the five 48s that popped up, one seemed out of reach financially, at $195,000, one was in Seattle and not updated since it’s launch in the 70s, another was in Europe and had a boom-furled mainsail, a fourth was in Grenada and looked to be rotting on the hard. Patriot, a boat I had seen in Annapolis while working on the Woodwind, seemed to fit the bill the best, coming in at $140,000, located close by in Connecticut and in reasonably good condition.

So remember now, this was just a silly Christmastime search, nothing serious, and a way for me to start thinking about this in more concrete terms, but not actually do anything about it. But I’m the type of person who has trouble leaving ideas like this on the table until I fully realize them (or realize they won’t work, which sometimes happens the hard way – I suppose we’ll find out over the next few years…). So I set about creating a down and dirty Excel sheet, trying to figure out all the expenses of running an offshore business and computing how many bunks I’d have to sell in a year to make it worthwhile and provide a reasonable salary.

I spent hours on this. Late in the evenings and early in the mornings I’d stare at my computer and continue to refine the numbers, thinking of more expenses and planning on where I could sail the boat. At the same time I decided I’d apply for a boat loan, just to see if it was possible. I had some money saved up, but I’d still be at the mercy of the bank to provide the real financing.

I got in touch with Lloyd Cooper at Forbes Horton Yacht Sales (more on them later), who I’d been friends with for a while and who knew of my business idea since at least the Annapolis Boat Show last fall. He in turn put me in touch with Rachael at Sterling Acceptance in Annapolis, the middlemen behind a lot of boat loans. They had one bank, she told me, that would even consider financing a 40+ year-old boat. I did the application, jointly with Mia, and waited patiently.

Or impatiently. I couldn’t stand it! Each day I’d check in with Rachael and see if there was any word from the bank. Finally it came…and I was declined. Frankly this was unsurprising. I have perfect credit – my score is in the 800s – but have no history of taking such a large loan. To put it in perspective, the $140,000 is indeed some $50,000 more than I paid for my house!

Mia and I had initially thought that if the bank said no, we’d just wait a year or two, put the business idea on hold and keep doing what we’re doing. But once we got officially declined, I changed my tune. I just didn’t like somebody else telling me ‘no.’ I wasn’t even sure then if the business thing was what I wanted to do, but I wanted to be able to decide for myself, not let some bank tell me how to live my life.

So I went to my grandfather. An entrepreneur himself, who started the family restaurant business in 1952 (and which is still going strong), he understood my predicament. I was adamant that I didn’t want to borrow money from him or anybody else – this had to be my thing – but I asked him if I could use his credit, basically that he co-sign on the loan application.

Rachael wasn’t even sure if the bank would allow this. It’d be three people on the loan – myself, Mia and Pappap – and he’s 85! We went ahead with it anyway. I spent an afternoon at his house in PA gathering up all the documents the bank needed (this was endless and stressful), and finally waited. Again. 

More than a week went by. By this point I had been working closely with Lloyd and we had started to gather information on the Swan 48s on the market, with the idea that we’d be pursuing one to purchase. Lloyd spoke to a broker up in NE who’d mentioned that the more expensive 48, called Kara Mia and sitting in Antigua, was going to come down in price. The owner wanted to compete with the cheaper Patriot, and by all indications, Kara Mia looked to be the better boat. But still, $195 was way out of my range, which in reality didn’t even exist yet because we hadn’t heard back from the bank (and I had only applied for $140k, the starting price for Patriot).

The very next day – this was in early January now, by the way – Kara Mia’s price dropped to $150k on the website. Suddenly it was in range. Lloyd and I set our sights on that, and started gathering as much info as we could. Meanwhile the bank still wasn’t getting back to us. Or when they did, it was to ask for another piece of paperwork from Pappap, which became exceedingly frustrating.

I flew to Ft. Lauderdale in late January with my grandfather. His wife, my grandmother, whom he’d been married to for over 60 years, passed away in November. He was in a funk, and scared of going to his winter home in Florida by himself for the first time in over 40 years. So I took him down for the first time, and spent a week playing golf and getting him acclimatized and keeping him company. As an aside to this story, I’ve been struggling myself with anxiety since the passing of my mom in 2012. I don’t believe that I worry about things in general, but somewhere subconsciously, this has slowly been festering in my soul. The added stress of putting this business plan hasn’t been helping either. I started meditating (literally yesterday), and am finally addressing a deep-rooted stress that is coming out now as physical symptoms. So while on the surface this looks like all fun and games, trust that there’s more too it than that.

