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Couple shares 10-year adventure at sea

More than 15 countries seen, 35,000 nautical miles sailed
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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Keith and Susan Levy like to call their 47-foot Catalina 470 sailboat a "time machine."

That's because from 2000 to 2010 the couple, who now live in Auburn Lake Trails in Cool, have seen everything from World War II relics in the Marshall Islands to the Sydney Opera House in Australia to native ceremonies in the Futuna Islands.

Now they're back on land, sharing their story and tips for successful voyages to potential sailors. On Thursday, Susan Levy spoke to Chapter 138 of the Sons in Retirement in Auburn.

"How many people do you know who have spent 10 years sailing?" said Don Lamoureux, president of the Sons in Retirement.

The Levys began their journey by ending their careers in 2000. Susan retired from her job as an account executive and Keith, who could not attend Thursday's luncheon, was an administrative law judge. They then sold their ranch in Penryn, including all of their cattle, horses, dogs and all of their possessions.

They set sail in their sailboat, C'est La Vie, from San Francisco immediately after saying goodbye to their five grown children and seven grandchildren.

It became apparent that they each had their roles, as Keith, a seasoned sailor, appeared to be handy with fixing anything that was damaged. Susan stuck to solving logistical problems and cooking their meals.

"We joke and say that he's the captain and I'm the admiral," Susan Levy said.

After departing from San Francisco, the pair joined a rally called Baja Haha in San Diego, which they stuck with all the way down to Mexico, where they stayed and explored for a year and a half.

By 2002, the Levys left Puerto Vallarta for an 18-day stretch of Pacific Ocean that would land them in the Marquesas Islands, where they were only permitted to stay for three months.

From there the couple bounced from the Cook Islands to Niue, where they went cave diving. They would later swim with whales in Tonga and witness the America's Cup in New Zealand in 2003.

They didn't stick around too long, though.
"I found that it was too cold even in the summer in New Zealand," Susan Levy said.

Fiji would be their next stop. C'est La Vie was damaged in some rough seas and high winds, but Susan Levy said the trip was well worth it.

"I don't think we went anywhere where we didn't enjoy the people," Susan Levy said.

After Fiji, the Levys hit the Futuna Islands and Tuvalu where they landed in time for the country's 25th anniversary independence celebration from England and were regarded as honored guests.

That landed them a place at the high table with the king.
"They don't see a lot of cruisers in some of these islands," Susan Levy said.

It wasn't all dining with kings and celebrations. The Levys would come across children hacking coconuts with machetes in front of huts and would trade natives anything from sunglasses to corned beef for fresh vegetables.

Eventually, the couple would land in Australia, where they stayed for most of five years. In 2006, Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer, which brought the pair home for a year.

"Then I beat it and we got to go sailing again," she said.

After flying back to Australia where they left their boat, the Levys stayed put until 2010, when Susan said it was time to make a decision: Continue east and face the potential danger of Somalia pirate attacks, or sail for the west coast they had left 10 years prior.

They chose the latter, picking up their friend, Dave Harmon, when they reached Hawaii. The Levy's did not want to take their chances going the other direction, as they had some friends who had been murdered by pirates.

It would take them 19 days to get to San Francisco. Susan said she and her husband have made more than memories during their time at sea; they've also made a stronger bond as a couple.

"People say ‘how can you stand being out in the middle of the ocean with just your spouse for that long?' and, really, you become closer. We've become a stronger couple because you rely and depend on each other," Susan Levy said.

Though they had come back periodically during their time at sea, the Levys also returned to be closer to their children. They were able to communicate with them through Sail Mail, a system similar to email, and Ham Radio.

Now the Levys focus on speaking to groups of potential sailors offering tips like carrying back up GPS in case the boat is struck by lightening, an event that happened to them once. The Levys also advocate taking classes in First Aid and safety and bringing lots of spare parts.

Most of all, Susan encourages anyone thinking about abandoning their possessions for life at sea to remember to enjoy themselves along the way.

"It's an incredible adventure; it's what people dream about," Susan Levy said.