John Juliano and Jennifer Severin spent several summers living aboard a Thunderbird sailboat in New York, then moved to the Seattle area and started looking for a bigger boat for long-distance cruising. After a series of boat-shopping misadventures including a dead raccoon and a miscommunicated offer, they found their perfect boat, a 1975 Maxi 95.
They bought it a year ago and named it Caro Babbo in honor of John’s Italian father, who fostered his son’s lifelong love of boating. The boat is homeported in Seattle.
Tell us about your boat’s name.
Jennifer: The summer John turned 15, his father encouraged him to build a Sunfish, and the following summer he loaned John the money to buy a Star — #1922, built in 1940! John got a job in an automotive garage to pay off the debt. His father wanted to support John in his interest and acquired a Thistle and a Blue Jay over the years, and built three Mirror dinghies, one of which we towed all around Long Island Sound and up to Boston behind our Thunderbird (also from Dad).
Their family is Italian, and John’s dad grew up in New York City speaking Italian to his parents. Caro Babbo means “dear dad,” and our boat is named in his honor.
John: He was at first quite embarrassed by having a boat named after him, and then quite proud.
Have you owned other boats before this one?
Jennifer: I have not, but John owned a Thunderbird when I met him. We lived on the T-bird every summer and sailed her around Long Island Sound and up to Boston. She was the only one we had ever seen until we sailed up to meet the fleet in Dorchester, Mass. We were so excited to see six or seven of them in one place! We now live in Seattle, near the home waters of the T-bird, but I still get such a thrill when I see them.
The T-bird is such a sweet boat. Ours had been used for racing, so was pretty spare on the inside. The liner had been ripped out, along with everything else that wasn’t required by race regulations. Everyone was always astonished that we lived aboard. It took moving aboard a bigger boat for me to understand why.
John: I had owned a bunch of boats along the way, but this is the first one that we can stand up inside of. We had always quoted [English boat designer and sailing enthusiast] Uffa Fox: “‘If you want to stand up, go on deck.'”
Tell us the story of how you found your boat and what makes it special to you.
Jennifer: John has always wanted to retire from business onto a boat and sail around the world. The T-bird wasn’t right for that, so he began looking around home in Long Island. This was during the recent economic downturn when fuel was at its highest prices, and in some markets, motorboats were selling for less than a tank of gas.
For some reason unknown to me, sailboats were affected too, and there were lots of fine boats languishing, ready to be sold for little more than yard fees. So John and I went prowling through boat yards.
We found a beautiful trawler, a British design and clearly much-loved, but reeking of cat urine, as cats had called the boat home before it was put up on the hard. We climbed up into another candidate and opened the cabin doors to look in, and discovered a dead raccoon inside. It had gotten trapped and died, and had then oozed into the bilge.
Finally we found a Maxi-95. John was quite excited about it, as it had a fin keel with a skeg rudder for ocean passagemaking, an aft cabin for guests (or storage), and a relatively new Penta engine mid-cabin, under the center table. He didn’t want to ever have to make engine repairs by corkscrewing himself into a tiny space and working by “feel.”
The cabin had six inches of fresh water in it, true, and was decorated in the worst of ’70s colors, but for me the selling points were: 1. I could stand up inside, unlike the T-bird, and 2. No dead raccoon. We put in an offer with the boatyard to relay to the absentee owner, but somehow it ran afoul and the boat, with its beautiful winches and clutches, went to a buyer in Florida. For $7,500. We were sick.
By now John had decided on a Maxi, and we kept up with every Maxi-95 for sale worldwide. We couldn’t go for the ones in Turkey, the UK, or Denmark, although we did seriously consider cutting our teeth on the trans-Atlantic return to New York. And then our boat came up for sale in Vancouver.
We had recently moved to Mercer Island, where I had kept an apartment for the last six years, to live full-time while my two children finished high school. We had been spending lots of time at The Center for Wooden Boats, and our house in Atlanta was rented out to Emory University students and pretty much ran itself, so we thought that maybe a West Coast berth was what we wanted.
The Maxi in Vancouver was mossy, had a mussel farm below the waterline and was more than we wanted to spend on a 35-year-old boat, but we bought her (with another ready loan from John’s own caro babbo), fixed a few things in the yard in Richmond, and sailed her to her new home between the Aurora and Fremont bridges in Seattle.
John: When I asked a friend what I should pay for our Maxi, he replied, ‘‘Because it is so ugly, not much’’ and named a number — what is most galling is that is exactly what we paid, to the dollar.
Would we buy it for $14,000? What about $10,000? We climbed up into the boat, and we found it was everything we were looking for: It had three cabins, with the engine in the center of the main cabin atop the keel, a skeg rudder, a compression post, deck-mounted mast, and the headliner was completely removable. Three cabins were important because we intended to sail with two teenage children.
