Is sailing around the world with your partner the ultimate bluewater dream? Helen Fretter meets World ARC couples who’ve done just that
If you could choose anyone to go on a grand adventure with, would it be your life partner? For many couples that’s the ideal.
But what if you don’t have the same level of experience, or one of you isn’t confident to co-skipper? Perhaps you plan to take friends and family with you. But what happens if those plans change halfway round? I talked to World ARC crews near the finish of their circumnavigation to find out how different couples had answered those unknowns over their round the world voyage.
Over the 2017, 2018 and 2019 World ARC rallies (the round-the-world rally organised by World Cruising Club) around 20-30% of yachts set off double-handed. But by the time the fleet reached Tonga or Fiji that proportion had risen to about 50%.
Grenada was a homecoming celebration for the World ARC fleet. While St Lucia marked the end of the 2018-19 rally, Grenada signalled the fleet’s return to the Caribbean. A full circumnavigation for most, 438 days sailing for those who’d completed it in a single World ARC loop.
Some 38 yachts started in St Lucia in January 2018, 16 were gathered in Grenada this March. Some had started in 2017 – or even earlier – but peeled off to linger in the Pacific or return to normal life for a while, then hooked into the 2018 rally on its way past. Others had diverted to explore New Zealand, Ascension Island, or another outpost, before rejoining their fleet.
No matter how they’d done it, all had sailed some 30,000 miles, crossed the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and lived at anchor for months on end.
With very few exceptions, most of the boats belonged to couples taking on their first trip sailing around the world. Some had sailed the entire voyage jointly, on others one partner had flown home for a stage or two. Some had taken crew from day one, others had switched between double-handing and sailing with more aboard. Several started with one plan, and finished with a very different set up indeed.
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One such couple was David and Wendy Tipton. A former farmer from Staffordshire, UK, David had built up a recycling business that he sold, enabling them to buy Mischief, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 479, and sail around the world. There was only one problem: Wendy hated the water and considered herself an inexperienced sailor.
Before they set off on the 2017 ARC transatlantic, Wendy had to learn to swim before she could even do a sea survival course. “It was never my dream to circumnavigate, it was David’s. So I went along with it, but it was totally out of my comfort zone,” she recalls.
Wendy’s initial condition of agreeing to do the World ARC was that they would take a crew to sail Mischief with them. They sent a round robin email to friends and sailing contacts to see who wanted to join them, and garnered an enthusiastic response, with many signing up for different legs. One was a very experienced sailor who sailed with the Tiptons for the first six months, which Wendy says gave her a lot of confidence.
But 15 months is a long time to share your home, with up to six aboard at times, and Wendy admits having no personal space nearly drove her to breaking point. “I did have my bags packed to go home at one point. I was so fed up. It was nothing to do with the sailing, I was just sick of people.
“We were at the stage of needing down time on our own. It’s very intense – I didn’t appreciate how intense the whole trip would be. You wouldn’t have people living with you for six or seven months, and things that wouldn’t normally irritate you become irritating. For my own sanity I needed some time on our own.”
They decided instead to sail on double-handed from South Africa, and arrived in St Helena bowled over by how smoothly it had gone. “It was an absolute revelation,” David recalls. “The watches worked well, the boat worked well, and we were just asking ourselves why have we not done that before?”
Before switching to sailing double-handed Wendy had sought advice from other crews on the ARC, many of whom had become close friends. She particularly asked the women for honest opinions, and says that they were overwhelmingly positive – with the obvious caveat that it could be more tiring sharing the sailing between just two.
They began their first double-handed passage with David sleeping in the cockpit during his off watches, “just in case she needed me quickly,” he recalls. “But after a few days of that regime she said, ‘You might as well go down below, I’m fine.’”
But things didn’t go so well on one of the next stages, from Cabedelo, Brazil, to Devil’s Island, French Guiana. “It was a bit of a catalogue of events,” he explains. “Our radar stopped working, so we were not able to monitor squalls.
“We had another boat who was monitoring them for us, but one came through that went from 7 to 35 knots and we had a spinnaker up in the dark. It broke the spinnaker halyard, the spinnaker went round the keel, the helm wouldn’t come off autopilot so we broached, an outhaul and a batten in the main broke.”
Dealing with such a litany of problems between just the two of them was unknown territory, but Wendy says that while the situation did scare her, they were able to calmly work through and solve each issue.
“What the World ARC has given us – not just from the easy passages, but from the difficult passages – is the confidence that you could throw most stuff at us and we’d be OK,” David added. When they received the Division A 1st prize for the leg to Grenada, sailors across the fleet voiced their pride in Wendy for the progress she’d made.
Another couple that decided they were better off completing the rally two-up were Dan and Agnes Long from Florida on Smoke & Roses. Dan, a former firefighter, and Agnes, a former florist – hence the boat name – ran their Leopard 47 as a charter boat before the World ARC and were experienced sailing in home waters, both holding US Captain’s licences.
Like many, they began their World ARC with trusted friends, and were also joined by their adult daughter for stages. But they later took on an unknown crewmember who had been recommended to them.
