I'd been watching the price of a certain 42 foot Grand Banks drop for many months. It was getting close to the budget but there was one glaring problem; the boat was moored in Los Angeles and we lived in Gig Harbor WA, over 1000 nautical miles north.
We called the broker and offered an even lower price. With strained patience he explained since the last price drop two other higher offers had already come in (he turned out to be a good guy and I want to believe... but isn't that what they always say?) In return, I promised that if the seller agreed to our number I'd hop a plane the very next day, rent a car to San Pedro and spend no more than one hour on the boat before handing him a check if it was a go.
No survey, no sea trial. Just a 60 minute inspection that would include starting the engines cold then cash. Simple.
I reminded the broker what he knew only too well: If the seller accepted one of the higher offers and proceeded to a normal sales process, a picky surveyor could quickly reduce the closing price anyway. Daunting recommendations that result in a distress or failed sale are common on a 35 year old boat. In any case, I was only asking for a 24 hour commitment from the sellers and no matter what the outcome, my visit wouldn't result in a known bad survey, they could proceed with the other buyers.
Less than 24 hrs later I stepped off the plane into brilliant Long Beach sunshine. An exciting journey had begun!
The 60 Minute Survey
I figured unless Micki had serious problems I was buying her right, so dollar risk was low. But I wanted a boat that could make the trip back to the Northwest on her own bottom. Trucking a 44,000 lb vessel has become prohibitively expense, it's not even allowed on many of the direct routes to the Seattle area. Propulsion, steering/navigation and basic structural integrity was what mattered to me, there were too many aged parts on the boat to anticipate everything else that could happen. A trip like this is sort of like driving a 35 year old truck cross the country on dirt roads (brutal) so you focus on what will get you there and try to avoid getting lost in the details.
I hopped down into the engine room. It looked forgotten but seemed in basic good order. The fluids were decent and I verified the machinery was dead cold. Belts and hoses looked okay and double clamped. With a knife I scrapped the bronze thru-hulls to check for shiny gold color (verses pink that indicates wastage). Propeller shafts looked great. Batteries were newer and sealed. Steering gear checked out fine. Fuel tanks had been replaced properly. Throttle and shift cables renewed. Wiring was original and quite sanitary. Aft I scrapped rudder posts, checked strut supports and inspected more steering gear. Everywhere I looked seemed to verify the broker's story: A once well cared for vessel that was sentenced to 5 years of utter neglect after its owner died. This Grand Banks sat baking in a sunny corner of Los Angeles Harbor for half a decade until out of state survivors decided it was time to sell her. The exterior suffered moderate UV damage but window canvas had preserved most of the interior.
I poked the window corners for soft wood, banged on the cabin sides for dull thuds and jumped up and down on the decks for movement that might indicate sub-teak damage (my plan is glass decks but that can be a massive undertaking with sub-surface damage). Not too surprisingly - since it had lived it's entire life in a desert climate- the boat felt bone dry and solid.
The engines started easily and smoked just the amount I'd expect to see from cold 2000 hour Ford Lehmans. A decent raw water exhaust flow told me impellers worked and the system wasn't blocked with corrosion or debris. No unexpected noises.
While the engines idled to warm I jumped off the boat to search for a diver. Normally marinas in Southern California are teaming with bottom cleaners and today was no exception: I found my guy exactly 3 boats away.
While my underwater inspector finished his day job I tied Micki to the concrete dock with every line and fender I could find then ran her in forward and reverse until I lost my nerve - about 1400 RPMs. There was almost no vibration and both transmissions shifted fine. I reinspected the engine room for oil leaks or other surprises. All was well - so much for a sea trial.
The diver showed up and after getting a quick lesson on cutlass bearing inspection he scraped all underwater bronze for pink, checked the props and shafts, looked for blisters on the hull and performed his normal maintenance routine. There wasn't much bottom paint left, but an underwater maintenance routine was still going; things below the waterline were in great shape - so much for a haul out.
I spent the rest of the "1 hr survey" discovering all the electronics worked fine and looking through an astounding collection of records complied since the day she'd been sold new. In the end I surmised that exterior cosmetics aside, Micki was really somewhat of a bit of a barn find.
I called my Second Mate to report the findings and we bought ourselves an old boat!
There's a popular mantra; "You make your own luck". My interpretation of that is you find your own luck. But I can't remember anytime in the last 50 years that Lady Fortuna graced me while I was thinking or planning. It's the talking or doing that's completely another matter. That's when I get lucky.
The next week was a flurry of get-the-boat-ready activity. Six dumpsters of 35 years of accumulation. Lines, old fenders, dock cords and dozens of other items were stacked neatly in front of the trash receptacles already filled to the brim with Micki's history. The marina maintenance crew hated me.
