Ocean Vagabond

sailing 6 The circumnavigation of VIOLETTA  1993 to 1997

 In some ways the voyage of ATEA started 20 years ago when John set out from England in a tiny sailboat….

After a successful time at school and then Durham University, I joined the Royal Navy in 1989 and transferred to the Submarine service in 1991.  It was a time of cutbacks in the Armed Forces and I felt that this was not the right path for me, so I applied for redundancy from the Navy in 1993.  At the age of 25 I simply wanted to travel and explore and was inspired by the stories I had read about long ocean voyages in the tropics.  It was a big change from the security of the Navy and the focus of my upbringing to date, but suddenly I had the time, the boat and the money to take off for adventure – so I did.


I asked my friend Clive to join me and we decided to sail my little boat “Violetta” to New Zealand.  Clive was another ex-service man who had always loved travel, and although he knew nothing of the sea, I didn’t think that this would be a problem.  We planned that the challenge was to be in the journey rather than in the sailing.  Violetta was a small and old boat, and we intended to enjoy the trip, so the route selected was easiest: the Tradewind classic of going “South until the butter melts” and then turn west to the West Indies, through Panama and across the wide warm reaches of Polynesia.  The boat was a 27 ft sloop, long keeled, quite traditional in design and very small compared with most modern cruising boats.  She had no long-range radio, a small engine, limited creature comforts and was cramped below, but she was sturdy, seaworthy, and would prove to be a very safe, simple and capable craft.  I had plenty of coastal sailing experience and a strong nautical background, but little small boat open ocean experience.  That was about to change and we sailed from Plymouth in August 1993.


Almost as soon as we had started, with England a mere six weeks and 2,000 miles astern, a tragic accident on the island of Madeira wrecked the plan.  Clive and I had separated to allow him to walk across the island, and so I sailed around to meet him on the other shore.  When Violetta and I reached the other side, we anchored in a heavy swell, and waited for him to arrive.  The afternoon passed and Clive did not appear, so I put to sea for the night, returned again in the morning, and waited once more, but there was still no sign of him.   Confused and worried,   I returned to the capital on the other side of the island, with the thought that he might have missed me and returned by road.  There was still no sign of him, so I went to the police and reported him missing in the hills.  Groups of yachtsmen helped me and we searched the island for days, but never found a trace.


My best friend had died in the hills and we had found nothing.  We had planned a sailing trip together but within a few weeks I was alone on the boat, and my fingerprints remain on an Interpol database since the circumstances were deemed ‘unusual’.  Many months later, after Violetta and I had left Madeira and sailed southwards, evidence of Clive’s body was found on the island and the best theory we have is that he fell off the path to his death.  I never considered abandoning the voyage since surely I could find crew somewhere en-route?  In fact I did not find crew until after we left New Zealand two years and 11,000 miles later and so, by unfortunate circumstance, I was about to become a long distance singlehander.


With the trade winds gathering strength and a long-term timetable in mind, I was committed to making the passage from Tenerife to Antigua by Christmas.  The North East Trades were steady across the Atlantic and the conditions were good for Violetta’s first ocean passage.  My routine at night would be to get up every hour on the hour to take the log reading and check our course, look out for squalls, lights and so on.  If all was well I would then sleep for another 50 minutes.  This routine still left me open to being run down by a ship or another yacht, but we were out of the major shipping lanes and one just has to take the chance.  After 25 days Violetta and I arrived in the beautiful English Harbour, Antigua, just in time for Christmas in the bars and the sunshine of this most lovely port.


There are literally thousands of yachts cruising in the warm waters of the world, and the Caribbean is one of the most popular areas.   I met many wonderful people whilst sailing, people from all walks of life and of every nationality.  There were computer technicians from the UK, a butcher from Switzerland, a university lecturer from San Diego, an Electrician from Sydney, café owners from Auckland, and many other escapees from the rat race of all ages.   There was the American military veteran who daily threw his cat overboard “so that he would know how to swim when the time comes”.   There was the Swiss ex Olympic canoeist whose bright pink homemade boat, plywood canoe, and beautiful girlfriend regularly drew heads on their paddles through the anchorage.  There were boats where the greeting onboard came with a glass of Pastis, whatever the hour. There were boats where the food was always beans, and the only the choice was ‘What sauce today?”.  It was a pleasant, large and social cruising community, we all had a common interest and we all helped each other.


