Are you counting down to a big adventure? Five skippers tell Elaine Bunting about their plans and preparations to go bluewater sailing
For most sailors, preparing for an Atlantic or round the world voyage typically takes between a year and three years. According to the surveys we carry out annually with ARC rally skippers, that is the average time it takes to choose and buy a suitable boat, equip it, train up and get all the moving parts of work and domestic life aligned.
Right now, almost everyone’s plans are on ice, but this uncertain period of enforced stasis may actually be a good opportunity to take stock of your life goals and what you need to reach them. If you’ve always dreamed of sailing away or of a long voyage and a break from normal, striving life ashore, this could be the time to create more serious plans.
To find out how other sailors are planning their journey along the typical three-year ‘runway’ and what their challenges have been, we spoke to a five sailors at different stages. What follows is a snapshot of their choices and approach.
Tom and Clair Crean are from the UK but living in Switzerland, where Tom works as an IT consultant. Tom is from a sailing family – his father used to work for Westerly when they built cruisers and cruiser-racers in the UK.
They have been thinking and planning to leave for the last two years and when they came to look for a yacht for a budget of £50-60,000 it was Westerlys and Moodys from the Eighties and Nineties that Tom thought of, boats with a “centre cockpit for a decent aft cabin and solidly built.”
As with everyone we spoke to for this article, finding a good and well-maintained example of a particular type of used yacht was not easy and soon the Creans concluded that they “would never get 100%”.
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The yacht they eventually bought three years ago is Moody Blue, a Moody 376, which they keep in the UK. “We were very lucky: the previous owner had bought the boat 30 years ago and had really looked after it, but not upgraded much so it was almost like it was out of the factory,” says Tom. However, the electronics and many other items were out of date and needed to be replaced, so the Creans began working through a long list.
“The engine had been replaced in 2012 and the sails were in good condition. The rigging had been replaced in 2014 and was all checked. We bought a new cruising chute. We had all the seacocks replaced with Tru Design fittings. They had been OK in the survey but when I was opening one, the handle snapped off in my hand.”
The Creans want their boat to be as inexpensive as possible to run, so they decided not to fit a watermaker or air conditioning. But new electronics, power generation and safety gear was a priority. They have a new Raymarine Axiom Pro MFD, a new radar, AIS and two new lithium batteries. To help with extra, sustainable power, they have a flexible solar panel and a Rutland 1200 wind generator. To reduce consumption, they’ve chosen Hydrovane self-steering gear.
Safety gear is among the more expensive categories but can’t be skimped on. Tom and Clair have a new four-person liferaft, and they bought an EPIRB, lifejackets equipped with McMurdo AIS PLBs and a YB Tracker. They are getting a quote for a Jordan Series Drogue and have bought a battery-powered angle grinder and bolt cutters. Tom adds that they have “lots of tools – the forepeak and saloon are full of boxes – and first aid kits.”
In parallel, the Creans are building up their own sailing experience. “This is our first proper boat,” says Tom. “I’ve sailed with my uncle, we bought a 8m cabin cruiser in Weymouth and we have chartered every year for the past 15 years; two weeks per year in BVIs and Croatia, sailing courses in Gibraltar and sailing in the UK. I first did an RYA Competent Crew course in the RAF in the Eighties, then the Day Skipper, then Yachtmaster. Clair has done the Day Skipper course.
“We’ve spent the last three years based in Portsmouth, learning to sail in a complicated area with tides etc. and sailing to the Channel Islands. That has given us more confidence. The longest passage we’ve made so far would be Alderney to Portsmouth, leaving in the early morning and arriving late at night. We have made two night passages before but our big test will when we leave and sail from Falmouth to La Coruña – we are going to do the offshore route as a test.”
The Creans have been aiming to leave next April, but are being open-minded about their cruising plans. They will rent out their house “so we don’t lose that safety net” and will make their way down to Gibraltar, where they plan to do their Yachtmaster Offshore practical exam, then decide where to go next.
“I know it is a lifestyle I will enjoy,” says Tom. “When I’m on the boat is when I’m at my happiest – and with family. It is never boring. So I know for sure we will be very happy. But we are also realistic.
“It may get too much, I don’t know. Let’s get to La Coruña and then keep taking each stage. “From what we have read, the advice is to tell everyone you’re leaving – there are so many reasons not to go – but be flexible. We will just go, and anything we do will be great.”
Decluttering your life
Fergus and Chloe Bonner are unusual among sailing couples in that it is Angus who is the relative beginner and Chloe the more experienced sailor who has nurtured the dream of cruising. She already has around 50,000 miles of long-distance sailing behind her on a previous adventurous voyage from New Zealand to the UK via Alaska and the North West Passage.
“Chloe had this sailing background and when we got together ten years ago we often said it would be great to go sailing with children. Then our twins came along and it was full-on. We bought a house and we did the house up and even just going to work was quite hard.