Whirlwind days were punctuated with visits from local marina residents. Word of my travel intentions had spread quickly and unsolicited advice was coming my direction. Open mindedness being one of my weaknesses, I politely listened and considered some of their help:
"Don't even think about making the trip by yourself"
. That was logical. But the problem was I didn't have anyone else to take. People I felt good about voyaging with were busy at work. Others available had little or no experience (when you ask someone if they get sea-sick and they're not sure... I mean, really?) It would serve little purpose to worry about a newbie. A professional captain offered to assist me for $4000.00 "If everything went exactly as planned" - I wondered how everything could be expected to go exactly as planned while trekking a thousand miles uphill on a 40 ft boat; would not weather and sea condition dictate plan? Finally I agreed to pay travel and expenses to a neighboring live-aboard that seemed pretty experienced and told me he wanted sea time to qualify for a Master's license. For an hour I answered his questions about the boat and my experience level and all seemed good. Then he stepped back, looked at me with a very serious expression and asked the big question; "Sooooo. Are you 100% confident this boat can make that trip then?"
I replied that I wasn't 100% confident about anything. Nothing, not one thing! And in fact I believed that soaring confidence was actually a recipe for disaster. With a frown he retired to sleep on it... then declined the next morning, explaining that he had; "a bad feeling about the trip". That seemed a bit ominous but I brightened considerably a few minutes later when my wif called and started with; "She had a good feeling about the trip".
"Don't even think about making that trip without a chart plotter"
. It's not that I didn't want a chart plotter and in fact I still do... Close to the top of my wish list! But with good paper charts, depth sounder, gps, auto pilot and functioning radar... let's just say, it's been done safely with much, much less.
The list goes on and on... Among the worst advice I received - by countless armchair coastal passage makers - was something I actually thought made sense:
"Head way out, where the water is calmer. Stay away from land - land is not your friend"
. An encounter with a professional changed my thinking on that. Talking with other people is the best way I know to get lucky. But it's important to consider who you're talking with. I figured the Master of Foss Maritime's 4000 hp 107 foot tractor tug Arthur Foss was a pretty good resource.
Luck at the Fuel Dock
I tied onto a large commercial fueling dock in Los Angeles Harbor and boldly announced my intent to purchase as much as 650 gallons of diesel. The attendant was painfully unimpressed and it didn't take long to see why: Shortly afterwards a 107' Foss tractor tug pulled in behind me for a "quick top off - only 22,000 gallons". Pride turned into gratitude as the man took my money at commercial rates and politely suggested off-hours would be the best idea next time if I ever needed "that much fuel" again.
I admired the big tugboat as it fueled. The crew moved slowly but deliberately as the Master watched calmly from the bridge. I couldn't contain myself and looking up from the dock I asked; "Are you the Master of this tug?" knowing full well he was. He nodded politely. "Are you going to Seattle?" I asked. He laughed and told me no time in the near future - he hoped.
I picked up on his dislike of that particular trip and explained I was headed out the next day to do it myself. "On that?!?" he looked over at my boat. "By yourself?!?"
I smiled and told him I could guess what he was thinking... But I'd decided to do it - I was going. Did he have any advice? He answered every question I could muster and offered countless tips, one after the other. We talked until I ran out of questions, far too long. At the end of that lucky encounter many of my assumptions and plans had changed, some drastically.
For instance, I explained that I'd been told by many that once north of Point Conception the trip would become easier. To that his entire crew roared with laughter. "It gets A LOT WORSE after the point" he said to me, nodding in disbelief. "In fact, the higher you go the worse it gets". I was glad to give everyone a good laugh but my stomach was starting to twang a bit with nervousness.
He also explained that the popular route to stay far from land was, from his 30 years experience in those waters, completely flawed - that many times he'd hauled a fuel barge just 1.5 miles offshore to avoid rough seas. He urged me to buy a Coast Pilot (a book I didn't even know existed) and to simply navigate "from point to point". Staying 2 to 5 miles offshore would keep me in crab pot territory so daylight running was the only smart option. And each leg needed to start at any hint of morning light, since ducking into strange harbors (many with dangerous bars) was a daylight endeavor.
I literally talked my way up the coast, bouncing from commercial fishing boat captains to Coast Guard Officers at every harbor. It's amazing that virtually every professional I talked with agreed that calmer and safer waters are close to shore - but that almost everything I read online is to the contrary.
I pulled away from that fuel dock feeling very lucky. My chance encounter helped turn vague ideas about getting home (based on internet research and popular advice) into a rock solid plan backed by real world experience. Yes, I'd gotten very lucky.
Next: The trip back.