From the Windward and Leeward islands of the Caribbean, Violetta and I travelled westward in strong trade winds to the port of Colon at the entrance to the Panama Canal arriving late in March ’94.  Very specific preparations are needed to keep a small yacht safe in locks designed for 900 ft vessels and with millions of gallons of water in motion.   We had to carry 4 line handlers, 4 heavy warps of 120 ft in length, a pilot and the skipper for the whole transit.  We shared the locks at Gatun with a cruise liner, her passengers crowding her rails many feet above my head. Transit of the locks went smoothly but when we entered the canal’s fresh water lakes, the reduced buoyancy of fresh water coupled to our full load of line handling ‘heavies’ caused the cockpit drains to submerge and our pilot was alarmed to find his feet getting wet.  This was also the day that we saw a crocodile, whilst drying off after a swim!  My first Pacific sunset was seen on 4 April 1994, and I was soon off westward again.    There was an unpleasant time adrift with  no engine in very thick fog off the Galapagos Islands.  It was quite eerie with no wind, no sun, no seas, no moon, no motion, no noise, no sky and no link at all with the outside world for 3 days – I felt helpless drifting in a strange ocean with no one to share it with.  I was alone, far from home, and had suffered some losses since leaving the UK, but my fortunes were about to change and the warm trade winds in the South Pacific were gently blowing us towards French Polynesia.


After 35 days at sea, Violetta reached these fabled islands of the southern pacific.  Memories of the months that followed will include enchanting native music drifting across a perfect sunset; beautiful wahine adorned with garlands of lush flowers; jade mountains jutting from azure seas; diving amid shimmering curtains of brightly coloured reef fish; and lazy days in calm lagoons. Tahiti has held a special place in the minds of European sailors ever since the first explorers waded ashore to their welcome, and I had timed my arrival to be there during the July festivals.  Every night the town square was filled with rows of beautiful dancing girls in grass skirts, all  with flowers in their long brown hair; it was quite entrancing.  As we progressed ever westward, my routines on the boat were becoming more refined and I was well adjusted to the life and within the yachting community one was rarely alone or without help.  The distances covered in the Pacific are worthy of note since we tend to forget the size of the world’s largest ocean.  By the time Violetta and I turned south from Fiji we would have covered 6,000 miles since Panama, and I recall setting out from Bora Bora to Tonga as if it was a routine passage – in reality that leg alone is 1400 miles, little short of the total length of the Mediterranean and a far cry from the mere 60 miles of English Channel that separates UK sailors from their closest foreign shore. Despite an engine that wouldn’t start we travelled safely through French Polynesia and the island groups of Tonga and Fiji during the sailing season of 1994.


By late October we were in Fiji, and it was time to leave the tropics before the oncoming cyclone season and head south to New Zealand.  It was a rough and cold passage, with either headwinds or calms.  Violetta’s engine had starter motor problems and had been out of action for many weeks, so we were helpless in the calms, and it was on this leg that I logged our lowest ever 24 hrs run, a mere 10 miles.  But after 14 days, on 4 November 1994, I sighted Rangitoto island, the squat and brooding volcano that marks the entrance to Auckland Harbour.  An escort of dolphins played around Violetta as she romped towards the goal Clive and I had set out for 15 months and 13,000 miles before.


Having sailed half way around the world and thrived on the voyage, Violetta and I were never really going to stop until we had completed the full circumnavigation.  The boat was quite capable of going on, and I had time and money still to spare, so after a year in NZ, we sailed on for Australia in December ’95.  The Tasman Sea showed a little of its reputation for tough waters and hard crossings and I was cold, wet and tired when we arrived after a 14-day passage in Sydney on Christmas Eve .  After two months it was northward up the Australian coast, away from the temperate winter and back to the warmth and pleasures of the tropics.  A very significant change to life on the boat was the addition of a charming New Zealand girl who was tolerant enough of the cramped conditions onboard to sail with Violetta and me.  Having Karen onboard added the touch of a woman to my cooking, the touch of a friend to share sights with, the touch of extra safety in reef-strewn waters, and most of all, the touch of love to my life.


As we travelled northwards along this vast coast and the Great Barrier Reef, life on board had never been so good; we caught fish, we dived at some of the top dive sites in the world.  We travelled inland to the wonders of the Northern Territory. By August ’96 Karen and I found ourselves in the islands of Indonesia, a land where the locals still regard white people as something of a novelty.    It was sometimes tiring to have a trail of local children whenever one set foot ashore, but with so much laughter and interest sparkling in their brown faces one couldn’t complain.   One evening in particular remains in my mind from these happy months:  Violetta was at Fitzroy Lagoon, a submerged atoll of the Barrier Reef; we were anchored in calm water with no land and no other vessels in sight; the sky was clear and like black velvet studded with the diamonds of stars from horizon to horizon in all directions; music playing gently on the stereo; the achievements of a good days sailing behind us; a glass of wine to hand; the aromas wafting upwards gently from the fresh fish in the frying pan; a beautiful girl sitting beside me. What more could a man ask?


