Fledgling snowbirds head south

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Two young sailors start their cruising lives off right: on any day but a Friday

Two young sailors start their cruising lives off right: on any day but a Friday

Tropical storm Noel was moving north between Florida and the Bahamas Thursday, Nov. 1, threatening to become a hurricane, but Trevor Griffiths, not quite 25, and his fiancée, Gwynneth Anderson, 24, were scrambling to get their 26-foot sailboat, Kestrel, under way on Maryland’s Sassafras River for a long-planned journey south for the winter. They were less worried about a hurricane than they were about delaying their start a day. Trevor’s father, an accomplished bluewater sailor, had warned them: Never start a voyage on a Friday.

Six days later, Trevor and Gwynneth were all of 50 miles south of their Sassafras mooring. In that span, they had weathered the fringe of the storm as it churned up Chesapeake Bay. In their first flight as snowbirds, they were like all fledglings — cautious — but they were learning. Gwynneth, who had never sailed a cruising boat before they took Kestrel out for sea trials beginning in September, was learning that sailing, despite the popular boat name, isn’t always tranquility.

Trevor, who had always sailed with his parents — John and Sandy Griffiths — was learning that there is a vast difference between captain and crew. “I grew up doing this,” says Trevor, after breakfast in his parents home on the eve of his engagement to Gwynneth and two days before their departure. “And it was something we always wanted to do and expected to do.”

“It was something we both knew we wanted to do,” Gwynneth says.

However, unlike perhaps the majority of snowbirds — retirees who have cashed in their life’s savings to cruise — this couple had a low tolerance for delayed gratification. Having spent two and three years, respectively, at paying jobs after graduating from the University of Maryland, Gwynneth and Trevor had cast off the employment yoke with their parents’ blessing and a special gift. Kestrel — a project boat that John Griffiths began restoring five years ago as a replacement for his oceangoing C&C 40 — is theirs to sail for as long as the spirit moves them.

When Dad first offered Kestrel, Trevor thought the boat was too small. At the time, it certainly wasn’t ready for a winter of wandering. John Griffiths had found the boat in the back of a boatyard. Its deck was spongy. It needed a complete makeover. So Trevor said no thanks and began searching for the right boat. “Anything in our price range was a complete disaster,” he says. One racing sloop, he says, needed years of work.

John had a vision for Kestrel, however. She is Pearson Ariel No. 1. The oval bronze plate now fixed in her cabin proves her pedigree. She has an overall length of 25 feet, 6 inches and a beam of 8 feet. Her full keel is weighted with 2,500 pounds of lead ballast and draws only 3.7 feet. And her hull, laid up in 1962, is solid fiberglass. Kestrel had one more thing going for her: John Griffiths.

“I grew up really close to the Irish Sea and the River Dee, which is LiverpoolBay,” he explains in a still-lilting British accent. “From really early on, I went out in boats.”

Griffiths spent time on an uncle’s commercial fishing boat, and after World War II he taught sailing to folks who had bought their first boats. He sailed the coast of Great Britain, from the Irish Sea to Scotland, and at age 32 quit work and sailed to Spain and the West Indies. At one point he skippered a 100-foot yacht before taking a job ashore as manager of a construction project in the Caribbean. It was there that he met Sandy, an adventurous young woman who wanted to learn to sail. In time, they bought a 40-footer, which they sailed from the islands to the Chesapeake. It was here that Sandy decided she wanted a family. Before that could happen, the couple sailed across the Atlantic to England, but they returned to the SassafrasRiver and bought land, where Griffiths built a house and began working as a marine surveyor.

The story has many more twists than these, of course. But the short version is that Trevor was born and, from infancy, sailed with his parents — often with his father alone — cruising every summer to Maine and making extended voyages to the Islands. Gwynneth, whose birthday is 87 days after Trevor’s, also was introduced to sailing as a child, though on daysailers, not cruising boats.

When the couple accepted that Kestrel would be their best hope for sailing south, the boat was still in dire need of completion. That was in spring 2006. Trevor, who earned degrees in geography and environmental sciences, was working as a cartographer, designing maps. Gwynneth worked in Washington, D.C., for a Ralph Nader public-interest organization. Both were recruited to finish Kestrel. “John always said we had to work on the boat immediately if we wanted to take it anywhere,” Gwynneth says.

“My dad did the major work,” Trevor says. “He obviously masterminded everything.”

Work progressed slowly until about six months before the departure, Gwynneth says. “We reached some sort of panic level to get everything done,” she says. They installed a head under the V-berth, painted and varnished, and scraped the bottom.

For his part, John, in addition to repairing Kestrel, fitted the boat with cabinetry above the settees in the saloon, installed a new 16-hp diesel, and fabricated a dodger frame with the tubing from an old Bimini top. Sandy, in the final days, eyeballed that frame and sewed a tight-fitting canvas dodger with isinglass windows.

Neighbors came to the Griffiths’ home in the days before the voyage was to begin, carrying all sorts of supplies for the young sailors. With their clock ticking closer to Nov. 1, they had to spend time getting their dinghy registered. Trevor felt overwhelmed at times. Gwynneth tried to compare the experience to some other in her life but couldn’t. “It’s not at all like starting a new job or college, although it’s the same kind of nervousness,” she says.

They loaded collapsible water tanks aboard Kestrel. They have a two-burner propane camp stove to cook. They have no shower on board and certainly no room for privacy. What they do have — like all snowbirds — is dreams, if somewhat different interpretations.

“You’re not going to cruise the rest of your life,” says Trevor, before they cast off.

“Oh, we might,” says Gwynneth.

“Not on Kestrel,” says Trevor.