Ray and Valerie Russenberger and their 75-foot Fleming motor yacht Valkyrie stretch the definition of downsizing.
But the boat fits the couple. Like them it’s generous, expansive, even opulent, but also authentically welcoming and cozy – an unpretentious place to sit back and tap your feet to the music. Because there is always music. Val sings. No vocal slouch himself, Ray also plays several instruments, including banjo and keyboards. If you’re on hand, plan to join the band; you won’t be given a choice. Like the title of their 2011 CD says, “SING or SWIM: Songs for a Captive Audience.”
The Russenberger’s 2003 Fleming bucks the trend in what had been a line of successively bigger boats, the last being Lady Val, a 128-foot Northcoast. The couple felt cut off from mainstream fun, in part because of a misperception that folks on hundred-foot yachts are snooty types who already have enough friends.
“Nobody would talk to us,” says Val. “So we’d lie about what boat we were on or put on our boat t-shirts and tell people we were part of the crew.”
The easier-to-handle Fleming enables the couple to run the boat by themselves or more often with another couple, such as dear friends Nancy and Doug Halford of North Carolina. While they still take on crew for various passages, it’s not a necessity.
“With Lady Val we needed four full-time crew,” says Val. “They were great young people, but it was like living with your grown-up kids full time.”
Not, she says, laughing, that there’s anything wrong with grown-up kids (Rhett, Rachel, Lauren, Stephanie and Sara Beth) or their 10 (so far) grandchildren.
“I married six people,” says Val, giving credit to Ray’s former wife Cindy for doing her part to nurture a harmonious family blend.
And then there are the four-legged kids, poodles Lady, 15, Val’s late mother’s beloved companion; Banjo, 9; and Lucy, a 5-month-old bundle of energy. “We wanted to name her Mandolin, or something that would stay with the musical theme,” says Val. “But look at her, she’s a crazy, funny little redhead. Lucy fit.”
“We Love Lucy” adventures were amusing the Marathon community and keeping her humans hopping as the fearless pup expanded her territory. Nancy found her sitting in one of the scuppers, examining the water down below. When Ray carted Lucy to the groomer he found the carrier empty when he got there. Luckily a concerned citizen had corralled the diminutive adventurer, who like her brother and sister is micro-chipped for tracking purposes.
Valkyrie, a name that evokes mythic Nordic images of brave, blond, buxom warrior maidens astride their flying horses pays homage to Val’s pilot call letters as well as the couple’s home base, Pensacola, Florida and its legendary flight history.
True story: “I wanted to name the boat Double-Wide and she wouldn’t let me,” jokes Ray, saying it would better reflect their down-home sensibilities. Val was raised in Mississippi and Tennessee. Ray, a smooth Charlie Rich-Merle Haggard hybrid crossed with the eternal country-cool of Waylon Jennings, hails from Arkansas.
They’ve been making beautiful music together since the day they met. “I was in a play when we started dating,” remembers Val. “There was a grand piano in the lobby-lounge of the Crowne Plaza Pensacola Grand Hotel downtown. I’d have a glass of champagne, he’d have a beer and a shot of Wild Turkey and we’d do a few numbers …that was our favorite date.”
As a 2011 anniversary present Ray contacted renowned music producer Larry Butler of Nashville, surprising Val with a recording studio session to lay down tracks for a CD. She insisted Ray be a part of the project. “I sing well, but music is in his bones. He’s got a distinctive voice.”
Ray plays banjo and guitar as well as keyboards. Humble protestations aside, Val’s perfect pitch, rich tone and strong projection are well-honed from years center stage in Pensacola Little Theater music productions. Picture Dolly Parton’s sweet sass combined with tiny Kristin Chenoweth’s ability to belt out a Broadway tune. Like Ray she began performing at a young age. The Russenbergers draw an appreciative audience of boaters at the Marathon City Marina Tiki Hut, where cruisers traditionally gather every Saturday night for a three-to-four hour collaborative concert moderated by long-time Boot Key Harbor mooring field resident Randy Turner. The talented Turner, a walking discography specializing in Top 20 pop hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s, says having the couple in the harbor takes the impromptu jam sessions to new heights. “They’re super talented. And they’re just the nicest people,” he says.
On any given night Ray and Val’s song list could include anything from “Making Whoopee” to “Ode to Billy Joe.”
