On our fourth day in French Polynesia’s Gambier Islands, still recovering from a 36-day, 4,000-nautical-mile sail from Panama, we ambled down the hill at the edge of the main town of Rikitea. I noticed a new boat in the bay. Sailboats arrived every day from far-flung places like Mexico and the Marquesas, but something was different about this one.
It didn’t have a mast. In fact, it wasn’t a sailboat at all. It was a trawler.
This didn’t seem possible. How did a trawler end up way out here, in the corner of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by oceangoing sailboats?
Less than 24 hours later, I was enjoying beers and swapping stories with Michael Gale and Caroline Kiely aboard the Seahorse 52 Liberty II.
Six years earlier, Gale, who is an accountant, had done his first open-ocean passage. He was aboard a Lagoon 380, serving as crew on a 12-day delivery from New Zealand to Fiji. He had no previous sailing experience and only basic inshore powerboat experience. But after that passage, he was hooked. He craved the freedom and fulfillment of life on the water. He read everything he could find about ocean passages, from technical articles about gear to dreamy memoirs of sailing around the world.
Soon, he decided to circumnavigate on his own boat. Never mind his inexperience, the financial hurdles, his flourishing career, or the disturbed looks he got from friends and family; he was determined. And, he knew he wanted a powerboat.
“I didn’t know how to sail, so sailboats were out,” he says. “But I had grown up around powerboats, so I bought a powerboat.”
Gale built a network of advisers and formed his own parameters for what “bluewater capable” meant. He wanted a solid, stable boat with two reputable diesel engines, limited complexity in systems, comfortable livability and an affordable price.
He surveyed several boats, including a Nordhavn 50 and a different Seahorse 52. He decided to pass on the Nordhavn, and during the sea trial on the Seahorse, the hydraulic pump for the stabilizers overheated and required the engine to be shut down, revealing an overly complex repair process.
When Liberty II came on the market in Australia, she fit his criteria. She is a 2004 Seahorse 52 with twin 270-hp Cummins diesels, a single generator and a gyrostabilizer. Her 820-gallon fuel capacity supported a 1,600-nautical-mile range at a cruising speed of 7 knots. Gale knew some of the longer open-water stretches would push the range limit, so he added two 132-gallon fuel bladders, augmenting his range by about 500 nautical miles.
Bill Kimley, owner of Seahorse Yachts, intended the 52 to be a coastal cruiser that could handle short, in-season offshore passages. Kimley himself said a few of the boat’s features could limit offshore journeys, including the windows running down each side, and the enclosed cockpit and side deck, which would not drain easily if they were swamped. The single side deck, too, was a concern. Gale mitigated the risk with weatherboards for the side windows, and by installing a mechanism to lash the aft and side-deck doors open, to allow any water to drain quickly.
Gale took possession of Liberty II in October 2015. After a shakedown delivery from Australia to New Zealand with a knowledgeable captain on board to show him the ropes, Gale left home in May 2016 for his around-the-world voyage.
Nine months and 10,000 miles later, Gale arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, and met Kiely. She joined him on the next leg of the journey, despite having absolutely no boating experience. An empty nester with a recent health scare, she embraced the idea of a new adventure. Their plan was to cruise for a few months from her home in South Africa to Namibia, then to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, and then on to Brazil, French Guyana and Grenada.
She was still on board when we met in the Gambiers some 12,000 miles later. The adventure shaped her in ways she couldn’t imagine. She swam with whales and manta rays, learned to drive a dinghy, became certified to scuba dive, and gained the confidence to stand watch at night. The learning curve was steep, but she felt courageous.
Like all cruisers, Gale and Kiely have had their share of stress and breakdowns. In the middle of the night on an eight-day passage from the Maldives to Mauritius, Gale’s crewmember was filling out the hourly logbook when there was a loud bang and the engines began to wobble. They had hit a log tangled in lines that wrapped around both props. With the boat dead in the water, broadside to the swell, Gale jumped into thousands of feet of inky black water with a knife and a flashlight. Shutting down the engines fast had kept the lines from wrapping too tightly, and he was able to free both props, but it took several hours for the adrenaline to wear off.
During their longest passage, three days into a 12-day crossing from Peru to Easter Island, the port alternator overheated. After unsuccessful troubleshooting and a few satellite phone calls to an electrician in South Africa, Gale disengaged the alternator from the engine. He interrupted its ability to provide power to the batteries, but allowed the engine to remain operative. Once the port alternator was disconnected, though, it became obvious that the starboard alternator was not generating any power either.
Liberty II also carries solar panels and a diesel generator, so instead of turning back to Peru, Gale and Kiely pushed on. But a few hours later, the solar panels jumped on the disobedient bandwagon and stopped delivering a charge. Onward they limped, reducing power use where possible and running the generator four hours a day to keep up. They eventually realized the solar charging issue was corroded connectors, a task that required pulling the full-size fridge out from its alcove mid-passage.
Hardships, strange looks, odds, breakages, bad weather—nothing dissuaded Gale from pursuing his dreams. In October 2019, after a challenging four-day crossing from New Caledonia, Liberty II crossed her outgoing track in Brisbane, Australia, thus completing her three-and-a-half-year, 29,000-mile circumnavigation. Gale and Kiely celebrated with glasses of Champagne and a good, long night’s sleep.
Gale believes that going to sea was the best decision he ever made. As an accountant, he says, he never would have recommended such a “reckless use of money,” but there is no way to quantify the effects a journey like this has on lifestyle, perspective and health.
Gale and Kiely have seen few similarly sized powerboats along the way. “I read about one: a Nordhavn 40 that went around the world to prove it could be done,” Gale says. Kiely recalls seeing one trawler in the Caribbean, “but they came down seasonally from the U.S.”
According to Kimley, Liberty II was the first Seahorse 52 to attempt, much less complete, a circumnavigation. But Gale did not do it for the accolades. While he enjoyed the journey, he was inadvertently inspiring others to push back on the impossible, to chase that dream no matter how many obstacles stand in the way, and to find their own form of liberty.
Photos by John Guillote
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue.