Seal: A Cape Horner for the 21st century

Long distance voyagers practice a challenging type of seamanship. They sail to reach exotic landfalls, living aboard for years on end; their seamanship achieves self-sufficiency and strives to avoid risking boat or crew. They often have meager budgets and, like Cape Horn skippers of an earlier day, may receive very little attention outside a small coterie of other voyaging people.

A heavily overcast day in the Arctic waters of Greenland, Ulla Norlander and I aboard our boat Balæna are beating toward the coastal capital, Nuuk. The VHF suddenly springs to life. “Ironbark, this is Seal. Over.” We are not Ironbark but it is clear that Seal has spotted our tan sails against the mountains, though we are unable to pick out their white ones. After a short chat it turns out that we have a lot in common — a love for the wild and remote parts of the world, and the skippers even come from the same little island in the south of England. We eagerly agree to rendezvous in a nearby fjord.

As Seal sails into the anchorage, some of its telltale details are visible from afar. The size of the rig speaks of a boat that is meant to sail fast in all conditions rather than motor. Four rope drums are permanently mounted on deck. They each house 600 feet of line ready to deploy at a moment’s notice when the vessel must be tied up securely in a remote anchorage. Red polypropylene is chosen, as it is easy to see and floats, and so is less likely to get fouled on the bottom when being dragged ashore. A pilothouse suggests the need to keep watch even when the weather is atrocious. A large Furuno radar antenna mounted just above deck level, to avoid a skip area around the boat that occurs if the unit is mounted too high, suggests a boat that may need to enter an uncharted niche in the rocks, in fog or dark in order to find shelter in wild places. Plenty of ventilators are visible to keep fresh air flowing below and to reduce condensation. The flue from the cabin heating system says that the crew will be warm and dry wherever they are.

As the yacht comes closer more details of the gear start to become apparent. All blocks and winches are large, heavy and of the best quality. Fittings are of aluminum or stainless steel and bedded onto gaskets or insulating sealant to prevent corrosion. Standing rigging and turnbuckles are oversized. Several enormous anchors are visible, ready for quick deployment. Aluminum construction means that the hull can be left unpainted, simplifying maintenance in distant ports.

All these features are a preparation for the finer details that become clear when we are invited aboard. Approaching in our dinghy we see that the transom extends aft as a scoop for us to step up aboard. A stroll around the decks confirms that this is a sailing vessel designed to survive rolling in the Southern Ocean. From the storm shutters to the standing rigging, everything is impressively tough, and there is no unnecessary gear on deck to catch waves or get washed away.

But there are some unfamiliar features: there is an intriguing slot in the deck ahead of the pilothouse. “Most of the charter boats in Patagonia have followed Jérôme Poncet’s Damien II and have a lifting keel,” explains the boat’s skipper Hamish Laird. “Many good anchorages, especially on the Antarctic Peninsula, would otherwise be inaccessible to boats this size. Also, when sailing in poorly charted waters we can unlock the keel so it can swing up if we hit a rock. The keel can even be used as an anchor if we sail into a shallow muddy bay with it up and then let it sink down into the mud. Nothing could shift us then. And look here on the transom. Chuck Paine has succeeded in designing a swinging rudder, a bit like you find on a dinghy. When we are at sea, like the keel, it can be securely locked down, but in coastal waters it can swing free and kick up if it hits something.” According to Kate Laird the rudder has already proven its worth. “We hit an uncharted rock doing 8 knots and it just swung up. A spade rudder would have broken off with the force.”

The generous cockpit has plenty of shelter for watch-keepers. Despite the pilothouse, the helmsman has a good view forward whether sitting or standing, and many control lines are led back to be within easy reach. The companionway is cleverly shaped with a broad opening at the top for shoulders to pass through and narrow at the bottom to limit the amount of water that can enter. Mosquito nets are fitted and designed for quick placement.

