The Family Sailboat

Five decades after first stepping aboard the 42-foot sailboat, Improbable, its owner is restoring it to sail the planet again.
42-foot sailboat Improbable
Bruce Schwab is in the midst of a refit of the 42-foot Improbable, a yacht he first stepped aboard as a teenager. Herb McCormick

On the blacktop of a boatyard adjacent to the bustling harbor of Anacortes, Washington, a warhorse of a 1970s-era racing yacht is stripped down and propped up, and is clearly in the throes of a keel-to-masthead reincarnation. The boat’s name is Improbable, which is fitting, because that also described the chances I’d run into an old sailing friend named Bruce Schwab when I arrived in the Pacific Northwest last summer to hop on a cruising boat headed north. Improbable is Schwab’s boat and the object of his current labor of love, and the entire story borders on the unlikely and implausible—which is why it’s pretty cool.

Schwab, a self-confessed “certified boat bum and sailing nut,” is also an accomplished sailor who has twice raced alone around the world and was the first American to successfully compete in the nonstop Vendée Globe in 2004-05. These days, he runs a business fitting out systems for onboard energy management and charging. It’s called OceanPlanet Energy, and it’s in Maine—which is why it was, well, improbable when I ran into him at a taco joint in Anacortes. After he invited me to come look at his latest project, the tale got stranger still; Improbable was a big reason he fell hard for the sport.

Designed by Gary Mull, the lean 42-footer was built of cold-molded kauri, a New Zealand wood renowned for its lightweight and superior strength. Schwab’s dad bought the boat in 1976, when Schwab was 16 years old, and he spent his teenage years campaigning the boat with his family and friends. Mull was a highly respected naval architect based out of California’s Bay Area, where he had almost a cult following among the local sailors. And Improbable, created and built to excel in long, downwind races like the ones to Hawaii, did extremely well in the old IOR measurement rule, which was the premier rating system of the day. It all laid the groundwork for Schwab’s long and successful career as a professional rigger and sailor.

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Improbable remained in the family all that time, but, when Schwab inherited the boat several years ago, it had largely fallen into a state of disrepair. As he sailed the boat from Northern California to Anacortes, where he had some local connections, the idea was to find it a new home. “I’ve done six races to Hawaii, four trans-Atlantic races, the ’round-the-world stuff, and I was thinking I’ve done enough sailing,” he said. “I thought I was over it. But on that trip north, it all flashed back. I remembered how much I liked the boat. And I wanted to know how it would feel if it was modernized. I have a vision for what it could be. And I just can’t let it go.”

So, he’s bringing Improbable back to fighting trim. He found an excellent carbon-fiber mast from a Farr 40, and he reckons there are some good used sails from that class that will also work well on this project. He’s completely reconfiguring the boat’s rudder, which, he says with a laugh, is a project he started when he was a teenager. The entire deck layout will be transformed with the latest and best go-fast hardware. Lithium batteries and solar panels will completely transform the systems technology. He’s doing it all slowly but surely, making regular commutes from the East Coast to the West Coast, as time allows.

Today, almost five decades after first stepping aboard the boat, Schwab is preparing, once again, to hoist sail, set the kite and haul the mail. Hawaii beckons. Perhaps a new generation will feel the thrill, pass the torch. Improbable? With this boat, it’s safe to say, probably not.