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Power to sail: A convert’s success story

An investment manager sells his flybridge cruiser and tries a new tack by harnessing the wind

You’ve heard it before: Baby boomers who are done sailing might not be done boating. Instead, they often trade the tiller for a wheel, the rig for a larger gas tank and become trawler cruisers. That’s less toil for the same or better speed.

Bob Strong helming Firefly during the Elliott Bay Marina Thursday Night Series in Seattle.

They finally get where they want when they want, not when nature conspires. It’s a compelling concept and it’s been repeated thousands of times. Never mind that it means sacrificing the silence and satisfaction that comes with the skill of using the wind for propulsive power.

But there are exceptions. They might be few and far between, but among us are contrarians who buck the trend by switching their ride backwards from “stinkpotting” to “raghanging.”

Meet Bob Strong, a private portfolio manager at an investment firm in Seattle. Like many in his line of work, Strong knows about changing tacks and adjusting to a new breeze from a different direction, and he cherishes spending time on the water. “I’ve always been a boater. I have a summer place on Bainbridge Island from where I can commute to my office in Seattle on my 24-foot Grady-White Voyager,” he says. He also chartered boats and took them cruising, but eventually purchased hull No. 1 of the Grand Banks Eastbay, a 47-foot flybridge cruiser with twin 700-hp engines that would get “a half-mile to the gallon at 23 knots,” according to Strong. As great as it was getting there in a hurry, the concept also had several challenges that were hard to ignore, like filling a 700-gallon tank when gas ran $5 per gallon. That was painful, even to a man who’s used to moving lots of money.

Firefly appealed, in part, to Strong because it was hull No. 1 of the Morris M45 built by Bass Harbor, Maine-based Morris Yachts.

“It didn’t feel great burning this kind of fuel,” Strong says. He also thought that something akin to uncomfortable ennui accompanied these outings. “It often was cold and it always was noisy, while sailboats looked more elegant, aesthetical, just plain nautical.” So the Eastbay was put on the block. And it sold after a year and a half.

Meanwhile, Strong became enamored with sailing. He crammed sailing terms and techniques. “Frontloading” is what he calls the process. He did the famous Duck Dodge, a serious and fun race on Seattle’s Lake Union with a colleague, who surmised that this experience might have infected him with the sailing virus for good. And in spring 2007 he went on a delivery from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Newport, R.I. Off Cape Hatteras, N.C., he and his mates experienced a formidable storm that wrought havoc on many boats in the vicinity. “That [adventure] cemented my interest,” he says. “Still, I didn’t know diddly, but started looking around. All I knew was that I wanted a beautiful, well-built boat.” Which was waiting for him in Bass Harbor, Maine, at the yard of Morris Yachts.

It so happened that the company’s boss, Cuyler Morris, was looking to sell Firefly, the first Morris M45, which he owned at the time and had taken him and his family on an extended cruise from Maine to the Caribbean. In the process, Firefly won her class at the 2007 Antigua Race Week, but suffered a rig loss on her way north, about 100 miles out of St. Augustine, Fla. So the boat was brought back to Maine where it was completely overhauled — which by Morris’ standards meant it looked better than new.

Steve Moe, Bob Strong, Dieter Loibner and Will Strong on the path to their first win.

Dark green hull, bright white deck, impeccable varnish and stainless-steel work, above and below deck. Teak trim, butternut woodwork and all the racing hardware one could want on a “cruising boat.” Sailboat connoisseurs know that Morris is trafficking in eye candy. Strong wasn’t one of them, but he quickly learned. The boat tickled his fancy — besides it was hull No. 1, just like the Eastbay he’d owned, so the deal closed and Firefly moved 3,325 miles west to Elliott Bay Marina, near downtown Seattle and her new owner’s office.

However, Strong quickly learned that — just like calm seas don’t make good sailors — owning a nice boat doesn’t earn you respect. That has to be earned on the race course.

And for that, few events are better suited than the Elliott Bay Marina Downtown Sailing Series, which is contested Thursday nights throughout the summer. Joining Strong for one date last July was his son Will and some friends, Cuyler Morris, who was in town for business, and yours truly. It was a ragtag crew that had perhaps 10 measly minutes under sail to get to know each other and the jobs on board Firefly before the race got under way. Working a mainsheet winch, I sat close to Strong and had a chance to observe the rookie skipper during this entertaining one-round, winner-takes-all affair. Strong neither looked nor acted like a newcomer. He guided the 45-foot boat calmly, worked the puffs like an old hand, and executed flawless mark roundings. Secretly, I called him Bob the Convert, as we picked off competitors around us, heading for a showdown with Snake Oil, a fire-red and battle-tested vintage racer, and Gray Wolf, a gorgeous water-ballasted Lyman-Morse cruiser with freestanding rig and a family crew.

Looking around, I saw hard work but also plenty of smiles.

Will Strong would later tell me how this compared to previous boating experiences. “Sailing to me is more fun, because I can work the boat with friends, rather than just being along for the ride, like in the back of a Winnebago.” All this enthusiasm also rubbed off on Strong’s wife, Katie, who says she always has liked being on the water, but was ready for something new. “When we sold our powerboat we decided to try sailing rather than getting out of boating,” she explains. By her own admission she was a bit overwhelmed in the beginning, but she, too, became a convert. What sold her was the “peaceful atmosphere, the proximity to the water and the skill required for powering a boat naturally.”

Steve Moe, Bob Strong, Dieter Loibner and Will Strong on the path to their first win.

Katie Strong often helms the boat on weekend trips in Puget Sound and to the San Juan Islands, and she was looking forward to joining her husband for the first leg of a trip around Vancouver Island. Her advice for those who want to dip their toe into sailing: “Try it, but stay in your comfort zone. Approach it at your own pace.”

Out on the course, our pace was a tad faster than that of Snake Oil and Gray Wolf. While passing behind the stern of an anchored tanker, the breeze got fluky and caught Snake Oil’s afterguard off guard. While they rounded up, we cracked the main a few inches, ducked their stern, footed off and broke through their lee. Strong took advantage of his boat’s longer waterline and deftly returned to pointing mode to lay the mark, while Gray Wolf — several boat lengths to leeward — needed a short hitch to get there. That was enough separation for Firefly to escape the coverage on the reach to the finish. When the horn sounded, Bob the Convert had won his first sailboat race and bragging rights for a week.

But what weighs more than winning and bragging is experiencing the teamwork that made it possible. “I respect powerboats, because they get lots of people out on the water,” Strong said after the crew had tidied up the deck and made it to the head of the brew-and-barbecue line (another perk of winning). “But I find sailboats more ‘nautical,’ more efficient.”

More satisfying, perhaps? “Absolutely, yes.” So it appears that there are rewards for turning common wisdom on its head by going from power to sail. If this sounds surreal, don’t take my word for it. Just ask Bob Strong.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings and the author of “Sustainable Sailing,” which will be published by Sheridan House this fall.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.