David and Gail Funk are more than halfway through their retirement plan, living the Fifth Season.
Make that: living ON the Fifth Season.
It’s been 12 seasons since the former Cedar Rapidians left the City of Five Seasons to climb aboard their 42-foot sailing catamaran, The Fifth Season. They are truly making time to enjoy the other four seasons, as the city’s slogan says. They just don’t have to dress for all those seasons. Evenings can get chilly on the open southern seas, so fleece and windbreakers come in handy, but swimsuits and shorts rule the day.
Their goal was to spend 20 years sailing around the world, after David retired at age 55. Technically, they’ve logged enough miles since January 2002, but they’re really only halfway there.
“Ironically, the distance we’ve sailed so far is equal to slightly more than going completely around the world,” says David, 66, who worked nearly 33 years in engineering and management at Rockwell Collins. “It’s not the distance, it’s the places we can see that drives us.”
And oh, the places they’ve seen.
The Caribbean, South America, Antarctica, South Africa, the Panama Canal, Easter Island, the Galapagos Islands, the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and now, Japan, before they head to the Pacific Northwest in May to sail down the U.S. West Coast. After that, they’ll head back to the South Pacific and on to Southeast Asia. Around 2016, they’ll figure out how to get to Europe.
“We don’t know if it will be through the Suez Canal or around Africa,” David says during a summer stop back in Cedar Rapids.
“It has to improve a lot around the Suez Canal before we could go that way,” adds Gail, 55, a Coe College alum and retired computer consultant. They haven’t encountered pirates, but friends have, and those tales are scary.
So far, mostly so good for the Funks, whose scrapes include inadvertently hitting a humpback whale in the head while sailing south of Tonga in the South Pacific; having large waves wash over the boat en route to New Zealand; and Gail needing surgery for a broken elbow and wrist in Lima, Peru, in 2007.
She was on her way back to the boat after a paragliding lesson when she caught her toe on a curb and fell flat on her face. Navigating the Lima health care system showed them just how far they were from home. They were happy with the doctor who treated her, but David had to go to a drug store and buy the painkillers and dressings needed for the surgery — the hospital didn’t stock them, to deter thievery. Total cost of care was less than half of their $5,000 Rockwell insurance deductible.
“It would have cost us way more in the United States,” says Gail, who left Peru with a screw in her elbow and a plate in her lower arm. The couple make an annual trek back to Gail’s hometown of Duluth, Minn., to visit relatives and have physicals.
Health maintenance is especially important since Gail is an insulin-dependent diabetic. She stocks up on the two kinds of insulin she uses and David’s cholesterol medications. They also keep antibiotics on the boat, in case they need them when no land is in sight, and they’ve been able to work with local doctors on their travels. That comes in handy, since Gail seems to attract every amoeba she encounters.
“We found out that amoebas just love me,” she says with a laugh. “The whole time we were in South America, I just constantly had (diarrhea). Some people can drink the water, and if they just get through the first four or five days, then they’re fine afterwards. Not me. Every time I get exposed, I get amoebas.”
The waters the Funks have jumped into have been much friendlier. Even the sharks they’ve encountered have been small and non-aggressive, and neither one has seen a shark fin break the surface.
“We see lots and lots of dolphins,” Gail says. “They like to swim with the boat. It’s a game to them, to swim alongside the boat and bump each other out of the way. They want to be the closest one to the boat.”
Her favorite close encounters have been with King Penguins on South Georgia Island near Antarctica; playing with a young sea lion that dived with them, but kept just outside their reach, off the Galapagos Islands; and coming face to face with a huge, typically shy sea turtle, also at the Galapagos, a chain of volcanic islands west of Ecuador.
David’s favorite site was Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, about 2,000 miles west of Chile and a 22-day passage from Peru — the couple’s longest time traversing open water. The trek was worth it. Images of the giant heads carved out of volcanic rock made a huge impression on David in grade school, and an even larger impression up close.
“It was really spectacular,” he says.
Also spectacular are the night skies when the couple travel the open seas.
“The clearest, brightest skies you’ll ever see in your life,” Gail says. “There’s nothing to take away from the brilliance of the stars.”
They actually spend a very small portion of a year on passage — “slightly less than 30 days, sailing from one point to another,” David says.
Even when they’re exploring dry land, the boat is their comfortable home.
“Occasionally we’ll take a land tour and rent rooms then, but for us, the whole plan — the whole important part of this plan — was that we’re taking our home with us, from place to place,” Gail says. “I have my knives that I really like for cooking, I know my kitchen, I sleep in my own bed every night, and we just park it. It’s like taking an RV and being able to go.”
Their RV has two hulls, side by side, with a bridge in between, two sails and a diesel engine that makes it easier to maneuver in ports. Once they drop anchor — oftentimes in free spots — they hop in their gas-powered dinghy to go ashore.
Onboard, each hull has two bedrooms, a bathroom with a shower, an upper level with a galley and a dining table that seats eight, a navigation area. The cockpit will seat 14.
“We’re the party boat,” Gail says. “If people want to get together for the night, they come to the catamaran, because there’s a lot more space and it’s a lot more comfortable than the other boats.”
Since they sold their Cedar Rapids house to pay off the boat, their main expenses are food and boat maintenance, which run about $8,000 to $10,000 a year. They live off the grid, generating energy through solar panels. They keep 150 gallons of water onboard, catch rainwater and use a desalinator to convert salt water into fresh water. They have a washing machine on the boat, but hang their laundry to dry.
On land, they walk, ride their bikes, use public transportation or occasionally rent a car. They hopped onto a large square rigger to travel the choppy, frigid seas around Antarctica, then continued across the Atlantic to South Africa and flew back to South America to pick up their boat.
They never get bored, even on long passages, since there’s so much to do with navigation, watching radio signals for other boats and making visual perimeter checks. Basically, when one person is awake, the other one’s asleep, but they do carve out time for watching movies and television series on DVDs.
David likes to read, Gail likes to head to the computer to apply for visas and update friends and family via Facebook. She does the meal planning and he does the boat maintenance. Their roles are pretty traditional, Gail says, since she doesn’t have the physical strength to do all heavy lifting.
Even with their close quarters, if they need some cooling-off time apart, they can head to separate hulls. The togetherness, however, has strengthened their relationship.
“If you’re out there in the middle of the ocean and you have an argument … you have to work through it,” Gail says. “You gotta stay there and you gotta work it out.”
Isolationism isn’t a threat, either, since they have so much to do. And in all their travels, they’ve never really felt in danger.
“I’m confident that we will one day,” Gail says. “If you spend your life on the boat, you’re going to experience that some time — and I bet I pee my pants.”
“She’s very good, though,” David quickly adds.
“I’m not easily frightened. I trust David and I trust the boat.”