Kate and Jonny Harrison dreamed of a round-the-world backpacking tour to Australia – but then their plans took a nautical turn

A move to Australia had been our aim for several years, and we’d agreed to take a year off and go backpacking en-route. But then, during our summer holiday in 2006, our plans took a nautical twist!

Both keen dinghy racers, my husband Jonny and I were walking around a marina in the South of France when Jonny looked at me and declared that he’d miss sailing too much if we went backpacking for a year. Couldn’t we sail there instead?

‘OK,’ I agreed!

A plan was hatched to leave the UK and spend 16 months sailing to Australia where we’d work for a couple of years then who knows… sail back to the UK, fly back to the UK, or stay in Australia?

We decided to keep our idea under wraps until we’d researched what sailing halfway around the world would entail and had some definite answers to all the questions that people were bound to ask. We went to boat shows, did copious amounts of online boat hunting, and after six months we found Newtsville, a Colvic Countess 37, and decided she was ‘the one’.

As it was approaching Christmas we thought it was about time we announced our intentions as we wouldn’t want all the usual Christmas gifts: we’d need pilot books, anchors, wet weather gear etc. After the initial shock family and friends were supportive of our idea and excited to be part of our plans, although they all thought we were slightly crazy!

Out of the ordinary

We are not your typical world cruisers, who often tend to be of early retirement age. When we left on our trip we were 26 years old: Jonny was an accountant and I was a secondary school maths teacher. Jonny managed to secure a secondment to his firm’s Sydney office and was given the opportunity to take 16 months unpaid leave between leaving the UK and arriving in Australia.

This gave us the green light as it meant the trip could become a reality, knowing that when we got to Australia Jonny would have an income straight away to replenish our finances.

Although confident dinghy sailors, we still had to learn about the new issues of marina manoeuvres and diesel engines. I grew up sailing Enterprises and Squibs with my Dad, while Jonny started in Toppers before sailing Enterprises, GP14s and RS200s. When we first started dating we were sailing as part of the crew on a Cork 1720. We then bought a RS200 called Rosie to race together. We hoped that with the experience of having sailed together under pressure in Rosie we’d be able to cope with cruising aboard Newtsville together for long periods.

RIGHT Stocking up with five weeks’ worth of provisions for an Atlantic crossing

Stocking up with five weeks’ worth of provisions for an Atlantic crossing

Making preparations

Newtsville was in Southampton, and we were living in Newcastle – a 5-6 hour commute. As soon as we could we arranged two weeks off work and sailed her up to Fleetwood in the north-west which would be her home for just over a year until we left in July 2008. We had a great two weeks learning about the boat, doing our first overnight sail and learning to avoid tankers!

Over the next year we were on Newtsville most weekends getting her kitted out for blue water sailing: adding wind generators, solar panels, SSB radios, chart plotters, radars and making her more homely; re-upholstering the saloon, making sheets for the bed, making cockpit cushions and fitting additional shelving.

We had two long shakedown cruises during this time, and after clocking up more than 1,250 miles felt we were finally getting to grips with handling our first big boat.

Kit for blue-water cruising

New wind generator for electrical power

New wind generator for electrical power

Most pre-departure days were spent on the internet researching equipment, and evenings were spent poring over catalogues, magazines and instruction manuals. It was all very daunting, and with a limited budget selecting the right and necessary equipment wasn’t easy.

We bought a chartplotter with combined radar and found this to be excellent, and have used nothing else for navigation along the way. We keep paper charts on board, of course, and keep a timely log, but haven’t needed to use either for practical navigation.

The fully-kitted nav and communication station covers all the basics

The fully-kitted nav and communication station covers all the basics

We installed an SSB radio with a Pactor modem for sending and receiving emails and weather files when at sea, and have found this to be superb – especially when combined with the daily radio nets we have when on passage.

Due to budget and simplicity we didn’t install a generator or watermaker, and haven’t once felt that we should have done. The wind generator and solar panel keep up with most of our requirements, and we top the batteries up with the engine (which also heats the hot water).

Windvane self-steering can handle the boat itself if the autopilot packs up

Windvane self-steering can handle the boat itself if the autopilot packs up

We added a windvane self-steering system, which is great in its own right, and is a good back-up in case the autopilot fails. Finally we invested in a new anchor, chain and windlass which have paid dividends over and over again; we anchored almost everywhere with great peace of mind and didn’t use a marina between the Canary Islands and Fiji.

False starts

Finally the day came for us to leave work, hand over our house in Newcastle to our new tenants, and move onto the boat.

