Small Boat, Large Experience – by Karen Larson

October 17, 2013

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(Originally published in Good Old Boat Magazine).

Small Boat, Large Experience

A tall-ship captain sails a petite Dana 24

Minstrel is the perfect name for Karen Sullivan’s Dana 24.

Karen has done a fair amount of wandering from coast to coast and beyond and always with a guitar in tow. Her musical talent and the richness of her experiences make Minstrel the boat where the sailors gather, even though hers is typically the smallest vessel in the anchorage or at the dock. No matter. She’s used to being at the epicenter . . . so long as the crowd that gathers doesn’t sink her boat.

pacific seacraft dana 24

“The maximum number of bodies Minstrel can handle safely is nine well-fed adults,” Karen says. “One time, on the north end of Vancouver Island, an impromptu party started when a bunch of friends showed up, and pretty soon there was a line on the dock waiting to come aboard. I looked at the bow pointing saucily skyward and the exhaust under water. I had to ask a few people partying with us to stay on the dock, and they did.”

Karen grew up on the East Coast and experienced her bluewater epiphany as a child on the beach at Cape Cod. The horizon stretched forever, she realized. She asked a nearby adult if there was any land out there beyond what she could see. The answer was, “No,” and an 11-year-old with salt in her hair realized she could get on a boat and sail over that horizon.

Brave Moves
Karen Sullivan — a very remarkable woman — has never been short on courage. She studied biology and became the teacher of classrooms full of junior-high and high-school biology students, a courageous act if ever there was one. But there was more to come.

In her early 20s, she followed up her childhood dreams with the purchase of a Folkboat named Yeh Ming Tzu, “the pearl that shines at night.” The name was strongly influenced by Miles and Beryl Smeeton’s Tzu Hang. “I made all the mistakes with that boat,” she says. That’s not to say that she now knows it all, but the learning curve was steeper then.

“I needed to learn more,” she recalls. She searched for information and read books. She was inspired by a lecture by Irving Johnson. That lecture, delivered at the Goodspeed Opera House on the Connecticut River, has been produced as a DVD and is widely circulated and appreciated by sailors. Karen was also transfixed by the books of Eric and Susan Hiscock (Wandering Under Sail), John Guzzwell (Trekka Round the World), and Donald Holm (The Circumnavigators). “The Circumnavigators was a seminal book for me,” Karen remembers. But books are no substitute for the real thing.

When Karen was in her mid-20s, her sister died tragically. This loss was followed by her mother’s grief and suicide two years later. A few other close family members also died during that time. Needing to reassess, Karen stepped off the teaching treadmill; she took a year off and signed on as crew on Taormina, an 80-foot ketch in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Joe Garrison, the captain, became a good friend,” Karen says. “I learned a lot from him: celestial navigation, watchkeeping Navy style, and shipboard routines.”

“Navigatrix” to “Roatan Rose”
They crossed the Caribbean and headquartered in Roatan, Honduras. They sailed to Belize, down the barrier reef, and among the Bay Islands of Honduras offering charters and dive trips.

At the end of a 10-day passage, as the boat was approaching Swan Island, Karen recalls, “Joe turned to me and said, ‘This landfall is yours. I won’t be checking your navigation.’ I had a couple of nicknames onboard — one was Grace, because I kept sitting in wet varnish, and the other was Navigatrix.”

It was time to earn that second appellation. Karen went below and checked, rechecked, and checked her figures once more. When she appeared topside at about 3 miles out to say, hesitatingly, that Swan Island should appear at any moment, they all looked ahead and noticed a small smudge just where she was pointing. The cry of “Land ho!” had never sounded so sweet.

The year was 1978. Caribbean Sailing Yachts Corporation (CSY) was just opening a new charter operation in Honduras. Yachties were a rare sight there. This may have been the first time that Karen found herself on the leading edge of a trend. It would not be the last.

While there, she volunteered to offer a daily weather advisory on the radio for fishermen and other boaters in the area. She reported it like any newscaster might, until CSY’s Tim Short began to complain that her voice wasn’t sexy enough.

She remembers Tim, well into his cups one evening, slurring, “Make your voice drip.” She did, and the next day, “Roatan Rose” was born. Karen, who had been doing the broadcasts anonymously, suddenly became the voice behind a living legend. Roatan Rose received fan mail. But most of the boaters did not know the real identity of the weather woman.

karen sullivan - pacific seacraft dana 24 cabin

Captain Karen
The next year, she was just another biology teacher once more. But she had the sailing bug. “I got my captain’s license in 1980,” she says, “and answered the call of the sea.”