On a warm Greenland afternoon there is no rush to go below, but we are intrigued to see inside the pilothouse. There are no disappointments. We sit with Kate and Hamish Laird and sip coffee in the spacious cabin, along with their two daughters Helen and Anna, both under five years old. “We’re on our maiden voyage,” says Hamish, “and we’re driving Seal very hard to test all the gear. Seal is a working boat, designed for the charter business, so we have more berths than you would expect, and everything had to come up to the U.S. Coast Guard’s specifications for commercial vessels. The boat is a 56-foot Chuck Paine design and was built by Kanter Yachts, Ontario, which did all the aluminum construction, and fitted out the boat in Kate’s parents’ garden in Durham, N.H. We have already sailed to the Caribbean and up to Greenland.”

This was a shakedown cruise, but were they planning to charter the boat in Greenland or in Patagonia?

“Both,” said Kate. “We would like to do more sailing in Greenland and Labrador so that we won’t be far away from the girls’ grandparents, who live on each side of the Atlantic. Greenland offers fascinating sailing with endless possibilities for exploring, and its Viking history is very intriguing. But next year we will return to Patagonia and Antarctica, our favorite cruising area.”

Hamish, with interests in both sailing and mountain climbing, once worked as a boat builder on the Isle of Wight and helped to build the charter yacht Pelagic. He struck up a friendship with one of its owners and skippers, Skip Novak, who invited him to come and sail on Pelagic when it was launched. And that’s where his career started as a charter skipper.

Hamish was skippering Pelagic in Patagonia when Kate came to sail as research for an article on sailing a charter boat in wild places. An experienced sailor, she loved the experience so much that she returned to work as crew. They worked together for two years before they started to realize their dream of having their own yacht and family, combining their passion for each other and sailing in high latitudes. Their daughters are growing up in a world of sailing and full-time parents.

The pilothouse has a long table with seating along the port side. To starboard lies the navigation station and instrument display. The spacious galley fills up the rest of the space. Nice features include a beautifully designed drying rack for dishes and labeled storage bins that make it easy to find every conceivable item. The windows provide the galley with a 360° view. They are made of laminated toughened glass and are double-glazed for warmth and minimizing condensation.

We are surprised to find no internal steering station. “That is because only a hydraulic system would do the job,” Kate replies, “… and we don’t want leaking hydraulic oil inside the boat. But we can use the autopilot for internal steering when the on-watch person has to be monitoring the radar. When the wind and seas are rough, however, we feel it is very important to be outside helming — with the wind on your face you can react much faster and more accurately. The other issue is that if you are already outside you are much more in tune with the weather and are more likely to reef early if conditions deteriorate.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Kate is the systems expert onboard. She researched all the gear and planned the ingenious plumbing and electrical systems. Kate chose Raymarine wind, depth and graphic repeaters, and a Simrad autopilot. The Simrad AP16 control and AC20 brain is linked to a B&G T3 hydraulic drive for steering. A Garmin 152 GPS with external antenna is linked to the Furuno 1833 C radar/chartplotter using C-Map chips. A Furuno Fax 30 “black box” fax receiver is also coupled in and regularly displays weatherfaxes on the 10-inch screen.

We take a tour through the sleeping cabins and marvel at the thought behind each detail: Computer power outlets, heating radiators and rollout insect screens in the cabins. The engine room houses a 115-hp Cummins 6B 5.9M diesel and Yanmar 2GM20 genset.

From the engine room the Kanter’s heavy aluminum framing and hull plating can be clearly seen. It would take a very heavy collision to penetrate this hull. Thick sound and fire resistant insulation from Soundown and sealed doors keep fumes and noise out from the rest of the boat. A large, centrally placed Danish Refleks diesel heater keeps the saloon warm and heats water for the cabin radiators, shower and the purpose-built drying cupboard. There is a permanent workbench with a fine selection of tools to handle onboard repairs.

A sound boat is a combination of the ship itself and the skipper and crew that sail it. It is clear that Kate and Hamish work together as such a team, sharing tasks and contributing their own special skills to the task at hand. Their knowledge, experience and approach to problem solving place them in a class of their own, perfectly complemented by the magnificent boat they and Kanter Yachts have built. It is not hard to imagine sailing to Antarctica or any other place on earth aboard Seal, truly a Cape Horner for the 21st century. 

By Ocean Navigator