From Riches to Rags: Project Atticus

A young couple walk away from the glamorous world of superyachts to overhaul a 50-year-old fixer-upper in a dusty Florida boatyard.

atticus
When it came to the boot stripe, Desiree did the honors, and used the last of the paint for an impromptu art project.Jordan Wicht

April 28, 2014

Lying contorted in the small engine compartment of our ancient Allied Seawind 30, Atticus, on the hard in a dusty Florida boatyard, I let fly another stream of salty expletives. Inside this hot coffin, baking in the Key West sun, an ear-splitting screech fills the cabin as my girlfriend, Desiree, grinds away at a fiberglass repair on the hull's exterior. For hours now, I've been attempting to align our new 25-horsepower Beta Marine diesel engine. Every adjustment I make to the engine mounts seems to make matters worse, testing both the laws of physics and my dissolving sanity.

Time passes, the tools get stashed, and Desiree and I cook dinner under a green tarp strung from the boat’s bow to a chain-link fence, providing a slight bit of shade and shelter over what is our daytime workbench and evening kitchen. Bleary-eyed and in a heat-induced trance after 90 straight days in the boatyard, I cut vegetables while Desiree fires up the Coleman stove. When the food is ready, we sit down beside one another on a 2-by-8 plank in our stained, ragged clothes. Once again, we ruminate over the phantoms of deception that possessed our imaginations when we decided to fix up a completely neglected 50-year-old sailboat with the dream of setting off over the distant horizon.

“I can’t believe this shirt was brand-new when we got here,” Desiree says, looking down at her tattered garment. It was burned by muriatic acid and stiff in patches from dried epoxy, and the dust from the red and blue bottom paints gave it an interesting purple tint.

“Do you remember our first day here?” I ask.

She laughs, and then stares into the distance as she tries to recall what we once were — before the dirt, the sweat and the fiberglass.

Desiree takes a bite of her boatyard-curry special. “Yes, I remember, but I feel like that wasn’t me. I was a totally different person back then.”

“Tell me about it — this boat will make a man out of me,” I say, wiping fiberglass dust from my sweaty forehead. “As long as it doesn’t break me first.”

“Doesn’t it feel like forever ago when we were working on superyachts?” Desiree asks.

I sigh. “That was definitely another lifetime.”

January 20, 2014

Three months earlier, we awakened to blue skies and cool air on another beautiful south Florida winter morning. The V-berth felt warm and perfectly cozy to Desiree and me, two first-time boat owners finally living our dream. Our sailboat, which we’d purchased two weeks earlier, was nestled comfortably alongside the boatyard dock, where we waited patiently for Monday to come so we could haul her out and begin our refitting crusade.

atticus
Desiree did most of the sanding, a job that impressed many of the men in the yard, who’d never seen a woman sand bottom paint without bolting from the job — and the relationship— the first chance she got.Jordan Wicht

OK, so the Seawind was in terrible condition: The sink faucets and water tanks were missing, the corroded stove was nonfunctional, the engine was completely shot, the interior was dotted with fresh water leaks, the hull was in desperate need of a paint job, the rigging was unkempt and questionable, and the sails were worn and frayed.

She was exactly what we’d been looking for.

We hadn’t felt confident enough to build a boat from scratch, and we’d quickly realized that the price of a fairly new cruising sailboat was well beyond our means. After much research, we’d decided to find a solid, compact and seaworthy used production boat to gut and rebuild. The Seawind we’d found seemed perfect. We’d specifically sought out a small fiberglass yacht between 27 and 32 feet because we knew we could mentally, physically and financially handle her maintenance once we were cruising. Plus, we recognized that replacing nearly everything on the Seawind, and doing the work ourselves, would leave no question about the quality and reliability of her many systems. It would also increase our confidence in the boat and ourselves, and provide a great opportunity to learn more about boat construction and repair, matters in which we had little to no experience. Groundbreaking voyagers like Lin and Larry Pardey and Eric and Susan Hiscock, who’d proved that modest boats could serve as world cruisers, introduced us to the strategy of going small and simple through their books and videos.

So there we were, enjoying our toasty V-berth, when a knock on the hull broke our trance. We poked our heads out the forward hatch to see a middle-aged man standing on the dock.

“Hey guys,” said the jovial, excitable fellow, his blonde ponytail waving in the breeze with his every extravagant gesture. “My name’s Carl. I just wanted to say that, man, I really love your boat! I mean, you can really cruise in this thing, it’s designed to go places, you know, not just sit here in Key West and rot away like most of these boats here, ’cause man, that just sucks!”

Later, we joined Carl on the dock for a beer. A lifelong Midwestern dairy farmer, he owned a Westsail 32 and had been working on his boat in the yard for a few weeks. When his kids grew up and left home, he got divorced and moved to Key West.

“I had never owned a boat, never been on a sailboat, never even lived near the water,” he said with a sense of wonder. “But I needed a change and somehow I knew this was the kind of lifestyle I wanted.”

