Want to sail around the world without retiring? Max Goodman and Charlotte Brannstrom on how they achieved their dream as ‘career break’ cruisers
There’s an old sailing joke that goes something like this: “In search of single man with boat. Please send photo of boat.” Today couples find each other on dating apps rather than via the personal adverts in the back of a newspaper, but when a girl with a profile photo taken at the helm caught Max’s eye, the first thing he messaged was: “Do you want to sail around the world?” Charlotte did not hesitate in her answer: yes. Six years later we left Sweden, and our jobs, and set off for an adventure that had been a dream of both of ours long before we’d met.
Max, a 32-year-old engineer, has sailed since he was young, and had bought small keelboats with money earned from part-time jobs while still at school. He crewed on an Atlantic crossing from Boston to Portugal months after that first message. Charlotte, a 28-year-old lawyer, grew up in a family where sailing is part of every summer and, partly to make a point to her older brother, sailed across the Atlantic on a yacht skippered by Nikki Henderson when she was 19.
Sailing around the world was a goal we both wanted to achieve. As we saw it we had two options: go now, before life gets too serious with dependants, or wait until retirement
Initially we thought the most sensible option would be to crew on the yachts of other people completing their circumnavigations. We knew we could be desirable to have on board as crew, thanks to our past experience and also the practical fact that we’d be a couple sharing a cabin. But that wasn’t our dream.
Making it happen
After many late evenings of crunching numbers and running multiple budgets we saw there might be an option for us to do it differently: on a yacht of our very own. To work out the actual budget needed we read countless articles and talked to anyone who was willing to pass on information (a huge thank you to the owners who willingly and honestly shared the true numbers). We calculated the prices of food, insurance, maintenance, and then added an extra 25% contingency for the unexpected costs that we were repeatedly warned about. We quickly realised that opting for a slightly smaller boat would keep the costs down.
As we schemed, we saved. We instantly scaled down on expensive weekends, meals out and coffee stops. We set ourselves tough goals and worked towards saving 50% of our salaries to make sure we had enough buffer for unforeseen costs.
We decided that our target yacht size would be around 40ft based on the minimum requirements for around the world rallies. The rallies have a proven track record of getting yachts around the world to a manageable timeframe, so we used their requirements as a baseline, although we planned to sail independently. Based on their entry requirements we figured out what equipment we’d need, prioritised into ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’. In the end we got all our ‘must haves’ but only a few ‘nice to haves’, and after completing the trip are very happy with almost all the choices we made.
Three years into our relationship things got serious: while our peers were spending money on houses, weddings and starting families, we bought our yacht, Puffin. After actively looking for 12 months we found a 2007 Beneteau Oceanis 40 in Stockholm. Though slightly over budget she was in great shape with nearly new sails, and it was love at first sight. We made the initial purchase with a loan, though thankfully were able to pay this off while still working, which gave us one less monthly cost while cruising.
The following 18 months were hectic refitting our 12-year-old yacht. We spent every evening and weekend transforming Puffin from a comfortable coastal cruiser to a boat that could sail around the world. Everything needed to be serviced or upgraded. We had to buy every bit of safety gear for offshore sailing. We decided to replace all the navigation equipment and install a new autopilot, keeping the old one as a spare. The other major upgrades were installing 430W of solar and a hydrogenerator to make Puffin more self-sufficient. We constantly searched online for used gear and managed to get both a bargain watermaker and a dinghy.
There was a lot of work to do and as the budget was tight we had to do it all ourselves – something we are very glad of with hindsight, as it gave us confidence that we know how to carry out repairs along the way.
We did all this while still working hard at our respective jobs, doing our best to hit targets that could potentially result in bonuses. There was no getting away from the fact that every penny would count.
To make sure that the cruising life was really right for us, we set off for a shakedown sail before we told our bosses of our plans. We maxed out vacation days saved from previous years and took six weeks of leave to sail Puffin from Sweden down to Spain. This was both a trial sail to make sure we would enjoy living aboard, a shakedown to test everything we’d installed, and an opportunity to pass a big stretch of the orca-affected coastline off Spain and Portugal before the whales migrated north.
