For Brett Suwyn, solo sailing offers an opportunity for adventure and a way to get away from the ruckus of city life. A relative newcomer to the sport, as he learns the ways of the sea his adventures are getting bigger and bigger, from a 77-day trip to Alaska last summer, to his first race this summer—the Single-Handed Transpac.
Brett Suwyn has always loved the solitude and the adventure of the outdoors. Hiking, camping, kayaking—he was into it. He grew up in Michigan in a little town just south of Grand Rapids but work had taken him to New York City. Six years ago he was on vacation back in Michigan on a weeklong hiking trip around Isle Royal National Park when his mother gave him an idea that set him on a surprising new course.
“I’d hiked a big loop and my feet were just destroyed—I lost a couple of toenails. As we were driving back, my mother was reading an article in a local newspaper about a woman who had been solo sailing around Florida. Teresa Karey is her name, she writes a blog called Sailing, Simplicity & the Pursuit of Happiness. My mother was like, ‘Maybe you need to take up sailing so you don’t beat your body up so much,’” Suwyn recalls.
Suwyn, who had never before sailed a boat but had always been a little bit interested in it, went back to New York City and found that the Manhattan Sailing School out of North Cove Yacht Harbor was running a special on ASA 101.
After a few sessions of doing man overboard drills against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, Suwyn had to find somebody to go sailing with. He’d tried chartering a boat with friends out on Long Island, but he found that to be kind of a hassle and a little too expensive. Then he tried crewing on a friend’s boat, but that didn’t work out either. So instead, he bought his own boat.
There was a little O’Day 25 sitting at the dock for only $2,000. I can afford this, he thought. “It was called Dove. It was a day sailor we just had a lot of fun on,” he says.
His plan was to quit his job in New York and spend some time sailing around Long Island when he got an offer for a job in San Francisco. He sold Dove and made the leap to the Left Coast.
Settled in SF, he started hunting for a new boat. “I wanted something that was stout enough to be out on the ocean, but not something I couldn’t handle by myself.”
He found what he wanted in San Diego in a Cavalier 39 he renamed Althea after a Grateful Dead song. To bring the boat up the coast, he hired a delivery captain and enlisted the help of his dad. But the trip was a lot more than he’d ever experienced sailing on Long Island Sound.
“I brought my dad out from Michigan; he’s a super mechanic so I had that covered. I had the former Navy guy who was the delivery captain so I had some expertise there. And then we just got the snot beat out of us heading around Point Conception. My dad was down below saying we’re going to die. The captain was seasick for only the second time in his life. And I was out in the cockpit having the time of my life. I didn’t know any better,” he laughs.
Now he says he’s completely obsessed with sailing. He says he owns just about every book about sailing there is, and has set out a progression of longer and longer trips to build experience.
“One of the criteria that I had while looking for a boat was to find one that wasn’t already built out with all the systems; this boat was pretty much stock from 1980. I really wanted to learn by doing the upgrades and modernizing all the systems,” he says.
He spent two years updating the boat and sailing around San Francisco Bay, as well as dozens of solo ocean trips south to Monterey Bay and north to Fort Bragg. He regularly sails up to China Camp inside the Bay, and to Drakes Bay just out the Golden Gate. Last summer he spent almost three months solo sailing to Alaska’s Glacier Bay.
“I was reading on Active Captain about all the anchorages. I really like the idea of adventuring part of it all. I love kayaking and getting into remote spots. I clicked on an anchorage that was in Ford’s Terror in Alaska. One review said it was one of the top three anchorages in the world.”
That gave him a goal to work toward and he started outfitting the boat and making sure all the systems were completely reliable and that he knew enough. His dad has never been back on the boat for a sail, but he did come out for a week and help his son prepare for his trip. “In that sense I couldn’t have done it without him,” he says.
Glacier Bay only offers reservations 90 days in advance. He set off in June hoping he’d have enough time to get up there—it took 58 days. His route took him up to Cape Flattery, WA, and into the straights of the Juan de Fuca, through the San Juan Islands. He was looking for remoteness—that was key. “I wanted to see if I could find someplace where I wouldn’t hear or see the signs of civilization, just for a while.”
He found the San Juan Islands still to be too busy, so he pushed up the north side of Vancouver Island and through the Gulf Islands. “That was much better. There was real warm water for swimming, oysters, beautiful views, and it was hard to get on land because of the steepness of the slopes.”
He stopped for a week on an island off the coast of Western British Columbia in what he says was the most remote area of his trip. Finally he made it into Alaska and all the way up to Tarr Inlet, deep inside Glacier Bay National Park. He turned around and sailed back down to Sitka before heading offshore.
“I blasted offshore from Sitka to test my chops at being at sea for over a week straight,” he says. The entire trip was 3,695 nautical miles sailed over 77 days.
For many, that trip might have been the trip of a lifetime, but for Suwyn was just a stepping stone. He’s using the 12 days he spent offshore between Sitka and San Francisco as his qualifier for the 2016 Single-Handed Transpac, which will be his first race ever.
Every sail is a lesson he says. Returning from Alaska with his 120 headsail and his mainsail, he found it was awfully difficult to do dead downwind. “That was a big lesson knowing that I needed something more.” That’s when he turned to Jeff Thorpe at Quantum Pacific.
“Jeff is helping me put together my plan for how I’m going to equip my boat.” Suwyn isn’t only looking to add sails for the Transpac; he also wants his investment to count toward his future cruising goals.
While some other sailmakers gave him quotes for the sails he asked about, Suwyn says Thorpe took the time to talk with him and understand thoroughly what his needs were. “That resonated with me,” he says. Althea now has two new Quantum asymmetrical spinnakers on the way.
And what about that job he came out to San Francisco for? Well, Suwyn is still working, but he says sailing has helped him to shift his priorities. “In my 20s all I wanted to do was work. Now in my 30s I started wising up. I want to work to play rather than play to work,” he says.
Suwyn says life now is less about acquiring things and more about saving money and making time for the things he loves. “And then just going for it, and not being worried about what you’re leaving behind, because you have to look at what you’re going towards.”
This year he’s heading towards Hanalai Bay and then a month of cruising around the islands before sailing back to San Francisco. And next year? “Go down the Baja Peninsula, and to the Galapagos. Maybe leave the boat in Mexico and the next year try to get across the Pacific.”
There’s a lot of ocean out there, and Brett Suwyn is ready to sail it.