Running away to sea has been a romantic notion of freedom and escape for as long as there have been romantic notions, or at least for as long as there have been boats and ships to go to sea in.
From Moby Dick to Robinson Crusoe, going to sea has delivered the protagonists of those stories heaping helpings of the adventure they craved. But we needn’t just rely on fiction for assurance that casting off from land is a guaranteed conduit for life-changing experience.
Adventurers on the high seas have been reporting back to us since Columbus set off across the Atlantic to see what he could grab for the Spanish queen. But a more interesting genre for the modern seeker is that of the solo sailor, beginning with Joshua Slocum who left Boston harbour aboard Spray in 1895 to sail alone around the world. Three years later, he returned and wrote a book about his travels that was an immediate best-seller and is still in print today. You guessed it, it’s called Sailing Alone Around the World.
Since Slocum’s time there has been a steady stream of hardy adventurers but the idea of putting to sea in small boats only really grabbed the wider public imagination again in the late 1960s with the inaugural Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Sponsored by the British Sunday Times newspaper, the race was the first single-handed, non-stop, round-the-world race. There were nine entrants, all amateurs, and they put to sea in a very mixed bag of low-budget vessels. The eventual winner was 28-year-old British merchant marine officer Robin Knox Johnston, who made the journey aboard the slow but sturdy 32-foot ketch Suhaili. Knox-Johnston was rightly celebrated for his achievement but it was the fate of many of the other entrants that made the race a riveting drama of man stretched to his limits.
Race leader Nigel Tetley sank but was rescued 2,000km from the finish and French entrant Bernard Moitessier claimed to have become as one with sea and disavowing commercial imperatives, just kept sailing. British businessman Donald Crowhurst was lost at sea but when his boat was found it was discovered from his log books that he’d planned an elaborate hoax to win the race by parking his boat off the coast of Brazil, waiting for the other boats to be on their final leg and then making a dash for home ahead of them. Sadly, the implications of his deception and the idea that he might be exposed as a fraud became too much for him and it is assumed he committed suicide.
Ocean sailing leapt back into the limelight again in 1974 with the release of the movie The Dove. A schmaltzy ode to young love as much as anything, the film was nonetheless based on the exploits of 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham who set sail in 1965 on his 23-foot sloop The Dove. Graham was at sea for 5 years, visiting multiple countries enroute, and published the book Dove in 1971 about his adventures. Interestingly, Graham then married his teenage sweetheart, Patti, and they moved to landlocked Montana.
When I was growing up in regional New Zealand, sailing was everywhere. I belonged to a sailing club and raced dinghies every weekend at the beach, family friends had keelboats that provided weekends away to islands within easy reach and we even had a Friday afternoon high school programme that allowed us to ditch classes to go sailing. Heading to the Pacific Islands for a season was the ambition of many a boat owner and there were regular races up to Fiji, Tonga and Noumea.
In my early teens the incredibly glamorous Whitbread Around the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race) came to Auckland and we rushed to town to see the boats and meet the exotic crews made up of multiple nationalities. About the same time, New Zealand-born Naomi James set off on her successful solo voyage around the world, a first for a woman. At 16 I joined the sail training ship Spirit of Adventure for a voyage where we climbed the masts and yards, navigated with compass, sextant and paper charts, and learned to manoeuvre the vessel with only the sails, right down to dropping anchor in busy bays and harbours.
As an adult I have continued to sporadically go sailing on a wide variety of vessels. I have done overnight coastal races, once crewed a yacht from Mexico to Texas and even owned a small keel boat for a time. But in the media, sailing has slowly become more and more professionalised. The Volvo Ocean Race is now a competition between very expensive and very high-tech boats crewed by full-time professional sailors. The America’s Cup has always been a rich man’s race but now features extremely exotic foiling catamarans.
To me, sailing off around the world has always seemed like a possible, if not immediately probable, dream but declining sales for the world’s major yacht manufacturers in recent years suggest it is a dream that has been steadily going out of fashion.
That is until social media stepped in to save it. YouTube has slowly but surely been making stars out of intrepid wanderers who bit the bullet and went to sea and are documenting their travels as they go. Trawling around for sailing videos on the site, I first came across the channel of Sailing La Vagabonde. Here were Riley and Elayna, a couple of very photogenic young Australians, who cheerfully admitted they had zero sailing experience when they acquired their boat but were nonetheless crossing oceans and dropping anchor in achingly beautiful locations.
