When everyone is telling you something is a bad idea, what do you do? Cécile Gauert meets an entrepreneur with the vision to create a triumph out of an unlikely refit...
When he bought his 34 metre yacht around five years ago, people told Steve Sidwell he was making a big mistake, but this serial entrepreneur has made a living out of trusting his hunches. Last year, he made Ascente available for charter along the Pacific coast of Canada. Before he knew it, he’d booked enough business to offset operational expenses without disrupting his family adventures from British Columbia to Alaska.
At 56, he describes himself as “semi-retired”, sufficiently removed from work to indulge his passion for boating nearly full-time. He’s had around 20 boats “of all types and all sizes” to date but now has more time to spend time on board. And he is just as likely to be on the water when a cold wind is blowing 25 knots (as he was over the year-end holidays in British Columbia) as when it is warm – he counts the time he spends on board in months rather than weeks or days. His current main project, which ignites a spark in his eye as he discusses it, is a brand new range of yachts that builds upon the experience gained from running his current boat.
A fixture on North America’s Pacific coast, Ascente is a custom boat built on top of a Westport 112 hull in 1992. Sidwell discovered it close to home at a time in his life when he was looking to achieve the goal he’d set for himself more than two decades earlier: to buy the kind of boat that would allow him to travel the world. “I was in my late 20s when I wrote my life achievement plan, part of which was to build a business, sell it, retire, buy a boat and cruise the globe.” It just happened a little earlier than he thought, in his early 50s rather than his 60s. “I haven’t travelled the globe yet, but now I can.”
He developed his love of boating far from the coast, spending his early years between Idaho and the interior of British Columbia, where his parents were part owners of a cattle ranch that at one point covered more than 400,000 hectares of Canadian grassland. “In many ways it was like being on the ocean, wide-open range as far as you could see,” he says. “On the ranch you had to be very independent. You didn’t call up engineers to fix the tractor. You had to be very hands-on and self-reliant.”
After leaving school he planned to go to business school but took a year off to work and make some money – and never went back. He learned, as he says, at the school of hard knocks and, although he had the end goal in mind, he wasn’t sure how to get there from the start. A management job opportunity for a mining company brought him to Vancouver in his early 20s. He started his first company at the age of 26, went into property at 29 and then investments and finance. He founded a boutique investment firm called Devante Capital.
A few years ago, he developed an interest in food as part of a personal quest to undo some of the damage his high-pressure work in investment banking had done to his health. Looking to shed some excess weight, he recruited a private chef who showed him how to prepare satisfying and nutritious food and helped him painlessly lose 14 kilograms in a few months. The experience inspired him to invest in a couple of new companies that could help others. “My mission became to help change the health of America by spreading the ripple of healthy and affordable alternatives to fast food,” he says.
He helped start a chain of fast-food restaurants called Lyfe Kitchen (Love Your Food Everyday) with two ex-McDonald’s executives and later branched out with Luvo, “a nutrient-rich, delicious and natural flash frozen food company”. Luvo began as a small concern but attracted plenty of attention, including a few celebrity endorsements, and it grew quickly. When Goldman Sachs bought his shares, he began his search for his yacht.
“I went to the Monaco Yacht Show and I came to the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show maybe three years in a row. I looked at all the different boats and none of them fit,” he says. “It’s a million-dollar-a-year operating budget. I don’t want to spend that. It means one or two engineers on board as well and I don’t want that. A big crew, I don’t want that. I want my kids and me to be able to operate the boat.
“I wasn’t intent on doing a refit, but I never really found anything that was a good fit for me in my price range, and then I found this boat and within 20 minutes I thought, ‘That’s it.’”
His enthusiasm, which people who know him well say is infectious, was met with a deafening thud when he decided to buy what would become Ascente. The boat needed tender loving care. “Everybody said this was a dumb idea – everybody. Every person in my family, the surveyors, even the boatyard said: ‘What you’re planning on doing… that’s a dumb idea. It’s too big a project. It’s not going to work. You’re going to lose money. It’s going to be bad, bad, bad.’”
If there is one single quality that sets entrepreneurs apart, it is their ability to see things differently. “I told them, ‘You can’t see what I can see.’ I saw how everything could work in every single room, and I did not just see how dirty it was.” What he saw was the perfect vehicle for family adventures and close-ups with nature, which he could make a reality without draining a lifetime’s worth of earnings.
