Germany to California by Sailboat
My friends often mention that I should write a book about how I immigrated to the US from Germany by sailboat when I was a teen. Since that will probably never happen here are at least a few stories and photos from that trip.
I was born in Germany to German parents and had visited the US a few times during summer vacations. My dad had visited several times before my mom and I came into the picture and fell in love with southern California. His goal was to move there as soon as he could. By the time I was 14 his dream was to become a reality when we received our green cards!
Since sailing was my dad’s other big passion he decided to sail to our new home rather than simply fly and bought a brand new Dehler 38 shortly before we were about to leave. We had been weekend-sailing together as a family for years around Holland, Belgium, France and England. Our vacations were spent taking sailing lessons with one 6-week charter in the Greek isles. My dad went on several offshore sailing trips and got his captain’s license. In August of 1987, we departed Germany. Here is the map of our entire trip of over 10,000 miles.
Verena and her parents aboard JOY in the Canary Islands shortly before the Atlantic crossing. 1987.
View Germany to San Diego aboard JOY in a larger map.
After leaving Germany we sailed down the coast to France and eventually crossed the English channel as we had done a few years earlier during one of our “practice runs” (aka family vacations). We stayed in Plymouth for several weeks while getting upgrades such as a roller furling headsail. When a good weather window presented itself we set sail to cross the Bay of Biscay. Our longest crossing to date. All went well and we arrived in A Coruña unscathed.
We sailed on to Portugal, where in Aveiro I met a group of kids I really hit it off with. One day the four of us took a dinghy down the river into town. On the way back the current was so strong that we were swept out towards the sand bar in front of the river. We were unable to get out of the way of the large waves breaking over the bar and surfed down the first one. On the next wave we breached the dinghy. It flipped and we all fell out into the crashing surf. I was able to hang on and found myself under the overturned dinghy.
When all seemed calm I ducked out from under the dinghy and started yelling for the others. They had all made it and after righting the dinghy and gathering up the items that hadn’t sunk or been swept away we tried to start the outboard. It would not start and we were getting pushed farther and farther out to sea due to the strong river current. So we started paddling up the coast to get out of the current. After a while we were able to make some headway back toward the shore. Someone must have seen what happened from the jetties because an old fishing vessel picked us up and towed the dinghy back up the river. The Portuguese coast guard showed up just as we were getting dropped off to our unsuspecting parents.
View Aveiro Dinghy Capsize in a larger map
We sailed on to the Canary Islands from where we would cross the Atlantic.
For the crossing we participated in the second-ever Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC 1987). Recently, I was able to get the Cruising World article about the ARC ’87 and we are mentioned toward the end, for the collection my dad and I took up to help out the Canadian crew that lost their boat on the reef in front of Barbados.
A couple weeks into our 21 day Atlantic crossing we were sailing along nicely while I was fast asleep in my bunk. It was that magic time when things always seem to go wrong – around 2am. I was awoken by a loud thud and a strong jerk which felt like the boat had come to a sudden stop. It was all hands on deck.
The boat had indeed stopped moving though the sails were still full and trying to pulling the boat. We checked the bilge for any intrusion of water and after finding a slow trickle we grabbed some flashlights and checked around the boat. We were surrounded by faded yellow buoys attached to an old fishing net!
We pulled up on the net and started cutting it back but it just kept going and going like one of those magic handkerchiefs. In the beam of the flashlight we could see a thick line, from what seemed to be the middle of the boat, run down into the deep blue. We later learned it had been hung up on the propeller shaft and broken our strut in half. After having seen but one boat in the past two weeks my mom suddenly saw a light on the horizon.
We called them on the VHF and they responded immediately. We told them of our troubles and they offered to help. When they pulled up next to us we were looking at a 55 meter luxury yacht – the Lady Ghislane of London owned by British billionaire Robert Maxwell.
They offered to have their divers cut us loose in the morning but until then they did not want to waste time by waiting around. They tossed us a line and proceeded to tow us through the rest of the night at 10-12 knots! We had never seen those kind of speeds on our boat and it was not without some damage. We had a few bent stanchions and nearly ripped the cleats out of the deck before we attached the tow line to the mast.
The buoys that broke our strut mid-Atlantic
At first light the two divers cut away the rest of the net and line. We had a slow leak the rest of the crossing and in Barbados hauled the boat to weld the strut and paint the bottom.
We asked the crew how we could pay them for their efforts. They declined and instead asked us to make a donation to the UK volunteer maritime search and rescue organizations, which my parents did after we arrived in the US. The owner billionaire tragically fell of his ship a few years after our chance meeting.
This story was featured in an older edition of Jimmy Cornell’s book “World Cruising Handbook“.
San Blas Islands
Swimming in the Caribbean
Rowing the dinghy in Portugal
Boobies on the bow off Mexico
Arriving in our new home!