Saoirse was 40 feet of rusting vessel destined for the scrap heap. Now she’s home sweet home

Saoirse back in the water again, where she belongs. Photo courtesy Amy Garrett

March/April 2021

By Alison O’Leary
For Points East

To Amy and Ryan Garrett, of Key West, Fla., the $10,000 price tag on Saoirse (pronounced Seer-shuh, a Gaelic word for freedom), a 40-foot, steel ocean-voyaging cutter, seemed to be a bargain. They were in the market for a more substantial liveaboard boat, and her stout, black hull, with gold Celtic-style swirls on her bows and gold boot top, appealed to them.

Their previous floating abode – Delphini, a Mark Ellis-designed Aloha 32 – was fiberglass, and she bounced around in stormy weather, Amy explained. Delphini was roughed up by Hurricane Irma in 2017, and washed up on a nearby Florida key, surviving intact; the couple had sought shelter on land during the storm. That experience prompted Amy to seek another vessel. When she learned that liveaboards on steel boats enjoyed more stable environments on their moorings, it sealed the deal for this couple and their tiny Chihuahua, Ollie.

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In New York Harbor Amy and Ryan did a well-deserved victory lap around Lady Liberty. Photo by Amy Garrett

Saoirse’s owner, Skip Walter, was a licensed commercial captain with several transatlantic trips under his belt, and he had great confidence in her abilities. His life had been spent on the water, in one way or another, from running a Block Island ferry service, to manning tugboats in St. Thomas, to working for Sea Tow. His idea of fun was taking a sailboat up the River Seine to see the Eiffel Tower. He was a Navy Special Services Group sailor and intrepid risk-taker who picked up Fisher motorsailer/trawler types in the U.K. and sailed them across the pond to make a few bucks. Then he fell in love.

Saoirse was the consummation of his life on the sea, he said – and his doomsday plan. She was solid, capable of staying at sea for weeks or months at a time, and her full keel “tracked like a train.” Skip sailed Saoirse to Bermuda before he had to admit to himself that such seagoing adventures had become too much for him.

As age and physical limitations crept up on him Skip decided he could no longer handle the strain of sailing and maintenance; yet he hated to let this boat go. And steel boats are a challenge for many sailors to wrap their minds around. While they’re pretty bulletproof, it’s difficult to assess the integrity of one several decades old. And the prospect of steel-boat maintenance is intimidating to those who cut their teeth on fiberglass and teak.

At first, Skip didn’t want to sell Saoirse. Then he literally couldn’t. Few others were willing to step up to the challenges the steel boat presented.

Parting with his last sailboat would be hard enough, but the pain was compounded as Saoirse sat on a mooring for two years within sight of Interstate 1-95, in New Bedford, Mass. She had a huge “For Sale” banner in her rigging, and she didn’t sell. More rust appeared on her coaming, further alienating potential buyers. Few would consider Skip’s $40,000 price tag, although the boat’s amenities and seaworthiness suggested the price was more than fair.

On the verge of giving up, Skip moved Saoirse to the hard in Scituate, Mass. He called a scrapyard. They’d give him $10,000 to cut his beauty into pieces. His heart was breaking. “I feel terrible that I can’t care for the boat,” he explained. “I’ve had a boat since I was about 7 years old.” But I can’t hold a sander anymore,” he added, due to the pacemaker just below his skin.

In a Hail Mary attempt to keep Saoirse sailing, Skip dropped the price to match the salvage value, and resorted to free ads on Facebook and Craigslist. Few who saw the boat listed at $10,000 believed she was really a $40,000 or $50,000 boat. And many could not see their way around the potential upkeep.

More time ticked by. Skip weathered many trips to the yard, painfully climbing his ladder to describe Saoirse’s positive qualities to tire-kicking shoppers, most of whom just wanted to see why he was asking only $10,000. Also painful was the drubbing Skip received on the Facebook group’s “Boats for Sale – Owner Only.” Shoppers ridiculed him, and heaped negative conjecture about the sailboat’s actual condition based on his asking price.

“She was built without an engine,” he explained to those who inquired. Saoirse began as a racing boat, based on a design by Dover, N.H.’s Bud McIntosh. She was custom-finished for an early ’90s solo circumnavigation, upon which she never embarked when her owner’s plans changed.

And a lot had changed aboard Saoirse since then. Skip installed a Kubota tractor engine when he bought her five years ago. This powerplant was chosen because it’s more universal than many other marine engines, he reasoned, making it easier to find parts and make repairs, anywhere in the world. He also installed a solar panel above the cockpit, powerful enough, he said, to generate juice from moonlight.

“She rides beautifully, even in bad weather,” Skip said. “She rides low, so water comes over, but she’s tight.” He smiled, recalling sailing through a challenging blow when Saoirse’s scuppers whistled in the wind.

The interior, once sparse for racing, was rebuilt by Maine Maritime Academy woodworking students, he said, who disregarded shipbuilding principles dictating use of light materials. The boat’s many lockers, cabinets and engine combine to reduce the freeboard but offer great convenience to sailors at sea for long periods.

Fortunately, the boat’s specifications and amenities were recognized by the right person before Skip’s scrapyard deadline was reached. The unlikely savior was Amy Adams-Garrett of Key West, Fla., who was intrigued by the ad for Saoirse, realizing that this vessel represented a great value for a liveaboard lifestyle. Amy purchased the boat sight unseen, and took to social media to castigate those who disparaged Skip. “People were going nuts,” she said, shaking her head. “They were truly mean to him.”

