Bruce Halabisky and his young family settle into life at sea during a 4,000-mile north pacific passage to Hawaii
In September 2004, Bruce Halabisky and Tiffany Loney sailed from Victoria BC bound for Hilo, Hawaii, in their 1952 Atkin-designed 34ft gaff cutter Vixen. Eleven years later they have two daughters as crew and have received the coveted Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America for their circumnavigation. Their website is vixensvoyage.com and a visit is a tonic in a world grown cynical for many under the pressures of modern materialism.
The boat herself is entirely individual, making the family immediately recognisable in any anchorage, but she does more than that. She is an advertising hoarding for the happiness that grows from keeping life simple. Technically, she is a throwback to an earlier, more innocent age, but lest anyone should imagine she is diminished by this, a read of Bruce’s arguments in favour of wooden boats, classic hulls and gaff rig on Vixen’s site soon dispels any such misconceptions.
But the bottom line must go to the children. Their younger daughter has the last word in this blog lifted directly from the site. They had just made the 41-day passage from Central America to complete the circumnavigation in Hawaii. Her remark tells us all we need to know about people getting life right.
Panama to Costa Rica
Tiffany and I had decided to break up the trip to Hawaii by heading to northern Costa Rica about 500 miles to the north-west which would get us out of an area of no wind near the equator. The day after leaving Panama City we were motorsailing in the rain against light westerly winds.
It was slow, frustrating work made more difficult by a steady stream of ships coming and going to the canal. Eventually, we decided to turn off the motor and sail into the bay of western Panama to find an anchorage until conditions improved. In the afternoon I was asleep with Tiffany on watch and Vixen sailing slowly on a port tack under full sail. The wind was still out of the west at less than 10 knots. It was drizzling with not much visibility.
I was woken by Solianna, who told me that Tiffany wanted to take in the jib. By the time I got on deck we had been hit by a frontal system that was blowing 50 knots and gusting 60! The rain was flying horizontally, stinging like tiny bullets. Tiffany was at the tiller doing all she could to keep Vixen from broaching.
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I crawled along the deck and groped for the jib halyard on the pin rail then wrestled it down and lashed it to the bowsprit. All the time I kept thinking this must be a 10- or 15-minute squall that will end as quickly as it started as nothing like this had been predicted by any of the weather sources two days ago.
Tiffany and I stared at each other in disbelief as the wind howled and even increased in strength. Next, I looked at the mainsail. A full main in 50 knots of wind… Without speaking, I knew Tiffany and I were thinking the same thing: skip reef points one and two and go right for a triple reef.
I tied the messiest reef on record with great folds of sail slopping over the boom but it helped. Still, there was too much sail so I struck the staysail and put up the storm jib. Now Vixen was more manageable.
It continued to blow 50 knots plus and the seas were building. Normally, I would have hove to and waited for the storm to pass but we had a rocky shore three miles to leeward. It didn’t take much imagination to envision Vixen meeting her end on those rocks.
There was no hope of motoring in those conditions with the prop out of the water between every crest of the waves. I decided to run for the shelter of Cebaco Island 14 miles away and two hours later we were safely anchored while the storm blew itself out over the next 12 hours.
Through it all Solianna and Seffa were great; true sailors at heart. We had no time to pay attention to them while reducing sail. Tiffany just yelled down the hatch to Solianna: “Close all the ports and look after your sister.” Five minutes later Solianna’s little head poked out and reported: “All the ports are closed, Seffa’s fine; what else can I do?” Seffa’s only comment during all the excitement was an official sounding: “Papa, the mast is creaking.”
The next day the sky had cleared and we continued towards Costa Rica. Five days later we anchored in Playa del Cocos near the Nicaraguan border. Here we were able to take on more fuel and water and do a final shop for food. Poised in Playa del Cocos it felt we were close to completing our trip around the world but the encounter with the storm off Panama had reminded us of what could go wrong. Hilo, Hawaii, was now 4,046 miles away.
Across the Pacific
Fuelled up and full of as much water and food as we could carry we left on 6 December for Hawaii with 15 knots of north wind and a waxing moon. Soon we settled into a routine of watches with Tiffany going to bed with the girls and me staying up until 2am then Tiffany would take over from 2am to 7am. We would both take naps during the day to try and get a total of eight hours of sleep.
It worked in theory but in reality the afternoon nap would be broken up or both of us would need to be on deck at night to do a sail change so that we were probably only getting four or five hours sleep a day. Sometimes, when the weather was settled I would get a really good sleep and feel great but on a voyage this long I could feel myself becoming more and more dazed from sleep deprivation as the trip went on.
Solianna and Seffa got a good 10 hours every night and were the most cheerful shipmates one could hope for. They seemed never to get bored. They made a fort in the chain locker, which went on for a week with all kinds of passwords and whispering coming out of the forepeak.
When they weren’t playing with their 50-or-so dolls and stuffed animals they were getting stories read to them or stargazing with me or watching dolphins and whales and seabirds around Vixen. This play went on for day after day, week after week.
I enjoyed the beautiful moonlit nights of perfect sailing but always carried a certain amount of concern for the state of Vixen and the changing wind and seas. On the night watch I would find myself dividing the day’s 24-hour run into the total already sailed and then projecting an arrival date in Hilo. This became a tortuous exercise towards the end of our trip when Vixen’s daily average fell from 130 miles a day to just over 30 miles as the wind died.
We had Christmas and New Year celebrations on board, which broke things up a bit. We also had ‘third-of-the-way’ celebrations and ‘four-week’ celebrations and ‘1,000-miles-to-go’ celebrations. Then there was the ‘end-of-the-rum’ celebration – a sobering affair.
