Reflections on the experiences of life on board a true cruising cat
“Well that’s a complete reversal of thought!” I said to John as he came up with the idea of sailing the world on a catamaran. The dream of exploring far-flung corners of the earth was one we both held, but I thought a monohull was going to be our home.
We started our adventures in April last year, having shown our new home, the first Discovery 50 catamaran, at the Lorient Boat Show. Crossing the Atlantic, we saw just a handful of boats, and when we called them up, a typical response was “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” Not at all—we wanted to explore the east coast of America, routing via the Azores and Bermuda, making our landfall in Newport, Rhode Island. Last summer, Maine had the best weather in 30 years and the long sunny days were spent exploring the pink granite islands and pretty towns, dodging lobster pots and enjoying the company of family and new friends made along the way.
As we headed south on Discovery Magic, we saw whales and became fascinated with the history of old fishing towns of New England. We had a memorable sail past Manhattan and sailed the Chesapeake and the Carolinas to Florida, greatly enjoying the pelicans, cranes, herons and manatees that were there in plenty. We then crossed to the Bahamas for six weeks of sailing and snorkeling in the azure, crystal-clear waters—hardly long enough for such a wonderful expanse of islands, each group with their own personality and reason to explore.
Cuba was next and strikingly different in its history, culture, language, political conscience and social reasoning. Different too in the distances one needs to sail between anchorages and the absence of fellow cruisers. Havana is like stepping into an old European city, full of baroque facades, neo-classical buildings, shaded squares and intriguing courtyards. American 1950s car are a quintessential image—look down any street and you’ll see their curvy trunks and bonnets ostentatiously protruding beyond the rest. Live music is everywhere in Havana, and dancing, too. We had a glimpse of the practice session at the famous ballet school and witnessed some of the passion of flamenco.
We also saw many signs of hardship. For transport, Cubans use mule and cart, cars that are held together by diligence and love, buses that are in fact trucks and absolutely packed, and hope (that if they stand by the side of the road for long enough someone will give them a lift). Basic rations are not really enough and housing is crowded and run-down. Yet despite all that, we found the people to be gracious, positive and proud of their country.
Now, just one remarkable year on from the start of our journey, we are in the San Blas Islands. This bejeweled archipelago on the northeast coastline of Panama offers a remarkable step back to a different time. The vibrant reds, oranges, greens and yellows of the traditional costumes of the Kuna Indians seem a perfect balance to the brilliant hues of blue in the water. More than 300 palm-loaded, tiny islands are fringed with fine white sand. Many are protected by coral reefs, and what a joy it is to spend an afternoon snorkeling in the balmy water, discovering the wealth of life and beauty just beneath the surface!
LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
Our adjustment from land-locked living started two years before we set off, when we sold our house and moved to a small rented accommodation. Getting rid of possessions was hugely liberating, highlighting how few things we actually need or want.
In any event, by choosing a brand-new, 50-foot luxury catamaran, we’ve had more than enough space and comfort. The Discovery 50 has all that you would expect in terms of large fridge and freezer, washing machine and watermaker, but it is the design that provides both the luxury and pleasure. Internally, the most sumptuous aspect has to be the full-beam master cabin, with super-king-size bed and his and hers bathrooms. The sun-beds and hot tub add a touch of decadence on deck, while the large saloon and en-suite guest cabins make it delightfully easy to have family and friends visit without any compromise.
Not only do I have everything I’d have in a house, but I have an ever-changing view from the kitchen window and very little housework. Driving to the shops in a fast dinghy is a joy, and unlike a house, a boat gives us choice and opportunity—we can move it or stay just where we are. Along the way, we have taken some fabulous diversions, such as hiring a car to revel in the vibrant autumn colors of Vermont, driving the Blue Ridge Highway and hiking in the Smoky Mountains. I will always cherish the memory of visiting the Kennedy Space Center and seeing a rocket launch.
Before we set off on our travels, I confided to a cruising friend that I was worried about what I would do all day on a boat. She didn’t respond immediately and I watched her face wrestle with the shock and realization that I was just a novice. She knew that on board, no two days are the same. In order to make passage you are studying charts and pilot guides, planning your route and perhaps preparing meals. On passage, you are watchkeeping, adjusting sails and navigating your way to your destination. When you arrive, you want to explore!
Even if you have a plan of sorts, events take over and force you to live in the present. With land-based living, you are often living the future, but while cruising, you may have your home in a different neighborhood each evening with ever-changing neighbors.
It is easy to make acquaintances, many of whom become firm friends. Whatever the choice of yacht, cruising people tend to be like-minded, face similar issues and generally take similar routes. They all have funny stories to share over a sunset cocktail or two. On our trip we had a wonderful coincidence when we sailed into Newport, RI, having crossed the Atlantic, cleared customs and immigration, and dropped anchor in the harbor. There, just ahead of us, was the Discovery 55 monohull we had helped design and had built 10 years earlier. The new owners are delightful, generous and fun and we greatly enjoyed several days cruising in their company. I am still in love with that boat and have many fond memories of the extensive sailing we did in her.
WHY A CAT?
