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The name of the boat said it all—Well Deserved. And it was.
Standing on the deck of their 55-foot yacht, taking in deep breaths of the salty sea breeze brushing their skin, Thomas Hawks and his wife, Jackie, knew life didn’t get any better than this.
They weren’t rich. He was a retired probation officer. She was a stay-at-home mom. But they scrimped, they saved, they invested. And they retired early. By the time they sold their Prescott, Arizona home, they had earned enough to fulfill a lifelong dream—live life on the ocean blue. They fought hard to get there. And it was well deserved.
“We have been told that God doesn’t count time on the water towards your lifespan,” Thomas said of his life at sea, “so I’m sure Jackie and I have many more cruising years ahead of us.”
But even when life’s rewards are earned, there’s no guarantee fate won’t turn against you. Even the best of luck can go bad. Even the brightest fortune can be washed away by storms. Even the most promising horizon, appearing so blindingly brilliant, can be hiding the dark squall gaining strength just beyond your sight.
And so, there’s no way Tom and Jackie could know what lay ahead for them. The past two years had been so good. The couple spent their days traveling up the Mexican coast—Puerto Vallarta, San Carlos, La Paz, Guadalajara. If a patch of beach looked appealing, they simply stopped and dropped anchor. Sometimes their wanderlust brought them to the tiniest Mexican fishing villages, ones so small, locals didn’t bother naming them. But Thomas and Jackie had the kind of easygoing, fun-loving presence that never left them strangers in a strange town for long. They made fast friends and typically found themselves mingling with the locals, sharing their fish, indulging in a few beers. How long they stayed at each spot could depend on the flip of a coin.
“Do we leave today or stay another night?” Thomas might ask Jackie. “Or maybe we’ll just flip for it.”
Tom couldn’t imagine having spent the past twenty-four months doing anything else—though he had come dangerously close to postponing it all.
After nearly two decades of service as a probation officer for Yavapai County, Arizona, 56-year-old Tom was itching to start his new life at sea.
Shortly after turning in his notice to retire, bosses at the Yavapai County Probation Department weren’t ready to let Tom go. He had worked for two decades as a probation officer and it would be hard to find someone who would work as hard as Tom did.
Or care as much.
Twice a year he organized a ten-kilometer run to raise money for the sheriff’s office’s D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. As a volunteer Search and Rescue officer, he scoured his county’s rugged backlands in search of lost hikers. And he rode with the sheriff’s Jeep Posse, where he’d once helped comb the woods of Prescott for a little deaf boy who’d gotten himself lost. The team ultimately found him, scared but healthy, hiding beneath a clump of bushes.
He was the kind of guy even the probationers on his case load looked up to.
“The way my dad looked at it,” Ryan Hawks said of his dad’s job, “he thought he was helping someone who went down the wrong path in life get back on the right path. He thought this was his way of giving back to his community.”
One probationer, an artist, in thanks for all the guidance Tom provided, presented him with a portrait—of Tom himself, an avid bodybuilder, lifting weights. “That’s how much these guys loved him,” Ryan said. “They always wanted to give him things to show how much they appreciated his help.”
Desperate to keep Tom on the job a little longer, the county offered him another $500 a month on his retirement pay if he’d put in one more year. Initially, Tom said yes. Even though he’d already sold his home. Even though he’d already bought the Well Deserved. He said yes.
Then a close friend, Judge Robert Kuebler, the man who’d married Tom and Jackie so many years before, retired at age 53. He’d been a judge and educator for better than thirty years. Three months later, the father of five was vacationing in Deer Valley with his wife and one of their sons when his car careened out of control. His wife and son were airlifted to the nearest ER, and survived. Robert did not.
Tom took the news hard. Thirty days later, in August 2001, he put in his notice once again. And this time, he meant it.
“You know what,” he told Jackie. “Life’s too short. Let’s go.”
Later, Tom would write about his decision in a nautical magazine, explaining, “The sea was calling us and we couldn’t wait any longer. Life is just too short to put things off, and one cannot discover new oceans unless they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Jackie was overjoyed. The 47-year-old homemaker was Tom’s second wife, but they had already spent twelve blissful years of marriage together. She had overcome her own challenges in life, too—like beating a brush with death over fifteen years ago, before she’d ever met Tom. She’d gone on to lead a happy life, finding joy in the simple tasks of keeping a tidy home for herself and her husband. And she doted on Tom’s sons from a previous marriage, Ryan and Matt, whom she’d helped raise. Though she was only their stepmother, they grew to love her so, they simply called her “Mom.”
But Tom was her best friend, and she couldn’t wait to spend days at sea with him. She dreamed of weeks with nothing more stressful on their minds than catching their dinner—until they could become so unaffected by time, they wouldn’t know if it was Tuesday or Saturday.
“Every day’s a weekend for me,” Tom liked to joke to his sons, especially when the boys complained about work deadlines, early morning meetings, and unreasonable bosses.
But as good as life at sea was for Tom and Jackie, something changed in the winter of 2004. Young Matt Hawks, an Arizona firefighter, and his fiancée had just had their first baby, a boy named Jace. And suddenly, Jackie longed for something more than her carefree, nomadic life at sea. She wanted to watch her first grandchild grow up. Tom, a fiercely loyal family man, couldn’t argue with that.
So the Well Deserved went up for sale. The plan was to buy a house their grandbaby could visit, probably in the Mexican resort town of San Carlos, along the Sea of Cortez—a spot where abundant sea life and mild temperatures made it ideal for cruising any time of the year. Of course, they’d pick up a smaller boat, so whenever the urge hit, they could take excursions up the Mexican Gulf.
In November 2004, Tom placed an ad in Yachting World magazine:
1980 LIEN HWA TRAWLER
55' ×15'8''. 1350 fuel, outstanding condition, cruise ready,
everything imaginable. $435,000. Moored in Newport Beach, CA. By owner.
The ad had been running several days before they got a call from a prospective buyer. His name was Skylar Deleon.
Copyright © 2008 by Tina Dirmann. All rights reserved.