Voyaging Skills Interview

Two voyagers fulfill childhood sailing dreams and learn skills along the way

Ellen Massey and Seth Leonard recently completed a 32,000-nautical mile circumnavigation of the globe under sail. Leonard grew up in Blue Hill, Maine, where he raced dinghies and cruised along the Maine coast with his family. Raised in a sailing community and on sailing literature, he first wanted to sail around the world when he was 14 years old; 10 years later he began the voyage. He attended high school in Freeport, Maine, where he raced dinghies. He taught sailing in Blue Hill and Brooklin, Maine, for four summers and coached racing in Annisquam, Mass., for three. He graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2005 with a degree in Economics and Government. In April of 2006, he bought Heretic, a 38-foot cutter-rigged sloop, in City Island, N.Y. Heretic is an early fiberglass boat, built in Florida in 1968 by Dave Westphal. Her design was modeled after the Sparkman and Stephens yacht Finisterre, famous for winning three consecutive Newport-Bermuda races in the 1950s. The boat is a full-keel centerboarder that draws four-and-a-half feet with the board up, nine feet with the board down. Leonard immediately began outfitting Heretic for a round-the-world voyage, and in July 2006 sailed her up to her home port in Blue Hill to continue the outfitting. A week later, he met Massey who was teaching sailing to local children in Brooklin, Maine.

Massey grew up on the West Coast: her family split their time between San Francisco and Hornby Island, British Columbia. She learned to sail in British Columbia in dinghies, but also sailed some in San Francisco. Ever since first learning to sail, she wanted to cross the Pacific Ocean in a small boat. In the fall of 2000, she and her family moved east and she attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. For five summers, she taught sailing in Tenants Harbor and Brooklin. In the fall of 2004 she entered Yale University, and in July 2006 met Leonard in Brooklin. Learning of each other’s sailing dreams, within a few weeks decided to sail together. Massey took a year-long leave of absence from Yale and once her job ended for the summer, she worked on Heretic’s outfitting.

At Morris Yachts in Bass Harbor, Maine, they installed a new mast, boom, and running rigging, re-bedded all the fasteners, hatches, and the sheer clamp, re-wired and re-plumbed the entire boat, installed new propane hoses for the galley, and installed safety equipment such as an EPIRB, life raft, and single-sideband radio. On Oct. 7, 2006, they departed Maine and sailed south along the East Coast. To avoid a storm off Cape Hatteras, they went through the Intracoastal Waterway as far as Beaufort, N.C., where after more boat work, they departed on Dec. 9, 2006, for the first real offshore passage between Beaufort and Nassau, Bahamas.

They spent a month moving down the Exuma chain in the Bahamas before going to Turks and Caicos where they installed an Aries wind vane as a self-steering device. After the passage from Beaufort, they saw the necessity of self-steering and the Aries would also enable them to sail alone without additional crew. They called at Port Antonio, Jamaica, before heading for Colón, the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal in March 2007. After engine trouble in Gatun Lake in the middle of the Canal, they completed their transit in late March and spent a month in Panama City to work on the engine. They sailed from Panama City to Puerto Ayora in the Galápagos. After seeing some of the fearless creatures that inhabit the Galápagos, they departed Puerto Ayora on May 25, 2007, for their longest passage across the Pacific. The 3,000 miles between the Galápagos and the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia took 27 days.

They spent six weeks exploring the islands of French Polynesia, moving west through the Marquesas, Tuamotus, and Society Islands. In August 2007, they sailed for the Cook Islands from where Massey had to fly back to the United States to complete another year at Yale. Leonard and a friend sailed to New Zealand, stopping in Tonga. He and Heretic spent the Southern Hemisphere cyclone season in New Zealand and in late April 2008, after completing the academic year, Massey returned to Heretic. Heretic received much attention in New Zealand: Leonard installed a new-to-Heretic Yanmar engine to replace the problematic 40-year-old engine; they re-antifouled the bottom and installed a new galley sink, among many other small projects.

In May 2008, Leonard and Massey departed New Zealand for Fiji, and in July, they sailed for Vanuatu and then Australia, reaching Cairns by August. They returned to Australia at the end of hurricane season in April 2009 and worked north inside the Great Barrier Reef before heading west to Darwin. In Darwin, they redid Heretic’s barrier coat below the waterline. The project took six weeks and in late August 2009, they began their Indian Ocean crossing before calling at Richards Bay, South Africa in December 2009.

They worked south down the African coast, calling at East London, and Port Elizabeth before rounding Cape Agulhas and Cape of Good Hope. Off Cape Agulhas they saw the worst weather of the voyage, consistent 50-knot winds with seas averaging 20 feet. After a month in Cape Town replacing the Yanmar’s three pistons and doing much-needed varnish on the mahogany cabinsides, they headed northwest across the Atlantic. After arrival in Barbados, they took a month to sail north through the Lesser Antilles before sailing for Bermuda, and back to Blue Hill, Maine. They arrived back in Blue Hill on June 28, 2010. They later sold Heretic, but plan to return to voyaging as soon as they can.

