Sunday, August 27, 2023
Duane single-hand's the custom 'one sail's' ifs geneker in the Bay of Palma (Photo by Tracie Storey)
“You gotta sail to places that make you scared.”
Roger Shane, Sailing Mentor
Our first in a series from contributing editor/writer/world traveler/adventurer, Duane Heil. Owner and Captain of Grateful – a beautiful 50′ Beneteau Sense now sailing in the Mediterranean – this former builder/developer from the Bay area embarked on a dream he had held close for more than 40 years. It all began in 2018. “Finding Grateful” is his story of redemption, forgiveness, and solitude. Every month, Duane will take us on the journey he began more than 2 years ago.
Duane Heil for The National Business Post
March 11, 2021
Log Entry 1
Turgutreis, Turkey | November 4, 2018
With two Australians I met in a bar, Grateful made her maiden voyage out of Turgutreis, Turkey. This moment was the culmination of months and years of hope, compromise, frustration and ultimately sheer joy. Since that day, Grateful has crossed the Mediterranean Sea, reaching The Canary Islands twice. But mostly, she has graciously given me the time and place to tell the story of Finding Grateful.
Our first stop, just three hours out of Turgutreis, was the Greek island of Kos. On our stop to check into the new country, stopping for Gyros, I met two young men – a Scot and a Welsh – who had just spent a year in Afghanistan teaching English and were biking their way back home. They shyly wondered if there might be room on our boat? I invited them for dinner to see how we might all get along before committing.
Within a few hours, their bikes were stowed below, and we were now five aboard. Many islands and two weeks of winter sailing in the Mediterranean, we reached Piraeus, the port for Athens.
The crew disbanded, and I was alone with Grateful.
Scotsman and a Welshman
Tina, my then girlfriend, was flying from California to sail for the next few months. The Aegean winters are famous for heavy storms and quickly shifting winds, but we were excited and ready. We set out from Piraeus on November 27th. In the next 35 days, we circled the Aegean, sailed storms, tore sails, made twenty-two stops and re-entered Turkey, when one night we almost lost Grateful.
By the time we got to Marmaris, Turkey we had logged over 1000 miles, and had picked up my best friend, Brude McKee in Bodrum. We had a few snags along the way, like picking up rubber tubing on the prop, blowing out the clew of the mainsail during a massive rainstorm, 50 miles from land, and a jammed headsail furling drum while approaching an extremely tight, uninhabited natural cove on the island of North Karpathos. Maybe it was all that amazing sailing that got us comfortable and lulled us into a New Year’s Eve nightmare.
We had been in Marmaris, Turkey for a few days, winding down from a week’s long journey from Bodrum, staying mostly anchored out in remote coves. The Aegean winter, while stormy, is uncrowded and beautiful. Tina and I were open-water swimmers in the San Francisco Bay, so the winter Aegean waters were welcomely warm. And being a Bay Area surfer – who chases bigger waves – the relatively flat Mediterranean is deceivingly safe.
Over the past few months, we had encountered 48 knots, sustained winds just north of Crete, and some days it rained so hard that we could barely open the companionway door without getting soaked!
We had seen a lot of real weather, and Grateful handled it all with aplomb. New Year’s Eve day was actually quite nice. And we had spent the previous three days with local contractors bolting on additional supports for the custom hardtop that makes Grateful extra special. The night was longer than the day, but we wore flip flops and shorts when the sun was shining. Another storm was predicted, but New Year’s Eve and promised parties kept us in the public docks instead of anchored out, in the safety of the lee of a mountain which would block the nasty southern winds – which was my big mistake.
The storm started at 9pm. By midnight, the winds were 30 knots, gusting to 50. Huge cells of rain, lightening, thunder and micro bursts were charging through the bay every ten to twenty minutes. We were tied to a three-walled cove…and the waves were refracting and amplifying the impact on Grateful.
