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Their fantastic voyage

Jon Volmar never considered himself much of a sailor.

"I played around with Hobie Cats when I was a kid," the 50-year-old former radio station executive said. "I also was a windsurfer for a while, but when it came to ocean sailing, I really didn't have any experience."

But that didn't stop the St. Petersburg native and his wife, Cara, 41, from buying a 41-foot boat and sailing 5,000 miles around the Caribbean.

Landlubber's dream

Volmar, tan and with his sun-streaked hair tied in a ponytail, appeared remarkably well-rested when he stopped by the St. Petersburg Times this week to talk about his 18-month trip.

"We were really lucky," he said. "A lot of things can go wrong at sea. But I think we did everything right."

While not a seasoned sailor, Volmar didn't just wake up one morning and decide to sail to Columbia. He spent more than a decade preparing.

"My wife and I saved for 12 years to be able to do this," he said, estimating their adventure fund at $120,000. "I took several classes to learn the basics. Then we went to Australia and chartered a boat for a week by ourselves, just to make sure that this was something we really wanted to do."

Once the Volmars had agreed on a plan, all they needed was a boat.

Morgan to the rescue

Growing up in Pinellas County, Volmar was familiar with boats built by the legendary Charley Morgan.

"They are solid, seaworthy, and can handle just about anything," Volmar said. "I did a lot of research, and I knew that this was the boat I wanted."

The Largo-built Morgan Out Island 41 made its debut in 1972, and ocean racers and performance-oriented cruisers were not impressed with the boat's squat appearance.

The model, however, proved to be popular and now is considered one of the best-selling 40-foot-plus boats ever built, with more than 1,000 still sailing the oceans.

"Our boat was built in 1977," said Volmar, whose craft is named The Last Resort. "We bought it for $52,500 and then spent about a year and half upgrading things (another $30,000) to get ready for the trip. In the end, I knew we made the right decision."

Avoiding hurricanes

Most coastal cruisers have heard the horror stories about sailing the Caribbean. "People talk about pirates and the places to avoid," Volmar said. "You also have to think about hurricanes."

The Volmars left their rental in Madeira Beach in February 2007 and didn't make it to the Bahamas until early April.

"I wanted to be below 12 degrees latitude, which is roughly Grenada, just north of Trinidad and Tobago, by July 15 in order to avoid the storms," he said. "But it ended up taking longer than we thought, and we didn't get there until September."

Hurricanes tend to track north of these islands, especially in the latter part of the season, so the Volmars spent two months anchored in the lagoon at St. George. "As it turns out, we timed it perfectly," he said.

Playing it safe

Next to getting caught in a storm, the Volmars' biggest fear was running across pirates. The waters off Venezuela are notorious for these gangsters of the sea.

"My wife and I had several discussions about whether or not to carry a gun," he said. "But she was adamant about not having one on board. So I left it home."

So Volmar relied on an even more powerful weapon — the mind. "If you do your research and stay connected, you learn how to avoid the trouble spots," he said. "We basically avoided the coast of Venezuela and didn't have any problems."

Friends and relatives also cautioned Volmar about Colombia, infamous for its cocaine cowboys.

"Out of all the countries that we went to, Colombia turned out to be the real jewel," he said. "The people were friendly and hospitable. It was a real pleasure."

Away from the water

The Volmars visited 25 countries — including Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico — before returning to Madeira Beach this month.

They saw their share of storms and beautiful sunsets but will now put the sea behind them for a while. The boat will be going on the market soon, and the couple is moving to Santa Fe, N.M.

"After all that time on the water, we need a change of pace," Volmar said. "So I figure why not check out the desert?"

To read more about the Volmars' adventure, go to www.whereisjon andcara.com.

Their fantastic voyage 07/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 6:11pm]

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