There was something cosmic about running into my old pal Patrick Childress in a quiet bar in Placencia, Belize, a few weeks back. One of the great joys in the cruising world is unexpectedly crossing paths with a long-lost sailing friend in some far-flung port of call. But I’d been thinking a lot about Patrick lately after recently writing a magazine profile of Catalina Yachts president Frank Butler. For on my visit to Catalina’s southern California plant, I came across a faded poster trumpeting the legion of escapades accrued by a young sailor who’d circled the planet aboard a, get this, souped-up Catalina 27 named Juggernaut.
His name? Patrick Childress.
The dream of sailing alone around the world had been instilled in the consciousness of the-then 14-year-old Childress back in 1965. He was watching the CBS Evening News, and the last item in Walter Cronkite’s broadcast lauded the solo transatlantic passage of an Ohio newspaper editor called Robert Manry, who’d just finished sailing his 13.5-foot Tinkerbelle across the mighty blue. “It lit an idea in my head which would never fade,” said Childress.
Fourteen years later, that idea made the leap to reality. Childress admits that, “in many respects, that 27-foot boat was contrary to what I’d learned about seamanship. But that was part of the challenge, to take a modest boat and make it into something much more capable. With proper modifications and careful navigation, I was confident I could get that boat around the world.” After all, it was twice as big as Tinkerbelle.
By the time he left Miami in early 1979, he’d invested precisely $15,500 in the boat, new gear, and the aforementioned structural alterations. Over the next three years, before crossing his outbound track off St. Thomas, in the United States Virgin Islands, in January 1982, Childress encountered “enough adventures to last three lifetimes,” including a memorable rounding of the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa. When all was said and done, he’d accomplished precisely what he’d set out to do.
Now, with his wife, Rebecca, aboard their Valiant 40, Brick House, he’s launched his second circumnavigation, though under far different circumstances. The Childresses were several months into their planned four-year voyage and wandering along the coast of Central America (bound ultimately for Cartagena, Colombia, to wrap up Brick House’s extensive refit before heading through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific) when we bumped into one another in Belize and I caught up on their travels.
The couple met in rather unusual circumstances some five years ago. Though his primary profession is renovating homes, Patrick is also a licensed captain and for years had a regular gig with Offshore Passage Opportunities skippering a Swan 48 back and forth from New England to the Caribbean, with paying crew aboard who’d signed up for offshore experience. On one such trip, he was struck by the spunk and determination of one “client” in particular, who stood watches and trimmed sails at the height of a 50-knot storm, even though she was miserably seasick.
That, of course, would be Rebecca. Later, their romance blossomed. And Childress himself, as the old Meat Loaf tune goes, was “doubly blessed.” Not only was Rebecca an eager and accomplished sailor, she also came with her own 40-foot cruising boat!
Though they were only in the early stages of their voyage, Childress said he’d already seen a lot of changes from what he’d encountered back in the early 1980s (not to mention those in his personal situation: no longer alone, and on a vessel with a strong long-distance legacy).
“No more wood boats,” he said. “And the average size of cruising boats has grown. Before, 35 feet was a very adequate sized boat. Now, 40 feet seems to be on the short side. And catamarans are everywhere. Thirty years ago they were a rare sight except along the east coast of Australia. As we sailed through the Bahamas, in many anchorages, cats outnumbered monohulls. As we sail farther afield to the southwest Caribbean, (however), the number of cruising catamarans has greatly declined and monohulls are the dominant blue-water sailing machine.”
Childress said he appreciated the ease and convenience of modern electronics and GPS navigation capability, which has opened worldwide voyaging to the sailing masses. But he also said he’d come across too many sailors who’d been lulled by their wondrous gear into a false sense of security, and who’d taken off on ambitious itineraries without first acquiring the full range of requisite skills, particularly technical know-how and all-around seamanship.
“The problem occurs when the weather kicks up or a mechanical or electrical problem arises,” he said. “Would-be cruisers first need to learn the intricacies of their mechanical and electrical systems. Even more importantly, they need to gain offshore experience with competent captains before taking their own boats and families across oceans.”
While he admits that sailing is “far less adventurous than the old days of backpacking across oceans,” over our catch-up beers in Belize it was also clear he was having the time of his life, and was particularly anxious to return to the South Pacific, where so many cool things happened to a dark-haired man on a very small boat.
The next morning, I motored close by Brick House at the start of my own mini-cruise of Belize on a chartered Moorings cat. Patrick, whose hair is no longer black, had his arm around Rebecca and flashed a big thumbs-up to go with his smile as we made our farewells. I recognized the gleam in his eye from that ancient poster on the wall at Catalina. But somehow I reckon this time around is going to be far better than the last.