The Reality of Fixing Up an Old Boat

On their popular YouTube series, this couple shares the challenges, frustrations and triumphs in fixing up an old boat.
Chris and Jessica Hanna
After traversing the United States in an RV for over two years, Chris and Jessica Hanna traveled to La Paz, Baja California Sur, and bought a 1984 65-foot sailboat. Jim Carrier

If, while surfing the web, you happen upon a YouTube series called Sailing Blue Pearl, during Episode 15, you might think you’ve found the reality show Survivor. There are grimaces, grunts, gritted teeth, slumped shoulders and a voice in despair, close to defeat.

But the rivalry here is not between tribes in a made-up game. The antagonist is a boat. It’s a used boat, 40 years old, that an American couple found in Mexico. It was full of potential. But at first, as each problem and roadblock surfaces, and as the dream of sailing recedes, the series is almost painful to watch.

“There is so much broken on this boat that we really have contemplated selling this boat even though we just launched it a week and a half ago,” the usually bubbly series producer, Jessica Hanna, says in a voiceover.

Four months earlier, she and her husband, Chris, had acted on his dream to live on a boat. They bought a 1984, 65-foot, 40-ton Irwin ketch. After their first week at anchor, she panned her camera around Mexico’s La Paz Bay, past neighboring yachts floating in paradise, past a visibly exhausted Chris. She had a glass of wine in her other hand and was drinking it before it went bad because the refrigerator, “fixed” five times, still wouldn’t cool. “I look at the other boats out there, honestly, and think their life must be wonderful,” she says. “We thought this life would be wonderful. But there is so much wrong with this boat that all we can think about is, have we made a mistake?”

I’ve watched a fair number of refitting videos, but none so real or so honest, so full of highs and lows. The Hannas ­struggle with virtually every issue that first-time used-boat owners typically encounter. Relentlessly recorded and professionally edited, Sailing Blue Pearl is a documentary of missed problems, misplaced trust, naiveté and the realities of buying an old boat on which to cruise.

That said, each episode also portrays grit, ingenuity and small triumphs as problems are solved one by one. Most of all, what comes across is love and commitment between a wife and ­husband as they pursue their dream, and the faith they share in God and a sunset glass of champagne. If you binge forward six months to Episode 39, “Welcome to Our Home,” and watch the Hannas walk through their yacht, beautifully restored and cruising the Sea of Cortez, you’ll be struck, as I was, by their resolve and vision.

Their story begins in 2005 in a ballroom-dancing class in Redding, California, where Jessica, 45 and an Oregon transplant, hoped to meet new friends. By chance, she and Chris, 65, got paired for a waltz. As schmaltzy as it sounds, they were engaged four months later. They married in January 2006. Their wedding waltz is preserved in Episode 29, “A Love Story.”

After traveling to 19 countries on vacation, Chris retired from civil engineering, and the couple spent two years seeing 30 states while living in an RV. At some point, they drove it to La Paz, Mexico, and began looking for a boat. 

Sea of Cortez
After a nine-and-a-half week refit, they’re finally living aboard in and around the Sea of Cortez. Jim Carrier

The Irwin, which had been chartered for $12,000 a week, was packed with amenities designed to make living and entertaining comfortable—luxurious, actually, by used-boat standards. It had a good-size salon, four staterooms, a spacious galley, three heads, a generator, a watermaker, an inverter, five air conditioners, two freezers, a refrigerator, hot water, a washer and dryer, a radar, navigation aids, and all the displays that a yacht might need.

While the sails, winches and spars seemed to be in good shape, previous surveys were shallow. Rather than commission another one, they asked local electricians who had worked on the boat to check its many systems. During the sea trial, “everything turned on…there was no problem,” Jessica says. “I mean everything ran, and then we bought the boat, and it was like magic—because there was much that did not turn on for us ever again, until we had it repaired or replaced.”

Chris adds: “The previous owner was less than forthcoming with regard to the condition of the boat. Let’s just put it that way.”

Wearing what they now admit were rose-colored glasses, they paid $200,000 for Jersey Girl II and renamed it Blue Pearl for the rare pearls that were once cultured nearby. The grins on their faces in Episode 3, “We Bought a Boat,” didn’t last long.

What follows in Jessica’s weekly video series is a medley of ­color exploring La Paz’s tourist port, and visits to beaches with their two dogs in their dinghy mixed with daily work on the boat. Two scenes that stick in my head: Chris emerging from yet another hatch, wearing kneepads and a headlamp, holding a broken wire or clogged tube or the rusted Vice-Grip that held the autopilot together; and their daily sunset toasts with a kiss.

They had budgeted $50,000 for upgrades. As of this writing, they were at $75,000, much of it spent on technicians who came and went erratically. A windlass rebuild set them back $1,000, and though they have a 620-gallon diesel-fuel capacity, they installed 500 watts of solar panels on the cockpit frame to charge new lithium batteries. A Starlink antenna and subscription significantly improved internet communications.

Their YouTube channel, with 65 videos, has attracted 2,875 subscribers and more than 130,000 views of their finished walk-through. Comments have helped them cope, tweaking what they should have done, and praising them for their pluck. 

“You two are such great inspiration,” Greta Geankoplis wrote. “The dream of cruising, and the love for it that can follow later, almost always begins with complete ignorance of sailing.”

Neil Campion commented: “Don’t give up. Cruising is taking the good with the bad.”

Another fan wrote, “Blue Pearl—my new National Geographic.”

Stan Owens added: “And we had all thought RV life was challenging. Think the S.S. Owens will stick to life on land a bit longer.”

After a year as boat owners and 1,100 miles up the Sea of Cortez, Chris and Jessica plan to cross the Gulf of California to Mazatlan on Mexico’s mainland to watch the solar eclipse in April 2024. From there, they may enter the Panama Canal to cruise the Caribbean.

When you watch their videos, filled not just with angst, but also with the beauty around them in the Sea of Cortez—breaching whales, dolphins, fresh fish caught off the stern, friends and family laughing, a cup of coffee in a quiet dawn—one can be forgiven for thinking that Chris and Jessica Hanna have nothing to prove. They are, in real time, starring in their own sailing dream.