“We don’t do one genre, we’re all over the place,” says Val. They also obligingly provide back-up for other aspiring performers. “You never know who’s going to show up,” says Randy.
The yearning for real connection draws Ray and Val to other boating destinations where bridges are being built using the universal language of music.
“Georgetown is very much like here (Marathon),” says Val. “But everyone is anchored out.” Like Marathon there are regular jam nights and frequent opportunities for smaller more informal gatherings. Valkyrie’s salon doubles as a rehearsal and performance space when the weather isn’t suitable for outdoor jams. They also appreciate escapes to more remote locales.
“We enjoy Georgetown, but love all the Exumas, and the Family Islands, Long Island being a favorite,” Val says. “Staniel Cay is wonderful, and the diving at Cape Eleuthera was simply beautiful. I can’t pick a favorite, they’re all so wonderful. I would really like to return to the Abacos, too.”
The couple’s cruising recommendations in that region also include Cat Island off the southern point of Eleuthera, and the Jumentos.
Their latest cruising grounds closer to the Caribbean are a switch-up from several years exploring Mexican waters. The advantages, as they see it, are easier travel with fewer bureaucratic restrictions, gin-clear waters and the ability to be anchored out rather than confined to marinas.
“We have traveled in Mexico, too, and love the food, the people, the diving, etc. Isla Mujeres is perfect for a week or a month. All of the marinas on the Gulf side were great, Puerto Morelos and Puerto Aventuras were fun and the service was excellent. The only drawback we found there was the shortage of protected anchorages. In the Bahamas, you can drop a hook so many places and be in the lee, not so the places we traveled in Mexico. You really must be in a marina most of the time, Isla Mujeres being the exception, lots of great anchorages there,” says Val.
One of the roughest passages in recent history was the homebound leg back to the states in 2012, says Nancy. “We took eight-to-10s all the way back from Mexico,” she says, noting that the Fleming’s oft-noted stability was fully validated. The ride was challenging for the humans but nothing Valkyrie couldn’t handle.
In recent years Nancy and Doug have paralleled Valkyrie’s path from ashore in their RV, strategically positioning their land rig to join in passage-making from Pensacola to points south, including several weeks in Marathon.
The Russenbergers treasure Marathon for its skilled marine workforce as well as music-making opportunities. The schedule for their extended stay on the wall at Marathon City Marina typically includes bright-work varnishing and other periodic cleaning and maintenance, although Ray prefers to work on the engines himself.
While Valkyrie’s props evaded the thousands of crab traps scattered like a lunatic mine field in Florida Bay during fall-to- spring stone crab season, it turns out that stabilizers are very good catchers. “We were trailing a few when we came in,” he says. Removing wrapped ropes and other detritus keeps the harbor’s commercial divers in business, along with scraping marine growth from boat bottoms, a four-to-six week necessity in the partially land-locked harbor. Boot Key Harbor is as attractive to barnacles as it is to the boaters who quickly fill up the 260-ball mooring field during high season, necessitating a waiting list. While the city marina lacks the fanciest amenities in town, it’s definitely at the heart of the community. And that’s where the Russenbergers want to be.
“We heard about Marathon, that they had a great community accessible by bike,” says Val.
In addition to Lady Val, the couple’s previous boats include a 60-foot Blue Water whose biggest advantage was a 23-inch draft; a 1094 71-foot Ocean Alexander; a 77-foot Hatteras Walkaround; and a 110-foot Broward.
“We went up and up and up then scaled back a bit without scrimping on luxuries,” Val explains, during a grand tour dockside at Marathon City Marina. Valkyrie’s too big to be on a Boot Key Harbor mooring ball, where 45-foot is the largest size vessel that can be accommodated. There’s little privacy at the public marina; the privacy of remote anchorages will offset the bustle in due time. For now, Val and Ray cheerfully return the stream of greetings, chatting with passing cruisers and stowing laptops or other precious cargo for friends from the mooring field needing a safe stash spot while running errands ashore.
Valkyrie seems to bask in the appreciative attention. The Fleming 75 model, redesigned and reappearing a decade later as the Fleming 78, made its debut in 2000. The Taiwan-built line that’s the brainchild of aeronautical engineer and former American Marine Technical Director Tony Fleming originated with a 50-foot model in 1986.
