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Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at

An Interview With Bruce Van Sant

by Gene Gruender
Copyright 1997

We were anchored in Stocking Harbor in front of George Town, Exuma when I heard that Bruce Van Sant, the author of "The Gentleman's Guide to Passages South", was hosting a question and answer session on the beach about his guidebook. We're returning to Texas this year instead of continuing south so I had no specific questions about the book, but I did want to meet Mr. Van Sant and see what I could learn.

He took a lot of time to answer all questions, including questions from several people who hadn't even taken the time to read the book in detail. He did it with more tact than I would have had in the same setting. After listening to an hour of questions, including some from a few people who seemed intent on tripping him up, I will agree with his own assessment - he knows this route cold.

Later he was gracious enough to grant Southwinds an interview. I had a few prepared questions to ask which will follow, but in chatting with him I learned a lot. If you haven't met him, you might have the wrong idea. "Ah", you think, "With a name like 'Van Sant', this is a guy who has taken the family money and is off on his boat. He just cruises a few months, goes back to his nice home to write books and is wallowing in his wealth."

As we visited in the main salon of his new boat, Tidak Apa, I soon learned that this picture couldn't be farther from the truth. He has been cruising on a budget, a slim one at that, long before it was fashionable. He's learned how to live well on that budget and could teach us all a lot about the subject. As you will learn from his answers, writing a cruising guide, even a very good and successful one, doesn't bring riches.

Southwinds: At your Q&A session on the beach I learned that you grew up in Florida. Can you tell us about your start in sailing back then?

Mr. Van Sant: We were poor and I had to work as a kid starting when I was about 9 years old and I only got to go out on Saturday and Sunday mornings. When I was 14 a lifeguard on the beach let me use his sailing canoe and I'd go diving for lobsters off the reef. I sailed that thing in and out at Ft. Lauderdale and learned to sail with it. When I was about 15 the desk clerk in the hotel where I worked was also a real estate agent. He fell in with some really wealthy real estate people in Ft. Meyers. They would pick us up very early on Saturday morning, even sometimes when I'd get off at 12:30 Friday night, and fly us over to Ft. Meyers. There we'd do scow racing on these people's 20 plus ft. scows on the Caloosahatchee River.

Later, when I was working for Pratt and Whitney in Florida I bought the first sailboat I owned when I was 21. I had it in the intracoastal on Lake Worth - there is a marina there now, but at the time it was just a place with some pine trees and three sailboats anchored in it. We bought scows, me and friends, and we became a racing class in the Lake Worth racing business. I went through a whole series of boats everywhere I moved, in Asia, Indonesia, Sweden and France. I just kept getting bigger and bigger boats. Eventually I had the luxury of being able to walk away when I was pissed off and put the family on the boat and go cruising. That was in the early 70's. I went out for six months, then a year and a half, then two years and then forever.

I don't have any money so I have to work every once in a while. Hopefully social security will eventually come along, and I'm vested in a small pension, but I'll eventually have to go back to work. I had a good technical career, I was able to set some money back. I got into sailing, and got into the cruising through the sailing. Through the great American postwar expansion pigout some of us were able to make some money and I was able to say "take this job and stuff it!" and go cruising. Not many people could to do that at the time.

Southwinds: You'd have to plan ahead to do that, wouldn't you?

Mr. Van Sant: I'm glad you asked that. I told someone a few days ago that I'd planned this since I was 15.

Two things happened to me that were just marvelous. When I was 14 or 15 - at 15 I ran away to Cuba, but that is another story - people would come through the hotel where I worked and give me real good advise. One guy was an inventor, a very wealthy self made man, who ran his own big motor yacht back and forth between Cuba and Norfolk (SP?) every year. He'd come back with Las Vegas show girls from the Tropicana. He told me "go out, make your pile, retire on a sailboat and get the hell out - make your own society and enjoy yourself that way before it's too late". He claimed it was a very cheap way to go.

There was another guy who knew I wanted to go to college but couldn't afford it. He told me to use all the time from 9 to midnight or 1 am, 7 days a week reading. So I changed from playing coin flipping games with the guy behind the desk and chasing the elevator girls to putting my mind to it. Saturday mornings I'd check books out. I went through "The 100 Great Books" and by the time I was 17, I had scholarships. So with those two things that happened when I was 15 years old, by the time I was 39, I was basically able to quit the rat race forever. That makes me sound rich, but it's far, far from it. I really owe my life to these two people.

