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Famed Circumnavigator in Town Hall Meeting at TrawlerFest-Bay Bridge

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Bruce Kessler’s first order of business after settling Spirit of Zopilote into a slip at the marina is to walk the docks.

He wants to meet his new neighbors. “They call him the mayor,” says friend Jim Leishman, an owner and vice president of Pacific Asian Enterprises, the Dana Point, Calif., builder of Nordhavn trawlers.

To Kessler, no boater is a stranger. And Spirit of Zopilote, his 62-foot Northern Marine passagemaker, is no stranger to marinas from Maine to Alaska. Kessler, 72, and his wife, Joan, cruise seven to nine months — 3,000 to 4,000 miles — a year on Spirit of Zopilote. When they’re not on the boat, they often can be found at their condominium in Marina del Rey, Calif., but even there Kessler gets his daily fix of boat talk over morning coffee at Starbuck’s with his old fishing buddies.

Kessler has raced cars and directed films and television shows, teamed up with Dan Gurney at Le Mans and worked with James Garner in Hollywood. None of that has gone to his head. He still prefers hanging out on boats, with boaters. “It has been a lifestyle for me,” says Kessler. “I just like boats. I like boat people.”

Gregarious and adventuresome, a pioneer in power cruising, a circumnavigator who motored around the world with Joan on a 70-foot version of their Spirit of Zopilote, Kessler is a tireless champion of boating and cruising and following “the dream” — going to those places that inspire people to buy a boat in the first place.

Kessler has logged probably 25,000 hours on a succession of sportfishing yachts, and on Spirit of Zopilote and its 70-foot predecessor, Zopilote. Now he is helping others cruise farther and use their boats more. He chaired the 2007 Fubar Odyssey, which brought together 53 powerboats — 30- to 96-footers — for a Thanksgiving cruise from San Diego to La Paz on Mexico’s Baja peninsula.


“Fubar was about getting people to make a trip they could make but never would have made by themselves,” says Kessler. “I’m trying to encourage them to do something they are capable of doing. They just need a little confidence-building.”

The Kesslers, popular speakers at boat-show and rendezvous seminars, are always eager to share what they know about cruising and living the dream. Certainly they are living theirs. Consummate cruisers, Kessler is the avid voyager and dock denizen, Joan the dauntless explorer. At a destination, “Bruce is perfectly content to patrol the docks and talk to other boaters,” says Joan, 66. She organizes the shore parties. “I like to get out and look around and see what’s new.” Her favorite stops: Portland and Southwest Harbor, Maine; Boston; New York; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and St. Augustine, Fla. At a stop in New York, she was surprised to find an exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures at the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. “It was wonderful,” she says.

From fishing to cruising

Both retired now, the Kesslers have not retired from life. Far from it. Bruce has had the good fortune to have lived three lives: as an auto racer, a film and television director, and — one he still lives with great gusto — a boater. He came to boating, and later to bluewater cruising, through fishing.

Fishing was his passion, and venturing farther and farther from Marina del Rey to chase albacore, marlin and other big-game fish became his life’s challenge. It influenced how he worked, shaped how he lived. It turned him into a lifelong liveaboard cruiser and innovator, one of the early ones who saw that a cruising version of the rugged Alaska purse seiner was the boat of his dreams, one he could take just about anywhere in the world and fish.

“I always wanted to go farther, to somewhere that no one else had gone,” he says.

He developed that mindset early. Growing up in Seattle, Kessler spent summers on Vashon Island on Puget Sound, where he learned to fish. He started out fishing from a dock, and when he asked to take a rowboat out where more fish were, his mom tethered the boat to the dock with a long painter and said, “You can row that far.”

“I learned to tie knots and kept extending that painter until one day I disappeared from sight and everyone panicked,” he says. “They didn’t know what happened.”

That wanderlust has been the story of Kessler’s boating life. He ordered his first custom boat — a 26-foot fiberglass-over-plywood Harcraft sportfisherman — in 1963 when he was 27 years old. Carrying 30 gallons of fuel on deck, he could fish the single-engine boat from Los Angeles’ Channel Islands south to the Coronado Islands near the Mexican border. He’d follow the commercial boats out of San Diego and go as far as he dared to find fish. He once went too far, had to throttle back to 5 knots on the trip back to conserve fuel, and literally coasted into the dock, his fuel tanks bone-dry.

Understandably, “I sometimes couldn’t get people to go with me,” he says. “That never stopped me.” Over the years, he has become more conservative. His mantra now: Plan carefully, look at your weather, use common sense.

Kessler wasn’t always as sensible. As a teenager, living in Beverly Hills, Calif., he immersed himself in the 1950s hot-rod culture. He began driving his mom’s Jaguar XK120 at age 16 in California Sports Car Club races. He had seen an ad at a service station for a sports car race. He wanted to test his mettle and drive in it, but “I didn’t want to tell my mother,” he says. “She had to sign the entry form.”

