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Ocean lover Sue Smith says you only live once

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Sue Smith’s houseboat Yolo is up for sale (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

As a child, Sue Smith took a few sailing lessons at summer camp but never really got into it.

“I always thought of sailing as a rich man’s sport,” the 68-year-old retired microbiologist said.

Then in her early fifties she met Alex Crowell, a solo sailor from Bradenton, Florida.

“I met Alex in Bermuda,” Ms Smith said. “He was headed to the Mediterranean via the Adored but found it too expensive so had decided to sail to South America instead. I told him I’d always wanted to do an ocean passage. I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t a burning desire of mine, until that point.”

They kept in contact and sometime later, Mr Crowell asked if she would sail around the Canary Islands with him. She said yes.

“People said I was crazy,” she said. “They said what if it doesn’t work out with this man you hardly know. I said I’ll get off and go to a hotel.”

On that trip, she fell in love with sailing.

“I liked the freedom and I liked the motion of the ocean,” she said. “I loved the fact that you're under sail and it is the wind that pushes you along.”

They did a few more trips. Then, in 2005, they sailed together from Piriápolis, Uruguay, and around Cape Horn, a rocky headland on Hornos Island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in southern Chile. This area where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet is known for its wild seas.

She joined Mr Crowell in January planning to sail with him on his Freya 39 boat Faster Horses, for a year.

“Looking back I see how crazy it was,” she said. “I didn’t realise quite how bad the weather and sea conditions were down there. That is where some of the worst seas are in the world. We sailed down the Atlantic side of South America, and then went through the Strait of Magellan, to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

The Strait of Magellan is a shorter and safer route than the Drake Passage around Cape Horn but the water in this channel can also be turbulent, icy and sometimes foggy.

In March, they made it through and sailed up the western coast of Chile, as far as the Gulf of Penas. One day Ms Smith began to feel sick due to the rolling seas. She went below to rest, leaving Mr Crowell on deck.

Laying downstairs, she heard an ominous crack and felt the boat shudder.

“I said is everything all right up there,” she said. “Alex said no, it is bad, real bad!”

They were demasted.

They still had the mast but it was on its side. They spent the next four or five hours getting in all the rope they could from it and cutting the roller, then furling off and winching the broken mast on to the side of the boat.

Sue Smith sailing up the western coast of Chile in 2005 (Photograph supplied)

“He put a sleeve in the mast and just made it a bit shorter,” she said. “Every time the boat rolled you would hear it bang against the side of the vessel.

As they worked to secure the boat she had to take regular breaks to vomit over the side, because she was still sea sick.

“I couldn’t stop helping because he could not do it all by himself,” she said.

They motored back the way they had come and sheltered near the coast. They radioed to the nearest lighthouse for advice on what to do and were told to anchor and wait for the Chilean Navy, who would take three days to arrive.

They were in a very isolated spot. They had plenty of non-perishable food on board, but were running low on propane, which they needed to cook the food. They had to land and cross the Andes in a rickety van, to collect extra supplies.

Sue Smith on her boat Yolo (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Through it all, Ms Smith always felt that they could cope.

“I just had the faith that we would be all right,” she said. “I just looked on it as another adventure but I was probably very naive.”

Still, she was relieved when their rescuers finally turned up to guide them through various canals until they were further north and in a safer spot to sail.

“It took six hours instead of a week,” Ms Smith said. “We felt elation when we finally got there.”

In Castro, Chile, she left Mr Crowell and flew back to Bermuda. They had sailed approximately 2,570 miles over the course of five months.

“I had another commitment,” she said. “I had to fly back to Bermuda.”

She settled down on land for a short time, then bought a 30ft Catalina sailing boat to live on.

“I love living on a boat,” she said. “I love the motion of the ocean underneath me. I love the wind.”

However, she has her limits. When the wind gets above 50 knots, she finds shelter on land.

In 2016, she sold her Catalina and bought a 32ft blue water sailing boat, which she called Yolo, meaning “you only live once”. She now lives on it in the marina in Dockyard in Sandys.

During the pandemic she was considered an essential worker.

“I went to work at the Health Department every day,” she said.

Then in December 2020 she retired to spend many happy days and weeks sailing with friends. One of her favourite spots to sail is a group of islands just south of Guadeloupe called the Îles des Saintes.

“It’s French, so you get a lot of croissants and good cheese,” she said. “It is very well-maintained and there is lots of hiking.”

Sue Smith spending time with penguins in Antarctica in 2011 (Photograph supplied)

Another favourite trip was in 2011 when she travelled on sail-training vessel Europa to Antarctica.

Sue Smith on the sail-training vessel Europa in 2011 in Antarctica (Photograph supplied)

“We were taught that when we saw sea lions we had to go up to them and make a lot of noise, right in their faces,” she said. “This went against every instinct, but it was necessary. Otherwise they would think we were weak and chase us.”

Ms Smith is now looking to sell her houseboat, so that she can join crews on sailing boats in the Caribbean.

She has three children Katrina Barclay, Rowena and Alistair Smith and three grandchildren.

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Published August 16, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated August 16, 2023 at 7:03 am)

Ocean lover Sue Smith says you only live once

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