Brian Saunders and Terri Deuel have been together for 11 years—or, in more relevant terms, three boats. They are partners in passagemaking now, but the difference in their boating backgrounds when they first met was dramatic.
Saunders was a veteran sailor and offshore cruiser, a live-aboard who had been crossing oceans and working in the marine industry for most of his life, selling boats, delivering boats, running charters. He’d grown up in the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club; his dad was a member, and Saunders learned to race flatties in the junior program. Soon he was sailing club members’ 40- and 50-footers (winning his first silver cup at age 18) and then racing internationally.
The first sailboat he owned, Kayoko, was an Ed Monk Sr. design built in a hobby shop at a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. By the time a mutual friend introduced him to Deuel in 2008, Saunders had owned 12 vessels: 10 sailboats and two powerboats. (Never more than one at a time, he’s quick to point out.)
To say that Deuel had never owned a boat before she met Saunders would be an understatement. Even though she had spent most of her adult life near the ocean, living and working in San Francisco and Boston, she was a landlubber. This didn’t stop him from inviting her to join him on a cruise from Sausalito, California, to Ecuador shortly after they’d met. He recalls one of their first conversations:
“And I said, ‘Well, have you been on boats anywhere?’ And she said, ‘Yes, in Australia my ex-husband and I went on a dive charter boat …’”
“… a big catamaran,” she adds.
“And the other ones? Well, they were cruise ships. And I said, ‘Well, we try to cook good food, but it’s not going to be the same as a cruise ship.’”
Stepping Out of the Box
The lack of an all-you-can-eat buffet was not Deuel’s concern. Not only did she have virtually no boating experience, but she had just started her own business consulting firm. Jumping aboard would mean putting all that on hold.
While Saunders had been living the liveaboard dream for decades, Deuel had been, as she puts it, “working corporate.” Saunders hadn’t lasted nearly as long in the traditional business world. After studying economics in college, he did a stint at the food-production company Crosse & Blackwell in London, and he spent some time in sales at IBM in the 1960s. But in 1974, he was selling homes in the San Francisco Bay area when the oil crisis dried up business. He was 32. He quit his job and set sail for Tahiti aboard Kayoko.
Eleven years younger than Saunders, Deuel was just starting college in the 1970s. The same economic situation pushed her in an opposite direction: to study business, get a steady job and build a career. After working in industries from oil and gas to finance, she landed in the retail sector, working as a managing director at Macy’s for 20 years.
After decades in the corporate world, Deuel was used to making responsible decisions. But much like Saunders had been at age 32, she was at her own personal inflection point at age 58. A recent cancer diagnosis and treatment had brought her life—especially her work life—into sharper focus and reset her priorities. She was still waiting for something to click when a friend told her, “You need to take a sabbatical.”
The semantics made sense to her. She recalls thinking, Oh, I’m not dropping out. I’m going on a sabbatical.
Deuel wasn’t going to take her sabbatical at sea with just anyone, but Saunders struck her as an eminently qualified captain. She was impressed with the breadth of his knowledge, and her data-driven side couldn’t argue with the sheer volume of his experience. They took the trip, and she was quickly sold.
“The first overnight passage we made was going south from Puerto Vallarta” in Mexico, she recalls. “And I forget what hour it was in the morning, but I got to see phosphorescence in the ocean.”
“From the dolphins,” Saunders adds.
“From the dolphins swimming in our bow wake,” Deuel continues. “And then I got to see the Southern Cross. To see the Southern Cross in the sky tilted on its axis, it’s just beautiful.”
One other thing surely helped: She doesn’t get seasick.
The People, Not the Places
Now, Saunders definitely doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would call himself a people person. That’s the kind of corporate--speak he largely left behind 45 years ago when he took off for Polynesia. But his story on the water is inextricably linked to the people he has met along the way, not just the numerous business connections he’s made, but also the lasting friendships he’s cultivated with fellow seafarers.
“You do meet unusual people on the water,” he says. “And you meet them on a level which is, ‘Oh, you’re a sailor also,’ and that’s always very nice.”
In Thailand, he says, the Crown Prince of Denmark skippered a sailboat to victory in the King’s Cup and graciously jumped into the water himself so Saunders and the other crew members were not put in the awkward position of having to breach sailing tradition (throwing the winning skipper into the water) or military protocol (“Don’t touch the Prince!” they were ordered before the race). In Mexico, he says, Jan Cousteau, the daughter-in-law of Jacques Cousteau, swam over to Saunders’ sailboat to tell him about the bird sanctuary the family hoped to establish on a nearby island. And Walter Cronkite was reportedly one of Saunders’ many charter customers in Southeast Asia.