“One summer we went dinghy sailing in Annecy and it re-fired that thought. But there was no way we could afford it. Then we started to look into it and read blogs. We started to look at how much rent we could get for our house and we curbed all our nonessential spending. Then I got a promotion – Chloe is a nurse and I work for a media company.”
They began searching for a boat with a strict budget of £100,000 in mind, and began reducing their outgoings and shrinking down their lives and belongings to reset in a more modest way. “We basically went through everything we had and started selling stuff,” says Angus.
“We’d done a lot of cycling and triathlons. I sold two bikes, Chloe sold a bike, we sold the turbo trainer. We sold snowboarding gear and even little things like bike components, children’s things. Anything. We started off with high-value stuff and went through the house to find things we didn’t need.
“When you start doing this you realise you don’t need them and I wondered ‘Why did I buy these things?’ We made about £10,000 and it felt like therapy getting rid of it. And it prepares you for life on a boat where you don’t have the money or the space.”
Besides decluttering physical items, they cut down on subscriptions that accumulate: “Strava, Amazon Prime, Ancestry, British Triathlon membership, gym membership… We just stopped going out, having meals out; typically, lunch was £60 for four of us. Now we don’t buy things we don’t need, even clothes. I take things up to my mum’s and ask her to repair them. It feels really good to be getting into that mentality, and to teach the boys skills to fix things.”
They began looking at brokerage yachts, starting their search on yachtworld.com and looking at what was in that budget. “There were hundreds of production boats and we started thinking: ‘Great there are loads and they have got a new chartplotter and so on’ and we probably looked at the wrong things.
After looking at Moodys and at the Ovni 435 – “amazing but realistically we couldn’t afford it” – they settled on an Island Packet 40 last November which they bought for £108,000. Their budget for preparing the boat was “in hindsight, quite naive,” he admits. They need a liferaft, EPIRB, satphone, auxiliary power such as solar power and arch and davits for a dinghy. There have been unanticipated expenses, such as replacing sanitation hoses.
“We thought we’d spend another £15,000. People bandy around numbers and some say you need an extra 15-20%. That’s nonsense. We thought the boat didn’t need a lot of work but we have had to redo the rigging, we have put in a new battery charger, we’ve rebedded all the chainplates, replaced all lights with LEDs, replaced some bilge pump piping, unstepped mast and redid all electrics – we have a spreadsheet of 100 items. We haven’t even started on things we need to go sailing long-term, such as the liferaft, solar panels and EPIRB.”
In fact, Fergus and Chloe haven’t even sailed their boat yet other than on sea trials. But Fergus did a RYA Day Skipper course last year and once they do get sailing, they’re thinking of getting an instructor to do one-to-one coaching and also help them master close quarters manoeuvring.
But he reveals: “The whole thing has been made much harder because we have two children in school and we don’t have relatives nearby. When we go on courses, it means they have to be aboard or we have to find somewhere to put them for a week. We have to, and do, involve them.”
Ultimately, their plan is to live on board for three or four years and home school their 6-year-old twins. “We will focus on the important stuff like reading, writing and maths and then learn as we go. How formal it will be I don’t know at this point. I would have to say that is low down the list. The focus is on getting the boat ready.”
When they do leave, hopefully next summer, they plan to sail to Gibraltar, the Canary Islands and across to the Caribbean before going through the Panama Canal and perhaps round the world. “But,” says Fergus, “it’s loose. A firm plan is going to change.
“We might get somewhere and get some work or come back. At the moment we’re learning, and that learning curve is huge – I feel like I’m doing a doctorate. But it is amazing how much you can learn when you are really focussed on something.”
Learning new skills
Antony Smyth and his wife, Morgan Chambers, live in Canada and are planning to live on board. Antony, a former management consultant, quit work three years ago, but Morgan is still working. Their goal has been to have a boat as a “mobile hotel” for themselves, family and friends, and sail across the Atlantic and slowly make their way through the Panama Canal and Pacific to reach Smyth’s native New Zealand.
“It has taken decades to get away,” he says, “We have been working up to this for 30 years, but it’s easy because we both have had good jobs.”
The couple previously owned a Westerly Oceanlord, and co-owned a 41-footer they kept in the Greek islands, and the choice of yacht and route for this long plan was a conundrum. “These are hard decisions,” he says, “what kind of boat, multihull or monohull? Where do we go? Are the kids interested? Would friends come if they were invited? You could spend years thinking about it.”
In the end, they decided to buy a second-hand Westerly 49, one of only 12 ever built. They chose it because the design has dual owners’ cabins with a walk around. They paid £110,000.
“The boat we bought had been a cottage for five years, so everything needed doing. We’ve fitted a bow thruster, repainted it, reconditioned the steering, replaced all the wiring, got new rigging, new sails and new running rigging, replaced lots of internal fittings… knives, forks, the lot. I’m not what you call handy, but the learning has been great, the 12V DC electrics, fibreglass – and it has been hugely enjoyable to do it.”
