Under Swiss Flag - Offshore sailing with kids aboard S/Y Yuana
As I write this article in late May 2021, it is just three years that we sighted the beam of the Flores lighthouse, late evening, after 17 days out on the Atlantic Ocean. It was pitch dark when we dropped anchor in the outer harbor of Lajes das Flores and tried to get some sleep in an uncomfortable swell. Once docked in the port the following day, Portuguese ‘Guarda Nacional Republicana’ came aboard to check our passports. We were now officially back in Europe.
As skipper, I was in a super great mood, having delivered my family safely to land, at the end of the furthest leg of our journey, 2.400 nautical miles non-stop. My wife was glad to have solid ground under her feet, and the kids (11 and 9) happy to find a real playground. Our extra crew was relieved from suffering several days of seasickness, which was a terrible mess for him. On the way to the Azores, we enjoyed great sailing weather, lots of deep blue sea, one day in huge but speedy waves of 5 meters height, dozens of dolphins, countless Portuguese man o’wars, and relatively little plastic waste (unlike in other places).
What has happened before? What was wrong with this Swiss family sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with school age children? Everything was just perfect. The only unusual thing was that a book I had read three years earlier changed a few views in my life - within just two days. The story was about a Swedish family who sailed to the Caribbean to escape another cold winter in Northern Europe. That story thoroughly infected me, and I decided to do the same - now, not later. Intense planning began. We tried to understand our future needs for life on the water, we had to find the right boat, plus we had to learn seamanship in theory and practice. One challenge was to convince my wife of this kind of adventure.
''We tried to understand our future needs for life on water, we had to find the right boat, plus we had to learn seamanship in theory and practice.''
In July 2017, we were ready to cast off our lines. The starting point of our sea voyage was a Dutch village called Makkum. At that time, my biggest concern was not to damage my ship or other ships when maneuvering in a new harbor, possibly with a lot of wind from the side. A ship behaves differently than a car. There is no brake pedal. The handling of 12 meters and 12 tons of yacht soon wasn’t an issue anymore.
Another issue, however, came up as summer vacation was over: homeschooling. We had thought that one parent could deal with two school kids, a second and a fourth grader, at the same time. But it wasn’t like that. Soon we learned that it took two of us to do math or English with two kids. Double teachers lead to the challenge of having two teachers agree on a common teaching style. It wasn’t that easy, but we managed. A yacht is actually an ideal place for homeschooling: Every time you move on, there is something new for the students to experience, whether it’s volcanos or what the inside of the fish caught for dinner looks like.
''When I asked locals why they wouldn’t develop towards soft tourism, they attributed it to political rules that seem to change with each new government, making the place unattractive for foreign investors.''
We loved the British yacht clubs in July 2017, Spanish tapas and wines in August, the Portuguese Islands of Porto Santo and Madeira in September, and still-warm Canary weather in October, well before the pandemic. In November 2017, we prepared for our first Atlantic crossing in Tenerife, with 30 other boats and the help of the great sailing master Jimmy Cornell. After a stopover in Cabo Verde and a calm passage, we arrived in Barbados in early December.
We enjoyed the first cold beer in a Barbados beach bar, tasty plates, enchanting steel drum music, air and water at a cozy 28°C, bare feet in the sand, kids from all boats playing in the waves or chilling under palm trees. With my wife and many happy friends around me, I quietly sat there and realized that this exactly was what I had been preparing for almost every evening for the past three years – mind-blowing.
After a gear farewell party, each ship went its own way to explore the West Indies. We headed for the Tobago Cays Marine Park where yachts anchor inside a reef, a truly breathtaking place. First thing in the morning often was to jump off the boat for a swim amidst fish of every color and turtles. Boat boys from nearby islands came alongside to offer fresh fish, delicious banana bread and all kinds of fruits. The radio was very helpful in these places for calling a laundry service or booking a table for dinner. Local authorities didn’t care that this kind of chatter ran over the emergency frequency, day in day out.
