A Life on the Sea
"It is the dream of a child: To
travel, just for the purpose of
traveling. To see the world’s remotest shorelines and the lost islands and to have all the
adventures he has read and heard of were about. Then one day there was an opportunity to change the pattern of a life and to reach out to fulfill the dream. A decision that required to leave a lot behind to start something completely new.”
- Hinnerk Weiler
At one time or another, many of our readers have likely stared at a photo of some deserted isle or mountaintop and thought, "I could do that – I could just take off and work on a ship or in a nature preserve for a year or two”. Then reality inevitably sets in, the boss calls, and the thought returns to the status of an unattainable dream. But for some folks, that thought doesn't go away and they find themselves, little by little, making changes in their lives until one day that dream becomes their reality. Such is the case with thirty-seven year old Hinnerk Weiler, a journalist from Germany who one day decided he wanted to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
"I grew up in Germany, and I was working as an editor for a sailing magazine when one day I thought I'd written enough about other peoples' adventures – that it was time for me to have one of my own,” said the ebullient sailor as we chatted while sipping cold ones at his new 'office' – Matanzas' Upper Deck. "Now I do the same work as before, only I free-lance.”
When Hinnerk says 'free-lance', he really means it. Moored in our anchorage for the duration of hurricane season after spending the better part of the last two and a half years sailing and living onboard his beloved 31-foot sailboat, Paulinchen, Weiler is the very epitome of someone who found a way to make a living while living a dream.
"I learned how to sail when I was a kid, then got away from it for awhile,” he told us. Then, in 2004, I made a short trip across the Baltic Sea and wrote in my log book that in 2010, I would sail across the Atlantic.”
By 2008, Hinnerk had saved enough to buy Paulinchen and began actively planning his departure from the world of the mundane and normal.
"I never once considered that this would be a 'vacation' trip – I always intended to be able to support myself while I was cruising,” he said. "My friends and family were very supportive of what I wanted to do – encouraging me to 'do it now' – so I began outfitting my boat.”
Hinnerk's plan was to sail across the Atlantic and then circumnavigate the 'Great Loop' - a circular route through the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi or Illinois Rivers, into the Gulf around Florida and up the eastern seaboard – all while blogging and selling articles written about his adventures. Weiler set off in 2010 with the intention of completing the Loop and sailing by our island later that year. But the tradewinds had other ideas.
"I decided to sail to the Azores, and from there to New York City,” Hinnerk told us. "But traditionally, people sail south to the Canary Islands then head east and aim for St. Lucia because of the way the trades blow. When I left the Azores and tried to reach Bermuda, halfway across the Atlantic it got windier and windier and I ended up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, instead.”
Hinnerk ended up spending his first months on the American continent enduring a Canadian winter while living on his boat. After that, he sailed down to New England and spent the following winter in the Bahamas before sailing back up the east coast to New York in 2011.
"I spent some time on that trip seeing places like Annapolis, Maryland, where I met a friend who grew up in Kansas who taught me about things like tornados and that I didn't want to be on a boat when one went by, as putting out a second anchor wouldn't help much,” Weiler told us, laughing. "After that, I headed towards the Great Lakes via the Hudson River, where I had engine trouble on Lake Erie in September.”
Not looking forward to the prospect of spending another Canadian winter on a small boat, Weiler dry-docked Paulinchen and flew back to Europe. He returned in the spring to finally begin traversing the American Midwest.
"After weeks in the wilderness of remote shorelines along Canadian forests, civilization slowly went back in the view,” Weiler wrote in his blog on August 26 of last year. "More and more light cones went up along the shore at night and finally at sunrise the skyline of Chicago pops up right in the path.”
From there, Hinnerk converts Paulinchen into a powerboat as he cruises down the Chicago River, drawing attention from locals not used to seeing European flags so far inland from the ocean.
"The day I left Chicago, I had to go through the remains of Hurricane Isaac, but I was so excited to finally be entering the river system,” he told us. "I initially planned to go down the Illinois River and continue down the Mississippi, but I changed to the Ohio River instead just after passing St. Louis because there was no place to stop.”
