Sailing on the “good ship serendipity” is a promising tactic for punching your ticket to adventure.
It never takes a straight course and often docks in picturesque ports that are full of odd and fascinating individuals, such as the citizens of maritime counterculture, who exist, by choice or by force, in the outer galaxies of the boating universe yet are very much part of it. They are not numerous, but they are easy to spot because in a world that has gone bonkers with conspicuous consumption, reckless self-promotion, constant brand awareness and mind-numbing sameness, it’s them — the artists, the sailing junkies, the vagabonds and the dropouts — who, well, stand out.
One of these colorful characters drifted across my course on a warm and iridescent day this past fall at the fuel dock of Oak Bay Marina in Victoria, British Columbia, where I was meeting a photo boat. I expected a small inflatable, perhaps a dory with an outboard, but certainly not Peregrine, a vintage 1973 Ericson 32-2 fully kitted out for cruising.
“Hi, I’m Annette,” the yacht’s master said with a friendly smile, a firm handshake and a slight German accent. “Welcome on board.” Before I knew it, she had pushed off, and we were under way on an assignment for my feature on Canadian Fifer that was in last month’s issue of Soundings.
Not even an hour later, the job done and dusted, we were back at the dock. “What do I owe you?” I spluttered.
“Don’t worry. I was returning a favor,” she replied. In an instant she puttered off again but agreed to meet for a bite and a beer later that day to tell the story of what brought her to Victoria, a place that’s beyond the “tweed curtain,” as the Brits used to say, but nowadays boasts a significant number of Germans — and not just during tourist season.
Annette Brosin was born in 1982 in the German city of Böblingen, across the freeway from the Mercedes-Benz factory, not far from Stuttgart. Her father is a medical doctor, her mom a Filipina who emigrated to Germany to work as a nurse. After high school, a friend talked her into joining the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit founded by former Greenpeacer Paul Watson that uses direct-action activism “to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”
Sea Shepherd doesn’t shrink from confrontation or violent encounters with opponents, but that did not deter Brosin, who went on several expeditions with the group, including to destinations such as Australia’s Cocos Islands, the Galapagos, Fernando do Noronha off Brazil and the Antarctic. She also crossed the Atlantic on a Sea Shepherd vessel from New York to the French Riviera to protest the overfishing of bluefin tuna during the Cannes film festival. Without wading into a discussion of the methods of protest and dissent, Brosin obviously isn’t the type to half-ass anything.
“Through Sea Shepherd I learned that the ocean suits me as a living environment,” she says. Sailing would come later.
If the sea is her second love, music is her first. She is a budding composer of contemporary modern music, which she had studied for seven years in Vienna, Austria. “I also studied sound engineering but ditched it to focus on composition,” she says, “much to my parents’ chagrin because that was their only hope for me to make money in the music industry.” She laughs.
She got scholarships for her postgraduate education and chose the University of Victoria, which looks out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and gets a whiff of salt with the breeze that wafts in from the west. She heeded the call of the sea, took sailing classes, hung around the waterfront and sought opportunities to boat-sit.
That’s how she befriended Mick Mallon, 82, and his wife, Kublu, 61, linguists who specialize in the Inuit language Inuktitut and call Victoria home during the summer months. “Physical work, solving technical issues — anytime I have a problem I just ask her,” says Mallon, who keeps his power cruiser Slow Loris (named after a cute sloth) in Oak Bay.
Brosin is a frequent guest aboard Slow Loris, which Mallon jokingly calls a “collision between a summer cottage, a tugboat and a garbage truck.” But the two of them also went out on smaller sailboats he used to own, she to get practice and he to get assistance as an octogenarian who deals with the consequences of frostbite he sustained in an accident several years ago. “Once we dragged anchor and the outboard was not properly deployed, but Annette handled it all,” he recalls. “She was the leader; I was the cabin boy.”
Buying More Than A Boat
Brosin is assertive and doesn’t back down easily, but she also is ready to put her life on the line for others. “She’s a hero,” Mallon says. “Why, she rowed out in a blow and pulled a guy to safety who jumped into the icy cold water to chase a dinghy that got loose.”
