The Grit Behind Getting the Boats to the Big Show

The United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis is second in size only to Miami’s. Tens of millions are spent by buyers who fly from all over the country to walk through the boats and ask questions.  St. Francis Marine, a small production company based in South Africa that makes only a couple sailboats a year, needed to get their latest model to the show. The “St. Francis 50” is faster than just about any other ‘cat’ on the market.  But at a cost of around $1,200,000, not many Americans know about them. The Annapolis Boat Show is the best chance to get the word out.

Graham Coleman was hired to captain a four-man crew on the 50-foot long catamaran sailboat from South Africa to Annapolis, Maryland, 6,800 nautical miles, when the winds are their slowest but when tropical storms form throughout the route. It was hurricane season. This is their story:

St. Francis was a little late getting the latest boat, “Odyssey,” finished and had to get it to the other side of the world quickly. Captain Graham Coleman agreed to handle the delivery and he only had two months in which to do it.

Captain Coleman is a unimposing, youngish 52-year old South Afrikaaner who ran a import business. His kids are grown and he’s semi-retired. He actually owns a St. Francis, after talking the company into selling him a shell with no interior. His plan is for him and the wife to sail the Caribbean, chartering the boat as they go. But first, he has to finish the sailing yacht’s interior and that takes money.

“When I’m thick with fiberglass and dust to my ears in my workshop, it’s nice to (stop and ferry the boats),” he says.  “Not to be discounted,” Coleman says, “it feeds the monster, which is the boat, that eats all the money.”

Captain Graham Coleman on a St. Francis sailboat
Captain Graham Coleman at the helm of the “Odyssey,” a 50-foot double hulled sailboat

First, Coleman had to find crew. He advertised in regional sailing publications and found three guys who he’d never sailed with: Neville, a 37-year old South Afrikaner who belongs to the same yacht club and was looking for open-water sailing experience; Beamer, a 69-year old grizzled Texan who lives in Thailand half the year and wanted to visit his daughter who lives in Davidsonville, Maryland, just outside Annapolis; and the youngest, Dustin, an explorer who was looking for a free ride to another part of the world.

Beamer’s email application went something like this:  *Please don’t let my age put you off.  Am I good with fixing engines? Yes, I have a truck. Am I good at solving problems? Yes, I have six biological children ranging in age from eight to 50.*

Four scruffy guys who didn’t know each other were sailing on a boat together from the end of August to the start of October — hurricane season. They had to deliver a brand-new boat that still looked and felt new when they arrived.

The crew left Cape Town, South Africa on August 6, traveling 1,800 miles through the South Atlantic to Santalina Island (known in the U.S. as Saint Helena), off the coast of Brazil east of Rio de Janeiro. After a stop there to provision, they continued on to San Lucia in the Caribbean, another 2,000 miles, where they picked up a potential buyer who wanted to see how the boat sailed. Then on to Georgetown in the Bahamas, where a partner in the St. Francis boatbuilding firm has a house and runs an St. Francis office.

“The whole carribean in the summertime is a ghost town,” Coleman says. “it’s terrible.”

There’s little wind during the summer in the Caribbean, so they motored a lot.

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The rear of the Odyssey. It has two hulls that each have two berths and two heads. The kitchen, office, living room cabin is in the middle.

The crew members sailed 24/7 while crossing the Atlantic. Three of them would each take three-hour shifts at the helm, rotating 6pm-9pm, 9pm-12am, 12am-3am. At 4am, the shifts turned into four-hour rotations. The fourth man was off-shift and that meant he was cook for the day.

Breakfast is help-yourself. Lunch is what Coleman calls a “poughman’s spread” with cheese, meat, crackers, bread and whatever else the cook can scrounge up. Dinner is a hot meal.

And, along the way, they’d fish.

“We’re not very sporting when we fish,” Coleman says.

They tied a heavy fishing line onto a rubber bungie cord and dragged it in the water behind the boat. The fish catches the hook, stretching the bungie, tiring out the fish to the point where they could pull it in.

“The first 4,000 miles we caught only one fish which was really disheartening.”

That was more than  three weeks of sailing without fresh meat and one of the crew was a vegetarian. Turned out they had bananas on board.

Believe the superstition or not, on the day that the last banana peel when overboard, the crew caught four fish. The largest was a three-foot mahi-mahi. They also hooked wahoo and a big brown fish that nobody could name but tasted good.

As they were going past St. Martin island, part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, the helmsman noticed a blip on the radar 12 miles behind  Odyssey. The blip was getting closer and the boat chasing them didn’t have lights on. This area of the Caribbean still has real-life pirates smuggling and operating kidnap-for-ransom schemes. The Odyssey wasn’t about to slow down.

They were going somewhere over 20 knots under sail, faster than they could run with the engine on. The other boat was slowing catching up. Once the moon came up the crew could see it was a military boat.

That’s when a smaller rubber boat shot out the back and sped around, intent on seeing what the Odyssey was up to. However,  the smaller boat couldn’t catch up and was trapped in the Odyssey’s wake. They started yelling to the Odyssey to slow down.

Captain Coleman tried hailing the military boat on the radio to find out what was going on, but they didn’t respond. Instead, the military boat start flashing blue lights.

“They look official and we got the message, eventually,” says Coleman. The Odyssey slowed by turning into the wind.

The St. Martin Coast Guard boarded Odyssey soaking wet. Being stuck in the wake was like being on the inside of a washing machine. They were not happy and ordered everyone to the front of the boat except Captain Coleman.

But Coleman had issues of his own with the military crew. “I was quite grumpy with them because they should have had a better bedside matter.”

The Coast Guard asked a lot of questions, searched the boat finding only a crew-member’s rolling tobacco and left.

The crew members who didn’t know each other before sailing now have had two months at close quarters.

“It’s a bit of a pressure cooker,” he says.

Coleman says the longest time to go without seeing land is about ten days, “after that people start getting scratchy and little issues start becoming big issues.”

The biggest stress of the trip though, according to Captain Coleman, was docking the new, million-dollar boat in the very crowded Annapolis boat show slip. They did it without dinging the boat and tied her down solid.

Afterward, the entire crew still liked each other enough to go out for an American burger; that’s when I met them. I thought they were long-time buddies, and I guess they were by that point.

It was their last meal together as crew.

Neville was heading off to explore the U.S. on his six-month visitor’s visa, thinking that maybe start by he’d by taking a bus to Florida so he could experience the coast by land.

Beamer was going to visit his daughter in Davidsonville before heading back to Tailand, with maybe a swing through his home state of Texas.

Dustin got off the boat in the Caribbean because he couldn’t get a visa.

The potential buyer was seriously considering making an offer for the Odyssey.

And Captain Coleman stayed a couple days to help answer questions from boat show visitors before flying home to South Africa, back to his wife and back to building his own St. Francis.

Captain Graham Coleman on a St. Francis 50
Captain Graham Coleman on top of the St. Francis 50’s main sail. The yellow sun with a seagull is the company logo.

Here’s what it’s like sailing a St. Francis 50 in a storm
https://youtu.be/NRlfRodHgZo?t=1m10s

Cynthia Reuter

Cynthia is a former radio reporter, turned TV producer, who started covering local politics in Missouri, then state politics, then national politics in Washington, DC. Writing about the Chesapeake Bay region is a breath of fresh-air.

cynthia-reuter has 13 posts and counting.See all posts by cynthia-reuter

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