Chasing Sunsets

After years of planning, a California couple takes a nine-month charter across the world.

In early summer 1997, Jo Russell received a phone call unlike any other during her nearly 30 years as a charter broker. She remembered the calm, deliberate voice of real estate developer Michael Chase from 15 years earlier, when he and his wife, Anne, did their first and only charter with several friends for 10 days in the Caribbean aboard an 80- or 90-foot sailing yacht. Michael, now CEO of WCB Properties in Newport Beach, California, seemed pleased Russell was still in business.

She was the only broker he knew, and he had an idea.

Michael wanted to start a charter at the America's Cup in Auckland, travel the world for nearly a year and finish in Australia at the 2000 Olympics. He had no intention of crossing any oceans, and he wanted nothing to do with powerful engines. "I never liked big motorboats," he said. "It's like being on a floating hotel. There's no adventure to it."

He wanted a sailing yacht in the 100-foot range with at least two guest staterooms for friends and clients. The boat didn't have to be a record-breaker, but she had to be able to move quickly if doing so became necessary. He wanted state-of-the-art communications. He wanted a great chef. He wanted a knowledgeable crew. "Because of our limited boating experience," he said, "we wanted mostly to be comfortable."

And when the trip was over, he told Russell, he wanted to disembark with no further obligation.

"This was the first time I've ever heard of anything like this," Russell said. "Nobody had thought that you don't have to buy a boat to go around the world. You can charter it."

Everyone who buys a yacht, whether a Grady-White or a Feadship, harbors the notion of leaving behind daily obligations, business lunches and traffic jams and setting course for the most glorious sunset on Earth. Boaters everywhere dream of cruising while tethered to nothing more than the edges of imagination, if only for a weekend off a coast near home.

Michael and Anne Chase stepped outside life's daily routines to live their version of the dream for nine months. They are unique because they did the trip on charter, making the fantasy more about travel than the sport of yachting.

"I was never into boating," Michael said a few months after their return. "I'm not into boating."

The story of this couple's journey aboard the 110-foot Faroux/Trehard Vairea is the story of two people smart enough to realize what they wanted and determined enough to make it happen. Their story-how they got there, how they stayed, what they saw and what they learned-is a blueprint for anyone eager to follow in their wake.

Finding Vairea

Russell combed the files in her owner's office at Russell Yacht Charters for boats that fit the Chases' needs. She sent the couple information on five or six yachts, but the Chases found each lacking. Russell was still looking in late fall 1997, when she arrived at the annual show in Antigua. Vairea, which had been completed that year, was there preparing for her first winter in the Caribbean. The owner, who lives in France, used the boat extensively and had never thought of chartering her for the length of time the Chases wanted.

Still, Russell pursued the yacht. She knew the crew-headed by Capt. Loezic Flatres and his wife, Viviane, who had more than 15 years of experience chartering in the Caribbean and the Med-would make the Chases feel at ease. She knew Vairea's modern technology would appeal to the couple, and she knew the layout matched their description.

She contacted Nicholson Yachts of Newport, which manages Vairea, and sent Michael and Anne the literature to peruse in their California home atop the hills overlooking Laguna Beach, the Pacific Ocean and, on clear days, Catalina Island. Their living room is much like Vairea's interior: simple and elegant, with tasteful accent pieces amid light tones and comfortable seats. Neither décor is showy, but both are inviting and refined, much like the Chases themselves. Michael is friendly with a businessman's disciplined demeanor. Anne, the mother of five grown sons, carries herself with the infinite poise of a 1920s starlet.

Neither fits the stereotype of sailors on the open ocean with salt spray tousling their hair at 12 knots. Anne, in fact, was uneasy about the trip during the six months the couple mulled Michael's dream itinerary and Vairea's brochures.

"I felt like I was going to lose my freedom," she said. "It was going to be months on a boat. It was going to be controlled."

Of all the yachts the couple considered, Vairea was most appealing. Michael began negotiations in early 1998 and continued them through the spring. The boat cost $30,000 per week, and Russell figured expenses at about $12,000 per month. She worked out a schedule for payments to take place every 90 days. The owner wanted the boat at Christmas and possibly for a few weeks in New Caledonia. He wanted the charter to end in Antibes, near his home, instead of in Australia.

As summer approached, Michael liked the agreement on paper. In June, about a year after he first called Russell, he and Anne boarded a plane to the Med. They were to meet Vairea and her crew outside Rome and decide, during a four-day sail, whether they would be happy on board for nearly a year of their lives.

