In the early 1990s, a German sailor sailed his self-built boat, Varedhuni, to Bonaire. Nearly 20 years later, he is still living aboard.
Two words describe how Ernst Schilling has shaped his future—self-determination. As a young man of 19, he chose to leave his native Germany for Switzerland in order to avoid a military draft lottery. But there was another reason for his departure, his Swiss girlfriend, Heidi. Schilling moved to Heidi’s hometown of Basil where they married. Soon after, the couple had their daughter, Barbara. Ernst worked for years as a lab technician developing new medicines for a Swiss drug company. Later in his career, he moved into the lucrative business of medical drug sales.
But nearly twenty years later something was missing in Schilling’s life. He became disillusioned with the kickbacks medical professionals expected in getting new drug products placed on the market. It was about this time that his daughter, Barbara, had married a young German, Pieter Werdath. The newlyweds invited Ernst and Heidi to join them at one of their favorite vacation destinations, the Maldive Islands of the Indian Ocean. The four made multiple trips to the Maldives where Schilling learned to scuba dive. Despite their age differences, the two couples would dream about doing extensive world travels together. “We had a plan to go by sailboat,” explains Ernst. “None of us knew how to sail, but that didn’t stop us. We even gave our future boat its name, Varedhuni, which means ‘rainbow’ in Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives. There was a dive boat there with that name and it had a rainbow painted on the bow. That is where it all started.”
That was in 1984. After two years of planning, they chose a German catamaran design to build. Ernst and Pieter quit their full time jobs started construction of the twin hull craft while the woman continued working their conventional jobs. ““People told me I could never build the boat in three years,” laughs Ernst. “They said it would take a minimum of five years, maybe seven. At that moment, I was typical German and said, ‘I want to get out of here, and I want to do it NOW!’”
Six months after the construction started Ernst and Pieter went back to part time jobs, but spent every free moment working on the catamaran. Ernst also took a course to secure a captain’s license, which included theory and a three-week, hands-on, 2000-mile sail from the Canary Islands to France. The trip, however, was on a sloop, not a catamaran. He was seasick for two weeks of the three. “That was a moment when I really questioned what was I doing, but we had already started construction of Varedhuni.”
The boat was completed three years to the day, exactly as the determined Ernst had predicted. The two couples had no fixed itinerary for their voyage although they had a vague goal of eventually cruising the Pacific. Varedhuni departed the Basil boatyard on the River Rhine with four people, three cats and an immediate plan to motor the river to the North Sea. The first day did not go smoothly.
“After a half hour on the Rhine we started getting a lot of water in the boat. A gasket broke around one of the motor shafts and water was pouring in. During construction, some experts had advised us that two, 12-hp motors were all we needed to power our ten- ton boat. Now we were down to only one 12-hp motor to deal with the river’s current and we were fast approaching the first bridge on route. This all happened about 15 minutes from Basil. We made it through the bridge OK, but stayed two days at a place just past the bridge for repairs.
After that auspicious start, things got better for the novice sailors. They motored the rest of the Rhine without mishap and finally raised sails for the first time in the North Sea. Varedhuni cruised to England, south to Portugal and eventually made landfall in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
The crew stayed in the islands for two months waiting out the hurricane season, but by December, bad weather still remained. While delayed, they made many new friends, with whom Ernst called, “real sailors”. In spite of the storms, some of these seasoned yachtsmen chose to leave thinking that after a day or so they would break through the bad weather. They were wrong. “The boats would depart and just get beat up,” recalls Ernst. “I would hear them on the marine radio. One had lost a jib sail, another their autopilot. I didn’t trust the weather. The waves were 3-4 meters high. We waited. During my years of preparation, I had learned to read weather maps. That came in handy.”
Schilling finally saw a break in the weather and pointed Varedhuni out to sea. One would expect the crew to be elated after all the delays, but the mood aboard was just the opposite. “It was hard to leave the Canaries,” explains Ernst. “We knew that there was no way back anymore. That first day on the water, no one spoke to each other. Everyone was waiting for the other to say, ‘let’s start the engine and go back’. But on the other hand, everybody wanted to continue the voyage so we just didn’t talk.”
That silence finally broke on the second day and the crew got into the rhythms of passage making. Twenty-six days later they arrived in Barbados. The sailors were finally in the Caribbean, but their first look did not meet tropical paradise expectations. “We had arrived at night,” continues Ernst. “The next morning was really disappointing. The shore was full of old, broken-down buildings. Those were our first impressions of the Caribbean after nearly a month at sea. But the Bajans, the people of Barbados, were so friendly that we ended up staying for two weeks.”
The voyage continued to Saint Lucia where the crew spent two months. Varedhuni traveled the eastern Caribbean from Martinique to Grenada and then on to Venezuela. It was in Puerto La Cruz that Ernst learned about a dive instructor job in Cuba. They set sail north but had plenty of time to stop and visit islands along the way. One of the port stops was Bonaire. All four loved the island so they decided to stay a few weeks. “Bonaire was everything,” says Ernst. “It was so clean. The water was amazing. If there were ten boats in the harbor, it was crowded and the people were great.”
One person that Schilling met early on was Gaston Chirino, owner of the seaside Kant’i Awa Bar that is still in operation today. Gaston saw Ernst with empty jerry cans in search of water one morning and offered free rainwater from his cistern. Gaston told him to come back anytime if he ran out. They remain friends to this day.
Within 24 hours on Bonaire, Ernst was offered a job as a dive instructor at the now defunct Sunset Beach Dive Center. The crew decided to stay the season and forget about Cuba. A few months later the dive shop needed a mechanic so Pieter Werdath got a job. Later, his wife Barbara started working as a dive instructor at the dive center. Before the crew realized it, one season had led to another. “We talked several times about leaving,” tells Ernst, “but everybody was happy. So we stayed.”
After several years, however, that happiness vanished. Heidi never made the transition to island life. She and Ernst divorced and then Heidi returned permanently to Switzerland. Barbara broke up with Pieter after she met a Swiss dive instructor. The couple left for the Maldives to work in the dive industry there. To this day, they live on islands working on boats or at dive resorts. The remaining two sailors stayed on Bonaire, living together on Varedhuni for another year. Pieter then moved to land and met Pam Teitel. They later married and are now owners of Budget Marine.
Ernst Schilling was employed at the Sunset Beach Dive Center until it closed. He later worked at Captain Don’s Habitat as a dive instructor and eventually ran the photo shop. He stopped working three years ago. During his stint at Captain Don’s, Ernst had Varedhuni moored in front of the resort and continued his life on board. After leaving Habitat, he moved the catamaran back to the same place where she had landed in 1993. Ernst and the boat had come full circle.
“There will be a time as I get older that I will move on land. But still, living on the boat gives me that feeling of freedom. If I don’t like it tomorrow, I drop the line and go.”
But for Ernst Schilling, feeling freedom on Bonaire has never been a problem. He remains, along with Pieter Werdath, a sailor who never left.