After Karen had returned to NZ in September 1996, Violetta and I carried on through Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, to the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean.  Although it was a fascinating experience going ashore in these far off lands, sometimes  I wished we were back in more familiar waters.  Violetta was showing the signs of her 20,000 miles voyaging with leaks from the stern gland and problems with the roller furling.  To keep her going was a constant task, and I would need to replace the sink, patch the water tank, fix an autopilot, rig a new VHF aerial, reattach halyard winches, stitch worn sails;  the general wear and tear never ceased.   An American called Fred joined me for an idyllic passage across the Indian Ocean and by March 1997 we were in Aden, ready to tackle the northward passage up the Red Sea.


This area has a tough reputation for cruising yachts, with few facilities, strong headwinds, conflicts and war on the coast.  It was the time that the yachting community really came to the fore and I travelled in close company with another yacht all the way.  It was on this leg of the voyage that Violetta had her most serious breakage, when the forestay broke one hard windy morning.  I was so proud of my little boat after we stopped, rigged a jury stay and sailed onwards independent of support, always pressing north to the Suez Canal.  As a team we towed, encouraged, assisted and led each other northwards.  By the time we got to Suez, boats of the fleet had been rammed and fired upon, masts and stays had been broken, engines and instruments were faulty on some, food supplies were low, and the extra stocks of fuel and water that we carried were also getting low. However, there were the pleasures of diving in crystal clear waters, the sights of camels at the waters’ edge, the exploring of the ancient temples of Luxor, and everywhere the sand and clarity of a harsh yet beautiful land.


Violetta and I reached Cyprus in April ’97 and after a period of maintenance for the boat, rest and cold beer for me, I sailed with a girl called Alison for the last leg of the voyage back through the Mediterranean.  It has been said of the Med that “There is either no wind or it is blowing a gale.  And it’s always a headwind”.   This isn’t far from the truth, but we got to the south of France without too much trouble, lowered the mast, went into the canals of Bordeaux, and left the oceans behind for a few weeks. After months in blue seas and sandy tropical islands, it was fun to be motoring along canals lined with trees and flowers.  It was fun to be working the locks rather than the sails, and fun to be enjoying fine French wine and cheese as opposed to an assortment of warm beers, rum, tinned food and vegetables kept for too long in a small boat.  My mother was onboard for this leg, spending time with her son who had been overseas for four years and who she knew was due to leave on a one way ticket for New Zealand within weeks of getting back to England.  The whole voyage had taken me to 35 different countries but I had loved New Zealand most of all, and decided to return there to continue life after the sailing was completed.


In August ’97 we left the canals, sailed around Ushant and into the Channel.   I was used to making landfalls by now, and vastly more experienced than when Clive and I set out four years previously, but I was shaking with emotion when the English coast rose slowly above the horizon.  My tiny little boat had sailed around the world.  From her decks I had seen countless tropical sunsets, endless rollers blowing in the trade winds, swaying palm trees and deserted white sand beaches; we had anchored in azure lagoons, in sandy inlets with camels standing at the waters edge, and in rainforest with crocodiles lurking in the muddy depths; on her decks I had caught fish, eaten lush fruits, drunk rum with friends from all nations and fallen in love under starry skies.  Violetta had sailed over 29,000 miles, but my own journey had been infinitely longer, taking me far from a comfortable childhood and out to the wide world.   This landfall was the end of it all, the circle had been closed and the sailor was home from the sea.

6 Replies to “Ocean Vagabond”

  1. What an amazing story! I love hearing about your travels and was thrilled to hear you were back out on the sea.
    This blog has got to be my favorite…I seem to read travel blogs all the time (the life of an armchair traveller). Your story John is amazing!
    I hope you guys are well. Can’t wait to see a picture of your beautiful little girl. Diane keeps me informed when I see her which isn’t all that often. We hope to meet her on the slopes this winter.
    Keep those blogs coming! And safe travels!
    Jennie and Glen


    1. Jennie, so wonderful to hear from you!! Didn’t realize you followed us via our blog (we might resume posts now that we know we have an audience!). Are you in Auckland? I would love to see you and catch your news. Thanks for the boost of confidence re our blog, gave up on it last season but now that we are ashore I appreciate that it does keep friends and family updated on our whereabouts (and misadventures!). Come meet darling Ayla, and Braca as well – I’ve sent you a FB invite so let’s try and tack down a time/place that suit you. My best to Glen and hope to see you soon. xxxk


  2. John, what an amazing writer you are.  I was enchanted with your story.  I have heard bits and pieces of your travels but never from start to finish.  Thank you for sending it on to me.  I am forwarding it on to a few friends who will also enjoying hearing about it.  Now, soon you will be on to another adventure.  I hope you are keeping a journal of all your travels.  I know that Kia has photos of the travels that you have done together.  Again, John I am so pleased to have read this.   Love,  NJ


  3. Thanks NJ. Those 4 years were a very special time for me and totally changed the whole direction of my life. Brought me to NZ and Kia for a start! John


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