CASTINE — When Neal Schneider and Ruth Sandven sailed Rutea into the harbor last week and picked up a mooring off Eaton’s Boatyard, there was little to distinguish their big white-and-blue ketch from any of the many good-size sailboats that visit the busy yachting port at the mouth of the Bagaduce in summer.
Like many visitors, the couple arrived in Maine just in time for a family celebration. Ruth Sandven’s father, longtime Castine summer resident Joe Sandven, was turning 88.
Perhaps unique, though, their arrival capped a leisurely 44,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe, “at 5 miles an hour,” Ruth said, laughing, while seated in Rutea’s spacious cockpit last Wednesday morning.
No surprise. Starting out on a circumnavigation that would take the couple from Mexico, across the Pacific and Indian oceans, around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, across the South Atlantic and up through the Windward and Leeward Islands before reaching Maine wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was, in fact, years in the making and planning.
Living in San Diego, Schneider and Sandven bought Rutea in 1996. With their three children, they took a year and sailed the boat — named either for “a mythical Polynesian princess of the wind” (Schneider’s version) or for her childhood nickname (Sandven’s story) — from California to Mexico, on to Hawaii, then to Alaska before returning home.
“We thought we could take off,” around the world, “after high school, but it didn’t happen,” Schneider said, though “it was always in the back of my mind.”
That isn’t exactly the case. Schneider and his family moved to San Diego when he was a child and his father promptly bought a sailboat, which Schneider hated.
“I would shriek the whole time we were out,” he said.
That changed by the time he was a teenager.
“Most of my friends were surfing. For me it was sailing. I felt an inevitable hand pulling me — I had to go around the world.”
In 2008, the opportunity knocked, when a competitor called Schneider out of the blue and offered to buy his contracting business.
“I told him it isn’t for sale,” Schneider said, but “six weeks later he owned the whole thing.”
With their kids grown and out of the house and suddenly “out of work,” Schneider and Sandven spent the next couple of years living aboard Rutea and sailing around Mexico.
In 2011, they sailed from Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific Coast bound for French Polynesia as part of the annual Pacific Puddle Jump fleet — “a great group of people,” according to Schneider, organized by Latitude 38 magazine.
First stop on the Pacific exploration: the Marquesas, a group of volcanic islands including, among others, Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa and Fatu Hiva.
From there, Rutea continued westward to Tuamotu and the Society Islands, the North Cook Islands, American and Western Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. Also on the South Pacific itinerary were the islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and, eventually, Australia.
Extremely remote, New Caledonia is known for its palm-fringed beaches and a 9,300-square-mile lagoon filled with marine life and a major scuba-diving destination.
The Tuamotu Archipelago ranks high on the list of places the voyagers would like to go back to.
“The water was so clear, and the coral and fish so abundant,” Sandven said.
“The dancing and singing in French Polynesia was phenomenal,” Schneider added.
By May 2015, Rutea was halfway around the world, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but the voyagers hadn’t been sailing all of that time.
After visiting harbors in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, Schneider and Sandven stopped for a yearlong layover ashore in Thailand and squeezed in visits to Laos, Cambodia and Nepal.
Back aboard, the couple set sail across the Indian Ocean — with stops in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where Sandven felt they were not really welcome.
“The people were very wary of us,” she said.
From there, Rutea sailed to the Chagos Archipelago — home to the vast and remote U.S. military installation on Diego Garcia Island — and “desperately poor” Madagascar, then on to the east coast of South Africa.
Eventually, Rutea rounded the Cape of Good Hope and, after stops in Namibia, visited the remote South Atlantic islands of St. Helena, where the British imprisoned Napoleon, Ascension and the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha before turning northwards toward Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean islands.
They returned to the United States for the first time this spring when they arrived in Southport, N.C. For insurance purposes, Sandven said, before the June 1 start of hurricane season, “we needed to be north of Cape Fear, and we just made it.”
Part of the delay could be attributable to a seven-week “busman’s holiday” the couple took early this year. In January they joined some friends cruising around Patagonia to sail around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America.
“We raced up here from North Carolina,” Schneider said.
Sailing some 44,000 miles, Rutea encountered its share of dirty weather.
“We sailed with the seasons and watched the weather very carefully,” Sandven said. “You know you’re going to spend some time cold, wet, sick or scared.”
The worst weather hit on the passage from New Zealand to Fiji with winds of 30 to 40 knots and beam seas of more than 10 feet for six solid days.
They persevered because, Schneider said, they had to lay up the boat in Fiji to fly back to the United States for their older daughter’s wedding.
“We were soaked,” Sandven said. “There was salt everywhere.”
“It wasn’t dangerous, just uncomfortable,” Schneider said.
Snug in Rutea’s cockpit as Castine Harbor filled up with classic sailboats scheduled to race the next day, the sailing couple mused about their future plans. They like Maine, and wondered about laying the boat up for the winter and staying ashore. In the immediate future, though, they were planning to cruise the coast — possibly Downeast toward Roque Island, or around the islands of Merchant Row.
“We’re still trying to figure out what’s next,” Schneider said.