Resident Feature

Meet the Suttons

Stan, Caren, Lisbet, Jenny and Michael

While some of us dream of faraway exotic lands and of maybe one day sailing the tropical trade winds to reach them, there is one family whose dreams of romance and adventure became a reality. 

The Suttons moved to Blackhawk 11-years-ago and have been using their home here as a “home port” ever since. Their odyssey began in 1967, when Caren (then 16-years-old) and Stan (then 18-years-old) met for their first date. Stan, whose lifelong dream was to sail around the world, romanced Caren with visions of tropical islands and wild adventures. When he turned 21-years-old, Stan talked Caren into hiking the length of the John Muir trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Caren wasn’t sure what to think, but after 42 days, and some 250 miles of high altitude wilderness hiking, they completed their journey with a climb up Mt. Whitney. 

Their adventures did not stop there. After Stan graduated with a Master’s degree in chemistry, they set off for a six-month camping tour of Europe. For Stan, it was running with the bulls in Pamplona and climbing in the Alps that were the highlights of the trip. For Caren, an art history major, it was a stop in every museum, monastery, cathedral or castle on the way that made the trip memorable. 

Finally, after a courtship of seven years, which included parachuting, flying to faraway airports for a hamburger (Stan had earned his private pilot license) and wild ski runs down back country canyons, Caren finally agreed to marry Stan, though he still warned her that he intended to sail around the world someday. 

In 1974, Stan’s dream of sailing the world took hold as the Sutton Family began the arduous process of building a sailboat that would take them around the world. Novices to sailing and especially to boat building, they nonetheless put their life-savings into a lump of fiberglass and set up shop in Alameda to build their dream. Stan eventually quit full-time employment to become a boat builder, while Caren, whose salary could not be done without, continued to work as a secretary and then in her spare time became an assistant boat builder. 

Weekends, nights, holidays, and virtually every bit of their spare time and dollars went into building their dream. Finally, after five years of struggle, “Marinka”, named after Stan’s grandmother, kissed saltwater for the first time with a Viking christening at the Island Yacht Club in Alameda. The next two years were spent preparing for departure and in March 1981, just three days before departure and after tons of victuals, spare parts, and essentials were loaded onto the boat, Caren found she was pregnant. 

After years of striving for their dream, it was not something to be given up easily. And, after a moment of thought, it was quickly decided, that although they had planned to start a family upon their return, it was now evident that the family was going to have to join them on their voyage. That they had never been at sea on a boat didn’t seem to deter them. 

This was not to be an ordinary voyage, and before long, extraordinary experiences beset the Suttons on their trip. After a trip down the west coast, and then a 2500-mile sail to Hawaii using celestial navigation, their first daughter, Lisbet, was born in Honolulu. When she was six months old, the Suttons felt confident enough to set sail for the South Pacific, where island after island with magical names like Fatu Hiva, Bora-Bora, Tongareva and Tahiti became the hunting grounds of Marinka. 

Fast-forward two years on a beach in Vava’u Tonga, Caren was pregnant again. Fortunately, they heard of an opening for a high school physics and chemistry teacher in American Samoa, so the Suttons sailed to Pago Pago where Stan could work while awaiting the arrival of their second daughter, Jenny.

When the school year ended, and Jenny was 4-months-old, Stan and his all-girl crew, set sail again on a circumnavigation that would eventually cover 58,000 ocean miles and 53 countries, returning to San Francisco in September 1989 after more than eight years at sea. 

Not all of their experiences were idyllic. In their years at sea, they had at times to endure storms where waves of towering size, some taller than the masts on Marinka, threatened to capsize the boat and thoroughly terrified her crew. Other interesting experiences included being arrested as a spy in communist held Aden, Yemen. Also close encounters with sharks and giant manta rays, being chased by pirates in the straits of Malacca, among numerous other adventures. 

Boredom and long ocean passages, some as long as 32 days, were part of the sailing life the Suttons had to endure, and to occupy the little ones at sea, the Suttons had the girls draw onto blank calendar squares pictures of whatever had been a special moment on that given day. Rainbows, flying fish, starlit nights, sea turtles, sharks, and seabirds decorated these calendars. But it was one square that sticks in the memory of Marinka’s crew the most. It was the day Marinka was rammed by a whale, says Stan, “It was just turning dark and Marinka was some 20 miles past the last of the Galápagos Islands, on our final leg to Hawaii. Caren was in her bunk with Jenny trying to get her to sleep, and Elizabeth was on the head. Suddenly, there was a horrendous crash and sound of cracking and splintering wood. The boat, all 40,000 pounds of her, lifted out of the water and came crashing down to an abrupt halt, throwing Elizabeth off the head and planting my face straight down onto the chart table. Immediately, I opened floor hatches to see if the boat was taking on water and screamed to the girls to don life jackets. Thinking we had hit another boat, I went on deck where I heard a loud whoosh. At that moment I knew it was a whale. My heart still pounding, I ran below screaming to Caren, ‘I think we were rammed by a whale!’. She responded sympathetically, ‘Oooh, I hope she’s alright’. For a moment, I didn’t move or say anything … Then I blurted, “f… the whale, we’re sinking’!” As it turned out, the boat didn’t sink, and they never found any evidence of damage on board. But that moment is now seared into the family history. 

After arriving home, Marinka turned into a mortgage with a lawn, and the next 30 years were spent growing the family and running a business. In 1991 another crew member was born, Michael, but it wasn’t until 2018 before Michael was to be initiated in the family sailing adventures. 

After selling his business in 2018, Stan bought another boat in Trinidad. Finally dad and son, along with the eldest daughter, Lisbet, sailed the Caribbean and through the canal yet one more time. Stan ended up sailing another 13,000 sea miles on the Marinka2 to Tahiti and eventually Hawaii and home to San Francisco in 2020, but this time without Caren, who preferred to visit the family in foreign ports by way of a 747. 

Now, after more than 54 years of romance and adventure, Caren and Stan, still deeply in love, have settled in for a more sedate life, taking care of their granddaughter, Ely, and having fun at car shows with the vintage cars that Stan plays with, and with Caren riding her horse four days a week. 

Still, their days of romance and adventure are not quite over. Stan has quietly spoken of plans to circumnavigate the arctic by sail one day … Caren still thinks he’s just talking. 

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 By Megan Scott, Resident since 2010