Piggyback ride across the pond

Have you ever been in the midst of a gale with heaving seas breaking all around you and on you and wished that somebody would come along and just lift you up out of this melee and carry you across the waves to a calm port? Well, this is virtually what happens with the up-and-coming industry of yacht transport services.

As captain of a Swan 55, I accompanied the boat on a recent delivery by United Yacht Transport from Palma de Mallorca, Spain, to Fort Lauderdale. The cost is between $800 and $1,200 a foot, but there seems to be room for negotiation.

Your first contact with the local agent of the shipping company will probably be his request for passports, ship’s papers, and some signatures. The signatures are a release of liability (there is insurance available), and a statement that you do not have any firearms or illegal narcotics aboard. The ship will declare your vessel as cargo and will handle all clearing-out procedures with customs and immigration offices. Upon arrival at the destination, it is your responsibility to clear your vessel in for the necessary period of time. The agent may also inform you of your loading position in the ship’s bay and about when loading will commence. In most cases, the ship is arriving from the previous passage and therefore the loading time can only be pinpointed in the final day or two.

Once alongside the pier, the ship immediately begins the unloading of its yachts and the subsequent loading of new yachts. The ship floods her ballast tanks and slowly sinks to the desired level in about three hours. The yachts that have just been transported slowly float free and exit the ship under their own power. The new load of vessels to be shipped is then loaded, and when they are in place the ship pumps out its ballast tanks and rises. The yachts are gently scooped up and fastened down and the loading is complete.

The loading process is well planned and moves along smoothly. A typical loading of 20 to 25 yachts takes three to four hours, not including the time it takes for the ship to pump out its ballast tanks. While you are waiting for your turn to load, the side of the ship makes a long and convenient dock, complete with cleats. United Yacht Transport (UYT) requests the dimensions of each yacht, and from these a loading plan is made up. Their goal is to maximize use of deck space, and they do pack boats in tightly. No reason to fret, thoughthe crew takes the utmost care of their valuable cargo.

Despite this, it is a good idea to have at least two people on board (depending on the size of your yacht) and plenty of fenders. Two or three dock lines will suffice. You will be instructed to come alongside either the center or outboard catwalks, bow in. As you approach your spot, you may have a tight squeeze between the catwalk and the yacht abreast of you. Be ready with fenders! There are plenty of eager hands on the catwalk to take your lines. The crew will then instruct you to take in your fenders so they can get you as close as possible to the catwalk (there are good, clean bumper rails running vertically down the catwalk).

Once all yachts are loaded, the ballast tanks are pumped out. This will take about four hours. You may want to use this time to make your vessel sea-ready. That is, secure any loose gear on deck, put extra lashings on the mainsail (or extra turns on the roller-furling), and generally prepare for a gale that may or may not occur. It is not necessary to remove your sails. You’ll need to tend your lines as the water level drops, right up until the time your vessel gently comes to a rest on the deck of the ship. (Anyone who has gone through a lock will be familiar with this stage of the process.) Actually, your vessel will be on 24-by-24 keel blocks that have been specially arranged according to the dimensions and shape of the yacht. There isn’t any bouncing; just a couple of gentle thuds, and you’re grounded. While the ship is being raised, divers are circulating. Their job is to make sure the blocks are lined up correctly.

At this point, straps from the catwalk will be placed around several strong points on your vessel (mast, cleats, primary winch) and tightened. These hold you upright against the catwalk for the remainder of the deballasting. You may find it necessary to use some kind of chafing gear (cardboard is always good) to protect any teak, awl grip, or what have you from the taut straps.

Once the ship’s deck surfaces, the crew rigs up the sea fastenings for each yacht. These consist of one or two poppets strategically placed under your hull and then welded to the deck. Additional supports may also be placed under the bow and stern. Last, the boats are strapped down to the deck by their bow and stern cleats. At this point, the catwalk becomes off limits due to its height. Ladders are provided.

