Olympic medallist and America’s Cup sailor Chris Draper took his family on the gap year of a lifetime, cruising the Caribbean on their Fountaine Pajot catamaran. It’s been a steep but exhilarating learning curve, with every day a different adventure
“Morning Daddy!”“Hey, morning Hazza. Did you have a good sleep?” It’s dawn, I’m finishing the graveyard watch and the kids are just waking up. The sun is rising as we make our way down the western coast of Grenada.
We’ve been hammering along under full sail all night long, eating up the miles from Martinique. A tropical wave came through yesterday afternoon with some nasty conditions so the night’s steady 18-knot tradewinds had been very welcome. We’d dragged our heels a bit getting down south so it’s a relieving sight.
“Can we fish some more today, Daddy? Let’s put two lines out, then we’ve got twice as much chance of catching another mahi mahi,” says my son, Harry. It’s safe to say Harry is becoming a fishing addict.
“Where are we? Is that Grenada? Where’s Tom?” Harry is full of questions. Tom is a friend, one of the family we met during our first week in the British Virgin Islands. Harry is excited about seeing him again. Slowly, H, my wife, stirs. She goes to put on the coffee and then my daughter, Lily, appears through the saloon door.
This is just another day of what we’ve come to know as the adventures on Fille de Joie. Our Fountaine Pajot Lipari 41 is our home. We moved on board a few months ago, after I finished work as the tactician for America’s Cup campaign SoftBank Team Japan.
An idea of cruising around the world first popped into my thoughts when I was 18. I was on a gap year after school and working as a sailmaker. My long-standing friend Ollie Nutthal and I were the one-design department at Hood Sails and, when I headed off to university, Ollie set off around the world on his mum and dad’s Tripp 26.
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Our friends all thought he was insane at the time but his experiences were just incredible. That vision of exploration stuck with me. No agenda. You just headed where the wind blew you and wherever took your fancy.
In 2007 I married my amazing wife, H. She is a fantastic racer in her own right but she comes from a background of cruising here, there and everywhere. Her parents have lived on their boat for the last decade. It was in her blood.
After the Beijing Olympics I needed a break and the cruising bug really started to grip H and me. But we had hardly a penny between us. I had spent everything I had on Olympic sailing for the last ten years and H was just out of university.
We cherished our dream for years. Every sailing job I had was planned to help build our funds for boat purchase and our cruising. Friends would even buy us bits for the boat that we didn’t even have.
Before we knew it the sailing jobs had all led towards the new generation of America’s Cup sailing and some incredible opportunities came our way. The other amazing thing that happened was the births of our son and daughter.
Fast-forward ten years – two America’s Cups, two children, calling five different countries home and finally we decided that, yes, we could potentially do it, take it on and follow our dream.
Harry, our son, was seven and Lily four. All of the people we’ve been lucky enough to meet that had experienced cruising life as a youngster have seemed, to my mind, serious, stand-up individuals so I was sure that, for Harry and Lily, the experience would be nothing but fantastic.
Little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for – the world that is cruising, wow! There are a lot of people doing exactly what we had in mind. And there were so many questions to answer: where are we going to sail to and from? What kind of boat should we have? How big? What does it need? Where should we buy it? How will we educate the kids? How much money do we need?
The questions seemed endless and our research had only just begun. The number of bloggers, web forums, etc. devoted to the subject is enormous. There are even cruisers who act as brokers and paid advisers to others planning their trips.
As for the choice of yacht, I had always loved the look of the modern catamarans. From the first day I was interested in the idea of cruising I browsed catamarans online. This was, I guess, partly because I have done a fair bit of cat racing but there were a lot of other reasons too. We are really keen surfers and kitesurfers. We have tonnes of toys and we have kids with tonnes of toys. So we need space, lots of it, and a shallow draught.
Also, I also don’t like going slow and I have got used to sailing boats dead flat or even heeled to windward. The boats I really liked were, sadly, out of our price range: the Catanas, the Balis and new Nautitechs. H really liked the space of the Lagoons, and the Lagoon 420 was what we could afford and set our hearts on. So we set about finding one that fitted all the criteria, and the things I thought were important (back to that later).
Our initial plan had been to buy in Europe and do the ARC from Gran Canaria to St Lucia in November. We felt this would be a great way to start our cruising life, surrounded by like-minded people and potentially a number of other families. Brexit made that a bit trickier, though, and we started to look across ‘the pond’.
We really wanted to spend some time in the Caribbean and if we did the ARC and then went through the Panama Canal in February or March it really wouldn’t allow much time in the Caribbean so we started looking at the idea of staying there during hurricane season and buying there. It seemed more feasible than I had thought.
We found a really nice Lagoon 420 for sale in Martinique. We made an offer that was a bit of a punt and, sure enough, it was rejected. I have never been a great bargainer but we set about negotiating with the broker.
