Jan and Tim Solomon, owners and operators of Key Sailing, have been together for 45 years.
When guests step aboard the 41-foot Morgan sailboat Key Breeze on a balmy Sunday afternoon, they’re met with smiles, flowers and a basket of chocolate.
“People who eat chocolate on sailboats don’t start wars,” says Jan Solomon, owner of Key Sailing.
That carefree outlook encapsulates the way Solomon and her husband, Tim, want people to feel while out on the water.
“Sailing is like life: Every book with a happy ending has a few difficult chapters,” Solomon said. “When you sail with us, we hope you will throw the challenging chapters of your book up to the winds with whatever faith you can muster and enjoy the good chapters of fresh air, fine chocolates and a few hours of peace on Earth on our sailboat.”
The couple has lived that lifestyle throughout the past 43 years of marriage.
Tim Solomon was raised internationally in a Christian missionary family. In between missionary trips, his family visited Jan’s family in Sarasota in 1973. His father was friends with Jan’s father, J.D. Hamel. After meeting several times throughout their life, the couple finally took notice of each other.
However, after a week in Sarasota, Tim’s family moved to Medellin, Colombia. The couple frequently wrote letters, and after six months apart, Jan turned down an opportunity to play flute in a National Band tour to go on a missionary trip with her father.
Their destination? Medellin.
Tim, then 18, needed to finish his senior year of high school, so he persuaded his parents to move to Sarasota: his 19th move in 18 years.
It was at Sarasota High School that he and Jan began their love story with each other and with sailing. At the time, the seniors could choose from two extracurricular activities: sailing and the circus.
“Obviously, we chose the latter,” Jan said with a laugh. “We chose sailing because Nik Wallenda really doesn’t want us on a high wire.”
Although they began their sailing careers while teenagers, they didn’t start a company until much later. They graduated in 1975 and were married April 10, 1977. Both of their fathers officiated the ceremony.
“Some time in that first week, we fell in love,” Tim said. “When you feel like you’re in the lifeboat with your best friend, life becomes easier as you travel through the great adventure together.”
But if the couple’s love is a lifeboat, the community they’ve built throughout the world is the water that keeps them afloat.
After traveling throughout the U.S., the couple decided to continue ministry work abroad. They moved to Colombia in 1988 and also spent time with the Waodani people in Ecuador.
The tribe, formerly known as the Auca tribe, received international coverage after five U.S. missionaries attempted to meet with them and were speared to death. Several years after the death of the missionaries, the widows of two of the men and the sister of another returned to the village to live among the Waodani, which eventually led to the conversion of many tribe members.
During their time with the Waodani, the Solomons became friends with tribe member Mincaye, who participated in the attacks and later became a preacher, and his wife, Ompodae.
After they returned to Florida in 1999, the Solomons helped coordinate a trip to Sarasota for the couple, who eventually were part of a documentary and later toured with Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman. It was while they were all on a boat in Sarasota Bay that Ompodae said something that stuck with Jan forever.
“She said, ‘How can you have people in your life who are not in your daily life?’” Jan said. “We’re not with the people we love all at the same time, especially now. We want to honor graduates, marriages — we have people that plan for months to spend time on our boat, and we want people sailing with us to make that happy memory they can cling to when they have a scary chapter in life.”
In 2007, the Solomons received an opportunity to help people celebrate on a greater scale. The couple was approached by Tom and Sally Reed to take over their sailing charter business. At the time, it wasn’t something the couple had ever considered, but they decided to take a chance.
“I believe, many times, the most spectacular things that have happened in life come to you,” Tim said. “They’re not something you seek out.”
Since then, they’ve sailed enough miles to travel around the world twice and have welcomed celebrities, wedding parties and even a member of the Apollo 11 moon mission team on their boat.
“We felt called to change the world,” Jan said. “It changed us instead and followed us home to Sarasota. Now we truly can make a global difference locally.”
Now the couple focuses on giving back to the community that they say gives so much to them. Jan, who refers to herself as “the town grandma,” regularly looks for ways they can help others. Their 2020 mission is to include a donation from every cruise to Hope Fleet, a charity currently sailing supplies to the Bahamas to help with hurricane recovery.
As for the future of the 14-year business, the couple says they don’t see stopping any time soon.
“It’s our mid-life crisis, but we’re sure having fun doing it,” Tim said.
Back on the boat, a guest questions which Sarasota County island they’d be seeing.
“We don’t know which direction the wind is going to be blowing, so we’ll go where the wind takes us,” Jan tells them.
The group leans back and relaxes. It’s never seemed to steer the couple wrong before.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.