Her biology credentials gave her an edge and she became the second woman in New England to skipper a large vessel. Her ship was a 66-foot Chesapeake Bay bugeye ketch, an oceanography research-and-education vessel operated out of New Haven, Connecticut, by Schooner Inc. Like other bugeyes and their Chesapeake Bay cousins, the skipjacks, the J. N. Carter had no engine, and operated in close quarters with the help of a pushboat. There were no winches. The size of the crew varied, but generally included a first mate and deckhand,along with the passengers: a couple of scientists and a handful of students.

“We had a halyard and jig to raise the heavy, sharp-headed sails on mast hoops, and a yawlboat for pushing. There was no engine,” she smiles. A woman captain was a rarity at a time when women were pushing the envelope in a number of male-dominated fields, such as firefighting, construction, and police work. “My job was frontpage news,” she remembers. Some of the regulars, fishermen in particular, in that male-dominated field were less than welcoming.

“When you’re among the first to do something, you get interesting responses from people,” she says. “They haven’t thought about the concept and blurt out their first reactions. They generally led with ‘You’re not big enough’ and ‘What if . . . ?’ ” The answer to those questions was that Karen learned to do things smarter, using brains rather than brawn.

However, the fishermen operating in the area refused to take the J. N. Carter’s docklines and made jokes about “crazy women drivers.” She soon realized she’d have to earn the respect of her fellow captains. She decided to forgo the yawlboat and sail to the dock. She told her first mate to “act cool.” They operated using quiet hand signals and backed that 66-footer into her berth under sail as the fishermen watched.

After that, she became one of their own. One of the men frequently sang arias to her when the J. N. Carter docked.

Pacific Seacraft Dana 24 Cabin

Winning Her Heart
But in Roatan, Karen had met a British sailor. Colin had a 1937 55-foot wooden Gloucester schooner and an interest in starting a charter operation while enjoying the cruising lifestyle. He won her heart. As Karen had upgraded her license to a 100-ton captain’s ticket, they were good to go.

Together, they took people out for daysails and overnight cruises and they ran longer cruises of a week or two. They made eight trips up and down the Intracoastal Waterway between Florida and New England, with charters along the way. They were also hired to deliver other people’s boats. The Gloucester schooner, named Windsong, was one of the smallest of the American Sail Training Association’s registered tall ships, so she also played a role in the occasional parade. Later they took her to the Caribbean for charters in St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands.

One year, they put Windsong away and briefly entered another world as the skippers of a 100-foot ketch named Fei-Seen, belonging to the family that owned the Cargill Corporation. The crew of six sailed her thousands of miles, remodeled her interior, kept the yacht in Bristol condition, and hosted members of the family and their friends.

But it was good to get back to Windsong when the year was over. Those idyllic times didn’t last, though, and the marriage ended. Karen took stock of the financial side of her life and realized it was time to hop back on the treadmill. “I realized I needed to make some money to finance the rest of my life,” she says. “I made a 20-year plan. But I did it in 15.”

Musical Interlude
She joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working first in Delaware and Washington, D.C., for seven years and later in Alaska for another eight years before retiring in 2006 in her mid-50s.

During this time, Karen put sailboats on hold temporarily and discovered her talent for music. The Alaskan soil is particularly fertile for aspiring musicians. “There are more musicians per capita in Alaska than anywhere I’ve been,” she says. She and musically inclined friends got together regularly to play folk and bluegrass and to learn from one another. Karen wrote wonderful songs and produced her own CD, which she had professionally recorded and mixed. “It’s like a calling card up there,” she says.

After a while, she realized there was a place in her life for another sailboat. “I’d kind of swallowed the anchor for 15 years but I realized how much I’d enjoy having the deck move beneath my feet once more,” she says.

She had a second husband while in Alaska. It was his idea to get a boat, although he was not a sailor. “Michael and I agreed we couldn’t buy a sailboat unless we test-sailed it first,” she recalls. They chartered a Dana in Anacortes, Washington, and Karen was entranced.

“The lines are sweet,” she says, “resembling a Northeast fishing smack. But I wondered if she could get out of her own way. I didn’t want to buy a caricature. I wasn’t familiar with Pacific Seacraft’s reputation. But I learned that this boat sails faster than she has a right to with a 21-foot waterline (although not in light air),” she smiles. “The Dana will keep up with any boat 10 feet longer. It’s a great design by Bill Crealock. The modern underbody makes her fast. And she tracks like a locomotive.”

There’s Always Room
Karen likes the small size of her boat. “It’s manageable,” she says. “In an anchorage or at the dock I like to say,‘There’s always room for a Dana.’” But she’s not small inside. The Dana has standing headroom of 6 feet 2 inches.

