All About the Benjamin's... And Their New Boat

Michael and Ronna Benjamin, Owners of EXODUS
Michael and Ronna Benjamin, Owners of EXODUS

By Herb McCormick

Jan 25, 2023

By: Herb McCormick

At first glance, the legendary reggae recording-artist Bob Marley and the great American novelist Leon Uris had little in common, the former being a Rastafarian from Kingston, Jamaica, and the latter a bestselling Jewish author from Baltimore, Maryland. Upon closer review, however, Marley and Uris shared a fleeting though relevant, important connection. Marley’s most influential album, a critical and commercial success that propelled him to international stardom; and what’s recognized as Uris’s best book (which also became a feature film starring Paul Newman), which chronicles the founding of the state of Israel, both shared the same name: Exodus.

Now, we can add seasoned cruising sailors Mike and Ronna Benjamin, retired lawyers from Boston, Massachusetts, to this distinguished, accomplished grouping. For the Benjamins’ have now owned a pair of Hylas Yachts—a 49-footer on which they lived aboard and sailed full time from 2017 to 2021, and a brand-spanking-new Hylas 57 that they’re scheduled to commission this month in Miami, Florida—each of which have been called, yes, Exodus.

“We’re Jewish and The Book of Exodus in the Old Testament was about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, going out and seeking their new home,” said Mike. “And that great Paul Newman movie was about a ship called Exodus that carried the Jews from Europe. Both stories are about perseverance. And then there’s that wonderful Bob Marley song and album that we play all the time. The name just means a lot to us on a lot of levels.”

When the Benjamins sold their 49-foot Exodus, in the sales agreement they stipulated that the boat’s name be changed by the new owners. “And when we bought the new boat, we decided to just go with Exodus again,” Mike said. “No Exodus II.” Pretty fitting: the couple’s next exodus will be aboard their new Exodus, period. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

A lifelong waterman, Mike began sailing at the tender age of five, first on his grandfather’s steel ketch, then in summer-camp sessions in Maine, and later aboard his own 420 racing dinghy in Boston Harbor as he became a proficient and successful racing sailor. He said, “I just took to it early on and became relatively good at it compared to my peers. And, you know, when you're good at something, you tend to stick with it and excel at it.”

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Meanwhile, Ronna was also getting into the racing scene with her older brothers out of the Hull Yacht Club in Massachusetts. She was less, shall we say, enamored of the pursuit than her future husband. “It wasn't always a great experience, there was a lot of pressure,” she laughed. “I’m pretty done with racing. I love sailing, but for me it’s about the lifestyle.”

Fatefully, the couple’s paths crossed at Boston College Law School, where they both matriculated, and it wasn’t long before they decided they were in for the long haul together. “We got engaged on the eve of our graduation night,” said Mike. “She showed up the next morning with a ring on her finger.” Ronna concurred, saying, “I got both the ring and my degree at the same time. I was a double winner!”

Right from the outset, sailing was a big part of their lives. The worked and lived in downtown Boston, where Ronna’s father kept a succession of cruising sailboats at a marina in the heart of the city, first a Tartan and later a couple of different Bristol yachts. Many a weekday night they hopped aboard after work for a twilight sail, and on weekends cruised north to Marblehead and along the North Shore. “We essentially treated them like they were our own boats,” said Mike. It was the best of both worlds: all the benefits of boat ownership with few of the costs!

But that was only a part of their ever-expanding sailing journey. As they built their careers, and launched their growing family, from 1991 to 2011 they chartered over a dozen sailboats literally all over the world: Thailand, the Bahamas, New England, the Caribbean, Southern France, Greece, just about everywhere. Little by little, they were accruing the skills sailors required to become blue-water sailors. 

And then, in 2011, with their three kids moving on with their lives and, as Mike said, “off the payroll,” they made a life-changing decision. “I called Dick Jachney up in Marblehead,” Mike continued, recalling his first meeting with the late yacht broker who at the time was synonymous with the Hylas brand. “I asked him if there were any good Hylas’s on the market, and of course he sold me on building a new one. And that was the first Exodus, hull number 65 of the Hylas 49 line. Of course, we knew a fraction of what we know now. But it was comforting having hull 65, as we knew they’d already built that many of them.”

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Several years later, after getting to know the boat through many shake-down New England cruises, the Benjamin’s made a radical decision. A talented writer, Ronna described it in the opening paragraphs of a story she wrote for AARP magazine in 2019. It started like this:

“If we had told our three adult children we were traveling to Papua New Guinea for birdwatching, or that we were making a pilgrimage to India to hone our yoga practice, they would have thought we had lost our minds. But they were not surprised when we told them we were selling our family home and all our possessions, and moving onto our 49-foot sailboat to explore the world. They simply wondered what had taken us so long.”

And thus, a new chapter in the pair’s sailing odyssey set forth. 

It wasn’t always easy. In fact, the Benjamin’s first offshore passage, an 11-day, 1,200 nautical-mile voyage from Virginia to Antigua on a November rally organized by the Salty Dawg group, might’ve turned off a less determined couple once and for all. The freezer with all their fresh food crapped out almost at the outset. The autopilot only worked intermittently. And then, a hundred miles out, the rudder failed, and they steered into the islands with the emergency tiller. Yes, more than a few cruisers, after such an ordeal, would’ve have called it a day.

In Antigua, however, a chance meeting with, of all people, Prince Charles, led to what Ronna wrote was “an attitude adjustment.” The Prince, on a tour of the docks at English Harbour, peppered Mike with questions about his rudder repair, and suddenly they saw their difficult trip south in a completely different light. “Despite hardships and frustration, this was going to be a life of adventure,” she said.

“We embraced the cruising life,” she continued. “The warm, gin-clear waters, the dolphins, turtles and reef fish… Most importantly, we embraced a sailing community that looks after each other like no other. We embraced new friends from all over the world. We help each other fix engines, rigging, and computer and electrical problems. We provide tools and spare parts. And we provide each other with emotional support. We sing, laugh and drink. Boy, do we drink.”

The next leg of the trip, on a 40-boat cruise in company called the OCC Suzie Too Rally, proved to be as magical as the initial voyage had been arduous. On a magical cruise along the coast of Colombia, the San Blas Islands, Panama, the islands off Honduras and Nicaragua, and Belize, Exodus found her groove. 

All of which, eventually, led to the commissioning of their new Hylas 57. Mike admits he looked at some other brands, including Oysters and Hallberg-Rassys. “But ultimately,” he said, “I trusted the Hylas people to build the boat right. And with their willingness to incorporate the extra things I wanted on the boat, hands down Hylas was the way to go."

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Which brings us to one last question: Which way will you go on that new Hylas? Mike laughed and said, “Well, plans are written in sand at low tide.” And Ronna admits that with a new grandchild in the picture, her appetite for open-ended adventuring is being tested. All that said, there’s a shakedown sail to the Bahamas in the very near future, and perhaps a summer rally north to the Canadian Maritimes. 

“And the first ‘bucket list’ trip we have planned is going to be an Atlantic Circle,” Mike said. “The loop to the Azores and Europe, then down to the Canaries, on to the Cape Verde Islands and then back to the Caribbean. With our new, bigger boat, it will be a quicker trip than it would’ve been on the 49. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Sounds just about perfect. Let the next Exodus begin.

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