Just before we’d left for Florida, I stopped by Lloyd’s office in Annapolis. It was the first time we’d gotten to talk about this in person, and after a long conversation, we both agreed again to pursue Kara Mia. It was a slightly newer boat (hull no. 11 versus Patriot’s no. 2), and had been privately owned as a yacht for all of its life. Patriot was built as a racing boat, and then owned for 20 years by the US Naval Academy (more on the boat’s history to follow), and we felt like it had probably been used hard and put away wet, and might be worse for wear because of that.

But Forbes was there that day too. It was a grey January day, and the boat business had been quiet. Forbes was wearing jeans and spackling the wall in their office to be productive. He asked us why we weren’t going after the closer boat, Patriot, in Connecticut, simply for the fact that logistically it made more sense.

That small comment got me thinking. I went back home and printed both listings off and started comparing the boats very carefully. They each had their pluses and minuses. Patriot had had her teak decks removed in the late 1990s, a huge plus, but Kara Mia had a much nicer interior and hadn’t been sailed so hard. Patriot had new sailing hardware installed in 2004, including all Harken gear, a new mast, and a new deck layout. Plus, for Patriot. I had friends in Antigua willing to go look at Kara Mia for me, so that wasn’t really a problem, but there was a question of whether or not the bank would finance a foreign-flagged boat in a foreign country. Kara Mia had a newer Volvo engine installed in 2011 (Patriot’s Yanmar was from 2004). 

The more I looked at the comparison, the more I started to like Patriot. Taking into account the logistical problems of buying a boat in Antigua, and the cheaper asking price for Patriot, I changed my tune. And when you’re in this situation, believe me, it’s very easy to justify both pluses and minuses to suit your agenda.

By this point the bank still hadn’t answered us, but they’d received all the paperwork they needed and Rachael assured me that they’d approve the loan. So I took a gamble. Literally on the runway just before our flight took off for Florida, I texted Lloyd and told him to make an offer on Patriot. He suggested we start at $120, which I thought was low (I was so excited at this point that I would have gladly paid full price just to avoid the stress of negotiating), but I let him do his job and went ahead with the $120 offer. That approval was the my last communication before switching my phone to airplane mode. Needless to say, I didn’t fall asleep during that flight.

When we landed in Ft. Lauderdale I had an email from Rachael – the bank had approved the loan! They’d finance the boat, up to a purchase price of $140k, but I’d have to put 20% down – most of that money we had saved up, not included taxes and fees. The loan terms were for 20 years, with an interest rate of 4.25%. So my gamble had worked – now we could negotiate in earnest.

We made that first offer on a Tuesday. As the days passed and we didn’t hear from the owners – no counter offer, no decline, nothing – I got more and more stressed out. Dammit Lloyd, we should have offered more! I thought. Or maybe somebody else had come in and made a higher offer, and they’d come back and say the boat had sold. I was being very unreasonable, but it’s amazing how your brain can make up stories that you can easily get stuck on.

Finally, on Friday, just before I was about to tee off on number 2, Lloyd got back to me and said they’d made a counter. $135k. Far from our offer of $120, but at least they hadn't sold the damn boat to someone else!

But we had a problem. Right before I got the call about the counter offer, I had received another call from a friend who had concerns about the boat and the integrity of the seller. The boat apparently had been hit in a race in Antigua, and suffered some not-so-minor damage to the starboard aft quarter, and the sellers hadn’t disclosed this. Not only that, but they’d apparently not been 100% honest with the insurance payout from the accident. Crap.

During the same conversation that Lloyd informed me of the counter-offer, I told him this news. He asked the broker, and as it turned out, the sellers were happy to talk about this, but obviously hadn’t wanted to advertise it. According to them, they were hit on the starting line, and the toerail and stern pulpit was damaged, along with the radar pole. They assured us it had been fixed, and sent detailed photos of the repair. You could see quite clearly where they’d scarfed in a new section of toerail, about 3 feet long, but otherwise it looked completely fine. They’d also disclosed that the boat was grounded, hard, near Trellis Bay in Tortola, and required some repairs to the keel, though the keel-hull joint apparently remained sound.

