You might think that watching invasive surgery on a dated fiberglass sailboat week in and week out would be just about the last thing to draw people’s devoted attention. But Matt Steverson, 38, and Janneke Petersen, 36, who are rebuilding the Open 60 Duracell, are proving that assumption wrong. Their YouTube channel, The Duracell Project, has attracted more than 75,000 subscribers since the first episode aired in September of 2021.
Viewers tune in every week to watch the couple discuss cockpit ergonomics, deckhouse dimensions, and interior design ideas, or to witness how Matt, kitted out in Tyvek suit and face mask, cuts out ballast tanks or infuses fiberglass sandwich bulkheads with epoxy resin. Converting a spartan racing yacht into a livable, comfortable, and fleet-footed ocean cruiser means there’s no shortage of loud and dusty projects that involve a Sawzall, only to get finished with fiberglass, PVC core, and industrial-strength adhesives.
The channel’s growth still surprises its creators, whose career choices as boatbuilder and middle school science teacher did not prepare them for showbiz. Their success is attributable to their low-key personalities—what you see on camera is what you get when you meet them in person—and their boat.
Named for the battery maker that sponsored it in is heyday (but is not associated with the refit project), Duracell competed in the inaugural Vendée Globe singlehanded nonstop round-the-world race in 1989/90, and in the 1990/91 BOC Challenge—a similar contest but with stopovers. Mike Plant, the premiere American singlehanded ocean racer of his time, built and campaigned the boat. An admired adventurer and rather a daredevil, Plant remains the only American to have won a singlehanded round-the-world race, as the improbable champ of the smaller 50-foot class in the BOC Challenge 1986/87 on Airco Distributor.
At 60 feet length overall, Duracell was bigger, faster, and more demanding to sail than Airco, but she was no match for the French boats. Still, she elevated Plant to idol status in the Vendée Globe after he sought shelter at Campbell Island off the southern tip of New Zealand to fix a rigging problem. During repairs, the anchor was dragging, forcing Plant to accept outside help to save his vessel, which violated race rules. Consequently, he was disqualified, but he completed the course anyway, receiving an enthusiastic welcome by the French who crowded the finish line in Les Sables-d’Olonne to show their appreciation. Tragically, Plant was lost at sea in 1992 while crossing the Atlantic on Coyote, his next boat after Duracell.
All that notoriety seeps into The Duracell Project, and viewers love it.
“They are a team, sharing the different jobs to bring this YouTube channel to life and entertain and inform people,” observes Matt’s mother, Judy. “He’s the actor, she’s the recorder. I don’t think anybody would know about Matt taking this project on. He would go about it in his backyard, and nobody would know. He’s not going to keep [it] a secret, it’s just that he doesn’t go out and offer information about himself.”
If he’s reluctant to be the center of attention, he has learned to accept that role. “I’ve never seen him so committed, he lives and breathes (restoring Duracell),” Janni says with a laugh. “He has a twinkle in his eye, a bouncy step, and that goofy grin on his face.”
Initially, neither Matt nor Janni had significant sailing experience or plans to become social media stars. Matt grew up on a goat farm in landlocked Idaho, while Janni, the daughter of two sociologists in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, spent part of her youth in Norway. But they conquered their inhibitions, learned the necessary skills, and made it work.
“She’s an opinionated person and has very clear ideas about what she wants and what she doesn’t want to do,” observes Janni’s mother, Mary Visher. “She would never have gone down that path by herself, going for a cruise around the South Pacific. But she was realizing that the boat thing is Matt’s passion.”
And Matt realized that without Janni’s camera and editing work, there’d be no YouTube channel that produces income and sponsorships that enable him work on the boat full-time. Janni still has a side hustle, developing and running a program for local students through the Washington Native Plant Society called Youth Ecology Education Through Restoration, which combines science learning in the classroom with ecosystem restoration.
“I think of myself as an earth restorer, and this is an important part of who I am,” she replies to a question about what will come after the refit. “Once we are sailing Duracell, if we decide to continue the channel, I may find a way to bring that part of myself to [it].”
YouTube or not, Matt will look after the boat, fixing or editing as needed—maybe to accommodate guests for crew training or to make room for a baby crib. For him, it’ll be just like putting together elaborate Lego airplanes as he did at a very young age, entertaining his father, a chemical engineer and his mom, a statistician, with his curiosity and the habit of tearing everything apart to make something new.
In school he showed an aptitude for math and physics and seemed destined for a career as a pilot or flight engineer. But it played out differently.
“[That] college was not for me,” he laughs when recounting his enrollment in an aviation school in North Dakota. But all he needed was a different context and more time. He transferred to Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, a liberal arts school where students can design their own curriculum, which might include sailing. And that’s how Matt found his calling. Learning about explorers and practicing sailing 101 on Resolute, a Luders 44 previously used by the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he found “super fun.”
After graduation, he cruised to Nicaragua where he ran a charter boat for two years. In 2010, Matt moved back to Seattle, working at the fish market, teaching sailing, getting a 50-ton captain’s license, and racing on the local circuit, which also netted him a job as bottom painter at CSR Marine in Ballard. Rotating through the other departments, he proved a quick study and soon struck out on his own, advertising himself as “The Window Guy” fixing leaky portlights, hull windows, and deck hatches, among other things.
