Michael Butler’s dream boat, Loco, under various stages of construction in California in 1979.

“Did you just buy this boat?” a man on the dock asked.


Technically, the deal hadn’t quite closed. We were still awaiting the final signature from the co-owner’s ex-wife.

“Looks better already!”

While my husband, Garth, and I were waiting, we’d used a screwdriver to remove the boat’s ugly safety netting, which was attached haphazardly to the lifelines with zip ties and screwed directly into the wooden decks. We could hardly bear to look at its poor installation.

“The last owner sure didn’t do the boat any favors,” the man said, looking at the faded, edge-torn blue tape and worn varnish that revealed chips and spots of bare wood in places. “If he had owned her any longer, it might look even worse.”

Smiling, the woman with him said, “She used to be ours. We are so glad someone will finally give her the TLC she deserves.”

I nodded. This kind of neglect seemed like a crime. The boat was unique, and a little care would restore her beauty.

“Are you going to be here for a while?” the man asked. “We’ve got some old photos of her and her construction. We’ll go get them.”

The boat had clearly been built with pride. I admired the fine woodworking, and the sparkling honey-gold varnish on the interior coach roof highlighted the craftsmanship that made this boat such a special find. She was a rare cold-molded wooden cutter — strong, light, and seaworthy — with a shallow canoe body, fin keel, and transom-hung rudder on a skeg. Her simplicity appealed to us. And, as we would discover over many sea miles, she tracked beautifully and surfed easily.

When the couple returned, they showed us photos of the boat under construction and others documenting changes they made. Their names were Kevin and Debbie Kelly, and we spent hours learning about the boat from them.

They told us the boat’s builder, Michael Butler, had built this Tom Wylie-designed 31 footer for himself and sailed her to the South Pacific. She had originally been named Loco, and when the Kellys bought her from him they renamed her Timbre. There was currently no name on the hull, though according to the paperwork, the last owner had renamed her Irie Wind. Eager for a fresh start, we decided to call her Velella. The name paid homage to Vela, the boat on which Garth circumnavigated the globe, as well as the sea creatures that bear this name.

Since we bought the boat in 1998, we’ve remained in contact with the Kellys. They were delighted to see their old boat touring the high seas during our seven-year voyage. As we sailed her 34,000 miles around the Pacific, Kevin and Debbie Kelly would periodically reply to my newsletter updates about our adventures.

A couple years after we returned from our voyage, a yacht broker approached us about buying Velella. He’d heard from mutual friends about our plans to build a new boat and scoured my voyage blog to learn more about Velella. Reasoning that we’d be likely to sell our old boat before building the new one, he broached the subject with Garth.

After 14 years, faced with replacing or repairing the same items for a second or third time, Garth was ready sooner than I was to consider an offer. I was admittedly reluctant to part with my baby. We’d shared so many adventures together, visiting 19 countries and facing down storms, typhoons, and ships that threatened to turn her into kindling. I savored memories of our voyage and even devoted years to capturing them in the form of a book.

Just before my first book, “Tightwads on the Loose,” was published, Swiftsure Yachts broker Ryan Helling and his wife, Autumn, made a serious offer to buy Velella. I had to finally admit that it made sense to accept so she wouldn’t be neglected. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed to their offer.

Before parting company, I wanted to feature Velella at my book’s launch party, as I considered our little stalwart voyager to be the star of the story. On the day of the party, we tied her alongside Seattle’s Corinthian Yacht Club for people to step aboard for a tour and we slept aboard her for the last time. It was an emotional experience, a mixture of joy and sadness.

The day after the book launch, we took Velella through the Ballard locks and docked in Lake Union, leaving her in Ryan and Autumn’s care. For the next few years, they bestowed upon Velella a flurry of upgrades including paint, varnish, new sails, hatches, and canvas work until she gleamed. The Hellings cruised and raced the boat throughout Puget Sound and British Columbia, and when they featured her in the 2017 Wooden Boat Festival, I felt pride in pointing her out from the table where I sold books about her adventures.

