Portrait of a Cruiser: Lisa Dorenfest

Circumnavigator Lisa Dorenfest had always wanted to escape to sea, but the time never seemed quite right. Surviving cancer threw life into perspective and encouraged her to complete her sailing dream.

Published 5 years ago

lisa and captain fabio standing on the deck of the boat holding the courtesy flags of all the countries they have sailed to
Lisa and Captain Fabio – (c) Pete DeMarco

Name of Crew: Lisa Dorenfest

Nationality: USA

Boat Name: SY Amandla

Boat Type/Model and Size: Beneteau Oceanis 473 Clipper Sailing Monohull – launched May 2002

Your Home Port: New York City

Blog: One Ocean At A Time – https://lisadorenfest.com

How did you start cruising?

Truth be told, I’ve always been drawn to water, from my youth growing up on Lake Michigan to my travels along the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I started taking sailing lessons in my early adulthood, but something ‘more important’ always diverted my attention away from sailing (e.g. work, more work, relationships, shiny silver things, etc). It wasn’t until the last dream I was living (moving to New York City and establishing a career) had long since become a reality and had left me feeling stuck, that I began craving a new adventure.

I seriously began considering the possibility of a global circumnavigation in 2008. I had been chartering sailboats with a childhood friend, Mary Davenport Cook who was ‘living her bucket list’ after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Mary taught me to enjoy the moments and pursue a dream while I was able.

At first, I was too fearful to follow my dream. I thought I would jeopardize the career that I loved and had taken so long to build and that I could not afford to undertake such an adventure. It was only when the fear of not following my dream became greater than all of my other fears that I decided to lift anchor.

In 2011, I resigned my position (and was subsequently offered an 8-month leave of absence) to earn my RYA Yachtmaster Offshore certification and cross the Atlantic Ocean as Watch Leader aboard SY Milanto in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). I returned to work in 2012 to successfully deliver the biggest project of my career while simultaneously undergoing treatment for breast cancer. That health scare encouraged me to complete my sailing dream sooner rather than later.

aerial photo of the reef pass with breaking waves, a small motu and 2 yachts entering in to the calm blue waters of the lagoon
Maupitii Pass in Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Describe what sort of cruiser you are:

In 2013, I started my second ‘sailbatical’ to cross the Pacific Ocean with a handsome Captain (now partner) aboard SY Amandla.

What type of cruising are you doing currently?

When I set out in 2013, my plan was to transit from Florida to New Zealand in one year and then return to work. One year became two, one ocean became three and in March of 2019, I rounded my 360th degree of longitude.

I am currently sailing in The Caribbean with plans to cross my outbound wake in Panama this year to complete my first sailing circumnavigation.

What other boats have you crewed on?

Prior to Amandla, I crewed on several J-Boats, a Kaufman 47 (Quetzal), several Westerlies and Sigmas, and a 46 foot Swan (Milanto).

yacht at anchor in crystal clear water with a reef in the foreground and a rock shaped like a heart
Amandla in paradise

What were the key reasons you selected your current boat?

I joined Amandla because I knew Captain Fabio to be a very capable sailor, the boat was sound, and it was headed in my direction. And like me, he is also a cancer survivor.

What changes have been made to your current boat while circumnavigating?

Change is the only constant out here on the high-seas. Since I have joined Amandla, Captain Fabio has replaced the water-maker, anchor windlass, anchor chain, autopilots and navigation system (due to an indirect lightning strike), the standing and running rigging, the mainsail and the life raft. He has also added more solar panels, a second furling jib (which we LOVE), a second (smaller) dinghy engine for short hops, and a second, external cooler/freezer.

Most useful equipment fitted, and reasons for this choice:

My answer may make some sailors wince; the engine.

Ours is a Yanmar with 8000 hours and she’s never let us down. This system eases our experience when powering through rough, confused seas and navigating tricky passes not to mention anchoring, docking and traveling across long, notoriously windless stretches.

three smiling local girls dressed in national dress with reed headresses decorated with shells and white bikinis decorated with shells
Gambier Islands, French Polynesia

Equipment regrets, or things you would do differently:

No regrets …but a washing machine would be really nice.

List the countries you have cruised:

The following are a list of countries where I have anchored but excludes those where I’ve traveled inland from a boat:

Australia, Bahamas, BIOT (Chagos), Bonaire, Brazil, Canada, Canary Islands, Colombia, Cook Islands, Curaçao, England, Fiji, France, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Galapagos, Grenada, Guernsey, Hawaiian Islands, Indonesia, Jamaica, Madagascar, Madeira, Malaysia, The Maldives, Mayotte, Mexico (Atlantic side), Mozambique, Namibia, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Panama, Poland, Saint Helen, Saint Lucia, Samoa, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga, East Coast United States.

Future cruising plans:

I am super excited about our upcoming destinations. From Colombia we will visit the San Blas, then cross the Panama Canal from Shelter Bay once again, heading onward to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico via Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

sailing into the sunset with full sails on the starboard side
Westward Ho! Crossing the Pacific Ocean – between Fiji and Australia

List the oceans/seas you have crossed:

The North Atlantic, The South Pacific (including a Tahiti > Hawaii > Tahiti loop), The Indian Ocean, and The South Atlantic

Approximate sea miles: 52,071.2 nautical miles and counting

Scariest day on the water:

En route from Gambier to The Marquesas when we knowingly left in bad weather to accommodate guests. We’ve vowed never to do that again after four days sailing in storm-force winds followed by the head shackle breaking and the genoa sail falling into the sea when we finally unfurled it on day five.