Abersoch, North Wales is a special place for us so we planned to leave Fleetwood and spend a week there before heading across to Ireland and on our way.  Waving goodbye to friends and family, we headed out of Fleetwood Marina and got into the channel – only to find it was much windier than expected and the seas were huge. So we sneaked back in and waited out the storm for a couple of days before making it to North Wales.

After a great week in Abersoch saying goodbye to friends and family (again), we had another false start. We headed out through the sound with all our flags up and the yacht club tooting its horn… then after a mile we had to turn round and come back due to headwinds. Eventually, however, we were on our way to Ireland and starting our journey.

A roughly western route

Our plan was to follow the well-trodden trade winds route. From Ireland we’d cross Biscay to northern Spain, then down the coast of Spain and Portugal to Madeira, from the Canary Islands to Antigua, through the Caribbean to Panama and then across the Pacific. We didn’t make it to Madeira because we didn’t get the right winds for the passage, so we changed the plan and went to Morocco instead, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable places we visited.

Newtsville moors up next to the superyacht Maltese Falcon in Antigua

After spending Christmas in Antigua and cruising through the Caribbean we set course for Panama and the canal. Before we left the UK the idea of the Panama Canal and the associated horror stories circulating the cruising world meant that this should have been the scariest part of the trip. But it turned out the hassle-free and enjoyable canal transit was a highlight!

When we left the UK, getting to the Caribbean seemed like such a distant goal that the Pacific was quite an unknown, and we didn’t really dwell on the specifics of our route. Accordingly, we spent the passage from Galapagos to the Marquesas discussing routes and anchorages, which inevitably changed throughout the Pacific crossing – but we ended up visiting French Polynesia, Niue, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia before arriving in Australia.

Atlantic crossing

Our route meant we covered nearly 6,000NM in two ocean crossings: 2,876 miles in 25 days across the Atlantic and 3,108 miles in 22 days across the initial part of the Pacific from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, French Polynesia.

Kate took a dip in the Atlantic to disentangle this fishing net from around the prop

Kate took a dip in the Atlantic to disentangle this fishing net from around the prop

There is a lot of hype surrounding the Atlantic due to the Atlantic crossing rallies and the popularity of this ocean crossing for UK sailors. The Canary Islands are full of cruisers about to leave to cross the pond, each with their own ideas of what is ‘must-have’ kit that you shouldn’t dream about leaving without. It can be quite intimidating at times, but we knew we had done our research and we were happy with how we had set up the boat, so we managed to avoid the panic-buying in the busy chandleries.

We decided to provision the boat for five weeks on board: hopefully a three-week crossing, a week extra in case we decided to stop at the Cape Verdes and a week of contingency. We arranged all our food into weekly boxes and knew exactly what meals we’d be eating during each week. This was a lot of extra work before the off, but it worked well and meant that all the goodies weren’t eaten in the first week!

The Atlantic crossing was a mixture of weather. We had very light winds for the first week, the second week was spent in the middle of a huge thunder and lighting storm and for the final week the trade winds kicked in. The light winds were frustrating, the thunderstorms scary and the trade winds were great but hard work due to sail changes and big seas.

We only had a couple of issues on the way, the first of which was a fishing net around the propeller. It was about 2am on day two of the crossing and we were motoring through glassy seas when the engine suddenly stopped. We tried to work the net free using the rope cutter, but unfortunately it was stuck. At first light wetsuits and snorkels came out and I went over the side to free it.

The second issue was a broken spinnaker pole. We’d had the genoa poled out for several days when a gust of wind snapped it at the extendable joint. We managed to chop the bent part out and rivet the two straight parts back together. It was weaker than the original but held for the rest of the journey.

Newtsville sailing off Dominica

Newtsville sailing off Dominica

Pacific Ocean

Nuku Hiva in the French Polynesian Marquesas Islands

Nuku Hiva in the French Polynesian Marquesas Islands

The Pacific was a very different experience. We provisioned in Panama with enough stores for approximately eight months to get us to Australia, which was a huge task.

The expensive foods of French Polynesia and limited supplies of the smaller islands such as Tonga make a comprehensive shopping list in Panama essential. By the time we set sail for the Galapagos I never wanted to see another supermarket!

The first leg to Galapagos was a slow but uneventful trip, and we had a great time exploring the islands and seeing the unique wildlife. We were keeping an eye on the weather, and one night over beers with the cruisers we had been travelling with, we decided that the next day the weather looked good for the start of the long leg. The next morning we all upped anchor and started the 3,000-mile trip to the Marquesas.

A different mode of transport in the Galapagos

A different mode of transport in the Galapagos

The Pacific crossing was a great passage. We had steady winds in both strength and direction, meaning that at one point we hadn’t touched any sheets in over 15 days! We made good progress using our cruising chute and the Hydrovane and averaged 150 miles per day during the crossing.

