Kona nurse Jenny Decker to sail around-the-world with Romeo — and rare neurological disease
June 27, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
It’s finally happening. After being scammed on an engine and years of meticulous preparation, Kona nurse Jenny Decker will set sail on Wednesday to circumnavigate the globe with her 6-pound Maltese Yorkie named Romeo — and while battling a rare neurological disease that ultimately will put her into a wheelchair.
The 38-year-old Decker also will be attempting to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the first person to sail around the world solo with the neurological disorder Charcot-Marie-Tooth. She expects the journey to take 3 to 5 years.
The hereditary disease that makes even opening a bag of chips difficult has not deterred Decker from pursuing her dream, relentlessly. This will be her third attempt. She knows time is running out before she’s physically can’t sail.
“I’m ready to go,” Decker said Monday while sitting in her boat tied up at Honokōhau Small Boat Harbor on the Big Island. “Mentally, I’ve been ready for this for so long and fought for this for so long.”
She is concerned about how the progression of her illness, which has no cure, will impact her journey. During a trip to Palmyra Atoll in the Northern Hawaiian Islands in October 2022, her legs got so fatigued she dislocated her knee and couldn’t get it back in place.
She arrived in Kona with her leg tied up “like a pink flamingo” until she could get her knee put back in place. Still, no matter the challenges, Decker is optimistic she’ll be independent enough to finish her sail. The previous attempts failed not because of her ability, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a disastrous dismasting of her previous boat caused by a faulty chain plate.
Standing strong Monday, Decker walked about her vessel, a Bristol 36 called the Tiama, pointing out the 35 1/2-foot liveaboard sailboat’s quaint amenities, including a fridge with a freezer and her gimbal stove, which rocks with the boat.
“You can have a full pot of coffee on and it won’t spill,” Decker said.
Wednesday’s push off almost didn’t happen. Initially planning to leave in May, Decker was thrown off course after buying an advertised lightly-used engine on O‘ahu that turned out to be an old engine with a paint job.
A one- to two-week trip to Oʻahu to install the engine ended up being 120 days in the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor. What was supposed to be $8,000 to $10,000 dollars, ended up setting her back over $15,000 for an engine that didn’t run longer than 24 minutes without losing oil pressure.
“I went through a phase of time where I thought it was just over,” Decker said. “I was out of money. I had an engine that wasn’t working. I couldn’t even leave the dock. I cashed out a retirement fund trying to make it.”
Desperate, Decker started emailing companies for help, including Erin Brockovich, a well-known paralegal and activist who was instrumental in building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company involving groundwater contamination in Hinkley, Calif.
“I didn’t want to go through a lawsuit,” Decker said. “I don’t have the time to fight for it. I just need an engine.”
While Brockovich didn’t answer her email, Yanmar Marine America, a company that builds and creates marine engines and other marine drive systems, did. Decker said the company expedited her a brand new engine — worth $20,000 — with no strings attached. It was in O‘ahu within two weeks.
The company paid Decker what she lost in the scammed engine to help her with the rest of her vessel’s refit. She said the company just wanted to see her go, and helped her. A company official asked if she had a mechanic and would pay them to install the new engine.
“This super unimaginable nightmare all of sudden had light at the end of the tunnel,” Decker said. “All I did was reach out and share my story and people came out.”
Two mechanic groups — K & C Mobile Marine and Hail Mary Marine — came together to help with the install. Boat Works stripped and repainted her hull at the Keʻehi Marine Center.
The person who sold her the scam engine caused Decker to miss months of time with her friends and family these past five months.
“He stole some things from me that no one can give back to me,” she said. “But that situation turned into now I have this sponsorship. The engine company is international so I’ll have help from them around the world.”
Her trip was saved, but Decker also had to change her planned route because hurricane season in the Pacific already has started. She’ll be skipping Tahiti and French Polynesia, keeping her out of the danger zone. Up until November, Decker said she’ll be safe in the South Pacific. Then she’ll switch to the Northern Hemisphere when it turns to cyclone season.
Decker said she is nervous, but she’s prepared for everything: food, medical supplies and extra boat parts: “I have a spare for a spare.”
She knows the boat inside and out and can fix just about anything on it.
“I think anybody going to sea has a little bit of a churn in their stomach, butterflies,” Decker said. “You always think: ‘Am I prepared?’ You can’t be 100% prepared but I feel like I’m prepared the best I can be and you just have to go, or you’ll never go.”
Decker has three months worth of food stored on the boat, including a desalinator which makes salt water into drinkable water.
As a trauma nurse, Decker said, her vessel is stocked like a hospital. She has anything from sutra kits to IV bags, to IV start kits. She has all her medication as well as medicine for Romeo.
“I do have medicine on board if God forbid I have to put him down at sea,” she said. “You have to be prepared for everything.”
Since she is more prone to injury, Decker said she has to be very meticulous about her movements.
“Even when stressful things have to be done right now, I need to stop, think, do it slowly but efficiently to keep the boat safe, myself safe and not injure myself,” she said.
With her eyes turned toward open ocean, Decker’s mind is on her boat, Tiama.
“Mentally I’m already out there,” Decker said. “I think I’ll feel a big relief once I do push off. The saying goodbye part is weighing on me so I’ll feel relief when that’s over too.”
Decker’s partner Thea Cyr said she’s anxious but mostly excited for Decker’s journey: “I know she can do it and Tiama can do this.”
Cyr plans to meet Decker at different ports and is looking forward to the memories they’ll make along the way.
“She’s never been one to back down from a dream or a goal,”Cyr said. “Even with all the things that could’ve gotten in her way, she didn’t let it stop her.”
Jennifer Stride, whom Decker describes to be her sailing mom, flew from Florida to see Decker off.
Stride met Decker a few years ago when she was coming into Fort Pierce. Being a sailor herself, she caught a line for Decker to help get her tied to the dock.
“She’d been out for a while and asked what I could do for her and she said: ‘I need a burger, a beer and a shower,'” Strider recalled.
They’ve been friends ever since.
“I know she can do this. She’s ready for it,” Stride said. “I’m excited that she finally gets to live her dream.”