The box was wrapped in beautiful paper and waiting on the table when the father walked through the door. His wife and their adult children knew what was inside. They had kept it a secret for months. They gathered around, trying to hide their grins as they wished him a happy 60th birthday. The family held its collective breath as he opened the lid. A person they loved dearly was about to realize his lifelong dream.
The first thing the father saw was an 11-by-14 glossy photo. He picked it up and swooned over the lovely, traditional lines of the 108-foot Alloy Marae . Then he saw the Marae ball cap and polo shirt, both in his size. They were atop a bed of brochures for the cruising grounds in and around Newport, Rhode Island.
“You bought me a yacht?” he shrieked, turning wide-eyed to his wife while mentally calculating the family finances.
“He took a deep breath to realize we only chartered it for a couple of days, which was a much different financial investment,” she recalls with a laugh. “And then he started to look through everything, and he was so excited. He went right to the computer and started to look at Narragansett Bay, to understand whether he could get to Block Island, what would we do, where would we go. He spent the next five weeks making notes about everything, being very methodical about what he wanted to accomplish.”
Marae, at a lowest weekly base rate of $54,000 in New England, was a larger sailing yacht than she had planned for the family’s first-ever charter. But when she’d called Nicholson Yachts and told the broker that her husband stood 6-foot-5 — and that one son was 6-foot-4 while another was nearly 6-foot-10 — the broker advised skipping the smaller options.
And so the family found themselves walking up the dock the first night of their charter, trying to spot the yacht’s mast against the nighttime stars.
“The mast was illuminated in the dark sky. We originally thought it was a cell tower,” the wife says. “We had no idea the yacht was going to be as big as she was. We just could not believe how much space there was — and again, we’re talking about very big people.”
They didn’t even notice the weather. Capt. Frank Ficken had changed the pickup spot to the Hinckley facility in Portsmouth because winds in the 30s were blowing out of the north. Narragansett Bay already had gust-driven 2-footers rolling through the scenic anchorage off Goat Island in Newport. He wanted to ease the first-time sailors in slowly, until they could get used to being aboard.
The family didn’t realize that sleeping tied to the dock that night probably saved them a good deal of motion sickness. They instead were thrilled to cast off in the next morning’s daylight, when they could see everything happening all around them.
“The first morning, we weren’t sailing very fast, just moving along nicely, but the boat was pretty stable,” Ficken recalls. “We didn’t bury the rail or anything. We were probably doing 7 or 8 knots when we probably could’ve been doing 12 if we’d been with the owner. The next day, we put up a little more sail, then more the next day. At that point, we were sailing like they were lifelong sailors. They were driving the boat, we buried the rail — they had a blast.”
Ficken pointed the bow toward Block Island, which offered smaller crowds than Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket during the holiday weekend. When the family arrived, they rented bicycles. The wife had thought that seeing the island would be the best part of the trip.
“We were out there for about two hours, and we looked at each other and said, ‘What the hell are we doing this for?’” she recalls. “We turned around and went back to use the toys on the boat, the rafts, the paddleboards — we just wanted to be on the boat.”
Ficken remembers that same moment, only from the children’s point of view. He watched them as they watched their parents acting like teenagers, taking advantage of every water toy Marae carries.
“They couldn’t believe their mom was riding on the inflatable tube behind the tender,” Ficken says. “The sons were on the aft deck, watching and saying, ‘What are the odds that we would ever see mom doing that? One in a million?’ They couldn’t believe the fun she was having.”
The wife, being a first-time charterer, hadn’t asked for a birthday party for her husband. “I am not familiar with what goes on,” she says, “and I didn’t want to ask for any special acknowledgment.”
Nonetheless, chef Sue Ficken (Frank’s wife) and Marae’s crew arranged for balloons, happy birthday signs and, of course, a cake: Black Forest double-chocolate with imported black cherries, shaved chocolate and buttercream frosting.
“The presentation on the tabletop — I could go on for an hour,” the wife says. “We were transformed out of ourselves when we were on that boat. The five of us were someplace else.”
They enjoyed that feeling underway too, as they got comfortable with the motion of the yacht through the water. Experienced sailors can forget how it feels the first time you catch a good gust, look out toward the horizon and realize it’s just you, the yacht and the elements.
For this family, that moment was every bit as awe-inspiring as the husband and wife had always dreamed it would be.
“There’s a tactile experience of watching those sails unfurl, the light that comes through, the fresh air in your hair, the boat moving,” the wife says. “You feel so small against the grandeur of an unfurled sail. You’re looking up, and you just cannot believe you’re in the middle of this. If you’re not a person who is used to this, and this is new for you, you think, ‘I’ve done everything. I’ve gotten on jets. I’ve gone on cruises. I’ve been all over the world.’ You think nothing can really surprise you until you stand there and feel all that going on around you. There is nothing like it. I’ve had a very blessed life. I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences. Nothing can compare to the feeling of standing on that boat and sailing along.”
While the family’s finances don’t allow for this type of experience every year, she’s already saving to surprise her husband and family with another go. One day aboard, she heard the captain say in passing that Maine has a beautiful coastline.
The comment is stuck in her mind, she says, because one thing she learned as a first-time charterer is to trust the experts. Get the bigger yacht if your sons are tall. Trust that the crew will make your husband’s birthday amazing. Don’t dream of far-flung places when something stunning is waiting to be explored close to home.
“I figure, you only go around one time. We’re going to do it,” she says. “My kids are still talking about it, and my husband — it will always be etched in our hearts as one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives.”
Also In New England:
Marae is expected to charter in New England again this summer. Here are some additional options: