A tale of two boats shapes the future of a Swiss sailing couple and their life on Bonaire.
Deep in Southeast Asia, an American CIA agent is ordered to document the local boats that ply the tropical waters of coastal Thailand. It is a ‘fact-finding’ mission so to speak. The man, in the process of compiling extensive information, falls in love with the grace and elegance of the Thai vessels. By the end of his clandestine work, he commissions a local boatyard to build him his own teakwood, Siamese junk sailing boat. The boat is christened Samur. Eventually, the man sails away west passing through the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and makes land’s end in the Chesapeake Bay of the United States.
In northern Germany, a young Swiss couple begins a two-year process of crafting a 40-foot catamaran. It is designed after a British coastal cruiser but changes are made in order for the boat to meet the rigors of blue water sailing. The catamaran is named Hey di Hei, which means ‘Hi, At Home’ in Swiss German. By 1993, the two sailors depart Kiel, Germany for a voyage of a lifetime spurred on what they call “the urge to search”. They have no itinerary or timeline. Freedom is the operative word for the trip. But they realize they will need to work along the way to extend their adventure.
Destiny eventually brings these two boats together, but more on that later. The main concern for the Swiss couple by the time they reach the Canary Islands is where to have the baby born. “By the time we reached Portugal, I was pregnant,” explains Yvonne Schultheiss, “but we continued sailing south. We were comfortable having the baby during the voyage. I went to the hospital in the Canaries to have our son, Urs. Four hours later, we were back aboard Hey di Hei.”
“Our next step was to cross the Atlantic,” continues Chris Schultheiss. “We wanted Urs to have a safe travel weight before we left so we set up a four kilo goal for him to reach. This gave us plenty of time to prepare for the voyage.”
That year the trade winds were not cooperating so when the trio finally departed, they continued south for ten days. About the time they spotted the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, the winds started blowing from the east and Hey di Hei began her trans-Atlantic passage. By February 1996, they landed on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
For the next two years, the catamaran cruised the eastern Caribbean, sailing up and down the island chain several times. It was on Grenada that they learned about an opportunity to work in Bonaire for two months on a day charter sailboat. The couple pulled anchor and headed west to check out the opportunity.
“Bonaire was heaven for sailors,” remembers Yvonne fondly. “In 1998, the moorings were free. The thing was you had a great anchorage with great water quality right in front of the town for easy shopping. Usually you don’t find that combination. The moorings were always full with visiting boats so we had a lot of fun parties aboard and good times at Karl’s Bar. You could dock your dingy there for free back then.”
“Plus, we had a car!” adds Chris. “It was a black, diesel jeep with pink wheels.”
“Flamingo wheels! laughs Yvonne.
Chris grins. “Another sailor who had to leave the island gave the jeep to us. He had inherited it earlier from another departing sailor. It had no working lights since the alternator was broken. There were no keys, just a button to push and it would start.”
Those pink wheels delivered Chris and Yvonne to Richard Tuke, an American living on Bonaire who was in need of deck hands to help run his charter boat while the regular captain was off delivering a yacht to the Azores. The captain never returned. Tuke’s 56-foot sailboat was the teakwood, Siamese junk sailing boat named Samur.
The Schultheiss’s learned that Tuke was the third owner of Samur, having found it in Maryland where the CIA agent apparently had ended his journey. The couple skippered the boat for two years, taking tourists on day charters. The family lived a comfortable life residing on Hey di Hei, which was on a Kralendijk mooring. But by 2000, they decided to leave the island. “We still wanted to see more of the world,” explains Chris. “We were basically not ready to settle down. We had a great time on Bonaire, but it was time to continue our voyage.”
Hey di Hei headed north to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Cuba and Mexico. The crew eventually sailed to Belize and then to the jungle-rich shores of Guatemala’s exotic Rio Dulce. Chris and Yvonne became managers of a riverside marina. The new life was ideal for the sailors, and then one day they received a call from Richard Tuke. He asked them to return to Bonaire to operate Samur for the upcoming six-month cruise ship season. The family left Hey di Hei on dry dock and flew to Bonaire in order to avoid an arduous 1000-mile sail into the wind.
“One season led to three,” continues Yvonne. “We would do the cruise ship season during the winter in Bonaire. Then in the summer, we flew back to Guatemala and lived on Hey di Hei. It was a nice life, but it was time for Urs to seriously begin school and for the family to lead a more permanent life. We started by enrolling him in the Pelikaan School and then rented a house in Nikiboko.”
By 2006, the Schultheiss’ had purchased Samur from Richard Tuke becoming the boat’s fourth owners. Business went well and the couple finally bought their own home in Hato in 2009. Urs became a talented Optimist dingy sailor often winning regattas in Bonaire and Curacao. He also helped his parents aboard Samur and could often be seen swinging overboard from one of the long lines tied to the mast top. Captain Chris to this day enjoys sharing Bonaire’s underwater beauty with the passengers, especially the older ones.
“We had just taken a group with an 84-year old man to Klein Bonaire. It was the first snorkel of his life. Afterwards, I saw him sitting on No Name Beach crying. I asked him what was wrong. He said he never saw anything so beautiful in his life and that he was ready to die right there on the beach. Fortunately, he didn’t. Sometimes we get caught up in the charter business and forget about how much beauty there is here on the island. That old man reminded me of what surrounds us.”
And what about the Hey di Hei, left behind in Guatemala? Chris met two Texans years later, owners of a 20-meter motorboat, who offered to tow the catamaran to Bonaire. Chris flew back to Rio Dulce to join them in the journey. The trip took nearly three weeks, but that was only after the boats became separated at sea on two occasions due to chafed lines. The Hey di Hei now rests peacefully next to the couple’s Hato home.
These veteran sailors, however, may not yet be done with their world voyage. After all, a foot-long model sailboat floats in the couple’s patio wading pool. Errant winds have the tiny craft circling the perimeter, desperately looking for a way to escape the concrete pool. Perhaps that is symbolic of something. “Bonaire is our home and we love living here,” assures Yvonne. “But we still keep Hey di Hei. She is a big part of our life history. And you never know what the future may bring. We may start another phase of our life someday and just sail away. Or maybe we won’t. It’s just nice to have options.”
In the meantime, Chris and Yvonne seem quite comfortable with their two contrasting options: the Samur, constructed in Asia and still sailing the waters, and Hey di Hei, built in Europe, sitting high and dry on blocks. Both boats have made Bonaire their home. So have three Swiss sailors.