Ocean Yacht Sales’ broker Jim Miller and his wife Bonnie James have been sailing for over half their lives.
From training a cat to live aboard a boat, sailing around the many small Newfoundland outports and venturing to the Bahamas — the highlight of their voyages was the people they met along the way.
The couple married in 1977 and according to Bonnie, they bought and shipped their Cal 25 sailboat, Torngak, from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and Labrador before they had even bought a sofa.
Their first major excursions were around Trinity Bay, N.L. a few years after they began sailing. The experience was a humbling one.
“The rules were if you had a boat big enough to go to Trinity Bay, the peer pressure made you go there,” said Jim.
“And we didn’t know any better,” added Bonnie. “Crossing Trinity Bay can be quite challenging and it certainly seemed to be at that time… But once we got into it, sailing took over our life in a way that we don’t see now. Because once we had the boat, that was what we did in the summer. Once the boat went in the water, there was no question of what you were doing on the weekend.”
Over time, they began going further afield as their experience grew.
In 1986, they bought their next vessel, Castaway. At 30 feet, with an inboard diesel engine and a furling jib system, this gave them a bigger platform to explore their surroundings with a bit more comfort and allowed them to go to places like Bonavista Bay.
Most of their sailing has been around Newfoundland and Labrador, visiting the various communities spread across the island. According to Jim, he’s seen about 99 per cent of the over 500 communities in the province between work and sailing. In their travels around the island, Jim and Bonnie noted the sense of community they felt traversing the local waters.
“That was the way it was. When you went into a harbour, you were made welcome and the locals were curious about the boat because there wasn’t that many sailboats around,” said Bonnie.
“We ended up on the wharf in Trinity and there was a fishing boat there that was fishing cod, but they had a bunch of bycatch that they weren’t supposed to have. So, they gave us a tonne of crab, because crab wasn’t being fished commercially at that time. We couldn’t say no, but we also had no refrigeration at that time.”
Sharing in that community spirit, Jim and Bonnie fired up their portable Coleman stove and began cooking crab legs for passersby.
After 1991, with the purchase of their current vessel, Vagrant Sea, Jim and Bonnie were able to journey beyond the shores of Newfoundland.
In 1995, Jim and a small crew embarked on their longest journey yet as they sailed up the St. Lawrence River to move to Toronto, where Bonnie had moved for a job opportunity. During their voyage up the St. Lawrence, he experienced that same sense of community.
“Every time we went into a community, regardless of whether it was English or French, as long as you make an effort to speak French, we were very well-received,” said Jim. “I remember one small community — it was a bit stormy, and we were fleeing from the weather — we got in, tied up, and the guys there caught our lines. These were lobster fishermen, so I invited them onboard for a beer like you always do.”
After a chat, one of the fishermen asked Jim for a plastic bag. Taking the bag, he went back up to their pickup truck and brought down fresh lobster for everyone aboard.
“You’re in a brand new place, you don’t know anybody and the community takes care of its own,” said Jim.
In 1997, after two years in Ontario, Bonnie and Jim made the decision to travel down the canals into the United States to New York City and then south along Intracoastal Waterway. During this time, they were able to see how the U.S. transformed when the reliance on canal systems dwindled as highways became the main mode of transportation.
“You’re going through places that were big and important back in the day when the canal was the main way to get inland from the coast, but now time has passed them by,” said Bonnie. “They were small towns now, but you could see glimpses of their past prominence, but they’re not what they used to be.”
“You saw how the country has gone through change over 50 to 100 years,” said Jim.
After making it to the southern U.S., Jim and Bonnie ventured even further when they travelled to the Bahamas, where they moored the vessel and returned over winter for the next five years before sailing back home to N.L.
“The things that you see there, is that you’re completely independent. As another sailing friend put it, whenever you visit a country, you’re an uninvited guest. So don’t demand things, ask for favours,” said Jim.
“We were able to meet the locals. We would shop with the locals in the local supermarket and interact with them and it was just a phenomenal experience being there on your own method of transportation. What sailing has done for us, is essentially it has defined our lifestyle and our lives.”
Over the course of their journeys, Jim and Bonnie have seen and done more than most. According to them, they’ve also met their best friends in their extensive travels and everywhere they sailed they experienced that same shared sense of community amongst seafaring peoples.
After 45 years of sailing, there are still things they want to do. They speak of travelling somewhere unchartered, a dream of buying a boat in Europe and sailing with friends and renting a canal boat.
“There’s always the dreams of what you haven’t done, but we’re quite satisfied with what we have done,” said Jim.