At the end of a year when the calendar has been mostly crossed out or marked provisional, families who stuck to their cruising plans to make an Atlantic crossing or even advanced them, were breaking free, as Elaine Bunting recently discovered
The Covid-19 pandemic derailed the plans of around two-thirds of the crews planning to take part in the annual ARC Atlantic crossing and ARC+ from Gran Canaria to St Lucia, but 76 crews made it despite the difficulties (24 in ARC+ via Cape Verde and 52 in the non-stop ARC). These included a number who advanced longer term plans when they realised that going this year might be better than staying.
‘Covid is the reason we’re taking on an Atlantic crossing’
“Covid is the reason we are here,” says Vinny D’Avena. He and Ayesha, his wife, who are from Northern Virginia, faced a dilemma in the spring. Face-to-face education for their two boys, aged 16 and 14, had stopped.
“The online environment was not good,” says Vinny. “One thing that kept bothering us was that we were projecting the situation forward to next March. We were at our wit’s end. How to keep them engaged and challenged when you can’t hang out with your friends, do sports that motivate you and get the answers you want? They were isolated and withdrawn. It is a devastating cocktail for teenagers and we saw some of their friends struggle with depression.”
In mid-June the D’Avenas had their first tentative discussion about going sailing. They had owned smaller 31ft and 34ft yachts on Chesapeake Bay before, but had little offshore experience. Scarcely five months later, here they are in Gran Canaria in a brand new Lagoon 450S catamaran preparing for an Atlantic crossing. Theirs is quite a story.
In June, Vinny started researching suitable brokerage catamarans lying anywhere between Croatia and Panama. “This came up out of nowhere,” he says. “The broker told me Lagoon had sold this boat but the buyer had backed out.” The boat was in France, built but not yet launched, and the company offered a keen price. The D’Avenas closed on the deal on 7 July, only three weeks after their first ‘what if’ discussion.
As France was not allowing in US citizens, the family had their boat delivered to Plymouth by PYD yacht deliveries. Vinny and his eldest son, Michael (16), quarantined in the UK and used that time to order a van-load of kit for the boat. Back at home, Ayesha and the couple’s younger son, Robert (14), nervously waited for Robert’s passport to be renewed (it finally came through on 3 September).
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Vinny and Michael, with the PYD delivery skipper, sailed the boat south to Gibraltar in August. Once reunited, the family spent two months there preparing, taking training courses, doing MOB and emergency drills and sailing their new boat.
They aren’t certain what they will do after their Atlantic crossing – that depends on which countries are open and how the family are enjoying life afloat. “We have some backstops. I have drawn a line in the sand around Puerto Rico, so it could be we are just doing a delivery to Florida,” says Vinny.
The couple knows their boat should resell well. The Lagoon 450 is one of the most popular cruising catamarans in the market. Still, this has been an enormous leap of faith, personally and financially. Vinny left his design and renovation business behind, and Ayesha resigned from her job with a healthcare non-profit organisation – and with that went the US family’s private health insurance.
She says a friend told her that this is: “The most un-Ayesha like thing you have ever done!”
“We are both planners. We have a lot of anxiety in our family, so it has to make sense,” says Vinny.
“It’s not like we’d saved a big bunch of money. We had lived relatively financially conservatively and been very restrained in our spending but we had to ask if we could do this without jeopardising our retirement savings and our kids’ college fund.” A loan from Ayesha’s mother helped but it is, they say, “definitely a bit scary”.
“We ran with a 50% idea and then we found there was no reason not to do this. Once you’re over the big stuff the rest is logistics, which we are good at, and resourcefulness, which we don’t lack.”
A reason for entering the ARC rally was to meet up with other families – their sons miss their friends.
“But I think the question is how do you help build resilience and self-confidence. Even setting sailing and COVID aside, one of the biggest things we’ve been trying to do as lifelong, enduring things is to find the right environment for this.”
On the week we visited, Michael had been helping his dad do rig and engine checks, and had been cooking with Nyree Chung from neighbouring ARC yacht Kaizen.
