Lifelong Cruiser and Adventurer Bruce Kessler Dies at 88

TV director, captain and adventurer Bruce Kessler spent his life seeking the next thrill.
Bruce Kessler
In 2001, Bruce Kessler became the first non-sailing powerboater elected to membership in the Cruising Club of America. Courtesy of the Kessler family

Bruce Kessler, a lifelong adventurer and TV director, died April 4. He was 88.

Kessler, one of the first Americans to circumnavigate the globe as captain of a motoryacht and who logged over 100,000 nautical miles as a captain of his cruising boats, became a race car driver at age 16. He soon retired from racing after surviving several car crashes, wrote friend Milt Baker. 

He traded vehicle racing for filmmaking. He made “The Sound of Speed,” his first short film, which represented the United States at the 1962 Cannes International Film Festival. The film featured a car chase, leading to his expertise in the craft of directing chase sequences. 

Kessler directed a handful of movies and many popular television series, including episodes of “Mission Impossible,” “The Rockford Files” and “MacGyver.”

Bruce at the helm
Over his lifetime, Kessler logged over 100,000 nautical miles as captain of his own cruising boats. Courtesy of the Kessler family

The Seattle-born man was a passionate boater and angler. He obtained his first boat in 1960 — a 26-foot sport fishermen — but quickly moved onto larger boats as he began fishing further from home, ultimately topping out at a 48-foot vessel. 

Kessler’s friend and naval architect Steve Seaton designed one of his boats, and Delta

Marine developed a trawler yacht for him. Initially, Delta Marine was not interested in developing the boat, but Kessler continued inquiring until they obliged, Baker wrote. 

The result? Delta’s first recreational motoryacht, a 70-foot vessel with a 20-foot beam.

Bruce and Joan Kessler
For nearly 27 years, Bruce lived and cruised with his wife, Joan, aboard Spirit of Zopilote (in background), a Seaton-designed 64-foot passagemaker built by Northern Marine. Courtesy of the Kessler family

Zopilote, named after the black buzzards that scavenged the shores of Mexico, was launched in May of 1985. The boat was a “game-changer,” Baker said, adding that Kessler sailed it with the love of his life, actress Joan Freeman.

Together, Kessler and Freeman embarked on a 35,000-mile adventure in 1990, departing California for the South Pacific. The trip led Zopilote to become the sixth powerboat to complete a circumnavigation, capturing headlines and propelling Kessler into yachting celebrity.

Bruce's motoryacht Zipilote
Kessler’s high-profile cruising endeavors aboard Zopilote and Spirit of Zopilote inspired the “cruising under power” movement, which quickly gained new respect and followers. It also marked the beginning of a new wave of offshore cruising powerboats capable of crossing oceans. Courtesy of the Kessler family

Zopilote sank in 1994 in Alaska after smashing into an underwater ledge. Kessler and his four-person crew escaped the sinking boat on a liferaft. Seaton later designed Kessler’s next boat, the Spirit of Zopilote, which Kessler and Freeman lived on for nearly three decades. 

Kessler received the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Spirit of Competition Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Passagemaker Magazine, according to Baker. He was the first non-sailing powerboater granted membership to the Cruising Club of America.

Kessler was also a member of the Ocean Cruising Club, a longtime member of the Del Rey Yacht Club, the Southwestern Yacht Club (San Digeo), the Marlin Club (San Diego), and the Tuna Club (Avalon, Catalina Island), and an Honorary Commodore of the Seven Seas Cruising Association.

In 2007 Bruce founded the FUBAR (Fleet Underway to Baja Rally), a 980-mile powerboat flotilla cruise from San Diego around the tip of the Baja peninsula to La Paz, Mexico, as a continuing fundraiser for junior sailing at Del Rey Yacht Club. The mission of the rally was to give powerboaters an opportunity to experience long-distance cruising to Mexico with the safety of a flotilla of 50+ boats, complete with mechanical, communications, and medical personnel in the fleet.

FUBAR later changed its name to CUBAR (Cruise Underway to Baja Rally) and is now run every two years by under San Diego Yacht Club. It remains a fundraiser for junior sailing programs.