Lloyd then encouraged me to counter at $130k. My anxiety had subsided slightly when we finally heard back from the sellers, but still, I would have been thrilled to pay $135 and just be done with the stress of the negotiation. Again I let Lloyd do his job, and we countered at $130, despite my anxiety. 

Another week went by, and my anxiety crept to ever higher levels. Now that the bank was onboard, it was a forgone conclusion that I’d be buying a boat. I’d realized how much I actually wanted to do this when the bank first said no – I thought I’d be able to quietly walk away, save my money and bide my time, but I couldn’t. Now it was full-steam ahead, damn the torpedo’s.

I flew home from Florida hoping to go up and see the boat in CT. After all, the entire negotiation was solely on the listing and what I’d heard about the boat from people like Hank Schmitt, whom I tapped for info about Swan’s in general, and Bob Campbell, the electrical guru in Annapolis who had actually built the primary electrical system on Patriot when it was in town (a huge plus). But we were into February now, and the ridiculous NE winter that’s been happening was just getting started. To make it more complicated, I only had a few days to even go up there – Mia and I were going skiing, and then I was off to the BVI to run an actual offshore trip aboard Serenity, a Shannon 43 ketch (more on that in a later episode).

I also didn’t want to make that long drive north if we didn’t have a deal on the boat. As the buyer, I held all the cards, and had several bailout points through the negotiation. Or so Lloyd had told me – we had bought Arcturus directly from it's previous owner from a classified ad in SpinSheet, so I had never been through this kind of process before. But Lloyd said that we could bail after a visual inspection of the boat, after a survey, and after a sea trial, with no consequences. So again, like the bank thing, I wanted to be the one to make the decision on whether or not I’d go through with the purchase, not someone else. Hence me wanting a contract before making the investment in time and money to get to CT to see it.

We didn’t get the contract, but we went anyway. Mia and I drove home to Reading one afternoon, picked up my dad, and set off towards the Brewer Yard in Westbrook, CT. We booked a place about 15 minutes from the marina on Airbnb just for the night. We’d be arriving late, and wouldn’t get to the boat until the following morning. My anxiety was turning into excitement as I was finally going to get to see this thing!

As it happened, around about 7pm, just as we were thinking about stopping for dinner, I got a text from Lloyd. They’d accepted our counter! We had a deal at $130k, and before going to visit the boat after all. Once again the ball was in my court, and it was my decision whether to move ahead or not. We enjoyed a meal from Whole Foods (I joked to my dad that his first contribution to the business could be buying us dinner!), found our Airbnb off in the woods, drank a few beers and tried to go to sleep. It was like Christmas Eve!

Like I said, the NE winter had just been gaining steam. When we got to the boat, the listing broker, Mark, was there shoveling show off the decks. They’d gotten almost two feet a few days before. The boat was uncovered, to my chagrin, but already by 9am Mark had gotten a substantial amount of snow removed, and had set up a few space heaters down below. Mia and I had come prepared, wearing our ski pants, ski jackets and heavy boots.

We pulled into the lot, and the boat was literally right there, pointing out, and looming high above the parking lot. We’d gotten quite used to seeing Arcturus hauled out, but with her keel/centerboard design, she only draws about 4 feet, and sits pretty low out of the water. I can climb up onto her decks pretty easily by just grabbing onto the toerail and doing a pullup. 

But the Swan, she loomed high! Her keel draws just about 8 feet, making her decks about 14-feet off the ground when you account for her freeboard. Mark had set up a ladder at the stern quarter. The height, combined with the ice and snow, made for a precarious climb up.

My first impression of the boat in person was that it showed better than it looked in the photos. It certainly felt bigger, especially from the ground. And her lines were even prettier in person, particularly the nice overhanging stern. I climbed up with Mia and my dad and spent some time wandering around the cockpit and the foredeck. We’d brought our own snow removal tools – some plastic shovels and a broom – and Mia set about clearing the rest of the snow out of the cockpit. The sun was by then shining on the foredeck, which was almost clean of snow. A large inflatable RIB was lying on deck, but even so, the foredeck was massive. This felt like a very big boat.

