Sailing from Finland to New Zealand, the final chapter. 17,500 miles, 5 oceans and 34 countries
So we made it. A couple of people with a dream. Thankfully we didn’t know enough about sailing around the world when we left Nautor’s yard in Jakobstad Finland on September 21, 2018 on our beautiful Swan 54 Coco, to understand what we’d just taken on. Thankfully we didn’t know what we should have been worried about. But we did it. It’s possible that we are half good sailors now, but the ocean always wants to trip you up. I have the most enormous amount of respect for that big blue thing. Never to be taken casually, never with too much confidence, never without a plan. In fact, the more you know about sailing oceans the worse it gets. Its only then that you start to know what might go wrong. Perhaps be naïve is a better approach?
I’ve got to be honest; it’s taken me a couple of weeks to even think about writing this. I landed in New Zealand with a thump; deflated. I was expecting elation, a sense of achievement. Flags waving, the dock crowded with friends and family cheering us into the berth at Westhaven in Auckland as we arrived at 08:00hrs on November 18, 14 months after leaving Coco’s birthplace in Scandinavia. All we got was MPI and Customs. But they were nice.
Then it dawned on me. Unless you’ve done it, there’s really not any understanding of what’s just been achieved. Nobody really gets all those sleepless nights you’ve spent doing ocean crossings, the coral reefs you’ve dodged, the gear failures (fortunately for us nothing major), the anchoring issues at 3am in a squall, the whales that have tried to run into you… It’s left me wondering; all those people who have climbed the highest mountains, run across the widest countries, swum the oceans – do they all have the same feeling when they are done? I think I’ve just worked out why they do it again.
The last leg from Tonga to New Zealand was tough – not because of the sailing, but my dad died just before we set off. And that took the wind out of my sails. He was the one who taught me to sail, showed me that without determination and grit you’d never achieve anything in life (mind you, in saying that, my mum was pretty determined as well, concert pianist, mother extraordinaire, and put up with my dad…). And sailing around the world takes determination, trust me on that. I met several sailors on our journey who’d had enough. They were leaving their yachts in a marina somewhere and going home, planning to come back next season to have another lash at it. I had those moments, where we were about to embark on another two weeks in the open ocean; not knowing what fate was to bring. Already tired, the energy it takes to get your head into the right space can be significant. So with dad gone, some of my purpose disappeared with him.
My end point for this epic adventure was sailing into my home waters, Mercury Bay on the east coast of New Zealand. Picking my dad up and taking him for a sail on Coco. That’s never going to happen now. Yes, I felt robbed and it was a tough 9 days at sea.
But I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved. Being perfectly honest, it’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever taken on. It’s not like a normal job. On the ocean, your job is to keep people alive, to keep everyone safe. That adds a new dimension to your decision making I can assure you of that!
So how did we end up where we are right now? After we made the call to buy our first yacht, a Swan 54 (overkill for a first yacht, possibly), we’d originally planned to have Coco shipped from Finland to Sydney for final commissioning, and then sail then her home across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. However, one day in Auckland, during the final stages of the build (about two months before Coco was due to be launched), we were in a meeting with the sailmakers and my wife Jacqui tapped me on the shoulder and said “why don’t we sail her home?”. I was a little surprised I must admit, but me, never being one to let skills or practical experience get in the way of a damn good adventure, said hell yes! That was the start. We made the decision to take a year away from other commitments and sail from Finland to New Zealand with Coco – it was a pretty big leap for us having never done any ocean sailing, let alone sail more than half way around the world… It was an incredibly busy couple of months, the transition from planning to pick up a yacht in Australia, to getting ready to sail around the world. So yes, it was a little stressful at times as well. However we haven’t regretted it for a moment. We have now sailed 32,000 km in Coco since she was launched last September. It’s been a big learning curve for both of us given that we hadn’t ever done any bluewater sailing, but Coco has looked after us.
