Sewing Our Way Around the World: Voyage of the S/V YOLO

You only live once. That was the motto and motivation for Jason and Karen Trautz when they embarked on a 10-year circumnavigation sailing adventure. Through it all they learned that the key to the liveaboard lifestyle is endurance, patience, kindness and having the right person by your side.

The Beginning of a Dream

“We never intended to circumnavigate; we just kept going,” Karen recounted. “I was happy to be in the Caribbean, and then we kept going west. Once we went through the canal we just kept going downwind. Pretty soon, you’re in another ocean, so you just keep going.”

Jason and Karen began their journey 12 years ago when they purchased a 42-foot PDQ Antares and christened her the S/V YOLO. “We launched from Charleston, North Carolina. That’s where we bought the boat,” said Jason. “‘YOLO’ — You Only Live Once. Go for it. People around us started dying, and we thought, ‘we gotta get out of here and enjoy life.’ Some of our fellow employees were passing away at young ages. You kind of get that vision of mortality.”

“People wait too long to do the things they want to do,” said Karen. “And then they can’t do them. So we decided we needed to get out there while we were still capable of doing the sailing routine. The cruising lifestyle was fabulous. He wanted to sail around the world and see all these old cultural places. I just wanted to live a Jimmy Buffet song.”

K J in freshwater spring Tonga
Karen and Jason enjoying a freshwater spring in Tonga.

And so began a decade of life on the open sea. After selling their house, cars, condo and all the possessions they didn’t want to take on the boat, they set sail in 2007 and finished in late 2017. In that time they visited 88 countries, and, believe it or not, they insist it wasn’t enough time! “We went through three sets of passports with the maximum number of pages you can have,” Karen reminisced. “It’s a big world out there, and there’s a lot we missed. We saw so little of it.”

Sewing at Sea: The Good, the Bad & the Salty

Before Jason and Karen began their sailing adventure, they knew they would need a sewing machine strong and dependable enough to handle life at sea. They first learned about the Sailrite® Ultrafeed® LSZ-1 at the annual Annapolis Sailboat Show. “Some of our friends were talking about the machine,” Jason recounted, “and I bought our machine over the phone from Matt Grant [Sailrite Owner and Vice President]. We knew sails needed a zigzag stitch, and we knew the LSZ-1 was what we wanted. Before we began our trip, I talked to Eric [Grant] because we wouldn’t have access to any spare parts along the way. So he loaded me up with all the spare parts we’d likely need during our voyage. And it was obviously true. We ended up using all the parts Eric recommended. They obviously know their equipment.”

Once they had their Ultrafeed and all the accessories they’d need for their trip, all that was left to do was to learn how to sew. Both Jason’s and Karen’s mothers sewed, but neither one of them had ever practiced the skill. After getting the runaround from local places unwilling to teach him, Jason again turned to Sailrite. “Back then Sailrite had DVDs and books on sewing. And that’s how I learned. It was a lot of trial and error and ripping out stitches.”

After Jason finally learned to sew and practiced on his new Ultrafeed, they were one step closer to setting sail. They soon learned that sewing at sea is very different from sewing in your home. There are environmental factors you don’t have to consider on land. Not only that, but they quickly learned that procrastination is the enemy when it comes to sail repair.

galapagos wildlife
Some of the local wildlife the couple encountered in the Galapagos Islands.

“All that salt air is like living in a battery,” Jason remarked. “It’s a harsh environment living on the ocean. You either spend a huge amount of time and money on backup sails and canvases or you prepare to take care of them yourself. And proactively! You have to take care of issues when they’re small before a little thing becomes a big ordeal. Before your sail rips out in a gale. You just made a three-day project from what could have been four hours if you’d fixed it right away.”

The couple quickly learned that the sailing part was, surprisingly, not the hard part. Handling 80 lb. sails in such a small space is no small feat. Jason remarked that living on a boat is a giant logistics puzzle, and it helped having a portable machine like the Ultrafeed LSZ-1 that could fit in a small space yet still had power enough to breeze through sailcloth.

