On the Threshold of the World

When Steve and Karyn James built their dream boat, they had no idea where they'd end up 38,000 miles later. _By Kim Kavin _

July 18, 2013

Threshold Castle

August 29, 1930, was a bright and sunny day on Hirta, the largest island in the North Atlantic’s St Kilda archipelago. Yet despite the cheerful weather, Hirta’s remaining 36 residents had ashen faces. They looked out at the rocky cliffs and steep, grassy slopes that anyone studying a map would call the end of the earth, but that they, and their ancestors, called home. The three dozen people stood under the crisp morning sky, its blue seeming to stretch 40 miles east to the Hebrides and even farther west to America, the ­next-closest landmass in that direction. They walked, or perhaps trudged, toward the 265-foot ­Anchusa-class HMS Harebell. She had been dispatched to collect them, and to relocate them to the Scottish mainland, before what was left of their civilization died off in isolation.

Threshold Windmill

Seventy-nine years later, Steve and Karyn James increased by two the number of humans ever to have set foot on St Kilda. They walked through what remains of the tiny stone houses with thatched roofs long ago blown away, and they read the placards that mark each homestead like a tombstone: Such-and-so family evacuated on this date. In a small shop run by the St Kilda Club, Karyn saw photos of the days before the Harebell departed. People carried furniture on their backs. Karyn leaned closer, and she could almost see the gritting of their teeth.


“We were only there for 12 hours,” she says, recalling the haunting beauty of the place. “That’s how long we could anchor and leave the boat,” Steve adds. “The North Atlantic, the swell can be coming in, and you’re unable to get ashore. There’s only one anchorage. We’ve got friends who have cruised in Scotland all of their lives and have never been able to get ashore at St Kilda.” Such are the experiences and shared memories of a couple who have cruised 38,000 miles since 2000, when they joined the Cruising Club of America (CCA). In March of this year, the CCA presented Steve and Karyn with its Far Horizons Award, honoring them for a “particularly meritorious series of cruises.” Their 54-foot Kanter Threshold was just outside of Bodrum, Turkey, as they stood for pictures at the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan. Steve, a retired American Airlines pilot, wore a dark suit and tie befitting tradition, and Karyn, a physician assistant, sported a fashionable red jacket. They smiled for the camera with one hand apiece on their handsome new plaque.

Threshold Mountains

It’s interesting, how big their smiles are in that photo. Genuine, for sure, but not nearly as wide as the grins in another recent snapshot, one where they’re donning foul-weather gear and knit caps, sitting aboard Threshold somewhere else on the planet, surrounded by choppy waves, gray skies and a dazzling rainbow in the distance. “I like uncommon destinations,” Steve says. “All my favorite places are places where not many people get to.”

Lofoten anchorage

**Creating a New Threshold **Chuck Paine has been designing boats in his own shop since 1974, and no less than a thousand of them are afloat. There’s the Paine 16, his answer to what Nathaneal Herreshoff might have drawn today; the 30-footer that Morris Yachts produced for many years; and the 26-foot Frances, whose lines have been copied more than 200 times. So many of Paine’s designs are considered classics that it’s hard to remember he has had a life beyond the water. But he has, and it included an old farmhouse in Maine where he would walk out the door and smack into whatever Mother Nature was hurling. Eventually, he built a porch connecting the warm interior to the elements, and, as he recalls, “life changed markedly for the better.” Steve and Karyn knew nothing of that farmhouse when they walked into Paine’s office in the mid-1990s, but they knew about his boats because one in particular had captured their fancy. At the time, they owned a 42-foot Tatoosh, also called Threshold, and they’d sailed her on some fairly ambitious itineraries including Florida to Mexico’s Yucatan, Florida to Maine, and Rhode Island to Bermuda. They were looking for a slightly larger boat that could take them just as far, and perhaps a bit farther. “We didn’t know if we were going around the world or not,” Steve says, “but we knew we were going somewhere.”

