Alfred and the Boy Wonder

Well, if the owner’s son is Boy Wonder, I guess that makes the old man Alfred, doesn’t it? Not sure who the Caped Crusader would be in this scenario (not sure there is one), but Alfred took care of the Boy Wonder every bit as much as Batman, didn’t he? Works for me (for now) so I’m goin’ with it…

I don’t know all of the history, but from what I understand, Alfred came by his money as a businessman. He owns a bunch of filling stations in northeast England and not surprisingly, given western civilization’s dependence on the motor car, he did quite well for himself — until recently when grocery stores started cutting in on his business, so now he’s sweating bullets.

At some point, Alfred took up sailing to complement the extensive climbing and other alpine sports he enjoyed, throughout the UK and from his chic cabin in Chamonix. As is so often the case, the son immitated the father. Boy Wonder took to the mountain sports and even got into the sailing a bit, enough to get his yachtmaster’s ticket — the UK equivalent of a captain’s license in the U.S. but much more highly regarded and no mean feat.

On one mountaineering/skiing trip to northern Norway, Boy Wonder had a burst of insight. As he looked down from some summit, he saw peaks stretching out to the horizon, all gorgeous, all untrammeled and all inaccessible — but all with fjords cutting in along their bases. “What a treasure trove,” he thought. “If only one could reach those untouched peaks!” And when he saw the water, Boy Wonder realized that a boat could reach those places, and people — people like Alfred and Boy Wonder — would pay to join the boat heading to those pristine mountain playlands.

But where could such a boat be found? Lo and behold, the perfect sailing vessel appeared: a huge steel racing boat, one that had been around the world multiple times with large crews, was for sale — and it was cheap. Alfred stepped in, he being the businessman and all, and stole the boat for something like 400,000 pounds, along with a shipping container of spare parts. He was offered another boat and another container of spare parts for a mere 100,000 pounds more but, he being the businessman and all, he thought he could haggle ’em down a bit and offered 95. When he realized that even at 100 the offer was another steal, one that would enable him to sell off a lot of the excess and recoup his outlay, he went back to the seller only to learn that he was too late: the extra boat and equipment were gone. It was a portent of how Alfred would approach things in the future.

Alfred set up Boy Wonder with a business they could share: sailing to the great northern destinations. No one was doing it and there was a market. Lofoten, Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen Island, Greenland…for adventurers these names ring out like a siren’s call. No, there weren’t as many people looking to sail to these places as, say, to the Mediterranean, but those other markets were saturated. This venture wasn’t going to make anyone rich, but it could be a going, profitable concern and hey, the principals involved could spend considerable time each year in places they adored.

But from the start, there were challenges, paramount among them the relationship between those two principals. It wouldn’t be anything new if a father created a business to set up his little boy with a livelihood. And it also wouldn’t be anything new if a father created a business in order to keep his son in check.

Who knows what really goes on behind the eyes of those involved, but it’s telling that Boy Wonder said this summer that even after five years of business he’d never seen the books for the venture. Nor had he insisted upon seeing them. He didn’t know if the business was profitable or not, didn’t know what the expenses were and where costs could be contained. That was all up to the father.

Boy Wonder ran the business — except when his father did which, it turns out, was whenever there were substantive decisions to be made. Could it be that Alfred didn’t really trust Boy Wonder? For whatever reason, the father insisted on keeping all the purse strings well in hand.

Keeping those purse strings in hand included having all work on the new plaything done in-house, even though those doing the work had no experience with the unique needs of a marine-based venture. These were handymen who did work on petrol stations. On land. Maybe if those stations got tossed from side to side and from front to back, constantly, while immersed in seawater and while being regularly doused with heavy quantites of both fresh and saltwater, well, then maybe these nice gentlemen would be qualified to work on a 72-foot ocean-going steel racing sailboat.

