Class of 2011: For Des Moines couple, ‘big left turn’ years in the making

Jeanne Walker and Tom Brown listen to a poem written for them at their bon voyage party in April.

Each year, a handful of Northwest cruisers set sail for far-flung destinations — some to the promising warmth of Mexico and further south, some to the wild and less explored shorelines to the north.

What does it take, besides cash and a reliable boat, to cut the docklines and leave behind the familiarity and comforts of life in the Northwest? What separates the dreamers from the doers? Over the new few weeks, we will profile three cruising couples and families who are part of what we’ve dubbed the Class of 2011. This is the first in the series.

Jeanne Walker has wanted her own sailboat since she was a little girl, sailing with Sea Scouts and on her family’s small boat.

As an adult, Walker started sailing on other people’s boats and in 1994 was part of the first all-female crew to sail the Pacific Cup Yacht Race from San Francisco to Hawaii. The trip clinched it for Walker. She knew she wanted to sail the world and do it on her own boat. She bought a Freeport Islander, moving aboard Eagle in December 2000.

“I just loved being out there,” says Walker, 51. “When I got to Hawaii, I just wanted to keep going.”

Tom Brown liked fast boats. An avid fisher, his first boat was a 21-foot Hawaiian ski boat. He’d never set foot on a sailboat when he and Walker met in 2003 but was open to her plans for long-distance cruising. They agreed to set sail eventually, but it took Walker — a goal-oriented list-maker — to come up with a concrete plan.

“Two years went by and I said, ‘We have to quit saying we’re going in a couple of years,” she says. “If we’re going to do this, we need to get serious about it.’”

A five-year plan went into effect. The couple cut back on luxuries such as concerts and vacations. They paid off the boat and overhauled it from bow to stern, installing new electrical, plumbing and wiring; a new battery system; solar panels; a single sideband radio. They built their own bimini frame and Walker sewed all of the boat’s new canvas herself.

“We wanted systems on the boat that we could install and maintain,” says Brown, 52. “We’ve done everything.”

Getting the boat ready was one thing, but preparing family was another. Walker is the eldest in her family and the only girl. It took her mother some time to accept her plans.

Brown’s dad wasn’t quite as understanding. Coming from a generation in which men worked a steady job for decades and then retired, Brown’s father thought his son was nuts and told him as much. Then he started reading Brown and Walker’s blog and seeing how invested they were in their dream.

“He wrote me a note one day and said, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Brown recalls. “At that point I could tell he realized that we’d put a lot of work into this. I wasn’t some college kid on a whim.”

But despite all the years of planning and dreaming, leaving their jobs — and a regular income — was difficult. Brown was the general manager of a paint company, where he’d spent five years growing the business and training staff. He made good money and liked his employers.

Walker sold the massage therapy business she started 18 years earlier, leaving behind clients she had seen weekly for years, some of whom had become friends.

“I went through graduations and marriages and babies and breakups with them,” she says. “It was severing that that was the hardest.”

Their anxieties about long-distance cruising aren’t about rogue waves or pirates. For Brown, who’s never been on the open ocean, seasickness is the primary worry. For Walker, it’s being responsible for the boat.

“Do I really know what I’m doing?” she says. “I know I do, but there’s that little doubt lurking inside.”

They’ve planned for eight years of cruising, provided they can stick to their monthly budget and avoid major unexpected expenses. They might work along the way: Walker figures she can work as a massage therapist or maybe start up a canvas business, and Brown, a Class A golf pro for almost a decade, could teach golfing. Both are also avid photographers — Walker was previously a commercial photographer in New York — and they hope that might bring in a little extra income.

“At some point we’ll have to have some income,” Walker says. “We don’t own anything. We don’t owe anything.”

They’ll miss their boater friends and watching Walker’s three young nephews growing up. They’ll miss certain foods, like sweet pickles and different types of cheese. But both say they’re adaptable and ready to roll with whatever adventures come their way.

In mid-April, the couple headed out from Des Moines Marina after a three-day bon voyage party that drew several hundred people and included live music, a poem written and performed for them, and a tremendous amount of beer. They’re currently cruising in Desolation Sound (and chronicling their adventures on their blog, Big Left Turn) and will travel to Sucia Island in August for the annual Pacific Northwest Lats & Atts Cruisers Party before heading to Mexico for a winter — or two, or three, Brown says.

After that, they’re not sure. They might head through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean. New Zealand, where Walker’s parents own a house on the water, is also a possibility. For now, there’s no end point in mind.

”Our plans,” Brown says, “are written in sand at low tide.”

3 Responses to Class of 2011: For Des Moines couple, ‘big left turn’ years in the making

  1. Tom Brown June 18, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Thanks you guys!! We are having a great time up here in Canadian Waters! We will be back in US waters around the first of August to see all our friends at Sucia, and then friday Harbour, before heading heading down the coast to Mexiclo.

  2. Darren June 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    You guys are awesome, and truly inspirational! Lisa, baby, and I hope to follow you someday. Great idea for a series of stories, Deborah and Marty!

  3. Dave Calhoun June 7, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Tom and Jeanne…my heroes!

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