Thursday, September 17, 2015

Living Legends: Ten Questions with John Kretschmer

We actually have a little bit of history with famed sailor and author, John Kretschmer... When we were first getting ready to sail from Chicago back in 2010, a friend of ours told us that a client's brother was a famous sailor, that he'd be speaking at Strictly Sail, and that we should meet him. Scott and I, total greenhorns and eager to soak up any knowledge from anyone who'd 'walked the walk', went to his seminar and met him afterwards. He was easygoing, unassuming, and kind. Totally relaxed despite the fact that he'd just come off an ocean passage and was now on his feet all day doing seminars and entertaining questions from (possibly annoying) newbs like Scott and I. Yep, it was instantly apparent that John Kretschmer was not only a class-act and a super nice guy, but the real deal. Afterwards, we devoured a few of his books, and loosely kept in touch via email over the years.

Fast forward to 2015 at Nanny Cay, Tortola. Scott, never forgetting a face, had seen John at the bar and struck up a conversation. He learned his was there on one of his sail training passages and invited Scott and I aboard his boat, Quetzal, the following day. Despite being a tad on the shy and easily intimidated side, the next morning I approached him and said, "Hey John, not sure if you remember me but..." and with a friendly smile he replied, "Windtraveler! Sure, Brittany! We have a lot of passengers who love your blog, you're inspiring a lot of people... Come on aboard." He's the kind of guy who is devoid of ego and will make your day with a passing compliment like that. We chatted with him and his crew in the cockpit and got the grand tour of his beautiful boat. "What seminar is this you're doing?" I asked him. "Heavy weather training," he replied, as casually as if he were selecting a dish soap. This man is one with the ocean and if he smiles at you just so, he even looks a little like the real-life Popeye.

Here's our interview:

#1. How did you know that sailing was going to be more than just a hobby, but a way of life for you? 

My father died when I was 16 and that had a profound impact on me, and my decision to make sailing my life.  I already leaned toward the existential idea that life was what you made of it, your choice to live an interesting life was yours alone to make, and take responsibility for, but it always backed up to idea of time, time was the x factor, there wasn’t time to mess around because life might be snatched away at any time.  I wrote in Flirting (With Mermaids) that my dad’s death drove me to sea, and in a circuitous way that was true. Also, I loved the freedom ocean sailing seemed to present on one hand, and the raw challenge on the other. I never wanted it to be easy.

#2. You sail predominately long distances - ocean deliveries and training passages - this is obviously very different from the traditional “cruising” (i.e island hopping) that many people dream of - why do you love it?

I guess I touched on this a bit in the first answer but crossing oceans presented the sense of adventure I was looking for.  I had been an athlete, a pretty good pole-vaulter alas, and while I never viewed ocean sailing in a competitive way I really responded to the idea of personal challenge.  I grew to love passage making when I learned that there is no “personal challenge,” at sea, that notion is actually absurd. The sea is dispassionate, storms are not personal, small boat seamanship is a matter of figuring out how to fit into the ocean environment. There’s no room for chest pumping at sea.  
Image courtesy of the John Kretschmer sailing Facebook Page
#3. You’ve sailed with a lot of different people and personalities - is there one glaring character trait that you think does not jive well with the sea?

Hubris, and a lack of respect for the sea, not good traits at all for it is (pathetically to paraphrase my own book,) a serious ocean out there.  But it is also a beautiful environment out there too, and you don’t need to be afraid and drape yourself in the latest safety gear.  The safety scolds are rather sad folks and I am sure you have run up against them for taking, Neptune forbid, your young children to sea. Screw them. Also, a lack of irony is not a good trait, you need to be able to laugh at the vagaries of the sea.  

#4. Sailing on other people's boats can be risky business, you are - in many ways - putting your life in someone else’s hands (by trusting their boat) what’s your “ritual” before you take off on another boat? Have you ever turned a delivery down due to the boat’s condition?

It usually depended on how much I needed the money, referring to deliveries.  I have delivered some sad vessels in my day. I am pretty good about sussing out a boat quickly, I have come to know what is important and what isn’t.  Things I check are the through hulls, not just where they are and if they work but more importantly if they will be prone to back siphoning underway. I check the rig, a quick check is to see if the turnbuckles have ever been adjusted, tells you a lot.  The sails are often in amazingly poor conditions, especially on boats that have not been used in a long time, sitting in the tropical heat deteriorating.  The engine is also essential, and I probably spend more time making sure it’s ready to run and collecting spares than I do on anything else.  
Image courtesy of the John Kretschmer sailing Facebook Page
#5. What are three things you would not go offshore without?

Charts, my sextant, and a basic toolkit.  Sounds crazy, but everything else can fail but I can always find my way. I am big on notion of finding my way. I’ve logged a ridiculous amount of miles, and I love GPS and all the accouterments there of, really I do, but many of those miles were done pre GPS and they were, in a weird way, more satisfying.  I don’t like the idea of being lost, just being hard to find.

#6. You are the author of several fantastic books and you are clearly a gifted writer. When did you discover this talent and would you say your passion for writing is greater than your passion for sailing, or visa versa - and/or do they share a symbiotic relationship in you?