Amy and Ryan – a tattooed, bearded carpenter raised in Wisconsin – had been living aboard Delphini since meeting on a Florida Keys charter fishing boat, on which Ryan was first mate. Originally from Atlanta, Amy’s father always had a boat, but she did not consider herself a sailor. Ryan, likewise, had spent time fishing, but his sailing experience wasn’t nearly as extensive as his collection of pirate-like tattoos, including one of a tall ship on his hand.

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The Garretts arrived in Massachusetts last June to spend a couple of weeks (and, of course, more money than they’d planned) prepping for the trip back to Florida with Saoirse. There was rusted anchor chain to dispose of, rust spots to address, provisions to buy, and a bottom to paint. A couple of coats of bottom paint cost about $2,400, or, they noted, about as much as a month’s rent on congested Key West.

Ryan, who now works in construction, had a grasp of the work the boat needed to get it home and was grinding down the rusty spots on the hull while they waited for insurance to come through – just as hurricane season was winding up down south. They stocked the pantry with ramen noodles and bags of potato flakes. With their tropical island vibe, they perked up the tiny boatyard near Scituate’s Humarock Beach, and Amy handed out One Human Family (www.onehumanfamily.org) rubber bracelets and bumper stickers to spread some Key West love.

Living on the boat would be one thing, but, with minimal sailing experience, getting her from Massachusetts to Florida would be a hurdle. Fortunately, Skip wasn’t the type to simply sign the papers and wish them well. He stuck around to answer every question and get the Garretts under way. His steady hand and calm demeanor helped the couple’s confidence grow until they felt assured they could pilot the vessel some 1,300 miles down the coast.

Among the myriad tips and instructions Skip offered was this crucial admonition: Cell phones were unlikely to work inside the boat. Amy told him that she had already figured that out, by standing on the V-berth and sticking her head out the hatch to make a call.

When splash day arrived, the ownership papers were signed on the hood of a notary’s vehicle parked at the boatyard. As Amy and Ryan stowed the remaining bottom paint, and filled corners of storage spaces with drinks and ice, they looked weary from two weeks of nonstop work. Yet, as the boat lift moved closer, Ryan pumped his fist in the air, ready for the next chapter of their adventure. “We signed up for an adventure, and that’s what we’re going to get,” he said.

“I’m nervous,” Skip admitted. “But I’m in love with Ryan and Amy. They’re very practical. I think they will take good care of the boat.” Skip stayed aboard as the boat lift freed Saoirse from her jacks and eased her toward the South River. The three of them would try to make Onset, on the west side of the Cape Cod Canal, by that evening. Then Amy and Ryan would be on their own to sail down the coast.

The new owners took things slowly as they made their way up Long Island Sound. But they stuck to their guns and braved infamous Hell Gate in New York’s East River, entered New York Harbor to circle the Statue of Liberty, and enjoyed an evening view of the city’s skyline while snapping lots of pictures.

Over time, Ryan and Amy’s confidence increased, and they averaged 50 to 60 miles a day. Their daily Facebook videos showed the sails full and the couple relaxed and smiling as they called at Lewes, Del., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Savannah, Ga., St. Augustine, Fla., and other ports. “We’re loving it,” Ryan said in one video. “I’d do it again.”

The leg outside Cape Hatteras was the real test, Amy says: “That was 310 miles with 20- to 30-knot winds and 12-foot waves – and I was sick.” Ryan had to do most of the sailing on very little sleep. After that, they took a whole week off in Beaufort, S.C. “The best part of the trip was getting to see parts of the coast we would never have seen,” Amy says.

By the end of their nearly two-month odyssey (much of the Florida coast was experienced while motoring in the Intracoastal Waterway), they were not only snug on their moorings in Saoirse, but more accomplished sailors. As soon as they stopped, the once-nervous Amy wanted to keep sailing. “It’s hard being back home,” she lamented to friends online. “I am grateful for my job, but for two months we were free. We were together and working as a team. This is hard, being back.”

They only called Skip for help twice during the trip: once to aid with chart reading in the tumultuous Hell Gate passage (which went off without a hitch), and once off Hatteras, when an alarm sounded to alert them to high water in the bilge. “We turned it off,” Amy said.

Today, the Garretts see their Key West destination as a home base from which to sail away again, rather than have it as a permanent anchoring point. They have their sights set on Belize and many of the Caribbean islands along the way. “We would never do this with our previous boat, absolutely not,” Amy says. “We have a comfort level with Saoirse now. We know she can handle 12-foot seas, and that she’ll keep moving like a fish through the water.”

Alison O’Leary is a journalist and nonfiction book author. Aside from writing and mountain biking, she enjoys being sail trimmer on an Alerion 28, Brigadoon, in Buzzards Bay’s Old Sigh Race Series (oldsighraceseries.com). She is author of “So Close to Home: The True Story of An American Family’s Fight for Survival During WWII,” “Inns and Adventures: A History and Explorer’s Guide to New Hampshire, Vermont and the Berkshires,” and “Best Day Hikes around Boston” (AMC) with Points East contributor Michael Tougias. See www.alisonoleary.com.