He’d been in Key West for over a decade and loved living on the water.

“How about you guys, you aren’t from around here, are you?” asked Carl.

“How can you tell?”

“First off, you have teeth. You know what they say here in Key West: The tourists are ruthless and the locals are toothless.” He laughed, kiddingly, but then pointed out our clean clothes and Desiree’s soft hair, rarities in this particular boatyard. Looking back on that winter day at the outset of our refit, I know now that we stood out in more ways than one.

We also exuded insecurity.

Never having tackled such an imposing job, we were incredibly nervous about the gigantic work list and long learning curve ahead of us. Furthermore, we felt like strangers to the grim and busy boatyard, an apocalyptic dustbowl where the aroma of dirt and polyurethane mingled with the scent of the more hygienically challenged yard transients, one of whom swore he was raised by wolves in Alaska.

Carl’s friendly overture raised mixed sentiments. We’d taken a huge step into a world that was a complete mystery to us, one that I had dreamed of for years and in which we were now fully immersed. But now that we’d gotten here, it all felt very overwhelming.

atticus
On their very first day of owning a sailboat, shortly after sealing the deal to purchase an Allied Seawind ketch built in 1963, Jordan Wicht and his girlfriend, Desiree Golen, snapped a happy selfie on the deck of their new home. It has been said that ignorance is bliss, and it’s certainly true that the couple had no clue about the tough refit row they were about to hoe.Jordan Wicht

September 27, 2013

“Jordan, Jordan, Desiree.” The familiar voice pierced through the loud static of the hand-held VHF radio attached to my belt.

“Go ahead, Desiree,” I replied.

“Can you meet me on bridge deck aft? We spilled some wine on the teak and dinner service begins in 15 minutes.”

“Copy, on my way.”

I briskly made my way though the crew mess, where two crew members and a security guard sat playing cribbage, and past the crew galley, where the heat and the smell of baked salmon poured out into the hallway. I ran up the companionway stairs and outside on deck. As I opened the entrance door, the rock arch of Capri, Italy, passed in a blur along with the tall cliffs, blue haze, lush greenery and pure azure water. Having sat at anchor here for a month with the owners of the 315-foot luxury yacht on which I was employed, they were familiar sights.

I double-checked that my pressed, collared shirt was neatly tucked in and then hurried to the bosun’s locker — where I quickly found the stain remover, a scrub pad, a bucket, warm water and my trusty can of K2r — and finally made my way up one more flight of stairs to the bridge deck.

I spotted Desiree bent over wiping up the spilled red wine to prevent it from further saturating the teak deck. As usual, her hair was smartly braided and her clean white blouse was neatly pressed and tucked in. I joined her, but not before a stealthy pinch of her butt, something that she hated but I thoroughly enjoyed as we tried to hide any signs of mutual affection from the rest of the crew. We’d only recently begun cultivating a relationship during our passage across the Atlantic Ocean from Florida. Desiree slapped my hand away and said quietly, “Listen, the family will be here in 10 minutes, so get to it.”

“Keep calm and let the deckhand take care of it,” I said.

Desiree shook her head, looked over her shoulder, kissed me on the cheek; in a blink she was gone, with the faint fragrance of her hair lingering in her wake.

As a master of marine cleaning products, I quickly applied each chemical in secret succession to bend the stain to my will, and escaped only moments before the owner arrived, leaving his high expectations intact and his world a cleaner place.

Working aboard superyachts was a great experience for Desiree and me. When the owner and his family were on board, we often worked 14-hour days. For Desiree, one of the family’s lead servers, owner trips were her time to shine. The level of service that most superyacht owners expect would leave the waiters at your local fancy restaurant cross-eyed. Desiree came to enjoy her responsibilities like an athlete in the midst of the big game. The dining area was her arena; dim mood lighting her Friday night lights; the billionaire’s family the passionate, exuberant fans.

I, on the other hand, was a deckhand. But it was also a good gig. I had some great experiences and learned much about ship maintenance and passagemaking. I stood bridge watch during long voyages, became a skilled driver of large tenders, acquired a 200-ton captain’s license, and was adept at painting and varnishing.

More than anything else, I became an ace chamois technician.

atticus
In Capri, Italy, I asked Desiree to join me in following my cruising dream.Jordan Wicht

Let me explain. Our first mate once told his curious 10-year-old son that he was a professional rain chaser.

“A what?” his son asked, perplexed.

“Well, first I make the ship nice, pretty and dry. Every time the rain comes I run around and do it all over again. Right when I finish, and the boat is completely dry, another rain cloud comes. So that’s what I do; I’m a rain chaser.” His son, in the third grade at the time, went to school the next day telling stories of his father’s courageous rain-chasing exploits, adding to the lore of dangerous occupations by which seagoing men abide.

I was a rain chaser too.

