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Maritimo 2023 M600 LEADERBOARD

525 SUV's incredible relocation journey from California to Florida via the Panama Canal

by Riviera Australia 28 Jun 2023 13:14 PDT

For some boaters, such a long journey might seem daunting. For Lance Merker and his family and friends, relocating their luxury Riviera 525 SUV (now called the 545 SUV) motor yacht, Caroline 2.0, from California to Florida - precisely 5,934 miles over two months - has been an unforgettable adventure.

Careful planning played a crucial role in ensuring everyone enjoyed the experience, helped by a bit of luck with the weather.

"For that kind of a trip, we didn't want to rely on flying by the seat of our pants. We pre-planned for every possible event," says Lance, speaking from the family's new home in sunny Stuart, Florida. "We had spares of everything; engine parts, tools and a lot of things we never used - but we wanted to be completely self-sufficient. We realised that not everything would go as planned and we'd have to adjust."

Of course, not everything did go as planned...but that was later. In October 2022, the Merkers and friends set off from Ventura, California, in calm seas to make their way south of the border. Mexico would be one of five country coastlines they would navigate over the two-month journey.

"The biggest things we'd planned for were contingencies due to weather and equipment. Fortunately, we didn't have any delays with equipment." Since acquiring the Riviera 525 SUV three years ago, Lance and his family have clocked 6,000 miles, with regular trips to the Channel Islands.

"We knew that this Riviera was the right yacht for the trip. We'd spent 600 hours on it in California and knew its tolerances," Lance recalls. "In the Pacific, we had three areas of concern. As it turned out, those concerns thankfully didn't come to fruition."

In southern Mexico, the Gulf of Tehuantepec is one of the most challenging stretches of water, known for its high winds and rough seas, but the crew stayed ahead of the weather.

"For the first 3,000 statutory miles we had really beautiful weather, great fishing, and a lot of fun. We had a couple of days in Cabo San Lucas and Chiapas but missed spearfishing for tuna around Puerto Vallarta. We also stopped for a week in Costa Rica but similarly, had to cancel spearfishing at Hannibal Bank in Panama as the poor weather finally caught up to us, and we had to keep moving."

Life on a ship, as well as a luxury motor yacht, can forge the greatest of friendships, or sometimes shake them. To ensure a pleasant experience for everyone, it helped to have a trip plan with allocated jobs. Among those tasks were hourly engine checks.

"It was part of our routine as part of a passage to do a full engine room check hourly. We logged all the critical engine numbers, and this doubled as our log of the trip where we'd also mark the passage of wildlife or other ships. Most importantly, we were always ahead of anything which, in the end, wasn't much; we tightened a few screws and bled water from the fuel filters." Lance had expected dirty fuel and was equipped with double the number of extra fuel filters needed for the engine services they performed at sea.

Keeping Caroline 2.0 shipshape and the crew well fed were also essential tasks. Tuna steaks, mahi mahi carpaccio, and fresh salads were regular menu specials. "Mealtimes were wonderful with amateur gourmet chefs, my son Kyle and wife Caroline. To be able to come together on such a comfortable boat, and sit and talk about the day's events with fresh meals caught from the ocean, was magical - it was the glue that held the camaraderie and whole experience together for us."

"The layout of the SUV is perfect for our lifestyle. It allows us to get into the water and connect with the ocean much more easily than on a yacht, and without the sport fisher feel. The SUV has more of a cruiser feel. There's a sense of connection from the cockpit all the way through to the bedrooms, a nice even flow. It's interesting that even with these long passages, and us being connected and together, we weren't in each other's way; we were in earshot but it didn't feel like we needed to get away. We were so active; we weren't bored or confined at all. We were busy the whole time - comfortable, safe and having the time of our lives."

No looking back

The crew waited five days to enter the Panama Canal. For the west coast natives, leaving Pacific waters was a momentous occasion. "I felt sad. My whole life has been in the Pacific. It's a big move for us. The last few hours were emotional," Lance says.

It was also a nerve-racking experience entering the engineering marvel of the locks that raise and lower ships through the canal. Caroline 2.0 entered the first lock at 2000 hours.

"It's like a game of Tetris to fit the right size ship to fill the lock. Container ships are prioritised, and smaller boats squeeze in around them. It's quite an ordeal as the water can be turbulent when the water rises; big ships have their engines and props going for navigation so there's a lot of water moving around, and it was a real nail-biter. At night, we had to rely on all our navigation skills and equipment to get through parts of the canal structure. One of the benefits for us was having the joystick on both sides of the boat, it was so incredibly helpful to keep it in the perfect spot and aligned parallel with the concrete walls without having to rely on the fenders completely."

Six hours later, the crew slipped out of the canal and into the Caribbean.

"While we'd waited in the Pacific for our slot in the canal, we noticed that the weather on the Atlantic side wasn't improving and, in the end, it caused us to shuck and jive a bit as we made our way to Florida."

The crew was delayed for 10 days in Bocas del Toro in Panama's Caribbean. "It was unexpected but also beautiful, serendipitous even, and in our contingency plan. We planned everything around our fuel supply of 950 gallons; mostly we cruised at a nine-knot average until we neared our destination and then we'd accelerate to a wide-open throttle for the last hour or two, to clean the carbon out of the turbos and make the engines happy."

Lance forecast the long passage to Grand Cayman would be at a bad angle with the wind and would burn more fuel. He decided to make a pit stop at San Andreas in Colombia along the way, which required negotiations with his insurance company.

"I pleaded my case, and they gave me an exception, with a lot of caveats. In the end, it worked out fine and we had the fuel to go a little faster and keep our safety reserves."

Finally, Caroline 2.0 pulled up to the dock at her new home in Stuart. "It was a lot of travelling, the distance of crossing an ocean. I thought it would be the trip of a lifetime to do only once, but it went by so fast, was so easy, and it was such an enjoyable experience that I could easily do it again. Now, The Bahamas is our backyard boating ground. It's a destination and also a jumping-off point to so many parts of the Caribbean. A year ago, I'd have thought travelling 2,000 miles south into the Caribbean would be ludicrous, but now it's like a prize we're looking forward to."

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