She surprised him. She not only signed but let him drive her Jaguar. Kessler started winning races, and three years later became the 500 cc Club of America champion in the F3 class. Two years later he went to Europe with Porsche to drive at Le Mans. Sports Illustrated took note of “that daring young Bruce Kessler.”

“People didn’t think I’d live to be 25,” he says.

 As Kessler’s directing career took off, he bought boats rather than a California mansion.

As Kessler’s directing career took off, he bought boats rather than a California mansion.

He almost didn’t. He suffered a serious head injury in a crash at the Examiner Grand Prix in Pomona, Calif., in 1959. “They said I couldn’t drive for a year,” he says. So at age 22 he went to Hollywood as a technical adviser, helping movie directors film race footage and stage high-speed chases. “I was the father of the high-speed chase,” he says. He produced a short movie, “The Sound of Speed,” with no narration or dialogue — just the sounds of an F1 Scarab racing around Riverside Speedway — that is now one of the classics of auto filmmaking.

Kessler became an understudy to Howard Hawks, himself an amateur race car driver and director of some memorable Hollywood movies, including “Sergeant York,” “Scarface” and “Rio Bravo.” Kessler learned a lot from Hawks, who introduced him around and helped him rise through the ranks to become a director himself.

He directed a number of “B” movies — what he describes as “financially successful, low-budget, exploitation” films that young directors cut their teeth on — and worked as “second-unit director” on some well-known films, often doing specialized action sequences. Director Arthur Penn called Kessler in to help with the car chase footage in “Bonnie & Clyde,” which Kessler didn’t think was necessary until he heard a banjo player in bib coveralls recording a rollicking version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for the movie. It gave him the inspiration for the scene with Bonnie and Clyde’s car racing through the high grass of the West Texas hills, police in hot pursuit. “That was a good idea, but if I hadn’t heard that banjo …” It probably never would have happened.

Kessler says you’re lucky if you have a couple of really good ideas in your life — ones that make a difference. He says that chase scene was one. Fubar was another. Yet another was the Scarab, a race car he and Lance Reventlow, a racer and heir to the Woolworth fortune, developed to challenge the European automakers’ domination of sports-car racing.

The car stunned the European factory teams on American racetracks in 1958 and ’59, and the Scarab became a part of American sports-car lore. “We realized we were changing things [building in aluminum, powering the Scarab with a U.S.-made 5-liter Chevy engine], but we didn’t realize what a big difference we were making at the time,” Kessler says.

So many fish, so little time

A modest man, Kessler insists his big ideas came not because he was so prescient but because he happened to be at the right place at the right time doing things that made sense — things that only later proved to be ground-breaking. That certainly seemed to be the case with the long-range power cruiser. That idea came to him slowly, as his fishing took him farther and farther afield.

Kessler had started making real money as a director, but instead of buying one of those California mansions, he kept his small bachelor apartment and spent his money on boats — first the Harcraft 26, then a 34-foot twin-diesel Hatteras sportfisherman, and in 1973 a 48-foot Pacemaker retrofitted with an extra 500-gallon fuel tank for extended range to the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Northwest.

He found a kindred spirit in Joan, his boating companion of 39 years and an actress with a string of movies and television shows to her credit: “Roustabout,” with Elvis Presley; “The Fastest Guitar Alive,” opposite Roy Orbison; “The Tower of London,” co-starring Vincent Price. A Midwesterner, Joan had camped and fished with her family as a child, but until she started dating Kessler she had never ventured beyond the harbor at Redondo Beach in a boat.

With Kessler as guide, Joan became a keen offshore angler. “I loved going out and catching albacore more than anything else,” she says. The couple and a few friends would leave the marina at 9 in the evening, load up with anchovies or mackerel at the bait barge, then motor out a hundred miles or so to start fishing at gray light. Joan and friends hooked and landed the fish; Kessler reveled in being the captain — finding fish, maneuvering the boat, lending his expertise. “He prefers running the boat,” Joan says. “The boat is his thing.”

Directing movies earned Kessler a good living, but he says he kept getting “bloodied” by the reviewers, which he says was discouraging. Also, the lifestyle didn’t leave room for going off for days or weeks at time to fish for albacore and marlin.

“I worked and I worked and I worked,” he says. “I had no life. You lived and died with your movies.”

Television seemed to make a lot more sense. He could direct TV series from the Fourth of July to mid-February, when the production season shut down. March through June was his to play with. “I had time for other stuff,” he says.

