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Don't expect scary sea stories from this dauntless sailing couple

2013 March 7

I nominate Bill and Judy Stellin for the 2013 SAILING Magazine Best Effort to Promote Sailing as a Wonderful Way of Life Award.

Too bad no such award exists. If it did, I'd FedEx the trophy to their home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a heartbeat.

Bill and Judy, at ages 65 and 64, retired to their 42-foot sailboat in 2000 and sailed into virtually every nook and cranny of the Mediterranean Sea during an eight-year cruise bookended by transatlantic passages. But that's not why they should get the award.

They deserve it for being exemplars of the well-led sailing life free of the often exaggerated drama and inflated challenges that deter many from long-distance cruising under sail. And they deserve it for the article Bill wrote for the Wall Street Journal last December that carried their example far beyond the small world of sailing.

In the newspaper story, Bill tells of an odyssey in which the sailboat that was their home and means of travel gave the couple not only the pleasures of sailing on new waters but entree to a potpourri of some of the world's most historically and culturally significant places and the people who inhabit them, all with little fuss.

There was a small setback at the start of the adventure, when Judy broke her wrist in an encounter with the mainsheet in boisterous weather on the first leg from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda. But after that their story is one of smooth sailing, even when the sea wasn't smooth, a tale so cheerful Bill even manages to put a positive spin on a root canal. Done in Italy, the procedure cost one-tenth of the going rate in the U.S. and "the work was first class."

But, seriously, isn't it a demanding challenge for a couple of Social Security recipients to sail thousands of miles in a big-rigged, high-performance sloop through the far reaches of ocean and seas and into ports bristling with navigational and even political hazards?

In a word, no.

"Never once did we feel we were in over our heads," Bill told me. "Never once did we encounter anything the two of us couldn't handle. Nothing we did seemed bold to us at all. We thought of the Atlantic as just a big Lake Michigan."

On the Med, he wrote in the newspaper piece, "many say the wind either doesn't blow or it blows 100 miles an hour. In reality, it is much like Lake Michigan."

The Stellins have sailed on Lake Michigan in various boats they've owned since 1975. In 1996 they bought the J/42 they named Jaywalker. Four years later they set off on what was supposed to be a one-year cruise but proved to be so satisfying they extended it into a eight-year sojourn on the Mediterranean.

They took a third crewmember along on the passage to Bermuda and on the second leg to the Azores. But after that it was just them. "Sailing was never a problem for just the two of us," Bill said. "We like to do our cruising on our own."

It helps, of course, when both partners are capable sailors. Speaking of his mate, Bill quipped, "I could have sold her 50 times for a million each. All the guys we met in ports on the Med envied me for having a partner who could get along so well on a sailboat. They were used to women being bow babes."

From the Azores, Jaywalker sailed to Portugal, then through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, where the boat eventually made its way along the entire European coast, visited the Middle East and put in at ports in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordon and Egypt.

Some of the cruising was done in company as part of the Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally, in which sailors in a fleet of 100 boats followed a demanding schedule requiring night passages between days spent touring and being feted by local dignitaries delighted to have the fleet in their ports. Tours organized as part of the rally took the Stellins to 15 World Heritage Sites.
Cruising in such a highly structured fashion was a departure from the norm for Bill and Judy, who otherwise reveled in the freedom from deadlines their on-the-water retirement provided. When they a found a place they liked, they just stayed.

They spent seven months in Venice moored at a yacht club dock, two winters in Barcelona in its sprawling downtown marina and a winter in Turkey.

The return Atlantic crossing gave the couple the ride of their lives, adding an exuberant exclamation point to the end of the cruise. With the wind blowing from astern at 25 to 35 knots, and even stronger during the nightly squalls, sailing wing-and-wing with a 155% genoa poled out, rolling aggressively in the big following seas, the autopilot steering and either Bill or Judy alone in the cockpit at night (they stood three-hour watches), Jaywalker sped from the Canary Islands to Barbados, more than 2,700 miles, in just 16 days.

Bill has plenty of practical counsel, including some helpful guidance on the financial aspects of making a sailboat a retirement home, for adventurous folks who want to experience the sailing life he and Judy led (available in books compiled from journals Bill kept during the cruise that can be downloaded free at www.blurb.com/user/wstellin). But the nub of his advice is that just about anyone who owns a boat and has the experience to handle it competently can do what they did.

"When we talk about our sailing experiences," he told me in a midwinter telephone chat, "we don't say much about the problems because they were so few and far between. Sailing is 99% fun-why dwell on the 1%?"