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Trawler fleet takes to the high seas

The Nordhavn Atlantic Rally will cruise from Florida to Gibraltar, with stops inBermuda and the Azores

The Nordhavn Atlantic Rally will cruise from Florida to Gibraltar, with stops inBermuda and the Azores

“It’s a grand adventure,” said Tom Selman, braiding a towing bridle, one of a host of last-minute chores still undone in the countdown to the start of the 3,800-mile Nordhavn Atlantic Rally.

Eighteen ocean trawlers from 40 to 90 feet motored down the Intracoastal Waterway and out the cut at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., into lumpy seas and a stiff easterly May 16 and 17 for the start of a grand adventure and a historic passage: the first trans-Atlantic rally for power vessels.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Europe,” said Selman, a crewmember on Dennis and Julie Fox’s Krogen 58, Sea Fox, from Seattle. “This was a good chance to cross the big pond with a lot of other boats and with a lot of camaraderie.” Crossing together with a cadre of mechanics, medical staff and veteran bluewater cruisers assembled by organizer Pacific Asian Enterprises, the yachts’ skippers could realize a life’s dream to cruise Europe in their own boats, without “risking the farm.”

Retired and the owner of a 50-foot motoryacht, Selman said even though the trawlers are crossing the Atlantic together in a fleet with some very seasoned mother hens, it still is high adventure and isn’t risk-free. Preparation is the watchword.

The 200-plus-page operations manual issued to each skipper includes a predeparture checklist of almost 100 items. “Everybody complains about how much work it is getting ready, and it is a lot work,” Selman said. “But if you are nautically obsessed this is great fun.”

“There’s nothing more dramatic than a yacht setting out on an ocean passage,” said Dan Streech, president of PAE of Dana Point, Calif., which builds Nordhavn trawlers. “There’s an electricity in the air.” That electricity is palpable enough when one boat prepares to leave, but when 18 are set to go — 15 of which are Nordhavns — the voltmeter goes off the scale, he said.

“There’s a mix of excitement — an excitement to move forward — and a dread and fear of the unknown,” said Streech. “It’s a wonderful feeling that you just don’t get in life that often. As many times as you do it, even with all the conveniences you have on boats these days, you still have [that fear],” he says. “After you’re on the water a while it goes away. … But you wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The forecast as the eight larger boats prepared to leave called for winds 15 to 24 knots and seas 5 to 8 feet. The smaller voyagers that had left the day before were reporting lumpy conditions. The Gulf Stream was running 3 knots and helping the boats on their way to Bermuda, the first of two stops. The second stop is the Azores, with Gibraltar the final destination.

“They’re not getting beat up,” Streech told the big-boat skippers at the predeparture briefing. Yet a day into the passage, two of the smaller boats were coping with mechanical failures: a stabilizer out of commission on Egret and oil leaking from a stabilizer on Envoy, both 46-foot Nordhavns. Egret’s crew pinned the stabilizer fin in place, and Envoy’s was monitoring the leak and topping off the oil.

“In this machine world, there’s still a need for resourcefulness and cleverness,” Streech said. It also helped that PAE sent along four mechanics and enough spare parts to support a small navy. Sixteen of the 18 boats are powered by Lugger diesels, and Lugger technicians went through each of those engines before the rally departed. Crews also were given the opportunity to attend seminars on topics ranging from maintaining fuel systems, using an autopilot and caring for watermakers to fishing on the Atlantic and having fun in Fort Lauderdale. PAE left little to chance.

“I have to tip my hat to the people from Nordhavn,” said Hal Wyman. “They’ve done a thorough job.”

A retired software developer from Seattle, Wyman and his wife, Linda, bought their Steve Seaton-designed 55-foot trawler, Que Linda, four years ago with the purpose of cruising around the world. “We were going to leave last year, but then we found out about the Nordhavn rally,” he said. “We thought it would be more fun to go with a lot of people.”

The Wymans, who have cruised the East Coast and Caribbean for four years, plan four years of cruising Europe — a summer in the Mediterranean, two summers in the Baltic Sea and along the Norwegian coast, and summer 2007 in Spain for the America’s Cup. If they still are healthy and excited about passagemaking, they will go on around the world. “It’s kind of a dream we’ve had,” Wyman said.

It was a dream, too, that spurred John and Sue Spencer of San Antonio to take the smallest boat in the fleet, the 40-foot Nordhavn Uno Mas, across the Atlantic to cruise Europe. The Spencers at one point were close to deciding against doing the rally. They had cruised Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and Central America, and had weathered 16- to 18-foot following seas on Uno Mas, so they were confident the boat was seaworthy. But Susan became seasick for the first time in rough seas off Nicaragua. She said she opted out of the rally two or three times during that passage.

“I told her, ‘We can cancel out if you want to, but we’re not going to cancel out in the middle of the night,’ ” John Spencer said. “ ‘We’ll do it when you’re on the beach, in the sun, sipping on a cocktail.’ ” Her perspective restored in the idyllic San Blas Islands off Panama, Susan Spencer reconsidered. Uno Mas made the May 16 start.

“This is a trip of a lifetime,” she said, and too big an opportunity to pass up. “We would never do it alone.”