Delivery skipper John Kretschmer recalls wrestling with huge Atlantic seas and winds that were forecast to blow Force 12 and then some...

Today’s sailing world is well stocked with sponsored heroes, performing remarkable feats in the cause of being fastest on some great endeavour, writes Tom Cunliffe. John Kretschmer is a different sort of hero.

A delivery skipper with 300,000 miles astern of him, he now spends much of his time making passages with crews who want to learn from his vast experience, sometimes using his own yacht, Quetzal, a moderate Kaufman 47 ocean cruiser as his teaching medium (

His books, an unusual mix of anecdote and technical data, should be required reading for anyone venturing into deep waters. Here are two extracts from Sailing a Serious Ocean: Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea published in 2013 (full details at bottom of page).

First, he explains why he does what he does. In the second, we join him during a delivery for one of the nastiest nights it’s possible to imagine: mid-North Atlantic and midwinter. Just thank the Good Lord we’re in an Ocean 71!

Why I teach sailing

I am a ferryman. Neptune’s lackey, nothing more, and certainly nothing less. I never really fitted in the so-called real world ashore, so I went to sea. I studied at Harvard South – Cape Horn – and then did graduate work ferrying sailboats all over the world and telling stories afterwards.

Today I am a connection between sailing dreamers and blue water, their conduit to the sea. They find me and we make passages, real passages; there’s nothing virtual about what we do. I had come to realise that sailing with those who had not lost their sense of awe was what I was meant to do, and sharing hard-won opinions and shards of saltwater wisdom, all the while nurturing dreams of faraway places and fragile visions of personal freedom, was what I did best.

Ostensibly I teach my clients about passage-planning, heavy-weather sailing, navigation and the like, but mostly we just sail. We stand our watches, keep the boat moving and spend a lot of time chatting.

We talk about the ocean. We talk about boats. The cockpit becomes a confessional; it’s difficult to lie at sea. We cherish fair weather and contend with foul, and we never miss Captain’s Hour.

This is my job; this is what I do. It’s a good gig.

Delivery skipper, author and instructor, John Kretschmer: "This is my job; this is what I do."

Delivery skipper, author and instructor, John Kretschmer: “This is my job; this is what I do.”

Force Unlucky – Atlantic crossing gale 1991

Boat: Isobell, Van-de-Stadt designed Ocean 71 ketch. Crew: 3

Boat: Isobell, Van-de-Stadt designed Ocean 71 ketch. Crew: 3

According to the radio officer on a nearby Dutch tanker, the wind was steady at Force 11 and consistently gusting to hurricane Force 12, or more than 63 knots. ‘We’re even seeing some Force 13,’ he told me in a casual tone that belied the savage conditions. ‘And your weather service says the seas are 30-50ft and the air temperature is –2°C.’

I knew the situation was serious, but Force 13? ‘The Beaufort scale doesn’t go to 13, does it?’ I asked.

Chuckling, he said: ‘Then call it Force Unlucky, Skipper. We will be standing by on Channel 16 if you need assistance. Good luck.’

It was 31 January and we were 300 miles off the US east coast, bound for Sweden. The logical question is: why would anybody sail across the Atlantic in the middle of the winter? The answers were economic, personal and illogical. I was a delivery skipper, and the new owners wanted the boat in Sweden as soon as possible.

A midwinter crossing wasn’t cheap and nothing can make a sailor overlook a few double-digit gale percentages on the pilot chart faster than the prospect of a nice payday. And finally, I was compelled by the challenge of a winter crossing. That’s another one of those things you either understand in your soul or you don’t.

Even I wouldn’t test the wintry Atlantic in just any boat. Isobell was a 20-year-old Ocean 71 ketch, designed by Van de Stadt and built by Southern Ocean in the UK. Ruggedly constructed and designed for heavy weather, Isobell was able to withstand the six weeks of near-constant gale force conditions that defined this passage.

With a long fin keel, a deep forefoot, relatively low freeboard and a powerful skeg-hung rudder, Isobell was made for heavy weather.

I knew I needed an excellent crew for the passage, but most of my usual shipmates thought I was crazy and took a pass. Poor Molly reluctantly signed on, at least for the first leg from Newport to the Azores. Fortunately, my dear friend Joe Murton from London also agreed to make the passage. Joe was looking for some heavy weather experience. I didn’t disappoint him on that score.

Joe Murton on the helm.

Joe Murton on the helm.

  1. 1. Why I teach sailing
  2. 2. Survival conditions
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