Equally impressed and amazed by their give-it-a-go attitude, I began to follow them. I was worried that they never seemed to wear a harness when alone on watch at sea and in the comments section of one video, Riley admitted to having flown his light-air headsail upside down for long periods of time without knowing it. I wasn’t much impressed by their boat either, a Beneteau Cyclades that is often called a caravan of the sea because of its budget build quality for the charter market, a wide but not sea-kindly hull shape to create more space inside and a small and an underpowered sail plan so you can’t get into too much trouble. Still, they made it work and have sailed it all the way from the Mediterranean to New Zealand over the past two years.
Inevitably, there were times when Riley and Elayna didn’t have a new video up and I had to look further for a fix. That’s when I came across Sailing SV Delos. These guys followed a more traditional route to the sea. Skipper Brian Trautman grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, a very long way from the sea. However, when he moved to Seattle, his younger brother Brady convinced him he should get a boat and learn to sail. Brian heeded his advice and bought a 20-foot trailer sailor that he learned to sail on the lakes around the city. One day, however, he randomly picked up a book in the library that was about ocean cruising on your own boat and a dream was born. Brian, however, spent the next four years meticulously planning his escape. When Delos, a beautiful, French-built Amel Super Maramu ketch, cast off in 2009, Brian had sold all his worldly possessions and wasn’t looking back. His brother Brady had joined the crew and the initial destination was again New Zealand.
When the Delos crew began posting videos to YouTube in 2010, it was just to keep family and friends abreast of their adventures but 7 years later they are essentially a full-blown production company. They use sophisticated cameras, drones, artful and imaginative editing and great soundtracks, and a very entertaining cast of characters has marched through their 120 plus videos over the years.
One of the things I love best about the crew of Delos is their ability to connect with people wherever they go in the world and share smiles and good times. It is a welcome antidote to the climate of fear that is actively prosecuted by politicians and media companies around the world today. Even better, the Delos crew are aware of just how inspiring their lifestyle is and now offer the opportunity for followers (or the Delos Tribe, as they call them) to apply to join them on their travels.
With over 300,000 subscribers to La Vagabonde’s YouTube channel and nearly 200,000 for Delos, it is little wonder they have inspired others to follow in their footsteps. Comments sections of their videos are full of enthusiastic declarations from fans that they, too, intend to buy a boat and get sailing. And because of their vlogging success, they’ve also inspired a host of imitators. The number of sailing channels hoping to grab viewers attention on YouTube seems to grow by the day.
Boats are big ticket items to buy and they must also be maintained in seaworthy condition. Riley Whitelum of La Vagabonde saved up for years to buy his boat and made the smart move of buying it in Europe where there is a glut of such boats for sale. Brian of Delos actually got a mortgage for his boat in the same way that you get a mortgage for a house. This was before the GFC, mind you, when money was cheap and easy to get.
The great thing about a boat is that the cost of getting from one place to the next is already paid for, and you’re bringing your accommodation with you, but there are inevitably a lot of other things to be paid for. Food, fuel, immigration and port fees, drinks and anything else you want to buy are coming out of your pocket. This is why most cruisers must park their boats from time to time and go off to find work to refill their bank accounts.
La Vagabonde and Delos, however, have transcended that situation and can now just keep travelling. How? By combining their YouTube videos, a presence on sponsorship site Patreon and selling their own merchandise, like hats and t-shirts, into a self-sustaining enterprise.
Delos doesn’t put AdSense ads on the front of their videos, preferring instead to push viewers toward making a donation. Their ‘Buy us a Beer’ promo allows fans to simply make a one-off PayPal donation, while more committed followers can become sponsors on Patreon. Digital savvy fans can even send some BitCoin Delos’s way.
La Vagabonde also use Patreon, sell merchandise like Elayna’s own musical CD and most recently Queensland Tourism in Australia employed Riley and Elayna’s growing fame to produce a series of videos promoting sailing in Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands.
La Vagabonde’s biggest coup, however, has been to upgrade themselves into a brand new 45-foot Outremer catamaran custom built for them by the French company. Riley had long been dreaming of a catamaran and as luck would have it, Outremer’s marketing manager was a fan on the La Vagabond YouTube channel. With this meeting of minds, a deal was soon struck. Outremer would supply the boat, which would then feature in all future La Vagabond videos, and Riley and Elayna would pay the purchase price (at a presumed discount) off over time from their income.
A closer look at the Patreon site shows that both Delos and La Vagabonde are closing in on 1500 patrons each. This is earning them $10,000 and $9000 respectively per video they post. Great money if you keep those videos coming on a regular basis. Something that’s not entirely easy to do when you spend large periods of time at sea and away from a dependable internet connection.
