The Repo Men of the Waves

Boats head south for the winter


The annual exodus of the snowbirds has begun. Everyone with a condo in sunny Florida and the means to enjoy it has already boogied down I-95 for points south and warm, or, better yet, put the Caddie on the Auto Train to Sanford and caught a Jet Blue flight.

But snowbirds with yachts have a different problem. Those whose idea of a winter wonderland is being tied up at Slip F-18 at Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar marina and breaking out the Boodles gin (like fictional hero Travis McGee) while trying to decide if today or tomorrow is the day to get busy with the Never Dull on the topside brightwork (hint: tomorrow is always better) first need to figure out a way to get their pleasure craft out of our icebox and down to the welcoming arms of winter warmth. They have two basic choices: sail it yourself or call a repo man. As in re-positioning, not re-possession, as most yacht owners aren’t all that worried about making the next payment.

There are a number of experienced captains up and down the Bay who make a pretty good living sailing boats back and forth between Rhode Island and the warmer destinations of the Carolinas, Florida and the Caribbean. These repo men are busiest during October and November, when they deliver boats to their winter homes; and in late spring, when the yachters return to Narragansett Bay.

Landlubbers might think the idea of a week or two sailing a yacht southwards to Tortola or Cruz Bay or English Harbour would be terribly romantic, all communing with the dolphins, practicing one’s sextant skills or counting past a billion stars at night. But the captains who do this work look at it with the cold eyes of experience. At roughly $500 per day, half again for any crew members, boat owners want their yachts delivered as fast as possible and hopefully in one piece. Romance doesn’t enter into the equation.

Bill Biewenga, a Jamestown-based captain who also does weather and race consultations for sailors, loads up the cabin with plastic jerry cans of fuel when he’s doing a repo: “If the wind dies, the engine goes on and stays on,” he says. “I got a job to do.” Another local repo man, Don Sweeney, describes a typical trip as “alternating between boring and terrifying.” The boring part is easy to imagine: day after day beating across an empty expanse of ocean with nothing to see from horizon to horizon. “You do a lot of reading,” Sweeney says.

The terrifying part? Try sailing down the crowded shipping lanes of the Eastern seaboard, skirting past the line of supertankers and container ships the size of three football fields waiting to get into or out of New York Harbor, Delaware Bay or the entrance of Chesapeake Bay. At night. In a fog. Or imagine a sudden storm blowing up, raising the waves to 20 feet and the gale to Force Three. Or water is rushing into your boat and you don’t know where it’s coming from. Or, as Sweeney says, “Self-doubt. There are too many hours to think about things. You have to guard against thinking too much.”

But usually the repo men get the job done, thanks to their years of experience and healthy respect for the sea and its dangers. And while neither Biewenga nor Sweeney owns his own pleasure boat, they still sign on for assignments to take other boats across the oceans. “I guess in the end, you do what you love doing,” Sweeney says.