TAHITI — When Chad Thieken arrived here March 1, he was required to have his temperature taken, but otherwise the trip was pretty uneventful.
The Southwest Harbor resident was beginning his regular two–and–a–half–month rotation as captain of the 180-foot sailing yacht Marie, a modern ketch built in Holland in 2010 on a 1920s-era André Hoek design.
The new coronavirus was not yet the massive global issue it would quickly become.
“China was still going crazy,” Thieken said. “Maybe a quarter of the people had masks on when I flew through Los Angeles.”
He flew into Tahiti and took a small plane to Bora Bora to join Marie, which is used most of the time by its owner and is chartered in some of the downtime.
The boat was near the end of a long trip with the owner, most of which had been led by the other captain. They had left Palma de Mallorca at the beginning of December, stopped for fuel in Gibraltar, completed the transatlantic crossing with a two-week stop in Antigua, transited the Panama Canal, stopped for fuel in the Galapagos, then began the big 3,600-mile crossing to Tahiti.
Bora Bora, where Thieken came aboard, was one of the last stops.
When they arrived in Tahiti, they had a couple of weeks before a lockdown order and curfew were imposed due to the pandemic.
Having just done all those miles together, and with the ability to be self-contained in the same way they are at sea, the yacht’s crew were well–prepared for the lockdown, he said.
Marie was tied to a dock in a marina, and for several weeks the crew wasn’t allowed to get off the boat except to exercise. There was also a curfew in place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“A lot of people started getting quite fit,” Thieken said. “When the only reason to get off the boat is to go for a run, a lot of people take up running. Including me!”
On board, the eight-person crew has been passing the time with the same hobbies they enjoy on off-watches while underway, such as practicing yoga or playing an instrument.
For Thieken’s part, “I got really into standup paddle boarding — and making hot sauce.”
He’s also trying to learn Dutch, as his other job is with Dutch naval architecture firm Dykstra.
There’s also still plenty of work to do, even though none of the planned charter trips are happening and no new ones are likely to be booked for some time.
The regular cleaning and maintenance work must go on as always.
“We have a full crew doing all kinds of painting, rigging, splicing, etc.,” he said.
Other yacht crews haven’t been so lucky. “There definitely are boats that have been cut to skeleton crews and told to go on anchor because the owner doesn’t want to pay for dockage,” he said.
Next on the schedule is a major refit and inspections at a boatyard in Auckland, New Zealand. They’ve had the time booked at the boatyard for more than a year, but the owner’s representative and management company now have their hands full persuading the government to let them in.
“Our biggest problem right now is New Zealand is closed,” Thieken said. That country “has done a really incredible job of basically shutting the virus down, trying to eradicate it quickly.”
He notes, not only are there only four active cases in French Polynesia, where they’d be arriving from, but when Marie arrives in New Zealand, they will also have been at sea for close to two weeks, “basically self-quarantining.”
Thieken has been working on Marie for more than three years, in a rotation with one other captain. The chefs and engineers are also on a rotating schedule, which makes the job more doable for people with families.
“She’s a big, powerful boat,” he said, “a lot of fun to sail. In 10 knots of breeze, we’re doing 10 knots of boat speed upwind.”
Marie isn’t designed for racing, but with the previous owner they participated in a superyacht race in the British Virgin Islands, the Rolex in Sardinia, the St. Barth’s Bucket and The Superyacht Cup Palma.
Last year, they were the biggest boat by far in a 250-mile offshore race from St. Tropez to Corsica and back to Monaco. They were really pleased with the results: 96th place of 275 boats.
Under the previous owners, Marie was chartered most of the time. Charters range from a week to a month. Some charter customers have a set timeline and will join the boat wherever it happens to be on those dates; others have a destination in mind and will book when the boat is going where they want to sail.
The new owners are “really keen on using the boat” themselves, and have the time to do it, so there have been far fewer charters.
“Most of my career I’ve spent on private boats,” he said. “You feel like you’re working for someone that you make a big difference to.”
Thieken’s wife Kristi Jacoby and daughter Blake have been able to join him aboard Marie in different parts of the world.
“They even did a delivery with me from Palma de Mallorca to Venice via Bizerte, Tunisia, and Valetta, Malta,” he said.
He has also worked with The Community School of Mount Desert Island, where Blake is a student, to teach navigation and other skills.
“I sent them charts and they plotted our passage across the Atlantic from Palma to Antigua,” he said, then visited the school in person when he returned to MDI to talk about the trip and his work.