Fishing out of the elite Tuna Club of Avalon and Los Angeles Billfish Club, among others, he would venture down to what was then a very sleepy Cabo San Lucas in Mexico to fish. That’s where he saw the 70-foot Ed Monk-designed commercial seiner that captured his imagination. It had everything he wanted in a sportfishing yacht: range, stability, efficiency, a big cockpit and plenty of room.

He became even more excited about fashioning a workboat into a yacht when he saw aircraft titan Bill Boeing’s Hatteras-built 75-foot fiberglass shrimp boat (Hatteras was a commercial fish boat builder then). “There were five of them,” he says. “Bill brought one of them to the West Coast and converted it into a yacht. What a great idea!”

Kessler investigated some Chuck Carlson-designed 58-foot “limit seiners,” so-named because Alaska limits the steel-hulled purse seiners in its salmon fishery to that size. He asked Delta Marine of Seattle, then the premier fiberglass seiner builder, if it would build a pleasure version of the 58 for him, but they really weren’t interested in yacht building. Kessler kept pestering them. Finally Delta agreed to build a 70-foot Steve Seaton design based on a full-displacement crabber hull, which launched in 1985. By now, Kessler was a “hot” commodity in Hollywood. He was on the networks’ “A-list” of directors, his credits eventually including episodes of “Diagnosis Murder,” “MacGyver,” “The A-Team,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Commish,” “Touched by an Angel” and “It Takes a Thief.”

“I could afford to build this boat,” he says. But could he afford to take the time off to fish? His plan now: cruise the Pacific and fish Hawaii, the South Pacific islands and the Great Barrier Reef. This was his dream.

In the full flush of his career, Kessler told his agent his plan. “He was really upset with me,” Kessler says. “Everyone was upset with me.” The networks didn’t want to hear that he was going fishing; his agent said he might never work again.

His producer, Phil Norton, lent a sympathetic ear. He could see Kessler was unhappy, and when he found out what his director wanted to do, “He called my agent and gave him hell. He told him, ‘You can’t talk to Bruce that way. He’s an artist,’ ” Kessler laughs. An artist, yes, but also a frustrated cruiser. “When I left, [Norton] came down and untied my lines and told me, ‘You’re my hero.’ ”

Kessler hadn’t planned to motor around the world. He wanted to fish the Great Barrier Reef, but the cost of shipping Zopilote home was so high that he decided to stay and fish another season. Then he just kept on going, to Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, Bermuda, Fort Lauderdale, Panama, Mexico and Marina del Rey, from 1990 to ’93.

Midway through the circumnavigation, he and Joan flew home to visit their mothers, and his agent was waiting on the tarmac. “As soon as I got off the airplane, I got hired,” he says. A producer he knew was frantic to salvage a pilot gone awry. Kessler signed on, fixed the project, flew back to the boat, and the couple resumed cruising. After their circumnavigation, “I went back to work,” he says, as did Joan, who worked in real estate. They stayed on the job until they retired in 1997.

“If you have an opportunity to cruise, you should take it,” Kessler says. “You don’t have to go around the world. Take a year and do The Great Loop. It’s not the length of the voyage that counts; it’s the voyage.” Just do it, he says.

“A hell of seaman”

Zopilote, a name Kessler chose in jest for his Hatteras and has given to every boat since, is a Mexican turkey buzzard. It was the perfect counterpoint to the macho warrior names he saw on the transoms of the other battlewagons in the marina where he kept his Hatteras. “All I wanted to do was get out there far enough to pick up these guys’ leavings,” he says. So he named his boats for a scavenger.

His 70-foot Zopilote went farther than anyone thought a sportfishing yacht could, or should, go — across the Pacific to Hawaii and Australia — and when he made that voyage he introduced a new paradigm for power cruising. “It changed all of our lives, in a sense,” Kessler says. “But at the time people thought I was nuts.”

Not for long, though. After Zopilote’s launch, he took it to the Miami boat show, where an incredulous boating public wanted to know if it really was a bluewater boat. “Zopilote changed the perception that a small powerboat can’t cross oceans,” Kessler says.

Zopilote made the cover of Yachting magazine and garnered so much publicity that Delta took orders for more.

Later, when the commercial fishing boat industry tanked, Delta found its future building power cruisers in the style of seiners. Today, it is one of the premier expedition-yacht and megayacht builders. Dozens of trawler builders have since crowded into the growing market for trawler-type cruisers, but when Kessler talks trawlers he means a particular kind — not the light, fast, twin-engine semidisplacement versions popular in coastal cruising but slower, more-efficient, single-screw, full-displacement types that cross oceans.

Kessler is ecumenical when it comes to yacht design — “I don’t diss boats, not even sailboats,” he says — but the key features of his Zopilote trawler class are hand-laid fiberglass-and-composite construction; a full-displacement, deep-draft keel; fuel-efficient, single-screw power plant; raised wheelhouse; ample cockpit; stand-up engine room; high bow; good stability; large fuel and water capacities; and very sturdy construction. Though pleasure boats below, Kessler’s passagemakers look like North Pacific seiners. “My first Delta was classified for the Bering Sea,” he says.

