At first glance, Nathan Zahrt and Vivian Vuong might have seemed like unlikely types to go to sea. The young married couple, hailing from the deserts of landlocked New Mexico, didn’t grow up on the water or around boats. And yet, an adventurous spirit and a willingness to take chances in life led them to the ocean, then to distant shores, and eventually to their own business training fledgling offshore sailors.
Vivian says: “What drew us to sailing was simply our friends asking if we were interested in moving across the country to buy a boat and live on it. We knew nothing about boats, but we dived in headfirst!”
In 2014, they sold all their possessions, purchased a 37-foot sailboat in Florida called Hobo Chic with their friends, and moved aboard, intending to completely immerse themselves in a life afloat. Dreaming of setting sail for the Bahamas, they set about completely refitting the boat, teaching themselves to sail, and earning enough money to fund the long trip south.
As Vivian recalls: “At first, we used the boat as an apartment and worked full-time land jobs. Nathan worked in a call center, while I worked as a hostess at a fondue chain restaurant, then as a deli slicer at a meat market, then at a camera store, until I finally found a freelance gig photographing events for the local magazine. It paid the bills, but we both yearned to cast off and sail long distances to exotic ports.
“So when we were offered the opportunity to crew on a Hylas 54 from the British Virgin Islands to Newport, Rhode Island, we jumped at it,” she continues. The experience changed the course of their lives. “After that 1,300-nautical-mile passage, with a stop in Bermuda, we were hooked. Our purpose was no longer to make money to sail, but to make sailing our way of life.”
Nathan’s new goal was to become a delivery skipper, but they knew that to pursue this, he had to quit his land job. Determined to find work in the marine industry to build their skills and experience, the couple made the momentous decision to break off their cruising plans and sell their share in the boat. Despite the change of course, looking back they feel grateful for their time on Hobo Chic. Vivian says: “We were glad we had that first boat as an introductory crash course in sailing. It allowed us to practice living minimally, test our patience for living in a small space, and gave us time to think about the path we wanted to carve out for ourselves.”
Once the decision had been made to pursue sailing careers, Nathan and Vivian moved to the busy marine hub of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they knew they could gain qualifications and experience, and build connections.
Determined to get a foothold in the industry, they took whatever odd jobs would keep them on the water. Nathan says: “We jumped from boat to boat, living out of our suitcases. From superyachts to broken-down sailboats, we worked together and separately, sometimes apart for months at a time. It was super challenging.”
Vivian wanted to give up everything at that point: “For weeks, we communicated maybe once a day, via satellite messaging with a 160-character limit. That put a real strain on our relationship, but we kept our eyes on our goal and just kept taking it day by day.”
It was demanding and physical work, but the pair was determined to learn everything they could about boats and ocean voyaging. Their tenacity began to pay off as more opportunities presented themselves. Nathan crewed from Maine to England via the Azores, and then from France to the Canary Islands through Gibraltar. He set his focus on clocking enough hours to earn his US Coast Guard 50-ton Master’s license and completed his Yachtmaster Offshore ticket in between the trans-Atlantic yacht deliveries. Vivian worked as a stewardess and a deckhand, advanced to a mate, and eventually flew to Palma de Mallorca to complete a yacht cooking course, allowing her to work on board as a chef. “We kept gaining more certifications to expand our skills,” Nathan says.
Now, as a well-rounded and experienced team, the couple were reunited and able to apply for jobs together. They worked in tandem, delivering sailboats, working on board superyachts and managing a charter company together in the Grenadines.
Finally, after five years of hard work, couch surfing and living out of suitcases, Vivian and Nathan were ready for a new direction and a more permanent place to call home. They bought their own sailboat—a previously neglected South African-built Angelo Lavranos Compass 47—and began painstakingly repairing and refitting her for offshore passagemaking, and to live on. They named her Ultima.
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Nathan and Vivian knew their next goal was to start taking people aboard and run adventure sailing expeditions and offshore training trips. And so their company, Ocean Passages, was born. But it was a chance meeting that really launched their business to the next level.
The defining moment came when their paths crossed with legendary offshore sailor John Kretschmer. John and his wife, Tadji, befriended the duo, watching from the sidelines as they delivered boats and earned their stripes in the marine industry. They recognized something very special in Nathan and Vivian, and admired their persistence and eagerness to learn.
John took the Ocean Passages team under his wing as their mentor, offering practical and professional advice as they began to build their business. Eventually he and his wife approached them with an idea to expand his offshore sail-training business, with Ocean Passages as a central component.
On why he chose to work with Nathan and Vivian, John says: “They have a passion for offshore sailing and have logged thousands of miles, including three Atlantic crossings between them. However, Tadji and I were primarily attracted by their humility, their willingness to learn and share, and their terrific communication skills.”
A shared philosophy and compatibility of character is as important to John as practical experience. He describes Nathan as “patient, wise beyond his years, a natural teacher” and says of Vivian, “She is one of the most personable and friendly people I have ever met.
“Training passages, if they’re to be of real value to prospective voyagers, are all about communication,” he adds. “Experience and deep ocean miles are important, but the ability to share what you know openly and honestly, and not insist on being an expert who never makes mistakes, is the key. Nathan and Vivian were just who we were looking for when we decided to expand our training-passage business.”
This vote of confidence in the Ocean Passages team by an icon of the industry should not be underestimated. For many years a one-man show, some have described this new venture as John passing the torch to worthy and capable successors. But John sees it as an opportunity to expand his business, and free Tadji and him to concentrate on fewer but farther-flung passages.
Vivian and Nathan also view the partnership as simpatico. Nathan says, “Though we don’t feel anywhere nearly as accomplished as John, we do feel a strong desire to follow his lead and pursue sailing long distances for as long as we can.”
Ocean Passages is currently based in St. Thomas, USVI, and Nathan and Vivian are booking training voyages for 2021. They’re living their best lives, but for them, it is so much more than just having a dream job. “We want to encourage and empower fellow dreamers of any sailing experience to witness and share in the beauty and power of deep ocean passagemaking,” Vivian says. “We can’t imagine any land-based careers that would be as fulfilling as helping others achieve their sailing dreams.”
Hailing from the land Down Under, Erin Carey and her family cruised the Caribbean for two years before crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard their Moody 47, Roam. Carey now runs her own PR Agency, Roam Generation, helping fellow sailors and adventurers share their unique and inspiring stories with the world. For more, visit her website (roamgeneration.com). For more about passage opportunities with Nathan and Vivian and Ocean Passages, visit this website (johnkretschmersailing.com) or contact them via email ([email protected]).