Until I met Birgit of the sailing vessel Pitufa, I wasn’t aware I was in search of her.
I merely had no vision of what our international cruising community might look like in the future or the type of boater that might steer us motley sea gypsies into the twenty-second century. Now I do.
Let’s put it another way: Birgit Hackl and her partner Christian Feldbauer are a breath of fresh air. For one thing, they are globe-trotting ocean sailors from a landlocked country—there’s not many of those around. Number two, they are highly independent and self-reliant, just like their 1988 41-foot S&S-designed, Australian-built aluminum sloop. Number three, they can speak, read, and professionally write in numerous European languages.
They are not the least bit jaded intellectually—in fact, they are lit up by dozens of diverse subjects. They are true sailing citizens of the world with a core belief that with personal freedom comes community responsibility.
Best off all, they shun the cruising herd. “Our whole idea isn’t to stay connected to the Internet or post videos or scribble blogs—our whole idea is to sail to places with no Internet access and to stay as long as possible with the lightest environmental footprint practical.”
Nor do they take themselves too seriously—Leeloo the cat is often listed on their ship’s manifest—and Wayney Vaney is their Hydrovane self-steering gear; Berti is their cherished kerosene oven.
They have almost no money—and need less.
Birgit doesn’t dress in fancy clothes ashore or afloat—her regal posture needs little adornment. (Full disclosure: there’s almost always a lovely self-designed, pearl necklace around her neck.)
Recently, in the Tuamotus, they bent their propeller. Their plan was to buy a new one—until the price of shipping a new three-blader into Tahiti became apparent—so Christian decided to hit his mangled prop with a large hammer instead.
He’s my kind of sailor—a true ‘beat it to fit, paint it to match’ kind of fellow. He is equally at home with a sledge hammer or his Ph.D thesis in his calloused hands.
Both sailors believe in giving back to the marine community—each frequently hosts the Polynesian Magellan Net (8173 on the marine band). Birgit’s joy of living, her enchantment with freedom, and her respect for the natural environment come through loud and clear over the airwaves. She loves people, loves to help them, and loves to encourage others to realize their cruising goals.
While Birgit has no illusions of the difficulties that lie ahead for a marine environmentalist, she also radiates hope and confidence—anything is possible with motivated people in service to Mother Ocean.
Another thing I find interesting about them is their Euro perspective. I, as an American, tend to shun controversy and confrontation. Birgit is a strong woman with strong opinions and she isn’t the least bit intimidated expressing those opinions forcefully, especially those related to the environment.
I’ve always felt that I have a right to speak out on all issues US of A but as a guest in a foreign country I should be mute. Birgit doesn’t appear to feel this way. Judging from her behavior, she thinks our planet is just too small, fragile, and interconnected for such provincial behavior.
Another way they seem unique as a couple is how they see little difference between being a busy professor in London or teaching a solitary Polynesian about marine ecology and sustainability—it’s all in a day’s work to Birgit and Christian.
Currently, as members of the EU, they love working and cruising in French Polynesia. While they are avid sailors—a large part of their love of the cruising lifestyle is how close it brings them to their marine environment—and, thus, how they can have a benign effect on it.
Birgit is perfectly comfortable in a man’s world—and regularly hitchhikes around the islands without Christian. Has she ever had a problem? Not one that she couldn’t solve, she shrugs.
Perhaps the thing that most intrigued me about Birgit is her femininity—she is both soft and hard as required—and able to navigate complex social situations with ease, while not giving up an ounce of her considerable intellectual power.
Some people ask for respect and to be treated fairly—Birgit just expects it as a matter of course and thus often obtains it without struggle.
While they are currently at the beginnings of their circumnavigations after seven short years—they don’t merely follow the coconut milk run. They think nothing of beating to windward from Tahiti into the teeth of the sou’east trades to the Tuamotus, Gambiers, and the Marquesas—heaving-to in heavy weather as conditions demand.
“Pitufa is strong and we have confidence in her,” says Christian simply.
“We keep her simple,” agrees Birgit, “There’s really not too much to break.”
Comfort and convenience seem to play minor roles in their cruising life.
They rarely haul out. “We usually go more than two years,” says Christian, “but, of course, the longer we go, the more work we eventually have to do. We hope to haul out in Raiatea soon but we might be out of the water for a while.”
Perhaps the most admirable thing about their environment activism is that it isn’t merely talk. Their current dream is to convince the ‘care-takers’ of several Tuamotus lagoons that they can make more money in a sustainable way by installing and maintaining moorings for passing cruising vessels—than by copra and pearl farming. They hope to demonstrate this in a specific lagoon soon—and are currently raising the money and expertise required. Yes, they are hands on—they will lug the mooring gear aboard their boat and help install it right beside the Polynesians—learning all the pitfalls and difficulties along the way.
“It isn’t enough to know what should be done,” says Birgit, “you have to help make it happen. We can’t just stand by and watch the world’s coral disappear—we have to assist in its preservation. Talk is cheap—sweat, not so much.”