“Bruce was one of the first persons to do long-range cruising under power,” says Nordhavn’s Leishman. Leishman was just starting to build Nordhavn trawlers when Kessler was crossing oceans. A generous man, Kessler has shared with Pacific Asian Enterprises and other builders his experience and expertise in power cruising — at no charge. Leishman says he learned a great deal from Kessler after the circumnavigation, and it helped refine Nordhavn designs. “He played a big part in the design of our Nordhavn 57,” Leishman says.

Kessler also has opened new horizons for cruising powerboaters, helping change the perception that recreational powerboats could not cross oceans. “Bruce was really the first one — or one of the first ones — to undertake long-distance cruising in a motorboat,” says Milt Baker, 68, a retired Navy commander, founder of Bluewater Books and Charts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a friend of Kessler’s for 20 years. “What he did was exciting to people. He did inspire a lot of others to do what he had done.” Baker saw them in his chart shop.

More powerboaters today are crossing oceans, a new adventurousness that Leishman credits in part to Kessler spreading the gospel of cruising. “He just genuinely loves to see other people out there boating,” Leishman says.

And he is very generous in sharing what he knows, says Malcolm Farrel, of Fort Lauderdale, a friend and fellow trawlerman who cruises a Grand Alaskan 60. “Bruce is an accomplished seaman,” says Farrel, who keeps an eye on Spirit of Zopilote in Fort Lauderdale, its home port when the Kesslers aren’t cruising. “He handles the boat beautifully. He seems to be almost one with it at times.”

Baker agrees. “He really is one of the best seamen I’ve ever seen,” he says. The two met when Kessler came into Baker’s shop looking for charts for his Pacific voyage. Since then, Baker has crossed the Atlantic with Kessler and cruised Alaska and 1,000 miles of the Australian coast with him. “He’s a careful navigator, one of the most careful navigators I’ve ever seen,” he says. “He’s a hell of seaman. He knows his boat, and he knows how to handle it under any conditions that get thrown at him.”

Kessler says he learned a lot about seamanship while fishing offshore and from another close friend, Jo Swerling, a Hollywood producer and graduate of the California Maritime Academy. “Fishing really makes a seaman out of you,” he says. “You’re offshore. You’ve got limited fuel. You don’t always know where you are. It’s a real adventure. It gives you a different kind of confidence.”

He says Swerling shared a wealth of knowledge with him during a winter voyage to the Pacific Northwest on his 48-foot Pacemaker. “I’d already been to Mexico. I thought I was a pretty competent mariner until I saw him working,” he says. “I began to learn a lot conceptually about how to approach boating. He taught me to think as if I’m on an aircraft carrier, not a yacht.” He says he always goes to the entrance buoy to enter a port. He always carries paper charts and plotting paper, even though he has the latest in electronic navigation gear. He always takes heed of the weather.

Death in the family

When Kessler floated the idea of a Pacific crossing with Joan, she wasn’t at all ruffled. She wanted to explore the Pacific, and she knew the two of them could do it. “Bruce is a meticulous planner,” she says. “I have great faith in him.”

In 1994, after their circumnavigation and a season of shooting “The Commish,” Kessler was cruising to Alaska’s Prince William Sound on Zopilote and it hit an uncharted seamount at Dixon Entrance, 70 miles west of Ketchikan, Alaska. The yacht sank. The combination of a minus-18-foot tide and a big Pacific swell exposed the seamount, which ordinarily would have been deep under water.

“I almost turned my back on the ocean after that,” Kessler says. “I remember that night sitting in the hotel room after it was over. It was like losing a child.”

Zopilote was family. The Kesslers had put 11,000 hours on the boat and trekked 88,000 miles of seaway on it. Baker answers those who would ask what kind of seaman loses a boat like that on the rocks with an observation that any well-experienced mariner can appreciate: “One who is not sitting idly at the pier but is out using his boat.”

No voyage is without its risks.

Three years later Bruce and Joan were back on the water and cruising aboard a smaller, 62-foot Seaton-designed Northern Marine trawler, one closer to the boat Kessler had wanted originally. They named it Spirit of Zopilote.

An incredible man. Two incredible careers. An incredible life on boats. Yet if you met Bruce Kessler on the dock, he hopes you would find him an average Joe who “dresses like everybody else, acts like everybody else, talks like everybody else.” Two things, though, would give him away: his salty yacht, one with the lines of a Bering Sea fish boat, and his zeal for inspiring his dockmates to slip the lines and go cruising.

“Boats have been my life,” he says. “I just love them.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Soundings magazine.