The Hard Way Around

RE­FUS­ING TO PUT LIFE ON HOLD, FOUR IN­TREPID TWEN­TYSOME­THINGS SET AN UN­CON­VEN­TIONAL COURSE TO SEE THE WORLD ON A NORD­HAVN 76.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY SI­MON MUR­RAY

We all have am­bi­tious cruis­ing plans, but for these twen­tysome­things, a once-in-a-life­time cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion be­came re­al­ity.

Mitchell DeVries was on the fly­bridge scan­ning for ice­bergs in the Drake Pas­sage when he re­al­ized it was use­less. It was too dark to see much of any­thing, let alone a shape ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing just out of reach of the boat’s spot­lights. If he did see one, the plan was sim­ple: He was to yell down the open hatch to his 29-year-old cap­tain, Chase Smith, who, from the wheel­house, would lurch the boat away from im­pend­ing doom. But even if he did man­age to spot one, DeVries wa­gered there wouldn’t be enough time for Smith to change course. He shiv­ered on the ex­posed fly­bridge and thought of home.

It was Fe­bru­ary and the tem­per­a­ture was 12 de­grees, with a steady wind blow­ing from the west at 40 knots. Ev­ery now and then 24-foot waves would spray the up­per­most decks. The young crew of Reliance, a Nord­havn 76 owned by Dalton DeVos—a 26-year-old hell-bent on not just cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the world, but mak­ing the most dif­fi­cult cross­ings imag­in­able—had just put Antarc­tica be­hind them. It was there on the Antarc­tic Penin­sula that Mitchell (his friends call him Mitch), the youngest of the crew, had cel­e­brated his 23rd birth­day.

The thought of crash­ing into a rogue ice­berg weighed heav­ily on him. He wasn’t even sup­posed to be on this trip, trav­el­ing as part of a four-man crew to the far ends of the earth. He should have been in a class­room in his se­nior year of col­lege. In­stead he was wor­ry­ing about loom­ing shapes in the dark­ness, in an in­hos­pitable body of wa­ter thou­sands of miles from home. He stared ahead and waited for what would come.

Most cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tions go un­no­ticed, ei­ther by their very essence or by de­sign. When Reliance set off from Fiji in 2015, the crew left with lit­tle fan­fare. But al­most two years later to the day, I was there to greet them upon their re­turn.

I had heard about the Reliance crew’s un­der­tak­ing purely by chance, and im­me­di­ately be­came fas­ci­nated with it. Aside from round-the-world sail­ing races and record-break­ing at­tempts, many of us as­sume cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tions are at­tempted by sea­soned cruis­ers, likely re­tired cou­ples with big dreams of see­ing the world. This was in stark con­trast to Reliance, where the av­er­age age of the crew was 27; two years younger than my­self. I was drawn to their story as much for our close­ness in age as I was to the spirit of ad­ven­ture that per­vaded it.

I first es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the crew while they were at sea. At first, only Chase would talk to me. This was partly in the in­ter­est of pro­tect­ing his client’s iden­tity, and partly be­cause com­mu­ni­ca­tion was lim­ited to the sat phone. The owner, as I would find out later, was Dalton, grand­son of Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire and Amway co­founder Richard DeVos.

It would have been easy for me to ex­plain away their ad­ven­ture as a rich mil­len­nial’s flight of fancy. I racked my brain to try and imag­ine what would make some­one set off on a two-year cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, bear­ing down on the tough­est pas­sages in the process. What I dis­cov­ered was more pro­found than I had imag­ined, a les­son about how legacy and friend­ship shapes us, and how dif­fi­cult it is to es­cape our lives back home.

Dalton was just fin­ish­ing up col­lege when he con­ceived a plan to take a mo­to­ry­acht around the world. At a time when most young adults in their 20s are deal­ing with the harsh real­i­ties of post­col­lege life—start­ing a job, pay­ing taxes, pay­ing down stu­dent loans—Dalton set into mo­tion a voy­age that would push him out of his com­fort zone. He had grown up in Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, and was raised like many young Mid­west­ern­ers: to be po­lite, to go to church, to not be de­fined by ma­te­rial wealth. But liv­ing al­most his en­tire life in Grand Rapids—where the Amway and DeVos name is ubiq­ui­tous—was like liv­ing in a bub­ble. “I wouldn’t trade my up­bring­ing for any­thing,” wrote Dalton in a jour­nal he kept through­out the trip, “but as I got older I saw that there was value in gain­ing dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.” Dalton couldn’t re­mem­ber a time when he didn’t want to join the fam­ily busi­ness. But as he got closer to start­ing his ca­reer, he couldn’t keep his cruis­ing dreams to him­self any longer. He

