Jock Hamilton, skipper of the Blue Leopard, recounts the tale of the ketchs first circumnavigation
Jock Hamilton, skipper of the 112ft Laurent Giles-designed Blue Leopard, recounts the tale of the ketch’s first circumnavigation, a first for the yacht and quite a change for a man more used to commercial ships.
Big steep seas, 45 knots on the nose, adverse current, boat speed down to 1.5 knots. We were back in the
Strait of Gibraltar after a long circumnavigation and being reminded that the Med is not
to be treated with disrespect.
But we had nothing to complain about. Our three-and-a-half-year trip had taken us from Mallorca to Cape Town via Brazil, the Canaries and the Cape Verdes, then around the Cape
of Good Hope for the Indian Ocean islands of Mayotte, the Seychelles, Maldives and Andamans and on to Malaysia before going to New Zealand by way of Thailand, Singapore, Bali and some of Australia.
From New Zealand, we sailed to Tahiti and French Polynesia before returning via the Galapagos, Caribbean and Azores. And apart from squalls, this was the worst weather that we had encountered.
OK, so we’d had a baby knockdown during a short squall in the South Pacific, which had disturbed dinner somewhat, produced some shrieks from the galley and involved a degree of carpet drying and so on. But all in all we’d been incredibly lucky with the weather.
From Tahiti onwards in particular, we had been able to sail nearly all the way. We didn’t turn on the engines across the Pacific to Panama, although three weeks close-hauled on starboard tack had been a bit wearing in the galley because everything on the chopping board rolled onto the sole. But with sail up, Blue Leopard has the most comfortable motion of any boat or ship I have ever been on and although we were close-hauled the whole way across, we never lost the wind or had to reef right down.
Already buoyed by a brilliant Antigua Classic Sailing week in which we won our class, our Atlantic crossing had been the stuff of fantasies. We had 15 to 30 knots of wind, never further forward than 50? or further abaft than 110? apparent, and had taken nine days to the Azores and five on to Gibraltar, far better than my planning estimate of 200 miles a day. We had one 260-mile day and several above 240 miles.
We achieved higher speeds on occasion in the Indian Ocean up the Mozambique channel, in strong quartering winds and seas – at one point, 16 knots appeared while surfing. But our speed hadn’t been consistent, so this Atlantic crossing, my final ocean crossing to complete the voyage, had been a real high.
The only slight problem was that I had managed to give one of the deckhands food poisoning with some clams bought from a fisherman on our final night in Antigua. He was knocked out for about four days and initially turned a truly alarming shade of green.
Reminiscing on the trip, I realised I had learnt a lot. I hadn’t expected running a yacht to be too hard – I have a Class One certificate and come from a background of running commercial ships. So I was surprised at how involved a yacht can be. On a ship, a lot of day-to-day responsibility is handled by the office, so crewing, maintenance, refit organisation, training, even establishing the programme was new to me.
However, once I’d realised that common sense and optimism solved most issues, it all seemed to work out OK. We had some adventures on the way, of course: blowing the cruising chute halyard mid-Atlantic at 12 knots; gybing all standing in the Indian Ocean, then being hit by 40 knots of wind with main and mizzen aback; great diving and snorkelling in the Maldives, Andamans, Similans and French Polynesia; four visits from King Neptune; and some good friends.
Blue Leopard is a wonderful boat for world cruising and I was surprised to find that although she has cruised widely in Europe and been to the Caribbean for a couple of seasons she had never been right around. Her pair of original Rolls-Royce engines lets her motor at about 14 knots, although she still does nine knots with one engine on 70 per cent load and the other propeller feathered, and reducing the load to 50 per cent gives seven knots and a 3,000-mile range.
Her wheelhouse is great when the weather is foul and I can’t imagine any yacht doing what we have done in such a hassle-free way yet still being able to enjoy sailing in classic yacht regattas. I have tried between seven and four crew for crossings – the optimum number on passage seems to be five or six.
En route, we upgraded her here and there. We installed a more modern battery-charging system in Cape Town, had a full repaint, recaulked the decks and fitted two new generators in Malaysia, plus new batteries and sails in New Zealand. I learnt that I didn’t need a specialist engineer, so took on that side myself, which allowed me another deckhand to help our Malaysian bosun Jafri keep up with tasks such as varnishing.
Home in Europe
It was good to get back to Europe; arriving in the Azores, I was surprised to feel that we were back home. We had a reasonably busy Mediterranean season doing a little cruising with the owner on the west coast of Italy and Mallorca before and during the Argentario and Palma classic yacht regattas and acting as mothership for the owner’s lovely Fife Solway Maid at other classic regattas in the Med.
We also did a little chartering. But although Blue Leopard can do this as well as any boat, I feel she misses the chance to spend days on end bounding effortlessly across the oceans. When she is comfortably settled into the groove, she purrs along at about ten knots, a most comforting vibration courses through her and I love turning in.
Re-printed from Yachting World June 2007 issue