Between owner cruises and charters, when the boat was on standby, we basically held down relatively normal 8-to-5 jobs. So we were able to spend every second of our free time exploring wherever it was that we happened to be docked. Once, we took advantage of a long weekend to rent a small casita in the wine country of Mallorca, Spain. There, we spent our days motorcycling around the island; rock climbing tall, forested peaks in sight of the ocean; drinking delicious cheap wine; and hiking to mountaintops for picnics of Sobrasada sausages, Manchego cheese, fresh baguettes and red wine. A candlelit dinner at our small country cottage was a perfect end to each day’s physical activity.

After one of these meals, settled on the patio under the warm Spanish sky and watching the stars, I asked Desiree to join me for an adventure I had dreamt about since I first began going to sea.

“I want to fix up a sailboat and explore the world like we have been but with the freedom of being on our own boat,” I said, ecstatic that I had finally popped the question but terrified by her potential refusal. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about doing for a long time, and I’d really like it if you came with me.”

She hesitated, flattered that I would invite her to take part in my dream, but cautious about a subject she knew nearly nothing about. “Do you know how to fix up a sailboat?” she asked. “No,” I replied, continuing with as much confidence as I could muster, “but we’ll figure it out as we go. How does anyone learn that sort of thing but by doing it?”

That night she agreed to join me, marking the beginning of our adventure together. We continued to work on the superyacht, saving every penny for our secret little plan, which we only spoke about quietly in the security of Desiree’s cabin. Slowly, the dream became more and more of a reality.

One night, talking about the adventure ahead of us, Desiree asked, “How long do you think it will take us to fix up the boat once we buy it?” I thought for a moment.

“Oh, probably no longer than a month or two.”

atticus
Before purchasing the boat, we always enjoyed the water, particularly this little cove in Mallorca, Spain.Jordan Wicht

August 28, 2014

It’s eight long months into our refit, and that first day at the boatyard when we met Carl, and the many nights we spent cooking outside under the tarp with our boat propped on jack stands, all feel like lifetimes ago.

Though it took us some time to adjust to the length of the project, Atticus is no longer on the hard, though we are still tied up at that same dusty boatyard. We've made a tremendous amount of progress; there's light at the end of the tunnel. We now have a safe, seaworthy boat with a comfortable, livable interior. Yes, among other projects, we still have to replace the rigging, paint the decks and buy new sails. Our original work list, which we methodically put together after purchasing the boat, turned out to be a short outline of our total endeavors, not the fully fleshed-out script we thought it was. As anyone who's tackled a major refit knows, every project on the list uncovered five more issues needing attention. "Since we're here we might as well take care of it," has become a constant refrain in our daily conversations.

Desiree and I have frequently wondered if we should have invested more of our savings for a more “complete” cruising boat, one with less work to be addressed. But we’ve come to conclude that by purchasing the Seawind, not only have we spent less money (perhaps marginally less, considering how many times we had to re-do projects), we’ve also had the opportunity to attend the DIY school of hard knocks, and we’ve proudly earned an advanced degree in “What Not to Do” in boat construction and repair.

We can now tell the difference between polyester and epoxy by the smell of its grinding dust; we accurately know how much resistance our electronics create; we can spot and repair core rot; we can tell the difference between a rash from polyurethane foam dust and from silicon-bronze dust; we know what an overheated stuffing box feels like; and yes, we know how to properly align an engine. In short, we have learned many of the skills necessary to become self-sufficient, prudent sailors. We blend in perfectly with the overall milieu of the boatyard, a mosaic of tans, reds and whites. We stand in the corner with tattered clothes and dirty faces, still smiling. Well, most of the time.

We recently met a couple in the yard, Steve and Kathy, who own a large sailing catamaran from which they operate a charter business. When swapping stories one afternoon, we admitted to Steve just how naive we were when we first arrived at the boatyard. Steve said, “Yeah, but if it weren’t for naivety, would we ever do anything that we are truly proud of? If we knew all the pain, stress, anger and disappointment we might experience, would we even get out of bed in the morning? Naivety can be a gift!”

Sitting here aboard my sailboat, I often wonder, what is a dream? Is it anything like reality? In my experience, nothing ever really happens or feels the way we expect it to. And that’s life. So maybe the important thing is the act of dreaming. Like the children we all once were, we dreamers imagine the world in ways that we desperately and naively want it to be, and pursue our dreams with every ounce of our beings. All I really know is that soon we’ll be sailing, and this one dream will actually come true.

atticus
It was a grand and glorious day when we splashed Atticus once again, with her freshly painted topsides now gleaming and the vast majority of her hull and deck reformation finally completed.Jordan Wicht

A native of Santa Cruz, California, Jordan Wicht studied film production at San Diego State University before embarking on a life at sea. World traveler Desiree Golen worked in Silicon Valley before joining Jordan to chase their cruising dreams. Together, they're putting the finishing touches on Atticus in Key West and aiming for a spring departure. For more on their refit and ongoing adventures, including videos, photos and blogs, visit their website www.projectatticus.com.