Best cruising moment:

Every one of them. It is always a good day when I am on the water.

Favorite cruising area and why:

Nosy Be, Madagascar. Culturally rich. Favorable winds. Comfortable anchorages. Amazing wildlife. Visually pleasing. Affordable.

local sailing canoe with several local boys all loooking very happy on board
Madagascar Smiles

Favorite anchorage:

Baie des Vierge, Fatu Hiva, Marquesas in French Polynesia …it was like sailing into Peter Pan’s Neverland.

lisa standing on the bow of the boat heading for sydney bridge with the opera house to port
Sailing into Sydney Harbour

Favorite cruising apps:

Navigation – OpenCPN, Navionics for iPad
Weather – Windy, MailASail
Position Reporting – Farkwar

Favorite cruising websites:

The sites that have shaped my sailing journey can be found here.

Favorite cruising books:

Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes and Peter Nichols Voyage for Madmen.

blue water and blue sky with light wispy clouds in the maldives
Maldives Blues

What advice or message would you want to pass on to anyone new to cruising or thinking about casting off the dock lines?

You have to really want to be here. It is not always unicorns and rainbows; sometimes it can be a real nightmare. As the old adage goes ‘cruising means fixing boats in exotic places’. The list of repairs can seem endless. And given the tight quarters and lack of alone time, a year’s partnership at sea is equivalent to a 10 years partnership on-land.

But even in my darkest moments, I always ‘re-choose’ this life, to complete my dream of circumnavigating the world under sail. And now with only a few hundred nautical miles remaining until I achieve that goal, I find myself planning a ‘victory lap’; so many places that I long to return to and so many new ones to visit.

At its worst, the cruising life is better than sitting around wishing I was living my dream to sail. And at its best, there is nothing comparable.

The boat will never be perfect enough, your knowledge will never be deep enough, the time just never seems quite right…but it is. Cruisers should be most worried about never leaving the dock. Throw-off the bowlines… you’ll be glad you did.

local boys in a very simple canoe smiling and playing
Bari welcome

Why cruise? In a few sentences, what is it that inspires you to keep cruising?

I feel a meditative sense of calm and connectedness while on passage. Time stops. Life is clarified. Everything seems to make sense. I enjoy traveling and taking in the great outdoors in the comfort of my sailing home and welcome the simplicity of sailing, needing only to take along the essentials, leaving everything superfluous behind.

Any other comments:

As circumnavigating cancer survivors, Captain Fabio and I have become medical tourism pros! Don’t hesitate to ask me about sailing with cancer or having medical checks/receiving treatment abroad.

Lisa Dorenfest
SY Amandla

If you think you have an interesting story to tell and would like to take part in our Portrait of a Cruiser series, please contact Sue at [email protected] for a questionnaire.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Noonsite.com or World Cruising Club.

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  1. October 31, 2019 at 3:29 AM
    smckinnon says:

    Thank you for your wonderful and insightful comments.

    1. December 12, 2019 at 6:03 PM
      ldorenfest says:

      So pleased that you enjoyed the post, Sheila. Thank you for your kind feedback. Ahoy from San Carlos, Panama.


  2. October 2, 2019 at 10:24 AM
    paul-donnerup says:

    Hello Lisa and Fabio.
    Great article and writing, as well as your – as always – wonderful photos.
    Thanks for all the great time we have spend together in SE Asia, Indian Ocean and South Atlantic.
    On my side I should achieve my circumnavigation in November 2019 as I return to S/Y New Dawn in Brazil by end October will will sail to the Caribbean with a stop in Devil’s Island.
    Enjoy San Blast and Panama and onwards.
    Best regards.

    1. October 6, 2019 at 1:35 PM
      ldorenfest says:

      Ahoy from Colombia Paul! Thank you so much for all the love on this post and for being a part of the adventure. We are delighted to hear that you will be underway again soon and your first circumnavigation is within sight. I hope you enjoy Devil’s Island as much as we did. Let us know how you find it.

      Fair Winds,
      Lisa and Captain Fabio

  3. October 1, 2019 at 10:36 AM
    glider says:

    I read your article and its very inspiring, thank you. I would like to be where you are but I’m worried about money. If you have time it would be a blessing. Good luck an I promise only a few questions. TYVM.

    1. October 1, 2019 at 12:32 PM
      ldorenfest says:

      Hi Joe,

      Delighted that you enjoyed the article. Happy to answer your questions. Drop me a line at https://lisadorenfest.com/contact-me/


  4. September 15, 2019 at 8:57 PM
    Ventanarama says:

    Great Lisa. let me know when you get to Shelter Bay and we will have dinner again.
    Stay Safe
    Following Seas
    See you soon

    1. September 27, 2019 at 12:25 AM
      ldorenfest says:

      ?Looking forward to it! Should be there early November. ⛵️

  5. September 14, 2019 at 7:10 AM
    beluga says:

    So enjoyed reading your blog particularly your South African travels and photos. We met in Cape Town just before we started our 2nd cruising adventure across the Atlantic to the Med. Happy sailing from Lucinda on SY Beluga

    1. September 27, 2019 at 12:29 AM
      ldorenfest says:

      ?Ahoy from Colombia! Thank you so much for reading the blog and for being part of the journey. I look forward to sharing an anchorage/dock with you again somewhere in our future!