Power Down & Sail
By Carolyn Corbett

“If the moon is a child’s nightlight, it should look the same from any boat. But it doesn’t. The world looks and feels different from a sailboat,” says Susan Trometer. “The first time I took the helm with the sails up, I felt like an ancient explorer, charting new land. The calm, the occasional squeak, the softness of the waves - it was serenity, unsurpassed.”

How does one decide between sail and power? Is it based on insight, instinct or intellect? Or is it decided by the same mysterious force that causes one to prefer chess to checkers, sirloins to T-bones, chocolate to vanilla, vodka tonic to rum and coke?

Gus and Susan Trometer on their new 40-foot Chris Craft Sportsman.

And why, one day, does a person change their mind? Is it mid-life crisis, a sudden awakening, the booming voice of a higher power?

Stories abound of aging sailors who transition to “terminal trawlers.” More power to ‘em, for they’re staying on the water. Yet a growing number of people, including many in their retirement years, are taking up a new tack.

Susan Trometer and her husband Gus grew up with small boats in the Midwest. When they moved to Lake Champlain in northern New York, they bought a 19 foot Cuddy Cabin, then traded up to a 40-foot wooden Chris Craft Sportsman. They thought it would be the perfect retirement/cruising boat.

Then they thought again. Maintenance was too costly, especially on a retirement budget: 75 quarts per oil change, 3 MPG of fuel at 7 knots. Re-sanding, re-caulking, repainting, and revarnishing, along with other routine maintenance, fueled concerns. After being boat-less for a year on a lake dotted with billowing sail, they began to think about a “boat under sail.”

For Susan, the decision to switch was simple. No more weekends spent working on an old wooden boat that always looked like an old wooden boat. No more yelling at the top of her lungs to be heard over rumbling diesels that gave a new meaning to “screamin’ jimmies” back in the 1960’s. No more black smoke filling the air at marinas causing sailors to think their boat was on fire. “Maybe we only thought we were power boaters,” she says.

As for sailing, Gus thought, what’s the big deal? You put up the sails, aim them into the wind, and go. If you don’t go, that’s what the engine is for. When they bought their O’Day 31, heeling was a concern for Susan, as it is for many newcomers. Two days of private lessons turned her into a “sailing animal,” according to Gus.

Sailing was the shoe that fit, and as the cruising dream grew, so did the longing for a larger boat. During the four years they owned the O’Day, the Trometers were always looking for the perfect vessel. White Orchid, a brand new Catalina MK II 34 arrived on the scene in 1997 ~ 5 quarts per oil change, 14 MPG at 7 knots, no teak.

Cruising is no longer a dream. Gus and Susan moved aboard in 1998. That September they pointed their bow south through the Champlain Canal and down the Hudson River, headed for Norfolk and Mile 0 of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Perhaps the Trometers will cross wakes with Rich and Susan Davison. Rich and Susan switched from a 23-foot Maximum to an Irwin 37 when they set up boatkeeping together. The difference between power and sail? “We take our sailboat out no matter the weather. No wind, fire up the iron horse. Too windy for powerboats? Raise the sail.”

Susan Davison enjoying being a great yachtsmen.

They use their sailboat hard, they say, while many powerboats in their area are show pieces that never leave the dock. All their friends are power people, though. They think Rich and Susan are great yachtsmen, because the thought of sailing overwhelms them. “Little do they know,” Susan confides.

Last July, Rich and Susan retired from their jobs, tied the knot, untied the lines and sailed up Lake Michigan, headed for the Erie Canal. When they reached the Atlantic, they took a right. When Rita and Pierre Marchildon married, they wanted to have ‘their’ boat. The 24-foot Bayliner they spent their honeymoon aboard was getting expensive. They wanted a boat where they could raise children comfortably. Long term plans include cruising for an extended period. All this, they believe, is best done on a sailboat. Neither had sailed before. They are learning on their home waters in British Columbia, where they go out every weekend unless they have boat repairs, unavoidable commitments, or it’s Christmas.

