Casper Craven and family set themselves 5 years from deciding to sail around the world to doing it: here's how they made the leap

We approached Cocos Keeling at first light and had to pick our way through the coral to approach the anchorage in the lee of Direction Island. Safely through the pass we were greeted by the most amazing colours – the deep turquoise blue of the anchorage, the brilliant white sand and the rich green of the coconut trees on this island, which has no inhabitants.

In a voyage worthy of many superlatives with stunning paradises where each one seems to better the last, we decided that Cocos Keeling wins hands down; in fact the best tropical island that we have visited.

Cocos Keeling has a fascinating history having been owned by the Clunies-Ross family from Scotland since the 1700s with a history of a thriving copra business here. Darwin visited in the Beagle and formed his theory of atoll development here.

Clearing Customs is a relaxed affair. The police officials dinghy over to Direction Island and, sitting under one of the three covered shelters, they clear you in on the beach, checking immigration forms and stamping passports. Once the formalities are over and we are officially cleared in, Andrew, the police sergeant, advises us on the best place to go snorkelling.

I think his job is officially one of the better jobs in the world – there is no crime here and it’s a relaxed, charming way of life on this tiny dot of an island in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

The afternoon sees us snorkelling the famous rip. Running around one end of the island, there is a continuous flow of some 2-3 knots through a channel, which has a gully. Dinghy to one end, jump over the side and the current sweeps you along for some 300 metres or so, flying past white tipped reef sharks and copious quantities of fish. We spot eye-catching unicorn fish, napoleon fish, parrot fish and moray eels; some absolutely huge, bigger than our daughter Willow. We glide over acres of coral. In the pristine turquoise unpolluted waters the colours are stunning and unblemished. Without doubt this is the best snorkelling I have ever experienced.

The idyllic anchorage at Cocos Keeling

For the next week, this island paradise is our home and the children revel in it, swimming and playing on the beach, hopping between boats and exploring the island. We make several trips to Home Island, one mile away by dinghy, which you can only do by day – the coral is everywhere and you have to pick your route very carefully.

My favourite place is Prison Island – a tiny island with four coconut trees and four deck chairs (from Ikea!), which someone kindly left there. You sit here surrounded by a sea the same blue colour as a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and you have your own private desert island.

A number of evenings are spent on the beach sitting around a fire, having a barbecue and sharing stories over beers with our fellow sailors. Many memories are made which will last a lifetime.

And then it was time [for the World ARC rally] to move on – an exciting start with all the yachts leaving in a great spectacle as we rounded Horsburgh Island, leaving it to port and headed west again. Two days out we had plenty of wind and were making great speed topping out at 14.1 knots surfing the waves…

Fifteen months earlier

It was hard to reconcile sailing the Indian Ocean with the situation we found ourselves in 15 months earlier when our plans were in real danger of not happening at all.

It was June 2014. Me, my wife, Nichola and our children, Bluebell, Columbus and Willow had just completed our first shake down sail on board our Oyster 53, Aretha, and a back injury I’d picked up on the London Marathon came back to haunt me.

I was referred to a back specialist, who gave me two options: I could grit it out, taking ibuprofen to reduce the swelling and pain and taking some physio, on the basis that 50 per cent of these conditions sort themselves out; or I could have the operation to take some of the pressure off the nerves at the base of my back.

I went home and discussed it with Nichola. We were set on our plan. On the other hand I could do long term damage to my back if I pushed too hard.

It was an agonising choice and it wasn’t one Nichola or anyone else could make. It was my decision. I slept on it for a few days and decided to go for the operation. The wheels were put in motion and we adjusted two parts of our plan.

Firstly, we delayed our departure date by three weeks to give me sufficient recovery time. Secondly, for the first part of our passage to Portugal, we’d take two crew with us and only take the two older children, leaving Willow, our two-year-old, at home with family. My brother Max and my good friend Ian were our crew – both experienced sailors who’d be extremely helpful for the first part of the passage, the tough Bay of Biscay crossing.

The operation was a success and attention was refocused on our departure date and making sure everything was ready.

The final few days before we departed were intense. When I had done this with the BT Global Challenge, I was one of 18 people getting everything done with full on-shore support. This time round, it was just Nichola and me – with family and friends.

We worked late into the evening packing everything away and by midnight the boat started to look less like a jumble sale. Aretha felt a little like a tardis as everything or almost everything found a home.

Alarms were set for 0500 and on 20 August, 2014 we slipped lines just before 0600 to catch the tide heading west. Wow. This is really happening, I thought as we glided out of Universal Marina. There was a slight mist over the water as the sun rose in a blue sky with wispy white clouds. We motored down the Hamble, down Southampton Water, past the Isle of Wight and out into the English Channel.

Our vision statement had started with the line: ‘On 1 August 2014 we are setting off to sail around the world.’ Here we were, five years since we first inked those words with the world before us. We were 19 days after our planned departure date but we were underway.

It was an incredible feeling as we switched off the engine in the Solent and felt the wind filling the sails and starting to power us along; standing at the helm and steering our ship, knowing that we’d be leaving these waters for two years and off to experience the world. All those 0500 starts on freezing cold mornings when I’d visualised standing at the helm of our boat sailing around the world. And now here we were. Our dream was truly becoming our reality and we were off. It was the biggest buzz you can imagine. We had done it.

