It hasn’t been a story of continuous smooth sailing for the 50-foot wooden catamaran marked by black sails and silver hulls that sleeps in the calm waters of Little Cruz Bay.
Instead, Kekoa’s is a story of recovery and resilience, craftsmanship and love, struggle and triumph — an epic journey that she has already managed to acquire in her short life span.
Kekoa, the truly remarkable more than two-year project crafted by shipbuilding brothers Jamison and Ryan Witbeck — was designed much like their first hand-crafted 50-foot cat Allura they spent five years chartering around St. John waters.
“With Allura we learned a lot, so went back and built a better boat for day charters with some really cool features,” Jamison Witbeck said.
A step up from her beautiful sistership, Kekoa is crafted primarily of Okume plywood laminated with epoxy and features a glow-in-the-dark deck the brothers made by adding a powdered substance to the paint which allows the non-skid sections of the catamaran to sparkle blue after it has been exposed to sunlight.
But on her first voyage from her birth place of Charleston, South Carolina, to her home in the Virgin Islands, Kekoa was nearly lost within 48 hours after being entrusted to a delivery company whose captain and crew set sail despite bad weather forecasts on December 10, 2008, and then abandoned ship 275 miles from the North Carolina coast.
“They got whacked by a storm with 30-foot seas, 50-knot winds, just awful nasty cold sea spray, hail, lightening – complete craziness,” Witbeck said, recalling the devastating broken satellite call he and his brother received at 7 a.m. the morning of December 12. “The captain decided that he wanted to get off the boat and abandon it 275 miles from the shore. We were totally shocked.”
With everything at stake for the Witbeck brothers — the previous two years of work, their future years operating the vessel and being the builders/owners of a nearly $1 million catamaran now lost at sea — they tirelessly contacted salvage companies to rescue their boat, the first four of which turned them down due to bad weather conditions. Finally, they found a fifth company that took advantage of a 48-hour weather window to launch the recovery effort and allowed the Witbecks to come along.
“Our boat is missing and I am just looking at my kids and thinking I owe somebody almost $1 million dollars and I don’t have anything to show for it,” Witbeck recalled. “It was so scary being knocked down like this in a bad economy.”
Five days after Kekoa was abandoned by the delivery company, the Witbeck brothers boarded the salvage boat with a crew out of North Carolina.
After 12 hours charging out, Witbeck said they found Kekoa adrift in the eddies of the north bound current 103 miles through the Gulf Stream’s outer wall and were able to bring the vessel back under its own power by using a beanbag as a temporary patch in a hole in the underwing.
“Kekoa had sailed itself back all those miles, and I am not really sure how,” he said. “We turned on the engine and just drove it in instead of towing it.”
With a lengthy five-page report outlining the damage — including holes in the underwing caused by the loose anchor chain slapping against the vessel in heavy seas for an entire night — the brothers had a total of $275,000 of repairs and four months of restoration ahead of them in order to get Kekoa back to her original condition.
On April 15, the Witbecks set sail again, launching the 20,000 pound catamaran a half mile from their temporary boatyard in the same unconventional fashion as Allura — using boards to create skids and tow the vessel heavily lubricated with 160 pounds of rotten bananas.
And this time, the Witbeck brothers delivered Kekoa to the Virgin Islands themselves, along with their other brother Kyle, their sister, Ashleigh, and a handful of crew members.
“We handled the next delivery — we weren’t going to trust anyone else to do it,” Witbeck said. “It took us eight days to go from Beaufort, North Carolina, to St. Thomas and we had no problems. We were determined to make it without any mishaps.”
While the Witbecks may have sailed the boat to the Virgin Islands safely, rough waters were still ahead for the brothers. After the financing was rescinded on the original $900,000 contract to purchase Kekoa, the would-be buyers entered a lease purchase while they tried to secure financing.
“My brother and I were working for these guys as their captain but it wasn’t really working out,” Witbeck said. “They went bankrupt in the middle of the summer so after all the other stuff that had gone on, they couldn’t buy the boat from us.”
The Witbecks have since legally cleared themselves from the would-be buyers and the 90-passenger Coast Guard-certified Kekoa is currently for sale.
This time around, the brothers are selling Kekoa as a fully-functioning business that would allow someone to start making a profit on a truly unique Caribbean endeavor immediately.
“They have really set themselves apart from everyone else down here,” said Katie Zaytoun, a crew member on Kekoa. “The fact that they built a wooden boat from scratch, and their stories about what they have gone through is such a unique experience. It is not the typical booze cruise — if you wanted to have an authentic, moving experience, it is on this boat.”
With Kekoa’s bookings quickly filling up for the season, Witbeck feels it won’t be long until the business consumes all of his time and energy.
“We really would like to find someone who wants to sail into a working retirement,” Witbeck said. “The boat is capable of grossing over a million a year in this operating area, and although that would be nice for us to enjoy, I guess we feel that we have more journeys to undertake.”
Their current journey: developing and building Lost Trades, at www.losttrades.com, their newest venture consisting of adventure-based individuals that want to bring about positive social and environmental change.
The Lost Trades team is currently undertaking projects and developing films that meld environmental concerns with job skill training and real-world entrepreneurial challenges.
“The reality is that we are young enough — sitting at the helm of the boat is the best job in the world, but we still want to do more stuff,” Witbeck said. “We simply can’t do both — we can’t run the boat and do more projects.”