Cosmetically, the hull and deck really couldn’t have looked much nicer. The dark blue Awlgrip shined in the sun and showed few flaws. The cream-colored nonskid had been painted in 2011 and was nice and grippy. The only teak on deck was in the cockpit, and it had been replaced within the past ten years, looking good as new. Even the sailcover seemed to be in decent shape. 

It took me a while before I ventured down below. I was thrilled at finally seeing the boat, and her deck layout and ‘feel’ topside was better than I’d expected. I wanted to enjoy it, and didn’t want what I expected to be a ‘rough’ interior dampen my enthusiasm.

When we went down below, the first thing I noticed was a nice little pile of snow on the cabin sole beneath the one cowl vent, which hadn’t been closed. Mia and I scooped it up and threw it in the sink before it could melt. I was pleasantly surprised by the state of the interior. It was indeed a little rough in place, but not nearly what I’d expected. Some elbow grease, new paint and new varnish would quickly shape things up, and frankly, the way it was right then and there would suffice in the short term.

Dad, Mia and I did our due diligence and peeked in every nook and cranny we could find, closely examining all the critical systems and taking detailed photos of everything to have as reference for later. We dived into the lazarette from beneath, looking for signs of fiberglass damage where the boat was hit, but found none. I inspected the steering system and quadrant back aft, looked closely at the keel bolts and the engine and fuel system, examined the chainplates. Everything checked out. It wasn’t perfect – the engine, for example, had tons of belt dust on it from a poorly aligned alternator – but it was as I expected, if not better.

I was super excited – by this point, I knew I’d own the boat, that we’d accept the inspection and that the survey would simply be a formality – but also dreaded the work that was still to come. Having just last year replaced the engine and fuel system on Arcturus, and recalling the time and expense that took on a much smaller boat, I felt slightly sick to my stomach seeing the dirty engine room on the big Swan and knowing what it’d take to shine it up. I thought about how tedious installing the Cape Horn windvane on Arcturus had been, and knew we’d be repeating that process on the Swan this coming summer. Nevertheless, I knew then that I was going to own my dream boat.

But the anxious moments weren’t over yet. Mia and I flew to Utah the following week, now with a signed contract on the boat, and spent six days skiing at Snowbird and Alta, our first winter vacation together. In the mornings I’d chat with Lloyd and Rachael about how the closing process was going. 

Since my grandfather was on the loan, he’d need to sign all the documents, but he was still in Florida. We made arrangements for Mia and I to drive to Annapolis after our ski trip, sign the papers, and then have them Fed-Ex’d to Florida for Pappap to sign. He’d have to collect them at a FedEx Office store, sign them, take them to be notarized, and return them again to the FedEx office store to overnight back north. All of this had to happen before our closing deadline, which we’d set on a short timescale in the hopes of having everything wrapped up before I went sailing and Mia went to Sweden.

To make a long story short, it worked. We paid for it of course - $70 just for the FedEx fees – but before I went sailing, we owned the boat! Now that anxiety could shift from the buying process to the business process, and shift it did.

But that's for a future episode. By mid-February, Mia and I were the new owners of Isbjorn, ex-Patriot. The bank had registered the new name with the USCG and applied for a new document in our names, and everything became official.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be following the story of how the boat and the business is progressing, in real time, tracing both the practical and emotional parts of buying a boat and starting a sailing business. We’ll cover all sorts of stuff, from finding insurance (harder than you think), speaking to lawyers, what to do with Arcturus, how the boat brokerage business works (with a special podcast with Forbes and Lloyd to get their perspective), how I’ve created and refined the business plan, what that first trip on Serenity was like and more. 

If you want to support the business, head on over to 59-north.com/events and take a look at the passage calendar. 2015 still has a few places open, and the calendar for 2016 will be published by April. We’ll also be having a few refit parties in Annapolis this summer, so if you want to volunteer your time and learn about boat maintenance, sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about when that will happen. Go to 59-north.com/subscribe to do that.

Thanks for listening, and stay tuned! Exciting times are happening now!