How on earth did we get here?
Note: This is a technical article about the boat and our preparations for this trip, which others (armchair sailors and people planning a similar adventure) might find useful.
As we sit peacefully at anchor amongst the glorious archipelago of islands that guard the coast of Maine, it’s an opportunity to ask ‘How on earth did we get here?’
When I first met Julie about thirty-five years ago she asked me what I wanted to do when I left the Navy. ‘Sail round the world’, I announced brazenly. ‘I’ll come’, she replied. We’ve been sailing together ever since, owning a variety of boats as our family grew and our horizons expanded. Our last boat ‘PhoeniX’ was a 40’ cruiser racer that we raced and cruised extensively as a family of four around the English Channel as far as the Scilly Isles and the north coast of Brittany. But in 2014 we sold her to buy our ‘round the world’ boat, an Oyster 485 called Escapade of Rame. My parents lived near Rame Head in Cornwall and the family and geographical links are happy ones. She wasn’t the boat I set out to buy – a Sweden 45 was more the thing we had in mind – but one thing led to another and the previous owner had already bought a bigger Oyster…
As a boat for this task, it has just about everything you need. The heavy displacement seems odd after 30 years of owning lightweight racing boats, but it comes into its own in heavy weather and the Holman and Pye design is a peach – the boat is no slouch in anything over 10 knots of breeze. She was designed from the keel up for two people to sail long distances: really good deck equipment, strong ground tackle, strong mast and rigging, beautifully installed machinery and equipment. Everything is labelled and documented, every wire numbered, there’s room to access (almost) everything – apart from the drain to the fridge which has been blocked since we bought her. In short, whilst the power of the boat is quite awesome, the design and layout mean that you do not have to be a ‘muscle bosun’ to handle her. She had all the kit – generator, watermaker, satellite phone etc and whilst some of the bits were quite old, everything worked so we could see what was essential and modernise gradually. Above all, she had a comprehensive set of spares onboard, mostly from when the boat was first built in 1999.
We had a three-year plan: year one was a two-week cruise of Southern Ireland, avoiding marinas, not refuelling, not embarking food or fresh water and not ditching rubbish to see how we might fare on a Transatlantic crossing of much the same duration. We cheated a bit – we went ashore for a few meals – but we soon established that we had plenty of ‘endurance’ for a long passage, particularly if there were only two of us onboard.
In the second year as I left the Navy, we deployed to Scotland for the summer months to trial living onboard for an extended period. We also stayed at sea for longer – the passage north took four days – to see how we coped with the rhythm of watchkeeping, maintenance, rest and eating with just two of us onboard. We had a ball in the Western Isles, despite the best efforts of the Weather Gods.
Since buying the boat we have replaced all the standing and running rigging, bought a new mainsail and genoa (everything was original 1999 as far as we could see and the boat had covered 25000 miles), a carbon fibre spinnaker pole as the original aluminium weighed a ton, replaced the fridge compressors and fitted a new Iridium Pilot satellite phone as the old Inmarsat Mini-M network is now decommissioned. I acquired a ParaAnchor drogue system for bad weather and a Fiorentino Sea Anchor for really bad weather. We replaced the anchor cable with 100m of 12mm galvanised, high strength chain, but stuck with the 60lb CQR anchor as it has not let us down yet (many people enthuse about more modern designs, but in my experience, much depends on the amount of cable you set, just as much as the type of anchor on the end and so far, we have not had an issue).
We thought hard about upgrading the navigation package to the latest specification, but the boat came with a complete set of spares for every component of the good quality Raymarine autopilot, instruments and chart plotters, so we decided to stick with what was there. Essentially we have two E80 chartplotters, one at the forward end of the cockpit where everyone can see it (I loathe installations at the helm) and one below decks which is mainly used for planning. There’s a backup on the boat computer and an IPad. The shortcoming is that they all run Navionics software, which has proved to be perfectly serviceable, but as a mariner I would like to have an alternative source of data! Ideally we’d have a small Garmin Bluechart system or make more use of OpenCPN, the free software that many liveaboards swear by – but so far I’ve not got around to mastering it. The instruments are all ST60 and so far they have been very reliable and easy to use.
We have accumulated a vast library of Pilot Books, some better than others. The Irish Cruising Club, the Clyde Cruising Clubs and the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation have looked after us very well around the British Isles and down to Cape Verde, but I’m less of a fan of the Doyle Guides, the Waterways Guides and the Embassy Guides produced on this side of the Atlantic. They are holiday guide books and the ones of the US coast are clearly aimed at people using the Intra-Coastal Waterways. Utter rubbish… having said that, the Waterways Guide to Northern Waters (Cape May to Maine) is proving to be pretty good.
I installed the spare autopilot system to make sure that it worked and have kept the original (fully functioning) bits as spares. It does almost all the helming without a murmur. We have gradually overhauled the engine, generator and watermaker systems as I have learnt how to maintain them under guidance from some really good engineers at Golden Arrow Marine (Perkins diesel), Vasi Marine (Onan generator) and Sailfish Marine (Seafresh Watermaker). Harry James at The Rig Shop in Southampton, who did such a fine job when we lost Phoenix’s rig in Cowes Week some years ago, helped to fettle the rigging and tune the mast properly.