We loved gorgeously nutmeg-spiced drinks in Grenada and sandy islands with coconut palms in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Some places were paradise. When I asked locals why they wouldn’t develop towards soft tourism, they attributed it to political rules that seem to change with each new government, making the place unattractive for foreign investors. On the private island of Mustique, however, everything was organized and worked well. Mustique is a place that can only be reached by private plane or yacht. We sat in where very famous singers and actors dine together privately.
Then came Saint Lucia, where cruising friends tempted us to continue through Panama and into the Pacific instead of sailing back to Europe. It took us several days to weigh all criteria, and decision was difficult. Finally, we stayed true to our original plan (the friends circumnavigated and are still sailing today). The French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are politically part of the European Union. In our impressions, the locals in former colonies that were not returned enjoy a better standard of living today than those who became independent again. Whether they are happier is a different question. What we particularly liked about the French islands was the combination of Caribbean beaches and French food, such as soft cheese.
''Today, three years after the completion of our trip, it is still a frequent topic at the dinner table. Two Atlantic crossings have helped sharpen the children’s minds and the parents’ characters.''
We were also glad to reach Guadeloupe because of its solid health system. Days before, we had been horseback riding in Dominica. Unfortunately, our horses were frightened by a bull being chased by our own horse group leader’s dog. Two of us fell, and my wife broke her coccyx. This painful incident restricted our activities for the next few weeks, and we were suddenly unsure whether or not we could sail back to Europe. Staying in the Caribbean beyond May can be dangerous because of the upcoming hurricane season. Fortunately, everything went well in the end.
Antigua definitely is a great place to be. It was the skipper’s highlight to dock his boat at the history-loaded Nelson’s Dockyard. Antigua is blessed with 365 turquoise beaches, one for every day of the year. There, too, yachts can anchor in front of most exclusive hotels and enjoy their private beaches because the elegant ships create beautiful scenery for the hotel guests. So it’s a give and take, as long as privacy is respected.
St Kitts and Nevis was the smallest country visited, with 55.000 inhabitants only. This small country has built pontoons for large cruise ships and polished its main streets. Nowadays, they are successful with generating income from such kind of tourism. Another great thing about sailing is that you will meet boating folks of all stripes, each with their individual and economic background, all dedicated to sailing. Some marina neighbors who invited us for a drink were among those who bought vacation homes as a memento of a particular place, while others had to consider whether they could afford a postcard to remember the beautiful area. Conversation typically starts with things like boat maintenance or sail handling. Here we all share the same topics. This is how very different folks find each other, and you quickly realize that the others are more interesting or much more similar to yourself than initially thought - fantastic.
After a quick stop in Saint Barths, we moved to the British Virgin Islands for one month to give our Caribbean encounter an appropriate finale. It was however difficult to spend money there: Most places were still badly suffering from the severe damages of hurricane Irma in September 2017. Marinas were completely destroyed with hundreds of boats still sunk. Many stores, restaurants, hotels and even ATMs were inoperative.
Still, it hurt to leave the glorious light of these islands.
By mid-May 2018, we started our second Atlantic crossing back to Europe. Sint Maarten was the place of departure, and we were again loaded with lots of fresh fruit, with 450 liters of fresh water and 500 liters of fuel. Fuel is essential, also on a sailing boat. We needed it to run our seawater desalination system and generate electric power for the refrigerator, the autopilot, navigation electronics and personal electronic devices. Having enough power is one of the things that require a lot of planning when preparing the vessel for bluewater sailing. How much electricity will you need? How do you generate it? We had a second alternator mounted on our Volvo diesel. How often do you want to run the diesel? How much battery capacity is required to bridge the time in between? Lots of nice tasks for an engineer. Getting the boat ready was as much fun as being underway.
By the way, the Azores islands were just as stunning as the West Indies, perhaps because we hadn’t expected it. My hint for an equally fantastic place that is not far from mainland Europe, is the British Isles of Scilly, preferably in June. This is where the term IOS really originates from, and that would be the place where I would buy a vacation home (if it were outside of Switzerland). Today, three years after the completion of our trip, it is still a frequent topic at the dinner table. Two Atlantic crossings have helped sharpen the children’s minds and the parents’ characters.
Photos: Markus Feldmann