Rita and Pierre’s boating buddies were supportive when they bought their 45-foot ketch. Reactions ranged from those who were curious to envious folks wanting to live their dreams vicariously.

Rita and Pierre Marchildon on ‘their’ boat.

But Alan and Bonnie Monfils’ friends coughed, choked and wondered if they had bumped their heads on the dock. Why on earth would two powerboat fanatics buy a 41-foot pilothouse ketch? There was a brand-new boat with a Bravo 454 engine in the Monfils’ driveway that they could ski behind!

Back when the kids were little, Alan talked of sailing away someday. Bonnie couldn’t imagine it. It didn’t seem practical or affordable, so the idea was shelved. Years passed, the kids grew up and Alan started planning for retirement in his home state of Wisconsin.

Bonnie, dreading the long cold winters, asked Alan if he ever still thought about sailing off into the sunset. Their 23-foot powerboat wasn’t the ticket. Armed with the logic that they couldn’t afford a powerboat large enough for long distance cruising, and that fuel prices would be prohibitive, Bonnie suggested an alternative. They could probably find a sizeable sailboat at a reasonable price.

Pandora’s Box burst open. They loved the outdoors. They had some sailing experience crewing for friends. They needed a change in their lives. They didn’t have to fit into any mold. They’d had a great time bareboating in the Bahamas years ago. They wouldn’t need their house in the Chicago suburb with all its expenses. They were on a roll.

Bonnie and Alan Monfils on their 1973 CT-41.

The idea took on momentum and it was Southbound and throttle down. Alan raced out to buy sailing magazines. Less than a week later, Bonnie spotted a 1973 CT-41 advertised in the newspaper.
It was larger than any boat they’d ever imagined owning. They’d never imagined owning any boat large enough to have portholes. It was older than Al ever considered, had more teak than he’d ever wanted to own. Bonnie loved the wooden boat. It took two weeks to convince Alan. The two still aren’t sure it is practical or affordable but.... “Do we sound like sailors?” asked Bonnie. “We are now!”

Jim and Darleen Jackson described themselves as situational boaters. They select the best craft for the boating situation, whether it’s a canoe on the Current River, a ski boat on Lake Springfield, a houseboat on Kentucky Lake or a chartered sailboat in the British Virgin Islands.

Early retirement is coming up next year, along with a move from Illinois to a waterfront lot on the Neuse River in North Carolina. The Jacksons are walking docks, “kicking the hulls” of sailboats. Maybe something in the 30-foot range, with make and model determined once they have local experience. A boat in good condition, so they can spend their time boating, not refitting or rebuilding.

They have realistic expectations from chartering and other previous experiences. Jim anticipates a change in maintenance. Not an increase or a decrease, just a difference. “Two things about power boating that we will not miss,” says Jim, “are the engine noise and fuel bills.”

In what they call a Midwest cruising dilemma, the Jacksons currently trailer their 26-foot Rinker Aft Cabin sixty miles to the nearest cruising area, rather than be confined to one local lake. They look forward to the longer boating season on the East Coast, along with the opportunity to drop everything to go sailing when the weather is right. A runabout or fishing boat will be available for trailering to other areas.

Jim and Darleen don’t understand folks who are “hung up” on power vs. sail. Any invitation to join friends with powerboats or friends who sail is readily accepted. It isn’t the height of the mast or the pitch of the prop that matters to them. It’s the contents of the cooler and the congeniality of the company. Yet, given a situation with no critical advantages to power, they prefer sailing. Why? The quiet, the power of the wind, the feeling of self-reliance.

“There is nothing quite like raising the sails and letting the wind take you, with nothing but the sound of water,” says Gus Trometer. “When I was a power boater, I used to look at ‘those people’ going so slow, or maybe not going at all. I guess you have to sail to know what sailing is. We won’t go back. We’ll sail until we cannot anymore, then live on land and remember how much fun we had.”

Carolyn Corbett is a freelance writer from Brainerd, MN.