I completed the MCA Diesel Engine Course at UKSA (a six-day residential course where you strip and rebuild a Perkins M90 – thoroughly recommended) and Julie and I both attended RYA First Aid and Sea Survival courses – a good way of working out what worked for us and what stuff we needed. The boat could double as a small pharmacy and we have a comprehensive range of personal safety kit onboard. Throwing lines, an inflatable danbuoy and lifering combination, a mini-liferaft to recover a ‘man overboard’ and a six-man full sized liferaft with extra capacity for ocean crossings. Our lifejackets are 250N capacity (as against 150N standard), they are fitted with spray hoods, personal AIS beacons and lights and triple hook safety harnesses. To be honest, all that extra kit makes them a bit bulky and uncomfortable to wear especially in the hot weather, but one look astern halfway across the Atlantic is enough to remind you that your chances of survival without one if you go overboard are very slim indeed – especially with only one other crewmember to keep you in sight, sort out the sails, manoeuvre the boat, call for help and then recover you! Rule 1: stay onboard.
We have two fridges, one of which can chill down to about -8o and keeps frozen things frozen very well. They have clever cooling devices which use the cooler seawater from around the keel of the boat to cope with the Tropical heat. We carry a mix of frozen, fresh, canned and dried provisions so that we always have about a week’s worth of ‘emergency’ food onboard if the fridges fail. We probably have more refrigeration capacity onboard than the average family has at home, but the main risk we run is that we run out of electricity. So we have a 5Kw Onan generator that produces ‘mains’ electricity which runs a sophisticated battery charger and the desalination plant which makes around 80 litres of fresh water an hour. The main engine, whose primary function is to drive the boat, also charges the batteries just as it would in a car, but the generator uses much less fuel. We carry 550 litres of fuel – enough for about six weeks at sea, but not enough to motor all the way across the Atlantic. With four of us onboard living a normal life, the 750 litre water tank lasts a bit over a week (depending on the amount of hair washing) so we run the desalination plant for a couple of hours a day to keep on top of things – with a couple of filters we don’t need to use bottled water at all. With just two of us onboard, we can be pretty frugal – when we crossed the Atlantic and the watermaker packed up on Day 2, we arrived in Grenada with half a tank of water! The risk with both water and diesel tanks is contamination with sea water or worse – I’m slightly surprised that Mr Oyster built these boats with just the two tanks. Perhaps that was what the original owner specified?
We cook with gas on a good quality, 4-burner stove with an oven and grill (Force 10). We left UK with Camping Gaz, but eventually had to swap it for propane in the USA as it was impossible to obtain Camping Gaz. I have a set of adapters designed to fit any gas bottle on the market and so far, despite the odd spot of finger trouble, it has worked well. We probably won’t go back to Camping Gaz… although we can! We have a gas barbecue on the pushpit. It’s fun on a quiet evening at anchor and a boon in really hot weather when cooking below is a sweaty affair, but fatty meats and sausages make a hell of a mess and cleaning it is an unpleasant chore if you cook the wrong things!
The dinghy is an essential piece of kit, especially as we tend to avoid airless, expensive marinas and far prefer the freedom of anchoring or picking up a mooring. We have a ten year old Zodiac 3.0m Airdeck with a Mercury 6hp outboard. I bought the Zodiac in 2008 in order to carry racing crew backwards and forwards at Cowes Week and the extra size has been very useful on this trip. Other yachts run small Rigid Inflatable Boats, which have a great turn of speed but are very heavy to pull up a beach. Our Zodiac is really well built and very light - we don’t even need davits on the back of the yacht, although they would be quite convenient!
After sixteen months living onboard, we are very happy with our boat. She has looked after us well, is a pleasure to own and sail and turns heads wherever we go. I wouldn’t change much, but offer the following:
The additional headsail that we bought to cross oceans with has barely been out of its bag and was a waste of money. We left a perfectly serviceable gennaker at home to save space and I wish we’d brought that along instead.
The satellite phone is expensive to use and the fancy fixed installation we have in Escapade won’t come with us into the liferaft, so in another life I’d buy a much cheaper portable satphone and spend the money on a better modem for the HF Single Sideband radio (which picks up Weatherfax using a programme called SeaTTY and is pretty reliable) which would allow us to send and receive emails and GRIB files.
I’d like a couple of fans in the saloon and galley area to move air around on the hottest days: whilst we have MarineAir air conditioning, it needs the generator to work so we hardly use it in daily life.
I would definitely fit a manual backup for the fresh water system in the galley. The pressurised system is fantastic, but a single point of failure… carry spares!
A small diesel heater that runs off 24V would be useful in colder climates – I have a half-baked idea that we might bring the boat back to UK via the ‘Viking Route’ and a more flexible heating system would be sensible.
The boat is sloop, not cutter-rigged. As a result we have a large 140% genoa rather than smaller headsails. This has been good so far as our route has minimised the amount of upwind work and we have not been subject to really heavy weather. But there’s no doubt that a rolled-up genoa is less efficient upwind… On the other hand, two smaller headsails mean more string in the cockpit and a more cluttered foredeck.
The carbon spinnaker pole was a great investment. So was the sleeve repair kit when I broke it off Puerto Rico! We regularly fly our spinnaker because the pole is easy to use and the snuffer system on the sail is perfect for two people to handle. We’ve used the kite in 22 knots of true wind and got it down without incident!