These boats are also seaworthy, as Minstrel and many of her sisters who have ventured offshore and across oceans have demonstrated. Furthermore, Karen is quick to note, she’s pretty. “You have to be in love with a boat,” she says, underlining the opinions of all sailors through the ages.

She found the Dana that would become Minstrel in Seattle. Built in 1988 (#105) and formerly called the Mari-Dan, she was no fixer-upper in need of oodles of TLC. In addition to keeping her up nicely, the previous owner had added a number of thoughtful touches, such as dish and binocular racks, a swing-out radar screen for viewing in the cockpit, and rattan work for ventilation at the anchor locker and the head. He also added refrigeration and a water heater.

“Buying this boat was a good decision,” she continues. “I got back into sailing and asked myself, ‘Where have I been? I need to do this.’”

In an uncommon role reversal, Karen did all the maintenance on the Dana and was clearly the skipper, with assistance from her husband. After installing a Webasto diesel heater, they sailed Minstrel home to Prince William Sound, Alaska. Once there, Karen re-covered the cushions and created a bag of pockets to hold safety gear at the ready by the companionway. She measured the boat for new sails and had Port Townsend’s Carol Hasse make them. She bought a custom-packed life raft that can be stowed in the cockpit locker. And she has equipped Minstrel with the most thoughtful abandon-ship bags I’ve ever seen.

Early Retirement
“The weather is hard on a boat in Alaska,” Karen says. Minstrel spent five years up there before Karen was ready to retire early and move south. As her marriage had ended on a friendly note, Michael helped her move Minstrel part of the way from Seward. She did much of the delivery on her own, however, singlehanding the passage between Juneau and Prince Rupert with the assistance of her dog, Jack, a Brussels Griffin.

In case you’re wondering how to get the email address and phone number of this talented woman who has her own boat and can sing like an angel, create songs of professional quality, write sailing articles (you’ll see her work from time to time in Good Old Boat), draw detailed pencil and pen-and-ink illustrations (did I mention that she’s an artist too?), talk sailing with the best of them, maintain a boat, sail it away from the dock, bring home the bacon, and fry it up in the pan. . . the answer is you’re too late.

Jim Heumann, a fellow sailor of a Dana 24, got together with Karen at a Pacific Seacraft rendezvous and asked her questions about rigging and Dana modifications until she fell in love with him. Last summer they took his Dana for a cruise around British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. They sailed 1,600 miles in four months. This summer, it’s back to the west coast of Vancouver Island. From there, who knows? They have a “double Dana dilemma,” as she calls it. They’re thinking of renting out Karen’s home in Port Townsend and sailing one of their Danas to Mexico, the Marquesas, the South Pacific, perhaps as far as New Zealand.

Wherever they go, there will always be room for a Dana, and that will be the boat where the party is. Count on it. You can keep up with these two at:


Karen Larson and her husband, Jerry Powlas, are the founders of Good Old Boat, a bimonthly publication for sailors focusing on maintaining, upgrading, and owning cruising sailboats built since the late 1950s. When not sailing their C&C 30 on Lake Superior, Karen and Jerry work on their C&C Mega 30 project boat in the backyard.


Check out this OCH video of Karen & Jim: Outfitting a Small Cruiser for Voyaging, Pt 1

Here’s a comparison of the Dana 24 and two other husky, seaworthy cruisers…
Dana 24, Hullmaster 27, Cape Dory 27

Republished with permission of Good Old Boat magazine (thanks Karen and Jerry!).


3 Responses So Far to “Small Boat, Large Experience – by Karen Larson”:

  1. Avatar C Bradley Hindle says:

    looking forward to part 3 of your outfitting vids. I hope interior layout will be the topic. I have a 32 foot Islander that is set up in the dinette configuration. I don’t much care for it though rebuilding in a better configuration may be too expensive to be practical.Any opinion?

  2. Avatar Craig Vogt says:

    Well I missed the opportunities you took advantage of. I am not fit to sail any more
    but enjoy the read. I recently finished a Redwing 21 with a 25 hp High Thrust Yamaha.

    My wife and I just physically can’t do the sailing anymore at 70. I have found many
    former sailors that are older going to small motor boats. Our attempt to keep in the game — “Baxter” — was designed for Chesapeake Bay, shallow draft, did 5 weeks there. Have explored Yellowstone Lake, Flaming Gorge and this Fall the Missouri R. above Pierre, SD. We
    are always the smallest boat in the marina, usally the only wood one, and it is all paid for.

    I wish I could have done what you have done earlier, but you can’t live two lives I guess.

  3. Avatar Lee Fox says:

    These are all great little seaworthy cruisers!

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