We offered $10,000, but the offer was never relayed to the owner, who sold it for $7,500. A second Maxi came available in Lake Erie, but the asking price was $24,000, a ridiculously high price for this boat in this country. (In Europe they sell for approximately €30,000.)
Luck continued to be on our side, because by now we were living full-time in Seattle. A Maxi came available in Vancouver, B.C., completely kitted out for the Northwest with a diesel fireplace and forced-air diesel heat, a reasonably new Yanmar engine and it hadn’t been sailed in a while. We paid less than it was worth, but more than we had planned. Our shakedown cruise was the sail home from Vancouver to Lake Union.
What’s the history of your boat?
Jennifer: Our boat is a Maxi-95. 95 stands for 9.5 meters, or about 31 feet. It was designed by Pelle Petterson, a Swedish designer and yachtsman who also designed the very fun Volvo P1800. She was originally called Kochana III, and the bronze nameplate still hangs in the main cabin.
John: Though very few people in the states have ever heard of a Maxi 95 — there is another at Shilshole Marina — more than 1,600 were built. We are the third owner of our Maxi. The first was a civil servant in Ottawa who had it trucked across Canada, courtesy of the Canadian government, when he was transferred to Vancouver. The second was an electrician in Vancouver who did a lot of fishing with it: it came with Scotty downriggers.
And then there’s us. We don’t know how much the boat was actually sailed. There are 800 hours on the Yanmar, which was installed 10 years ago. There is a beautiful 170 percent Genoa that is practically brand new, but the measurement date is 1977.
What do you like best about your boat?
Jennifer: I have a love-hate relationship with the dodger. On the one hand, it’s big and unforgiving and gets in the way of any nimble scampering I would like to do on deck. On the other hand, the Maxi is a surprisingly swift boat and it’s cold out there on the Sound or the Strait in the winter! John takes the wheel and I supply companionship while out of the wind behind the dodger.
John: That it’s ours!
What do you know now about your boat that you wish you’d known when you bought it? Would that have changed your mind?
Jennifer: I’m completely good with the Caro Babbo.
John: No real surprises. We had a good surveyor and the contractors in the yard kept coming over to explain to Jennifer what a great boat it is and why we should buy it.
What’s your favorite story involving your boat?
Jennifer: John’s nephew Nick was sailing with us last summer after his first year at college, and we were spending a night in Port Ludlow Bay. We were motoring out across the glassy water about 6:30 the next morning and heard the barking of a seal. There she was, a pup, and she was swimming from side to side under our small hard dinghy. She seemed to be panicked, because she’d swim to one side of the dinghy, look at us, bark vigorously and then swim to the other side and repeat.
We were motoring out, so every so often she had to really haul to catch up with us, and she was panting and barking and making continuous eye contact with us. I put it in neutral and we considered what to do: as she seemed to think the dinghy was her mother, or something like her mother, should we return to the inner bay where she first attached herself to us? Motor out very quickly, hoping she wouldn’t be able to keep up with us? Or just cut the engine and stay put?
She was adorable and pathetic and heartbreaking, looking at us with those enormous seal eyes and barking herself hoarse, and we were very anxious to do the right thing. All at once, mom came swimming up fast and we watched them both “kiss” and rub whiskers, swim entwined around each other like a helix for several turns, and then quickly swim off together. It still makes me happy to think of it!
John: Last summer when we were sailing from Victoria to Port Townsend, where we planned to clear back into the U.S., we were intercepted by homeland security in a 30-foot RIB. We watched them come screaming after us doing what we suspected and was later tacitly confirmed to be 60 knots. Two young men on the deck were dressed in black with sidearms.
As the RIB came alongside, the men started asking the standard questions. Our nephew, Nick, was with us. When they heard Nick was from Long Island, the questioning became very pointed as to where on Long Island.
The dialogue went something like: “Where on Long Island?” “The North Shore.” “Where on the North Shore?” “Out East.” “Where out East?” “A town you’ve never heard of, Miller Place.”
The man asking the questions turned around, pointed to his partner and said, “He’s from Mount Sinai!” The next town over.
They rode alongside of us for the next 20 minutes, talking about careers in Homeland Security, the specs of their chase boat, what they did all day and the St. Bernard at Ralph’s fishing station in Mount Sinai Harbor, where we kept our T-bird. In parting, they told us to say hi to Jeff the Customs and Border Patrol guy in Port Townsend, then turned around and sped off.
In December, we were in New York and went to Ralph’s fishing station and met with Ralph’s daughter-in-law. We described our encounter and she replied, “Oh yes, I went to nursing school with his mother. He’s quite a hero. He saved an infant child that was strapped into a car that was submerged on a boat ramp late one night.” So now we know what kind of people join Homeland Security.
