Yachting - February 2008 - The American Way
Written by Dudley Lawson
Rich DeVos reflects on yachting, life and faith
After Rich DeVos sank his first boat, it all got easier. The sinking was in 1949, and DeVos, now approaching his 82nd birthday, but still an active yachtsman and businessman, credits the lessons learned in the sinking and its aftermath with part of his incredible success in life. The other part he ascribes to his abiding Christian beliefs. Faith - in God, in himself and in others - is the foundations of his life.
DeVos and his buddy, Jay Van Andel, had started a flying school, Wolverine Air Service, in the heady days following WWII, undeterred by the fact that neither could fly. As DeVos tells it, the business did okay with their hired pilots, but the excitement soon wore off for the energetic duo. DeVos, born and raised in Michigan, happened to read a book written in 1948 by Richard Bertram - yes, he of Bertram Yachts fame-about cruising in the Caribbean, and the plan was set.
"We decided we needed an adventure," he told me, and the budding entrepreneurs sold the flying business and found the boat of their young dreams, a Nova Scotia schooner named Elizabeth. "We bought that little schooner and started out. We'd never been on a boat before when we bought that boat. Maybe that's why it sank!"
The truth is that the boat, purchased out of dry storage by the novices, leaked from the beginning, her seams never swelling and sealing as they should. The Bilge pump ran nearly constantly on their trip down the East Coast, and numerous groundings along the way could not have helped. By the time they'd crossed the Florida Straits and arrived in pre-Castro Cuba, it was clear something had to be done. The boys spent two weeks caulking the hull, only to have Elizabeth sink the first night out of Cuba. As water filled the cabin, the two fired their flare gun and used flashlights to signal SOS. They were picked up at 2:30 a.m. by a passing American freighter, the Adabell Lykes, and dropped off in Puerto Rico.
"Sounds stupid," DeVos admitted to me as he recalled his lack of seamanship skills, "but at that age - you're 22 or 23 and think you know quite a bit. We didn't even know about tides. We lived on Lake Michigan." Undeterred, the pair soon found jobs as deckhands aboard a tanker bound from Puerto Rico for Curacao. The wages from this impromptu employment, along with a few possessions and a bit of cash salvaged from the sinking Elizabeth, provided the means for continuing their adventure.