Offshore competence builders

“The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.” — Sterling Hayden, Wanderer

Sailors getting some voyaging experience on a Mahina Expeditions trip get a close-up look at marine life.

Mahina Expeditions

One thing rarely written about in magazine articles and books on long-distance cruising and voyaging is the time problem. Relentlessly marching on, with or without us, time does not pause while we accumulate the right boats, skills, experience and crew to do the great things we read and dream about. Relationships, family, finances and a whole host of other everyday things further whittle away at our allotted passage through life.

Whether young, old, or in between, every long-distance cruiser has a lot to learn, and often much of it is discovered through the school of hard knocks. But, in the last few decades, several innovative individuals have founded cruising charter and seamanship programs that can provide a shortcut to offshore competence and adventure, while also allowing you to do it safely and for less money than if you had to do it all on your own.

These programs offer a variety of approaches to experiencing true offshore cruising and voyaging adventure, and learning how to do it yourself. Most of these programs share a common trait: they were founded by experienced offshore voyagers who worked their way up from coastal cruising, to longer cruising, to serious voyaging. In other words, they know what you’re going through, where the pitfalls lie and how to avoid them, and they have the knowledge to help get you to the next level.

There are a wide variety of options to choose from, and a variety of destinations from the high Arctic and Antarctic, to the warm but windy Caribbean, to the more sheltered waters of the Chesapeake, or the rugged coasts of British Columbia and Alaska. There are passage opportunities from the East Coast of North America to the Caribbean, across the Atlantic, or between island groups in the Pacific.

There are also options more directed at learning, and others more toward a charter/vacation experience. Some programs are more coastal cruising, while others are mostly offshore.

Below you will find a sample of adventure sail opportunities that is by no means exhaustive, but is illustrative of the wide range of options.

A Mahina Expeditions crew gets some instruction at the mast.

Mahina Expeditions

Mahina Expeditions
One of the pioneers in this field was John Neal, author of the inspiring Log of the Mahina, which chronicled his voyages aboard the 27-foot fiberglass production boat Albin Vega. Starting in 1976, Neal began teaching offshore cruising seminars and in 1990 he began leading offshore sailing expeditions to places tropical and frigid. His 2015 and 2016 plans include a trip from the Pacific Northwest to Norway, with further exploration planned up into the Arctic.

In addition to voyaging to fascinating places and the inevitable lessons learned along the way, Neal’s expeditions include three to five hours of training in offshore voyaging skills each day. Sailors do not have to be skilled offshore voyagers to go along, but basic coastal experience is a recommended prerequisite. In addition, Neal puts an emphasis on good physical conditioning and health, which is an important voyaging factor that many underestimate. Expeditions are conducted aboard Mahina Tiare III, a Hallberg-Rassy 46, custom-designed and built for Neal.

Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship
An offshore voyage may be a bit further away for some, and the Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship offers a complete series of programs from beginning sailing, to coastal cruising, to offshore sailing. Headquartered in the heart of sailing country in Chesapeake Bay, sailors are able to take it step by step through American Sailing Association certification in order to get the skills necessary for bareboat chartering their own vessels. Nearshore adventures include sailing around the Delmarva Peninsula, while more advanced sailors can go on Caribbean trips or even a trans-Atlantic cruise.

Courses are taught by U.S. Coast Guard licensed Ocean Masters, and more than 257 ocean cruising courses have been run since the school’s founding in 1993. Vessels range in size from an Island Packet 32 up to an Island Packet 440.

For those who haven’t sailed the Chesapeake area itself, I consider it to be a nearly ideal training ground. There is everything from shallow water that is forgiving with a soft mud bottom, to rough coastal seas, to tricky tidal currents, to reasonably nearby offshore destinations like Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas. Plus, access to transportation of all sorts makes it very accessible to most of the East Coast.

Offshore Passage Opportunities
In addition to his well-known offshore cruising rally, North Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (NARC), Hank Schmidt has created a membership service that connects wannabe offshore crew with needy offshore skippers. Called Offshore Passage Opportunities (OPO), the service’s motto is, “It is easier to make new friends who sail than it is to teach your friends how to sail.” 

Two sailors on a Modern Geographic trip practice cockpit navigation.

Modern Geographic

There are many reasons that experienced offshore sailors need extra crew. Sometimes an existing crewmember leaves the boat unexpectedly, someone falls ill, or another’s plans change. Sometimes, a new boat owner just needs extra help moving their boat from one place to another.

Schmidt emphasizes that this is not a paid arrangement between the parties, but more of a meet-up service for like-minded cruisers and voyagers. Potential crew can purchase memberships in OPO to get vetted through a questionnaire process, while captains and boat owners looking for crew can list for free. This eliminates employment law and liability problems, but requires more work from both parties to be sure they are getting into a situation that will work for them. Memberships for crew currently cost $199.

OPO also has paid crewing opportunities available in their Swan Offshore Program.

Pelagic Expeditions
Founded by legendary ‘round-the-world-race sailor Skip Novak, Pelagic Expeditions specializes in high-adventure learning charters to high latitudes, including Antarctica. More towards the charter end of the spectrum, participants are not strictly enrolled for the learning experience, though participants will learn a lot by voyaging on relatively small vessels into waters requiring a lot of planning and skill.
Novak likes to say that his trips are expeditions rather than charters. Though there is a cook on board, the “crew” or guests — whichever you want to call them — are expected to help in the cleanup and general boat work. And, Novak believes in keeping his boats simple, so don’t expect endless supplies of hot water for long showers after a day spent on deck dodging icebergs.