Finally it is time to get underway. If you are leaving your boat at this point, you may want to seize the opportunity of your boat’s being dry for several weeks by having some work done to her. The UYT crew is ready and able to do sanding, pressure-washing, painting, or general cleaning of your vessel en route. She could be like the sailing ships of yesteryear and return from the ocean looking better than when she left.

If you’re going to be traveling with the ship, you have the option of staying in a cabin in the ship, but usually there are far more "riders" (UYT’s slang for you) than available cabins. Anyway, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be very comfortable living on your vessel. There are 110- and 220-volt electrical hookups available as well as fresh water and sea water for cooling. The latter allows you to run your air-conditioning, refrigerator/freezer, or even your engine or generator. A hose connected to your through-hull will lead refrigerator cooling water, gray water, or waste off the ship. You can experience all the comforts of being afloat while high above the wave crests. One word of warning: yachts without air-conditioning making transits through the tropics may get very warm down below as there is no surrounding water to cool the hull.

There are a few other inconveniences that should be mentioned. Yachts positioned over the stern of the ship will be close to, or may even be between, the two main engines. The throb of the engines is not intolerable, but it is pervasive and, of course, constant. Eventually, however, it becomes background noise and maybe even soothing to some. Then there is the engine’s vibration. While not too bad, it would be good idea at journey’s end to check for loose nuts and bolts. I discovered multiple loose connections behind the electrical panel after the trip. If the noise and the vibration don’t bother you, there is one more by-product of the engines that is sure to ruffle some feathersthe never-ending fallout of soot from the twin stacks.

The ship burns heavy crude oil, and whatever is left of the oil after being run through the engine is spewed on the surrounding yachts. This insidious black soot looks innocent enough, almost like Oreo cookie crumbs that you can pick up. When you touch it, however, it crumbles into an oily powder that soaks into teak and stains fiberglass.

The most effective weapon against this nemesis is a portable vacuum, like a dust buster. This will only work when the soot is dry, however. After a rain or dew, a mildly damp rag works well to get it off gel coat or stainless. As for teak, it will require a good scrubbing. The trick seems to be to keep up with it. Cleaning it up every five or six days will keep it from leaving a yellow stain, but the more often it is done, the easier the job. For those yachts that are left unattended the UYT crew gives a scrub-down upon arrival.

Life aboard the ship is congenial and relaxed. The crew, half Dutch and half Filipino, are all friendly and always eager to talk shop, tell stories, or just share company. Riders are provided with three meals a day of very good Dutch food, served in the ship’s mess. A rider’s lounge is available for its users to enjoy in air-conditioned comfort. The lounge equipment includes a VCR with an extensive video library, stereo system, darts, andoh yesunlimited free Heineken straight from Holland. For those who prefer to take their beers back to their boat, there is a charge of about $10 U.S. per case.

There are plenty of opportunities to keep yourself entertained. The bridge is usually accessible and a lonely helmsman will be glad for some conversation. Four shelves of books await a reader. Darts, cards, and board games are always popular. We even had a barbecue on the deck of the ship to celebrate the chief engineer’s birthday.

Of course, the biggest consumer of time is strapped down on deck awaiting some TLC. The passage provides an excellent opportunity to work on one’s vessel without time pressure, as you are usually out there for several weeks. Doing bottom work is not a problem, and a hose, pressure washer, and power can be supplied. Also available are plenty of helping hands who are looking for some overtime work.

Upon arrival, the ship is ballasted as soon as possible. The welding is cut and the sea fastenings loosened. The process basically works in reverse order. The ballasting takes about four hours. Line tending and precautions against chafe are again necessary as your boat floats. There are divers down, so you will need to wait until they are clear of the water before starting up the engine. The unloading itself takes only about an hour and a half. My final memory of the trip across is backing out of the bay with one hand on the wheel while the other waved good-bye to all the friends I had made during the crossing.

By Ocean Navigator