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Zhik 2020 AnneMarieRindom LEADERBOARD

Dan and Kika: We meet Sailing Uma

by Mark Jardine 19 Feb 12:00 GMT
Dan & Kika on Uma © Sailing Uma

At the Southampton International Boat Show we spoke to Dan and Kika of 'Sailing Uma' who decided to buy a boat and go to sea; that's really the only way to describe it! Here's their story...

Mark Jardine: Dan, what reason did you have, initially, for deciding this was what you wanted to do?

Dan Deckert: I didn't grow up sailing, so I didn't long to be on a sailboat. Kika and I knew we both wanted to travel to new countries, explore new places, learn about new cultures, enjoy new food, and see how people live. We looked at several ways of traveling (including RVs and Backpacking) but for us the main goal was to live sustainably and travel on our own terms, so the logical solution was to live on a boat. We didn't know anything about sailing, or boats. We thought we could 'architect' our way in - find a way to put in a bed, a sink. Then, we Googled "sailboat interiors" and realised: Of course you can live on a sailboat. We also knew that if we didn't enjoy the sailing part, we'd like the other 90% of seeing new places and exploring the countries we sail to, it would be a means to an end. It turns out we love sailing!

Mark: Kika, when you found the boat that you wanted to buy, how daunting did that feel?

Kika Mevs: Before we got our current craft 'Uma', we had this 5-year plan that we would have a smaller boat and learn to sail on a lake, before upgrading to something that can go offshore. But then we found UMA, and fell in love with her lines and layout, and we were able to afford her. I keep saying she's our rescue puppy, because if it wasn't for us, she would have ended up in a scrapyard. She didn't have a working engine, the interior was a complete wreck, a big reason why she was so cheap. But we were already renovating houses before this, and were used to working with our hands, so we saw the boat and saw what potential she had, and we weren't scared of working on her.

Mark: Whilst you had experience with houses, your marine experience - chopping and changing a boat around, checking it was structurally sound - meant you were going into that blind?

Dan: Yeah, it was a pretty steep learning curve. We bought a couple of books, like the ones by Don Casey on maintaining old boats. Just enough to know what to Google search, and which YouTube videos we needed to watch! Because we bought the boat for $3000 US Dollars, it meant we had room to make a lot of mistakes and keep redoing things until they were right. So, we learned as we go.

Mark: The layout you've chosen below gives a far airier feel than a traditional layout on a boat. Do you think this is because you looked at it purely with the point of view of "we want to live on this boat" rather than "this is what is traditional in sailing"?

Kika: Definitely. Because we already have that architectural mindset, we see solutions to problems in terms of space, and for us, being able to comfortably live on the boat meant a lot. We wanted to have something that would speak our personality, and the way we would want to use a space, not how another sailor would want it. For example, our main saloon and living area is called 'the nook', we removed the berth and now have a flat area in which we can add cushions or bean bags, because we never really use tables and seats, we always hang out cross-legged. So being able to open up the space was definitely an important aspect.

Mark: How long did the renovation take you?

Dan: We bought the boat five years ago, sailed for four, crossed an ocean, and let's just say that the renovation still isn't done! When we bought the boat, we had no idea how much work was involved. We spent about a year getting the boat structurally sound and ready to float, and six more months getting it ready to sail. We just started with the basics and necessities, then we left the dock. Because we had no previous sailing experience, we had to take the time to learn what we needed and what we didn't, so we spent a year and a half sailing around the Caribbean before we did any major renovations. A lot of design decisions with boats are based on tradition, so we looked at it with a fresh set of eyes, and some of it make sense and some of it just didn't, so we got rid of the things that didn't make sense. We had a list of simple things we needed for the Caribbean waters, and another list of projects to do before crossing to Europe. It's a work in progress as we always have projects, adjustments, and upgrades in mind.

Mark: All the way through those five years you have documented what you have done, and gathered a pretty huge social media following in the process. Was this always part of the plan?

Kika: We started our YouTube channel because we saw that other videos were about people who were already living on their boats; so they had started their adventure, and that was great, but we wanted to know how to go from the very first step. You're going from a job, living in an apartment, to making a big switch in lifestyle. So we started our channel to share with people how we started, what decisions we made, but also to show people that, if you're determined enough, you can make it happen! Whether your boat is $3000 or free, if you really want the lifestyle, you will find a way to make it happen.

Dan: Our website shows our ethos "explore, learn, share". We have a curiosity and passion for exploring new places and learning new things. If we didn't know about something, we can assume other people don't know about it, and might have the same questions. So we turn around and share what we've learned on YouTube. It was never our goal to have a "Social Media Empire"; it just sort of worked out that way. Kika edits the videos she likes to watch; if other people enjoy them then that's great.

Mark: While you have shown that sailing can be very accessible, have you found the marine industry has embraced what you have done? Or was it that the industry has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to YouTube and social media?

Dan: I think this industry is very set in tradition. Even new boats are just new finishes on an old idea, just a little bit lighter or a little bit cleaner. Some of it makes sense; we have a wind vane on our boat which is a very old mechanical device, but it just works, so we have one. But we have done a lot of other things with our boat that aren't traditional because we think it makes sense for the way we sail and our lifestyle. Being young in the marine industry has its disadvantages as well: Since we are "kids", people assume we don't know anything.

Mark: But there are brands out there who recognise what you are doing, see the following you have got, and work with you - such as Zhik. How have you found it, partnering with them?

Kika: When we first started it was in the Tropics, so all we had were flipflops and bathing suits. Our grand plan after that was to head for a colder climate, so had to search what gear would be useful for us, that was when we found Zhik. Partnering with them was an easy decision because they have the right gear that works, and they see the value of sharing what works through the experiences of real people.