Tony Fleming’s intention to design “a pilothouse boat,” is readily apparent in Valkyrie’s self-contained command center, complete with head and generous banquette, while providing stable access to the adjacent galley, salon and cabins.
In addition to the sumptuous master suite, there’s a VIP stateroom forward, a port guest cabin with en suite head and crew’s quarters aft, featuring two comfy berths with an adjacent head – that makes a total of 4.5 restroom facilities, if you’re counting – just across from the spacious engine room. The pristine engine room offers outstanding access to every possible operating system. And it’s all under video surveillance from the pilot house.
Valkyrie’s flybridge carries the full complement of controls along with comfy seating and additional entertaining space.
The protection of the generously proportioned side decks is one of several Fleming features that make these yachts so cruiser-friendly. Tony Fleming envisioned a retired couple being able to easily handle the vessel onshore and off; thoughtful details for safety, accessibility and ease are apparent. Boarding for example, is made easy – perhaps too easy in the case of one tiny, mischievous poodle pup found in the kayak tied at Valkyrie’s stern, apparently waiting for someone to take her for a paddle. Lesson learned: Keep the aft deck transom door closed. A pilot-house level gate offers simplified forward boarding even in areas where pier design or tides would otherwise make getting off and on an acrobatic endeavor.
The semi-displacement hull with full-length keel was designed for top speeds of 16 to18 knots. In a 2007 article Tony Fleming says in reality most owners prefer a 10-to-ll range for comfort and fuel economy. Ray kicks it down a notch from there.
“We run at 8 to 9 knots,” he says, chuckling. “We can go faster but not for very long.” Speaking of hulls, the Fleming’s solid-fiberglass construction was a deal-maker for Ray. He can’t abide “aluminum sounds” and will never go back to metal.
Touches of home: The couple puts out a welcome mat that’s reminiscent of their well-known Pensacola restaurant.
When they’re not practicing or performing, the Russenbergers routinely delve into water sports, paddle boarding, kayaking and deploying the runabout for fishing as well as leisurely toodling around the harbor. The avid divers are all in for the quest to stem the lionfish invasion. “They reach sexual maturity at six months,” Val notes. “Ray loves to fish and we try to do our part for the reefs. I kill every lionfish I see. You have to be careful handling them, you have to wear gloves, but they’re a nice, light, white fish that tastes like snapper.”
A vibrant lifestyle carried ashore includes biking, stints on the onboard treadmill or in Val’s case, practicing Yoga with fellow cruisers. Ray, who first made his mark in the communications field, today specializes in entrepreneurial development that includes the Palafox Pier and Bahia Mar marinas as well as the Oar House restaurant. He remains active in company operations. “We have terrific people running the business when we are gone,” says Val. “Technology allows us to stay connected, too, with the business and the kids.”
When land travel is required, you’re more apt to find the Russenbergers flying the friendly skies than hitting the highway. Ray was first to earn his wings.
“I got my license to be comfortable as a passenger,” Val explains, proudly showing her blinged-out pilot’s wings, a congratulatory gift from Ray. “I thought, what if he’s incapacitated and needs me to land the plane?” Now she revels in the freedom and fun of it and has even contemplated participating in women’s competitive cross-country flying competitions. She confidently flew solo from the Keys to Pensacola when home duties called.
For their 20th wedding anniversary in August 2014 the Russenbergers let professionals handle all the transport duties, heading to Santorini, Greece as well as Tuscany and Sicily, Italy. The romantic celebration put a crimp in Val’s theater schedule. But there’s no doubt the harbors will be alive with music wherever this melodious pair chooses to travel.
Valkyrie by the numbers
LOA 75’ not including platforms
Displacement 165,000 lbs.
Fuel capacity 3,000 gallons
Water 500 gallons
Twin 3412 Caterpillar 1400 diesel engines
Writer and editor Cyndi Perkins collects fun-to-tell boat stories while cruising aboard her 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The two-time America’s Great Circle Loop veteran’s first novel, More Than You Think You Know, was released in summer 2017 by Beating Windward Press. Look for more features on cruising boaters in upcoming blogs.
Dear Readers, Randy Turner has since passed away—I leave his comments in this piece as an homage, with deep gratitude to those wonderful musical nights hosted by the Barnacles in Marathon. I’m sending prayers and much love to a recovering Boot Key Harbor in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricane.