On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 — Election Day — Harry Ricciardi slipped out of Vineyard Haven Harbor under clear skies, nudged by a gentle breeze, and headed up Vineyard Sound. Harry wouldn’t learn about the election results until 13 days later, when he sailed his 26-foot Nordic Folkboat into St. George’s Harbor in Bermuda. It’s not unusual for boats to head south in mid-November. Hurricane season is normally past, and it’s a good time to leave before winter storms hit.
What was unusual was the journey Harry had taken to get to this point, and what some might consider the cavalier way he approached and prepared for the passage.
Harry graduated from NYU with a degree in economics in 2008. He kicked around New York for about a year, interning at ad agencies, but his heart was not on Madison Ave. Harry is a self-described “spaz.” He’s restless, edgy; he’s a high-energy, hands-on kind of guy, and he knew one thing for certain: He had to get out of the city. He wanted to do something with his hands. Harry sent job applications out to builders and timber framers around New England, anyone who might want to take a flier on a green hand. As a long shot, he also sent off an inquiry to Gannon & Benjamin boat builders in Vineyard Haven.
Harry had spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard since he was a kid, and it occurred to him that the Island might be as good a place as any to pursue his dream. Much to his surprise, they said, “Come on down.” This was actually a low-risk proposition for G&B. There’s always grunt work to be done around a boatyard, the pay is lousy, and if it doesn’t work out, someone else will always step in to fill the spot. So in March 2009, Harry reported to work.
“When I first started, I was terrible,” said Harry. “I didn’t know how to use tools … if I tried to cut something, it would jam the saw … I couldn’t draw straight lines — I was overwhelmed. But there was no one else around in the middle of the winter, and I loved it.”
While Harry was learning some basic skills, he was also getting hooked on the whole process of boat building, and what he really wanted was to have a boat of his own.
Harry went to Ross Gannon and explained his goal, and Ross told him that there are boats around — he could probably pick up one for next to nothing, rather than start from scratch. You just have to be willing to invest a lot of sweat equity. G&B would even be willing to give Harry some space to work on his boat after hours.
So Harry went to The MVTimes Bargain Box, and there it was: “26-foot Nordic Folkboat.” Price — let’s just say, next to nothing. The Nordic Folkboat is a small sloop-rigged sailboat, the product of a design competition held in Sweden in the Forties. It became a very popular design, and today it’s estimated that there are around 4,000 sailing internationally.
Ross was familiar with the design, and came over to take a look at it, and deemed it a good boat even though it would need a lot of work. Over the course of the next seven years, Harry would replace virtually every plank in the boat, resulting in what was essentially a new boat.
A tomboyish girl
One thing Harry didn’t replace was the name. The boat was called Tosen, which is Swedish slang for “a tomboyish girl,” and Harry thought it was appropriate for this scrappy little sloop.
Harry would spend the next seven years getting Tosen shipshape, and it could have taken even longer were it not for all the advice and he got from the local boat builder community. “There are so many great boat builders in the neighborhood,” said Harry. “As I approached each job, guys like Rick Brown, Jeff Craig and Pat Cassidy would stop by and say, ‘You know, did you ever think about pushing it here or tweaking it there’ — they were a huge help.” Frank Repoza taught Harry how to caulk the boat, and gave him all the materials he’d need to get him started.
Finally, late last fall, Harry and Tosen were ready to set sail, but there was no big fanfare or bon voyage party. Harry preferred to play it close to the vest. “I was afraid to tell people,” he said, “because they’d discourage me. If anything, I’d just tell them I was going to Cuttyhunk.” As Zoli Clarke, a close friend of Harry, said, “Harry just took off.”
In retrospect, there was every reason to discourage Harry. He had never done any bluewater sailing. At 26 feet long, Tosen was definitely on the smaller end of the spectrum for attempting such a trip. Plus, Tosen had no engine, no working electronics, nor charts to speak of, and no self-steering device, which meant Harry could never truly relax, especially on the first leg to Bermuda. Later in the trip, on the way to Antigua, Harry would become proficient in sheet-to-tiller steering, a technique which makes it possible to balance the boat on a fixed heading using the sails alone, and this helped. The windvane Harry had built turned out to be too complicated, and he threw it overboard.
Kirsten Gannon, Ross’s wife, said that she hadn’t heard of anyone taking this kind of bare-bones trip in ages — “The last one was probably Joshua Slocum,” she laughed. In 1895 Slocum became the first person to sail single-handedly around the world, before settling in West Tisbury.