Dalton was stay­ing at his par­ent’s sum­mer cot­tage when he pro­ceeded to lay out his am­bi­tious cruis­ing plans, hop­ing to get their bless­ing. His mother started cry­ing. His father asked if he could come.

told a men­tor about the plans he se­cretly har­bored. He thought he would be ad­mon­ished. In­stead, he was given some valu­able ad­vice: Don’t wait, said his men­tor. This ex­pe­ri­ence will change your life. “And I’m for­ever grate­ful for it,” said Dalton when I spoke with him. “He was ab­so­lutely right.” Af­ter choos­ing a Nord­havn 76—said Dalton, “It just seemed to fit our pur­poses per­fectly”—the next step was to as­sem­ble a crew. He hired the first cap­tain he in­ter­viewed. That was Chase, a charis­matic, ex­pe­ri­enced South African. Next came Mitch DeVries, who Dalton had known since ele­men­tary school. Dalton had first reached out to Mitch’s older brother, Thomas, who con­sid­ered the of­fer for a long time be­fore de­clin­ing. The brothers are from Grand Rapids and had spent sum­mers work­ing on the DeVos fam­ily boats on Lake Michi­gan. When Mitch heard about the trip, he reached out to Dalton on his own. He told him he would have to take a hia­tus from Hope Col­lege in Michi­gan, but he didn’t want to pass up this once-in-al­ife­time op­por­tu­nity. Dalton was happy to have him.

One of the voy­age’s big­gest sup­port­ers was Dalton’s grand­fa­ther, Richard DeVos. In his youth, Richard had sailed a 38-foot schooner with his friend and Amway co­founder Jay Van An­del to the Caribbean, de­spite nei­ther know­ing how to sail—an un­der­tak­ing that be­came part of Amway’s com­pany lore. Dalton had grown up hear­ing about his grand­fa­ther’s ex­ploits; those sto­ries, cou­pled with the va­ca­tions to far-flung des­ti­na­tions he had taken with his grand­par­ents, were the seeds for his own adventures.

Dalton was stay­ing at his par­ent’s sum­mer cot­tage when he pro­ceeded to lay out his am­bi­tious plans, hop­ing to get their bless­ing, too. His mother started cry­ing. His father asked if he could come.

Port De­na­rau Ma­rina on Fiji’s west coast is an ideal place to go if you want to live like an In­sta­gram celebrity. Or hide out. On the day I ar­rived there, Dragon­fly, a 240-foot su­pery­acht be­lieved to be owned by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, was sta­tioned at the end of a long dock. (It is said to em­ploy 16 full-time crew.) The Reliance crew had com­pleted their cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion the day be­fore I ar­rived. They had re­turned to Port De­na­rau, Chase’s home port (his father owns a bro­ker­age and re­pair cen­ter there), and in cel­e­bra­tion, the night’s fes­tiv­i­ties had run longer than ex­pected. The crew looked dusty. Gone were the smil­ing faces I had seen in al­most ev­ery pic­ture posted on­line—many in trop­i­cal lo­cales.

A brief stroll through any of the crew’s In­sta­gram pages will trig­ger wan­der­lust. It’ll also make you green with envy. In one, Chase is hold­ing up a dol­phin the length of his body. Oth­ers show Mitch about to bungee jump 700 feet over the Bloukrans River in South Africa. An­other has Dalton hang glid­ing in Rio de Janiero; and Alex Ge­orge—a New Zealand en­gi­neer who came on as crew in the Sey­chelles—putting golf balls on an ice­berg in Antarc­tica.

There are pictures of them scuba div­ing in the Solomon Is­lands, tak­ing ATVs through the Namib desert, tub­ing in Pa­pua New Guinea and wake­board­ing in French Poly­ne­sia. The list goes on.

