Sweet and Simple

The marine industry has really built up this idea that you need fancy gear. I wish people would lose the idea that everything needs to be complicated.

Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services
The staff at Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services in the Azores, Ruth, Duncan, Ilda and Jack the pooch.Herb McCormick

On a quiet street off the main drag of Horta, a crossroads for cruising sailors on the Azorean island of Faial, lies a lovely cut-stone storefront with a sign in big block letters over the front door: Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services. But its proprietor, a bearded native of New Hampshire with a twinkle in his eye, has another name for the place. “This,” says Duncan Sweet, a formerly peripatetic cruiser who washed up here over a quarter-­century ago and has been running the ­business with his wife, Ruth, ever since, “is the biggest little chandlery in the world.” It’s also for sale. Trust me, nobody is ever going to mistake Mid-Atlantic for a West Marine, though the chances of finding whatever it is you’re looking for are exceedingly high. But let’s not get ahead of our little tale.

Sweet’s story is, well, pretty sweet. With a sailor’s heart and a wandering soul, he left the Granite State behind in 1979 for his first Atlantic crossing, to Greece, aboard a CT 54 called Ereni. For the next decade he ran boats professionally, before finding his way to one of his favorite ports, the bustling town of Horta. “I was looking for a project that wasn’t an old boat, so I bought an old house,” he says. “At least I didn’t have to bail it.”

I met Sweet last fall during a bareboat charter in the Azores, and immediately took a liking to him. He’s a sailor through and through, and an opinionated one at that. Always a handyman around yachts, he got his start in the business side of the sport by walking into cruisers’ watering holes with “a conspicuously red toolbox” and just waiting for the inevitable question that some flustered skipper always asked: “Do you fix boats?”

Oh yes.

In the Azores, one of the planet’s busiest ports of call for far-flung voyagers — these days, some 1,200 yachts visit annually — there was just one problem. Where do you find parts? In Horta in the early 1990s, you were totally out of luck if you needed a winch handle, an impeller or God knows what else. “You couldn’t even buy stainless-steel screws,” says Sweet.

Into this vacuum, in 1992, Sweet launched Mid-Atlantic. Ruth is a staunch partner, as is the couple’s dog, Jack, whom they rescued after he was tossed out of a passing truck. (“He was a total train wreck,” Sweet notes.) But the real boss may be Sweet’s Azorean associate, Ilda, who guards Sweet from people like me, with their endless questions, from behind her desk just inside the front door. A framed sign on that desk pretty much says it all: “Do you want the man in charge or the woman who knows what’s going on?” Ironically, for a guy who sells marine gear for a living, Sweet believes too many cruisers set sail with stuff they don’t really require. From his vantage point in the middle of the Atlantic, Sweet has a unique perspective on what sailors want and need — or don’t — when calling in from an extended ocean passage. And he’s not shy about sharing his thoughts.

“Modern cruisers want every bell and whistle,” he says. “You don’t see as many kids cruising with their parents anymore, or Americans for that matter. I think people are really hung up on the idea that you need every piece of equipment. Then it takes so much time getting everything ready that they miss their weather window and can’t leave. The marine industry has really built up this idea that you need fancy deck gear, watermakers, furling sails. What’s wrong with hanks? I wish people would lose this idea that everything has to be complicated. “Nobody needs a boatload of electronics,” he adds. “The biggest repairs we see are autopilots. If I was fitting out a boat now, the first thing I’d get is a windvane. And after that, spares for the windvane. And people are in such a hurry. They take three months to cross the Atlantic and return on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers race. They should take three years!”

All that said, Sweet remains an unabashed fan of cruising sailors. “The greatest thing about Horta is that there are no weekenders here,” he says. “Everybody has passed the test and proven they’re oceangoing people. I love that. It’s a very adept group.” After 23 years of serving that constituency, however, Sweet is ready for a break. “It’s time for new watchkeepers,” he says. “But we’re not going anywhere. Ilda is staying, and we’d be available for a two- or three-year turnover. All the major bases are covered.” It’s a great opportunity for some ambitious sailor. As the supposed man in charge will tell you, running your own show in Horta can be one sweet ride.

Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.