Had Thoreau been a mariner instead of a naturalist, and had he built a boat instead of a cabin, it would not take much imagination to conclude that he might have built something a lot like Briney Bug.
Meet Rudy and Jill Sechez, mariners and philosophers of the 21st century who imagined, designed, built and now live aboard a 34-foot vessel that is quite unlike any other cruising powerboat that I have had the pleasure of boarding. I first saw the boat through my window heading toward the 10th Street boat launch area in downtown Sarasota, Florida. I went down in the elevator and crossed the street to get a better look.
After cautiously stopping at an anchorage, the couple launched their dinghy for a smooth row to shore under the power of their impressive sweeps. They heard about a grocery store across from the landing and stopped for supplies. After becoming better acquainted, I arranged for them to move the boat over to Bird Key Yacht Club, where they could stay the night and I could learn more about them and their boat. Over the next couple of days they shared their story of Briney Bug, her origin, her raison d’être, and what it means to live aboard with little electricity.
Rudy and Jill met and married in 1985 in Ft. Myers, Florida. Other than their voyages, they’ve spent most of their lives in Florida ever since. While in Ft. Myers, they became interested in boats, and Rudy built a few small vessels for rowing, sailing and fishing under power. Like most couples, the reality of making a living consumed the majority of their time—they worked a number of jobs. After relocating to Port St. Joe, Florida, in 1990, they realized that this was not the life they wished to lead.
They knew they wanted to live aboard a boat and cruise for as much time as possible. Inspired by reading about the boats of George Buehler, the adventures of Eric and Susan Hiscock, and, especially, the cruises and philosophy of Lin and Larry Pardey, Rudy and Jill became confident they too could construct their own boat and live the cruising lifestyle within modest means.
The Pardeys had completed two circumnavigations and published 11 books on cruising. All of their journeys were made on two wood custom-made sailboats, which they built, that sailed without engines. Two of their books, The Self Sufficient Sailor and The Cost-Conscious Cruiser, became the basis for the Sechez’s mantra. Both of these books emphasize simplicity and economy, and espouse a philosophy of less is more.
Their initial project was to build a 37-foot wood sailboat from the “Jenny” stock plans by George Buehler—quite an undertaking, considering they only had experience in building small boats. Jill purchased an industrial sewing machine and made all of the sails. What they lacked in experience, they more than made up for with determination. They began construction alongside their house in 1992 and completed Horzo in 1995. Following the advice of the Pardeys, they launched the boat without an auxiliary engine.
After sea trials and fine tuning, they quit their jobs and headed to sea with stops planned in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. After their first year of cruising, they added a 10-hp diesel engine, which, in a 28,000-pound boat, provided little more than a way to get in and out of a harbor. While cruising under sail for the next three years, they would stop their travels as required to work odd jobs to add to their cruising kitty. They began to reflect more and more on Buehler’s concept of economical power cruising done simply. The realities of long passages heeled over much of the time and the lack of dependable winds spawned an interest in being able to turn the key and go. “Besides, we wanted to build another boat anyway,” Rudy says.
They returned to Florida to a friend’s private dock in Ft. Pierce and planned to live aboard, find a piece of property they could lease for construction, and work while they built their next boat. They found a person who owned 10 acres of vacant property who made part of the land available to them. First, they built a small woodshop on the edge of a deserted concrete pad. It was on this pad that they created chalk sketches at full scale to help them visualize the boat and how the spaces worked. Construction began in 2001, and Briney Bug was launched in 2005. As if by grand design, the sailboat Horzo was sold one month before they moved aboard.
I asked them which came first. Did they design the boat and modify their lifestyle to fit the vessel, or did they design the boat to reflect their lifestyle?
Jill says they never gave it much thought. “We don’t think that everyone should adopt our lifestyle,” Rudy says, “but we do think that we are an example that our style of life and cruising is possible.”
The resulting boat and her details are inexorably linked to the way they live. In trying to conceptualize the design and place it in proper context, I can only throw out words that I think relate to the concept: simple, sound, sustainable, strong, functional, practical, consistent. They have achieved their goals of seakindly, safe, economical and maintainable.
