As the great singlehanded sailor Harry Pidgeon once said: “You can sail for one day, right? Ocean sailing is just sailing day after day after day.”
Over the years my wife, Mia Karlsson, and I have sailed tens of thousands of miles on our boats and as delivery skippers. We’ve also learned a tremendous amount managing the World Cruising Club’s various ocean sailing rallies, like the ARC and Caribbean 1500, seeing how different people on different boats have made successful voyages.
What follows are some ideas on what works offshore, some practical how-tos and some useful resources for those looking to cast off lines.
Seek Professional Help!
“The single most important thing you can do, by far and bar none, to become a safe and happy offshore cruiser is to go to sea as crew with an experienced skipper on a good boat,” says John Harries of Attainable Adventure Cruising, an online cruising resource center for aspiring ocean sailors (morganscloud.com). “No amount of inshore sailing or reading replaces this vital step on the road to becoming a competent offshore sailor.”
Just this past June, I completed my latest owner-assisted delivery with Doug MacDonald and Tasha Sims aboard their Hallberg Rassy 43 Blue Heron (the boat referenced in “A Call Too Close,” in SAIL’s December issue). After refitting some of the systems, fitting new sails and spending a year sailing Blue on Long Island Sound, they hired me to sail with them from New York City to Bermuda and back.
The forecast at our departure was grim, with strong headwinds predicted for the first half of the trip, and after 24 hours of beating our brains out and getting soaked, we decided to divert toward Savannah, Georgia, after which we’d just reach down the coast with the wind. Two days after that, though, when we were east of Cape Hatteras, rested and acclimated to life at sea, the weather gave us a break and we decided to try for Bermuda after all. In the end we had a brilliant sail out, and while it took 36 hours longer than it should have, Doug and Tasha learned a good lesson in managing their boat in heavy weather and giving the crew a break.
I’m not sure Doug and Tasha would have made that call on their own, and I fear they may have been turned off to ocean sailing altogether had that been forced to take on that first passage by themselves. But by being in the professional care of Oskar, my Swedish first-mate, and me, the stress of the decision-making process was taken off their shoulders, and they could focus on working the boat and getting used to life at offshore.
I’ve done many of these owner-assisted trips, and it makes me exceedingly proud to see where the folks end up years later. In 2010 I skippered Callisto, an Outbound 46, in the Caribbean 1500 with David and Gretchen Cantor. They hadn’t even been overnight on the boat before, and the big offshore trip would be their first ocean-sailing experience. Five years later Callisto remains in the Caribbean. David and Gretchen summer in Grenada and cruise the rest of the year. They doublehand most of the time and have become seasoned offshore sailors.
Dan Levine hails from Philadelphia and is himself already an experienced bluewater sailor, but doesn’t own a boat.
“I crossed the Atlantic when I was a teenager,” Dan told me. “My dad had an old Cheoy Lee, and it was his dream. We sailed from Bermuda to the Azores and on to the Med. I’ll never forget it.”
As an adult though, Dan has been forced to give up the dream of crossing oceans on his own boat. Life, as it is wont to do, got in the way, and not in a bad way. Dan has a beautiful family, which he adores, and a successful small business. The problem? “My family’s just not interested in sailing,” Dan says. “I’ve accepted that. It doesn’t make sense for me to own and maintain a boat that is capable of crossing oceans when for 50 or 51 weeks of the year I know I wouldn’t use it.”
Dan was a crewmember on our inaugural passage from Annapolis to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, aboard Isbjorn, our classic S&S-designed Swan 48. We bought the boat specifically for taking paying crew on long ocean passages, and the model works perfectly for guys like Dan.
“If I know I can come sailing with you guys once a year, visiting different parts of the world and sailing on a boat I know I’d never be able to maintain myself, in the company of good people and professional sailors, with my family’s blessing to boot—how can I argue with that?” Dan says.
Indeed, Dan will be back. He left his sextant onboard Isbjorn as proof, and shortly after leaving Lunenburg in July, he booked with us again. Dan will join Isbjorn right where he left off, in Lunenburg next July, where we’ll depart to cross the Atlantic via Newfoundland and Ireland.
Charly Oliver, another of Isbjorn’s crew on that first voyage to Nova Scotia, was aboard for different reasons.
“We’re a few years away from retirement,” Charly told us, “and my wife and I plan on buying a boat and heading off cruising. I wanted to get some experience first, see how I handled it, and if I really liked it.”