In to­tal, the crew ex­plored 29 coun­tries and logged over 50,000 nau­ti­cal miles, all while ad­her­ing to one rule: No one stays aboard the boat; ev­ery­one goes ad­ven­tur­ing to­gether. In ad­di­tion, Dalton was clear that he, too, should be con­sid­ered crew un­der Chase’s com­mand. That meant not be­ing ab­solved of a deck­hand’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: He ro­tated watch du­ties, pol­ished the stain­less steel, wiped down floors and, yes, cleaned the head.

“The smaller [Nord­havns] are built more for owner-op­er­a­tors,” Dalton said. “It’s a very co­he­sive boat. You’re amongst each other all the time, so it doesn’t feel like you’re iso­lated.”

At first, the close-knit crew was tac­i­turn around me. They had re­lied on each other for so long—work­ing, ar­gu­ing and bond­ing within very con­fined quar­ters—that the ad­di­tion of a stranger to the mix could have felt like a breach of trust. But by the time we were ready to clear out for Mus­ket Cove (a bight shel­tered by co­ral reefs on the is­land of Malolo Lailai, half a day’s cruise from Port De­na­rau) they started to open up.

Once there, the plan was to drop an­chor and meet with some fel­low cruis­ers aboard the Black Pearl, a 103-foot cus­tom mo­to­ry­acht that had taken Reliance’s slip two years ago at the be­gin­ning of the cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion. Prior to their de­par­ture, Chase had been coun­seled by Black Pearl’s cap­tain, Paul, on parts of Pa­pua New Guinea. Said Chase, “At first he just looked at me and said, ‘ You guys are go­ing where?’ They were just laugh­ing at us. ‘See you in two years!’”

Like Dalton’s team, the Black Pearl’s crew in­cluded an owner who took on the same du­ties as the rest of the crew—kind of like “hired friends,” joked Chase. Mitch com­pared it to HBO’s Hol­ly­wood bro­com­edy, En­tourage, only, as Alex added “with­out the girls.”

In the two years Reliance was cruis­ing, the boat never left an an­chor­age with­out Dalton. But now, at the end of the trip, Dalton had re­ceived some ter­ri­ble news: His grand­mother—Richard’s wife, Helen—had passed away sud­denly.

On his trav­els, Dalton had thought fre­quently of his grand­fa­ther, who had been ill. He had seen Richard be­fore he left Grand Rapids to be­gin his ad­ven­ture, and at the time, he won­dered if this good­bye would be their last. It was a dif­fi­cult thing to do. From the be­gin­ning, his grand­par­ents had urged him to un­der­take this voy­age. Now, two years later, Dalton hadn’t just missed birth­days, but years, re­ally, of time that could’ve been spent with friends and fam­ily. The small­est part of him won­dered if it was all worth it. When Dalton’s fam­ily called to tell him of his grand­mother’s pass­ing,

Reliance was set­ting off on the final leg of the journey, from Tonga to Fiji, and the sat phone’s con­nec­tion was hor­ri­ble. But when his grand­fa­ther picked up the line he sud­denly came in per­fectly clear.

“The first thing he said was: ‘Dalton where are you now?’” re­layed Dalton. “‘Grandpa I’m on my way home. I’m half­way be­tween Tonga and Fiji and fly­ing out to­mor­row. I’ll be there soon.’ And he just said ‘ Con­grat­u­la­tions! We’re so proud of you.’ He just wanted to talk about the trip.”

G row­ing up, Dalton couldn’t say his name any­where in Grand Rapids with­out some­one know­ing his last name,” he ex­plained. “On this trip, no one knew who the hell he was.”

Ini­tially, I had asked Chase to throw off the lines and make for some nearby har­bor, in part to see the crew in ac­tion while un­der­way. He ca­pit­u­lated, though it be­came clear they weren’t ex­actly itch­ing to get back on the wa­ter.

“The story goes the is­land was bought for a mus­ket and a hand­ful of bul­lets,” ex­plained Chase. “That’s where we’re go­ing on Mon­day.” “If the weather is good,” I said ten­ta­tively. “The one thing I don’t do of­ten is check the weather,” said Chase. That wasn’t a cap­tain grand­stand­ing: It was true. I heard him say some­thing to the same ef­fect af­ter an­chor­ing in Mus­ket Cove. Once we pushed out of the ma­rina, the en­tire crew moved in a me­chan­i­cal, stead­fast re­move from their work that was a sight to be­hold. Their spir­its also lifted. The weather in Mus­ket Cove was over­cast, but peace­ful, with a gen­tle head sea and pas­tel clouds.

