Verona Island sailor returns to Maine after 5,000-mile journey ‘for fun’

Posted April 11, 2014, at 11:50 a.m.

CASTINE, Maine — Frederick “Butch” Minson sailed his 28-foot Lindenberg racing boat, Cats Paw, into Castine harbor on Wednesday after a nearly six-month journey to the west coast of Florida and back that covered 5,000 miles.

There were no bands playing. The dock he had hoped to use hasn’t been installed yet. And his welcoming committee was simply his wife, Janice.

Just another half-year’s work in the life of a man who grew up on the ocean.

“I was born in February,” the 68-year-old said. “My father started taking me sailing in May. My kids started at seven weeks. When we went to the Bahamas, the four-year-old was my crew, getting there. And then [Janice] flew down to Nassau and brought our daughter, age 10 months.”

Then they sailed as a family.

“We had netting all around the stanchions,” Janice Minson said of that trip taken 24 years ago. “We were in [the children’s] playpen.”

This might not come as much of a surprise, but the couple’s relationship began on the water.

“That’s actually how we met, because I was looking for a boat to go sail on the Potomac,” Minson said. “We were both in the Coast Guard, at headquarters. I wanted to go sailing, and he had a boat.”

“I needed more crew,” Butch Minson added with a smile.

He ended up serving 21 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. His wife served 22. The pair live on Verona Island, and both have remained avid sailors, taking plenty of long-distance trips on Cats Paw.

A trip to Florida and back had always intrigued Minson, so he left Castine on Oct. 12 and raced southward.

“No set schedule,” he said. “I would have liked to have left earlier, but I had some repair parts I had to wait for. Once I got going, doing it that late in the year, you run into some nasty weather going down.”

The veteran sailor, who also spent 12 years as sailing coach at Maine Maritime Academy, said the worst conditions were on Long Island Sound, where he was trying to make headway against 20 to 30 knot winds, in seas of 6 to 8 feet.

“This boat was made for racing the open ocean, so it can take it,” he said. “It’s just not pleasant.”

Minson said he remained relatively close to shore, and after reaching Norfolk, Va., he utilized the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway for the most part.

“In general, it’s a whole series of one-day sails between different harbors,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ll stay in a harbor for multiple days. If the weather is nasty, and it’s not going to be any fun, you wait it out.”

While seaworthy, the Cats Paw’s accommodations are a bit spartan.

“Comfort’s just something secondary,” Minson said. “This has six, full-size, comfortable berths, but then everything else in the boat is portable. The icebox, the stove, the engine. You name it, it’s portable and would come off on race day.”

The key to success, he said, was early recognition of potential hazards.

“If you grew up around [sailing], you learn a lot about what’s going on,” he said. “I’d say the major way out of a problem is recognizing the problem before it becomes bad and taking care of it quick. Know when you’re going to run into conditions that are going to be difficult to handle and avoid them.”

Minson said he decided to not carry ice or to have any mechanical refrigeration. He does have two small solar panels that power limited electronics, but on cloudy days, he often could not use his computer or other electrical devices.

Meals were also spartan, though he had planned provisions that would give him some options.

Once every week or two, he’d be able to find some fresh fruit at a grocery store. The menu for the rest of the time included stew, chunky soup, Beefaroni, ravioli, chili, hash and more.

“My joke is, when I get to shore and I go to some restaurant, anything on the menu is fine, as long as it didn’t come out of a can,” he said.

In December, Janice Minson joined him in Florida, and the couple spent some time seeing the sights and sailing. On their 30th anniversary, they sailed to Marathon, Fla., the same spot the couple spent their honeymoon.

Janice Minson remembers the phosphorescent jellyfish glowing at night and how many stars she could see when sailing 30 miles offshore.

And the sunrises and sunsets were always spectacular, the couple said.

When Butch Minson prepared for the return journey, his wife flew home. He raced back to see her.

“I was his carrot,” she said, as her husband sat nearby and smiled in agreement.

The Cats Paw does have a six-horsepower outboard engine, but Minson said he rarely used it. While the trip covered 5,000 miles, he used just 50 gallons of fuel. He said that was a pretty inexpensive trip to Florida.

“I think [the trip] cost less than staying home,” he said. “And I used a lot less gas than [I would have] towing a little folding camping trailer behind a car to Florida.”

Minson said he doesn’t have the next big adventure planned.

And he seemed embarrassed that his wife had called reporters to let them know he was returning.

“I was doing this trip for fun,” Minson said later, sitting in the small cabin below deck. “Not to prove a point.”

And to him, simply hopping onto his boat and heading out on the water is a way of life.

“It’s just interesting. There’s more to learn than you can learn in a lifetime,” he said. “That, to me, is fun. And I like to go places and see things. I don’t want to keep sailing the same thing over and over again. And the advantage of a sailboat over a powerboat is that if the wind and current are different, it makes the trip totally different.”