You know that these days I conduct offshore training passages, and funnily enough my old high school English teacher signed aboard a few years ago. He amused the crew, telling them that he thought there was a remote chance I might make the Olympics as pole-vaulter but would never have believed that I’d write a book!  Actually books have been my friends forever, longer than boats.  Peter Freuchen, the great Arctic explorer and voyage wrote the he “discovered the ocean in his imagination.” I did too, in books.  I wanted to be an explorer and when I realized that explorers had a hard time finding work in the late 20th century, I decided I wanted to be a sailor and write about my adventures, and I made this decision when was 13 or 14.  Thanks for the kind words about my books,  I still feel exposed when I write, if it’s not emotionally honest it’s no good, that’s my motto I guess. 

#7. As someone who’s husband worked term charters for a while (being away at sea for weeks at a time), I imagine that your roving lifestyle can be difficult on your wife. How do you two make it work?

This has been a very difficult thing for me to balance.  My wife Tadji is incredibly understanding, independent and super capable on her own, but still it is hard for us to be away from each other for long stretches. In some ways I have two worlds, home and at sea, and keeping them both going is not easy.   The ability to leave my boat all over the world has been quite liberating.  Indeed, Quetzal is in St. John’s Newfoundland and I am in Ft. Lauderdale now, and I’ll head back in a couple of weeks, pressing on for Nova Scotia, and then later in October for the Caribbean  Also, now that 3 of 4 kids are either on their own or in college, and the last is a senior in high school, we are able to spend more time together.  (Sorry to make you envious!  Not really, these years with your kids aboard are to be  treasured. My girls still tell sea stories.) Tadji and I have a plan to be on the boat together most of the time in the future, with Tadji accompanying me on some training passages, and leaving me to do my thing on others.  But we will definitely be in more of a cruising mode between passages than I’ve ever been before and I am really looking forward to it.
Image courtesy of the John Kretschmer sailing Facebook Page
#8.What is something that people might find surprising about you?
That I am really easy going on the boat, that I am not all a stickler for rules and rote learning, that I am flat out ok when folks make mistakes.  That’s probably not right, people already know that. Hmm what else, that I love the Miami Heat and that I know more about books than boats. 

#9. You’ve had countless adventures at sea - what is your mantra when the shit hits the fan?

To be active, not to assume that the weather will suddenly improve or the problem will somehow fix itself.  I have well-honed instincts, mostly because I have made a hash of things so many times that I’ve finally learned to listen to my hunches. If I feel a hint of being over canvassed, I reef.  If I suspect conditions are going to deteriorate I prepare.  I almost never go into bunker mode, I believe that storms require action, clear thinking, collaboration when possible, and engagement as conditions change.  

#10. What is one thing you haven’t done yet, but wish you could?

Hmm, can I have two? Although I have sailed a lot of miles, I’d like to do a trade wind circumnavigation with my wife and occasional friends/crew.  And, I’d like to write a good novel.


Thank you, John, for that insightful and thoughtful interview! Can't wait to catch up in person again soon!

Want more John? Check out his website and Facebook Page, and be sure to check out some of his incredible books:

Flirting with Mermaids: The Unpredictable Life of a Sailboat Delivery Skipper - this was the first one Scott and I read, it's a great collection of tales from John's life at sea full of adventure, romance and wry humor. A good laugh and an enjoyable read for anyone cruising, or dreaming of sailing off into the sunset.

At the Mercy of the Sea: The True Story of Three Sailors in a Caribbean Hurricane - this book is insane. It's the true story of three Caribbean-based sailors (one who was a personal friend of John's) who got caught in they eye of Hurricane Lenny in 1999.  John tells this story with incredible accuracy, precision and care, and brings you right there into the storm with them. It's harrowing and tragic, but a fantastic - and important - read for any boater. I loved this book.

Sailing a Serious Ocean: Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea - this is one we have not read, but it's on my Kindle! "Tales of storm encounters and other examples of extreme seamanship will help you prepare for your journey and give you confidence to handle any situation―even heavy weather. Through his personal stories, John will guide you through the whole process of choosing the right boat, outfitting with the right gear, planning your route, navigating the ocean, and understanding the nuances of life at sea."

Cape Horn to Starboard - "Legendary account of the author's voyage around Cape Horn in a 32-foot sailboat, sailing east-to-west (thus the Horn is to starboard, or on the right). This is a notoriously difficult and dangerous passage, especially in a boat this size." - Amazon


Enjoy this series? Check out my other interviews with awesome sailing people:

Living Legends: Ten Questions with Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Living Legends: Ten Questions with John and Amanda Neal
Living Legends: Ten Questions with Former US Sailing President Gary Jobson
Awesome Sailing People: The Delos Crew
Awesome Sailing People: Katie and Jessie on a Boat
Awesome Sailing People: Ten Questions for Distant Shores
Awesome Sailing People: Q & A with Solor Sailor Emily Richmond


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! I have not read any of these books, but now I have them on my list!

Bill said...

Great interview Brittany! I've enjoyed several of John's books, what an interesting fellow.

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