Threshold Houses

“We met a couple cruising a Chuck Paine Apogee 50, which is a dodger-style, hard pilothouse, and we really liked it,” Karyn adds. “We tried to buy one, to see if we could find a used one, and there weren’t any on the market. So when we were in Camden, Maine, we went over to Chuck Paine’s office. We asked him if he knew anyone who had one for sale, and he said no.” Then Paine whipped out the drawings for his new Bougainvillea series, and he tried to talk the Jameses into building new. “We thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be over our heads,’” Steve recalls. “But we talked to him, and we started shopping around for boats that size thinking we would buy a used boat and fix it up, but we couldn’t find one that would do everything we wanted it to do. At the same time, we were lucky with a few investments in the dot-com boom, and we turned that boom into an aluminum boat. We got to really do the dream.” For the next two years, they thought of nothing else. Their home filled with parts, fabric swatches and snapshots from boat shows of every smart idea they could copy. The Paine design was aluminum, so bulkheads could be moved as they wished. And Steve’s benefits with American Airlines let them fly every two months to Toronto, where they’d rent a car for the two-hour drive to the Kanter shipyard and their secondary command center — what Karyn remembers as an “el-cheapo hotel.”

Lofoten Islands, Norway

“They’d ask where we wanted the light switches, and then we’d worry about that,” she says. “We actually bought the dinghy so it could sit on the foredeck deflated, so that they could build around it, to make sure it would sit there perfectly for offshore passages.” Every system was installed with at least one backup, so thoughtfully considered that it would take 11 years under way before Threshold got stuck somewhere waiting on a part. On other cruising couples’ recommendations, the Jameses skipped a roller-furling mainsail in favor of a boom rack that lets them get the sails down fast without turning off the wind. They chose two cabins instead of three, using the extra interior space for a workbench, serious laundry machines and an in-salon office with a duplicate of the pilothouse chart plotter, so they can plan itineraries from the comfort of the sofa each night. They changed one settee’s stowage space into a filing cabinet for manuals and converted drawer space beneath a V-berth for paper charts. They piped fresh water into the main-cabin head to minimize odors associated with saltwater organisms, and they put a stall shower in that head for double duty as a foul-weather-gear hanging locker. “A detail like that means that our main salon, anything past the galley, has never had water on the floor,” Steve says. “The cushions have never been wet. Our upholstery is still like new.”

St. Kilda, Scotland

But their favorite feature aboard Threshold is the pilothouse — which Paine created in part based on his experiences battling nasty weather on land. “I liken this to the porch I built on my wife’s old Maine farmhouse,” Paine wrote. “A real pilothouse is a nautical analogy to the glassed-in Maine porch. Threshold‘s pilothouse can be sealed off from the cockpit (so it can be heated and cooled just like the indoors) and from the downstairs (so that when it’s snotty outside and the pilothouse is all business, meaning wet from the oilskins or dark for nighttime visibility) none of this activity intrudes upon life below.” And that’s exactly how it has worked. “Once you’ve got a pilothouse on your boat, you’ll never go back,” Steve says. “You don’t have to sit in the rain, you don’t have to be out in the wind — you can be comfortable when you sail.”

Threshold Blue Boats

Threshold launched in 2002. Steve and Karyn cruised the Great Lakes, worked up a punch list and took her back to Kanter for adjustments. And in nearly 40,000 miles of cruising since, the only thing they wish they’d done differently was raising the transom locker a smidge, so that whatever’s inside wouldn’t get wet. “Oh, and our battery access is not as good as I would like it,” Steve says. “But we got maintenance-free batteries. We’ve changed them once, and that was after seven years, so you can’t complain about that.” They took Threshold from the Great Lakes through the Erie Canal to the mid-Atlantic coast, then to Florida and the Bahamas, then back north to Bermuda, Nova Scotia and, in 2004, across the Atlantic to the Azores. From there they cruised to Ireland, Scotland, England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. In 2006 they were in Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Then it was back to the West Mediterranean to Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar — and, at that point, they were still only halfway into the 38,000 miles for which they were honored this year. As Steve put it, they came out of the Great Lakes and never looked back.

