Newark resident and 91.3 WVUD’s Don Berry explores warmer climes during winter and spring on his sailboat with partner Betsy Voss and ship cat Toby
Scheduling conflicts were bound to arise while planning a telephone interview with Don Berry. And those conflicts weren’t from lack of interest; Berry just happened to be on a sailboat in the Atlantic Ocean with limited Wi-Fi for the duration of the winter and spring.
Wanderlust-inducing emails between February and May included these, in chronological order: “There is a small chance we may be sailing to Cuba”; “Heading to the Bahamas”; “We are in Fernandina, Fla., and will leave tomorrow for South Carolina.”
Which is where Berry took a break from his seafaring lifestyle to chat while his Mason 44 sailboat, the Nomad, bobbed peacefully in Winyah Bay.
He’s currently mulling over various plans.
“We’re probably going to head to Charleston, or sit here for a few days, or jump out in the ocean,” he says.
His wayfaring life—punctuated by the weekly streaming of his University of Delaware 91.3 WVUD jazz program, Avenue C—may seem like most people’s fantasies. And so it may be, but it’s also hard work, and it took almost two decades to become a reality.
It started with a road trip. Fifteen years ago Newark residents Berry, now 61, and his long-term partner, Betsy Voss, 60, both worked for the state government and Berry did his radio show, which he’s buoyed since he was a UD student in 1978. (He is the first in his family to graduate from high school.)
Suffering from a mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, though, Berry would yearn for warmer weather during the East Coast winter months. So he and Voss began driving an old station wagon to Florida for their four weeks of vacation.
“One day, while we were there, a sailboat comes into the harbor, drops anchor, and we look at each other. It planted the seed,” says Berry. “Sailing is the perfect way to very inexpensively spend the winter someplace warm. And you can essentially live anywhere you want for free.”
The idea took root and the couple soon began saving for a boat, a feat that took three years (“There’s a stereotype that sailing isn’t a poor person’s hobby. There’s truth to that,” says Berry.) Finally, they were able to purchase the 44-foot Nomad. They spent the next three years getting the 25-year-old boat sea-worthy.
Berry says the first thing he did, with WVUD Chief Engineer Dave Mackenzie’s help, was design a sound system.
“I digitized my entire music collection so that I didn’t have to leave my music behind. I have close to 100,000 songs on my computer from almost every genre,” he says.
Next came sailing lessons. And improvisation.
“We took a couple classes, and then jumped in. There’s really only one way to learn, and that’s actually doing it,” Berry says.
The landlubbers embarked on their first voyage last fall, when they and their cat, Toby, headed out of Rock Hall, Md., down the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, Va. From there, the intrepid trio journeyed to Florida and the Bahamas. Their Cuba trip didn’t pan out due to a failed motor. But with a special license in hand that’s required to enter, they plan to make the island nation first on their list of stops for this winter.
While Berry and Voss hop from one tropical paradise to the next, a favorite hobby is seeking out new musical styles. In the Bahamas, they discovered Junkanoo, which is a street parade with music, dance and costumes that takes place in many towns. The couple also spends time in small towns and villages forging friendships.
“You get a real sense of long-term community,” Berry says. “It’s a very different world you see when you go to a local community and hang out, and not a major cruise ship port.”
But the winter-spring adventure hasn’t been all frolicking on sun-drenched beaches.
“The first week out, we lost the engine on the boat,” Berry says. “So we had to be towed and had to put in a new motor. And that was a very expensive repair. Now, we’re having trouble with that new motor.”
Then there were the unexpected 20-foot seas a few months ago. The Nomad was heading from North Carolina to Florida when a storm hit. If you’re stuck out in the ocean, Berry explains, the worst thing a sailor can do is head toward shore. The boat becomes hard to control and it can be dashed on the rocks.
Thankfully, they were able to wait out the crashing seas without harm.
And not least of all, there was the coincidental run-in with Homeland Security. Turns out that a notorious drug-running boat off the coast of Florida also bears the name Nomad.
“They were certain they had their boat,” Berry says.
At least four levels of law enforcement—10 heavily-armed members of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, the local sheriff, and detection dogs—tore the boat apart before realizing they had the wrong people.
“It was an experience,” Berry chuckles.
Calamities and governmental intrusions aside, life at sea is made up of simple routine.
Mostly, a lot of planning and labor: setting courses, maintaining the ship, weather observation, system monitoring. But when Berry and Voss find a beautiful place to anchor, with no time frame or agenda, it’s bliss, he says.
“You can say, ‘I’m going to stay here for a week,’ and stay. The boat has a refrigerator and freezer, so if you’ve got a lot of food on board, a decent spot, and are enjoying your surroundings, you stay.”
Meanwhile, remotely, Berry records and uploads his radio show to WVUD once a week, which airs on Fridays at 9 p.m. Once he records it, upload takes about an hour to send across the sea and air waves to Delaware.
The radio station is fully supportive of Berry. Last year, he approached Station Manager Steve Kramarck to resign (“It’s been a great run, 38 years, but I’m gonna give up my show and go cruising,” he told Kramarck). When Mackenzie heard the news, he had a better idea.
He suggested that Berry continue his show while sailing by recording and uploading to the station. Berry agreed, got Kramarck ’s approval, and Mackenzie and Berry figured out logistics.
Currently, the nomadic seafaring lifestyle is only a seasonal activity for Berry and Voss due to responsibilities and family back home. Berry’s plan is to stick around Newark for the summer months and take off on the Nomad when the frosts hit later this year.
By the time this magazine is on the streets, the duo will have sailed up the coast to Norfolk, through the Chesapeake Bay, and docked at the marina in Rock Hall, Md. Then it’s back to Newark, where Berry has lived since the ‘70s, and he’ll be riding his bike to the radio station as always.
But one day, he says, he wants to make the boat his long-term home and set sail indefinitely, watching the sun go down over some far-off sea to the sound of Mile Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”
Want to follow along on Berry and Voss’ adventures? Visit sailnomad.us.