From 1am to 8am, I never left the deck – pulling and loosening the shore lines that were tied to each of our eight cleats and drums. If we cut and ran, we surely would have been blown sideways into the concrete docks – some of them had large steel rods protruding here and there. The continuous surges were taking a toll on the cleats. I could actually see the starboard cleats twisting with each giant impact. The forward cleat finally had one of the bolts pull through the fiberglass! The loss of one cleat meant more stress on the others. I was literally watching my beautiful boat being torn apart. People were walking by, looking in disbelief, as all 35,000 pounds of Grateful was tossed and bashed constantly.
I love sailing…
I love sailing. At ten, I knew I should be a sailor. I was landlocked in Hacienda Heights, a Southern California Suburb. But I knew.
Billy Ullrich – a good friend in third grade – his family had a Kettenberg 42 in San Diego. The feeling I got sailing under the Coronado Bridge – it was excitement and freedom. At 14, I bought an old Hobie 16 cat which I kept on the beach in front of my family’s trailer house in San Clemente.
circa 1976 - With my HOBIE 16
In 1985, after college, I traveled to Australia where I walked the docks ‘til I found some people who needed crew. Turned out the owner of the pleasure yacht I had approached, Ian Douglas of Melbourne also had just bought a 75’ Maxi-racer, Rumdoodle 4 was her name, and was looking for crew. I got the ‘lazy-grinder’ job and spent the summer racing up and down the Australian Coast, just one amongst a crew of fifteen.
With the racing over, I switched to hostel life again. With some other travelers, we hitchhiked up the Australian coast, and at the Whitsunday Islands, met a man by the name of Serge Sokolosky who accepted two of us as crew aboard his 36’ trimaran.
I was 24, just finished 6 years of engineering and business school, and I was cruising the edge of the great barrier reef, with Ingrid, one of the other hitchhikers, and this Russian defector, a self-proclaimed ‘punter’.
For a month we explored, spear-fished and traded stories with other sailors, under the sun and stars. It was magical. I decided on that trip that someday, this would be my life too, cruising the open waters of the world.
After three years of touring Southeast Asia and Australia, I moved back to Cali, set up a construction business and was fully committed to making enough money to create a lifestyle that would allow me to cruise the world on a beautiful yacht, however the housing crash of 1989 left me totally broke. The market was so bad you couldn’t ‘give’ jobs away. One bright spot of this was I finally had the time to finish my pilot’s license.
Then in September 1991, the Oakland Hills firestorm happened. Three thousand, five hundred homes torched in a single day. I had never been to Oakland, but on a tip from a friend, I jumped on a Southwest Airlines flight and a few hours later, I was touring one of the most surreal disaster scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Entire neighborhoods decimated. Looked like a war zone, just smoldering ash and some fireplaces still standing.
On the sidewalk, in spray paint in front of each now empty lot was a circle with two numbers; one number represented how many people were on record as living there, and the other was how many remains found. The second number was almost always a zero, but still it was freaky and strange.
I was twenty-nine, over leveraged on a home I had just built, and I needed a break. My friend, who told me to go check the place out for potential development, had asked his sister-in-law, who had just graduated from the local architecture school to pick me up and show me around.
What started that day as a tour of the burned-out hills ended up as a twenty-two-year marriage, three kids, a real-estate development company, and even a patent on a building system to fully automate net-zero buildings.
Around 2004, we moved to the beautiful central coast town of San Luis Obispo, built out a ten-acre ranch and filled it with many wonderful things and people: three kids, five horses, a housekeeper, a barn keeper, six peacocks hatched in an aviary I built, eight chickens, two dogs, two cats and lots of workers and engineers who would come daily to my on-site manufacturing facility in the 10,000 square foot barn out back. In the middle of all of that, I planted two acres of Pinot Noir. It was magic.
Despite all of those achievements and events, nothing could have prepared me for the ‘ambush’ of 2012. Unbeknownst to me, my now “ex” had been planning for several years to separate. She was well schooled in the art of hostile corporate takeovers, as well as the subtleties of tactical divorce strategies in the infamous California Family Law process. Over the next two years, I was tarred, feathered and dragged thru that horrid institution. On December 17, 2014 I walked out of the courthouse, homeless and broke, with no jobs on the books or even on the horizon. It was a complete disaster.
