From the Port to the Pacific

Couple hopes to one day sail around the world in hand-built catamaran

Story and photos by Casey Lessard

Retired teachers Hank (North Lambton Secondary School, Forest) and Diane (Our Lady Immaculate, Strathroy) VanderVelden, both 58 years old, set sail from Port Franks Thursday, embarking on a journey they started almost 20 years ago. With an interest in sailing that started in the early 1990s, Hank has spent the last eight years building a 14-metre long by 8-metre wide catamaran they now call home. The boat has three queen-sized bedrooms, two bathrooms (one with a bathtub), a storage area, a full kitchen, and living room with television. Equipped with a machine to convert salt-water into drinking water and solar panels for electricity, the sailboat (with two backup diesel engines) allows the couple to be self-sufficient on the ocean.

This year, their destination is Florida, next year the Caribbean, the following year Europe, and if all goes well, they will sail around the world the year after that.

Hank: I’ve watched the round-the-world rally races for about 20 years, so it’s always been something I’ve been fascinated by. Certainly you get to see a lot of the world, and parts of the world you won’t see through a travel agency. Backwards parts of the world, interesting parts of the world, scary parts of the world; it’s not boring, that’s for sure.
We plan to go to Europe in 2009 with a group called ARC – Atlantic Rally Crossing – where you pay a fee and about 250 boats cross through Bermuda. They supply all the charting, weather forecasting and a doctor on one of the boats. It sounds like a lot of boats, but three or four days out you won’t see anybody anymore. You might see a mast way out in the distance, but you’re in radio contact if you have problems. We’ll go to Holland and the Mediterranean, and come back in September. We’ll see where we go from there. We may get out there and say, “Holy crap, this is not for us. This is too scary.” Maybe we’ll just float back and forth to the Caribbean. There’s no guarantee that we’ll circumnavigate. It’s our dream, but it’s a dream that has to come with a certain amount of reality.
Diane: Hank said he wanted to do this for our retirement, so we started looking around. We got our plans from Roger Simpson Design in Australia.
We sold our house about 10 years ago to stay with my mother who was dying of Alzheimer’s. Then we moved to an apartment and she moved into a nursing home, so we just stayed in the apartment. We just kept getting smaller – from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment to a boat. The boat’s our home.
Hank: We enjoyed sailing all the time, and we thought it would be nice to retire on a boat. The advantage of a catamaran is it doesn’t keel over. You can put a cup down and it doesn’t go sliding off the end of the table; everything stays on the level. And it’s got more room. A cat this size probably has as much room as a 65’ mono-hull. We started looking at boats, and we decided on a catamaran. Then we started looking at catamarans and realized they were too expensive for us (a new boat this size would cost about $800,000), so we had to build one; that’s the only way we could get one.
I first got interested when a good colleague of mine and I sailed on another friend’s sailboat. The three of us guys would sail to the North Channel, to Tobermory. Then Diane decided she wanted to sail, too, so we took the courses together and we chartered together. As we became more confident in our skills, they let us go out on our own. Then we had the boat for two weeks alone in the North Channel, navigating around rocks and all that other stuff.
Would I tell somebody else to go and do it (build and live on a boat)? I’d say, you’d better really think it over because there’s a lot of work involved. As long as you research and understand what it’s going to cost and what it’s going to take. When you’re out on the golf course, you know where I am. When you go away for the long weekend, you know where I am. It’s a dream, but there’s a cost. It’s hard, dirty work. If you want it, you have to pay for it one way or another.
Diane: For the last month we’ve lived on the boat, and it’s been an uphill climb. There have been a number of setbacks – you get one thing fixed and something else comes up.
Hank: Both of us have mixed feelings because you’re leaving behind friends and family. If I told you we had no second thoughts, I’d be lying. Of course I’m apprehensive. You’d be crazy not to be. But it’s a trade off: do you want to just sit around at Tim Horton’s every day talking to your friends or do you want to go out and do something? You decide.
I can see it going ten years. That’s what we’re thinking right now. You don’t know until you go out and do it. We know what it’s like to live on it for two or three weeks, but we don’t know how it’s going to be over several years.
Diane: I’ve survived 38 years with Hank; I think we can survive a few more.