For some couples, a third date can mean meeting up at a coffee shop, taking in a movie, or enjoying a meal together. For Paul Bultema and Heather Brewer, a Seattle-based couple that met online just before the pandemic struck, that third meet-up was a bit more out of the ordinary. Bultema asked Brewer to hop on a flight to Guatemala with just a pair of one-way tickets in hand.
“I’ve always been an adventurous person, and I’ve lived in countries all over the world,” says Brewer. “And when Paul and I met, it was this instant connection as he had also traveled extensively, in fact to almost 100 countries. I texted him back and said ‘sure’….and we met at Sea-Tac airport the next day.”
It was March 2020, and the trip was a whirlwind as the pair traveled through seven Central American countries that all shortly closed to visitors behind them. But the five-day trip had only strengthened their new bond. Shortly after returning home to the stay-at-home order, they decided to try living—and working—from Bultema’s 31-foot Sea Ray to spend more time together, bringing Paul’s beloved Vizla, Mira, along as a member of the crew. The short-term experiment turned into a five-month sojourn in the San Juan Islands. “There was no enclosure, the space was tight, we had one plug, no shower, one hot spot, limited water, and a generator strapped on the back,” Brewer recalls, with a laugh. “But we figured it out. And we were as happy as could be.”
As the pandemic persisted, the pair began to think bigger, as in the need for a larger vessel to accommodate their growing dream: to continue to work “reboatly”.
They checked in with their respective companies—Brewer works for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Bultema for Amazon Web Services—and received the go ahead. Then in late 2020, after months of combing listings, they found it: A 2007 Nordhavn 43 that suited them and their needs, perfectly. The only trouble was it was moored in Vero Beach, Florida, but in keeping with the couple’s go-for-it attitudes, they bought it sight unseen on December 4, 2020, and by Christmas had gotten themselves, and Mira, across the country to sign the papers.
They started an Instagram account the next day, @workingreboatly, and began chronicling what would become an epic and enriching journey that would take them almost 18 months and over 10,000 nautical miles on the return trip home to Seattle.
At the time, Bultema thought he had about seven months before returning to the office, so the pair spent a hurried six weeks prepping. The first step was to outfit the boat and make upgrades so the two could stay connected as they traveled. They hired a program manager to streamline the process, installed all new Furuno electronics, and an updated communications package that included cellular and satellite systems. The hotel they were staying in allowed them to ship provisions to its address and those goods were almost exclusively bought on, you guessed it, Amazon. Hoping to learn along the way, but also admitting their naivete at the helm, especially offshore, they hired a boat captain to shepherd them through the waters.
On February 25, 2021, they cast off from Fort Lauderdale, leaving U.S. waters for the Bahamas, where they spent six weeks. Then they traversed through the three locks of the Panama Canal; swapped in a new captain, Jean-Claude (JC) Schubel; and, headed out to the La Perla Islands. They then cruised to Costa Rica, and on north to Chipas, Mexico, then spent seven months exploring the Sea of Cortez beginning in June 2021.
“Between Covid restrictions, weather patterns, and all the other natural delays of traveling, we didn’t really have it all planned out, and the itinerary kept changing, but that was part of the magic in the end,” says Brewer. “It allowed us to really experience all the little stops we made, especially the unexpected ones. We just had to embrace the uncertainty.”
There were certainly challenges along the way—poor connectivity, hurdles in passing customs (interestingly, Mira often required the most paperwork), and mechanical issues that included a middle-of-the-night fuel injector line leak—but the duo credits their pre-voyage agreement for the good days outweighing the bad. “During the trip, we had one golden rule: Communication had to be honest, open, and direct,” states Bultema. “It made all the difference between us, and with the captain.”
They definitively agree on their best day. En route to Mexico, off the Gulf de Fonseca, Brewer interrupted Bultema on a work call, insisting he come topside. “She had never done that before, I knew it had to be something spectacular, so I dropped my call and ran outside.”
It was indeed special—in every direction, as far as the eye could see, they were surrounded by an enormous pod of spinner dolphins.
“The water was just frothing with dolphins,” he recalls. “They say that there are 600,000 spinner dolphins in the world, and I think half of them were with us that day. We stopped the boat, threw out a line, and in 5,600 feet of water, we jumped in. The dolphins were encircling us, not one or two, but dozens of dolphins, and the noise was deafening.” To top it all off, as they were swimming, a blue whale surfaced on their starboard side.
“It’s not even something I could have imagined to put on a bucket list,” says Brewer. “I mean we were scared, but we did it. We just jumped in. So much of this experience was learning to overcome fear.”
The pair checked quite a few items of their pre-existing bucket list items, too. In addition to the day spent with the dolphins, the pair also swam with nurse and bull sharks and the famous wild pigs of the Exumas. They snorkeled and spent so much time scuba diving the depths that they earned their Advance Open Water certifications. They hiked through rain forests, visited cultural sites, and fished, with Brewer even spearing what Bultema half-jokingly called an “almost prehistoric-looking lobster.”
And though traveling solo could sound isolating, the couple says it was anything but, both due the friendly, welcoming, and helpful locals they met along the way—and within the larger community of Nordhavn owners. “From day one, the online community has been amazing,” says Brewer. “They had so many great suggestions. We could pose a question to them on issues that popped up, or for boating advice, and almost instantly they’d respond with ideas.”
One such instance of aid occurred shortly after the pair left the Sea of Cortez in February of 2022 and began navigating north towards U.S. waters through the “Baja Bash.” This 950-mile run up the wild and desolate Pacific coastline is known for consistently strong winds, large swells, and nasty surface chop, and this stretch was where Brewer and Bultema ran into their biggest mechanical issue: that aforementioned middle-of-the-night fuel line leak. “It was 3 a.m.; there were 12-foot seas; it was not a good place to have to figure out a repair,” recalls Bultema.
A couple of texts to other Nordhavn owners lent the pair ideas for a temporary solution (the answer turned out to be a combination of zip ties, tin foil, and silicon from an ice tray to stop the leak). Further discussion helped them track down the necessary part, a spare from a tractor if you can believe it, and the line was repaired all within 24 hours. “The kindness and graciousness of the strangers we met along the way still never ceases to amaze us,” the pair states.
On March 19th of this year, the crew aboard the Nordhavn 43 crossed the border and spent the spring traversing up the California coast before returning home to Seattle in time for a summer exploration of beloved haunts like the San Juan Islands, where the pair’s working reboatly experiment all began. “The trip made me appreciate Seattle, the Northwest, and home, all that much more,” adds Bultema. “The quality of the boating here really is second to none.”
Buoyed by that love of boating, and the one they’ve found in each other, the pair say that their initial leap of faith has become a way of life. Both continue to work remotely and Bultema recently gave up his condo to become a liveaboard. The two have also added another crew member for their next adventure: A brand-new Vizla puppy named Hala to keep full sister Mira company on wherever the next journey takes them. “In all this, I learned my happy place is on the boat, in the middle of the ocean, with our dog and the one I love,” says Brewer. “It’s the most magical experience and one I will be forever grateful for.”
Brewer’s concluding statement is quite apropos. Though eventually they’d like to upgrade to a larger vessel, perhaps a Nordhavn 55, the couple’s next journey will be again be on the 43 that has taken them almost 11,000 nautical miles together and whose name is none other than Gratitude.
>> Follow the pair’s continuing journey on their Instagram, @workingreboatly, and Mira’s perspective on her page, @mirathemariner.