Living Columns & Blogs

Brigitte Bowers: Third-generation Merced native tries living on a yacht

Brigitte Bowers
Brigitte Bowers

In 1996, George Deane, a third-generation Merced native, had a revelation while on vacation on a chartered 60-foot sailboat in the British Virgin Islands.

“I discovered there were crazy people who lived on boats,” Deane said during a recent telephone interview. “I had no idea before then that people did this.”

Deane learned to sail with his father on Lake Yosemite in the 1960s. He was in eighth grade, and since then, according to Deane, “it’s all been downhill.” While practicing law as a young attorney in San Diego, he sometimes rode his bicycle to the marina to look at the cruising yachts berthed there. He knew then that if he ever intended to own such a boat himself, he would have to work hard and commit “time and money to pull it off.”

But his life and career needed tending on land, and though he remained an avid sailor through his adulthood, it wasn’t until that 1996 trip that Deane decided he wanted to try life full time on a yacht. Fifteen years later, he owned a 45-foot Norseman 447 with a center cockpit and cutter rigging named Hana Hou. The Norseman, designed in Seattle by Robert Perry and first built in 1980, is a world-class circumnavigating cruiser, with a reputation for seaworthiness and beautiful handling.

In August 2012, Deane and JoAnne Clarke embarked from Honolulu on a South Pacific cruise that would take them from Kiribati to New Zealand and last for more than a year. “As a lawyer, you can always go back to work,” Deane said, and with that attitude, they seized the opportunity for adventure and sailed.

Their first stop was Fanning Island, known officially as Tabuaeran Island, 900 miles south of Hawaii. Fanning, about 34 square miles, is one of the most remote places on Earth, with a population of approximately 2,000 on an island where the widest section is 1,500 feet. Until the first years of this century, Fanning’s economy still relied on a barter system. There is no power or indoor plumbing on the island, though a cruise line stops there for day trips.

“A freight comes by to deliver supplies about four times a year,” Deane told me. “Their economy is copra and seaweed harvesting, and the people still have subsistence skills. It was the most idyllic of the islands. We took school supplies, which made us popular.” In any case, arriving by boat was an advantage at all of the islands they visited. “When you arrive by sailboat you are not treated like a tourist. It’s a whole different experience,” he said.

Another island he remembers fondly is Suwarrow, an atoll in the Cook Islands 808 miles south of the equator. “It can’t be topped for natural, spectacular beauty,” he said. “And they’re always swimming with the sharks.” While beauty is subjective, the point about swimming with sharks is literally true. The island is known for its bird and shark populations, and for its huge coconut crabs.

Suwarrow might be the least-populated island the pair visited because its only permanent inhabitants are the caretakers hired to maintain the island. Sometimes this is only one person; sometimes it is the caretaker and a spouse or family. Suwarrow is a National Heritage Park, which means it is protected by law, and sailors must get permission from the Cook Islands government before visiting.

The Hana Hou also landed at Pago Pago and Tonga, two places that are good for restocking and enjoyable but did not leave Deane with a lasting impression of beauty in the way that New Zealand did. The government of New Zealand claims that its native Maori population, about 15 percent of the overall population of New Zealand, is integral to the culture and character of the country, and though relations with the British were fraught with tension in the 19th century, the Maori have not experienced, at least in the last 50 or so years, the kind of discrimination often suffered by other native populations in colonized countries.

Apparently, it was in part this peaceful social structure that attracted Deane. “We spent an aggregate of a year in New Zealand,” he said. “It was over the top. It’s an egalitarian, happy society with topography like Southern California but with lots of rain. It’s about the same size as California overall but only has 4 million people.”

I am not a brave person, and though I like to daydream of adventure on the sea in my retirement, the truth is that when I think of traveling the Pacific on a sailboat, I worry about death and destruction. But Deane assured me that the sailing was, for the most part, without terror. The worst storm endured by Hana Hou occurred during their trip to New Zealand in November.

“It lasted about four days,” he said. “We were hit by 40- to 50-knot winds and 12-foot seas, but if you take appropriate measures it’s not bad.”

I suppose that “not bad,” like “beauty,” is another of those subjective terms, but still, after all of that sailing and so many lovely islands, I can see how one horrific four-day storm might fade in one’s memory and be replaced by images of white-sand beaches and crystalline waters. For Deane, though, the experience wasn’t really about sailing, anyway. “The sailing is the work you do to get to a great anchorage. The rewards are the people you meet,” he said.

Currently, Deane and Hana Hou are back in Honolulu, waiting for Clarke to join them for a two-week sail to the Bay Area, where the Hana Hou will rest for an extended period. Together, Deane and Clarke will return to live in Merced and, in time, probably plan their next adventure.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.