Ocean Travel: A Life of Self-Sufficiency

Louisa McBride describes how a group of fourteen people sail the world on an antique scooner, making ocean travel their means of business and lifestyle.

| May/June 1975

How can 14 people travel around the world and still live at home? Easy: Home, work, and lifestyle are one spent in ocean travel aboard Sofia, our antique Baltic topsail schooner. She's 120 feet of salt-permeated Scandinavian oak, fitted with ancient tools and machinery . . . an embodiment of a sailing tradition that has almost disappeared these days.

A Life of Ocean Travel

Sofia was built as a cargo vessel in Sweden in 1921 and has been owned communally for five years now. All that time she's been self-sufficient . . . through fair and foul winds, continual crew changes, and even a sinking on a lonely beach in the mysterious Galapagos Islands.

Back in 1969, Sofia was on sale for $7,000 . . . not as cheap as it sounds, since she was hardly more than a hull. The 20 people of the original group each contributed $1,500 to her purchase and badly needed rejuvenation. Two years of refitting, rebuilding, and rerigging were needed to get the vessel into shape. Most of the work — including the installation of new water tanks, sails, deck planking, cabins, and steel replacements for the rotted wooden masts — was done in Spain where materials were inexpensive.

After cruising in Europe, the Mediterranean, Morocco, the Canary Isles, and the Cape Verdes, Sofia crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies. The financial situation was bleak by then, and many of the crew returned to the States.

Since the West Indies is one of the few areas that allow foreign ships to carry goods commercially, the seven of us who were left aboard decided to convert Sofia back to her original function as a trading vessel. In Barbados we located an agent who found cargo for us. Soon we were receiving about $1,000 per trip — depending on the type of merchandise — to haul commodities such as molasses, oranges, canned foods, and grains among the islands of St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, and Trinidad.

The ship's whole living area — galley, saloon, and cabins served as a hold for the cargoes, and her decks were stacked to the booms with boxes, barrels, and sacks. Since we couldn't get at the sails easily, Sofia was powered on her trading voyages by her two-cylinder, semi-diesel June-Munktell engine . . . a 30-year-old Danish powerplant. (Normally we cruise under canvas and use "Junie-baby" only to enter and leave certain harbors.)

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