Sailing the Globe

Jason had learned to sail as a child in small sailboats and Hobie Cats, but Karen had never really sailed before the trip. A few years before they started their voyage, they took sailing classes to prepare themselves for their upcoming liveaboard lifestyle. “You don’t ever want to have your husband teach you to sail,” Karen warned, while Jason nodded along. “We went through the entire ASA [American Sailing Association] Sailing Courses in Florida. You have to learn to identify boats by their lights, learn how to use a sextant, learn offshore passage making, radios, communication … how to use single sideband radio, become ham radio operators … Email over the radio was our only form of communication during most of the trip.”

From the Caribbean to French Polynesia and Australia to Fiji, Jason and Karen sailed by the wind. They were constantly on the move, yet they were also never in a hurry to get anywhere. They simply enjoyed sailing from place to place and staying as long as they wanted. Weather dictated where they could go and how long they could stay in one place before moving on. “Who’s going to hang out in the Caribbean during hurricane season? We stuck to safety and comfort. Speed was our last concern,” Jason said.

niue collage
Exploring the small island of Niue in the South Pacific.

The Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia were one of Karen’s favorite places they visited. The Tuamotus form the largest chain of atolls in the world, and Karen said it was like living in a calendar picture. Not only was it a beautiful place to spend a few weeks, but the people there were generous and welcoming.

“The people were so friendly,” Karen reminisced. “We helped a guy hold a roof up while he was leveling and repairing it. The chainsaw he was using had no oil for it. The instructions were in English and they didn’t know how to use the chainsaw correctly. A few days earlier, we had found an old oil can floating in the waters of the Marquesas. So we went back to our boat and retrieved it. When we got back he wasn’t at his house anymore, so we left the oil can nearby hoping he would find it. We went walking around, exploring the area, and when we came back this little boy came running up to us motioning for us to wait. He went inside and came running back out with his fists full. In one fist was a matchbook stuffed full of pearls of all different shapes, sizes and colors. In his other fist was a handful of pearls as well. That was their way of saying thank you for the oil can.”

snorkeling collage
Some of Jason and Karen’s favorite snorkeling pictures, including a sunken ship.

The generosity and kindness of the locals was something that Jason and Karen found truly remarkable “In another island we invited the kids to swim out and jump off the front of our boat for fun. They brought me this handmade mother-of-pearl fan that had been made with the fine weaving of the Cook Islands. They also left a handful of pearls as a thank you for letting the kids play on the boat.” Karen added, “We’ve been invited to weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations, even into people’s homes to stay. If we happened to be there, they invited us in.”

“We try to immerse ourselves in the local culture of wherever we’re visiting,” Jason explained. “The goal is to understand their culture and how they do things. Sometimes we’d go into their schools and help with their English classes. The books they’re using are 30 years old. They can’t practice English because they only have a book. In many places the equipment that’s been donated has become useless. It worked for a month in the beginning but no one there understands the instructions because they’re in English. So it’s easy for me to help with their construction projects.”

Jason with kids Gambia
Jason poses with some local children in Gambia, Africa.

Needing a Tune-Up

After 10 years at sea and thousands of miles traveled, their beloved Ultrafeed was in need of a tune-up. They’d reached a point of frustration where they could no longer use the machine. Luckily, Jason and Karen happened to be near our Sailrite facility in northeast Indiana and asked to stop in and have their machine looked at. Their Ultrafeed LSZ-1 is over 12 years old, and even though their circumnavigation has ended and they’ve sold the S/V YOLO, they still plan on using the machine to sew projects for their home and other smaller boats they own.

After a couple hours of maintenance, their machine was good as new and ready to tackle another sewing project. It turns out it wasn’t just the tension that was off, which is what they suspected, there was a burr on the hook that was shredding thread every time they tried to sew something. “Matt Borden [Chief Technical Advisor] is a miracle worker,” said Jason. “He got our machine fixed and running like new again. It sounds better; it’s moving better. It takes the frustration out of the equation to have a skilled technician fix it and get it running properly.”

Jason and Karen at Sailrite
Matt Borden, Chief Technical Advisor, repairs Jason and Karen’s 12-year-old Ultrafeed LSZ-1.