Threshold Mediterranean

**One Night in Scotland **Steve and Karyn are not the type to spook easily, and they remember almost all of their cruising as pleasant and fun. But there was one night, just one, that they both describe with pounding hearts. It was the night that Steve hunkered down in that beloved pilothouse, battling weather far worse than anything Maine had ever thrown at Chuck Paine. “We anchored in a small little cove in the western islands of Scotland,” Steve recalls. “I can’t even spell it, this channel between two islands where the tides run up to 8 knots, and there are whirlpools. To go through there, you have to go with the tide. You have to time it. There can be a 25-foot standing wave, and you can hear it from a mile away. So we anchored right next to it on a really beautiful evening. We put two anchors down, and we were eating dinner in the cockpit, and we could see, in the setting sun, a great big buck of a deer walking the ridgeline way above us, maybe 1,500 feet above the boat. It was such a picturesque scene, and there was no sign of human life in any direction.”

Threshold White Boat

“The plan was the next morning,” Karyn says, “we were going to get the current and go with the right tide to get to the next section of the Scottish Isles.” “So we went to bed,” Steve says, “and I’m awakened with gusting winds and rain. We’re swung on the anchors, and we’re very near the rocks, so I jumped into the foul-weather gear and turned on the engines.” “The winds were coming down the hillsides,” Karyn says. “Whoomp! Right into the water.” “It was very dark,” Steve says. “No visibility. The lights on the boat were the only light in sight. Karyn and my son Nathan had to get the anchors up, and I was keeping us off the rocks. They got the anchors off the bottom, but it took about an hour, and it’s pitch dark, and we’re in a cove that is probably 10 boat lengths wide and 15 boat lengths long. We can’t see. All I’ve got are the radar, the GPS and the chart plotter. I did figure eights in that cove and sat as long as I could before doing another figure eight, just trying to stay in that cove. We were penned. We did that for about four hours; then it got light and the current let us ease out. It would’ve been really easy to have lost the boat that night.”


“We didn’t have an out,” Karyn says. “We have this great night scope which I love, and it’s saved us many times, but because of the rain, we couldn’t even see the shore. Sometimes on a dark night you can look through that scope and the shore is just calling you right down, but we couldn’t see a thing. Steve had his eyes glued on that chart plotter and just kept making that tight circle, because we knew we were safe in that circle. Morning couldn’t come fast enough.”

Threshold Donkey

**Beyond the Great Beyond **But morning did come, as did many more mornings thereafter. The Jameses say one of their best experiences thus far was in 2008 — when Steve finally persuaded Karyn to let him take the boat as far north as they could get, about 500 miles north of Norway. “We got the boat to 80 degrees north,” Karyn says. “There are no electronic charts after that.” The ice had receded with the summer’s warmth, but the glaciers were still there along with the seals, walruses and polar bears that became Threshold‘s cruising companions. It was Threshold out on the water with an explorer boat for National Geographic, running in bright sunshine at 10 o’clock at night because of the latitude.


To get there, they’d cruised to near the middle of the Atlantic from Europe and then cut upward at an angle. It is the most dramatic passage they remember, as well as one of the most beautiful, covering the entire coast of Norwegian fjords. “I thought there was no way I’d ever get Karyn to do it,” Steve says, “but I never gave up on it, and I think she had a good time.” “Oh, it was amazing,” Karyn says. “When you get up there, you realize it’s such a different part of the world, and there aren’t very many people out there doing this. If you ask what was the pinnacle of our sailing career, that was it.” So far.

Hagia Sophia

**To the Ionian Islands in 2015 **The Cruising Club of America sponsors a cruise each year, and in two years, that cruise will be organized by Steve James. It’s to the Ionian Islands of Greece, where he and Karyn cruised aboard Threshold_ in 2012. CCA membership is by invitation only, and offshore sailing experience is required. If you think you have what it takes and can make your boat ready by September 2015, then you might get to sail along with the Jameses on this upcoming adventure. Learn more at_

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