Dragon­fly had beaten us to the cove; its mas­sive ten­der garage door open to re­veal a col­lec­tion of wa­ter toys.

A con­tin­gent of cruis­ers—those tran­sient, hard­scrab­ble, carous­ing denizens of the sea—had come aboard from Black Pearl, bring­ing with them some cold beer. Sa­lu­ta­tions and beers were given, with the con­ver­sa­tion in­vari­ably turn­ing to the cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion.

“Any scary parts?” asked the Black Pearl’s chef, a tall blonde wo­man from Al­berta, Canada. “When we left,” laughed Chase. On the very first leg of the trip, pushing out from Fiji to Van­u­atu, Reliance had run into a se­ri­ous storm. Twenty-six foot waves lashed the boat, which was run­ning out of hy­draulic oil due to a seal leak in the sta­bi­liz­ers. In the be­gin­ning, Chase was aboard with his girl­friend and busi­ness part­ner, An­gel DuPreez, and he was do­ing dou­ble duty as the boat’s en­gi­neer and helms­man. Dur­ing that first storm, he was rush­ing up and down from the pi­lot­house to the en­gine room, try­ing to in­struct Mitch on how to fix a leak on a boat he had never worked on be­fore. Luck was on their side: In short time the leak mirac­u­lously stopped.

“I knew things would break down, but you just have to stay strong and deal with it,” said Chase. “You gotta stick with your itin­er­ary and f*** the weather. We didn’t check the weather in the Pa­cific or the At­lantic cross­ings.”

Chase’s re­la­tion­ship, how­ever, couldn’t be fixed so eas­ily. He parted ways with An­gel in In­done­sia, less than a quar­ter of the way into the voy­age. From there, the crew had promptly turned into a boy’s club, with Chase let­ting his beard grow long and wispy. Dalton did the same; and Mitch had been grow­ing his hair out from the start. Alex had come on board al­ready sport­ing a shaved head and a long beard. In time, they had started to look like a pack of di­sheveled pi­rates. But, groom­ing aside, they seemed to have come out the bet­ter for it.

With Chase as their in­struc­tor, the men took turns learn­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of nav­i­gat­ing a 76-foot yacht. He taught them ev­ery­thing, from the rules of the road to radar tech­niques to read­ing pa­per charts. Part cap­tain, part in­struc­tor and part older brother, he also taught them how to kite surf and spear fish along the way.

To­gether, the crew heard lions roar in Zanz­ibar, played ping-pong at a weather ob­ser­va­tory in Antarc­tica and got tat­toos in the Mar­que­sas. And they had given back, too, pro­vid­ing fresh wa­ter, pro­vi­sions and fuel to the peo­ple they met along the way.

“That’s so cool,” said the chef. “What a cool thing to say you’ve done.”

The Reliance crew had also set, with­out even try­ing, an of­fi­cial record for the south­ern­most lat­i­tude ever recorded in a Nord­havn, a feat they barely men­tioned to me. At first, they were wor­ried they wouldn’t be cleared to en­ter Antarc­tica’s wa­ters by the Sec­re­tariat of the Antarc­tic Treaty, the south­ern con­ti­nent’s gov­ern­ing body. Af­ter all, Reliance wasn’t ice class. But once they were cleared for en­try, they found that the boat’s fiber­glass held up ex­tremely well, even against pack ice.

“We took it a lit­tle bit easy in the be­gin­ning, and pushed it a lit­tle bit harder, a lit­tle bit harder, a lit­tle bit harder as we were go­ing, feel­ing more com­fort­able,” said Chase. “And she did a great job

with the ice. I thought there’d be some big­ger dings and scratches and gouges in the paint. But it held up.”