He liked that the boat was rugged, with a full-width bridge, big engine room and commercial-grade parts similar to the equipment found on tugboats and freighters.
“The previous owner of our boat did a number of things that were unique so that he and his wife could operate the boat, and she was tiny. I thought if they can do it, anyone can. I absolutely loved it because I don’t want to use a captain all the time,” he says. “Our operating costs are a fraction of what other boats our size are because the previous owner kept it very simple, easy to operate and very efficient, so we don’t need a huge crew.” The yacht burns about four litres per nautical mile or 45 litres an hour at 10 knots. And who wants to go faster when there is so much to see?
“The previous owner designed it with lots of glass, which was not done 20 years ago, and an open layout. His thought was: ‘No matter where I am on the boat, I want 360-degree views.’ Everything is open and the saloon is full beam as well.”
When he embarked on a refit over three winters, he kept the layout and openness but updated everything else. An exterior redesign gave the boat a more modern appearance and an attractive metallic blue colouring. Here again, he went against the grain. “Everybody that I talked to said, ‘That’s a bad idea. You should not do a metallic blue finish on a boat that big,’” he says. “Now, that’s the first thing people talk about.” It makes it easy to spot the boat when it is docked at its home port in Coal Harbour Marina in front of the glittering towers of modern-day Vancouver.
At first, Ascente was reserved for family adventures. Fiordland, a protected area in the central rainforest of British Columbia, is a favourite destination. “We see bears pretty much every other day, multiple sightings of whales every day, and the mountains are so spectacular, 5,000 feet [1,500 metres] high, black granite, waterfalls cascading down right into the water, and at anchor no boats around. It’s so secluded and pristine, you go for days without any signs of civilisation. A community is maybe 200 or 300 people, First Nations people, and there’s maybe three or four communities up there. It’s so peaceful, it’s like heaven.”
When Ascente is not in charter, Sidwell handles it with his girlfriend, Ashley, and his family. His three children, now all in their 20s, grew up around boats and pitch in whenever they are on board. He credits this to the advice a friend gave him many years ago to let them pick the boat they wanted, which would guarantee they’d want to spend more time aboard. “So that’s exactly what I did. We spent months going to shows, looking at MasterCraft versus Ski Nautique, and they basically designed the boat. And so, I had six to eight years boating with my kids and all of their friends and I was the cool dad.” He still is: during one recent summer, all of them took leaves of absence from their jobs so they could do a three-month family trip to Alaska.
He has had plenty of “National Geographic moments” with Ascente already, many documented in videos that got the boat some attention. Soon Sidwell began fielding enquiries from charter brokers. Only Canadian-flagged yachts can charter in Canada, and there are only a handful of private yachts suited for charter in what many consider to be some of the world’s best cruising areas. “We got request after request. People would call and say: ‘I’ve got this amazing movie star’; ‘I’ve got this amazing famous person’; ‘I’ve got this amazing person that has a 300-foot yacht that wants to charter in your area’; and I just kept saying no and then last summer I said ‘OK, let’s do one.’ We ended up doing three and it was fantastic. It was super easy for us.”
The interest triggered a thought, and designer Gregory C Marshall, who had helped him in some aspects of the refit, encouraged him to work on Ascente II. The working concept is a 38 metre boat in aluminium, easy to use, inexpensive to run and with amazing style. “We’re going glass crazy and truly maximising the views and the indoor/outdoor experience.” A cosy space surrounded by glass is at the bow, which can be used as a lounge, observation or meditation room. All bedrooms will have big windows. “We want to create the ultimate Pacific Northwest charter boat,” he says.
Many of the features are inspired by his experience on Ascente. He loves nothing more than a big tender to do day trips and go exploring but says one of his pet peeves is towing an 8.5-metre tender wherever they go. “I’m always trying to think of ways we can make a manoeuvre much easier,” he says. “We’re going to do what I think is the world’s first integrated tender and auto towing system.” The new boat is designed to tow a 12 metre catamaran tender/landing craft and carry a five-person ATV.
As he delves deeper into his project, it becomes clear that he is thinking beyond the first boat. He wants to create a family of boats under the name Ascente – a word he made up from the word “ascent” and “te” (meaning integrity or nobility in many Asian languages).
He’s been testing the waters, asking for feedback, and this time no one has been foolish enough to tell him he’s making a big mistake.