“She way overstated her sailing experience,” Dan recalls. “She could not trim sails, and she’d argue with you about it.” The final straw for Dan was waking up to find them sailing 90° off course. When he challenged the crew on deck she replied: “Because it’s faster.”
Fearful that they would run aground or make some other catastrophic error, Dan found himself supervising every watch – defeating the point of having a third person aboard. “So instead of being up for my shift, I’m up for my shift and her shift. But with Agnes [on watch] I’ll sleep through the night because I trust her.”
Having sailed two-up for some of the shorter legs around the Society Islands, the Longs also decided to go double-handed from Cape Town and found themselves easily handling the longer distances, setting a spinnaker for three days straight and covering 200-plus miles a day.
Bringing in reserves
For other couples taking on crew turned out to be a positive switch. Peter and Anissa Pappas, from Wyoming, USA, had never sailed any overnight passages with just themselves aboard their Amel Super Maramu 2000 Callisto before signing up to the rally. Anissa describes herself as a very inexperienced sailor, but they sailed from Grenada to Cape Town double-handed.
Their Amel is set up for single-handed sailing, with push button controls from a protected centre cockpit. The duo sailed conservatively, never over-canvassed. “And we set radar guard zones and cross-track error in case our autopilot started wandering around,” explains Peter. But Anissa still found night watches hard.
“I was always worried if we were going to hit somebody. I never felt totally comfortable with that. I always felt that if something is going to happen, it’s going to happen on my watch.” She says she would frequently wake her husband for a second opinion.
But when one crewmember who had been sailing on another boat found himself without a berth for the leg from Cape Town, the Pappas’s made a snap decision to invite him to join them.
“We’d said no on countless occasions to taking other crew,” recalls Anissa. “It’s been hard [going two-up], especially hard on my husband because everything falls to him. But for us transitioning to crew has been easy, and our new crew has been the easiest person.”
With an extra hand they were soon able to carry more sail area, enjoying having the 52ft ketch flying along under four or five sails, including two spinnakers and a staysail.
“With hindsight, I think we should have started out with crew,” admits Anissa. “Peter and I had not really been on the boat together for enough time to really get all the sails up and learn what we needed to learn. And later maybe – or even maybe not – we would have downsized.
“Two was tough, but we did it. But for couples I would say keep an extremely open mind about bringing crew aboard.”
While the Pappas’s made a sudden decision to take a third hand along, the 2018-19 World ARC was characterised by an unusually high number of crew who joined to sail one boat, and ended up becoming such a fixture of the rally community that they extended their trip by joining others.
Several of the roving crew had sailed on three or four different yachts by the time they reached Grenada. Karen Slater, a former fire service worker from the UK, was a very popular member of the ARC family and was about to join her sixth boat for the final cruise to St Lucia.
Having a floating pool of experienced crew became an invaluable resource for some boats. American retirees Ruud and Laurie Bosman on the Hylas 54 Blue Pearl had originally only planned to sail the first half of the rally.
“But by the time we were in Australia Ruud felt very strongly that he wanted to complete the circumnavigation and do it all at once, and I felt very strongly that I did not want to cross the Indian Ocean,” recalls Laurie.
Both aged 71, the pair never wanted to sail double-handed and had organised crew for the Pacific legs, but no further. “Because we had never planned to do the whole circumnavigation we had made no plans beyond French Polynesia,” Ruud explains.
When Laurie returned home to spend a few weeks with family, they invited other ARC crew aboard, some staying for the entire second half of the circumnavigation.
“It’s been quite easy, you are relatively familiar with the people because they have been in the fleet. They have a bit of a reputation, and importantly you know why they’re leaving boats,” he adds.
There are still no guarantees that an experienced ARC crewmember will be a good fit. Flashpoints were usually over domestic niggles like food preferences (several couples commented on how provisioning was much simpler with just two aboard, reducing one area of work).
Another issue for the boat-hopping crews was where their ‘home’ base was during stopovers. Peter Pappas commented: “It’s great having crew when you’re underway, but really when you get to your destination you assume they will get off the boat after a couple of days, so you and your wife can have some privacy, and have your home back.”
Many of the World ARC crew strategically took themselves away during long stopovers: diving in Australia, going on land tours, or even climbing Kilimanjaro during the fleet’s visit to South Africa.
Sharing the load
For those who did sail as a couple, how they divided the roles often reflected home life. Peter and Wendy on Mischief, and Dan and Agnes on Smoke & Roses, had both worked together so were used to spending extended periods of time with each other. Other couples, where one had spent much of the marriage putting in long hours at the office, had a bigger adjustment to make.
Some had chosen to time their world tour with natural breaks in their children’s education. Mark Chatfield on the Grand Soleil 56 Mad Monkey sailed with his wife Helen as well as his adult son Josh, timing it between Josh finishing school and starting university: “I worked as a sales director, with constant travel. So during the week, his schooling and upbringing, I didn’t see a lot of him – for me this trip was predominantly to get to know him better.”
The majority of boats divided roles along fairly traditional ‘pink and blue’ job lines when in port, with the women in charge of provisioning and domestics, the men in charge of repairs and systems. There were exceptions: on Misto British ex-pat Rosalind Cheetham skippered their Nautitech 443 and was hands-on with maintenance.
