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West Michigan couple builds boat and sails 15,000 miles to Europe

Posted: 6:25 PM, Nov 10, 2015
Updated: 2015-11-10 21:09:00-05

SCHOOLCRAFT, Mich. -- I was excited about this particular West Michigan Story as soon as I heard about it. The fact that an average guy could build a 33-foot boat, take two years to sail to Europe over the Atlantic, then arrive back home unscathed was amazing! Here's their story.

Bill and Sheila Nichols spent the better part of 10 years in the 1980s building a Tri-Moran (three hulled) sailboat with a 41-foot high mast, 23-feet wide, and 6,000 pounds fully loaded. Bill was in his 40s, had never built a boat before, but ordered plans for the boat and learned all of his boat-building skills from books. While he may have been a stranger to boat building, he was quite familiar with wood-working, having built his home from scratch, including a fancy hand-made spiral staircase.

By trade both Bill and Sheila worked for the phone company in Kalamazoo. Both retired in 1991 and it wasn't long after that the boat was dropped in the water in South Haven as both were eager to embark on the adventure of their life! Their shake-down cruise as it's called (the first sailing to check out seaworthiness and problems) was uneventful as they sailed north on Lake Michigan to Beaver Island. It was then through the Straights of Mackinac, Lake Huron, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, and eventually taking down their 41-foot mast in order to get through the Erie Canal. They would then sail out the Hudson River and follow the East Coast of the United States all the way south to Key Largo, Florida. The voyage started in early August 1991. They realized that being retired with no kids or commitments allowed them the opportunity to travel wherever they wanted for how ever long they wanted. Sheila came up with the idea of re-tracing the steps of Christopher Columbus. It was 1492 that Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America, so why not follow his foot-print in reverse in 1992?

After spending some time in the Florida Keys, they sailed to the Bahamas, then eventually tried to sail northeast to Bermuda. Winds were so strong they kept getting blown off course north/west of Bermuda so they never made it to the island. It took about 30 days to sail to the Azores (pronounced A-zor-res). Sheila recalls she lost 30 pounds in 30 days on the high sea in the Atlantic due to high winds, high waves, and motion sickness a majority of the time. It was a great feeling making it to the Azores after everything they had endured, now they could set their sites on Europe.

They would ultimately set sail for western Europe and arrived on the shores of Portugal. The journey continued to Gibraltar, Spain...the turn-around point and the place where they would eventually head back west to come home. By the time the entire journey was completed almost two years had gone by before they sailed back in to the shore in South Haven. It was a great feeling...a feeling of accomplishment...second only to pulling in to the harbor in Portugal.

Bill and Sheila racked-up 15,000 nautical miles on their two-year trip. Both have some fantastic memories, but neither would do it again. Bill always says he was grateful to have a caring and understanding wife like Sheila who was open to sharing his aspirations to build a boat and sail half way around the world. "It's a hard life living on the edge not knowing what to expect from day to day" Bill says. Their navigation was only a primitive GPS, charts, and sun sights. By the way, the boat was hoisted out of the water in 1993 after the trip and has not seen the lake or ocean since!

The name of their boat was also carefully chosen. Called the Alouette, they named it after a train that once rain a route from Boston to Montreal. Yet another hobby of Bill's, he loves model trains. In fact, he has a complete set-up in the basement. The other reason for the name? Bill says the name Alouette is easy to discern over the marine radio. It doesn't mean anything else, and people can understand it via the radio when raising bridges for them to sail under or when docks open up for mooring.

The Nichols are quiet folks by nature, but two of the nicest folks you'll meet. While they live in a house hand-built by Bill, it's part of several acres on a farm that has been in Bill's family for generations in the 1800s! In fact, the original farmhouse is still standing that has been placed on the registry of historic places. If all of this wasn't enough creativity and drive, Bill is also an artist. He has painted several murals in his house and his parent's old farmhouse on the walls. What seems to be a mild-mannered gentle man is a person bursting with ideas. They live a simple life, simple means, non-extravagant, and seem to enjoy every minute of every day with little to no regrets. Perhaps their golden years will be a little more on the quiet, uneventful side of things. Here's to Bill and Sheila Nichols!