They may rent their house if they are away for a long time, and the plan is to start in La Rochelle and sail perhaps up the west coast of Britain to the Baltic first, before going further.
The difficulty, he says, is “keeping the dream alive through work and other pressures through the decades. It is difficult and expensive. And getting up the courage to just go, and trying to stick to timetable and budget.”
An ever-expanding budget
Nick Deacon and Michele Cruwys have sailed all their adult lives. The time, they feel, is right now to go – Michele recently retired from her job as a consultant paediatrician and Nick, who runs the product development side of a small software company, will retire in the next year or two. Their children are grown up and finishing university.
They previously owned a Grand Soleil 43, which they sold last year. Like others we spoke to, finding the right used yacht was difficult and took a couple of years of searching among brokers and travelling to inspect boats.
“Finding the boat was really tough; locating a boat that was within budget and in reasonable condition. We were quite fussy. We wanted a higher-end, well-made boat and had excluded more mass produced production boats so it was the Oyster, Najad, Hallberg-Rassy end of the market. It is hard to find boats in good condition – some are being set with unrealistic prices and the ones we saw in Europe were pretty beaten up.”
Finally they bought a Najad 511 lying in Sweden. “It was a tiny bit bigger than planned but we went for it and we bought it in October. It was brought back from Sweden by a delivery crew and I joined the captain for the first part,” says Nick.
Their current plan is to leave the UK next May and sail across the Atlantic with the ARC 2021. “Then we will potter around the Caribbean and South America for a year or so and, if all is going well, go through the Panama Canal into the Pacific and continue round the world.”
Their boat was built in 2004 boat so has needed “a fair bit” of upgrading and maintenance. The couple have replaced the standing rigging, bought all new sails, a full set of Raymarine instruments, MFD and Autohelm, AIS, installed SSB radio, refurbished the watermaker and overhauled all the hydraulics.
“It’s an ever-expanding budget,” admits Nick. “For example, we knew we would need to have the rigging replaced to comply with the insurance terms, but we have uncovered a few surprises. The refurbishment we’ve done since we bought the boat would, I guess, be somewhere around £60,000.”
Life is not so simple
Richard Glen is planning and preparing for his big escape, but he doesn’t know for sure when it will be. He already has the yacht to sail away on, a 1979 Ron Holland-designed Swan 441, and plenty of experience from years of RORC racing and cruising. But getting to the point in life when he could go is not something within his control.
“The boat side is quite straightforward as we have taken advice from World Cruising Club and the ARC to get the boat ready so we’re OK on that. It’s the home life that is far more difficult,” he confesses.
“In 2017, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I have become her full-time carer. That is quite a challenge. So although we had this plan it is all rather based on the state of my mother. So I can’t say we are definitely going, though the boat is definitely ready to do the ARC+ next year and then World ARC. My mother is 91 and apart from Alzheimer’s the rest of her life is pretty bulletproof. It’s a conundrum to balance your life along with caring for someone else’s.
“I’m a one-man band, a landscape architect. I used to work for British Waterways designing marinas. I did put various things in place: for example, I bought property to provide rental income in case my business income dropped off, which is what I have been living off while I’m a full-time carer.”
Richard plans to go sailing with his wife and daughter, who will be 12 this month. He says they have made the decision that “she will learn more by having these adventures than being in school and it would be far more fulfilling for her”.
“We’ve discussed the situation where she could be doing her O-levels but is it better to have these opportunities when they come along,” he explains. “We’ve always been delaying it and you could always do that and never get round to it. It’s not simple, and that’s the big challenge in going off long distance sailing.”
Richard’s boat is based in Marmaris in Turkey and over the last year he has been getting it ready and renewing equipment. He has replaced all the navigation electronics, getting a Raymarine MFD fitted and AIS. He is debating whether to buy a Watt&Sea hydrogenerator.
He will have the rigging replaced and is going to get a new No 1 headsail. “We already have normal heavy 1oz and asymmetric spinnakers and we have a staysail, yankee and No 3 but it would be good to have the larger genoa,” he says. Living on board could, he believes, be done “quite frugally but we would have to go through that transition period of thinking we are on holiday. So it would theoretically be OK provided we acted sensibly.
“We don’t need cars and other paraphernalia but we would have mooring, docking and maintenance so money would be going in other directions. But I haven’t done a huge amount of calculations on that. It might actually be cheaper than living at home, with care and carers and so on.”
From a personal perspective, he says: “Over the years I have done a lot of thinking about it and my training is up to date, with Ocean Yachtmaster and navigation, sea survival, first aid courses, etc. I have also done a lot over the years around yacht maintenance with Hamble School of Yachting.
“We’ll go through everything underwater such as seacocks and cutless bearing and we can at least be listing these things this year and it gives us a year to prepare for November next year.”
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.