The main voyaging areas include Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn. There are also some North Atlantic trips and legs on delivery voyages. Pelagic is based out of the UK.
Long-distance voyagers will note that Pelagic features purpose-designed and built boats that are well suited for their rugged destinations. The original Pelagic is a 54-foot steel cutter with a swing keel that affords access to shallow areas, and even allows the vessel to take the ground safely. Using the lessons learned from his first vessel, Novak created Pelagic Australis, a 74-foot aluminum-hulled boat, also with a swing keel and shallow draft.

John Kretschmer Sailing
Another twist on the adventure sailing/chartering/expeditioning/learning theme is presented by John Kretschmer Sailing. Like other expedition sailing companies, this one is founded by an experienced voyager, John Kretschmer, who says he stopped counting after his “sailing odometer” went over 300,000 miles. In addition to leading amazing crewed trips to places that most of us just dream about, Kretschmer shares a lifetime of knowledge about what makes a good voyaging boat and how to prepare it. His website is loaded with information that is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more, and includes information on Kretschmer’s expeditions.

Pelagic Australis in the Antarctic.

Pelagic Expeditions

Expeditions are voyages on one or more different vessels in fascinating and exotic locations. His itineraries are lessons in contrasts and illustrate the varied dreams of long-distance voyagers. One includes a trip through the Panama Canal and a passage to the Galapagos. Another expedition is a circumnavigation of the very rugged and wild coast of Newfoundland. Offshore voyagers can dodge icebergs in the north or sea turtles in the south.

In describing a recent trip, Kretschmer said, “I just finished up my annual ‘heavy weather’ passage, and this one lived up to the billing — no hype this time. We sailed from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, to St. Martin by way of Bermuda. We had four days of gales, a weird meandering Gulf Stream and lots of stubborn headwinds. The crew got their money’s worth!”

Force 10 Sailing
Ever wondered what it is like to blast around the windy Caribbean on board an 80-foot maxi racer? Force 10 Sailing can provide that experience on two- to eight-day offshore voyages. Seminars are held before the trips covering such things as safety at sea, weather forecasting, sail handling, navigation, heavy weather sailing, and seamanship. Up to 10 participants stand watch and help with the running of the vessel under the supervision of experienced captains.

The beauty of this concept is that you will be guaranteed fabulous wind and sailing conditions in the Caribbean. At the same time, you’ll be experiencing big seas and offshore conditions, but in warm waters with destinations only a few days apart. Plus, the size and speed of the vessel means you will be doing it in comfort.

The Island Packet 440 Celestial under sail in the Caribbean on a Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship passage.

Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship 

In addition, there is a longer offshore leg available when the boat is delivered from the Chesapeake to the Virgin Islands around the end of October. To give you an idea of the passage times a vessel like this can make, the planned dates for the run from Portsmouth, Va., to Nanny Cay in the British Virgin Islands operate from Oct. 29 through Nov. 10. In June 2015 there will be a leg from the British Virgin Islands up to Newport, Rhode Island.

Elcie Expeditions
Having read and dreamed about sailing in the Pacific, the territory covered by Elcie Expeditions in 2014 is very enticing: Australia, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, etc. Contact them for future plans. Trips are onboard a 62-foot aluminum cat run by Richard Johnson and his wife Jessica Rice Johnson, along with help from their two young daughters.
Their expedition philosophy is to provide opportunities for persons of all ages and abilities to gain knowledge and confidence in voyaging under sail. The service also maintains a clean wake policy and has a minimum impact on the places they visit.

Ocean Light II Adventures
Still another fascinating region, the rugged coast of British Columbia, is explored by Ocean Light II Adventures aboard a heavy and comfortable 71-foot ketch. Their focus is on providing environmental adventures using low-impact travel techniques. The company owner and founder, Jenn Broom, has been involved in saving grizzly bears of the Khutzeymateen Valley with the Valhalla Society.

Each summer, the company offers five different adventure trips along the coast of British Columbia, highlighting the environment of the region.

Sailors learning how to perform regular maintenance on a cockpit winch while participating in a Mahina Expeditions passage.

Mahina Expeditions

Expedition Sail
Further north, exploring Alaska, you can join Expedition Sail onboard a 56-foot, Chuck Paine-designed aluminum cutter. Owners Kate and Hamish Laird had many special features designed in, including a centerboard and swing keel arrangement for taking the ground and exploring the shallows, plus a raised pilothouse for all-weather comfort in their frigid home waters. Kate and Hamish both previously sailed on Novak’s Pelagic, and as such, share some of the same exploration philosophies when it comes to boats.

Modern Geographic Sailing Expeditions
If you’re of the “go small, go now” school of thought made famous by Lin and Larry Pardey, you will love sailing the Caribbean with boatbuilder and captain Paul Exner aboard his custom Cape George 31, Solstice. Exner takes two to three participants on sailing expeditions covering classic Caribbean regions, from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the north to St. Lucia and Grenada in the south. Life on board will be a lot closer to the typical cruising-size boat than you would experience on the big 70- and 80-footers used by some other adventure companies.

A standard rotating watch system is used onboard during offshore passages, but there is also plenty of time to explore interesting harbors. Solstice is a simple boat, featuring wind-vane self-steering, with the classic and simple interior arrangement found on many cruising sailboats: V-berth forward, opposing settee berths in the main cabin, with a galley and nav station aft.

Another advantage of going small like this with a limited number of participants is that Exner can tailor the expeditions to your needs, whether they be more towards a learning and education trip, or a vacation/sight-seeing voyage.

John J. Kettlewell is a marine author, editor and photographer. He and his wife Leslie are co-authors of the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk, Virginia, to Miami, Florida.

By Ocean Navigator