At sea the roles tended to shift slightly. Domestic jobs were more frequently shared underway, although the majority of ‘skippers in charge’ were the male partners.
Most couples ate an evening meal together before settling into some kind of night watch system, the most popular being a three or four hours on/off pattern, before reconvening for the 10am radio-net. Many adopted a much more fluid watch pattern during the day, each taking naps whenever needed. Several skippers took longer night watches than their partners, but would set alarms to allow 15-20 minute naps on open ocean legs.
On Smoke & Roses Dan and Agnes changed their running rigging so reefs could be taken in and out from the cockpit. “It’s made life a lot easier for me because I was getting up for sail changes no matter who was on watch, every single time. Even with three people on the boat I was getting tired,” explains Dan.
They also modified their safety rules. “We did have a rule about not going out of the cockpit at night, but I was in the Pacific just to move the barber-hauler on the genoa,” recalls Agnes.
Several boats started out with conventional spinnakers and ordered furling Code Zero or asymmetric kites to replace them en route as they became more confident in sailing double-handed.
A positive for many crews of joining a rally – and particularly reassuring for double-handed boats – was the option to ‘buddy boat’ for passages, particularly in areas of high traffic, where there were any concerns about piracy, or when one yacht had a technical issue. Even on the final ‘free cruising’ leg to St Lucia several yachts chose to sail in a loose flotilla to enjoy their friendships.
Experience of a lifetime
Every couple I spoke to emphasised that while the World ARC schedule was intense, and some stages had been very challenging, the rewards were hugely worth it.
“It’s been pretty incredible,” recalls Laurie Bosman from Blue Pearl. “Things like going through the Panama Canal, in your own boat – I get teary when I think about it. Those early mornings where you’ve got the sun rising and the moon setting, and nothing but you, water, sun and moon. You think you’ve died and gone to heaven.”
“It changes you as a person,” said Wendy Tipton. “You have to improvise, shop for what you can get. We went home for Christmas and I was looking at all my bits and pieces and realised you don’t need it. I’ve been quite humbled by how people actually do live and how happy they are with so little.”
Her husband David added: “If you have the opportunity to do it, you’d be mad not to.”
Getting ready: Things to take or prep before you go
Many boats ordered new sails in Darwin, Australia, or South Africa – several of which did not clear customs in time to reach the yachts before they set off on the stage they were ordered for. The most popular were furling downwind sails.
Instruments and electrical systems
Multiple boats had issues with faults on one system triggering an issue on the other – an update to the MFD, for example, causing a fault on the SSB radio.
Bones Black, who runs the Bowman 57 charter yacht Emily Morgan with his wife, Anna, was widely praised across the fleet for helping troubleshoot and fix problems on almost every yacht. He suggests splitting systems to avoid interference.
“On Emily Morgan, all the comms runs down one side of the boat and all the power supplies run down the other side of the boat,” explains Black.
Likewise he advises against installing AIS and VHF using splitter boxes to share the same antenna: “I would always advise separate antenna, then if you have a problem you can always transfer over.”
Google Maps and Open CPN
Many boats used Open CPN to overlay chart data with satellite images from Google Maps, particularly in areas where charts alone were not reliably accurate, such as Fiji and the San Blas Islands.
Anna Black, who skippers Emily Morgan, spent a lot of time preparing by looking at cruising blogs and other free resources, such as the Fiji Atlas for Mariners website and Noonsite. She also recommends Fastseas.com for affordable weather routeing.
Bones suggests taking digital and hard copies of the owner’s manual – and, if possible, an installation manual – for every system and piece of hardware on board.
Seagull water filter
Emily Morgan is set up with a double filter (coarse and carbon) of water going into the tanks, then drinking water is filtered a second time through the Seagull unit, so they can refill reusable drinking bottles from the taps.
Several boats had to replace dinghies or outboards in far-flung locations such as Fiji, due to being lost or simply coming apart after weeks of extreme heat and UV. The cost could easily be five times the equivalent price at home.
This was the most recommended ‘luxury’ item, mainly because it avoided wasting precious time in stopovers finding a laundry and dealing with missing items. If you can’t fit a machine, it seems prudent to make friends with a yacht that has one…
Some crews felt the costs had been surprising. Marina fees were higher than many had anticipated, and the social aspect of the rally made a few feel under pressure to eat out more.
David Tipton commented: “You need to know what this is going to cost you. We have a repairs budget of £5,000 every three months, but you only have to start doing a few jobs and that gets eaten up.
“We had a boat that was pretty much under warranty for the whole trip, but a lot aren’t. If you suddenly have a big ticket item, like putting a new engine or gearbox in, you’ve got to have £20-30,000 that you can put your hand on.”
Halyard breakages were commonplace. Bones found undiscovered sharp edges in the rigging had contributed to some halyard failures: “We also have independent blocks for our spinnakers, so as the boat and spinnaker moves the block moves.”
Adding Kevlar reinforced outer covers to halyards and sheets worked well on some yachts, others added padded protection to stop the main chafing on spreaders.