The Hard Way Around
Power and Motoryachts|June 2018

REFUSING TO PUT LIFE ON HOLD, FOUR INTREPID TWENTYSOMETHINGS SET AN UNCONVENTIONAL COURSE TO SEE THE WORLD ON A NORDHAVN 76.

Simon Murray

 

Mitchell DeVries was on the flybridge scanning for icebergs in the Drake Passage when he realized it was useless. It was too dark to see much of anything, let alone a shape materializing just out of reach of the boat’s spotlights. If he did see one, the plan was simple: He was to yell down the open hatch to his 29-year-old captain, Chase Smith, who, from the wheelhouse, would lurch the boat away from impending doom. But even if he did manage to spot one, DeVries wagered there wouldn’t be enough time for Smith to change course. He shivered on the exposed flybridge and thought of home.

It was February and the temperature was 12 degrees, with a steady wind blowing from the west at 40 knots. Every now and then 24-foot waves would spray the uppermost decks. The young crew of Reliance, a Nordhavn 76 owned by Dalton DeVos—a 26-year-old hell-bent on not just circumnavigating the world, but making the most difficult crossings imaginable—had just put Antarctica behind them. It was there on the Antarctic Peninsula that Mitchell (his friends call him Mitch), the youngest of the crew, had celebrated his 23rd birthday.

The thought of crashing into a rogue iceberg weighed heavily on him. He wasn’t even supposed to be on this trip, traveling as part of a four-man crew to the far ends of the earth. He should have been in a classroom in his senior year of college. Instead he was worrying about looming shapes in the darkness, in an inhospitable body of water thousands of miles from home. He stared ahead and waited for what would come.

Most circumnavigations go unnoticed, either by their very essence or by design. When Reliance set offfrom Fiji in 2015, the crew leftwith little fanfare. But almost two years later to the day, I was there to greet them upon their return.

I had heard about the Reliance crew’s undertaking purely by chance, and immediately became fascinated with it. Aside from round-the-world sailing races and record-breaking attempts, many of us assume circumnavigations are attempted by seasoned cruisers, likely retired couples with big dreams of seeing the world. This was in stark contrast to Reliance, where the average age of the crew was 27; two years younger than myself. I was drawn to their story as much for our closeness in age as I was to the spirit of adventure that pervaded it.

I first established communication with the crew while they were at sea. At first, only Chase would talk to me. This was partly in the interest of protecting his client’s identity, and partly because communication was limited to the sat phone. The owner, as I would find out later, was Dalton, grandson of American billionaire and Amway cofounder Richard DeVos.

It would have been easy for me to explain away their adventure as a rich millennial’s flight of fancy. I racked my brain to try and imagine what would make someone set offon a two-year circumnavigation, bearing down on the toughest passages in the process. What I discovered was more profound than I had imagined, a lesson about how legacy and friendship shapes us, and how difficult it is to escape our lives back home.

Dalton was just finishing up college when he conceived a plan to take a motoryacht around the world. At a time when most young adults in their 20s are dealing with the harsh realities of postcollege life—starting a job, paying taxes, paying down student loans—Dalton set into motion a voyage that would push him out of his comfort zone.

He had grown up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was raised like many young Midwesterners: to be polite, to go to church, to not be defined by material wealth. But living almost his entire life in Grand Rapids—where the Amway and DeVos name is ubiquitous—was like living in a bubble. “I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything,” wrote Dalton in a journal he kept throughout the trip, “but as I got older I saw that there was value in gaining different perspectives.”

Dalton couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to join the family business. But as he got closer to starting his career, he couldn’t keep his cruising dreams to himself any longer. He told a mentor about the plans he secretly harbored. He thought he would be admonished. Instead, he was given some valuable advice: Don’t wait, said his mentor. This experience will change your life. “And I’m forever grateful for it,” said Dalton when I spoke with him. “He was absolutely right.”

After choosing a Nordhavn 76—said Dalton, “It just seemed to fit our purposes perfectly”—the next step was to assemble a crew. He hired the first captain he interviewed. That was Chase, a charismatic, experienced South African. Next came Mitch DeVries, who Dalton had known since elementary school. Dalton had first reached out to Mitch’s older brother, Thomas, who considered the offer for a long time before declining. The brothers are from Grand Rapids and had spent summers working on the DeVos family boats on Lake Michigan.

When Mitch heard about the trip, he reached out to Dalton on his own. He told him he would have to take a hiatus from Hope College in Michigan, but he didn’t want to pass up this once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Dalton was happy to have him.

One of the voyage’s biggest supporters was Dalton’s grandfather, Richard DeVos. In his youth, Richard had sailed a 38-foot schooner with his friend and Amway cofounder Jay Van Andel to the Caribbean, despite neither knowing how to sail—an undertaking that became part of Amway’s company lore. Dalton had grown up hearing about his grandfather’s exploits; those stories, coupled with the vacations to far-flung destinations he had taken with his grandparents, were the seeds for his own adventures.

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