OV: What are the most important skills voyagers need to know before they go voyaging?

EM&SL: In our experience, it is possible to learn many of the necessary skills while voyaging. Of course, the more you prepare ahead of time, the less you will have to learn along the way and your voyage will thereby be more enjoyable. The essential skill is how to voyage safely, which has three main components: sailing and boat handling, navigation, and maintenance skills.

Both of us learned to sail in small boats, which we think is fundamental to learning to sail well. Because small boats are so responsive, the theory of sailing is more apparent.

As for navigation, many sailors today rely solely on their chartplotters. This is inadvisable because one must use traditional methods to navigate safely when the chartplotter fails, and it is good to keep those skills in practice.

It is difficult to learn to maintain a boat until you actually do so, but there are good manuals available to help you learn to do almost everything when the occasion arises. Nigel Calder’s books are indispensable on any cruising sailboat. Hal Roth’s How to Sail Around the World is a good reference for both choosing the right boat and keeping her safe for voyaging.

In a more figurative sense, it is important to be positive, independent, and motivated. It is possible to plan so much that you never leave port, and in that sense you need to have the motivation to actually go. There will be problems along the way, maintenance or otherwise; you can almost always overcome them if you think you can. Finally, there will be people who discourage voyaging, claiming that it is impractical or unsafe. If you feel prepared and it is what you truly want to do, be independent and go sailing anyway.

OV: How do you prepare for a voyage or a particular leg of a voyage? What is your planning routine?

EM&SL: Maintaining Heretic to an acceptable standard of safety and comfort was our primary component of preparation. If our departure from a port was delayed it was inevitably due to maintenance. Voyaging aboard a 40-year-old boat necessarily meant we had a lot of work to do. Before we left Maine for our circumnavigation, we installed among myriad other things a new rig, new wiring, new plumbing, and new fasteners throughout the boat.

Before leaving a port, our routine entailed provisioning and checking weather forecasts. We generally provisioned for extensive periods in major ports (the U.S., Panama, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa) and then bought fresh food at whatever ports we could. We usually had about six months’ worth dry and canned goods aboard. We topped up on water every month (200 gallon capacity), and added fuel only every six months, since we rarely motored.

A crucial part of preparing for a voyage is choosing the route. We chose a westward circumnavigation of the globe in order to sail with the trade winds. Information on when to sail and where is readily obtainable from pilot charts and Jimmy Cornell’s book World Cruising Routes. Weather forecasts generally do not predict winds for as long as one spends offshore, so we timed our passages according to seasonal weather patterns, making sure to spend cyclone seasons outside hurricane belts.
OV: What is the most valuable skill you picked up while voyaging?

EM&SL: Maintaining Heretic properly, from redoing the underwater barrier coat to replacing pistons, was the most valuable skill we learned. As I said, it is impossible to know how to do these things until they actually become necessary. Now that we have learned the many skills involved in maintaining an oceangoing sailboat, our future voyages will be easier, cheaper, and more enjoyable. We now know exactly what we want in a boat.

OV: Do you think voyagers are more skilled or less skilled than in the years past?

EM&SL: While it is not universally true, many voyagers, including ourselves, are less skilled than in the years prior to GPS and fiberglass. As long as voyagers maintain an appropriate safety margin, such as knowing how to use paper charts and make repairs at sea, then the inability to use a sextant or caulk decks is not a problem. The fact that sailing long distances has become easier has the advantage that it is accessible to more people, which will hopefully make more people care more about the health of the oceans.

OV: Who or what most inspired you to go voyaging?

EM&SL: Sailing was a part of our lives since we were young children and that more than anything inspired us to sail offshore. Seth grew up coastal cruising and racing dinghies in Downeast Maine; voyaging was a new challenge, a means of taking his sailing further. As a child I often saw cruising boats come into the harbor I lived on in British Columbia; I was aware that one could cross oceans in them and the idea fascinated me. I always wanted to go farther than my dinghy could take me.

OV: What will you do different next time?

EM&SL: During our recently completed circumnavigation, we improved and upgraded Heretic in every port. We now know exactly what we want in a boat; we have the skills and knowledge to maintain a boat efficiently and cost effectively. We will thus be able to save money and hassle in future voyages.

We are also interested to see new places, so we would choose a different route. This is not to say that we were dissatisfied with our route; if we were to do it again, we would choose the same route to circumnavigate the globe. Now that we have, however, we do not intend to go around the world again, but rather to explore more in the Pacific.

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

EM&SL: We have sold our boat Heretic and are currently living in Geneva, Switzerland, but we are certainly not done with voyaging. Eventually, we hope to sail more in the Pacific Ocean and explore the islands in both the South and North Pacific. We would like to visit Polynesia again but turn north to Japan, Alaska, and the Aleutians instead of continuing west.