Jason had nothing but positive things to say about Sailrite’s level of expertise and customer support. “Matt Grant, his brother, Eric, everybody I’ve ever talked to on the phone or via email or met at shows — you guys are doing it right. In most parts of the world, follow-up support and service has gone drastically downhill. You guys can diagnose something over the phone or by email. You know your stuff and are willing to help. It’s such a relief to have someone on the other end who’s actually engaged and glad to work with you and stick with you until your issue gets resolved so we can use our machine again.”

Advice From a Liveaboard

Ten years of sailing around the world with only your spouse for company — not to mention that the cabin on a sailboat is no bigger than a bedroom — could be enough to end some marriages. Luckily, Jason and Karen found a way to stay sane and grounded during the voyage. They had books, music, playing cards and DVDs to keep them entertained, but the biggest obstacle was how to handle arguments.

“The biggest challenge that anybody’s going to face is compatibility,” Jason explained. “Where are you going to get away when you need to be alone? The biggest struggle is space. A boat cabin is not that big. Probably way over 50 percent of people who buy a boat sell it within 18 months because they can’t coexist in harmony.”

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“We developed the ‘Five Minute Rule,’” Karen added. “If you’re upset with somebody — your partner — you get five minutes to vent, rant, rave, do whatever you need to do to get it out. But after five minutes you need to let it go because I need you back in my corner helping man the ship, trim the sails, do whatever. I can’t have you holding a grudge when a squall is coming through. You have to get over it and let it go. And I think that’s a good skill to have in any marriage or partnership, but it was extremely important on a boat.”

“It is a nice lifestyle,” she said. “If you don’t like where you are just pick up and move. You get to visit one nice place after another. But it is a lot of work. We kept our boat well maintained and in great working order so that when we dropped anchor at a new location we could go into town and explore the area instead of doing hours of maintenance work.”

“The thing is,” added Jason, “there aren’t a lot of people that make it very far. They just can’t live with each other that long, 24/7. And it’s a lot of work — every day. It’s the same chores day in and day out, and the list never gets smaller.”

YOLO at sunset Moorea
The S/V YOLO at anchor during a picturesque sunset.

It turns out sailing the globe isn’t exactly like living a Jimmy Buffet song after all, but it sounds like they don’t regret a single second of it.

9 thoughts on “Sewing Our Way Around the World: Voyage of the S/V YOLO”

  1. Wonderful couple with a great outlook on life. Thanks for sharing your story and I hope you never stop sewing !

    1. Enjoyed reading your adventure story, wish you all the best in whatever you turn your hand to.
      I’m going out to buy a sewing machine!!!

  2. Need more stories like this! 💓
    TRAUTZ YOU ARE AMAZING
    I too can say your customer service and products are outstanding thank you for holding true to solid values it doesn’t go unnoticed!

    YOLO!

  3. I love the 5 minute rule! We live in a small camper in the winter and a 32ft boat most of the summer so I know how those tensions can sometimes build in a small space!

  4. My husband and I loved to sail but only for a week or two while on vacation. I always wanted to take a year to cruise, but it never happened. I envy you for the great adventure and life experience you had. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. While many people fantasize of how wonderful it would be to sail the world, including me, it takes special people with both, the right aptitude and attitude to actually do it. So, a landlubber I’ll remain; because, I admittedly don’t have the right stuff. However, it’s wonderful to read stories from folks such as yourselves to feed my circumnavigation fantasies.
    Cheers to you both for a life well lived. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure and the pictures were fantastic!

  6. I enjoyed how you overcame obstacles and revered. The oil can, pearls and the antiquated books was a learning experience sharing us your altruistic ventures. Indeed a must read to all, not only boaters but couples for sure.

  7. Thank you YOLO for sharing! I too loved the 5 Minute Rule! My husband, born in England has spent the last 40 years hand building our 70′ steel, 3 masted Schooner S/V Deo Gratis. We made our own junk rig sails and Lord willing…we will launch Fall 2019 in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin. We love our Sailrite sewing machine and customer service is amazing. We also look forward to our paths crossing with all of YOU in calm seas or safe harbors.

    1. S/V Deo Gratis, When you launch your magnificent 70′, please catalog the waves and share with us. A journey I will only be able to take through the eyes of your pen. Thank-you, Good luck, and Blessings, Mac Paul, aka Bettie

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