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My Boating and Sailing Experiences

Frank Robben, May 1996

(If you just want to know about my travels with Kialoa click here.)

From the Beginning to Kialoa II

Like all young children, I dreamed occasionally of boats. In the winter the slough that ran between our house and the main barn would generally fill with water, it had two parts and we could normally walk through the dry part between these. It was more exciting when it was more full, then we needed rubber boots. I believe I had small ones, but I loved to put on my father's hip waders (on me they were hip waders when rolled down to his knees, the way he normally wore them) and go across the water. It was marvelous to simply stand in the middle of that little pond, water all around, and imagine how it was to be out on a lake. Although the ocean was not so far away and we visited the seashore occasionally, I do not remember thinking particularly about being on the ocean. That perhaps was beyond my ideas of risk taking.

When these ponds were full I tried to use scraps of timbers to make a little raft on which I could float across the pond. Mostly I succeeded in getting my feet wet! But such is the attraction of water, even on a farm in central California.

When I went to Cal Tech, in Pasadena, and after convincing my father to let me take my reworked pickup truck, I remember going to the beach off Santa Monica, near UCLA, and watching a number of sailing yachts at moorings in the open ocean rolling around behind a simple breakwater. I dreamed about what it would be like to live on such a boat (it seemed that it had to be a sailing boat), the idea conveyed a sense of protection in a compact space, somewhat adventurous and a bit difficult. I remember sort of figuring the costs and realizing that it was cheaper to live on land. But it was a dream lying dormant.

The next year I transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and was introduced to rowing. My roommate was tall and strong-looking and they tried to entice him onto the rowing team. I was smaller, but not so small, and did want to participate in some sort of organized athletics - for status, and to prove that I was not a wimp. So I showed up one day at the boathouse, they put me in the old training barge, and that was the beginning of my most major activity during the next three years at Berkeley. A different kind of boating, but I became used to being on the water.

Later, when living with my Aunt and Uncle in Atherton and working at Lockheed I felt the need for a boat - and I had saved up a little money. I looked around the boatyards and docks, and an older fellow offered me his converted 22 foot plywood lifeboat. It seemed like a nice little boat, with a short mast and red sails, nice accommodations for two people, stove, water and all that. I was too shy to investigate very much, even to learn about other boats, and bought it without knowing what it really was. I learned to sail by motoring out into the middle of the bay and hoisting the sails. After a few jibes and near disasters I could get around a bit under sail, except that it was a terrible sailing boat and would generally not even tack - you had to "wear ship" as it was called with the old sailing vessels. But the engine worked fine and I was much more of an expert with mechanical devices.

Years later we went to Sweden as a "Post Doctoral" experience. (Actually, neither me nor my wife really wanted me to go to work at a regular job.) There, on the Baltic Coast, I found the Skargaard (Archipelago) so beautiful, polished granite islands with fir and pine trees, the sea gradually turning into land as one progressed from the sea. It seemed the most magical place I had ever known. One afternoon my boss took me across the Tvaren, a maybe 3 mile diameter inlet from the Baltic that lay just outside my office window at Studsvik, in his small motorboat. It was fantastic to land at a little, deserted island in the middle of the Swedish summer, explore the island and swim in the cold and clear water. My greatest desire became to sail amongst the islands of the Skargaard by myself with my family (by then wife and three small children). I managed to rent a flat bottomed, wide beamed sailboat (known to us as "Skogulf's Boat") that had been built up out of a sea scout boat, and we spent several glorious weeks sailing around the Skargaard.

Next episode: The middle of winter in Sweden, almost totally dark except a bit of light around noon, and everyone rather depressed and gloomy. And my wife and I fought often, unpleasant altercations. I went with a neighbor to Stockholm's Massa, the largest boat show in Sweden. There I looked at several new boats, in particular a type called FinGal, designed and sold by Knud Reimers, an older and very respected naval architect. I became intent on purchasing a sailing yacht, although my wife would not hear of it and so we had no discussions on the subject.