He also met Graeme Esary and Al Hughes, two noted Seattle area sailors who became friends and mentors. Together the three of them won the inaugural Race to Alaska in 2015 on a small carbon fiber racing trimaran, which netted them a $10,000 cash prize. As a multiple winner of the singlehanded Transpac on Dogbark, another Open 60 of Duracell’s vintage, Hughes shared a wealth of experience with this type of boat when Esary bought Dogbark and converted it to a family cruiser, thus creating a blueprint for Matt and Janni’s game plan.
“Matt is willing to tackle anything,” says Hughes. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, sure, I can do that’ and figure it out later. Not Matt, he’s honest and he’s not shy to ask questions.” Hughes also sold the couple Louise, a 40-foot sloop that he had designed and built for cruising the Inside Passage. It was the ideal starter drug for Matt and Janni, who wanted to try the cruising lifestyle.
They had met online in 2014 and moved in together on Louise, which they had bought in 2016. Ditching their day jobs and casting off the following year, they ventured south, stopped in San Francisco Bay to get married, and continued to Mexico and beyond, with Janni learning to grow sea legs on long passages and working remotely as a curriculum developer. Meanwhile, Matt did some yacht deliveries and ran a couple of charters in French Polynesia on the side.
“While in Hilo, I helped rebuild one of the traditional Hawaiian voyaging catamarans that was used to train local kids to sail,” he says, adding that on this job he learned much from small-boat designer Chris Morejohn, who later put him in touch with Rodger Martin, Duracell’s designer, a valuable contact for the refit project.
But first things first.
Finding the Boat
Returning from their cruising adventure on Louise, Matt read an online post by John Oman, then the owner of Duracell (renamed Northwest Spirit), looking for a new home and a new purpose for the craft, perhaps as a refit project for day charter or as a shorthanded, fast cruiser. Oman had bought it from Plant after the 1990/91 BOC Challenge to campaign it on the West Coast and for a solo circumnavigation. That adventure ended when he collided with a freighter near the equator and the boat sustained non-catastrophic damage. He made it back to Seattle where the boat had sat on the hard ever since.
“I didn’t have Matt’s skills, or I would have done it myself years ago,” Oman explains. “Nor did I have the resources to hire a professional [for a] commercial refit. With much consternation, I eventually decided the best chance of my seeing this vision for the boat being completed was to give it to Matt and Janni.”
When movers shoehorned the 14-ton boat into the couple’s backyard in Port Townsend, Washington, in June 2021, they had their twofer: the boat they wanted and some potent clickbait with unexpected benefits.
“It’s surprising how many talented people offer their help and how much positive feedback we get,” Janni says.
“I watch lots of YouTube videos of sailing, and it’s marked as an interest, so [that channel] caught my eye—especially because I knew about Mike Plant and Duracell’s origins,” says Evan Gatehouse, a naval architect in Vancouver, British Columbia, who engineered the boat’s new composite chainplates and is providing final stability numbers as the refit progresses.
Then there was Markos Thiraios, a naval architect and engineer practicing in Athens, Greece, who jumped in with some 3D modeling of the new cockpit that features an open transom, seat benches, and twin steering wheels.
“Duracell is legendary and a huge technological milestone in sailing history, hence I was really interested to get involved,” Thiraios says.
Similar reasons brought Randy Neureuter to the table, the chief naval architect at luxury yacht builder Delta Marine in Seattle. Posting on Instagram about refitting White Lightning, his Frers-designed 38-foot IOR one-tonner, he connected with Matt.
“This particular refit captured my attention in a way that others have not,” Neureuter said. “I was familiar with the boat’s history in the Vendée Globe and Mike Plant’s story but had no direct connection with Duracell until I met Matt.” Neureuter helped with engineering the aft bulkhead of the new deckhouse that carries the traveler track, which has to withstand high shock loads, for example in case of a crash jibe.
With Janni shooting videos of Matt cutting, grinding, and gluing, and assisted occasionally by Janni and mom Judy, progress has been good. They acquired a used 80-foot aluminum mast which they’ll shorten to 75 feet. Matt said he hopes to repair the steel and recast the lead in Duracell’s original keel. The boat will be heavier, increasing the righting moment even with a shorter keel and a little less ballast. Next up is the carbon/fiberglass composite bowsprit, then the fiberglass sandwich interior with mahogany trim.
A launch date? “That’s a moving target,” Matt replied with a wry smile. Sadly, John Oman, their benefactor won’t attend as he passed away last winter.
As to the why of it all, Matt said he wanted “a really fast boat that could outrun weather and get to anchorages before dark, while still being a comfortable, stiff boat…Janni and I enjoy challenges and trying new things, and this project is putting us out of our comfort zone.”
And that’s where inspiring stories take shape, including those that involve dusty and sticky fiberglass jobs.
To visit Janni and Matt’s YouTube channel, go to youtube.com/@TheDuracellProject
Dieter Loibner is editor-at-large at Professional Boatbuilder magazine and an occasional contributor to SAIL.