In terms of the driver in making the decision to do it, we both got to point in our lives where we felt a change of direction was needed. We didn’t feel like the rat-race was doing us any favours personally (the rats were winning), so we made a really big call to change our lives; buy a yacht and go sailing. And let me be clear here, it was a wildcard for us both! I did a bit of sailing while I lived in Mercury Bay; Dad always had boats and as kids, we sailed a lot around the Mercury and Great Barrier Islands. So I guess I have him to blame for the sailing bug.
The time sailing as a family when I was young has left me with some awesome memories. Those summer weeks spent around the Mercury Islands in our old trimaran were just gold. So I always wanted to get back to sailing, and fortunately for me Jacqui bought into it! She hasn’t every really spent any time on the ocean, so it was a big call – one that could have gone really wrong… But she loves it, we both do. Being on the ocean is a challenge, its busy with little downtime. But the sense of peace being surrounded by the ocean on a yacht with fair winds and good speed is pretty special. And we get to go places you’d never even dream of visiting otherwise.
We had a couple of “situations” on our sail back to New Zealand that probably need a mention – like the morning I slashed my hand opening a coconut still 3 days out from the Marquises. We were truly sailing short-handed for a week. The the Genoa came off on the same crossing and ended up in the water next to the yacht. My first time up the top of the mast mid-ocean is not an experience I want to repeat in a hurry.
It took us two days waiting for the wind to drop before we could get it back up again. Then there was the time we were shadowed by drug runners at 2am off the coast of Panama. We got a drifting fishing rope wrapped around the prop the same night… We nearly hit a reef in the Tuamotus, our anchor dragged in a squall at 3am there as well (we ended up following our entry path out in the dark in the rain then going around in circles in deeper water waiting for it to get light), and we got nailed by strong currents and waves during one of the atoll entrances. Love the Tuamotus… And we discovered stalking squalls two days out of Tonga. They follow you, grow, move and change. It took us nearly two hours to get out of it!
It’s been a hell of a journey in lots of ways. I’ll never forget arriving at the Nautor boatyard in Finland and seeing Coco for the first time. Still not in the water, I looked at her and I was somewhat intimidated by how big she was but stoked about what a beautiful yacht we’d had built.
Wonder I did, about how Jacqui and I were ever going to be able to sail her by ourselves! (then they put the mast in, that was bigger than anything I’d handled before…). But I’m so pleased that we’d made the call to go and pick her up and sail her back to New Zealand. Otherwise we’d still be struggling to sail her properly; she’s no slug and way more complex than the smaller yachts I’d ever sailed back at home. Yes, we would have looked like complete Muppets on the Waitematā Harbour in Auckland for years.
So, where in the world did we go? Here goes, a test of my memory… Finland, Sweden, Germany, Holland, England, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, Canary Islands, St Lucia, St Vincent, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Union Island, Carriacou, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Barbuda, Nevis, Saba, St Martin, the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Galapagos, Marquises, Tuamotu’s, Society Islands (Tahiti), Cook Islands, Tonga and now our home, New Zealand.
We have been so lucky to experience this adventure. And the diversity of the places we have seen has been enormous. From the chilly Baltic and the Nordic culture, the English autumn, some European flair in Spain and Portugal, island living in the Canaries, a taste of Rasta in the Caribbean, true tropical island life in French Polynesia and the South Pacific. It’s been awesome.
We left the boatyard on September 21, 2018; at the last moment we managed to get a small crew to help us the first couple of months for the first leg from Finland to Portugal – they had all sailed much more than we had and helped us get underway. We sailed down the coast of Sweden (stopping at some beautiful little coastal villages on the way), then through the Kiel Canal, across to the island of Helgoland, then down the English Channel to Southampton to get a few things sorted out that needed some fine turning. After that it was across the Bay of Biscay, down the coast of Spain to Lisbon in Portugal for a week’s break there. Leg two was from Portugal to St Lucia. We then sailed across to the Madeira Islands (which are fantastic – Porto Santo in particular) before heading south to the Canary Islands to join the ARC Rally for the Atlantic Crossing.