I looked around a bit at other boats, Folkboats for example, but I had decided that I would take the boat back to San Francisco with me and sell it, hopefully recouping my costs. And I thought a new fiberglass boat would sell better. (Money was quite important, if perhaps only symbolically, and it was important to believe that I could recoup my investment, and maybe even make a little bit. What wishful thinking and fantasies we use to delude ourselves to get what we want!) So a new FinGal, just the hull and deck, was purchased and arrangements made with a local boatyard to complete the interior while I did the rigging. I used my own separate money, not my wife's or joint moneys, and Barbara, while complaining, eventually accepted the fact and we actually had a great time sailing Gudrun both in Sweden and later in San Francisco.

And the next episode: Divorced, remarried and not happy with my research projects at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. And my wife not happy with me complaining about my work. I still had Gudrun, we spent our honeymoon on her - in a bit of stronger wind Marsha was so sure it was going to tip over and sink she lay on the cabin sole and prayed!.

December 20 was a day of remembrance for me, a mourning, and that year I sailed to Angel Island and spent the day wandering around, enjoying the views, the trees, grasses and bushes swaying in the wind, and eating some food and drinking some wine. I thought about life, where I fit in, what did I want to do, where did my path lie. And I worked out in my head how I could buy a large sailing yacht and use it to take people out sailing on San Francisco Bay, for lunches, for dinners, up the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers for overnight trips, and larger groups for just day sails. I knew the bay, the delta, and loved parts of it. It would be exciting, Marsha could help, she enjoyed people, and it would be a major project and cost a lot of money. Most important, I worked out in my head that charter fees could pay for the costs, maybe not the vessel and my time, but at least would cover expenses. I did not think actively about longer offshore voyaging, but I am sure that contributed to my enthusiasm. I was going to be "practical", limit myself to what I knew, and what I told myself could be successful financially.

Perhaps more, I was mourning for David, my son who was killed in a auto accident. He and I had discussed that we might sail off to other places together, someday, and he had been enthusiastic (at that time). So, in some way, perhaps I could do something that would take a bit of David's spirit with me.

So I came home, talked about my ideas with Marsha and she was enthusiastic (but not very practical). So the die was cast, I told some friends about my plans and we started looking for a suitable boat. I read up on the Coast Guard regulations (generally not good news) and looked for a boat that could carry a number of passengers. It was fun, as everyone knows who has ever contemplated purchasing a boat or some other romantically related machine of that complexity. It is a romance of sorts!

In my search I became aware of Kialoa II, as well as many other boats. None fit the requirements. Kialoa II was too large, too expensive and had unsatisfactory interior accommodations for the type of overnight guests I (and we) hoped to attract. I did not take Kialoa seriously, but after seeing her in Newport Beach I found myself attracted to her, daydreaming a bit. In December we received a telephone call from a friend of Marsha's who worked in the bank in the department that had repossessed Kialoa. She let us know that the bank had countered a low bid and believed they would sell her at a greatly reduced price.

Ah, the attraction of getting a bargain! This news threw both me and Marsha into a tizzy and we decided to consider it seriously. I called up the Coast Guard and inquired about some details of the regulations for a passenger vessel of Kialoa's size, and received a favorable reply. I even double checked that info with another telephone call, same answer. (Often one gets the reply one wishes to hear, it turned out to be erroneous and prevented the most important part of my plans for financial solvency with Kialoa to be possible.) Shortly before Christmas, I made a bid and sent a check for 10% deposit.

It was accepted! Whoever else was bidding did not get the boat, but had worn down the bank to what I thought was a good price. Not a bargain, perhaps, but a good price. We could still get out of the deal, the vessel had to be surveyed and inspected by me and I could always seize on some defect to cancel the sale. But in a way, my life was now sealed, committed to making this yacht sail and be in good condition again, to sail her to many places, and to enjoy the company of many people. Once my imagination had carried me this far it would have taken a very major change to compel me to alter my course (what a pun).

Later I found out that the hull had serious corrosion problems (which should have been found by the surveyor), that I could not get Coast Guard certification to carry more than 6 passengers (except at unreasonable expense), and that the repairs to simply return Kialoa to good seaworthy condition were going to cost much more than I paid for her. So economically Kialoa II turned out to be a disaster.

However, in spite of that, here I am,15 years later, Kialoa has been turned over to a new owner and I am still solvent and able to support myself and my family. How, exactly, I am not sure, I never earned much money as a professor or research scientist. I did own some property which turned out well, but probably mainly my father had done well as a farmer and what I had been left managed to grow. The economy of the United States has grown, and the stocks which my father, and later myself, had purchased had also grown. At 65 years of age I am healthy and retain much of my physical strength. I have been lucky, even blessed, with many things in life.

