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The Call of the Sea
Here's how one captain prepares his powerboat for a transaltlantic crossing.
By Jeanne Craig

Motorboating - June 2004

"It's not going to be a fun trip," said Robert Greenbaum from the deck of his 50-foot Nordhavn, Sundog. "The actual crossing, barring a mishap, will involve a great deal of tedium, especially at night. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in for a surprise." This 67-year-old retired lawyer who keeps his boat in Aventura, Fla., doesn't mince words on any subject, including the one that other people are calling the most exciting powerboat event of the century. It's not that Greenbaum is a cynic. Call him a realist who believes that a practical point of view is a crucial thing to have on board an ordinary boat that is about to begin an extraordinary adventure.

Greenbaum is one of two dozen captains preparing his boat for the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally. This ocean crossing from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Gibralter at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea is unique because it's the first to be attempted by a large fleet of production power boats (mostly trawlers) that will travel together for the durataion of the 3,800-mile voyage. It's the kind of adventure that many boat owners dream of but don't dare attempt, in large part because a passage of this caliber requires so much from a captain, his crew and his boat. Greenbaum had devoted more than five months to preparations for the Rally when we interviewed him last April, just five weeks prior to his departure. Yet his "to do" list was still substantial, and because he was so focused on the work at hand, he was more cautious than excited about his preparations.

Yet for all his practicality, Greenbaum is a fan of the road less traveled. He's hunted cape buffalo in Zimbabwe, stalked caribou above the Arctic Circle and cast fly rigs in the quietest stretches of Alaska. But he's never crossed the Atlantic in his own boat before, even though he's been active in the sport for more than 20 years. His interest in an Atlantic crossing was piqued when he learned about the Rally, which will enable 24 recreational boats to travel together with the support of a Rally staff experienced in open ocean passages. The staff, many of whom are affiliated with Pacific Asian Enterprises (the Rally's organizer and the builder of Nordhavn boats), will offer their assistance from three escort vessels. Yet even with the promise of safety in numbers, Greenbaum knows he and his crew must be self-sufficient. So he's devoted much of his time and a large chunk of money to properly equipping Sundog and its 250-hp Lugger diesel engine for the voyage.

Weeks earlier, he had the boat hauled for a pre-departure survey. The result was a substantial bill for work that included the installation of a new propshaft and seals on the stabilizers. Greenbaum had also made arrangements to relocate the autopilot pump in the lazarette; it was moved to increase the amount of available stowage space, which would be crucial for this trip. In addition to basics like food and safety gear, a boat crossing the Atlantic needs a mind-boggling number of spare parts. Greenbaum flipped through his comprehensive list of spares; it looked about 20 pages long.

Sundog, which is the title of a Jim Harrison novel that this skipper has always liked, is serious by nature, a born passagemaker with a full displacement hull. Yet Greenbaum has enhanced its potential, and that's most obvious at the helm. There is proof of the maxim that says a capable ocean-going yacht has built-in redundancy. There are two radars, two fixed-mount VHF radios and two GPS units connected to a pair of onboard computers with chartplotting capabilities. If one system fails, the skipper can still complete the voyage. During the crossing, the fleet will communicate primarily by VHF-each boat will attempt to stay within five miles of an escort boat at all times. But if his boat travels out of VHF range, Greenbaum can rely on his single sideband.

As we toured Greenbaum's boat, one of his crew came aboard with safety gear he had bought that morning, including a flare kit for use in European waters. It would complement the significant amount of equipment already stowed, including the life raft on the upper deck, which had been repacked and certified specifically for this trip. "A guy will be here tomorrow to measure the boat for storm windows," said Greenbaum, who had invested considerable time to locate the right person for the job. This was just one of the countless details he was managing. Earlier, he had hired an electrician to wire the boat for European power. "Prepping a boat for a trip like this is a great administrative task. It's a good thing I was a lawyer."

One of the duties he tackled early on was insurance. Few companies offer coverage for this type of trip, so he had to shop around. He found a broker in Ft. Lauderdale who arranged coverage for the crossing, during the weeks Sundog will cruise the Mediterranean and for its return trip home on a freighter.

Some of the best insurance a captain can have for an ocean crossing is the support of a qualified crew. Greenbaum has hired a team of professionals for the Rally. Each man has a captain's license; one has an engineering degree, and one has taken several boats across the Atlantic. The crew will also include Greenbaum's son, Adam, a New York-based writer who will come aboard for the first leg of the trip-a 900-mile run from Ft. Lauderdale to Bermuda.

In the weeks to come, Greenbaum will finish stocking spares, practice Med mooring and have his fuel tanks thoroughly cleaned (contaminated fuel is a major cause of engine shutdowns). Then, he can get down to thinking about stuff like food. If he has time, Greenbaum may even prepare a few things in advance and freeze them for the trip. "A good meal is good morale for a crew," he said. This skipper is not at the point where he knows what's going to be on the table the day Sundog leaves the dock, but even the simplest dish will seem celebratory for Greenbaum, who is eager to get under way. "That's the cutoff date for preparation work," he said. "Then, I can devote my energies to moving Sundog from one port to another."

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