The main problem was the heat. We had had a new bimini made in Grenada, which was a great help, but we had to fashion some shade curtains out of greenhouse netting to keep the cockpit cool.

Cruising Sailors get together for a pot lucj party in the San Blas Islands of Panama

Cruising sailors get together for a pot luck party in the San Blas Islands of Panama

Onboard routines

Your daily routine while at sea revolves around sleep and food. We did a three-hour watch system: three hours on, three hours off, which seemed to work well for us. When not sleeping or eating we kept ourselves entertained by reading, doing puzzles or playing games.

It is inevitable that you are going to be bored when you are at sea for so long, but you learn to cope with it: and before long your passage is almost over and you wonder where the days have gone. Emails through the SSB and Pactor modem are a highlight of the day. It’s great to be able to keep in touch with friends and family while you are 1,000 miles from land.

Memories are made of this

We met a myriad of different people along the way, and without exception our fellow cruisers have made the trip unforgettable.

You see your harbourside companions everyday and soon become close friends, and between the various boats within an anchorage you will find an expert in just about every field, from alternators to computers to plumbing or glassfibre repairs. We have had countless beach barbecues and pot luck suppers with our boaty friends that have left a lasting impression of camaraderie.

Along the way we have visited so many amazing places that they would be too numerous to list, but highlights have been Morocco, Galapagos and French Polynesia.

Morocco wasn’t initially in our plan, but we are glad we went. We were very nervous as it was the first non-European country we’d visited with Newtsville, but it proved to be amazing. The culture, people and scenery were spectacular, second to none.

The giant tortoises of the Galapagos

The giant tortoises of the Galapagos

Galapagos was like being in a National Geographic magazine article; the wildlife was breathtaking. Before we even arrived we had two booby birds hitch a lift for the last 100 miles, sitting on our spinnaker pole! From swimming with sea lions around the boat to visiting Lonesome George and the other giant tortoises, every day was a new experience.

Fijian papayas in a flax basket

Fijian papayas in a flax basket

French Polynesia consists of several island groups, all with unique landscape and culture. The Marquesas will always be special as our landfall after 3,000 miles at sea; the Tuamotus for the black pearls and beautiful but treacherous reefs; and the Society Islands for picture-postcard scenery and crystal-clear waters.

It’s not all good, mind

The weather is always in the back of your mind, and the night before a long passage is spent with one ear on the wind and little sleep. We nearly didn’t make it out of Europe as our first long passage was a nightmare. After 10 days waiting for a weather window in Cork, Ireland, we finally set off for a 550-mile trip to La Coruña. Needless to say the forecast didn’t hold true, and two south-westerly gales later we arrived cold, tired and hungry into Spanish waters with mumblings of selling the boat, or just cruising the Med for a year and flying to Australia.

However, time is the greatest healer, and even now looking back it doesn’t seem half as bad as I’m sure it was at the time. No matter how much preparation is put in beforehand and how many spares you carry you can guarantee that something will break and you won’t have the right part with you. We quickly got proficient at fixing things and looking analytically at problems, but repeated failures become tiresome and irritating.

Using cable ties, duct tape, Jubilee clips and epoxy, it’s quite surprising what can be cobbled together. That said, sometimes you just need the right parts, and it’s amazing how hard these are to find once you leave home waters. Hours spent walking, hunting and making phone calls to find a new engine mount that would be just a phone call and next-day delivery at home can make for frustrating times, especially in hot, sticky weather.

But that’s part of the cruising life: boat parts often aren’t designed for long-distance cruising, and every boat has failures sooner or later.

Jonny grating coconuts on the beach at Hushini in French Polynesia

Jonny grating coconuts on the beach at Hushini in French Polynesia

Arriving in Australia

After 16 months and 16,000 miles we arrived in Australia, with mixed feelings. We had a brilliant time cruising and would miss seeing our occasional cruising companions, but were looking forward to starting our new lives in Sydney. I longed for a bubble bath and a front-opening fridge where everything is easily accessible! Jonny started work again and tried to acclimatise to wearing a suit, all while dreaming of our next adventure.

After arriving in Sydney we decided that it was somewhere to drop anchor for a few years. We bought a house (which unfortunately meant selling Newtsville), and now have two beautiful daughters. We are teaching them to sail in a Mirror dinghy and are slowly training them to be competent deck hands. We will definitely stay here for a few more years and top up the cruising kitty, but after that who knows where our dreams will take us?

One thing is for sure: blue-water cruising has changed our lives forever.

Admiral Mary Barton, with her husband Humphrey. Credit Ocean Cruising Club

Tribute to Admiral Mary Barton

The Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) has paid tribute to its former Commodore, Admiral Mary Barton, who died on 1 December,…