Apart from doing the singlehanded transatlantic race in a monohull, John had competed in several long–distance races in high performance multihulls. That excitement and the understanding of what they are capable of is part of him. Even when we first thought about blue-water cruising, we deliberated whether it should be a monohull or a multihull. The Discovery 55 monohull won out, but there was always the thought of sailing on a cat. So when the first Discovery 50 was still on the drawing board, it seemed a natural step that we should take delivery of it.
We haven’t been disappointed. It has all the pedigree of a Discovery monohull and all the plus points of a catamaran. Fifty feet may be considered big for just two people to handle, but it has been designed to do just that. We so loved the in—mast reefing on our monohull that we insisted on having it on the cat. Vertical battens retain a good roach and shape to the sail. But it’s more than that; I can reef at any point of sailing and always have the correct amount of sail for wind conditions. It’s also so easy to operate that only one of us can do it within the safety of the cockpit.
Although we had chartered catamarans, I had never sailed one far offshore and was a bit apprehensive. Our delivery trip to the London Boat Show in January last year was a good introduction to adverse conditions. We were sailing this brand new boat on a schedule (never a good thing) and set off in the evening light with a snow blizzard following us up the English Channel. By the time we got to Dover, we had 35 knots of wind, and when we tied up at the ExCeL exhibition site in the East End of London, we had four inches of snow on the decks. Discovery Magic had been exemplary and gave me great confidence for the voyages ahead. The designer, Bill Dixon, has not only given this cat a good bridgedeck clearance, but it is well-balanced, with weight kept low and central. John and I made the 275nm passage across to northwest Spain without a hitch. Again, I was reassured that she could handle big seas.
I had also been told that cats don’t point to windward very well. I was delighted at how the boat consistently proved that she could tack and point (35 degrees to the apparent) as well as a monohull, yet also have the higher speeds. On our long passages, we would regularly cover over 200nm in a day. Crossing the Atlantic, one night-watch was particularly exhilarating. We were screaming along on a broad reach, speeds consistently over 10 knots into a black night. We couldn’t see a thing, yet the boat was humming in enjoyment!
The other aspect that is particularly gratifying about the boat is her looks. The elegant, long sweep of the coach roof makes a striking appearance. We find that wherever we go people come over just to say what a good-looking cat she is.
Apart from the feeling of space, sailing on the level has to be a major plus to owning a catamaran. We make passage, yet nothing needs to be stowed away, with family photographs, table lamps, kettle and water glasses all left where they are. Life continues as it was at anchor. This aspect of cat sailing was first brought home to me when we were rounding the Brest peninsula. I was on watch, preparing a meal. Looking out from the galley I could see a ship ahead, so I took two paces to the navigation area, corrected the autopilot and went back to my cooking—wonderful.
I had been worried about missing our family and friends, but have discovered that not only do they manage perfectly well without me, but we can stay in good contact. Almost without exception, we have been able to get Internet connection on the boat, although it hasn’t always been strong enough for Skype. Yet on other occasions it has amazed me that there is any connection at all. When we were more than three miles offshore, we saw a whale; Skype was up and running and I could excitedly share the experience with my son back in England. Here in the San Blas, at an isolated island anchorage, we are happily sending and receiving e-mails. My 80-year-old mother has surprised us all by embracing computer technology and we are now corresponding by e-mail almost daily.
I have discovered the joy of living in the present. Sailing has opened my eyes to what is before me and the pace of sailing has allowed me to enjoy it. The other afternoon, I was strolling the beach of a small island and two girls ran up to me. Their boldness left them almost straightaway and they quickly disappeared to the safety of their hut, returning only when their father appeared. To my delight, they were happy for me to take photographs. Several minutes of madness followed when the men of the family posed for the camera by doing handstands, climbing up coconut trees and hugging each other. When I got back to the boat I printed some of the shots and took them back to the family. The women then wanted me to take photos of them. They rushed back to their huts to put on all their finery. More prints followed, along with more glee. None of that had been planned, but we all had a fun afternoon and I have some great memories to treasure.
I have discovered that wherever we have gone, we have been shown kindness and friendship. The harbormaster in Maine offered us her car to provision the boat; a New York bus inspector went to great lengths to successfully retrieve a wallet I left on a bus on 5th Avenue; Bill and Carole in Fort Lauderdale were ardent caretakers of our boat when we left it for three weeks. Then there is a whole cruising fraternity that somehow seems compelled to swap advice, books and bits of equipment in order to help each other. In particular, the Ocean Cruising Club stands out. We didn’t discover the OCC until we got to America. The only qualification for membership is to have done a 1,000nm passage nonstop. The wealth of experience, camaraderie and support given by those members is second to none, and the help their port officers gave us went well beyond the call of duty.
It’s been a most amazing year, full of adventure and new experiences. Above all, I have re-discovered the reason why John and I first got together 30 years ago. I would recommend that anyone thinking about cruising go and discover what it’s all about.
Caroline and John Charnley, co-founders of Discovery Yachts, set sail on the first Discovery 50 Cat in 2010 and have since crossed the Atlantic and cruised the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. They are currently winding down in the magical San Blas Islands. In the past, the couple ran a successful boat-building company that produced over 250 boats and had an award-winning vineyard in England.