The rebirth of a mid-century man, I believe, is a story worth telling. But not today. Suffice it to say ‘Finding Grateful’ is the theme that carried me through the next five years, to remain focused and calm, and get on that plane, out and away from all that the noise and distraction that had up, until that moment, kept me from following the dream I had nearly 40 years before.
Back to Marmaris…
Me, Brude and Tina were all hands-on deck at times. Taking turns below to get some food and try to dry off a bit, but we were soaked to the bone. The blasting rain never relented.
At one point, at about 7:30 in the morning, the restaurant owner who’s place we were moored right in front of, came out, in the full wind and rain, with a full pot of hot tea, complete with those awesome little tea glasses shaped sort of like an hour glass. It was surreal actually. In the midst of impending disaster, comes a man with tea, graciously offering anything, something to keep our spirits up in this most difficult and uncertain moment. Normally, these types of dramas are out at sea, miles and hours from the nearest help, no one could ever hear you scream. And if you called for rescue, and that call was answered, they may scoop you up, but then require you to sink the boat if the storm was so bad that it could not be towed. They don’t want you to leave your ship as a hazard for others. The law of the sea can be harsh.
Suddenly, about 8:30 am, New Year’s Day 2019, we looked up, and there was a lull. The bay at Marmaris is three miles across, and I could see the next squall out in the distance raking across the water, those white sea horses charging our way. We only had a few minutes before the stampede would resume.
The three of us devised a plan to cut and run, leaving some of the mooring lines behind on the dock – but this would get us out quickly. Tina, a world class distance swimmer, offered to stay on the dock, release lines then swim out to us – now that’s enthusiasm and commitment, but this captain decided to keep everyone out of the water in such conditions.
Tina took the foredeck.
Brude, a machinist, is great with a knife and the bowline knots in the shore lines were so tight from all the pounding that there was no way they could be undone in a short time, so as he jumped on the dock and cut 2 lines, I coordinated to swing the stern close enough for him to jump aboard, and it was full power to get out of that torture chamber. Thoughts of Midnight Express crossed my mind as I hit the throttle, working the bow thruster to keep the nose away from the hard concrete pier.
In fifteen minutes, we crossed the bay and were behind a large hill in the lee of the weather in glassy calm water. We dropped anchor in 25 meters of water. Tina went for the tea and I headed strait for that big master suite bed with the custom Turkish made mattress, and as I passed the midship port suite, Brude was already passed out. He didn’t even close the door.
As I write this…
As I write this, Grateful lay snug in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain. Double mooring lines, fore and aft, electronic security gate, water, power, land-based showers and toilets, and even a busy ‘sailors-bar’ where we can trade ideas, solve mechanical boat mystery’s or just drink, un-alone and contemplate the “sometimes” droning sea and the compromises the we might have made with our self and our crafts to arrive again. Certainly, this luxury is the exception, not the norm for most of the sailors found in these ‘cruising-ports’.
When I started this journey -15,000 nautical miles and a two and a half years ago – it was Brude who prodded me to write about it. Trained in engineering and brought up as a construction guy, it never before occurred to me to write. To accumulate one’s thoughts and ideas in a journal of this type is especially revealing, because I have found that it is impossible to lie to oneself in the written word. To share with the world one’s truth, in turn, forces a reconciliation with oneself. Thus ‘Finding Grateful’ becomes the essence of the journey.
Copyright © 2021. The National Business Post. All rights reserved.
Duane Heil is owner and Captain of Grateful, a 50′ Beneteau Sense that is currently sailing around the world. A successful builder/developer from San Luis Obispo, Duane has built more than 80 custom homes throughout the Bay area and Southern California and owns several building system patents. In 2018, Duane began a journey to find Grateful. He continues to explore and write as he makes his way back to this side of the pond. If you would like to connect with Duane, you can reach him here:
Instagram @grateful_travel