“The first leg to Bermuda was definitely the hardest,” said Harry, “mostly because I really didn’t know how to do anything.” The boat was taking on water fore and aft, and as it rolled it became like a little washing machine inside, and everything started shorting. “Everytime I touched something I got a little buzz, so I just shut what little electronics I had down,” said Harry. What Harry was left with was his iPhone (and no way to charge it) and a Garmin Delorme Communicator, which could provide a GPS point and could be used for two-way texts. So every day Harry would allow himself about 10 seconds to text his parents, and they would text back his position and a brief weather report. One day Harry’s mom and dad, Clara and Walter, said they got through to Harry in a storm, and he was feeling particularly effusive: “In a storm,” he texted, “Hove to. Having hot chocolate.”
On Nov. 30 Harry arrived in Bermuda, a bit worse for the wear but still as enthusiastic as ever. He would spend the next month there making repairs to Tosen, and then it was off to Antigua.
The passage to Antigua took 12 days, and when Harry arrived, he felt as though he had found a home. There were lots of people his age, and plenty of work to do. “People saw me with tools,” said Harry, “and everyone wanted me.” Harry stayed in Antigua for about three months, during which time he became acquainted with the world of boat gypsies, people who spent their whole lives living day-to-day on their boats, having cut the cord to modern living. “These dudes have been doing this for years,” said Harry, “I’m just a rookie. I’d just sit there and listen.”
The king of the boat gypsies
It was in Carriacou, a small island in the Grenadines, that Harry would meet the king of boat gypsies, the legendary sailor and boatbuilder Paul Erling Johnson. Johnson, now 78, became famous for sailing his 18-foot sailboat back and forth across the Atlantic when he was just 16. His parents were part of Aldous Huxley’s circle of acid experimenters, so as a kid he was a bit of a freak, Harry said, and very open to adventure. When Harry met Johnson, the great lion was getting a little long in the tooth. “He was still an impeccable Englishman,” said Harry; “he was sweet, thoughtful, and would spend his days on deck reading Thackeray and drinking gallons of rum.”
As seductive as life in the Caribbean could be, Harry knew he would have to start thinking about heading home. The relentless heat was starting to get to Harry, and he had to leave by June, when the hurricane season begins.
Harry spent about a week provisioning for his trip back. He had to walk into town to get supplies, and because he had no dinghy, he had to haul all his supplies out to Tosen on a paddleboard.
On April 27, Harry left Carriacou and headed for Culebra, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, and from there he went to the Turks and Caicos islands and finished his provisioning at Providenciales (Provo). On May 19 at 4 pm, Harry set sail from Provo, heading for Vineyard Haven.
It was to be an eventful trip back but now, with months of sailing under his belt, Harry had the confidence to face whatever came his way. Like when Tosen was knocked down twice off the coast of Florida. Or when she blew out the mainsail, or narrowly avoided a collision with a cargo ship. But the worst was when Harry lost the forestay, the rigging that holds up the mast. “Usually when something exciting happens, it just feels like sailing,” said Harry, “It’s not that intimidating or scary. But this was really stressful; it was the scariest moment of the trip.
“The forestay came loose, and I could hear it rattling around on deck while I’m digging through my hardware to find stuff, and I’m rigged to steer sheet-to-tiller, and I’m worrying about the boat driving off a wave … that was heavy!” But undaunted, Harry was able to rerig the forestay and continue on his way.
On June 6, a little over six months after Harry had set off for Bermuda, I received a text from Kirsten Gannon: “Looks like Harry’s going to be coming up the sound this afternoon.” And sure enough, driven by a blustery southwest wind, Harry came screaming around West Chop and into Vineyard Haven Harbor. But unlike when Harry stole out last fall, his return generated a lot more excitement. For one thing, Tosen’s mainsail had jammed just as the ferry Woods Hole was trying to leave, and the ferry blew five horns, three times, signalling danger. No problem; Harry climbed the mast and managed to straighten everything out, just in time to join friends, family and well-wishers in G&B for some bottles of bubbly. With Harry at center stage, people tossed out questions about his trip.
My favorite was, “Harry, why did you come back?” Harry’s answer was heartfelt: “I was lonesome.”
“Would you do it again?” someone else asked. “Absolutely,” he responded, “but I’d like a little bigger boat, so I could share the trip with other people.”
I had a question as well, but I asked Duncan MacFarlane, a friend and co-worker of Harry’s at G&B. “Duncan,” I said, “that was a pretty impressive trip; was Harry a really good sailor?”
“He is now,” said Duncan.
Want to read more about Harry’s trip? Check out his blog, boatshopnancy.tumblr.com.