Our sail to Spain went smoothly, everything worked and we were loving the cruising life. We left Puffin in Spain and flew back to Sweden with great confidence, delighted that our hard work had paid off and all our installations were up and running. We gave ourselves perhaps a bit too big of a pat on the back, and notified our employers that we’d be leaving to head out for an adventure of a lifetime. Both resignations were met with counter-offers from our employers of taking a sabbatical instead. We weren’t giving up work just yet after all…
With Puffin in Spain our final four months at home were spent planning the trip in more detail and saving as much money as we possibly could – while also taking care of all the practical arrangements.We rented out our home (luckily our tenant rented the place furnished so we only had to box up our personal belongings) and lent the car to Max’s mother. We’d be away from home for 18 months – a tight timeline for more than 30,000 miles but a pace we needed to keep up if we were to stay ahead of the hurricane season.
Four months later we returned to Puffin and this is when the trip started for real. It was December and time to head down to the Canaries where our crew would meet us for the Atlantic crossing. In the big picture of our circumnavigation this was a relatively short crossing, but this was also the stretch that really humbled us.
First, all our luggage we’d brought with us from Sweden got lost before we even made it to Spain. We had rigging issues that led to our mainsail ripping badly and Charlotte was beaten up after scaling the mast to try to get the mainsail down. We discovered structural faults to the rudder while at sea, and our new light wind sail was delivered with measurements so wrong we couldn’t use it.
Our egos and self-esteem were crushed over and over again and we started to question whether we were capable enough to make it across the Atlantic.
Not only were we doubting ourselves, but we were also falling behind on our timeline and having so many repairs this early on were seriously eating away at our contingency fund. But there was no time to mope, we just had to get working. When we finally slipped the lines in Las Palmas, we were exhausted but confident that Puffin was now strong enough to cross oceans.
Something we learned here, and experienced over and over again, is that if you want to keep cruising on a deadline it will cost you money, and your own comfort will have to be set aside. We crossed the Atlantic without any further major issues, but had a long crossing due to the light winds. We also had to recalculate our power consumption sailing in shorter days closer to the equator, while the warm temperatures in the cabin also significantly increased the power use from the fridge.
Arriving in the Caribbean meant more trips to boat stores than snorkelling but Martinique and Guadeloupe turned out to be the perfect places to find spares for a boat built in France. We had a productive two months (including upgrading Puffin’s battery) and got friendly with the people who run the boat stores who know literally everything about the boats passing through, all wanting parts to very specific specifications.
Soon it was time to head towards Panama. The cruising community we met in Shelter Bay Marina, before the canal transit, was a totally new world to us and everyone had their own story of adventure. We could see that, among cruisers, nobody’s plans and experiences are exactly alike, and yet most people make their dreams work on their own terms.
Thanks to using an agent, we were able to get through the Panama Canal smoothly and efficiently and – as soon as a few more spare parts arrived from Europe – slipped lines for the Pacific crossing. By now we were very much realising that setting out on a circumnavigation on a tight schedule and without the services of a rally to help you, means you pay the price of having less time to explore and more work to do at every stop.
Crossing the Pacific Ocean was our first major ocean passage with only two of us on board and, since we’d decided not to stop at the Galapagos (which would have been very expensive) it was going to be a long one. But, once settled in, the Pacific treated us very well and we had a wonderful passage to Nuku Hiva. As we were anchoring, cruisers that we’d met in Panama came to welcome us with fresh fruit. This was the tropical sailing experience we’d come searching for.
We only had time to visit a fraction of the Pacific islands but they were certainly one of the highlights during our trip. Our absolute favourite spot was Musket Cove, Fiji but we also got a chance to explore Bora Bora, Savusavu and Denarau, Fiji. This time gave us a chance to catch our breath slightly and remind us of why we set out on this trip. Drinking morning coffee with turtles and manta rays graciously circling Puffin and then spending the days goofing around in 25° warm water trying to learn how to wing foil created memories that we’ll carry with us forever. We also hiked all over the islands and experienced amazing local festivals and cultures.
