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September 3, 2011
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'Kind of insane' local woman sails to Hawaii

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, long-time Roaring Fork Valley residents Catherine Zimney and her sailing partner Ray Schmahl were thinking they might have made a mistake.

"We thought about turning around," said Zimney, 57, who was on what she expected to be the water-borne adventure of her life. She and Schmahl, 58, were sailing from San Francisco to Oahu, Hawaii, in a full-keel sailing cruiser.

"We were exhausted," she continued. "Neither of us had expected it to be as physically demanding as it was."

Only about half the distance to the actual halfway mark of 1,100 nautical miles, they had endured cold days and colder nights ever since departing from Half Moon Bay, about 60 miles south of San Francisco.

"The first week, we didn't even have sun," said Zimney. They missed the warmth of the sun, she said, and "we had nothing generating power through our solar panels."

And it was the solar panels that powered the on-board batteries, crucial to the ship's operations.

"At this point, I probably would have voted to be put in a strait jacket," Zimney confided with a laugh.

They decided that since they were roughly half the distance to the true halfway point, they might as well keep going - a bit of logic that might have more to do with sleep deprivation and exposure than rational processes, Zimney said.

So on they went, unaware that they were still to deal with a hair-raising night of rogue waves and repeated soakings of the vessel.

The pair made it to Hawaii in 25 days and are still together as a couple. But Zimney said, "This was kind of insane for two people in their 50s to be doing."

She is back in Colorado, readjusting to her job and her life here, while Schmahl remained in Hawaii to get back to his own job and make necessary repairs to the boat.

The two met in 2003 at the Two Rivers Cafe in Basalt, when Schmahl was living in the Bay Area and Zimney, married for 11 years, was a veteran of decades of life in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Schmahl had lived in Glenwood Springs back in the 1980s and '90s, when he worked for a contractor building I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. His top achievements on that project were the French Creek and Hanging Lake viaducts.

Zimney, a trained cook, among other talents, had sailed the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in boats of various sizes, she said. Schmahl was the proud owner of a 27-foot Pearson with considerable experience sailing coastal waters and the Bay, but not the open ocean.

They reconnected through their interest in sailing, and after Zimney divorced in 2007 and finished a cruise of the Caribbean in a 100-foot sailboat, she was ready for another adventure.

Meanwhile, Schmahl had moved to Oahu for a job. By 2010, he was hoping to get his current boat, a Baba 35 named "You Never Know," to his new home so he could cruise the islands.

They decided to give it a go. On July 15, they set out from Half Moon Bay, after a shakedown cruise from the Golden Gate the previous day. They were running more than a week late thanks to last-minute repairs, supply issues and a slight case of the jitters.

In fact, they nearly turned back when they got a mile out in the ocean, because the waters there are extremely choppy and hard to handle.

"There was a whole fear factor involved," Zimney said. "I mean, there were second thoughts all over the place."

But they persevered.

"It was really about believing in him and trusting him," Zimney recalled, explaining that Schmahl was the skipper of the boat while she was cook, first mate and whatever else came up.

They spotted one other sailboat as they left the coast, Zimney said. "That was the last time we saw a boat until we sailed into the marina at Oahu."

From the start, the pair threw themselves into the adventure eagerly, even if they were somewhat chagrined by the difficulties they encountered.

"I don't describe the trip as fun," she remarked. "It was physically demanding, and you're in constant motion," she said, from the rocking of the ship.

"You're always holding onto something, or something is always coming at you. Your maximum sleep was four hours."

At night for the first couple of weeks, she reported, she would dress in six layers of clothes for her night-watch hours.

"It would take 20 minutes to get dressed," she lamented. "By day 10, I'm kind of staring at the walls and thinking, maybe we made the wrong decision."

For a two-day stretch, the boat was becalmed, forcing them to waste precious fuel to motor around searching for the wind, without any luck. The wind returned, but their fuel reserves were low.

At the same time, despite the hardships, Zimney was getting to know how different the Pacific is from the Atlantic.

"The first thing you'll notice about the Pacific is, it's too blue, it's almost purple," she said. They saw no life other than a few birds that would try to land on the boat to catch a rest.

Zimney said they did see a few freighters off in the blue distance as they sailed, but other than that it was just the two of them.

"For me, it was a very spiritual trip in a lot of ways," she said, "very peaceful, very calming."

She would watch the stars blanketing the sky as they never do on land and around cities, and think about an astronomy professor at Colorado Mountain College, Dr. Dave Clark.

"I thought, oh, I wish he was here, because he could tell me all the constellations," she said.

Plus, she said, "The moonlight was your friend, when it was around."

One night, around day 18 or 19 of the 25-day cruise, they were warned by satellite phone that a storm was nearby.

The wind started picking up and the sea grew rougher, spilling into the pilot house. Once, when a wave of immense proportions slammed over the boat from stem to stern, it swamped the area below decks.

But the storm abated, they bailed out and hove to, to let the ship wallow in the troughs between waves, and slept for four hours without anyone on watch.

The rest of the trip was easier. As the weather improved and the sun came out, their moods lightened.

For amusement one day, they flew a kite using dental floss for string (it was lost at sea when the floss snapped), achieving what Zimney called "one of those very joyful moments" that come at such times.

"We were stretched, but we were doing better," she recounted.

Around day 21, Zimney experienced a momentary panic that they had sailed right past Hawaii.

Imagining briefly that they were headed for Wake Island or, if they missed that, too, perhaps Taiwan, she recalled.

"I grabbed him by the shirt and said, 'You miss that island and I'm throwing you overboard,' " clenching her fists, but grinning at the memory.

Emotionally, she said, "We got rid of a lot of stuff out there. It was sort of like clearing out the cobwebs of your relationship."

The did not drink during the entire trip, she said, except for a shot of brandy each on one particular night after a moment of tension about a subject she couldn't remember.

And generally, they were ecstatic to be without television, cell phones, radio or iPods.

"That was one of the best things of the whole trip, was being disconnected from everyone," she concluded. "It's one of those trips that, as well as you think you know yourself and your partner, there is stuff you reach down into and surprise yourself. It was a great trip."

So it was that, 25 days after sailing away from the West Coast of the U.S., the pair docked in Oahu.

Would they do it again?

Zimney, cocking her head and smiling broadly, answered, "You never know."

Schmahl, reached by phone, said of the trip, "It gets greater as the days go by."

Ever the consummate sailor, he added, "I would do it again. We'd be better prepared and know more about how things work."

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Sep 3, 2011 07:43PM Published Sep 3, 2011 07:35PM Copyright 2011 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.