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Embarking on a New Adventure

March 24, 2006

By Jeff Merrill

There was a joyous buzz on the docks as big Mike Hamilton thanked the assembled PAE crew for commissioning his new home and his lovely wife Pinky virtually disintegrated the champagne bottle with a vigorous whack –game on!  And the result was triumphantly hailed by the assembled crowd.

After a wonderful send off celebration hosted by Mike and Pinky Hamilton down on our docks, the good ship Skeena was ready to slip away and get some more time on her systems before the upcoming long trip home from Dana Point, CA to Seattle, WA. And so it was a couple of days later that I found myself one of four happy people taking off to sea…

There’s always room for a new first and now I can say I’ve conducted my first offshore delivery – at night!  I know, it shouldn’t matter, but there really is a different vibe running a boat after dark, and I love it.  Of course it helps if you are in familiar waters on a regular route and it’s an awful lot easier if you make the gentle transition – late afternoon / sunset  / twilight / dusk / nightfall.  Such was the sequence for the maiden voyage of Skeena – hull number 51 in the 40/II series. 

The actual hand off took place with the paperwork signing at 7:30 p.m. about 15 miles off the California coast – halfway to Catalina – with the stars looking on as witnesses. This was an event that will remain a lot more memorable than most.

Mike and Pinky Hamilton were the first people to sign up for a 40II – over two years ago – and on this evening the official exchange of title took place.  Over the past many months we’ve developed a close friendship – in fact they even stopped by my house for a shower and breakfast after driving overnight from their home in Washington with a truck full of boat gear earlier in the week.

On this trip across the channel to Catalina my wife Pam was invited to join in so we had a full house and soon found ourselves in pretty good seas frolicking furiously for a fun-filled Friday night.  With the sun long gone and the moon sneaking up behind us we signed the official paper work and took photos to record our latitude and longitude.  With a sense of relief Mike took the helm as the official captain of his new yacht for his first time and steered us on our way to Avalon. 

We got off to a late start – departing Dana Point at 5pm, and the seas were a bit steeper than usual.  Local TV and radio reports all day long hyped up the coast as having the largest surf swell of the year and when we listened to NOAA we got a similar story.  But running at 7 knots we found a reasonably pleasant groove going into the seas and it was a bit like a Sunday car ride out over some rolling hills.

Our plan had been to leave by noon so that we would do the five hour crossing in day light (not necessary of course, but a little easier to manage on a first trip since increased visibility always tends to give you more confidence), but in order to tend to some last minute installations and equipment fixes, we pushed back our target departure time.

Once out of sight of land and with everyone settled we spotted two huge cruise ships crossing our bow.  Lit up like the floating city blocks that they are, these behemoths were floating south from Los Angeles to Mexico for a luxurious getaway.  Hmm, I could imagine all of the nattily clad guests sipping cocktails and loading their plates from a seafood extravaganza buffet and there is no way I’d give up my bottled water and chips and dip.  We had the top halves of the Dutch Doors in the wheelhouse open, and with the wind rustling through, the boat dancing across the sea and the Lugger engine purring along, I couldn’t imagine changing places with those folks.

This trip on Skeena was just going to be an overnighter for us to put time on the engine, complete the paperwork to finalize the sale, review the systems and complete general “on the job” training.   The ride was purposeful and methodical. Mike was a bit sore so I did the engine room checks on the hour and we didn’t alter our pace much.  This new 40II has been expertly built and commissioned and we didn’t have any real surprises, except one.  On the hour four ER check I noticed that the bilge had taken on a yellow liquid about the same time I realized that the stabilizer cooling reservoir was near empty – oops, we have a leak.  So I shut down the active fins and (as we learned later) there was no damage to the system, a fitting needed to be tightened and the hydraulic oil tank was replenished.  This type of system hiccup is not unexpected on a new boat.  A new Nordhavn is a sophisticated assemblage of hoses, wires, fluids and machinery and a lot of different workers get on board to get her ready.  One reason we were taking Skeena to Catalina was to de-bug this exact type of thing.  Luckily for us we were in the lee of Catalina and the seas had subsided so our heavy full displacement hull was more than capable of keeping us upright without the added assistance of the fins.

Friday night, the start of the weekend, but it was after Labor Day so summer is over…I felt confident we would waltz right into Avalon, pick up a mooring can and call it a day.  The harbor accepts visitors on a first come, first served basis and when I called the harbor master on our VHF shortly after 2200 to inquire about a mooring assignment I have to admit my heart sank when the reply was, “Sorry captain we are all sold out, no moorings available”.  Well, one of the advantages of not being on a schedule (a golden rule of cruising) is that we weren’t going to be late and we’d already figured out that by the time we got to shore the restaurants would be shutting down anyway so I now had to come up with a plan B.

I took a deep breath and did a mental inventory assessment.  We have plenty of fuel, the boat is running fine and with four able crewmembers we could take turns standing watch and transform this overnighter into an all-nighter by heading home or circling the island…  One thing we had not trained on yet was the ground tackle (which was fitted and ready to deploy) and perhaps the decision to not anchor was solidified when the harbormaster cautioned us that a heavy surge warning was in place along the island due to the large swell.  

So we headed west towards Long Point about 4 miles away from Avalon and, as luck would have it, got a mooring and were tied up by 23:00 – tired and relieved, but a bit keyed up from all of the excitement.

In the morning Pinky made a wonderful breakfast of bacon and eggs testing out her new Viking stove and we paused to take in a glorious day with the sun shining, the surge churning and the sealife under the hull getting active.  Catalina sparkles when the sun comes up and the surge along the rocky shore was a pleasant and familiar reminder to me of how lucky we are to have this island so close to home. The water is so clear you can throw over a piece of bread and watch the fish surface and splash.  We even spied a couple of Garibaldi (giant “gold fish” that are the California state fish) cruising around. 

We slipped our mooring and strolled east along the cliffs before veering to port 90 degrees and heading back across the channel to the mainland.  Mike handled all of the maneuvering and I could tell he was reveling in the joy and satisfaction (and mild anxiety) that always steels a new owner.  He was an old pro before I ever met him, but going from a fast 27’ fishing boat that skims across the surface to a 50,000-pound tank that plows troughs through the swells is a bit of a transition!  All too soon we had the Dana Point headlands in view and ran up our rpms to blow out any soot that might want to linger in the dry stack and surprise us on the next start up, then into the slip all tied up and mission complete.

Pam and I took off to reclaim our kids and before I knew it I was back on the freeway and rolling along about 10 times faster than the top speed of the Nordhavn 40.  As if in a trance I had time again to reflect on how much fun the journey is on a ship built like a Nordhavn.  We sailed along quietly, smoothly and luxuriously comfortable.  Too bad we didn’t have two weeks, we could have topped off our fuel before departure and called the kids from Hawaii!

Mike and Pinky will really get to know Skeena in the months ahead.

Living aboard will be a full time adventure and I know I’ll be hearing about a lot of details and ideas that can only come from people who spend a lot of time on their boat.  Hopefully the surprises will be good ones.


Jeff Merrill is a Nordhavn salesman based in California.  Jeff can be reached at


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