My Life and Travels with Kialoa II

Frank Robben

Kialoa II was purchased in December 1984, when I was 50 years old, to begin a somewhat more adventurous life than I was leading as a research scientist and group leader at the University of California's Lawrence Berekeley Laboratory.

After spending much of 1985 and 1986 rebuilding most of the systems of Kialoa II, I chartered her casually in San Francisco Bay for a bit, sailed to La Paz, Baja California in January of 1987 and returned in the April. In the fall of 1987 we entered a race from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas (with contributing participants), and then had a few charters in the Sea of Cortez, returning to San Francisco in May 1988. We entered the Pacific Cup, a race from San Francisco to Hawaii (4th to finish in a bit more than 10 days), and then entered another Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas race in November.

In January of 1989, while in Baja California at Magdalena Bay on a whale watching trip, my agent Mary Crowley called and said that a Japanese group wanted to sponsor Kialoa II to enter the Hiroshima Cup race from Honolulu to Hiroshima. I felt the boat was not yet ready for so long a voyage, but my friend Michael Ferdinando, who was helping me with Kialoa, convinced me otherwise. And I could not pass up the opportunity. I put a figure on my costs, they accepted, and so we did the Hiroshima Cup, taking some 24 days (very slight winds near the finish), and were the first foreign yacht to finish (overall 4th to finish). A wonderful experience, it was almost magical when we crossed the finish at the sacred island of Miyajima.

I stayed in Japan and Korea for a year. Through a research colleague at Berkeley I managed to get a job at the Nissan Motors Research Laboratories in Yokohama and worked there for 9 months. I would have loved to have spent more time in Japan, an incredibly interesting country.

August of 1990 we left Tokyo and sailed non-stop to San Francisco, if I remember 31 days. After returning I had fun for a bit sailing around San Francisco Bay, and up into the Delta, but then serious repairs and painting had to be carried out. In April 1991 we sailed to Hawaii (on a charter), and then on to the South Pacific with family on board.

While in Papeete, Tahiti, my friend Larry Armi of UC San Diego informed me that the National Science Foundation had funded his proposal to do some oceanographic studies (of "meddy formation") off the coast of Portugal. I was in his proposal as the research vessel, now we had the money and necessity to sail Kialoa on around the world to Portugal. Very exciting! The next 4 months were spent on a mooring in idyllic Cooks Bay, Moorea, making repairs and preparing Kialoa for the voyage to Portugal.

I chose a conservative itinerary for this voyage, the easiest and safest route, allowing for a fair amount of time at what I hoped would be interesting places. It is magical to plan such a trip, and the reality was magical as well. A wonderful set of experiences, with sailing and Kialoa, with the people sailing with me, and with the places we visited and people we met there. Not easy, and not always easy experiences with the people, but I come away with the feeling of having touched real things, real people, so much more rewarding than my days of research and teaching.

We started by visiting Huahine, Raiatea and Bora Bora, the "Isle Sou le Vent (sp?)" islands of French Polynesia (for the second time), then on to the capital of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga. Next stop Pago Pago in American Samoa, followed by Apia in Western Samoa (where Robert Louis Stevenson had his final home and resting place), and then on to the northern island group of Tonga, Vav'au, a beautiful set of islands with lovely people (but also heavily visited by yacht charterers).

Fron Tonga we went to Suva, the capital of Fiji, where we stayed a bit more than a month and visited a number of islands. My daughter and family visited, we enjoyed some diving and carried out some repairs to Kialoa. The next stop was Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu (the former New Hebrides, which I always thought was a lovely name). When I went on a bus tour of the island I found that the two local bus drivers were perhaps the most hospitable people I had ever met. We invited them for dinner on Kialoa and found out they were just ordinary people trying to support their families back on another island. Vanuatu is a place I would like to visit again.

A bit of a longer hop to Cairns, Australia - here as we approached the coast I made a mistake in reading the GPS and overshot by a bit the pass we intended to enter. An example of what could have been a disastrous mistake, with nice weather and a relaxed captain and crew. In port more repairs and maintenance, and a diving trip out to the Barrier Reef which is really special. Then up north "over the top", Thursday Island, to Darwin in the Northern Territory. The Australians do not like foreign yachts stopping anyplace except at approved harbors stamped into your boat "visa", which could cramp a cruising and adventuring lifestyle there.