Dan: Like us, they have taken something that is somewhat traditional, and taken what does work, and keep it, and get rid of what doesn't. At the Southampton Boat Show in 2018 we looked at all the foul weather options, we didn't quite see the point in some of the gear we saw. It's always nice when we partner with companies that are similar to us, developing things with a new sense of style and new technology, in ways that aren't traditional.

Mark: Zhik has a reputation of working with sailors, listening to their feedback, what works and what doesn't. Have you had any feedback you've been able to give them?

Kika: One of the reasons we love working with Zhik is that they are open for suggestions. It's very important for us to work with companies who are not set in their ways, and are open to our feedback. The few details we noticed, when we spoke to them they replied, "Oh my gosh, you're completely right, we'll make the necessary arrangements to fix that." Or when we see features their gear has, which other brands don't, we make sure they hear that from us too.

Dan: An example of that is the plastic zippers on everything. Kika's first foul weather jacket had a metal zipper and within six months it completely fell apart. My first jacket had a plastic main zipper, but all the other zips were metal; after six months I couldn't use any of the pockets. We understand that most of the high-end foul weather gear has the same sort of design and style, and all have plastic zips, but the cheaper ranges start cutting corners with things like metal zips. With Zhik we have found they haven't cut any corners.

Kika: You can tell they think about Design. They send their gear to sailors who race around the world non-stop and need gear they can trust to keep them protected from the rain, waves and wind while in the middle of the ocean. Zhik has taken a lot of that into consideration, and realize that everyday sailors sail the same seas, and should have that quality of protection as well. One favourite feature of mine is the lash where you can close over your mouth. I get cold really easily, so being able to protect my face from nose down, and eyebrows up, is important. The unique attention to details makes Zhik special.

Mark: One thing I've really noticed about the way you've built the interior of this boat, is that the kitchen area is of paramount importance to you. Do you find with this layout you can cook whatever you want, and do you have a favourite cuisine?

Dan: Offshore we end up cooking a lot of 'one pot wonders'. There's less dishes and you don't have two pots rattling around. This spring we finally installed a gimballed stove. We did the first three years of sailing without one, which meant on passage you were holding the stove with one hand and the pot with one hand, trying to heat up food. Now we also have an electric kettle so we can make tea and coffee, and a microwave so we can easily heat up stuff from the freezer. We have just finished crossing the Atlantic and it was the first time we had a freezer and a microwave and a fridge and a gimballed stove, so we were eating really, really well.

Kika: It goes back to figuring out what you need as you go. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to redesign the space, but we didn't yet know what we needed to change. Our galley was very basic when we started, all we had was a camping stove, and an icebox that didn't work, which meant that our choice of food was very limited, and when we caught fish we couldn't preserve it. We made it from Florida to Dominican Republic and realised we needed to add a fridge to keep some fresh food. In the past we didn't think too much about gimballing our stove, but we found we were putting books and stuff under the stove to prop it up on a different tack, that's when we found the importance of the gimballed stove. Also, I'm quite short, and being able to reach right into the back of a cupboard is hard. So when we built the rotating pantry (we call it the 'Hefty Susan') it made a lot of sense for us, because not only I was able to reach everything, it also created a lot more storage space for food. Now we can freeze our food, keep things cold, store more goods for longer passages, and cook whatever we want, wherever we want.

Mark: You've come at this design with a fresh set of eyes, and a lot of it works - it feels so light and airy - but is there anything where you thought, "this will work brilliantly," but it was an absolute disaster?

Kika: Because all we do is very experimental, and we always say that 90% of design is thinking about it and 10% is doing, The more you use a space, the more you'll find out how you want that space to work for you. So along the way, we would constantly think about the design and trying it out on paper or in our computers, sometimes using little models made out of cardboards. And if it doesn't work, we would think and try it again. In terms of aesthetic aspect, the most challenging was the sink in the head; we had one way in mind, and we tried to make a model, it didn't work, so we made more models. After six months of trying things out we finally found the final solution. But it is all experimental: if you find something that doesn't work, you just try again.

Mark: So, using this approach of really thinking things through, has given you a layout you're happy with, without the expensive errors.

Dan: I don't think any of our mistakes, or iterations, have been expensive ones. By the time we get to a final build, we've usually solved all the problems. We learned how to use 3D modelling programs in architectural school, so we've been able to use this for the boat, trying everything in three dimensions first. I think the biggest expense that was a total flop was when we first bought the boat and it came with a seized diesel engine. So, we found the same type of engine in Florida, that had been refurbished but set up as a generator, and we shipped it up to Boston. We thought we would just get them side-by-side and swap a few parts over to get it all working. That turned out to be a total waste of $3000 as it didn't work at all. Then it started to snow and we put our boat on a truck for Florida and flew to Haiti for three months for an architectural project. That was where we came up with the idea of an electric motor, because we had just wasted that money and figured there had to be a better way.

Mark: What one piece of advice would you give to someone considering doing the same sort of thing as you have done?

Kika: Don't get overwhelmed by the bigger picture. It is good to see that you want to travel around the world, but if you get stuck in thinking you need an expensive yacht and you need all the features possible, just to start, then you'll never be 100% ready. You have to break it up into smaller tasks... Take the first step, see the first horizon, and once you reach that first horizon you'll realise you can go further out. Taking it one step at a time is the key to move forward.

Mark: What are your next cruising plans?

Dan: Through spring and summer we hope to get up to Iceland and Greenland, and over to Norway, and really put our cold-weather gear to the test. So far we haven't had to experience weather quite that cold. If we're totally over the cold we will head down to the Mediterranean sea, or if not we'll stay around up here and do the Baltic the year after.

Mark: It's fantastic to talk to you both, and I think the marine industry has a lot to learn from you!

Find out more...

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