Selling up and sailing from Scandinavia to the Big Apple was a gamble worth taking for cruising couple Carsten and Vinni Breuning. Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from their book, Capri, Sailing Distant Seas
Carsten and Vinni Breuning are a modern cruising couple. Like many who make the leap – and the many more who aspire to – they went to sea in retirement from a busy life.
Carsten walked away from his work as CEO of companies in Denmark and the Netherlands while Vinni, seven years his junior and a trained nurse, gave up her job running the Danish regional hospitals in Zeeland.
Their cruising experience was limited and neither of them had made a passage of significant length, but they bought Capri, a Jeanneau Sun Fast 40, and fitted her out for the ocean. They couldn’t know for sure they were going to like it, yet they sold their home and committed to the adventure of a circumnavigation.
The book they have co-written about the first part of this trip is Capri, Sailing Distant Seas. It takes the reader with commendable frankness from the dream back in Scandinavia to the Pacific end of the Panama Canal via the British Isles, an ARC+ rally, and a serious foray up the American coast as far as New York.
Carsten grew up in Canada and his goal was to cruise there for the summer, but they learned rapidly that all plans at sea must flex with the times.
They’re the sort of cruising couple you wish to meet in a far-off anchorage and their book is a delight to read. For this extract I’ve not chosen an account of storm and tempest, but the last chapter in which the couple evaluate their experience so far and offer some honest answers.
Extract: Capri, Sailing Distant Seas
As we come out of the canal, we have sailed almost 15,000 miles and lived as boat bums for two years. We’ve given up our careers, sold our house and belongings and sailed away from our families and friends. We’re a long way from the comfortable and secure life we had in Denmark. It is time to reflect on what we’ve done.
Did our cruising life live up to our expectations? Yes, we have not regretted our decision. It has been a dream to cruise distant seas in our own boat. Any expectations have been more than exceeded. We’re looking forward to sailing to even more exotic places in the Pacific.
Let there be no doubt though, that when we sailed out of Thyborøn, we felt like babies leaving the crib and entering the grown-up world. We would be on the big oceans and would need to take care of everything ourselves – there would be no possibility of finding a safe harbour. We would need to be prepared for anything; important repairs, acute sickness, perhaps even the boat sinking. In other words, we coastal cruisers would be far outside our comfort zone.
A well-known motto among cruisers is ‘cruising means repairing your boat in exotic locations’. This is always good for a laugh, unfortunately it is also true. Sailing across the Atlantic puts as much wear and tear on our boat as sailing for 10 years at home. Despite knowing all this we’ve still been surprised by the amount of repairs required now that Capri is in use 24/7. The learning curve is steep. It is rare that there is professional help available, though cruisers are happy to help each other.
We’ve brought along boxes filled with spare parts, but as one wag said: “Carsten, it doesn’t matter how many spare parts you bring you’ll need the one you didn’t.” We’ve had to buy parts and have them shipped in from the US or Europe, freight alone costing so much that you can have a heart attack when you see the invoice.
It costs more money than you think, and we’ve yet to meet anyone who has been able to sail within their budget. Some cruisers have had to get a job along the way to earn extra money, or else have travelled home and worked there for a few months. For some, it has meant the end of the dream and they’ve sold their boat and gone home.
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Budgets are individual, of course, but they can be divided into three rough categories:
• Typically smaller (under 40ft), older boats from before 2000 with less comfort, less technical equipment (less things to break down). This group is KISS (keep it simple). There are fewer of these each year.
• Mid-sized boats (40-47ft), generally newer, with more equipment (more and more expensive repairs). We’re in this group.
• First-class (48-80ft): newer boats with all the technical equipment and comfort you can imagine. This group is dominated by catamarans and getting bigger and bigger. Boats frequently cost more than $1million; have very expensive repairs and insurance.
Our impression has been that among cruising couples it usually is the man who has the dream of cruising and, in order to convince his wife to come along, ends up buying a big catamaran to satisfy her requirements for comfort and safety.
Catamarans are getting better and better, and even we hard-core monohull sailors have to admit that they are suited for ocean sailing on the Coconut Milk Run. We call them ocean-going condomarans. Scandinavians own few cats – probably because the harbours in the north are too small for them. Before we left, we thought Capri would be one of the larger boats cruising, but no, she is frequently one of the smallest in the anchorages.
