Bluewater's Big Cruise
It is often said that couples who play together, stay together. My parents, for example, have been happily married for nearly 40 years. And while it would be a gross overstatement to claim that it was only shared hobbies that kept their marriage afloat, it certainly hasn't hurt that they both love to travel and are rabid Yankees fans. That said (and my apologies, Mom and Dad), my parents have got nothing on Captains Milt and Judy Baker, a couple with a mutual passion for life on the water that's so intense, they've got nearly 100,000 miles of cruising experience between them. And it's that shared passion that drove them to lead and organize Med Bound 2007, a group crossing from Fort Lauderdale to Gilbratar that they completed in their beloved Nordhavn 47, Bluewater.
"I've wanted to cross an ocean as a captain of my own yacht for as long as I can remember," explains Milt. "And I'm blessed with a wife who shares my vision." Both Milt, a career officer in the U.S. Navy, and Judy have been licensed captains for more than two decades. Together they've owned several boats, from a 22-foot sailboat they cruised in Hawaii to a 32-foot Allied Seawind II ketch they ran to the Bahamas and Bermuda throughout the 1980's. The couple switched from sail to power in the 1990's, scooping up a Grand Banks 42 that they ran between Havana and Halifax. And somehow, in addition to all that time spent at sea, they also managed to open Bluewater Books & Charts, which they turned into one of the country's preeminent retailers of electronic and paper charts.
In 2004 Milt realized his ocean-crossing dream when he took a seat on the organizing committee for the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally (NAR), a group passage from Fort Lauderdale to Gilbratar. He also headed the NAR's advance team, which meant that he and Judy met the 18 participating trawlers in Bermuda, Horta, and the Azores. Spending time around so many Nordhavn enthusiasts certainly had an effect: "One thing led to another," Milt says, "and before we knew it, Judy and I were signing a contract to build a new Nordhavn 47 with the idea of taking it across the Atlantic ourselves."
When Bluewater finally arrived in 2005, the Bakers were antsy to get underway. They had hoped to make the crossing in 2006 but opted against it. "We quickly realized that getting to know the boat and shaking her down and ready for an ocean crossing was no simple matter—doing it right was going to take longer than [a few months]!" So they took the opportunity to build up their experience, running her offshore to Venezuela, Bermuda, and Maine.
"The NAR was such fun that when it came time to take our own boat across, Judy and I decided it would be terrific to do it in company with other boats," Milt explains. And so he organized Med Bound 2007, an all-volunteer, nonprofit, and noncommercial rally comprised of two groups of Nordhavns that departed together from Fort Lauderdale's Coral Ridge Yacht Club. The first group, made up of six yachts, was bound for Bermuda and then New England. The second, which departed on May 28, 2007 and arrived in Gibraltar on July 10, was comprised of three Nordhavns: Bluewater and two 55s named Moana Kuewa and Salty Dawg. It was bound for Gibraltar, with a week-long layover at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton and an eight-day hiatus in Horta on Faial Island in the Azores. By trip's end this second group covered 4,039 miles and spent 26 days (611 engine hours) underway.
The Bakers spent almost a year sourcing, loading, and stowing the thousands of spares they knew the trip would demand. Everything, including engine, generator, electrical, and household components, had to be bought and stowed. "Milt kept coming onboard with yet another enormous, odd-shaped spare, [and] I'd think, ‘There is just no way that thing, whatever it might be, is going to fit anywhere on this overstuffed boat,'" Judy recalls. But sure enough, Bluewater swallowed yet another item. Amazing!"
In addition to stowing and provisioning, the couple added some key features to get their Nordhavn ready for the passage: AIS, paravanes, and a garbage disposal. Having AIS certainly came in handy: Milt estimates that it was used at least once a day on their trip, for negotiating crossing situations. His experience with the NAR taught him that backing up the active-fin stabilization system would be crucial, hence the paravanes. They opted for Nordhavn's nonelectric, delta-wing models, which they streamed from long booms. Again, another wise choice: Just before they hit Bermuda, one of Bluewater's two stabilizers shut down. Fortunately Milt and Judy were able to cross half of the Atlantic using their paravanes, which Milt says "were trouble-free all the way and did a magnificent job." And the garbage disposal? "It meant less-smelly garbage onboard and less to take to a dumpster ashore," says Judy.
The Nordhavns cruised together in a loose inverted-V formation to Bermuda, as they'd discussed in their numerous seminars that were held prior to departure. When the two groups split up, each crew was careful to stay within eyesight of one another. The sea conditions were, in Milt's own words, "terrific...punctuated with just enough heavy weather to make us appreciate the good stuff." They relied on weather router Bob Jones of Ocean Marine Navigation, who sent them daily weather updates via satellite e-mail and encouraged the vessels to delay their departure from Bermuda. Two didn't and paid the price with uncomfortable passages. Milt and Judy had good weather almost the entire way, with the exception of what Milt describes as a mild gale off the coast of Portugal, which hammered the three Med Bound yachts for a full day. Milt's ship's log tells the story:
It wasn't truly dangerous, but yes, it was uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Reports from all three Med Bound yachts indicated that everyone was having a problem overnight staying put in bed. Even with the stabilizers (and in Bluewater's case, paravanes) working, rolls were typically 15 to 20 degrees, occasionally over 30 degrees....Nobody got much sleep...I finally found that putting a nonskid placemat on the sheet under my butt helped keep me from slipping around in the covers. By morning, Judy and George had their own placemats. Two placemats per person might have been better—one each beneath butt and shoulders!
That one stretch of weather was about as bad as it got for the Med Bound Nordhavns. There were a few maintenance problems—the bulk were mechanical issues with stabilizers—but only one was actually boat-stopping. A Nordhavn 50 lost both stabilizers less than one day out of Fort Lauderdale and was forced to divert to Charleston. Milt did admit that his least-favorite part of the trip was the constant worrying he did about whether a new sound or small leak was really something. He says he found it difficult to keep his eye on the engineering ball. As for Judy, she had a difficult time cooking and serving meals in heavy seas. "The plates will stay put on the nonskid mats," she says, "but the food won't necessarily stay on the plate!"
By the time Bluewater arrived in Gibraltar, the boat had burned 3,119 gallons of diesel and had averaged 159 miles per day, around 6.6 knots. At that point the three Med Bound Nordhavns went their separate ways: Salty Dawg cruised up Spain's Costa del Sol, stopping at Almerimar, where they've been ever since. Moana Kuewa followed a similar route to Bluewater: up the coast of Spain, then across to the Balearic Islands. The two boats met up in Mallorca in August and were joined by an NAR boat. The three Nordhavns then spent a month circumnavigating the island.
The Bakers' favorite part of the crossing was the sense of shared accomplishment that came with participating in a rally. "It's a bit like being in battle together," says Milt, "something I experienced in the Navy during Vietnam. Shipmates become friends with whom the shared experience makes the kind of bond that will never be forgotten." They advise any other couples who have their hearts set on an Atlantic crossing to join a rally or organize their own, as the Bakers truly feel that traveling with company makes it much more fun.
So what's up next for this cruising power couple? As I write this, they've just departed on their next journey, from Spain to Croatia via France, Corsica, Sardinia, mainland Italy, Sicily, and Montenegro. And then, who knows? But I bet it'll be fun. No one can possibly presume to know what makes a successful marriage, least of all an outsider. But I've got to believe that Milt and Judy's shared enthusiasm for passagemaking has served them well.
All photographs courtesy of Milt & Judy Baker
This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.