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Because Williamsburg Is About to Float Away

In early August, an odd flyer appeared in a Greenpoint deli: “Brooklyn Sea Captain seeking crew!” The captain was a longtime Brooklyn contractor — “40+ years” — looking for a cook, a mechanic, and an aquaponics gardener, among others, to fill out a 12-person crew of trustworthy, hard working, and “mentally stable” individuals. The boat was a 158-foot wooden tall ship called The Peacemaker, which would follow an itinerary from Florida to Panama, through the Canal, on to Australia, across the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, then back to New York. The trip would take two years.

“So, it sounds like you might want to go sailing around the world?” Van Vollmer, the captain, said one recent afternoon. Vollmer, who is 86, was talking on the phone to one of the 200 or so people who have applied to join his crew. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said, leafing through a pile of email applications he had printed out. “This is all a little overwhelming.” He was inside a shuttered Williamsburg sushi restaurant where he currently lives with the first person to join his crew: Carl, his twin brother. “We moved everything we own into this room,” Van said, seated at one of two booths he and Carl had converted to desks. Both Vollmers are semi-retired contractors, and the owner of the sushi restaurant, which the Vollmers had renovated, had offered it as a temporary residence — Van sleeps on a mattress in the dining room, Carl on a cot by the host’s table — until the brothers moved to The Peacemaker, which they hoped would be their final home. The flyer did not mention that the Vollmers plan to sail around the world, over and over, until they die. At that point, the crew will have one final duty: toss Van and Carl Vollmer into the sea.

“Now, what type of person would want to do something like this?” Van said at the sushi restaurant, wearing baggy jeans, tan boat shoes with white socks, and a gray sweatshirt featuring a red V, for Vollmer, on the front. He was surrounded by stacks of vitamin bottles, an open box of pecan shortbread cookies, and an alarm clock blinking “12:06,” despite the fact that it was late afternoon. “I’m not in tune with the Millenniums,” Vollmer said, his white hair shooting in constantly shifting directions as he turned off the radio, which was playing Rush Limbaugh. The applicants tended to be younger, and male, and included an event planner, a barber, a graphic designer, an app developer, a couple personal trainers, two members of the French Foreign Legion, and a number of married couples. None smoked, which surprised Van, and all had Gmail addresses, which confused him.

Raised in Greenwich, the Vollmers started sailing when they were 7. Van went to Korea with the Navy at 19, got married, and started a financial newspaper in Indiana. The paper collapsed, and so did the marriage; in the late ‘70s, he moved to New York, where Carl lived. They have lived together in Williamsburg and Greenpoint more or less ever since.

The Vollmers’ plan to spend their final years at sea, rather than in a retirement home, had its origins in 2013, when Van says that a wealthy friend called him to say he was planning to buy a boat and sail around the world. Might Van serve as captain? Vollmer spent two years considering ships from Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, and eventually Key West, where he found The Peacemaker, a 158-foot boat owned by a Christian sect called the Twelve Tribes. The Tribes had used it as a missionary tool, but the group’s younger members had lost interest in sailing, and they offered it to Vollmer for $3 million. Vollmer’s friend said the money would be no problem.

The Vollmers had hoped to set sail on August 31 — their 86th birthday — but three months later they still hadn’t taken possession of The Peacemaker. According to Van, his friend assured him the money would come through any day, and perseverance had paid off for him in the past. After leaving for the Navy, his teenage sweetheart, June Ferguson, married another man. She and Van didn’t see each other for six decades, but in 2008, he drove past her old house in Greenwich and decided to find her. When he finally found her number and gave her a call, it turned out that her husband had died just five weeks earlier. They have talked almost every night since.

June agreed to be the third official member of the crew, after Carl, but only for short spurts, so she could go home to see her family. Van promised June that he would live to 100, which meant more than a decade at sea, if he ever got there. By early December, the money still hadn’t come through, and Vollmer’s hope of spending Christmas Eve in Havana Harbor was slipping away. He still gave the trip a “98 percent” chance of happening and had already selected several crewmates — the French Foreign Legionnaires for security, a lawyer for dealing with maritime law — though many of them were waiting for the ship to actually arrive before fully committing. (The backer said he needed a Venezuelan bond deal to come through to get the cash.) Van rejected the idea of scaling back his ambitions with a smaller boat, or pursuing a different retirement strategy. “I have no backup plan,” he said. “I want to go over the side and swim with the fishes. I won’t know how it feels, but my soul, or whatever is left of me, that part will.”