Most of the cruising books we’ve read are years old. They describe a life where members of the cruising community form close friendships. We’ve yet to find this. This is partially our own fault – we turned north and sailed to the US when everyone we crossed the Atlantic with sailed out into the Pacific.
We’d like to find some boats that we would continue to meet up with. Perhaps it will come. We’ve met many wonderful cruisers along the way – exciting people that we would love to have as long-term friends – but so far, circumstances have dictated otherwise.
In the past, new arrivals in the anchorages were met with fresh baked bread and a welcome to the tired sailors after a long passage. Today it is different. The advent of GPS, chartplotters and satphones has meant there is a new class of cruisers.
Cruising was hard work in the past. A skipper had to know how to use a sextant, read a chart and the clouds. Today, this is all done for you. The chartplotter tells you exactly where you are, the sat phone allows you to get updated weather forecasts daily and life is much more secure.
All this has meant there are many more cruisers. We are all less dependent on each other and so we don’t mingle as much. We’ve met true cruisers who’ve been at sea for over 20 years. We hope that sailors like them will people our further journey. We’ll see.
When it comes to visiting friends and family, we’ve learned that if we have guests coming they can choose where they will meet us, or they can choose when they will meet us. Not both. The winds and weather (and boat repairs) decide when we can reach a destination. Delays are the rule rather than the exception and our friends will just have to make allowances for that.
Cruisers are split 50/50 after having made their first long passage. One group likes it and will happily do it again; the other hates it and swears that they will only do it in a casket. It seems no one is indifferent. We wondered which group we’d belong to – the Atlantic was our first test.
We’d agreed that if we couldn’t abide passages, we would sail the Caribbean and then ship Capri home on a freighter. Fortunately, we are in the first group. We’re both good at being alone with ourselves and can enjoy the loneliness that comes with being on watch at night.
We’ve also found a new perspective on distance. When we left Crosshaven to cross Biscay, we thought 700 miles an immense distance, and the thought that it would take five or six days was daunting. Today we feel we’ve almost arrived when there is only 500 miles to go.
An inner voyage of discovery
Our limit for what we can handle has expanded. When we do get tired, hungry and our energy and patience is at rock bottom, we react differently. Carsten gets irritable or becomes introverted, while Vinni gets irritated or starts crying.
We were both surprised that Vinni starts crying when she is far outside her comfort zone. She’s experienced being under enormous pressure during her professional career – including life and death situations as a nurse – and never broken down, perhaps it’s because then she felt in charge.
We’ve developed well as a team. We have full confidence in each other’s skills and complement one another well, especially in critical situations.
Most people think cruisers sail most of the time, but most of the time, perhaps 70-80%, we are at anchor. Hurricane seasons determine when we can sail and when we cannot. But life as a boat bum is vastly different from life at home. Practical things take much longer. Shopping, clothes washing can take a whole morning. Of course, we don’t have much else to do so it doesn’t matter.
Even after 29 years of marriage, we can still live together easily in a few square feet. It has been wonderful to have so much time together, but friends have asked if we haven’t grown tired of each yet? A relevant question and the answer is: yes. We haven’t reached the point that one of us has moved off the boat to a hotel, but we don’t mind if the other one goes for a long walk or pops to a cafe to use the internet. It can be great to have a little time alone for any cruising couple.
We particularly enjoy the freedom of having no obligations. We’re carrying our house on our backs as snails do. Nothing beats lying at anchor and following the rhythm of the sun. Up at dawn, drink your morning coffee and prepare for the day. End the day at sundown, perhaps sit and read or else – and this is a big event – haul the computer up into the cockpit and put on a movie in your outdoor theatre. It doesn’t get better than that.
The only things that stress us are difficult boat repairs or problems getting spare parts.
We have developed a new mantra; we have no plan and, by golly, we’re gonna stick to it! Which means we don’t know where we are going and we don’t know when. Our plans change constantly due to boat repairs, sickness or just a desire to see something. This is the great privilege of being a cruiser – live a life free as a bird.
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