While in Darwin I went on a week's vacation with a commercial camping trip to the famed Kakadu National Park. As I write all the memories flow back, what seems like wonderful experiences, some sights, some people, and the interactions between me, them and my thoughts. But in actuality ordinary experiences, there are many other visitors to these places with similar experiences and thoughts as mine; I am doing no more than thousands of others.

From Darwin on out into the Indian Ocean, we skipped Bali and Indonesia, it seemed more difficult and rather expensive to get a cruising permit. And stories of pirates, maybe well founded, maybe not. But the world is an enormous place, there is always an alternative, and maybe better, choice. We drift in calm seas and I insist on diving on the hull to clean it. Ali and everyone was a bit reluctant, but they follow me in after a bit. Next thing I know Ali is rushing past me and up the boarding ladder, saying "A shark was charging right towards me!". This man and friend had always been cool, collected and was an excellent diver and fisherman; I had never seen him frightened before. Needless to say, that ended our hull cleaning, only the port side was done.

Christmas Island - riddled by phosphate mines now no longer in operation, peopled by Chinese and other formerly indentured workers, with land crabs that covered the roads on their way to the sea - is still a beautiful, isolated island. Some nice days were spent there and much beer was consumed at the local yacht club.

While crossing from Christmas Island to the Cocos Keeling Islands in November '92 the backstay adjuster snapped and the top third of the mast broke off (see my newsletter). We made jury repairs in Cocos Keeling, then sailed and motored to Galle, Sri Lanka, where the next 5 months were spent sleeving and welding the mast back together (and enjoying the country and culture).

While in Sri Lanka I met Cynthia, who eventually joined me in Portugal, and stayed after learning to put up with me. Kialoa left Galle in April 93, stopped at Aden (more experiences I would love to describe), on up the Red Sea to Suez, out into the Mediterranean with only a brief stop at Malta before arriving at Vilamoura, Portugal in June. A very rushed trip as we were scheduled to start Larry's research project there near the end of June.

The research was completed (another newsletter) in March '94. With friends and family we sailed to Madeira, crossed the Atlantic to St. Lucia and cruised through the windward islands to Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Cynthia and I were married in Tortola in a simple ceremony on Kialoa with the occupants of the neighboring boats as witnesses and guests. From there we sailed by ourselves to Nassau, Bahamas where after 6 weeks I finally got a visa for Cynthia and Maria to enter the US. In July 1994 we arrived in Cape Canaveral, Florida, my first time in the US since April 1991.

January 1995 we left Cape Canaveral and followed a route down Florida, along the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize, to the Panama Canal. And an easy trip north to San Francisco, arriving in July 1995.

My mother's old house in Dixon, California was for sale, she and my stepfather had purchased another house. In August we moved in and Maria began 4th grade in the same grammar school I had attended in the 1940's. Also Cynthia's three other children, Anthony, Dalreen and Adrian finally got visas and joined us; Dalreen and Adrian entered school while Anthony found a job as a waiter at a local restaurant. I took Kialoa up the Sacramento River and anchored her by the Lake Washington Sailing Club in the commercial port at Sacramento.

During the next year I bought another computer and developed this web site, a task I had decided on earlier as I wished to know what all the internet and world wide web stuff was about. And then I began repairs on Kialoa, overhauled the main engine and generator, and anchor windlass. In November of 1996 Cynthia and I took Kialoa south to Ensenada, Mexico where the Baja Naval boatyard hauled here out for extensive painting and repairs of corroded areas of the decks. We left the children in Dixon to attend school, and in May 1997 they joined us to sail to Pitcairn Island, French Polynesia (Tahiti), Cook Islands, and Tonga arriving in New Zealand late November 1997.

While in New Zealand we put Kialoa II up for sale, repaired corroded areas of the paint job, and spent 6 weeks touring New Zealand in our car. In July 1998 we sailed to Fiji, spent 3 very pleasant months there and then returned to Hawaii arriving November 1998. And by New Years' there was a new owner for Kialoa.

Frank Robben

e-mail:      frobben@kialoa2.com
web site:    http://www.kialoa2.com
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