Ranger’s Refit—and the Real Rewards
Inspired by the fateful day of September 11, 2001, this sailor brings his old 35-foot Allied Seabreeze to life for a transatlanic journey.
When I started sailing on Long Island Sound, the dream of owning a cruising boat seemed as remote as buying waterfront property. I was making $8,000 a year and sneaking peeks through yacht-club gates as though they were pearly. Brokerage ads in sailing magazines only extended the distance between me and my blue heaven.
Thirty years and a few raises later, I discovered modest, used “classic plastics” that in their day flew the finest burgees but now were available to middle-class dreamers. I cashed an annuity and, for $32,900, bought a 1970 Allied Seabreeze yawl named Ranger. Well made, beautifully shaped, she became for me a 35-foot magic carpet with which I could slip alongside a gold-plater, open a can of beans and a beer, and enjoy the same sunset view.
The surveyor, of course, found pages of flaws. I still have that first receipt for a $4 package of wood dowels in case of through-hull failure. Being a pack rat, I also kept the receipts for another $10,000 I spent during my first year of living board. Big-ticket items included new running and standing rigging and a new mizzen sail. My fondest receipts, though, reflected a yearning to sail over the horizon: a Yacht Boy shortwave receiver for single-sideband-frequency weather forecasts, charts for the Bahamas, and a used Monitor windvane.
I couldn’t afford to live plugged in at slips, so at times boating seemed more like camping. I learned to love 75 degrees, the temperature at which my old-fashioned icebox kept both leftover beans and beer. Still, the wind blew Ranger to Key West, Cuba, the Bahamas, and then to Alabama for three years of writing and civil-rights work. At a two-bit Montgomery marina, she tugged at her dock lines, reminding me that under the spreading greenish mold, she could still go. I vowed we would. Some day. Then came September 11.
My clearest emotion that day was a need to be alone. Saturated with twin-tower images, I retreated to Ranger and bleached, sanded, and varnished teak until a small section of bow stood out like one painted toenail. It was a meditation, of sorts. When all that we did seemed inconsequential, the revival of something old and substantial, a living vessel, was therapy. I got on my knees and brought her back.
As she emerged, so did a plan. I wanted to leave America-the-terrorized, to get on Ranger and head to the sea. We’d sail to Europe, float by Monaco and Venice, then take a grand canal cruise to Paris for a season near Notre Dame. To give me a deadline and some moral support, I signed up for the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) Europe, which, on May 9, 2002, had simultaneous starts from Antigua, West Indies, and St. Augustine, Florida, the two fleets meeting in Bermuda and sailing loosely as one across the Atlantic by way of the Azores.
As audacious as the trip sounded, the required refit didn’t differ much from what any old-boat owner dreams of achieving: a seaworthy craft with upgraded systems, comfortable accommodations, and, of course, cold drinks and hot food. The difference in the equation was the transatlantic. Most skippers upgrade over time, fixing things as they age and adding would-be-nice features as they flip through catalogs before winter fires. Because the ocean amplifies any flaw, I needed to launch with all systems up and running. This compressed years of tinkering and window-shopping into six months.