For the next two years, we experienced life as a tightly knit team and with friends along the way. Our route would take us from the Solent down the European coast before our first big ocean crossing, the Atlantic. From here, across the Caribbean Sea to Panama, then a magical six months crossing the Pacific before arriving in Australia. Indonesia and the magical islands of the Indian Ocean led us to South Africa and then back into the Atlantic with stops in St Helena and Brazil before crossing our outbound track in Grenada. Not just content with circumnavigating, we then sailed back to Panama and turned right sailing to San Francisco, closing this part of our adventure by sailing under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

The experiences flew thick and fast: from the Panama Canal to the Galapagos, the fast hip-shaking dances of French Polynesia, the warmth of the people in Vanuatu, Tonga, and Fiji, the raw beauty of Australia, though the Indian Ocean, to the wildlife in South Africa, and the fast pace of life in Brazil. We shared the storms, the stunning sunsets, the fast downwind exhilarating sailing, the fish, the medical emergencies and a boat that continuously needed attention; all part of life at sea.

We continued to run our businesses while we were away and I’m delighted that we successfully sold my data analytics business as we crossed the Pacific Ocean, celebrating at Bloody Mary’s restaurant in Bora Bora. It was certainly an experience negotiating the sale and purchase agreement in 35-knot winds in the middle of the night over the satellite phone miles from anywhere in the South Pacific.

This plan, that once seemed so distant and so hard to achieve, had actually been achieved and we’d done exactly what we set out to do. Having gone full circle and arrived back in St Lucia, I reflected how grateful I was for spending every day of the last two years with my wife and three children. From the start, the reason why we went to extreme lengths to create our adventure was to have magical life-changing experiences both for ourselves and for our children.

Back in our old world, what was I teaching our children about what I knew of the world and what I believed to be important? Precious little. I thought of the nights I had spent lying on deck with Bluebell and Columbus debating what was out there, the days we spent learning about the planet, the stars, the sea, the weather. We had experienced different cultures, met people from different walks of life, shared time together, laughed, played and seen the world.

One of the most common questions we are asked is around our children’s schooling and what were they getting from this experience. Were we the best parents in the world or the most irresponsible parents?

In response, I share a favourite story from my logbook from when we sailed the Indian Ocean, which made me smile and feel good about our choices:

‘Last night Columbus and I were on deck watching the stars and talking. I’d made hot chocolate for us both – for Columbus in his favourite Taronga Zoo mug with a koala on the front.

‘We fell silent after a while (unusual for Columbus) and he asked if we could put Desert Island Discs on. In particular he wanted to listen again to Sir David Attenborough.

‘At the end, he picked up on one of Sir David’s comments that when he was ten he had started a museum of fossils and a snake skin that he had collected.

‘Since watching Blue Planet and visiting many amazing places, Columbus over the last week or so has announced he’d like to become a zoologist. Columbus is a serious boy and he doesn’t make statements like this lightly. So much so, it provided some super leverage: “Columbus if you want to become a zoologist,” we’d say, “you need to up your game with writing and documenting what you see.”

‘Up to this point, getting Columbus to write had been like pushing water up hill. The past week it was transformed. Every day, he added a page or two of notes and drawings to his journal and with little pushing.

‘At 4pm today, we were all presented with a small piece of paper. It had a drawing of a common wombat and was an invitation to Columbus Museum.

‘On the table he had laid out all the artefacts he’d collected on our travels and proceeded to talk through with great passion on each and every item: names and details that I had long forgotten; the fossils, shells, semi-precious stones, the coral – all were treasures to him. He was in his element. The wealth and depth of knowledge he’d acquired left Nichola and I catching each others’ eyes as we marvelled at how much he has learned.’

It feels seeds are being planted for the future. It feels that what we are calling our real world education is having an impact. I remember Bluebell’s words: “At school we’d only be reading about this in books, but we’re actually out here seeing it and doing it.”

Continues below…

Caspar’s Top Tips

Create your Vision of the future

•   Take the time (ideally with your partner) to understand what you (both) truly want to do. It took us six months working on this to create a shared vision of our future

•   In this time, the reasons why you shouldn’t go for your vision will show up. Most people will be kind enough to point them out. Note them down but don’t fixate on them. Now is not the time for the ‘how to’ stuff.

Fix a Date and Make it Public

•   Whatever your vision, fix a date and be certain that you mean it. Nothing ever happens without a deadline. Once you have your date locked down, share your plans with everyone and work backwards covering all the things that you need to do.

Managing Businesses and Money

•   For many people, managing money and resources will be one of the biggest challenges. Work out what finances you want for your adventures and err on the side of caution. It’s always better to overestimate how much it will cost that to underestimate it.

•   Learn ruthlessly and accept you’ll make lots of mistakes as you work towards your goals. Surround yourself with people who are doing what you want to be doing and become a sponge for information and insights.

Frequently asked questions

Isn’t it Dangerous?

•   Everything in life has risks. We considered a huge variety of risks including of course the obvious ones like health and safety with the children at sea, how to run and manage a boat etc. For each risk area we researched, we reached conclusions we were happy with.

What about schooling?

•   We spent months researching the national curriculum and left with a vast stack of materials and school plans. Every day we ensured the children did reading, writing and maths. We were surrounded by learning opportunities and incredibly talented people from all walks of life. Our children thrived in this environment.

How much does it cost?

•   Your living costs can be as low as £2,000 a month depending on how you choose to live. Your boat can cost anywhere from £50,000. Only you can decide how much boat work and maintenance you can do yourself, how much you eat out and whether you stay in marinas or at anchor. We found that 10 per cent of boat cost as annual running cost was indeed a pretty good rule of thumb.

Caspar Craven first sailed round the world in 2000-01 on the BT Challenge yacht Quadstone. He now speaks on teamwork, leadership and how to make things happen. His book ‘Where the Magic Happens’ is out in May, and available for pre-order from Amazon now.