Autumn and Ernie in Velalla’s cozy main salon.

While Ryan and Autumn were living aboard Velella, their son, Ernie, was born. I suspected that the modest 31-footer might not suit their needs for long, so I wasn’t surprised in the fall of 2019 when Ryan told me they’d decided to sell Velella to buy a larger boat.

We could hardly have hoped for better parents for our baby than Ryan and Autumn and were afraid we might not be so lucky again. As Covid-19 shutdowns began in spring of 2020, Ryan put the boat on the market. I worried it might be difficult to find any buyer under the circumstances, much less a good one. Velella needed new caretakers who wanted to give her the care she deserved, and we hoped Ryan and Autumn would find someone who appreciated her history and unique charms as much as we did.

Along came Derek Bottles and Becca Galfer. Not only were they excited about Velella’s history sailing the Pacific, they were eager to learn more about her construction and her past.

Starting with the knowledge that the boat was built by Michael Butler in San Diego, Derek hunted for more clues. He remembered a San Diego sailor friend with the last name Butler and wondered if they were related. His friend Mark replied no, but noted that Michael Butler’s dad, John, had been mayor of San Diego and a member of San Diego Yacht Club.

Velalla dressed up in Port Townsend.

A quick search showed that John Butler was mayor of San Diego from 1951 to 1955 and was survived by his kids, including a Michael Butler of Fort Bragg, California, who was a competitive racing sailor. Derek hunted down his contact info and emailed to inquire whether he might be the boat builder. Yes, Michael replied, and shared photos from the 1979 launching of the boat, which he called Loco.

In 1978, Michael had been a young boat builder at C&B Marine in Santa Cruz, California, and his goal was to build a boat while attending college. He drew inspiration for Loco from his work on the Tom Wylie-designed Wild Spirit and wanted a 31-foot version of his own. He used cedar strip planking and two diagonal veneers for the hull, and installed portholes he’d salvaged from a derelict houseboat at age 17 with the hopes of building a boat someday. When Michael completed the boat, he set sail and covered much of the Pacific Ocean, meeting his future wife along the way. After returning, he sold the boat to the Kellys, who moved her to the Pacific Northwest. The Kellys kept her for years and made some modifications to make the boat more comfortable, creating a V-berth bunk and extending the cockpit coaming.

Thanks to Derek’s sleuthing, those of us who appreciated his fine craftsmanship finally had the chance to connect with Michael Butler and tell him how much we loved the boat he built. I even sent him a copy of my book detailing Velella’s adventures with us aboard.

In spring 2021, Derek and Becca sailed Velella to the Seattle Yacht Club outstation at Port Madison on Bainbridge Island, where we had a partial owners’ reunion, along with Ryan and Autumn Helling. Since Derek wanted to replace Velella’s primary winches with self-tailing ones, he offered us the original ones to use on the boat we are building on the island. In true tightwad style, we accepted.

Fittingly, when Garth and I finally finish our new boat, she’ll carry the winches from Velella’s circumnavigation of the Pacific, as well as her old compass, which was also used aboard Vela during Garth’s circumnavigation of the globe when he was a teen. Ideal talismans for future adventures.

Autumn, Ryan and Ernie sailing off Shilshole Bay Marina.

This year Velella will be featured in the 45th annual Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend and we hope to include a placard with information about her original construction, renovations, and rich history sailing Pacific waters. We look forward to another happy reunion, hoping that in addition to Derek and Becca the other former owners of Velella — the Kellys, the Hellings, and her builder Michael Butler — will also be there to celebrate her. During the show, Garth and I will share construction photos of our new 38-footer, and you’ll notice how many of her features were inspired by Michael Butler’s original craftsmanship.

You can view photos of Velella and her adventures on designer Tom Wylie’s Website: http://www.wyliedesigngroup.com/wylie_design_group/wood/Pages/Velella_-_31_Cruiser.html. And on the Velella blog: http://yachtvelella.blogspot.com/

Velella scooting along under spinnaker.