Stepping aboard Briney Bug is an adventure for the nautically minded. From her vertically pillared open pilothouse, her well-worn but well-maintained level of finish, the sturdy homemade stanchion base/bollards, her unique snubber arch that eliminates chafe, to the large transom hung rudder, it all works, visually, as well as functionally, and each detail complements the other.
Her mast and booms were hand hewn from a spruce tree that used to stand next to her construction site. The list of deck details goes on and on, and the space here doesn’t allow for a complete inventory. Most are finished in paint or left to naturally weather. Perhaps a good metaphor for the lot is the sturdy octagonal boat bucket fastened with brass straps and lifted by a hemp handle—built by Rudy, of course. And, I almost forgot, a proper lead line is close at hand—no electronic sounder and, for that matter, no VHF radio.
The hull is a full-displacement flush deck design, providing high topsides and a dry ride, even in heavy seas. The other payoff is there is a lot of volume below deck, which belies the boat’s overall length of only 34 feet. She is built of readily available and rot-resistant pressure-treated pine for all frames and planks. All screws and bolts are galvanized. The deck is plywood covered by fiberglass and epoxy. Rope lifelines run through pressure-treated wood stanchions resting in galvanized bollards/bases of Rudy’s own design, which are attached all the way outboard on the deck to reduce any dockline chafe.
The pilothouse is open to the breeze. “We are not isolated from one of the elements that we go cruising to experience—the environment that we are cruising in,” Rudy says. If necessary, the space can be enclosed by lacing up canvas curtains with clear plastic windows. In stark contrast to modern helm stations, a single Morse lever controlling the throttle and gearshift, a binnacle compass, a helm seat, and the wheel complete the equipment list. (In a moment of weakness, however, Rudy recently installed an autopilot).
Two small companionways, one leading aft to the sleeping quarters and one leading forward, can be sealed off with screens or drop boards in heavy weather. A steep ladder provides access to the saloon/galley. It extends all the way forward to the exposed chain fall descending into one of two enclosed anchor chain lockers. The forward half of this space is dedicated completely to the large galley with plenty of storage (such as the unique self-draining dish storage rack), counter and cutting surfaces, an icebox (there is no refrigerator), and a large cast iron diesel stove on the port side.
“Off season we do a lot of canning,” Jill says.
There are kerosene lanterns all around, as there are no electric lights. Almost all pumps are manual Whale Gusher types. They are all the same, minimizing the need for spare parts. The cabin sole is unfinished pine planking with strategically placed handmade handles for easy access to bulk storage space below deck.
Immediately behind the galley, the saloon spans the full width of the cabin. Two comfortable settee/berths are furnished with removable cushions. Two folding tables that are hinged with twine lashings rove through the wood planking providing multi-purpose surfaces functioning as a chart table, dining table, game table and, occasionally, bar tops when entertaining.
Similar to the pilothouse, there is a complete absence of electronic instruments such as GPS, a chartplotter, sounder or wind gauge. Instead, well-used dog-eared charts, calipers, straightedges, paper, and pencils, form the core of the navigation system.
The other ladder in the pilothouse descends into the aft cabin, which includes a generous double bunk, a marine head, and a stand-up shower stall all in the same space, bringing a new, truer meaning to the ensuite term so popular in today’s boating magazines (but not quite the bucket preferred by the Pardeys). Both sides of the space are lined with a plentiful amount of open shelving for well-ventilated storage of both linens and clothing. Hot water is gathered on deck during sunny days with a solar shower bag, which is left hanging in the shower stall later.
The engine room is accessed from a deck hatch in the pilothouse and contains a 42hp Westerbeke diesel, and a single 4D starting battery. There is excellent access to all filters and other mechanical components. The engine is sufficient to power the boat at its 5-knot cruising speed while using a miserly half-gallon of fuel per hour. There are small wood holders containing compact flashlights in the engine room and throughout the boat—the only other electrical appliance on board other than a battery-powered radio receiver. Even the running lights are oil lamps.
The following day they quietly left the dock and headed south. We caught up with them a day later in Venice, Florida, and then they were off again. Their tentative plan was to head east to the Bahamas for an indeterminate amount of time. As Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of nature will be simpler.”
And so goes the Pardey line.