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Woman at the Helm – Dorothy Silvernail

Born in Big Rapids, Michigan, Dorothy grew up where summers were spent on pontoon boats and water skiing on the Muskegon River.  She moved to Colorado in 1970 where she earned a BS degree from University of Southern Colorado in Art and a MA in Fine Arts with a specialty in Raku. 

Along with partner Harry Delaney, she began racing Catalina 22s and 25s on the Pueblo Reservoir.  It was there that she was bitten by the cruising bug.  “We bought a Catalina 25, Spindrift, with a fixed keel, and would trailer it to San Carlos, Mexico, where we sailed the Sea of Cortez for two winters, going as far south as Manzanillo. We decided that if you could have a good time on a boat, with a cabin that you could not stand up in and that held 13 gallons of water, just think of the great times you could have on a real cruiser.  We sold Spindrift and started searching for a proper cruising yacht.  The English pound was plummeting in ’83 so we bought a Camper Nicholson ’35, Whimbrel (a migrating shore bird) in Gosport, UK.” 

The two spent 15 years cruising from the UK to New Zealand and all through the southern hemisphere from Kenya to Hong Kong. “Of all of the cities I have seen Bangkok has the most beautiful, classic Buddhist architecture –and the people are so gentle.  We loved it and stayed in Thailand five months.  We sailed to Hong Kong shortly before the British left – that was exciting.  We then did a really insane thing – we beat, close-hauled, thousands of miles through the South Pacific to New Zealand, where we spent Typhoon season of ’94.” 

“After visiting Tonga and Fiji we decided to return through Asia rather than cross the Pacific.  We never had the dream of circumnavigation, and only wanted to sail from one fun spot to another, so it wasn’t a difficult decision not to beat thousands of miles across the Pacific. We decided that we were ready to sail to the Caribbean via South Africa.  Harry began having serious health issues on the journey from India to Richards Bay, South Africa, a stopping point 100 miles north of Durban.  During our stay there it became apparent that he was going to need to return to the states for medical attention.” 

With Harry’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s, along with a quadruple bypass, it was left to Dorothy to sail Whimbrel to the Caribbean.  A cruising companion and good friend, Thalia Hearne, was also in Richard’s Bay with her husband Bob, who was overhauling their engine.  It was agreed that Thalia and Dorothy would sail Whimbrel around Cape Horn and across the Atlantic to Trinidad while Bob finished the engine.

Dorothy adds, “During the 800 miles of ‘gunkholing’ along the South African coast the alternator gave us problems.  After a few stops, it was finally repaired in Cape Town, and we were on our way.  As we sailed away from South Africa the winds grew milder and the sea temperatures warmer.  We started dressed in six layers of clothing, as it was January; every few days we removed a layer until we were close to St. Helena. Using a three hour watch schedule, we broke the 51-day Atlantic passage with a five day visit on this historic island, where we enjoyed seeing the conditions under which Napoleon was exiled. 

“We were really lucky when we reached the equator; the wind pattern shifts (the Convergent Zone) brought us strong storms lasting only one day, which is fortunate as these storms often last for up to a week.  We arrived in Trinidad in March of 2001 at which time Thalia returned to Africa, and Harry, still recuperating, rejoined me on the boat.” 

The two enjoyed four years of cruising in the Caribbean before Harry’s health forced them to sell Whimbrel. Since that time, she spends her winters crewing and doing deliveries in the Caribbean. In her 20 years of cruising Dorothy has covered over 60,000 miles – her knowledge is extensive and her adventures numerous.  Meeting her in Venezuela was an adventure in itself.

Nancy Terrell has lived in the Caribbean for 20 years, is an international free lance writer, and holds an MA Degree in Literature.  Swan Song is her 6th boat during 40 years of sailing.

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