The longest, rough­est cross­ings—like the Drake Pas­sage—were es­pe­cially hard on Mitch, the youngest crewmem­ber, who was of­ten home­sick. One night, back at Port De­na­rau, with Christ­mas lights fes­toon­ing the palm trees, Mitch of­fered up a rea­son for Dalton go­ing through with the voy­age. “Grow­ing up, Dalton couldn’t say his name any­where in Grand Rapids with­out some­one know­ing his last name,” he ex­plained. “On this trip, no one knew who the hell he was.” But I won­dered what would make some­one like Mitch, whose back­ground was very dif­fer­ent from Dalton’s, want to go on this voy­age, and was he aware of the price to be paid for “liv­ing life to the fullest” when he signed up? As a col­lec­tive, the crew had lost girl­friends, final mo­ments with fam­ily mem­bers and years de­vel­op­ing their ca­reers. It’s true, they had con­quered the world, liv­ing out a fan­tasy most of us can only dream about. But to this out­sider, their strug­gles and ex­pe­ri­ences were, for the most part, en­tirely un­re­lat­able.

No one knows ex­actly how many cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tions are com­pleted on an an­nual ba­sis. There is no in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body that reg­u­lates such feats, just a hodge­podge of clubs and or­ga­ni­za­tions that award mem­bers based on ex­cep­tional pas­sage­mak­ing. The con­sen­sus is that few cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tions, less than 2 per­cent, are un­der­taken by mo­to­ry­achts. What is re­sound­ingly clear is that—be it sail or mo­tor—many of these pas­sages re­main un­pub­li­cized. John Rous­man­iere, a his­to­rian of yacht­ing and the au­thor of

The An­napo­lis Book of Sea­man­ship, of­fered his rea­son for the se­crecy in an email. “While the first cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tor (Mag­el­lan) and the most fa­mous one (Joshua Slocum) and many re­cent ones (round-the-world rac­ers) want the world to know what they’ve ac­com­plished, most round-the-world mariners are very happy to be pri­vate and un­pub­li­cized,” he wrote. “They do it not for fame, but for per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion.” The last time I spoke with Dalton he was de­com­press­ing from the trip. “Learn­ing how to deal with this team that you lit­er­ally can­not get rid of, that you’re stuck with, that you can’t get away from and mak­ing that dy­namic work was def­i­nitely a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Dalton had told me. “And a re­ally good one, too. It was re­ally re­ward­ing.”

Af­ter sell­ing Reliance to an owner in New Zealand, the crew parted ways. Friends to this day, they still talk to each other oc­ca­sion­ally.

At the time of this writ­ing, Dalton was de­cid­ing which di­rec­tion to take in his pro­fes­sional life. Chase was work­ing for his father at Baobab Ma­rine, ad­ja­cent to Port De­na­rau, in Fiji. Alex had started his own ma­rine main­te­nance and re­pair busi­ness, Diesel Ma­rine NZ, in Auck­land. And Mitch had en­rolled as an un­der­grad­u­ate at Hope Col­lege, where he’s fin­ish­ing his last year.

I spoke with Mitch af­ter he re­turned state­side. He was work­ing for his father, the owner of a con­struc­tion com­pany in Grand Rapids. When we spoke, he was in the mid­dle of back­break­ing work, and he was all too happy to take a break. He would be start­ing classes in a week, and he was both ex­cited and ner­vous. Mitch had al­ways struck me as a hum­ble guy, one who was for­tu­nate, if not in­cred­i­bly lucky, to have gone on the ad­ven­ture of a life­time. With his long hair, laid­back at­ti­tude and quiet in­dus­tri­ous­ness, he could surely pass for any of the stu­dents tak­ing part in Greek life at Hope Col­lege.

But Mitch be­longed to a dif­fer­ent fra­ter­nity, a si­lent, pres­ti­gious one that stretches across the ages. He had ac­com­plished some­thing that for all its mag­ni­tude was eas­ier left un­spo­ken.

To calm his nerves, he had met up with Dalton re­cently to shoot some hoops. As the bas­ket­ball’s dull thuds ric­o­cheted and re­ver­ber­ated around the gym, they talked about how dif­fer­ent their lives were now, and the dif­fi­cul­ties in­her­ent in read­just­ing to “nor­mal” life. Like Richard DeVos and Jay Van An­del, the two now shared an in­vis­i­ble bond. An un­der­stand­ing of what it’s like to go through a highly un­usual ex­pe­ri­ence and come out the other side, not en­tirely dif­fer­ent but cer­tainly not the same.

Start/End: Nadi, Fiji Nau­ti­cal Miles Logged: 50,000 Coun­tries Vis­ited: 29

Dalton DeVos (left) chose a Nord­havn 76 for its co­he­sive spa­ces and ease of use.

Reliance rests in a se­cluded cove in the Mar­que­sas.

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