Planning the Route

Neither Michael nor Anne recalls their first step onto Vairea's deck. They had no first impression of the yacht itself, the way more seasoned boaters might. Michael remembers the crew-Loezic and Viviane, first mate Richard Dadillon and chef Philippe Belaud-awaiting the couple's arrival in the cockpit with a few open bottles of champagne. Anne recalls chatting with them and becoming, for the first time, at ease with the idea of the trip.

"I had a feeling about the crew immediately," she said, particularly the captain. "I felt that I could trust my life with him. I liked Richard because he would be a guy for Michael to run around with while I was home reading. And Vivian was very blunt. If something was wrong, she'd tell us. And I could do the same with her."

Their first days aboard Vairea were more gliding than sailing, as the waters were calm between nearby islands. Anne, who had never done any real sailing, recalls the motion of daily life aboard feeling quite natural under her bare feet. She and Michael, during those first days aboard, were most concerned with simply being able to get around, such as reaching the head safely while under way.

"Things automatically became part of our thought process," she said of learning to balance on Vairea's decks and steps while the yacht heeled. "You get into the rhythm of the boat and get used to things."

The crew earned the Chases' confidence during those four days, and the couple felt pretty good about Vairea as they flew back to the States. But they wanted to get on board at least one more time before committing.

"If you're putting this much time and this much money into something," Anne said, "you damn well better do your homework and get what you want."

They flew to the Antigua show in late fall 1998, a year after Russell had found the boat there. They didn't sail, but by the end were comfortable with Vairea and her crew. Michael sat down with the captain, a map of the world and a yellow highlighter to plan the route.

Loezic explained that when you're traveling around the globe, you must go east to west because of the prevailing winds. He also explained that the eight or nine months allotted for the trip would not be enough to circumnavigate. Michael-as any good CEO might-deferred to the captain's knowledge about the details but worked with him on defining a route that would satisfy the couple's wishes. Primarily, they wanted to celebrate the millennium in Australia, seek out uncharted lands and stay in first-class resorts during the boat's extended passages.

"Anything over three or four days, we didn't sail," Michael said. "It's not a lot of fun."

They worked out a route that would start about a year later, in September 1999, in Tahiti. From there, they'd go to Tonga and Fiji. The couple would fly to New Caledonia when the boat moved to Auckland, stay for the America's Cup, then disembark and meet the boat in Sydney for a few weeks. They would fly to Brisbane and explore the Great Barrier Reef while the boat sailed to Bali, where they would meet again. They would fly to Thailand and meet the boat in Phuket, then fly again to meet the boat in the Maldives. They would fly to the Seychelles while the boat moved through the Red Sea, then meet at the beginning of the Suez Canal on their way to two months in the Med. They would arrive in June 2000 in Antibes, where the charter would end.

And before it all, in April 1999, they would do a trial month in the Caribbean. Anne wanted to learn more about what life was like on the boat, including how much underwear she would need. Michael wanted to see Grenada, which the couple missed during their charter more than a decade earlier. They both wanted to be sure their first impressions about the captain and crew were accurate.

"No matter how much we'd interviewed him, no matter how much we knew, you never know," Michael said.

Acclimating On Board

When the Chases returned home from the Caribbean in May, five months before their charter was to begin, their illusions were gone and their excitement was raging.

Anne, who had worried about being homesick and bored, immediately canceled plans for her mother to visit the couple at sea. "I realized you couldn't have anyone on board without good physical dexterity," she said, recalling nights she and her husband slept on deck under the cool breeze to give Vairea's air conditioning a rest. An avid reader, she knew exactly how many books she could stow and began shipping boxes upon boxes to Tahiti. She also shipped things that would remind them of home: licorice and graham crackers, pillows and throws, favorite family photos.

Michael set up a contract with Iridium for round-the-world telephone access (and replaced the service with satellite phones when the company failed). He worked with his partner to free himself of some obligations at the Newport Beach office, making sure anything he had to accomplish could be done during his daily phone calls from the boat. He gave his assistant, Joyce, a directive to act as the couple's point person back home, monitoring everything from children's emergencies to credit card bills.

The Chases felt completely in control of the lives they were leaving behind and those they were about to embrace, which helped them enjoy their nine-month charter more freely.

"You learn that you can leave," Michael said. "You learn over time that you don't have to be in constant contact. Things can run well if they're organized properly."

His approach to each day aboard Vairea was a striking parallel of that realization.

"Michael got up every morning at a certain hour, did the treadmill, lifted weights up top and would discuss the day's events with the captain," Anne said. "He never, ever took the wheel. He was very much in control of the boat. He wanted them to know he was in control, and he wanted to know how it worked, but it wasn't his job to drive."