Around that time a good friend sent me a link to another boat that hadn’t really been on our radar, asking if it was something we’d be interested in. It was smaller but much newer. After discussing with our panel of experts it seemed like the Fountaine Pajot Lipari 41 could be a pretty good option for us.
Everything we read about them suggested they sailed really nicely and were very comfortable. This one had little usage and was in great shape. After a trip to the BVIs and a test sail we knew it was right and we bought it. Returning back to Bermuda I was kind of in shock and denial at what we had just done, but at the same time very, very excited.
The boat had all the things we had been looking for. It was an owner’s version so quite attractive for resale. It had a generator, solar power, inverter, watermaker and so on. It ticked most of the boxes, including some of my ones that I now realise really weren’t important. It has a good downwind sail (which we are yet to fly) and a good tender (that floated away in week one and somehow washed up on the beach, we still have it).
H, however, was concerned she wouldn’t have the space the Lagoon was offering. So on the night we flew to Tortola to claim her, everyone was very excited except H, who was, frankly, freaking out about the space or, in her eyes, lack of it.
We arrived with four massive sailbags full of clothes and books and a ton of surfboards and kitesurfing kit. H breathed a huge sigh of relief when we got on board and she saw how much stowage there was. These things are just huge inside and out. They are floating dining tables with underground storage everywhere!
It is a truism to say that from the moment you buy any boat it seems everyone experiences boat envy: those Balis and Nautitechs looked even flasher, but we were generally very happy with our Fille de Joie.
We always knew that catamarans were not fantastic upwind but, to be honest, I have been quite surprised by how well she sails. For sure there’s some leeway but it is achievable to cover decent ground uphill. Anything wide of 70° TWA angle and we start eating up some serious mileage.
I have a bad habit of always using a bit too much sail I suspect (much to my wife’s dismay) and I have been a little surprised at how loose the boat can very suddenly feel when over-sailed, but it performs impressively considering the comfort it offers.
The motion is fine, too. Many people had suggested we wouldn’t like it but it is generally pretty comfy and we have had a few pretty nasty days and nights at sea. We have had a couple of slappy moments from the central pod but very rarely. And it is so nice not to heel!
The space is incredible. She may only be 40ft long but we have ample room for our family of hobbits and all our toys. Guests would be no problem at all as well; we can happily entertain 10-12 people on board. The engine compartments in the transoms are great; you don’t disturb the family doing your morning checks.
The small details
With kids on board, and with the heat in the Caribbean summer, the generator and the air conditioning has, I have to admit, been great. OK so it’s not exactly the purest but it has made bedtimes very, very easy.
The sailplan is great. The square top main makes me feel like I am racing around and it helps us really power the boat up in very light air. The dinghy with the 20hp engine is also great; we wakesurf behind the tender with the kids, but it is heavy for H to lift on the davits and impossible for Harry to start.
The things I don’t like at this stage? One of my biggest dislikes is the wheel is positioned on the starboard side meaning sailing on port is not that pleasant. The boat is built pretty light. This is great for performance but at times it makes me nervous.
The airflow through the cabins is not fantastic. In the Caribbean, where there are frequent rain showers overnight, you spend the nights playing musical hatches so any underhull hatch openings are a godsend. The kids have a great little one on their side but the escape hatches are very low to the waterline on the Lipari meaning that unless you are in a marina you’re not comfortable opening them.
I find the davits are not particularly strong. When you speak to cat owners it seems they have all had similar issues. The supplied blocks are terrible. I understand why these huge companies try to save on fittings but it really feels like they are playing the short game.
When it comes to marine electronics, the Garmin systems on the boat generally seem great. The screens use a lot of energy but are so easy to operate. We have a Garmin AIS 300i system. This is just a receiver, which means we can see other boats but they can’t see us – that doesn’t make much sense to me.
Also, to get the MMSI number changed if you re-register the boat to another country means sending the whole unit back to Garmin. This is, to say the least, incredibly inconvenient when you rely on your radio and system daily.
You quickly come to realise that the most important thing in your cruising life with the family is safety. We started with very little but we are quickly learning that it is not something you can afford to relax about, especially with children. We have developed very strict rules about the kids’ lifejackets and being accompanied on deck. We use netting where possible.
On that note, one of the greatest experiences we have had on the safety side was spending an afternoon with the guys at Liferafts Etc in Saint Martin while they serviced our liferaft. We were able to get the whole family inside it and understanding how everything worked. The experience and knowledge these guys passed on was absolutely invaluable.
Sailing is one thing but, as everyone said to us, the most important thing about your boat is how it performs at anchor. When we brought the boat it had a pretty small Delta anchor fitted and a big Manson Supreme in the locker. After a bit of glassfibre cutting and metalwork we fitted the Manson and, touch wood, so far it has been excellent. Being able to sleep because you trust your anchor is paramount.