Charly is also a small-business owner, working in the outdoor industry as a distributor for the climbing brand Petzl. He is no stranger to the hardships of the wilderness. He and his wife race J/boats in Colorado at one of, if not the, highest altitude yacht clubs in America, lake sailing in the Rockies. Charly is tough, but was not used to the motion of big offshore swells, and was seasick for the first half of the trip north.
That didn’t dampen his spirits, though. After leaving the boat, Charly immediately made contact with Forbes Horton, a yacht broker friend of mine, and began his search for a sailboat in earnest. After sailing our Swan for 600 miles, he was that much more understanding of what to look for in an oceangoing boat.
“And now I know what I’ve suspected all along,” Charly says. “I love ocean sailing!”
Sailing the OPB way
There is a faction of sailors in the Caribbean 1500 rally who call themselves the “real” Salty Dogs. These are folks who have completed seven rallies with the 1500 (or its spring return, ARC USA), totaling approximately 10,000 ocean miles. Many of them sail the OPB way (that is, on other people’s boats).
“I’ve sailed in over 20 World Cruising Club rallies now on other people’s boats,” Capt. Ron Horton boasts. Horton is a native of Northern Ohio who has enjoyed adventure all of his life, and is the de facto leader of the Salty Dogs, keeping track of which new members to induct each year. Dave Hornbach was the latest non-owner inductee in 2015, sailing south on the Prout 38 Rebekah May. Guys like Horton and Hornbach do all of their ocean sailing on OPBs, getting their fix while not having to maintain the boat year-round!
Prospective crew get in touch with owners (and vice versa) through various web forums like Crewseekers, Crew Finders, and Ocean Crew Link. Sometimes it pays to be Facebook “friends” with known delivery captains who will often post last-minute notices when they need to fill a space. Indeed, I do this often myself.
As opposed to the “pay-to-play” model, crew-matching websites often offer opportunities where no money changes hands. Crew normally have to pay their own way to and from the boat, but are usually taken care of once aboard. Sometimes a small contribution toward onboard food costs will be expected. This is, in fact, how I got into ocean sailing in the first place. Do enough trips on your own dime and prove yourself as good crew, and eventually people start paying you for it!
Of course, this approach to offshore sailing comes with a few caveats. Boats and gear may not be up for the rigors of ocean sailing, so it pays to do a thorough inspection of the boat before heading out. The owners’ own experience may not be up to it either, so make sure you interview them. World Cruising Club’s Ocean Crew Link crew service, while not limited to rallies, often has opportunities to sail as crew in one of their rallies in different parts of the globe. At the very least, sailing as rally crew ensures that the boat will have a minimum standard of safety equipment onboard.
It’s not about the boat
Mia and I have been involved in World Cruising Club’s rallies now for over seven years, and we’ve quite literally seen every type of boat imaginable cross oceans successfully, from double-handed 27-footers to super-maxi racing yachts with 25 professional crew onboard. We’ve delivered a myriad of boats on the high seas, too, and I’ve come to learn that it’s not about the boat.
Matt Rutherford is my go-to example—he remains the first and only person to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of North and South America, and he did so on a production 27ft Albin Vega.
Ocean sailing is at least 80 percent mental. If you have a well-maintained and properly outfitted boat, no matter the size or the type, and understand the basics of handling the “white sails,” you can safely cross an ocean. Beyond a certain threshold, it’s entirely about how comfortable you want to be.
The folks I see in the rallies who have bad experiences offshore are those who, despite their preparation, still have no true concept of what they are getting themselves into. Ocean sailing is a serious business. At their farthest point offshore, this year’s Caribbean 1500 fleet was over 300 miles from the nearest land—true wilderness—and it was honking, touching 30 knots in the squalls with a big sea running. This is not dangerous, but it can be frightening for the uninitiated who don’t have experience handling those kinds of conditions. That’s where folks start making bad decisions, and the dominos start falling. You’d be shocked at how skippers who have sailed the same route, at the same time, on similarly equipped boats report drastically different experiences. It’s all about your expectations.
Offshore you’re extremely exposed, and it takes time to mentally get used to that. You’ve got to be prepared to be wet, cold, tired, hungry and seasick. You’ll have hellish emotional lows, but they’ll be offset by heavenly highs. I’ve never been as frustrated and annoyed as I’ve been offshore, but I’ve also never been more content. You have to learn that, like the weather, your mental state offshore is never permanent—your high will come down, your low will come back up. The better you can manage these expectations, the happier you’ll be.
