April’s Skipper of the Month is Bob Schafer, from Fort Worth, TX. Bob retired from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, after working there for 35 years; his wife, Norma, is a Regulatory Affairs Specialist, so “she pays for our more expensive habits now.” Bob has two grand nieces, who are absolutely the most beautiful, smartest, and best-behaved kids on the planet.
He also has two puppies, who are absolutely the most beautiful, smartest, best-behaved dogs on the planet.
Bob has been a part of the NW Explorations family since 2014, and never goes on a boat trip without his trusted crew: Norma (his wife), Matt (his brother), and Donna (his brother’s wife).
1. What’s your boating background? How did you first get into boating?
I always laugh because when I got married, I had a sailboat, a motorcycle, and an airplane. We got rid of those and bought a powerboat my wife let me drive whenever she wanted to ski. Up until a few years ago, all my boating experience was on fresh water, mostly Texas lakes and the Mississippi River.
We took an Alaskan cruise on a big ship and had a great time. But then we took another Alaskan cruise on a smaller ship (20 passengers) and it was incredible. That cruise was more like a yacht cruise—we cruised for a while each day, but spent the nights anchored in small coves or bays. One morning, we woke up to two Humpback whales feeding 20 yards off the side of the ship; after that, we were hooked on yacht-style boating.
I saw an ad on the Internet for a twin-engine yacht training in Bellingham, WA and I decided to try it, even if all I did was go through the training. The company that provided the training offered an option where we could charter a boat for a week, starting with an instructor on board. When he was satisfied, he would return to Bellingham and we would continue with the charter for the rest of the week. Both my brother and I went through the training to become qualified skippers.
After that, our crew was set: Norma and I, together with Matt and his wife Donna, have chartered a yacht in the Pacific Northwest every year since.
2. How did you get connected with NW Explorations?
Our favorite boat is Koa Lanai, and when she moved to NW Explorations, we followed her to charter through Brian’s company, which was a great solution all around.
3. What boat(s) do you own? How long have you had them?
I’ve had fresh water boats off and on for more 30 years, but I guess I’m “in between boats” right now. I always tell my friends that I can’t tell for sure which year I will get another boat, but I can tell the day. I’ll get my next boat either on a Thursday or a Sunday . . . because the Texas Lottery drawings are Wednesday and Saturday.
4. What are your favorite boating spots/destinations?
Almost anywhere in Alaska tops the list. Our favorite spots to dock were Tenakee Springs and Meyers Chuck, either of which would be truly fantastic places to live. Our favorite anchorages were Ford’s Terror and Hole in the Wall (shown below).
5. Do you have any secret and/or hidden boating spots you like to visit?
There are lots and lots of places that might as well be “secret” because they’re lost in the overwhelming amount of guide book data. Our path to get to the best ones was one of our wisest choices: we followed the NW Explorations flotilla leader.
We would never have found most of these spots on our own, and wouldn’t have risked getting into what proved to be some of the most beautiful and serene locations, without an experienced flotilla crew leading us.
With the confident leadership of Deception, we went to places that were both thrilling (en route) and relaxing (in place). That made them secret or hidden because most casual boaters would neither know to go there, nor be willing to try on their own.
6. What was your favorite boat excursion and why?
We were part of the 2014 Mother Goose cruise from Bellingham to Sitka, AK. It was our first NW Exploration flotilla, and everything about the cruise was so much better than our expectations that only the proof of lots and lots of pictures convinced anyone (including ourselves) that it was more than a dream.
Koa Lanai was wonderful. Deception’s leadership was both helpful and reassuring. There’s nothing like going to places where you don’t even see contrails overhead for days at a time to make you appreciate a nearby captain/leader, mechanic, and naturalist.
Nothing could top Alaska or British Columbia for scenery, wildlife, serenity, and awe.
7. In your opinion, what are the best locations for spotting wildlife?
Anywhere between two boat lengths and two miles behind Deception when she’s leading a flotilla.
There are some specifics, of course. Our best Humpback sightings were in Alaska (following Deception) a day or so south of Sitka. We saw a whale breaching and put together a composite of the images.
We saw Bald Eagles throughout the Pacific Northwest, but the most we ever saw at one time was in Sitka Harbor.
Our best Orca sighting was in the Canadian Gulf Islands, although one of our flotilla partners got the best view of a playful one.
And dolphins (in the photo, Pacific Whiteside dolphins) loved to play around the waves of Koa Lanai a day south of Port McNeil in British Columbia.