Weiler told us that floating on today's Mississippi resembles little of the river that Mark Twain once described so eloquently.
"It's impossible to see or dock at any towns, as there is this huge flood wall all along the shore – you can maybe see rooftops above it, but that's about it,” he said. "While the channels are kept dredged at nine feet, there are many places were the docks weren't deep enough for my boat, which draws six feet. Plus there are so many commercial ships and barges, it's hard to maneuver.”
From the Ohio, Hinnerk would make his way into the Tennessee River and along the Tenn-Tom watersystem on his way down to Mobile, Alabama, where he saw the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in December of last year. He would make a lot of friends on his journeys along America's rivers, as the amount of 'Loopers' have increased with each passing year, leading to a whole new community of folks who have sold everything they owned to live their lives – some even homeschooling their children – on the water.
Upon finally reaching the Gulf, which Hinnerk called 'The Doorstep to the Caribbean', Weiler once again flew back to Europe to spend some time with his girlfriend in Switzerland. By spring he was back, however, and – slowed by a strong southerly wind – made his way painstakingly to our emerald shores.
"The plan was to meet my girlfriend in the Dominican Republic, which would have been a tough 18-day sail against the trades if I was to arrive in time to meet her plane,” Weiler told us. "Plus I was having some technical trouble, so she changed her flight to come to Miami instead and I pulled into the anchorage here on Fort Myers Beach. One thing I've learned since beginning this trip – if it doesn't feel right, don't do it.”
After enjoying some much-needed rest and relaxation, Hinnerk told us that he planned to spend the entire summer here doing work on Paulinchen before heading south on the next leg of his journey. But this time it wasn't the tradewinds that got in his way – it was the U.S. Government.
"I am here on a foreign journalist visa, which is good until 2015,” he said. "But my boat, however, is not.”
With his usual laid back good humor, Hinnerk then told us about his solution to a problem that would have had most of us beating our heads against the wall in exasperation.
"Customs told me that my boat permit expires on July 26th, after which my boat has to be out of the country for two weeks before it can return,” Weiler said. "I asked for an extension until the end of hurricane season but the local agent – who was very nice – said there was no way she could legally do that.”
Since the closest country to ours from here is Cuba, Hinnerk was about to head south shortly after our interview. At the last minute, however, cooler heads prevailed and the folks at the Fort Myers Customs office issued Weiler an 'exceptional permission' to remain in our safe harbor until the danger of storms has passed. Thus the incident becomes another example of the patience required of those who choose a life at sea.
"I really like it here (Fort Myers Beach), the harbor is a good one and Matanzas has become my 'office',” Weiler told us as we gazed out at Paulinchen floating peacefully on her mooring buoy. "I like the people I've met here, too. It's weird – all that time on the open ocean I never once felt lonely, but when you pull into a city where you can here music and other people having fun – and you don't know anyone – that's when it feels lonely.”
So where does he go from here?
"The plan is, after September, to head down to the Yucatan Peninsula, then Panama, then South America,” said Hinnerk, a telltale twinkle in his eye common to those who have been bitten hard by the adventure bug. "From there, I plan to sail up the east coast of South America to Buenos Aries, then head east across the Southern Atlantic to Africa and onward.”
In fact, a look at Weiler's website reveals an ambitious plan of globetrotting that ought to last him several lifetimes – sailing from Africa into the Indian Ocean to Kolkata, India, down through the Andaman and Java Seas and around most of Australia to New Zealand and French Polynesia before backtracking to the Philippines and Japan. From there Hinnerk will sail across the northern Pacific Ocean, through the Northern Passage along the edge of the Arctic and back to Hamburg via the North Atlantic.
"I used to say I'd taken six years off to go sailing, but now I've quit telling people how long it will take,” Weiler told a reporter from The Windsor Star in 2011. "The big question is, will this finish? I think that when I have these plans finished I will return back to Europe, but I'll never be back sitting at a desk.”
Which goes to prove true the old adage - not all who wander are lost.
Keri Hendry Weeg
Readers can follow
Weiler’s journey at