Gear-wise, a watertight and sound hull, bulletproof rig, a good wind vane (I like the Cape Horn, invented and still produced by French-Canadian single-hander Yves Gelinas) and enough dry-stored food to survive if the fridge quits or you lose propane, will get you there. Anything more than that is a luxury. So long as the boat is still sailing, you can fix any other issues when you arrive at your destination.
If you expect life onboard to be like life at home, you won’t enjoy it, and you probably won’t be successful at creating it. It’s supposed to be an adventure, so treat it as such.
It’s all about the boat
Having said most boats are capable of voyaging offshore, that doesn’t mean all boats are created equal. While most modern production fiberglass boats are built strongly enough to cross oceans, they are not necessarily designed or intended to do so. Finding the right boat built for the right purpose is important for enjoying ocean sailing.
For Mia and me, moving up from our 36ft Arcturus was not about getting a bigger boat. Arcturus was the perfect size for the two of us, and we adored her. The problem was she wasn’t big enough for us to run our business on. We needed a boat purpose-designed specifically for ocean sailing with a large crew. Folks are surprised when they come aboard our new-to-us Swan 48 and see eight single berths, with nary a double in sight. Believe me, it’s not much fun sleeping in separate beds when we’re living on the boat in port. But offshore, that arrangement is ideal. It’s safer, more comfortable and more flexible.
While she’s 48ft long and vastly bigger in all directions than Arcturus, IsbjÖrn still feels cozy belowdecks—the interior compartments are broken up into smaller spaces, and there is never an opportunity to fall more than 18in or so before being able to brace yourself on something no matter where inside the boat you are. In contrast, many beamy modern designs that aren’t specifically designed for ocean cruising have open, spacious interiors that work great in harbor but not so well at sea. Such boats are capable of crossing oceans safely and quickly, but the trade-off is that with hull shapes optimized for reaching they may pound your brains out going to weather.
“Your age, your health, your expectations, they all play into which is the right boat for ocean sailing for you,” Horton says. “If you’re not very experienced you’re going to need a boat that is more forgiving with regards to safety systems, bulwarks, keel design, etc. Whereas if you really know what you’re doing you could sail a Laser around the world if you really had the chutzpah!”
By all means buy a new boat if you want—there are some fine designs out there—but Horton and I agree that older boats, properly refitted, make a fine choice for ocean voyaging, both financially and practically. An older boat can provide a lot of satisfaction, as our beloved Arcturus, built in 1966, and now our dream boat, IsbjÖrn, built in 1972, have proven. Like most boats of their generation, both are overbuilt and designed specifically for offshore cruising.
Just Go Sail!
When seeking advice, consider the source a bit before you form any solid opinions. Find the people that have been out there doing it for a long time, successfully and, importantly, with little drama, and follow their lead. Folks like John Kretschmer, Pam Wall, Beth Leonard, John Harries, Erik de Jong and Matt Rutherford.
And the bottom line is just to get out and do it! It’s not rocket science, and it shouldn’t be.
Hire an Expert
I am, of course, biased when it comes to recommending captains and offshore programs. But of course you don’t have to go with us. Check out the list below for other opportunities at getting offshore on your own boat or others.
Modern Geographic Paul Exner, who skippered Isbjorn in the Caribbean 1500 in my stead, runs ocean passages aboard his Cape George Cutter, Solstice, and is renowned as an instructor, doing lots of owner-assisted passages. moderngeographic.com
John Kretschmer Sailing John is my hero and mentor, whom I modeled our business with Isbjorn after. He sails his Kaufman 47 Quetzal all around the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Med with paying crew. yayablues.com
Mahina Tiare III John and Amanda Neal have been running ocean passages with paying crew for years aboard their Hallberg Rassy 46. Amanda is a vet of the Whitbread Race aboard the all-women’s team on Maiden. mahina.com
Morse Alpha Ben Eriksen and Teresa Carey specialize in coastwise sail-training passages aboard their Norseman 447 Rocinante. They also do owner-assisted passages and are known for their ocean conservancy work and their film One Simple Question. morsealpha.com
Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson manage the Caribbean 1500 cruising rally, run training voyages on their Swan 48 Isbjorn, and have nearly 50,000 bluewater miles behind them.