What broke up our daily routine more than any party was the unpredictable wildlife of the eastern Pacific. After we crossed the shipping lanes we didn’t see any evidence of humans for two or three weeks and I felt honoured to explore a part of the planet few people see.
My last radio conversation was with a container ship captain carrying a load of soybeans from New Orleans to Honolulu. I thanked him for a weather update and his ship disappeared over the horizon at 15 knots.
For the first half of the trip the ocean was alive with life. We saw mahi mahi leap out of the water in pursuit of fish and for a few weeks there were at least a dozen flying fish on deck in the morning. I fed Solianna some flying fish one morning and said: “How many eight-year-olds can say they’ve eaten flying fish for breakfast?”
One awe-inspiring encounter was with a massive bull sperm whale. I spotted him to starboard and turned sharply to port to avoid a collision but then realised that he was heading south right into Vixen’s path. I turned hard to starboard and we all watched the enormous creature slip by not 15ft away.
We had another whale encounter a few days later when 30 or 40 pilot whales raced towards Vixen and surfed alongside, their squeals reverberating through the hull.
Daily life on Vixen
Aside from watching the wildlife we had the usual crafts under way. I carried on with crazy macramé from Ashley’s Book of Knots and Soli and Seffa started off on rubber band rainbow bracelets then moved onto an infinite number of friendship bracelets. Tiffany did some book binding and sewing. Sometimes we would have gypsy jazz jam sessions on guitar, mandolin and ukulele in the cockpit.
All of our Christmas presents were ‘boatmade’. Seffa gave us each elaborately wrapped drawings she had made. Solianna made me a calendar for the year. I gave Tiffany a rum bottle covered in elaborate knotwork and she gave me a leatherbound book she had made. The girls seemed satisfied with this homemade Christmas but then it was discovered that Santa had, in fact, found us in mid-ocean and dropped a sack of toys on deck!
When the skies were clear Solianna and I would take sextant sights for the fun of it. After 40 nights of Venus and Mercury setting in the west and Jupiter rising at sunset, they felt like old friends. We also read a lot and told the girls elaborate imaginary tales that branched out into subplots and spin-off characters then looped back in time and jumped into the future.
From Panama to Hawaii we crossed five time zones. Every 900 miles I would ceremoniously change the ship’s clock back an hour with dictatorial pleasure: “It is no longer 12 o’clock. I hereby declare it to be 11 o’clock.”
On the 40th day, with 13,000ft tall Mauna Kea 60 miles away, I told Solianna that we should start looking for land. We climbed the rigging and searched the horizon for hours. We had given up hope and then at dusk a distant cloud bank slid off to the south and there it was: the summit of Mauna Kea covered in snow with even the observatory shining in crisp detail in the evening light.
The next day we sailed into Hilo harbour and dropped anchor in Radio Bay, where Vixen had last been in October of 2004 after our first voyage from Victoria. Ashore was a green park, other humans and a store selling ice cream and cold beer. Seffa was down below playing with her dolls.
“Come on Seffa,” said Tiffany. “Let’s go ashore.”After 41 days at sea, Seffa said without looking up to Tiffany: “That’s OK. I think I’ll just stay here.”
Vixen – an Atkin classic designed to cross oceans
Vixen was designed in 1950 by the father-son team of William and John Atkin of Darien, Connecticut. The commission was from James Stark of Miami, Florida, for a sailboat to take James and his wife, Jean, on a cruise around the world.
Although not known for producing race winners, the Atkins would have been a first choice to draw up a cruising sailboat in the 1950s. In fact, a compete disregard for capricious racing formulas allowed them a free hand in designing uncompromised bluewater vessels.
Vixen was launched in 1952 in Blackrock, Connecticut, from the shop of Joel Johnson, a well-known Bridgeport shipwright. In 2011 we sailed into Blackrock and moored Vixen just a stone-throw from where she was launched. The Johnson yard shut down long ago but the building still stands and we found the old railway Vixen would have rolled down sometime in the spring of 1952.
After her launching the Starks sailed Vixen around the world. Not much is known of this first circumnavigation although, as we have retraced Vixen’s route, some details have emerged. John Guzzwell, the author of Treka Round the World, quite clearly remembers mooring next to Vixen at the Royal Natal Yacht Club in Durban, South Africa, in 1958.
This recollection was confirmed when we sailed into Durban and met Bob Fraser who was a friend of James Stark and even had pictures of Vixen from that visit.
We have also connected with Hilary Frye, James Stark’s niece, who remembers Vixen from her youth while visiting her uncle. Last year Hilary served as one of our linehandlers as we transited the Panama Canal.
More recently, I received an email from 80-year-old Lee Brooks of Florida, Vixen’s second owner after the Starks, who returned to me the original builder’s plate, which had been separated from Vixen many years ago.
From a design perspective Vixen is similar to the Atkins’ other Colin Archer inspired double-enders. She is often compared to Eric, a well-known design of the senior Atkin. However, Eric was designed in 1925 and there was much subtle refinement preceding Vixen’s genesis.
As John Atkin wrote: ‘Vixen represents some 35 years’ development, observation, modification and improvement. It is my feeling she possesses most of the attributes desirable in a vessel intended for offshore voyaging and extended passages in safety and comfort.’
While conceivably based on the original Eric, Stark’s Vixen embodies most of the desirable characteristics: she is fast, able and entirely capable of going almost anywhere.
First published in the August 2019 edition of Yachting World.