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Note this article appeared (with photos!) in the Oct 2004 Practical Boat Owner magazine. You can get a back copy by visiting their web site

This final article describing my trip from Plymouth to the Caribbean, then on to the north east coast of the USA and finally south to Central America is written after sailing 15,000 miles in 18 months. Mostly there have been two on board, but I was single handed for nearly 3000 miles, had three on the Atlantic crossing, and five for two weeks over Christmas 2003.

We left the UK in my 32ft Eclipse catamaran (see PBO 449) in late October 2002, and sailed as fast as possible to the Rias in north Spain. These would be a fantastic cruising ground in good weather - but not in November! With bad weather forecast we sailed non-stop from Bayonna to Lisbon. The Cascais marina is huge, and nearly empty. Unfortunately we found the visitors pontoons almost untenable due to surge, so we moved into the inner harbour while the "Route de Rhum" gale blew itself out. Then, in still very rough seas, we sailed straight to the Canaries. Apart from Grasciosa, north of Lanzarote, I can't recommend the Canaries except as somewhere to buy stores for the Atlantic crossing.

With two crew I work 3 on/3 off watches, but that doesn't give enough time to sleep, so on long passages I prefer to have three crew and thus a comfortable 3 on/6 off regime. Therefore long time colleague Pip Patterson from the Multihull Centre joined us for the Atlantic crossing. Although you may feel that you don't want to have strangers on your boat, there's usually no shortage of potential crew that you know, either family or fellow sailing club members. In any event, they will only be aboard a few weeks and the third crew really does make long distance sailing more enjoyable and far less tiring.

Like everyone else we wanted to be in the Caribbean for Christmas, and so left Tenerife on Nov 30th. Really it was too early, as the trades hadn't settled, so although we had good NE winds on our first three days (we had over 16 knots on the GPS several times the first day despite being heavily loaded), the wind slowly moderated; one day we even spent motoring over a glassy sea. So we were somewhat disappointed to take 18 days to Barbados, but I cheered up later when I learnt that most others who left at the same time took 20-22.

Many people are put off ocean sailing by the fear of bad weather and assume the Atlantic is full of the "gale force winds and mountainous seas" so loved by the media. As I explained in part 2 it's now easy to get reliable forecasts, while with unlimited time and the whole world to sail to there's no excuse for being caught out in severe weather. Thus my storm jib has never been out of its bag (my worst weather on Eclipse was a November day-sail from Falmouth to Plymouth in winds gusting over 50 knots). Ironically I've not used the masthead spinnaker and drifter since the calms of mid Atlantic. But what is probably more surprising to coastal sailors is that with careful planning I have only sailed to windward for 100 miles since leaving the Canaries (14,000 miles ago!)

So another misconception is that to sail oceans you need a serious ocean cruiser designed for the ultimate gale. Most people "out there doing it" realise that such boats are hopeless as a live aboard home, so it's been interesting to see the boats that people actually sail. It's certainly not Colin Archers or a junk rigged boat (I've only seen 2, one was ex-Annie Hill's Badger), while surprisingly few people sail multi-chine steel boats. In fact the vast majority of cruisers sail 30-40ft, often elderly, GRP boats. Catamarans are the second most popular type, but then maybe sailing to the Caribbean is no longer considered ocean sailing?

Even after only a couple of months away I was finding that ocean cruising is not like going on several back-to-back 3 week cruises. You're living your life as well. That means sometimes you'll be ill, you'll need to visit friends, sort out business affairs etc., and above all sometimes you'll need a holiday from your holiday. Even I (whom many people consider a fanatical sailor!) find it hard to sail every day, day in day out. You need to treat it as a job, and have a day off at least once a week. Because you are living on board even as you sail along, average boat speeds will be lower than when day-sailing, just to stay comfortable. So although I have had some memorable sails, twice doing 60 miles in 6 1/2 hours, once off Puerto Rico and again off Cuba, I prefer to cruise at 6 knots rather than 9.

It also means that what you have in your loft at home you must now store on the boat. Not just the obvious things like a vacuum cleaner and sewing machine, but also the Christmas tree, spare bedding for guests, winter clothes etc. Finding space for all these "essentials" is always hard. For example, although I have over 600 books on a CD, an 8ft shelf for paperbacks and another 3ft long for big books (mainly pilot books), I still don't have enough bookshelf space.

Back to the sailing; after Christmas I went on to Grenada (my favourite Caribbean island) and then sailed north through the West Indies to the Virgin Islands. I found that the Caribbean is now very crowded compared to when I first sailed there 25 years ago. As a result many of the locals have become quite aggressive and my favourite cruising areas have been redeveloped. Although the Grenadines are still largely unspoilt I wouldn't visit the French islands or St Lucia again.

Most European sailors start going home from Antigua but I was going to the USA, so after the Virgins I split from the normal cruising crowd and went on to Puerto Rico and then the Bahamas. Immediately there were fewer boats, in fact it would now be rare to see a sail on the horizon and Eclipse would often be alone in a beautiful anchorage. It wasn't until I arrived in Georgetown in the Bahamas that I saw boats again, even the USA hotspots like Newport or the Cheasepeake weren't as crowded as the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, after 6 months I was beginning to have boat problems. Although the basic hull, rig and deck gear were all working well the "domestics" weren't. I was already on my third water pump and had got through 4 water tanks, while my cooker looked twenty years old, not two. I sail a relatively simple boat, it seemed that cruisers on larger, more complex, boats simply sail from repair man to repair man.