Once we reached the Caribbean (St Lucia was our first stop), we said goodbye to our crew and set off on our own. And we’ve never looked back. Jacqui and I sailed south to St Vincent, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Tobago Cays, Union Island, and Carriacou. We then headed back up north to Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Barbuda, Nevis, Saba and St Martin before heading west into the British Virgin Islands.
It was here that we decided it was time for us to start doing double handed ocean passages. So we set off on our first one, the British Virgin Islands to San Blas Islands near Panama. We were a little nervous but felt we had enough experience with Coco now to do it safely. One thing about Coco; if you look after her, she will look after you. And she did. We knocked the 1000 mile passage off in 6 days without a hitch.
From San Blas we completed the Panama Canal transit through to the Pacific Ocean, and again decided to sail double handed to the Galapagos Islands, then onwards to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. A total of 4000 miles – this is where you really understand long ocean crossings. By the time we arrived in French Polynesia, we were a little tired but otherwise in great shape (expect for the aforementioned incident with the coconut). Coco looked after us again. She really is a joy to sail with two people. From the Marquesas we sailed to the Tuamotu group of islands, then Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands. We were on the home run from Tahiti to Tonga via the Cooks Islands, and finally the last leg to New Zealand for the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Coco sailing on the Waitematā Harbour the weekend after we got home. My sincere thanks to Roger Mills from Hummingbird Video and Photography for very kindly taking the shots.
Favourite places? That seems to be a common question asked. Being lucky enough to explore the world on a yacht is a special experience. The most frustrating thing though, is that the more of it you see, and the more people you meet in amazing places, the more you realise how little of the world you’ve actually seen.
We loved Porto Santo in the Madeira Islands (off the coast of Portugal) – very laid back with amazing coastline. Isla Graciosa in the Canary Islands group (just north of Lanzarote) was really cool – a very small island, volcanic, sand roads, beautiful little port-side village with local restaurants. Great fun.
And in the Caribbean, we loved the more untouched (by tourists) islands like Dominica, Barbuda and Nevis – the locals were awesome, so welcoming; their Caribbean culture was strong. The San Blas islands were stunning and the local people invited us into their village for lunch! A really beautiful part of the world. The Marquesas were very special – dramatic volcanic islands pushed up out of the ocean with lush green tropical jungle cladding the hills. And again, such a warm welcome from the locals.
Next up were the Tuamotu Atolls closer to Tahiti. When we arrived and our initial reaction was wow. I remember being anchored off a remote part of Kauehi atoll – white shoreline clad with palm trees and exotically coloured clear blue water. It’s a Robinson Crusoe paradise and we were the only ones there. From there we experienced the romance of the Society Islands; Tahiti, Bora Bora, Morea. All beautiful and we loved the locals. Next up was Suwarrow Atol in the northern Cook Islands. Remote, beautiful and amazing diving (apart from the pesky sharks – they didn’t like us). We loved Suwarrow. Tonga was also a highlight; we visited the northern groups; Vava’u and Ha’apai. Incredibly welcoming and friendly people. Some very special parts of the world for sure.
As I mentioned earlier, we were originally going to have Coco shipped back to Australasia and neither of us had ever done any ocean sailing so we are really proud what we’ve achieved. It’s tiring some days, but it’s been a really amazing experience, we wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s probably the biggest challenge either of us has ever taken on, we’ve learnt a lot, we’ve been to some amazing places, we’ve met some wonderful people – so if we can do it, anyone can. Just buy a yacht and go see the world. It’s one of the last ways you can still have an epic adventure without being surrounded by Instagramers! A truly rewarding experience.
My final thoughts? Take a chance, be bold, be brave and be determined; you might just surprise yourself with what you can achieve. Take a leaf out that wonderful children’s book by Dr Seuss; “You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting so get on your way”. See you out there. Alex & Jacqui.
PS – thanks Bella, Sophia, Georgie and Johnny; our gorgeous kid tribe. We have been absent parents over the last year for sure. Thanks for giving us the grace to live a dream. We love you.
And the final word from Mahatma Gandhi…