Even though we could have stayed much, much longer we knew that we had to keep heading west towards Australia. Reaching the halfway point on our circumnavigation was a good morale booster, but we were very aware that we had only done the ‘easy’ part. After Australia we set out into the Indian Ocean and this was when the sailing got harder.
Turning a corner
We had to hastily escape Cocos Keeling Islands because of incoming bad weather, the seas were nowhere as gentle as they had been in the Atlantic or the Pacific and at one point we were sailing with a named tropical revolving storm breathing down our neck so intensely that even as two coffee addicted sailors we didn’t even consider touching the kettle for a five full days. The instruments showed a consistent wind strength of over 40 knots and the forecast average wave height was 5m plus for many days in a row.
Our main priority was just to keep things as safe and comfortable as possible and be sure to sail downwind, even though this wind angle didn’t always coincide with our desired course. We also had the insurance deadline of making it to South Africa by November to ensure coverage. This had put pressure on us long before the Indian Ocean, but we kept reminding ourselves that the main importance was to be safe in all conditions and, no matter the deadlines, we always made sure that safety was never compromised.
Though Puffin’s arrival in South Africa was sweet, we next had to negotiate its notorious coastline before we could finally pass the Cape of Good Hope. It’s hard to explain, but all the European crews we spoke to in marinas and while making hops along the South African coast agreed that arriving back into the Atlantic Ocean was a surprisingly huge relief.
We were one of quite a few boats making our way across the Indian Ocean and along the South African coast at the same time.
Conditions were the toughest we’d ever experienced when coastal sailing, with long distances between protected harbours and new low-pressure systems rolling in every few days creating a wind against current scenario that can be horrendous (the charts here warn of abnormal wave conditions that can generate 20m seas).
But we also experienced the best camaraderie among cruisers anywhere in the world. The challenging conditions at sea made us all friends in harbour, and we were welcomed into the group even though we had one of the smallest yachts and were younger than many of our fellow cruisers’ children.
We sailed many stretches in company with an American solo sailor and, as our yachts kept an equal pace, many evenings ashore were spent discussing weather options and routing plans. His calm nerves, honed from days in the Navy and raising four children, were a good balance to our impatient hunt for ever-more forecast models and information. Sharing these experiences formed a bond for life.
Meeting other cruisers in waters where no-one cruises for the beaches or palm trees also brought out some of the most interesting personalities and introduced us to sailors from truly humbling backgrounds. We were all working towards the same goal of a circumnavigation, but the drivers behind that goal, and the paths to achieving it, were all unique.
Being back in the Atlantic felt like being back in our own back yard but, in fact, none of us had ever sailed in the southern Atlantic before. In some ways it felt like we were almost home but a big dose of boat work was still required in Cape Town for the remaining 10,000 miles home, especially after what Puffin had sailed through over the previous months. The hard work paid off though and we enjoyed some glorious sailing.
From Cape Town to Namibia and onwards was some of our best sailing of the entire trip, with stable downwind cruising for days. Namibia often left us jaw-dropped at incredible views of sand dunes stretching out into the Atlantic while seals, penguins and albatross kept us company at sea. This amazing start to the new year gave us a boost before our final push: upwind from the equator to the Azores via the Cape Verdes. But we have few complaints: during the entire circumnavigation we had less than 10% upwind sailing.
We crossed our own outbound track a few miles out of Cape Verde, 14 months after starting from Las Palmas, and arriving back in Europe when we made landfall in the Azores late March felt like a great way to mark this celebration and accomplishment. We didn’t have far to sail home now and, unexpectedly, found we were both looking forward to getting back to land-based life again. This was a feeling that surprised us, and we sometimes had a hard time admitting, as it often felt taboo to say out loud among cruisers.
From the Azores back to mainland Europe was our final ocean passage and it was with amazement that we realised on reaching France that not one single thing had broken on the last crossing. Perhaps this was because Puffin had so many miles that she was finally ‘broken in’, or perhaps we now knew Puffin so well that every new sound has us on immediate alert – or perhaps it was a farewell gift from Neptune. We’ll never know.
One thing is for sure though, this perfect final passage will smooth over some of the tougher memories from the trip and tempt us back out there for future long distance adventures.
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