Sunday, December 4, 2022
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TOM AND DEBBIE RIDDLE: From South Seas Adventurers To Coronado Realtors (Long Version)

TOM AND DEBBIE RIDDLE: From South Seas Adventurers To Coronado Realtors By Joe Ditler CORONADO – Lessons learned while sailing the South Pacific have served Tom and Debbie Riddle well in their business ashore. The two met in 1981 and experienced a travelogue of adventure before coming to Coronado to partner with Mike Herlihy in running Coronado’s oldest real estate brokerage – Lee Mather Co., Realtors. Tom met Debbie while working in Irvine, California in the computer industry, where Tom had worked for 32 years. He was living on a Downeast 38 sailboat at that time and, like a line from a Jimmy Buffett song, told Debbie, “When I turn 50, I’m going to sail to the South Pacific.” They fell in love and were married three years later. Tom’s fascination and love for the sea hit him late in life, as one of 5,000 marines on board a troop ship steaming to Japan in 1954. “That crossing really taught me to love the ocean,” he said. While Debbie didn’t know much about sailboats when they met, she was quick to learn as they continued to sail at every opportunity. Finally, they devised a “five year plan” and the dream of circumnavigating the globe became a reality. In March 1988 they sailed their boat to San Diego to begin provisioning for their extended voyage. By January 1989 they were ready, and surprised family and friends by sailing non-stop to Puerto Vallarta. For most of that year they sailed to Manzanillo and other romantic stops along the Mexican Riviera, summering in the Sea of Cortez. A year after leaving San Diego they headed to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. “It was a 21-day voyage,” remembered Tom, from his desk at Lee Mather Realtors. “Debbie and I split shifts of six hours on and six hours off, 24/7. We consumed all our fresh food and fruit early in the voyage, and then lived on canned goods. Debbie was a genius at turning canned goods into a feast.” En route to the Marquesas, across the open ocean, they sailed a picture-perfect 18 days on a broad reach with no tacks or major adjustments to their rig. They saw some of the most brilliant sunsets and sunrises, cloud formations, squalls and elusive green spots along the way, but had to enjoy them in solitude, as one was always sleeping while the other was sailing the boat. “The open ocean voyages were completely exhausting,” said Tom. Life at sea was consumed with the daily routine of preparing meals, cleaning the cabin, making repairs and taking sun sightings. “Tom’s watch was 6 to midnight,” said Debbie. “I was midnight to six a.m. We took our meals together, but otherwise saw very little of each other at sea.” When your world is confined to and dependent upon the boat and the condition of your equipment, daily inspections become a priority. “Something breaks every day,” said Tom. “The worst thing is not discovering what is broken until it’s too late. We made lots of sail repairs underway.” Despite the hardships of blue water sailing, both Tom and Debbie have specific memories they enjoy sharing. “I’ll never forget sailing into the harbor in the Marquesas under a full moon,” said Tom. “We could smell the island long before we could see it – the organic smell of vegetation that is so suddenly divergent to the smell of the sea.” All it took was one South Seas port-o-call to convince the Riddles that sailing around the world wasn’t so important after all. They ended up spending three months in the Marquesas, tossing their carefully planned agendas and deadlines overboard while enjoying the climate and sailing that the South Pacific has to offer. “We had world charts and were prepared to circumnavigate the globe,” said Debbie, “but between the long passages and missing our family, we decided we could do whatever we wanted, and what we wanted was to take our time and enjoy these beautiful islands.” Debbie and Tom quickly adapted to cruising life. In fact, they took a different approach to cruising than the average cruiser. Most have schedules – when to leave, when to arrive, how long to stay. But their approach was that if they got to someplace and liked it, they would drop the hook and stay there. Like the crew of the storied HMS Bounty, Tom and Debbie began to feel more native than visitor after a short period of time. Their next stop was the island of Hakahau. “Now this was my idea of what Polynesia should look like,” said Tom, glowing at the retelling of his story. “The scenery there was spectacular,” he said. “Every image seemed to have been unchanged for a century or more – old French buildings, horses running wild, Gendarmes keeping the peace, and day-to-day island business being conducted everywhere.” While their small boat was anchored in Hakahau there was a frenzy of excitement in the air. Local islanders were practicing for a Fete, a celebration of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, which was the start of the French Revolution. “Most of the Polynesians are of French decent,” said Debbie, “so they really get behind this celebration. There were hula contests, but also spectacular outrigger competitions,” she recalled. “We would be sitting on the fantail of our boat having cocktails in the anchorage, the sun was setting and turning the sky brilliant with color, and all around us were these 8-to-10-man canoes training for competition. This really was paradise!” More excitement erupted when the Ara Nui, a large trading vessel, arrived every second Tuesday. The entire village would make their way to the pier and the center of activity became Ara Nui. “Goods were offloaded,” recalled Tom. “One of the strangest sights was a horse with a sling under his belly being lifted off the ship and onto the pier. Gasoline