Vinny says: “We may be saving our children, so that is a good thing.”
In contrast to the D’Avenas, their neighbours Faddy Sidaros and Annie La Chapelle from Montreal have been planning their sabbatical for five years. “I told Annie I wanted to be away for a year on my 40th birthday,” laughs Faddy (he actually turned 40 last year).
They ordered their new Nautitech Open 40 catamaran in 2017 and were due to take delivery of Habibi when the lockdown happened. They decided to go ahead with their Atlantic crossing anyway.
Having already applied for visas for France, they were able to enter before France opened its borders and now, six months later, they have logged 4,000 miles between La Rochelle and Portugal, Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearics, Gibraltar then south to the Canaries.
Faddy and Annie plan to be away for 18 months but that could stretch up to five years. Faddy has stepped back from his job as a financial adviser and Annie left hers – she worked for a company that makes loans for home improvement. Annie’s daughters are in their 20s and, she says: “They don’t have kids yet and our parents are in good shape.”
They are particularly interesting on the subject of planning for time out as a financial goal. “We were both at the top of our game and most people would say, why leave now when you’re at your prime? But living on board takes you elsewhere,” observes Faddy.
“I was a workaholic and I thought it would be tough and I would want to keep contact, but as soon as I got on the boat and got rolling, work was secondary,” says Faddy.
“We are happy now not to work. This slow life is so fast. There are so many things to learn and we are not getting all this knowledge for just six months on board!” The flipside? As they decided to sell their house rather than taking a loan, in future they ‘will be a bit more conservative’ says Faddy.
“But my advice is always know your priorities in life. We have a lot of distractions and we all want things now. You have to put [savings] in place automatically and spend what is left – be one of your suppliers and pay yourself every month, or every week. You will have a little suffering in the short term, but you could be spending it on futile things that don’t last.
“Secondly, share your project with others. That commitment helps put in mind that it is a real thing. And set a date. People will give you storage or take care of your dog or go to the bank. They will cheer you on and help you. What goes around comes around. “Have small milestones or victories, as a five-year plan is a long time. Maybe it is a weather course, or things to prepare yourself – something every six months to remind yourself that you’re getting to the goal.”
Faddy admits that “a boat won’t increase in value like a house will, but if you manage your budget you will not be less well off – we don’t expect to ‘decap’ [decapitalise] financially; we are still saving. The lifestyle costs less here. Renting a car a few times a month costs less than owning one.”
He views working life as discontinuous rather than linear. “I have a very elastic concept of retirement. In 2020 it is not like it was in the 1970s when you worked all your life to one day stop. Let’s stop several times. Let’s take a year-and-a-half every 10 years, starting at 30, and keep working until we’re 75. Every 10 years you will be a little bit a different person, with not the same fears and ambitions.
“I am going to take four or five retirements before the end,” he adds. “You spread your risk of not doing something by doing it in bites – you spread the costs and everything. And you are going to see business differently when you get back. We are not losing stuff by going.”
The couple has fully tricked out their catamaran for their Atlantic crossing and for long-term cruising, and it is brimming with kit from watermaker to generator, air con, downwind sails, solar arrays and toys such as stand-up paddleboards. Faddy gave us a very detailed walkthrough explaining equipment choices.
Thoroughly prepared for an Atlantic crossing
Kean Chung and his wife, Nyree, and their two children aged 11 and 7 have been cruising for extended periods on their Oyster 49 since 2017. Chung worked for a hedge fund until the birth of his eldest child, and now sits on the boards of several companies as a non-executive director. His wife started an online retail company from scratch, which she later sold.
Although still only in their early forties, they have not worked in an office environment for the past decade, and their cruising plans are long-term but flexible. “We will do what interests us and live where we want to,” Kean Chung says.
Chung has a Master’s degree in Engineering from Cambridge University. During his final year, he specialised in decision analytics, so perhaps unsurprisingly his approach to preparing Kaizen involved meticulous research. The boat’s name epitomises the family philosophy; it is a Chinese, Japanese and Korean word that means always learning, constantly improving.