I always say the successful cruises are the boring ones, completed with no fuss or drama. So I felt I had been doing well until, that is, July 7th. That day was not just my worst day sailing, but the worst in my life. I was motoring up the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) near Cape Hatteras in N Carolina when Eclipse was hit by lightning. The whole sorry saga is the subject of a separate article, suffice to say that I lost all my electronics, while the engine and fridge needed major, expensive, repairs. It took me several months to replace it all, but at least I was still alive and still had a sailing boat. Apart from anything else it was an expensive disaster for, as you will recall from part 2, I only carry third party insurance.

I have to confess that, lightning aside, I didn't really like sailing up the east coast of the USA. It was far too hot in June/July and there was often very little wind. However it was a great experience to sail through New York, past the Statue of Liberty then on under the Brooklyn Bridge and past the United Nations buildings to exit into Long Island Sound. In 1989 I sailed through the Baltic to the USSR on a Strider so was familiar with sailing between rocky islands covered with fir trees. Maine, about 200 miles NE of New York, is like that, but for us "tropical softies" it was cold! But what spoilt it was the lobster pot buoys. There are 1000 registered fishermen in Maine, and each made full use of his 1000 pot allocation. In many areas it was impossible to sail without catching them in boards or rudders. Fortunately on Eclipse these lift easily, but sailing there would be a nightmare on a boat with a fixed rudder and exposed propellor.

When you tell your non-sailing friends that you're going to sail round the world they often ask "do you anchor at night?" You laugh at them, but in fact that is exactly what you will do. Despite sailing over a quarter of the way round the world and visiting 24 countries I have spent less than 30 nights at sea. Every other night I have indeed been at anchor as I always try to passage plan so that I don't have to sail more than 100 miles non-stop. Having said that, anchoring in a new harbour every day is actually quite stressful. I nearly always set two anchors, both large enough to hold the boat in any wind. I often anchor among (but not on!) coral heads or in abrasive sand, so use an extra thick warp to prevent chafe. Ideally I'd like stainless steel chain as the galvanising has long worn off.

It's not just a new port every day, but also a new type of cruising ground every week. The deep water and high West Indian islands of the Caribbean gave way to the low scrub islands, coral reefs and shallows of the Bahamas. But there the water is clear, sometimes you can see the bottom at 100 ft (imagine that in the Solent!). The ICW and Cheasepeake are equally shallow, but visibility is only a couple of feet. Fortunately the world has few places with tides as high as in the English Channel. It made life very easy and it was a real relief not to have to worry about calculating tidal heights. The Caribbean, Bahamas and Cheasapeake have no real tide, while even in Maine it's only about 10ft.

In early September we reached Soames Sound in Maine, only 50 miles from the Canadian border, our "furthest north" and began to retrace our steps back to the Bahamas. We thought it would be an easy trip back, but hurricane Isobel had other ideas. One reason for sailing north was to be out of the hurricane belt (roughly 12-35deg N). We were in Long Island Sound when Isobel struck the Cheasepeake. Fortunately for us it passed over with no more fuss than a winters gale, but further south they weren't so lucky. When we returned to Annapolis we found that, although only a few boats had been lost, over 600 homes had been destroyed.

Christmas 2003 was spent in the Abacos, to me the best of the Bahamian islands. From there we sailed south through the Jumentos to Cuba, Belize and Guatemala. Again we saw very few boats (but several were British) indeed we reckoned there were only 30 cruising boats in the whole of Belize. Most cruisers only visit the eastern Caribbean, but the Caribbean Sea has three other sides as well! So the "Forgotten Caribbean" is the subject for a later article.

Finally, ocean cruising can only be a dream until you think you can afford it. So a key question for everyone is "How much does it cost?" Well, fortunately the answer is "Surprisingly little." I know everyone's life style is different, so costs are hard to compare but never-the-less, living at sea is much cheaper than on land. You have no car expenses, no council tax, no heating, no TV license etc. Even if you spend time in marinas and eat out a lot you'll still spend less than cruising round the UK. You soon learn to eat out "three streets back" and, with plenty of time, you walk or take buses rather than taxis.

My boat is currently in a Guatemalan marina, which is a very safe and cheap place to spend the hurricane season. Even though it has no road access it's not primitive by any means, as it has a swimming pool, restaurant, cable TV, 24/7 internet access on board etc, and all for £100 a month!!

So in conclusion, I am sure that, if you can sail a small boat (say under 35ft) from Poole to the Channel Islands, you can sail it across the oceans. On a small simple boat you'll see the same sunsets and sit on the same tropical islands as those with a superyacht. Indeed with shallow draft and a short rig you can actually visit more places, for it is difficult or impossible to sail a boat much over 40ft in the Bahamas, along the ICW, or in the Cheasepeake, Belize or Guatemala. So we are lucky as these smaller and simpler boats are the ones which we, as PBO readers, sail.