Energy storage is the constant battle. Our batteries are a little old and there is just not enough storage for our needs. The family is becoming very energy conscious and we can just manage without the generator but when we head to the Pacific and need freezer space we will be struggling.
Our Spectra Catalina Watermaker has been essential but it is also a big energy consumer. Our solar panels will power it quite happily in the middle of the day but at any other time we are having to steal from our overnight energy storage.
There are a couple of things we brought to the boat thinking they’d be important – our desktop PC being one. Now that was a silly idea. Solar lights, wind-up torches, solar phone chargers, tealight-powered lamps, solar tender nav lights. That is stuff that has proved exceptionally useful.
Olympic sailing always meant looking after my own equipment and I had always prided myself in getting stuck in with the boat work. Things were simple: splicing, sanding, fairing, the odd spanner and so on. More recently, as the boats I’ve sailed have got bigger and way more technical, the shore crews are bigger and extremely skilled.
Before you know it the boats become so specialist that it is hard to help with much or any of the boat work, especially during this last America’s Cup cycle when everything was hydraulic and full of complex computer software and electronics.
Nothing prepared me for the maintenance side of cruising and the realisation that I knew absolutely nothing at all about how to maintain engines, pumps and alike. We had bought a newer and smaller boat than we intended and I’d convinced myself this would mean less work. More fool me.
At one point the constant maintenance was really getting me down; I just spent all of my days fixing or preventing the next issue. Many of these were down to misuse, which was even more frustrating. With time, the constant looking after of the boat has become quite routine and I have to admit that I quite enjoy it now. I still know nothing, but at least now I know I know nothing!
Riding out the storms
As for the hurricane season in the Caribbean: many people would say to us it’s no biggie, just have a good hurricane plan; there are tonnes of hurricane holes. We managed to insure the boat through the season but it has meant us hauling the boat once already.
I read recently from a very famed world cruiser that ‘these days there are no hurricane holes because they are too busy’. They certainly do seem pretty busy but either way if there is a significant hurricane you are at serious risk of losing your home.
When we arrived in Grenada we were treated to some incredible anchorages that were practically empty, but it has also meant for some very nervous moments. We are very sad to say that most of the places and people we have spent a summer at or with were left in much disarray following the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma.
As I write we are ten weeks in and every day has been an adventure. It’s very easy to meet people with the kids in tow; they say hello to everyone. We’ve met incredible people along the way. The other thing that has been humbling has been the kindness we have seen from old sailing friends we’ve met from 30 years as travelling sailboat racers.
Variety is the spice
Days vary enormously. This morning was a dawn surf with the whole family, breakfast, then a move to a different anchorage. I went swimming to check the anchor, more swimming, lunch and then a relaxing afternoon by the pool in the local harbour’s restaurant. It’s a Sunday so one of the biggest challenges of the trip wasn’t on the programme – home schooling.
Having lived all over the world it was difficult to choose which curriculum to follow. H researched the various options. With Lily our youngest it’s much simpler, as she is at pre-school stage. Teaching Harry, our eldest, was at first tricky but we are getting better at it and he is realising that if he works hard he can smash it out in an hour-and-a-half and get on with the rest of his adventures.
The most amazing things that all of us have learned have come from the day-to-day experiences. The kids can name and identify pretty much every underwater animal. They spend their days searching for nature on the beaches and in the sea. So far we have swum with turtles, sharks and manta rays.
Lily can now do back flips and dive to the bottom, 5m deep, aged four. Harry is learning to become a cracking little fisherman and lives for watersports. Their TV and electronics time is minimal. We play cards, play chess, Scrabble, Cluedo. We can sit and chat for hours. The smiles, the laughter… all of this is why we set off on this adventure.
I have been exceptionally lucky to be able to follow my sailing dreams ever since I was ten. Every day has been about trying to be the fastest sailor possible. It is exceptionally hard for any sportsman to find the balance, to spend enough time for your family, yet focus on your work, especially when your work is your passion. I do really miss the racing and it’s really exciting to see the format for the next America’s Cup falling into place.
I really hope I can continue to be so lucky and race at the highest level with incredible sailors. But, for now, the best mainsheet trimmer in the world is my son Harry. Lily is calling the shots. But Mummy is the real boss.
About the author
Chris Draper is a former Olympic sailor who won at Bronze medal for Team GBR in the 49er class at the Athens Olympics in 2004. He has also won the Extreme Sailing Series and competed twice in the America’s Cup, as helmsman with Luna Rossa in 2013 and as tactician with SoftBank Team Japan in 2017. He is now team boss for the British INEOS UK Sail GP team. His wife, H, wrote a blog that detailed the family’s adventures with their children, Harry, seven, and Lily, four, and their adventures and occasional comedy mishaps. Recap on their travels at: sailingfilledejoie.blog
First published in the January 2018 edition of Yachting World. Chris Draper is now team boss of the INEOS Team UK Sail GP entry and the Draper family have sold Fille de Joie and returned to land life… for now.