Describe the most challenging situation you’ve experienced on your boat and how it performed.
Jennifer: Well, as John sails and I drive the boat, I was fairly anxious going through the [Ballard] locks the first few times. Our previous boat, the T-bird, had a tiller and the Caro Babbo has a wheel, and I’d still relax and slip back into “turn left to go right” thinking. Coupled with the fast idle on the Caro Babbo, which was then set such that dead slow was 3.5 knots, I worked up a lather getting it all to come together without smashing either our boat or anyone else’s.
I had to reset my mind so that I wasn’t looking to John, as the accomplished boater, to tell me what to do, and to assume full responsibility for the boat under power. Once I did that, it all got easier. He doesn’t tell me how to drive, and I’m relaxed enough now to feel confidence. Every so often, though, I still have to repeat my mantra before the wheel: “turn right to go right.” So it’s not really the Maxi’s performance but mine that matters more to me so far.
John: So far, it has just been great sailing. The only real challenge has been not getting cramps from smiling so much.
Tell us a little about your boating background.
Jennifer: My boating background began when I met John and he took me out sailing in Long Island Sound. He took his father and me out in the Thunderbird. I felt wretched, truly miserable, as the water was that queasy-making in-between state, with airs too light to really move forcefully through the water.
Dad wanted to head back to the dock, and I thought that this was my chance to gracefully get off the boat and onto terra firma , when John said that he was really looking forward to going back out and sailing more with me. I had no choice but to go! And so I did. I “fed the fishes” repeatedly, until I had nothing left to give them, and John, bless his heart, was having a great time, as any day on the water is a great time to him. I don’t even think he realized I wasn’t having fun, despite my noticeable sea sickness!
We got back home and I told his dad that I practically lost my lungs out on the Sound and he laughed and said, “You know what Admiral Nelson said about sea sickness: ‘It feels better if you sit under a tree!'”
The first two summers on the T-bird in stiff airs, I was so scared I cried. The sails were in the water! My body knew it was going to die. John told me to imagine that I was on the boat rather than in the boat, which helped. And the queasiness diminished over the years, although I still get a twinge of it every so often. I think of trees.
John: I’m an East Coast sailor and have been sailing most of my life in various monohulls and a cat or two. The first season Jennifer and I sailed together, there was a wonderful fresh wind and the T-Bird was over on her side screaming along, as they do. I looked over, saw tears streaming down Jennifer’s face and incredulously asked the question to which I was sure she would answer no: “Are you crying?” Jennifer answer, “Yes, I’m so scared.”
Eight years later, a double-reefed main, 135 Genny and 20 knots seem to be Jennifer’s favorite sailing conditions.
Where do you plan to take your boat? Do you have a dream destination?
Jennifer: We have big dreams! Next summer we plan to take Caro Babbo around Vancouver Island, and then, the following year, I’d like to sail her up to Alaska, then over to Hawaii, then back across and down to Mexico. From there, through the Canal, up the east coast of the U.S., across the North Atlantic and then either to Finland to sail around the islands, or into France.
I’d like to dismast her and motor through the canals to the Mediterranean. John wants to winter over in Paris, which sounds good to me, and then we can motor down to the Med, pick up our mast and sail throughout the Mediterranean. I’d love to sail the Adriatic and around Sicily.
If someone gave you $10,000 that you could only spend on your boat, what would you do with it and why?
Jennifer: I would want to sew a complete set of cushions for the cabins, as I think the cushions there now are original to the boat, but I hope that I can do that on my own. I’d buy solar panels and a rig to support them aft, and a windvane. Have I spent my 10K yet?
John: What a frustrating amount, only $10K? AIS, a Wallas gimbaled stove and oven, and whatever is left over on sails. So we can see and be seen, eat well underway on a single fuel vessel, and what else would you buy for a sailboat, besides more sails?
If you could have any other boat, what would it be and why?
Jennifer: Well, at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend last fall I saw a gorgeous boat that had a hot tub and a washer and dryer. It had bathrooms, not heads, and a kitchen, not a galley. But that’s a boat for a different life that I don’t have time for right now.
John: We’re still in love so we don’t think of other boats, but, if someone else paid maintenance and moorage, a Discovery 57. If we’re going to dream, let’s dream big. At £1.2 million, it is a beautiful, well-constructed bluewater boat that is designed to be sailed by a couple. It violates everything we think a sailboat should be, so we can revel in its decadence.
What didn’t we ask you about your boat that you wish we had?
Jennifer: “Were you pleasantly surprised by anything about your boat”? Why yes, we were. The Thunderbird was a very fun, zippy boat, and we were afraid the Maxi would be more matronly, less frisky. But she’s nimble and she flies! So we didn’t sacrifice anything by selling the T-bird, and gained a much friendlier living space.