Anne never took the wheel, either. It simply didn't interest her. She did, however, learn that gaining a few seamanship skills made her feel more comfortable.

"The longer I was on the boat, the more I liked it," she said. "I could get in and out of that dinghy as well as (first mate) Richard. I was pleased with that."

French Polynesia, during the first month of their trip, provided the couple's first rough weather. The wind was raging, the seas were churning and, as Anne recalls, she and Michael were more nervous than scared. "The next day, I was kind of shaken by it," she said. "I had never done that before, and it was all night, and we didn't eat dinner because they were concerned we would be sick."

The experience heartened their trust in the captain and crew, and taught them they could handle being on the boat in less-than-idyllic conditions. Soon after, they spent nine days at a luxury hotel in Tonga and waited by the window nearly all night the last night, looking eagerly into the harbor, waiting for Vairea and her crew to arrive.

"We couldn't wait to get back, and we'd only been on board about three weeks," Anne said. She distinctly recalls feeling joyous when she looked out the window at 5 a.m. "It was home. It was there. It was trustworthy, and we looked forward to seeing our friends."

Taking Lessons Home

The Chases saw many spots so captivating, they can barely articulate the beauty. Anne, however, also recalls some harsher visions from places most people will never set foot.

"You see starving children. You see filth, and you can't do anything about it," she said. "You see boys diving for food, losing their lives. You see abuse. You see too many tourists on a reef, a natural wonder. You see dynamite fishing, which is illegal, and no one doing anything about it. You see trash in the water, in parks. You see places, like Turkey, where the people are pleasant because they're not yet jaded by tourism. It broadens your senses and makes you appreciate what you have."

Aware of the "ugly American" perception, the Chases tried to be generous wherever they went. Most people they encountered wanted cigarettes, Coca-Cola and T-shirts, preferably with a "Quicksilver" or other U.S.-style logo. They gave freely of each, always trying to be decent, but always aware that a small handout can lead to the desire for a larger one. In the Suez Canal, soldiers demanded bribes well over $1,000 and two spots on their boat. They had a problem in Egypt, traveling out of Cairo with a police escort to meet the boat at the edge of the Red Sea. As Anne recalls, two young men with machine guns demanded to search their bags within sight of Vairea. They were particularly interested in her Vogue magazines and a bag of antibiotics and allergy pills.

"They put the baggy of medicine on the ground, and Michael leaned over to pick it up," she recalled, her eyes stretching wide. "The man put the gun to his head and said, 'Back up.' We just did exactly what they asked us to do and kept smiling. By then, Loezic had docked the dinghy and realized something was going on. Eventually, they gave us the OK."

That encounter, among many others, good and bad, taught them that one of the most valuable assets a charter guest has is a good crew. When the Chases speak of Vairea's crew, they speak of them as family who shared their journey.

"You've got to get off, and you've got to get off frequently," Michael said, acknowledging that crew members need their own time. "If people don't realize that and think, 'I have to get my money's worth and be on board every minute telling the crew what to do,' that won't work."

Some of the couple's fondest memories are of the Seychelles, where the water and air were cleaner than any other place they've seen. "The cruise ships don't go because it's too far out of the way," Anne said. "There's no cities. It's just wonderful." They also loved Fiji. "You can stop in the middle of nowhere and jump in and there's nobody around you, and it's just gorgeous," Michael said.

Both also hold dear the knowledge that they spent nine months together on a sailboat, sometimes, literally, at the ends of the Earth. They only came home twice: for Christmas with their children in Colorado, and when Anne's mother became terminally ill toward the end of the journey. They had friends visit from time to time, but mostly in and around civilization. The world's most private wonders, they shared alone.

"We're very proud that we did it the way we did: few arguments, real bonding," Anne said. "We did it, and we did it with style and happiness."

Both say they would do such a trip again-preferably on the same boat with the same crew. Both also say they would only do so as charter guests, a notion many of Russell's clients have a hard time understanding.

"Everybody kept asking me, for that amount of money, why didn't he just buy the boat?" Russell said. "I say it's foolish to have all those headaches. This way, everything's taken care of. It's one of the most brilliant moves anybody ever made."

The Chases agree. The price they'd pay for a similar boat, plus maintenance, just isn't the way they want to spend their money or their time.

"The big contest was to find the ultimate sunset, when the sun goes down and you actually see green afterward," Michael said. "We were constantly sitting out there with a glass of wine, watching the sunset.

"We're still looking."