But Brosin waves off such praise. “Wherever I go, I meet people who are glad to lend me a hand, so it is only just to return the favor,” she says. “To me that’s boating.” Understanding and accepting the ebb and flow of giving and taking is key to survival in an alternative universe where money does not necessarily buy you what you need.
She admires the DIY spirit of the hard-core liveaboards out in the anchorage, who draw on lots of skills but limited resources to keep their boats on an even keel. Over time, she has become one of them, getting down and dirty if she has to, teaching the basics of sailing (or, wearing her other hat, musical composition), learning to work a sewing machine to fix sails and canvas, or diving to retrieve dropped goods or to replace sacrificial anodes. “It’s a sunny day as Annette rides in on her bicycle, looking very European with that long baguette protruding from her backpack,” recalls fellow marina tenant Tom Bean. “Quite idyllic, actually, [but] the day ended with her emerging from Peregrine covered from head to toe with Sikaflex, looking for a cold beer.”
Three years ago she took the plunge into boat ownership by purchasing the well-aged Ericson. Peregrine is her refuge and escape to the cruising waters around Vancouver Island. But that’s not all. As luck would have it, Peregrine’s previous owner was Michael Hadley, a retired professor of German at the University of Victoria. As a former Canadian naval officer, he’s an expert on World War I submarine warfare who authored several books and helped Brosin unlock some of her family history. Her grandfather Hans-Günther Brosin was the commander of the German submarine U-134, which shot down a Coast Guard blimp in the Straits of Florida in July 1943, five weeks before it was sunk with all hands by depth charges dropped by an RAF bomber in the Bay of Biscay.
Living Simply To Simply Live
“Peregrine also brought me closer to my dad,” she says. “I had no idea that he sailed when he was younger and sold his Laser when he met my mom.”
When he visits her in Victoria, she proudly takes him for a spin on her own boat and serves him her own beer, which she brews at a friend’s house, and her own bread, which she bakes on board. “The galley is tiny, but it’s my dream kitchen,” she laughs. It doesn’t have a microwave or a fridge — as a vegetarian she doesn’t need one, she says — but it’s equipped with a propane stove, a steamer, cast iron pans, a wok, a waffle iron and a hand mixer.
“ ‘How can you make do with so little?’ Dad once asked, but it does not bother me,” she says.
Limited space, she explains, is an antidote against collecting crap. Only when shopping for threads or browsing the record store — there’s a portable record player on board — does she teeter between “must have” and “where do I put it?” But with storage so tight, she asks, ”Do I really need that?” And her standard answer is “no.”
She has just enough electric power to cover her modest house loads and to fire up an electric piano that she rewired to work on 12 volts DC. It lives in the pilot berth and comes in handy for composing or playing some Beethoven on the saloon table for relaxation. Without a genset, juice is a precious commodity, so she rarely runs her laptop. “That way,” she says, “I can perceive what happens around me, not just what’s in front of me on a computer screen.”
On the boat, she experiences a “different temporality,” which allows her to think about music as a cultural memory and how that’s changing with digital media. This winter she’s finishing her Ph.D. and plans to stick around Victoria for a while before taking Peregrine across the Pacific to the Philippines to immerse herself in her mother’s culture. “I think I need this knowledge to find my place in this world,” she says.
“I never imagined I’d end up on a boat, fixing sails and diving on bottoms,” she says, explaining her reluctance to plot a course too far into the future. “Philosophically, I’m with Socrates in my belief that life has to be constantly challenged and scrutinized to be worth living. People who do that make for fascinating company and conversations in which money and status are irrelevant.”
At this point, Peregrine is Annette’s “good ship serendipity,” which affords her simplicity and independence. The yacht is nearly a decade older than her captain, but it carries her on a circuitous route along the edges of mainstream culture. It’s one of the many bold choices Annette Brosin has made in life, but by the look of things, she’s enjoying it to the fullest.
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.