“What did you do for safety?”
It’s a common question for Tiffany Loney, 46, and her husband, Bruce Halabisky, 49. As decorated circumnavigators and the parents of two daughters, Solianna, 13, and Seffa Jane, 9, who were born during the voyage, they have heard the question more often than they care to remember.
“I don’t know what people are talking about,” Loney muses on a quiet September evening, sitting by a crackling driftwood fire on the gravel beach that fronts their home on Orcas Island, Washington. “Duh. We got the right boat.”
Vixen, the wooden gaff cutter that served as the family’s home and vehicle beginning in 2002, tugged at her mooring a scant 50 yards off that beach. After returning from their voyage in 2015, the family settled here, near the town of Eastsound, Washington, on the Loney family property, which they see as a fantastic blend of ocean proximity and mountain views—specifically, views of the snow-clad volcanic flanks of Mount Baker. It’s also close to the girls’ grandparents.
The boat seems every bit as much a family member. Her balanced proportions, jaunty sheer and mighty bowsprit please the eye, but it was her intrinsic qualities that made Vixen a star in this family’s saga. Her heavy displacement and low-aspect ratio rig, the fact that she doesn’t get knocked down easily (thus giving the crew time to reef), her impeccable manners when hove-to under jib and reefed main mattered more than good looks. “You still can be an idiot and pitch yourself overboard while taking a pee,” Loney says, “but if you are thinking about risk, you’re mitigating it as much as possible.”
Vixen is a double-ender, a smidgen over 34 feet on deck with a displacement of 12 metric tons, which is approximately twice as much as a modern boat of similar size. Designed by Atkin & Co. in Darien, Connecticut, and built by Joel Johnson’s yard in the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the early 1950s for her original owner, Jim Stark, she undertook a five-year circumnavigation in the late 1950s, a time when few had the means or the moxie for such an adventure. Today, the boat is an anachronism that attracts people who feel an affinity toward old boats.
Halabisky says that a key facilitator in the family’s journey was Les Schnick, an interior designer in Port Townsend, Washington, and his wife, Libby. They were Vixen’s previous owners, and they completely rebuilt the boat before selling her to Halabisky in 2002. The Schnicks reframed, replanked, repowered, redecked and rerigged her, moved the head and chart table aft, and increased the headroom of the cabin by 3 inches without disturbing her dandy proportions. At $62,000 (approximately $88,000 in today’s money), the boat was a bargain and a life insurance policy, because the quality of the work was superb.
Justifying the choice of vessel, Halabisky likes to tell the story about the storm that dusted the family between Madagascar and South Africa. “We almost made it to Richards Bay, but not quite and had to heave to for three days,” he says. “It was scary because depressions come up from Antarctica, blowing 70 to 80 knots and running straight into the 6-knot Agulhas Current, so you can get some of the largest waves in the world.”
Not to mention all the commercial ships that took the same route around the Cape of Good Hope to evade piracy threats in the Red Sea. Being there was one of the dicier moments of the family’s entire voyage. “Without an anemometer, we didn’t know how much wind we had; we [only] knew it was a big storm,” Halabisky says. “We’re hove to, and Vixen is behaving very well. It’s quite comfortable down below and very quiet, but when you stick your head out, good grief, it’s windy.”
Hewing to the keep-it-simple principle, the family limited their electronics to GPS, a single sideband receiver, VHF radio and an iPad, with juice from a 100-watt solar panel. Not on the menu were air conditioning, refrigeration, a water maker, a heater, a radar, television and Internet. Instead, they had kerosene lamps, paper charts, a manual water faucet and a wind scoop. “Either you go on a vacation or on an adventure,” Halabisky says, adding that their total annual cruising budget was about $10,000. “We were definitely on an adventure.”
This retro approach is not the norm today, which is partly why the couple received the 2019 Bluewater Medal, awarded by the Cruising Club of America for “meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea.” It’s an honor they share with the likes of Rod Stephens, Sir Francis Chichester, Eric Tabarly, Pete Goss and Bernard Moitessier.
The entire family attended the awards ceremony in the Model Room of the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan, a far cry from their life as sea nomads, but also a chance to acknowledge their supporters and mentors. Those people include Lance Lee, 81, the founder of the Apprenticeshop boatbuilding school in Rockland, Maine, and of the Atlantic Challenge, a biennial seamanship competition. Both were seminal experiences for Halabisky, who traded a master’s degree in history for a career as boatbuilder, instructor, author and circumnavigator.
“[Bruce] is as fine a student as we have graduated in 40 years, an outstanding example for passing on boatbuilding and seamanship skills,” Lee says. “They are a remarkable couple, doing things they believe in and are passionate for, without asking, ‘How much do I get paid?’”
Of course, living ashore in America, as they do now, changed the economic equation for the family. Returning to Orcas Island, where the couple met in a yoga class she taught in 2002, meant coming full circle. “Now that we’re back home, we’re more like average Americans, earning and spending more,” Halabisky says. They have two cars in the driveway and seem entirely suburban, running errands and shuttling their children.
Loney teaches dance and yoga, and Halabisky strings together a variety of gigs, writing articles and working as a carpenter and shipwright. During tourist season, he mounts his motorbike to commute to the Rosario Resort & Spa, skippering Simplicity, a gaff-rigged Eastport Pinky sloop on day sails. Seffa gets homeschooled, as she did aboard Vixen, and Soli is taking classes from a tutor in Eastsound with a small group of students. Asked what’s better ashore, Soli replied with a sheepish grin: “Having more space.”
“It was fine on the boat because they didn’t know any different,” Loney says with a laugh about the girls’ cramped quarters aboard Vixen. Halabisky calls their quarters “a closet with fantastic views,” referencing a lee-cloth bunk used on open-ocean passages that could take six weeks.
Loney is not troubled by the different dynamics of life ashore, but she does worry about genuine cruising experiences getting replaced by digital distractions. “There are dramatically different styles of education,” she says. “Raising kids, we all have choices to make. What do you value? What are you going to emphasize? Being able to accomplish something by [tapping a screen], is that knowledge?”
The girls aren’t on their devices all day long, though. Soli enjoys dinghy practice at the yacht club in Deer Harbor, jockeying a Laser around the buoys, mixing it up with others and with Halabisky, who’s rekindling his college sailing spirit. The family also plays music together. Halabisky strums a guitar he built while at the Apprenticeshop, Loney plays piano, Seffa is on violin and Soli handles the cello.
Halabisky says he misses the freedom they enjoyed on the voyage. “Cruising is the ultimate form of travel. You can go whenever you want to. We love sailing, being on the ocean, the rhythm that dictates your schedule, being on watch, reading books, listening to music, observing all the time.” He considers Orcas Island a protected place, so Soli and Seffa “won’t get beat up here, but I wish we had more diversity.”
Living frugally, as they did on the boat, remains an important skill. “We know we can live on less and still be happy,” he says. “We don’t have this fear of, ‘What if I don’t get this job?’ And [we know] how kind people can be. When cruising, we were vulnerable and could have been taken advantage of, but it never happened. That’s a good statement about humanity.”
Listening to them talk about their voyage and their life today makes it seem all but inevitable that they will slip the cable again. “A one-year loop around the northeastern Pacific would be fantastic,” Halabisky says. When they might cast off, he couldn’t say, but he can be sure the right boat is already on the mooring, raring to go.
Specs for Vixen
Displ.: 26,000 lbs.
Power: (1) 50-hp
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.