8. If you could give one piece of advice to your fellow boaters, what would it be?
Even if you’re an experienced boater, take advantage of NW Explorations flotillas. Brian and the others are very good at letting you take care of your own boat, so your experience as a skipper is not diminished, yet all the mundane details are taken care of for you. Plus, their experience assures you of visiting significantly better places than you would ever find on your own.
9. Have you ever had any perilous journeys (i.e. storms, breakdowns, etc.)? How did you get through them?
I think it’s significant that we’ve never had a truly perilous moment in any of our cruises. We’ve had some that were uncomfortable due to weather, but the boats are so solid and strong that I never once worried that we were at-risk. We’ve had minor breakdowns (loss of stabilizers, etc.) but none of them were more than inconvenient and, with the help of the Deception crew, temporary.
We did have one wide-eyed moment the first time we went through Gabriella Pass, though I didn’t even know about it until later. The pass is located between the Canadian Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia and it can develop strong currents as the tide changes. Those currents often create swirls and side currents as they converge in narrow places. We were second through the pass behind Deception and, while it was busy at the helm for a while, we didn’t have too much trouble.
However, it turns out that the boat behind us had added a bit of power for improved steering, then got caught in the forward-moving part of a swirl that was holding us back. That swirl brought their bow sweeping past our stern with only a few feet to spare. Those on the other boat and those on our boat that were watching were too shocked to even yell . . . until it was all over, anyway. Of course, the lesson was to leave a little more space, which we thankfully all learned without any loud, unpleasant noises.
10. What is your favorite boating story?
One time, after Norma had received some instruction from Captain Brian on handling the boat, she was at the conn as we approached a raft for an evening’s stay. She was backing in, steering with the throttles, and doing a good job. Other flotilla boats, including Deception, were at our end of the raft, waiting to take our lines; everyone was relaxed, because Norma had it under control—she was slow but steady, and clearly headed toward success.
However, at the other end of the raft, another boat was joining and they needed a little more advice, so Captain Brian was talking to them over the flotilla radio channel, which we could all hear. There were several commands coming a bit more quickly and stridently as we approached.
When Brian said, “All stop” at a time when Norma was already in neutral as she floated slowly closer, she quickly popped the throttle ahead (correctly, as we were moving astern), stopped the boat and said, “You take it. I don’t know what I was doing wrong.”
She wasn’t doing anything wrong, but it sure sounded like she was headed for a problem!
Of course, one of the good things about nice yachts like the ones in NW Explorations’ fleet is that you can stop anytime and they don’t quickly drift out of control, so it wasn’t really a problem—just a funny (after-the-fact) frustration.
It’s pretty cool to be controlling a 50-ton boat moving closer to other beautiful yachts, and doing it well. Learning to do it in small steps still leaves plenty of room for adrenaline events and the best are those that, after the fact, are recognized as not that risky after all.
We had a layday in Princess Louisa inlet and rather than climb the mountain with the rest of the boaters, we asked Brian if he would provide some instruction in the morning for those in our crew who don’t often handle the boat in harbor. He was an excellent instructor; he was patient and had a sense of calm confidence that really helped the skipper under instruction. By the end of the day, Matt and Norma were backing down a narrow channel between rocks and boats like they’d been doing it for years.
One of Brian’s techniques is to use a pulse of power for a few seconds, then take it off. This allows the student skipper to see what the effect is before things start moving too quickly. He has a steady pace to the inputs he suggests, something like:
“Starboard ahead . . . stop.
Port astern . . . stop.”
His calm confidence made it clear that anything that might happen wouldn’t be that bad. After we returned home, Norma embroidered a hand towel for Deception that tried to capture that experience. On it, she put:
“Starboard ahead . . . . stop.”
“Port ahead . . . . . . . . stop.”
“All astern . . . . . . . . . . stop.”
“Sound collision . . . . . .stop.”
“Notify insurance . . . . stop.”
(P.S. we had to throw in this great photo Bob mocked-up, which we’re sure includes another great “Captain Brian Story.”)
Since the first day of training, our crew has been a team. Everyone “drives,” including in the harbor. Matt typically runs the deck, so when it comes to anchoring, I’m just the voice-activated controls for him. We have walkie-talkies and someone is always “eyes in the back of the boat” when we’re maneuvering.
We still don’t have that much experience, compared to other boaters, but as a team, we do pretty well. I’m proud and happy to be the skipper of record and am always very conscious of the fact that I’m responsible for all the potential bad things (even if I get to take credit for some of the good things). But there’s no way we would have been as successful, nor had as much fun, if everyone weren’t involved in making things work.
Bob first connected with us through our Alaska flotilla. To learn more about our flotillas (or book one yourself!), go here. We also offer 3-day and private training sessions that equip you to skipper your own yacht.