was delivered in 50-gallon drums and transferred to waiting Gerry cans and automobile fuel tanks with hand pumps. Everywhere you looked there were tears of joy at homecomings and tears of sorrow at farewells. It was as if we were living in another time.” The crew of the Ara Nui would set up stalls featuring different types of food, clothing, kitchen utensils, fuel, hardware, and other hard to acquire items. After a couple days of brisk, festival-like business the crew would load everything back onto their ship and head to the next port, said Debbie. Tom and Debbie’s voyage found them slowly meandering from the Michener-esque Ua Pou, to the atoll of Ahe, to Papeete, Moorea’s Cook’s Bay, and then to Huahine. It was en route to Huahine that adventures in paradise for Tom and Debbie Riddle hit a near devastating turn of events. They were mid-ocean and under a full spread of sail. It was dark, and a 72-foot party boat crashed into their sloop. The accident took place just after midnight on Debbie’s watch. She heard a “bang” and Tom was thrown from the bunk down below. “Tom came up to see what had happened,” said Debbie. “He thought we hit a submarine. I thought we hit the island.” The two boats had collided, locked rigging, and by the time the other boat pulled free it had taken out both of the Downeast 38’s lower port shrouds, nearly toppling their mast. Fortunately no one was injured. The offending vessel continued on into the night with their lights off. A cruising couple the Riddles had met in Mexico was fortunately sailing in company with the Riddle’s boat at the time. They motored with them 60 miles to Raiatea, the only other place outside of Hawaii and Tahiti with a hoist large enough to lift their boat out of the water. They later discovered who owned the other boat, but their attorney advised they would have never be able to collect from them. While Tom and Deb didn’t get any financial reimbursement for the damage, Tom still has a special memento of the occasion – the other ship’s running light, which tore off on the collision. “Raiatea was a perfect example of that silver lining that is supposed to be around each dark cloud,” said Debbie. “We rented a house at the Sunset Beach Motel for a month while the boat was having the fiberglass repaired. It was a simple life, very tranquil,” she said. “We spent three months there, repairing the boat and spending our life savings, but it was an unforgettable time.” “Island Fever” is a funny thing. One morning you wake up and it just hits you, and you want to get off the island and go home. “Once the boat was back in the water Debbie and I were about to that point,” said Tom. Despite being one month into hurricane season they left Raiatea in November 1990 and sailed to Honolulu, with nothing but a ten-minute boat trial of the new rigging. Fortunately, their luck and their rigging held. In Hawaii they continued to live aboard their sailboat in the Waikiki Yacht Harbor for another six months. To pass the time and replenish the cruising kitty, they worked odd jobs. At the end of May they sailed back to California. The trip home, however, wasn’t the storybook ending to their magical journey they had envisioned. Nature helped them put that lifestyle behind them. It was a rough, cold, 32-day passage with just the two of them, six on/six off, sailing under just stays’ls. They beat their way through pounding seas that took them way north of San Francisco before they caught the nor’westerlies that would allow them to begin the southerly coastal hop back to San Diego. They dropped the hook in Glorietta Bay just in time for Fourth of July, 1991. The Riddles still sail when the opportunity presents itself and when asked if they will do such a major voyage again, one says yes and the other says no. Both, however, agree that it was the adventure of a lifetime and that many of the lessons learned at sea have served them well on shore. “Perhaps the greatest thing we brought home from that trip was the spirit of the cruising boat community,” said Tom. “There is an endless amount of sharing and brotherhood among cruisers. Everywhere we went we were greeted with over the top assistance. That’s how we run our business today, going the extra mile for our customers here at Lee Mather Realtors” Debbie, who grew up and attended school in Coronado in her youth, likens Tom’s use of a sextant in charting their voyage to the way in which they approach their business today. “Tom used the sun to get us from one island to the next. Today that’s all done on a hand-held computers or GPS,” she said. “You push a button and someone else calculates your solution.” “There are no street signs on the ocean,” said Debble, “so with a hand-held sextant we plotted our course just the way sailors did for 200 years. In our business we try to be just as meticulous, experienced, traditional and accurate, whether it be in finding someone a new home, or property management. “We can tell our customers that Coronado is located at 32° 41′ 8″ N / 117° 10′ 56″ W, or we can take them by the hand, show them what a beautiful place this is, how wonderful it is to raise your children here, and share with them years of personal experience in Coronado.” For more information on Lee Mather Co, Realtors, visit their website at www.leemather.com. Photos from the Riddles’ voyage to the South Seas are available to look at in the lobby of Lee Mather Co., Realtors. Postscript: Tom and Debbie Riddle returned to sea the second week of January on a cruise ship headed to the Mexican Riviera. While they laughed at a suggestion to pull six hour watches, “just for old times sake,” they did admit that they planned to awaken before the sun each morning, stand on the bow of the ship, and plot the ship’s entry into foreign ports, “just because some old habits are hard to break,” said Debbie laughing.

