The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea Island are memories apart and touched a virginity of sense.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Dreams of freedom and adventure: For most people, they remain just that — dreams.
For certain others, like Wendy Hinman and Garth Wilcox, such dreams are the stuff life is.
In 2000 the Magnolia couple, now 47 and 51, respectively, set sail from Puget Sound for a Pacific Odyssey in their 31-foot cutter, Velella. “We thought we’d be gone a couple of years,” Hinman recalled. “Let’s go figure out how we like it. It turned out it was easier to keep going and going.”
Seven years later, the couple returned home.
Along the way, they logged some 34,000 nautical miles, touched 19 countries, endured typhoons (“the anticipation is the worst,” Hinman said), experienced close calls with freighters, potential pirates and phantom night vessels, swam in snake and crocodile infested waters and made do without refrigeration and Internet.
Hinman has written and self-published a 374-page account of their epic voyage, “Tightwads on the Loose: a Seven Year Pacific Odyssey,” which just hit the market. A compelling read, “Tightwads” flows as an adventure narrative with a “your are there” flavor. Hinman had done plenty of professional writing before the voyage: She’s as competent with the written word as she is at sea. And she clearly has a sense of humor — a necessary, conjugal survival tool within the confines of a 31-foot boat small enough to prevent her husband from standing straight up.
As the title implies, the couple are close budgeters: They figured their voyage cost $33 dollars a day. They chose a small boat without a lot of high-tech clutter. In fact, after choosing to slim down on possessions and go with the wind, Hinman noticed something curious: “People on the smallest boats,” she said, “often stay out the longest.”
Always in motion
Born in Michigan 1964, Hinman, a Navy brat, was in motion from the beginning: The family lived in Guam, the Bay Area, Hawaii and Washington D.C. They sailed in Michigan and they sailed the Hawaiian Islands and Chesapeake Bay. The international flavor of the nation’s capital made the restless teenager curious about a wider world. Hinman finished her college studies at the University of Michigan with a degree in economics, and moved back to Washington D.C. to work for an international consulting company. It was there she met her future husband and partner in adventure. A Palo Alto, Calif. native, Wilcox was a home-schooled kid whose family had sailed around the world when he was 13 to18. The lover of boats was destined to become a naval architect.
They married in Washington D.C., moved to Seattle for his work in 1989 and set up house in Magnolia. Hinman started her own company working on international trade projects.
It got old.
“Same stuff, different day,” she joked. She learned to build websites and wrote articles about how to do it, but by 1998 the restlessness had set in.
“We sort of always had this possibility (of a long sea voyage) in mind,” Hinman said. “It was sort of unspoken.”
The couple competed in a sailing race in the Caribbean, which put them in touch with the cruising scene, a close knit, mutually supportive culture. There, as Hinman recalled, life was, “island time. Sunshine. Tropical blue water. Yeah, all of that.”
They found their boat, Velella, a Latin name for a sea creature that floats along the ocean’s surface with a vertical sail, a sort of non-poisonous man-of-war. “We wanted something that wouldn’t be so expensive it would be devastating if we lost it,” she said.
Motoring through the Golden Gate
The couple rented their Magnolia home and moved aboard their boat in 1999. A shakedown cruise out of Shilshoe on June2, 2000, took them around Vancouver Island and back. On August 18 they set sail for San Francisco where, Hinman writes in her book, instead of passing proudly under full sail through the Golden Gate, the wind died “as if someone had turned off a switch” They started up the motor. “It was 3:40 a.m. when we pulled into San Francisco Municipal Marina after eight days of continuous sailing,” Hinman writes. And, self-deprecatingly, she adds: “I was a blue water cruiser at last.”
As the couple cruised down the coast toward San Diego, Hinman’s account relates, perhaps unconsciously, part of the couple’s secret: “Interacting with no one but Garth never struck me as monotonous because each day offered new scenery and brimmed with possibilities…I felt the constraints of society fall away like shackles from the newly-freed. Instead of employing the chameleon-like survival skills I’d developed after years of frequent relocations and navigating the conflicting expectations of others, I followed my own compass, indulging my desire for adventure. Smitten as a honeymooner, I relished working seamlessly with Garth to forge a new life that let me breathe.”
After spending time in Mexican waters, 21 days passed before they reached the Marquesas Islands. They were as taken with them as Robert Louis Stevenson had been in the late 1880s. “We saw it first and then smelled it,” Hinman recalled. “It smelled like rich vegetation.”
Velella would make landfall at Bora Bora, Tahiti, New Zeeland, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and other spots, including the island where Wilcox, as a youngster, was shipwrecked for a year and is now a penal colony.
Sailing between Bora Bora and the Cook Islands, the couple learned of 9/11 from others on a radio discussion net.
“We still don’t fully grasp what we missed,” Hinman said. “The country changed. We were struck by how much more afraid people were. We don’t understand the whys behind some of this stuff.”
“Should list” left behind
“We got used to living in the moment,” Hinman recalled. “Snorkeling, swimming. We were outside most of the time. I felt like I left the ‘shoulds’ list behind. I didn’t have a relentless to do list.”
As they cruised, other revelations came to the fore: ”When you’re on a boat, you know it’s raining,” she said, smiling at the understatement. “In a house you can be indifferent.”`
Looking back, Hinman sees possible lessons: “We saw people with nothing,” she said. “They were so happy. Maybe we could learn from them.”
The couple sailed home to Seattle from Japan, a chill, fog-bound journey that took 49 days. They made Seattle on October 4, 2007.
Hinman is not blind to the ironies of homecoming: The couple had to set up schedules to see certain family members and friends.
Once home, “It was like we hallucinated the whole thing,” Hinman said.
Nearly five years after returning, the couple’s epic sea voyage, captured between book covers, lives again.