But they weren’t. So when they installed a bow thruster, they didn’t realize the thing needed its own isolated power source; that tying it to the engine meant the only way one could use the bow thruster to help the boat move sideways when docking was to be going forward at four-plus knots. A 52-ton vessel creates a lot of momentum so approaching a dock at four knots is not exactly prudent. So now Polar Bear sports an inoperable bow thruster, a hole in the hull’s flow that returns no value whatsoever. What did that failed attempt cost?

And for a boat that was going to a lot of places without marina facilities, a solid anchoring system would be a requirement. First up, a good, heavy CQR anchor and a lot of chain. Well done. Then, a roller on the bow to support the anchor while underway and make it easy to deploy when anchoring would be a good idea. For this, the owners went in-house again, with similar results to the thruster. Now the anchor has to be muscled into place on the bow when raising or lowering, and it’s tied with a half-inch line to the aluminum bow pulpit while underway. And because the bow is vulnerable to the anchor coming up so close to the hull, the owners had a custom-made nose pad — at a cost of several hundred pounds — fitted to the front of the boat that needs to be installed and removed manually whenever anchoring is in order.

There are countless other examples of penny-wise-and-pound-foolish behavior, not limited to: an in-house designed and built freezer/fridge system that not only cost a bunk on the boat (read: a paying customer) but was also wedged into a spot where the doors to access both spaces are so small that only items a few inches wide can fit; a watermaker that was rewired incorrectly (also in-house) so it’s inoperable even as we head to Iceland, and if it can’t be fixed there then Greenland, the bulk of the summer season, is off the schedule; not cleaning the hull of more than an inch of barnacles and plant growth — so the boat moves more efficiently (read: cheaper) — while at home rather than on the road where it cost twice as much; and so on.

The bottom line (to use a business expression) is that Alfred treats Polar Bear like a plaything and then wonders why it’s not profitable. The whole impetus for pondering a winter season south of the UK was to keep the boat from sitting idly and paying quay fees while doing so. Heading to Madeira, the Canary Islands and across the pond in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers — the biggest sailing rally in the world and one popular enough that several charter boats already cater to would-be racers — would enable Polar Bear to attract the sailing crowd.

Think about it: summer up north for adventurers, winter down south for sailors — and all the while Polar Bear is generating revenue. And the ARC’s popularity meant that one event would likely pay the costs for the entire winter; everything else would be profit. Head back home in spring for one month of cleaning and refitting, and out you go on the next season. Now you have a business, something one would think a businessman could recognize, especially when given very clear numbers that demonstrate how to make it work.

Apparently not. But if Alfred treats Polar bear like a plaything then Boy Wonder is equally culpable: he doesn’t have the cajones to assert himself and make the business his.

For instance: If Boy Wonder can’t captain the boat himself (read: save on costs) because he has a little girl at home, then he could be out marketing the venture at various no-brainer places in the UK where his enthusiasm for the project would be contagious. If Boy Wonder were doing so then the venture could cut loose the woman (read: save on costs) currently supposed to be doing the marketing but really, no one is quite sure what she does. The venture’s website is woeful, marketing materials are ancient and even the guest information for upcoming trips never makes it to the crew in time for provisioning and planning purposes.

The bottom line is that promises were made by Alfred, promises that have now been broken and often come in contrast to the edicts from Boy Wonder. And given many of Alfred’s explanations, explanations that fly in the face of all evidence, it seems as though he never had any intention of sending Polar Bear south. Which makes one wonder if he ever really wanted it to be a going venture. Now that he’s avowed that he’ll seek to sell Polar Bear after this summer, the answer seems clear.

It’s highly doubtful that Alfred gives a shit about the impact his dishonesty has had on several lives — least of all his son’s. Clearly there are father-son issues to be resolved and it’s to be hoped that Alfred handles those issues better than he handles his business. And it’s also to be hoped that Boy Wonder grows up enough to be the father to his little girl that apparently Alfred couldn’t be for him.

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