Since buying their boat in the UK, they have spent three years cruising in the Mediterranean. Last year they overwintered in Montenegro and were there in the spring when the country locked down.
Because they could not get visas for their children, they were forced to leave and sailed to Greece, then Italy and Spain before leaving for the Canary Islands and finally on to an Atlantic crossing.
The Chungs believe the sailing lifestyle suits their children’s education. Nyree provides a backbone education in English, maths, science, Mandarin and chess through online tuition.
Other topics are covered in context as they travel. “It encourages open thinking and problem solving,” Nyree says.
It seems every item of equipment on board has been itemised and recorded; every procedure tabulated.
Chung has prepared a complete boat manual with checklists for safety briefings, departures, berthing, starting the generator and watermaker, night watches, reefing, MOB and emergency procedures, location of all through-hull fittings, maintenance logs, and the specifications of all equipment on board, including rigging and rigging specs, plus copies of registry documents, lights and shapes, flags and schematics of the boat.
Kaizen is brimming with the latest technology, from augmented reality software to thermal imaging cameras, and the Chungs continually ask: is there a better way of doing things? Is there gear out there that would make life more comfortable, safer or better on an Atlantic crossing or other ocean crossing?
They expect their new customised 3D printer to arrive before the ARC and will be printing their own boat parts while the children learn to design and make their own toys.
Just a couple of examples of how they have rethought the processes on their boat include using a Bluetooth intercom (of the type commonly used by motorcyclists and football referees) to communicate quietly when anchoring or berthing. Theirs is a 6 Riders Netphone costing around €40. They also use a golf rangefinder to find exact distances when anchoring or berthing stern-to, to know exactly how much chain to pay out.
They have an Aquaphor four-filter system to purify and remineralise water from their tank rather than taking on plastic bottles, and fitted an instant hot water tap so they don’t have to keep boiling a kettle. To stop their electric heads scaling up with calcium and smelling, they fitted a Commodorizer device, which fits to the inline strainer and injects chlorine.
As well as a gas hob, they have a portable induction hob which runs off their inverter. They use this for faster and safer cooking (as do Faddy and Annie on Habibi). They often cook meat in their galley sink using a portable Anova ‘sous vide’ device that clamps onto the sink divider. The food is vacuum-sealed and can be cooked from frozen and the cooking process is more forgiving to the inevitable delays and distractions of sailing.
All the lithium batteries used on portable electrical devices, such as the power tools, Dremel, drone and powerbanks, are placed in fireproof bags and stored by the companionway hatch.
Their ‘best practice’ approach has even led them to experiment with storing different vegetables alongside each other to analyse how that affects their shelf life. They conducted a potato experiment, and concluded: ‘the need for a dry, dark storage place was a bigger determinate of early sprouting than the proximity (albeit not touching) to onions’. But the jury is still out on whether carrots should be wrapped in tin foil or baking paper for longer life.
After their Atlantic crossing, plans are less fixed. Arriving ARC boats are able to include their crossing time in the 14-day quarantine period for new arrivals in St Lucia, so any crews who take at least two weeks to complete the ARC will be able to step ashore immediately for a cold beer on arrival.
But the situation is more complicated for family and relief crew arriving by plane. At present, it looks as if friends or family joining in St Lucia will need to complete a 14-day quarantine period, and it is possible that the travel bubbles formed between Caribbean countries could change.
Some, like the Chungs, would like to go through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific eventually, but the timing will depend partly on how soon Australia lets in foreign yachts, as there is a backlog of cruisers who have been ‘stuck’ in French Polynesia. Others would like to go up to the eastern seaboard of the US but those plans, too, await a change to quarantine restrictions.
Yet no one we spoke to was daunted. They have got this far by, metaphorically, taking the paying tack towards the mark. It has worked so far, and they are here to make the best of it. This year of all years, maybe they had the right idea.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 edition of Yachting World magazine.