WENATCHEE — An offer of a scholarship in Norway became a six-month adventure at sea for a Malaga man and his family this past summer.
Phillip Unterschuetz decided his daughter-in-law’s plans for a year of study in Oslo was the perfect excuse for a nearly 10,000-mile sailing expedition down the Pacific coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic Ocean.
“The best thing was the opportunity to be with my kids. I feel so fortunate that they would want to spend that kind of time with me,” said Unterschuetz, 69, a retired Wenatchee Valley College teacher and owner of IFM, an organic agriculture supply business he founded and operated in Wenatchee for close to 20 years.
The plan included purchasing a seaworthy vessel the family could sail across the Atlantic and which Phillip’s son Karl and his wife Rachel could live on while Rachel continued school at a university in Oslo.
Rachel recently graduated with a doctorate in psychology from the University of Washington. She won a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her thesis studies on how children relate to nature.
Unterschuetz immediately began searching the Internet for a boat.
He found a 38-foot Hans Christian sloop for sale moored near La Paz, on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
“We got a very good deal on the boat,” he said.
The ship, named “Sophia” is a modern/traditional cruiser built in 1979 with a fiberglass hull and teak deck and cabin that can sleep four people comfortably, five in a pinch. The boat has a mainsail and staysail as well as a 75-horsepower diesel engine to motor it when there’s no wind and to get in and out of harbors. Unterschuetz said the boat is known for its seaworthiness. It didn’t let them down.
“There was really no danger. It handled everything just fine,” he said about weather conditions that included thrilling lightning storms off the coast of Southern Mexico, squalls in the Bermuda Triangle and a day of exciting winds that propelled them through the North Sea.
There were a few problems. Off the coast of Mexico the mainsail ripped off ; the alternator had to be repaired in Panama; the driveline was repaired in The Azores; and the transmission was rebuilt and the prop replaced in Ireland.
Several family members sailed different legs of the voyage: Phillip and Joan’s younger son, Andreas, and his girlfriend, Allison, joined Phillip on the first part of the trip down the Pacific Coast.
Phillip’s brother, Jeffrey, joined the crew in Panama and again through the British Isles and the North Sea. Rachel’s parents, Jim and Connie Severson, sailed with their daughter through the Caribbean. Karl and Rachel’s friend, Daniel, an experienced sailor from Canada, helped navigate the boat across the Atlantic. All signed on to either join Phillip, Karl and Rachel on a portion of the trip, or to replace them when they needed a short break. The crew was always between three and five members. Joan had commitments with her consulting business and wasn’t be able to make the trip.
Sailing is nothing new to Unterschuetz. He and Joan owned a sailboat in the 1970s when they began their teaching careers in the Seattle area and spent their summers sailing Puget Sound. He also sailed a few longer voyages down the Pacific Coast. After Karl graduated from Wenatchee High School in 1993, father and son hired on as crew members on a sailing trip between Hawaii and the Fiji Islands. Still, he was very excited at an opportunity to set sail again on a longer voyage that would bring family members together for a real adventure.
The adventure began last March, when Phillip and Andreas flew to La Paz to pick up the boat and get it ready for the voyage. They departed March 20. Karl and Rachel met the boat near Acapulco for the cruise to Panama. It turned out to be the longest time at sea of the entire trip, 21 days.
“It was the poorest weather we had. No big storms, but several squalls that we were able to dodge pretty successfully,” Unterschuetz said. He slept through the most exciting part, he said, while Karl raced through high winds and skirted lightning strikes that could have disabled the boat’s electronics.
Crossing the Atlantic was relatively smooth sailing, “like cruising on Puget Sound,” Unterschuetz said. The wind was good and they traveled at a steady seven knots — roughly 8 mph. The 2,000-mile trip from Bermuda to The Azores, a group of islands 1,000 miles west of Portugal, took 17 days.
Porpoises followed the boat every day. They saw dozens of whales. Every evening presented a beautiful sunset. Every morning a gorgeous sunrise. They often caught fish off the side of the boat and ate very well, not only fish, he said.
“We had a well-stocked galley. We all cooked, cleaned up and took shifts on watch. We got along very well,” he said. They saw plenty of freighters, but only one sailing vessel crossing the Atlantic. It was a square-sailed replica of an ancient Phoenician sailing vessel with a crew of students who had been at sea for 75 days traveling around the tip of Africa.
“They were out of coffee and cooking oil. We gave them coffee, oil and chocolate,” he said.
From the Azores, they sailed north to the British Isles and spent three days crossing Scotland through the Caledonian Canal before heading out to the North Sea with some trepidation. It’s notorious for storms. Strong winds propelled the ship to its maximum speed of eight knots the first day. Then the wind died and they had to motor two days to Norway. Unterschuetz said they only used the engine 200 hours in six months, mainly getting in and out of harbors.
They arrived in Oslo on Aug. 15. Phillip and Jeffrey, who joined the crew in the Azores, flew home. Karl and Rachel stayed, and are fixing up the boat to live on through winter.
There are no firm plans yet, but they’ll probably sail the boat back sometime next year or in 2012.
“I can’t imagine not being part of coming back with them,” Unterschuetz said. “I’m already looking forward to it.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151