Just like crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Patreon allows its fundraisers to create a variety of levels of sponsorship with the perceived value increasing as sponsors pay more. For these two sailing enterprises that means merchandise, early access to new content, direct access through messaging and other platforms to talk to the crew, and in the case of Delos, the ability to enter the competitions for crew places on the boat.
As idyllic as it all seems watching the videos (And believe me, it does!), you soon realise there is considerable effort involved in making it all happen. Filming, photographing, editing and maintaining a consistent presence across all platforms including their own websites, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube is a serious commitment. You’ll notice, for instance, that the Delos videos are lagging a full year behind where the boat and the crew currently are as evidenced by their postings on Instagram. La Vagabonde has faced similar issues and resorted to posting double length videos of 40 minutes plus over their summer in New Zealand to try and catch up. Their solution to the problem has been to hire a full-time documentarian to join them on their new catamaran as they begin their global circumnavigation anew.
This level of self-observation is not going to be for everybody and you can of course still go to sea the old-fashioned way by saving up and casting off only for as long as the money lasts. But what if you have less time, or you’re not even sure the sailing life is for you? Riley has said he knew he’d love it, and luckily he did, and Brian says he thinks being on the sea has settled so deeply in him now that it’s changed his DNA. To find out for yourself you can pay to make a voyage with like-minded souls and a professional crew to show you the ropes.
As mentioned earlier in this story, I made a voyage as a teenager on a sail training ship and this is something you can still do. I’ll never forget the power of a tall ship under full sail and the thrill of dolphins leaping at the bow. Or you can join a yacht very much like Delos for an ocean passage or an island-hopping adventure depending on the vessel’s cruising calendar.
The trust that ran the Spirit of Adventure in my time and now sails the new and bigger Spirit of New Zealand is still taking young New Zealanders to sea about 10 months of every year and there are similar programmes all over the world. Websites like Sail Training International offer a comprehensive database of vessels and how to get aboard them.
Sail training isn’t just for the young, of course, adults can join the fun, too, and 2017 is a big year for tall ships with the Rendezvous 2017 regatta to celebrate 150 years of the Canadian confederation. This race is taking a fleet of 40 ships from Greenwich in the UK across the Atlantic to Bermuda and then up the US and Canadian East Coasts to Nova Scotia before re-crossing the Atlantic to finish in Le Havre, France. The race is already underway but positions to crew a number of the legs are still available.
Even those with physical disabilities are not excluded from tall ship sailing with organisations like the Jubilee Sailing Trust building their vessels with special features to allow the physically disabled to fully participate as members of the crew. The JST sails out of the UK and Australia with its ships Tenacious and Lord Nelson.
Tall ships are one thing, but if you’re more interested in finding out what it would really be like to sail your own yacht, you can look to vessels like the Mahina Tiare III, a 46-foot Hallberg Rassy sloop skippered by couple John and Amanda Neal who have over 600,000 miles of ocean sailing between them. At the time of writing the Mahina Tiare is sailing the northern latitudes around Scotland but by the end of the year it will have made its way down the coast of Europe, across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal. The 2017 voyage is broken up into 9 legs and a maximum 6 crew are taken on each leg. In 2018 the yacht will cross the Pacific and spend time visiting the South Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand. Joining the Mahina Tiare III can cost up to $8000 for the longer 3-week legs but they are focused on teaching you to be a competent ocean sailor with 3 to 6 hours of hands-on instruction per day. Their website is very up-to-date and provides a heap of information.
American John Kretschmer is another extremely experienced blue-water skipper with 300,000 plus miles and you can learn from him on his own vessel Quetzal, a 47-foot Kaufman sloop, or a variety of other vessels during the year. All relevant information can be found on his website YaYa Blues.
There are plenty of other offerings like these two examples and even some that will challenge you further like Skip Novak’s high latitudes sailing adventures to the Arctic and Antarctic on board his purpose built Pelagic vessels.
If all this voyaging sounds a bit much, you can dial it all down a notch and opt for a holiday yacht charter. These can be done either with a professional skipper to take care of the sailing while you relax, or ‘bareboat’ where you take control of the vessel. There are beautiful and safe cruising grounds all around the world where you can hop from place to place in just a few hours a day. Riley and Elayna’s videos for Queensland Tourism showcase exactly that in the Whitsunday Islands.
However you choose to get your feet wet, the main thing is to cast off, hoist the sails and see how you like it. Assessments are then best done at anchor in a calm and secluded bay with the sun setting over the horizon and a cold drink in your hand.
By Ted Gibbons