But beyond the “rockstars and royalty,” what keeps Saunders coming back after hundreds of thousands of miles spent at sea is the like-minded and lifelong friends he’s made along the way.
Deuel notes people would often say to him, “‘You’ve been to so many fascinating places ... which is your favorite?’ And he would always say, ‘It wasn’t about the places; it was about the people.’”
“Where your friends are,” Saunders says.
Boating to Business, Business to Boating
Though it makes for a good story, Saunders’ career trajectory was not quite as simple as “quit the office job, sail across the Pacific and never look back.” On that first cruise, he was forced to return to the United States after about a year when “the cruising kitty was getting thin.” But he found a way to return to Southeast Asia. After a couple years working as a boat broker in Sausalito, California, he flew to Taiwan to buy his third boat, a Kings Legend 41 he christened Tropicbird (the first of five sailboats he’d own by that name). Sailing to Singapore and then to Thailand and Malaysia, he found work running charters, and then building and selling his own boats in Hong Kong.
It wasn’t always easy, especially in the early days of going from gig to gig, trying to make a living in the fickle charter business. But Saunders honed his entrepreneurial instincts, and, as Deuel says, “created the world he wanted.”
“Going downtown in Hong Kong, I would have my briefcase with me and my Bermuda shorts and Top-Siders on and all that, and here are these guys with their $2,000 blue suits, and this guy says—looks at me and says—‘You’re going to work? I hate you,’” Saunders recalls with a laugh.
While he had used his resourceful mariner’s mind-set to create a string of business ventures, Deuel was able to adapt her business skill set to become a competent offshore cruiser. She says, “I just took what I used to turn to business and turned it toward learning about systems—boat systems and all that kind of stuff—so I think anyone can do it if they have the desire.”
Now that Deuel has tens of thousands of miles on board, the couple share all the onboard duties, from maintenance to cooking.
“When she first came on the boat, I was cooking. My mother and father taught me how to cook,” Saunders says.
“And you loved to cook,” she interjects.
“And for about 10 days, I made the meals,” he says. “And she finally said, ‘I know how to cook, Brian.’”
Retirement on the Timber Coast
Eleven years later, Saunders and Deuel are still cruising at 6 to 8 knots. Even what they consider scaling back—limiting their range to the United States and Canada, not doing offshore passages—is more activity than most recreational boaters enjoy at any age.
Originally, the couple had planned to execute their retirement adventures aboard a Tollycraft 43 they bought a few years ago. But they weren’t getting to live aboard the way they liked, and scrambling to find winter residences was getting tiresome. So, they found a house in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, sold the Tollycraft and picked up a TimberCoast 22 pocket cruiser.
Deuel says that with the timing of the two sales, they “were only boatless for about a week.” Saunders says it’s the longest he’s ever been without a boat.
“Except for one time,” Deuel says.
“Remember the time you sold the boat and you decided to build an airplane?”
“Oh that’s right. Oh gosh, that’s right.”
Their new neighborhood, though land-based, seems to attract liveaboard types like them: community-minded individuals with unique backgrounds.
“Everyone has done something really interesting in life, and they found themselves here in retirement,” Deuel says of the 55-and-older community in coastal Sequim, Washington, where they purchased a house nestled among old-growth timbers.
For now, the couple are living there during the rainiest part of the year and doing as many 10-day cruises on their TimberCoast as they can. This poetic resonance is unintentional, but the couple bought the Bartender Boat, designed by Tad Roberts as a “long-range mini-cruiser,” because it just felt right.
First things first, it’s a beautiful boat. Not that Saunders’ other powerboats weren’t, but he did switch to the name Traveller when a friend gently suggested that Saunders’ first powerboat, an experimental motor cruiser, didn’t exactly evoke the elegant seabird he’d named most of his sailboats after. Now this Bartender Boat might not have the striking profile of a tropicbird in flight, long tailfeathers streaming. But it certainly has the birdlike grace of its auk cousins. It’s puffinlike: cute, marginally tubby, but undeniably graceful in the water.
Saunders was immediately taken with it.
“It was beautifully built, finished, had everything on it—more than you’d need on a small boat,” he says. “It was just wonderful.”
The boat seems to be purpose-built for the next phase of their lives. It’s trailerable. Practical. Deuel says they could drive it to the East Coast and spend the summer cruising.
“It’s a lot easier than going through the Panama Canal,” Saunders notes dryly.
They are quick to point out that the TimberCoast could make such a trip; it’s fitted out with more equipment than most of the boats Saunders crossed oceans in.
But for now, the TimberCoast 22 seems simply to be the right boat at the right time for them. It has just enough room for two.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of PassageMaker Magazine.