It's not every guy that would take his kids out of school and set out with them on a new boat without any previous experience at the helm. Add to that the fact that Steve Berman's boat is not a trawler or a sailboat but an Aicon 64, and it may seem downright crazy. Berman bought Tokase in August of 2008, with the idea of using her for short, two- to three-day trips from Los Cabos, Mexico, where he lives, eventually chartering her out for similar adventures. "I like sexy boats, fast boats," says Berman, who loves to freedive and spearfish. It wasn't until October that he cooked up the idea of a big trip through the Caribbean with his boys Seth, 13, and Kaz, 19. "I felt the timing was right," said Berman, who's an architect and real estate developer. "The economy was bad, so business was quiet and I figured I could sit around and whine about it or take the opportunity to have a great adventure with my sons."
Crucial to the success of the trip was Brad Ellis, a good friend who also works for Berman. "The biggest thing going for me was that I had Brad, who's just an unbelievable mechanic." Berman's first plan was to find an experienced captain to bring along, but a three-day shakedown cruise to the Bahamas with Ellis and the professional captain changed his mind. The captain hit a sandbar, and when there was trouble with the thrusters, Berman says, "He didn't have a clue. Brad got right down in there and fixed it." After the captain failed to set an anchor properly and the boat dragged dangerously close to a reef, Berman took a different tack. He felt that with his logistic skills, Ellis's mechanical abilities, lots of technology, and some common sense, they could do better themselves. Ellis had the added advantage of knowing the Aicon's systems inside and out because he'd overseen the end of the build for Berman. He also went to captain's school for two weeks before they set out. "Here are four people with no real experience," Berman points out. "But technology has advanced to the point where you can do it, if you're not stupid about it. The right charts, satellite weather-we weren't flying blind, by any means." "I had one all-encompassing goal which was to create our own journey on our own timetable, and explore the reefs and islands of the Eastern Caribbean and on to South America." And Berman had the sense to make two rules. "Because of our limited experience, I was determined to travel only during the day and never in bad weather." Their trip, which took them 5,000 miles, from Ft. Lauderdale, through the Bahamas, to the Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, all the islands of the lesser Antilles, and on to Venezuela and back, was the adventure of a lifetime. Berman arranged for Seth to do a certified home-schooling program under his supervision, while Kaz took an early college study program. Berman instituted a certain amount of discipline.
"We all had specific jobs on the boat. The boys were responsible for laundry, boat-cleaning duty, and food cleanup. Plus they had to keep up with their studies. I was flexible with the schedule depending on what we were doing and the weather. If it was calm in the mornings, we would start off the day by diving or spearfishing. Sometimes Kaz would find a deserted surf break or Brad and Seth would go bone- or tarpon fishing." And how'd the Aicon perform? Berman couldn't be happier. "Like all boats, it had some problems. But nothing Brad couldn't handle. By the time we reached St. Lucia, there were really no other boats our size-the occasional trawler, otherwise just superyachts or sailboats. It kind of amazed me that people would think a Mediterranean boat like ours was too small to be out there, because we were very comfortable."
Cruising at 22 knots, Tokase has a range of about 300 nautical miles. Berman says that he would usually weigh the extra fuel burn against the hours he put on the engines. "We were able to make good time with good fuel efficiency. When the weather looked bad, we could take it up to 32 knots, top speed, and once-between Aruba and the Dominican Republic-we actually cruised at 12 knots. I had several extra drums of fuel onboard for that trip, too." "The Aicon has really luxurious accommodations. We are all avid football fans and I had DirectTV on board, so every Sunday we would watch some games." Tokase has three staterooms and crew quarters beneath the cockpit that they used for the compressor and spare parts. Berman added an extra refrigerator, and satellite weather, TV, radio, Internet and phone. "I could easily keep in touch, work, and make calls everywhere we went." They were so comfortable, in fact, that they only left the boat twice in seven months.
Though they stuck to their rule of avoiding bad weather whenever possible, Tokase found herself in six-foot seas on several occasions and Berman said the ride was fine. The scariest moment of their voyage came on a run between St. Kitts and Antigua. "We'd been caught in bad weather in St. Kitts for about five days, with the wind blowing from the east. We waited until the seas dropped to about six feet with intermittent eight-footers and decided to go for it." Ellis was at the flybridge helm wrestling Tokase through the waves and wind. Berman was in the pilothouse and they were about midway on their passage when one of the kids told him that there was water pouring out from beneath the VIP stateroom door. "We immediately went into emergency mode. Brad turned us around so the wind was at our back." A porthole had been blown out and the sea was gushing into the boat. "We took one of those stainless steel mixing bowls and wrapped it in a towel and the kids took turns holding it over the opening. That was pretty scary," admits Berman.
But the overwhelming sensation of the trip was one of wonder. "Our favorite island kept changing. First it was Turks, then the Dominican Republic, then St. Kitts, Dominica, St. Lucia, the Grenadines, Grenada All had attractions-climbing volcanos or finding rivers and waterfalls." But they all agree that their best stop was in Venezuela. "We loved Los Roques and Las Aves, amazing archipelagos 60 miles off the coast. In Las Roques, there were enormous fish, big grouper, snapper, amazing corals. In Las Aves, we could go right up to the little white birds, and they just sat in the trees, unafraid." They also left Tokase and traveled deep into the jungle to visit Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world. The only way to get there was a six-hour trip by dugout canoe and a three-hour hike. "That was an amazing experience, interacting with the Indians. I think it taught the boys something powerful."
"I would hope that, besides their learning about self-reliance and teamwork-because everyone had to jump-to when things needed to be done," Berman muses. "I think they learned a lot about the ecology of the ocean. We were all humbled by it, but not afraid of it. We just spent so much time in the water and we were curious. 'Hey, that slope drops off 800 feet-we've got to go dive that' or 'there's a school of dolphin-let's get in there with them.' How can you even put it into words?"
For a moment, Berman-who is clearly a man of action-sounds almost wistful.
"It was wonderful to spend so much one-on-one time with my kids in an environment that was so dynamic. We moved a lot, rarely staying anywhere more than three days. We met so many wonderful people and experienced so many different cultures."
Tokase is back home in Los Cabos and Berman has already had a lot of inquiries about chartering. "There's not really another boat like this one around here." Seth and Kaz are back in school but they're already making plans for a trip up the Sea of Cortez during spring break. "Even though I dreamed this as the trip of a lifetime," muses Berman, "I realize that with this yacht, anything is possible-and that the dream continues."