Hammock.1.jpg Touring Moorea is exhausting business. Here Tom and Debbie Riddle catch a break in a hammock. They literally lived in those shoes – Jelly Shoes, which Debbie called “The cruiser’s bargain brand of shoe wear.”

From their boat, in an anchorage in Papeete, Tom and Debbie Riddle captured this tropical sunset. “It was,” as Debbie put it, “balmy air, warm water and a lifestyle that was far from the existence we live today.”

This is the Bali Hai Hotel in Cooks Bay, Moorea, home to, remembered Debbie, “the best hotdogs I ever ate. A baguette was placed upon a steam extrusion and steam heated from the inside out. The hotdog was then dropped into the hole that had been created by the warming device.”

Three months were spent in the Raiatea Boatyard, making repairs resulting from a mid-ocean collision. Days were spent working on the boat, evenings were spent in their little cottage on the lagoon. “The tragedy of the accident was overcome by the incredible experience of living on the island,” said Tom. “We made friends and memories that will last a lifetime.”

The place is Hiva Oa, Marquesas, French Polynesia. Debbie Riddle is sitting beside a pristine pool and waterfall in the deserted bay of Hana Menu, on the north side of the island. This was once an ancient community of nearly 1,000 people. All that remains today are the foundations of the dwellings.

Awaiting completion of repairs on their sailboat, Tom and Debbie Riddle moved into a one-bedroom bungalow at the Sunset Beach Motel, Raieata, French Polynesia. “We would beach our dingy on the shore in front and watch the sun set behind Bora Bora (12 miles away) every evening,” said Debbie. “Raieata was the ‘silver lining’ that surrounds each dark cloud in life.”



Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover "Coronado Storyteller." To find out more, write or call [email protected], or (619) 742-1034.
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