Finding fun and fulfilment on FAR HORIZONS TIPS ‘

2015-05-14 06:00

TWENTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD James Speed has been sailing the high seas for the past two years or so. After matriculating from Maritzburg College in 2012 and unsure of what to do with the rest of his life, Speed and his parents felt that it would be sensible for him to take a gap year.

“Initially, it was only going to be a gap six months and then I was going to come back and study,” Speed said. Those six months turned into 15 months of unforgettable experiences and opportunities to see exotic locations that he may not have otherwise seen.

“I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do for my gap year. First, I wanted to ride a motorbike through Africa but that would have been too expensive. I wanted to drive a tractor on farms in America, then I saw a friend at a party who had been sailing yachts.” After hearing about his experiences, Speed decided that this was a suitably exciting way to spend his time. His first port of call was to become qualified to sail, which meant that he had to get his 200-ton sailing licence. This he obtained from sailing schools in Durban and Cape Town. Along with this licence, he was also required to take courses on basic safety training, first aid and firefighting, and had to undergo a medical exam. After spending a year attending these required courses, Speed became a qualified yacht master.

Fortuitously, while Speed was writing his final exams, one of the sailing school instructors told him of a job delivering a boat from Durban to Miami in Florida for the Miami Boat Show in November 2013. Manna was her name and three crew members would be tasked with getting her safely across the Atlantic accompanied by her American owner, who had bought the vessel in Durban and had agreed to display it at the boat show in Miami for the manufacturer.

A typical day on Manna for Speed consisted of being on watch from 2 am to 5 am. This entailed being on the lookout for other ships, making sure the sails weren’t flapping with the wind changes and that the engines were running smoothly. After going back to bed from 5 am to 8 am, it was time for breakfast and the rest of the day was spent relaxing, fishing and swimming by hanging on a line that they suspended between the two hulls so that they didn’t have to stop “because it’s really hot in the middle of the Atlantic”.

“At night, someone had to be awake all the time to be on watch, but otherwise it was quite casual and we had a lot of leisure time. We had a big barbeque on board and cooked our own fish, which we caught on fishing rods trawling from the back of the boat.”

As there was no Internet on the boat, communication with family and the boat’s manufacturer was done via satellite phone from which they sent their GPS position every three days.

There were many days when this 16-metre catamaran and her crew were on their own, surrounded only by the waters of the vast Atlantic Ocean. “Sometimes there was the odd ship about, but most of the time we were on our own. When you are in the middle of the ocean like that, if you don’t have a GPS or compass you wouldn’t be able to keep in a straight line. It’s very disorientating having no landmarks whatsoever as the seas swells are constantly changing.”

Luckily for Manna and her crew, there was not one day of bad weather. “In fact,” Speed said, “the worst day was when we left Durban harbour which was very windy, but after that we had perfect weather day after day.” Crossing the Atlantic, Speed said: “Every sunset was a photo opportunity. Eventually, we stopped noticing them, because they were spectacular every evening — we started taking them for granted.”

After “making good time” of two months and 46 days of sailing, Manna and her crew arrived in Miami where the crew got busy cleaning, buffing and polishing her in readiness for the boat show. “The last two days of the boat show were spent taking Manna out on day trips in Biscayne Bay to show her off for potential buyers, usually with about 10 people on board.” As the skipper had already gone home, Speed was the skipper for those trips, having the highest “ticket” or qualification.

After the boat show was over, Speed decided to remain in the U.S. From his base in a crew house in Fort Lauderdale, where these intrepid sailors stay while looking for employment, Speed set about finding his next job. “You have to walk the docks in your smart clothes, handing out CVs, and asking around. It’s also a good idea to register online with all the crew agencies. The yachts pay for access to these databases.”

It didn’t take long for the captain of a super yacht called Snowbird to contact him after seeing his CV on the database. “I was very fortunate, because it’s usually much more difficult to get a job. The market is flooded at the moment because it’s good, it’s fun, you are working overseas, earning foreign currency and you get to travel a lot, so it’s very inviting for a lot of people.”

Snowbird was 40-metre charter boat, which means it is rented out to guests “just like hiring a beach cottage for a holiday. You get the boat and the crew and all its toys for that time.”

This large power boat could accommodate 10 guests and seven crew members, and with its three decks, jacuzzi, TVs, Internet and dedicated chef, it was the epitome of luxury. “Everything’s laid on for the guests,” Speed said. “It’s like working in a moving hotel.”

Snowbird was loaded onto a ship called Dockwise, in Fort Lauderdale, bound for Genoa, Italy, which took 20 days. Speed explained that the reason the boat is loaded onto “yacht transport” is because “it costs the same as sailing the boat across on its own steam, and there’s less wear and tear on the engine and the boat”. Speed accompanied Snowbird to do some maintenance while the yacht was out of the water — “my second Atlantic crossing in a matter of months”. According to Speed, Genoa is where many Europeans go in the summer. With guests on board, Snowbird travelled to Imperia, Italy, went to the Monaco Grand Prix and St Tropez, as well as Stromboli and Capri. Thereafter, Snowboard was based in Montenegro “where we were stayed for the summer hosting guests at regular intervals with a few days turnaround”, Speed said.

The crew spent the remainder of the summer taking groups of charter guests to and fro between Montenegro and Croatia. Before he knew it, a year had passed.

“My leave was due and the boat was in the throes of being sold, so I terminated my contract and came home.”

When I spoke to Speed he had been home for six months and was less than a week away from returning to life as a sailor; this time heading for Antibes in the South of France, “where most of the yachties go for the summer”. While he’s there, he will be looking for similar jobs, but this time he wants to move from the deck to the engine room.

This will be the last stint as he feels that it’s time to come home and study. “The best part of this line of work is moving around and travelling — really, it’s a boy’s dream, driving huge power boats across the sea.”

SPEED advised that anyone who wants to do this must do their research about the courses that are required. “You need to read up about it as much as you can to see if it is for you. Do your courses and work out the cheapest way to do them. Go to Durban, get into the yachting circles, go to the Wednesday night races and get on the sailboats as a crew member, where you’ll learn to sail and find out whether boating is for you.”

Speed said that interested people should visit the sailing schools in Fenton Road in Durban, which will know many of the boats involved in the social racing. Speed said there are various sailing schools in Durban and Cape Town, but stressed that they must be recognised by the Royal Yachting Association so that you can sail anywhere in the world. “You can sink lots of money into these courses only to find out that they are only recognised in South Africa,” Speed said.

Speed also advised: “Try to save as much money as you can before you go. I went with very little money which was quite stressful.”

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