Southwinds: Most cruisers tire of it after a few years and go back to land. You've been cruising up and down these islands for years. What's kept your interest for so long?

Mr. Van Sant: I don't know, it's just in me. I like to change the view from my back porch almost daily. Even in George Town I move every couple of days. I like the ballet of anchoring and it's not work. It wasn't work on a sailboat, anyway. I'm still finding out on this boat.

Southwinds: Since you started traveling the "Thornless Path" there have been many advances in equipment for boaters. We've had things like GPS, low cost radar, EPIRBs, weatherfax and more become available in a cost affordable to most boaters. What do you feel is the most valuable advance?

Mr. Van Sant: Probably the biggest advance is the network of cruising people and number of boats. Not the people who claim it's blowing five knot's behind a beach in the morning and that goes down as the wind of record for the day for people, but people like Herb on Southbound 2, and David on Misstine. (Note - these are volunteers who broadcast very accurate weather to cruisers via SSB radio.)

I'm not ancient, but until recently I did all my sailing with a compass. No wind instruments, none of that stuff is necessary. An autopilot and compass is what you need. And a depth sounder.

Southwinds: If you had only two places you could spend your time on the boat, where would you choose?

Mr. Van Sant: Luperon and Conception. Conception because it's just the best there is - it has everything the Bahamas has, and Luperon because it has the Dominican Republic and everything you ever needed.

Southwinds: In the latest edition of your book, you mentioned that you felt "another style of cruising coming on". I see you now have a powerboat. Can I assume this is the new style?

Mr. Van Sant: Yes, this is my other style of cruising. I've had some things happen to me that required I get into something that I cannot fall out of and also have cover from the sun, so I came up with 10 requirements for my boat and sold the sailboat. I have about 45 years of sailing, so it's time to try something new.

Southwinds: Can you tell us a little about your new boat? I notice it closely resembles a sailboat.

Mr. Van Sant: It is a sailboat, it's a Schucker. It's full displacement, single screw, sedan and long range. It normally has a mast and I'm going to put one back on so I have a get-home jib and a small mainsail. We'll have to wait until our budget gets healthy before we do that. We can't even afford an inflatable at this point.

Southwinds: I'm surprised to hear that. As successful as your book is I would have thought you were doing quite well. It must not pay as well as people would think.

Mr. Van Sant: Not at all. You just have to think about how many books sell. It's going to be 5 times the number of actual users. That's about right when you add the dreamers and gift givers. So you're talking about 1500 books a year. When you consider that 30 percent goes for printing, 20 percent goes for distribution and nearly 50 percent goes to the retailer, there's nothing left for the guy who does it. If you try to add all the telecommunication costs, repair and fabrication costs because you hit coral heads - you're using your boat as a research platform, and as a result, you trash it. You can't do 100 harbors and 2500 miles of research each year without something happening to your boat. You could do it as a labor of love, but not as a business. There's just no money in it. In 1995 I netted $393.

Southwinds: Although I think I already know your answer to this, what is the most important message you'd like to leave with the readers and users of "Passages South"?

Mr. Van Sant: It's HOW to go, not where to go. It has nothing to do with mind or meditation or "let's sail safely and slow", it's how to go, knowing the way God made these harbors and anchorages and islands and sea and air. If you understand the physics of it, then the island effects themselves guide you through the islands, and there are only a few paths you can take with reliable comfort and safety.

Southwinds: After the success and acceptance of "Passages South" can we look forward to any more books from Bruce Van Sant?

Mr. Van Sant: Yes! The first commercial enterprise I've been involved in is coming out. Over the years maybe there will be something in it for me. It's a guide to the Spanish Virgin Islands. With the first edition, I supposed it would just pay back for all my trouble and some of my expenses. I did it for the charter people on the east coast of Puerto Rico. I did about 50 of those, then a fellow in St. Thomas ordered a hundred for his Store there. I added some to it and when I was in Venezuela, because it was cheap there, I printed it with some .f my photographs. It was available through Blue Water Books and Cruising Guide publications. Normally you would use the proceeds to do the next revision, but I took the money from that and used it to get Jalan Jalan fixed up so I could sell it.

Now they have orders for it but they have no more to sell because I stopped doing it. They are going to do it themselves, it will be 104 pages published by Cruising Guide Publications. I'm the writer, I have the copyright and I'll get a small percentage. This will be the first true commercial venture for me. It should be available in June.

Copyright 1997

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