Former offshore racer Nick Bubb has taken his family on a round the world, action-packed cruising catamaran adventure
Nobody could ever accuse my wife Sophie and me of taking the easy route in life. For one of our first proper ‘dates’ we cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and on our honeymoon we hiked Wainwright’s coast to coast across the north of England. I guess they set the benchmark and our idea of fun has only become more ambitious over the years. Except now, it’s a catamaran adventure for the whole family.
A few weeks after setting off on our around the world catamaran adventure, my eight-year-old son and I went on a day-long mountain bike adventure. Over the last few years I’ve got really into bikepack racing, non-stop mountain bike races over distances of around 1,000km. When we were in Lanzarote it felt like the perfect chance to introduce Rory to the sport.
I took Rory along one of my favourite trails, a beer and a lemonade stashed away in our minimalist kit. At first he set a great pace, but as the sun set his energy faded and we nearly ground to a halt in a windswept desert landscape. I was starting to feel really bad about pushing him too far but thankfully after a snack and a quick rest he was happy cycling again.
We eventually rolled down to my chosen beach and set up our bivvys metres from the surf. We drank our rewards and watched the moon come up, chatting about the power of dreams and adventures until he fell asleep in my lap. Just a few hours later we woke, covered in sand flies but happy as could be. The whole expedition only lasted about 18 hours but Rory still talks about it proudly and his younger brother Billy won’t stop pestering me for his turn.
The whole reason we came on this ‘ocean odyssey’ was to spend more time together as a family and enjoy every moment with the boys before they get bored with us. On the water, biking, or hiking in the jungle, these are special experiences we’ll treasure forever.
How we got here
Ever since I started sailing a Mirror dinghy on the River Deben in Suffolk aged five, I just wanted to go further. Sophie and I had talked about going cruising together since the first months of our friendship, but somehow the timing had never been quite right, until now.
After finishing my engineering degree, I was focussed on competing in the Vendée Globe. I was captivated by Yves Parlier’s heroics in the 2000/01 race, Ellen’s story too, and followed Pete Goss and Mike Golding for years.
My first step was gaining as many offshore miles as possible. Armed with a small graduate loan I bought my first Mini Transat, and spent a winter refitting it. Four years of Mini sailing later, along with sailing a Maxi cat around the world in the Oryx Quest, and racing everything from 30ft trimarans to Open 60s and eventually the Volvo Ocean Race in 2008/9 (where I met Sophie), I finally felt ready for the Vendée.
I was pushing to get a campaign together, but the global financial crisis was really starting to bite and I struggled to make significant headway. Instead I ended up working with Paul Larsen on SailRocket out in Namibia. This cemented a close friendship and I can’t think of many people more motivated towards a set goal than Paul and his partner Helena.
However, I hadn’t really found my focus. Out of the blue came the chance to skipper the Shackleton Epic expedition in Antarctica with Paul Larsen. Following that was never going to be easy but afterwards I took on a new role with Fauna & Flora International (FFI).
Like most things in my life, I went all-in and it turned into a huge commitment. Working away a lot, while trying to continue my own adventures, and combine it with family life was difficult and getting harder. Meanwhile, Sophie had been juggling looking after our boys and racing as a professional triathlete and coach. With Covid shutting down her racing season, the time seemed right for us both to take a break and live out our childhood dreams by going sailing.
Aside from sharing a great family adventure, we’d visit FFI project sites around the world. Both Sophie and I wanted to ensure the boys see as much of the natural world as possible before it’s gone. That might sound dramatic but thousands of species are becoming extinct each year. We want them to learn first-hand how to conserve nature, and to engage with a diverse mix of cultures.
We made grand plans to take bikes, boards, even the boys’ Optimist on the bow, and what felt like most of our garage with us. Most of all, we wanted to figure out a way to make it fun for all and not just a slog around the world as fast as possible. After racing so many miles over the years, with little opportunity to stop and enjoy the good bits, I was excited to explore islands I’d only ever raced past, and was determined that this would start with the Isles of Scilly!
In our search for a catamaran, we wanted space for friends to join us, to stow all our toys, good performance, along with true ‘off-grid’ capability. We decided to go for a Nautitech 40 catamaran from 2015 and happily found one that didn’t need masses of work.
After that, things happened quickly. I reached an agreement at work, Soph pulled out of racing on the Ironman and Skyrunning circuits. We sold our family home in the New Forest and moved aboard Quickstep Too full time in May, in Lymington. Once the school term ended, we left in early August.
There’s no denying that uprooting your family, especially during Covid, is pretty complicated, but we had a lot of support from family and friends. From day one we had an attitude that our combined skill set and experience had put us in a great position to pull it off, but we needed to remain respectful of what lay ahead, and diligently work through the challenge.
Fundamentally, we’d prepare for it just as we would for any offshore race or long distance endurance event.
As I write this, we’re in Shelter Bay Marina just a few miles from the Panama Canal, on the cusp of entering the Pacific, and it feels a little surreal to have come so far aboard our home. We all have mixed emotions about it; the boys are just happy to be back in a marina after so many months at sea or at anchor and have made a load of friends already, I’m mainly relieved to be able to switch off for a few weeks and not stress about all the millions of things that can go wrong. Sophie has a different perspective though, and is worried that it’s all going too fast!
Our adventures started, as planned, with us making it to the Isles of Scilly. After leaving Lymington the day before the Rolex Fastnet Race – we anchored in Studland Bay to watch the fleet crash past in epic conditions – we slowly made our way along the south coast calling at Brixham, Dartmouth and St Mawes. We caught up with old friends as we explored the Carrick Roads and waited for a weather window.
Finally we had our chance in mid-August, and it was magical. We opted to drop anchor in St Helen’s Pool between the islands of Tresco and St Martin’s. A notorious spot for thick kelp, if you can get your anchor to hold there it is one of the few anchorages that gives good shelter from a broad range of conditions.
Aside from drying out overnight on the sands mid-week, we stayed for six days and didn’t really move until the last night, opting instead to use our tender to get around. Drying out our catamaran wasn’t something we’d done before and I was keen to test it out in case we needed to do it one day to make repairs in a remote location. Happily, all went well, although she sank a little further into the sand than I’d expected!
We spotted a chance to cross Biscay in predominantly north-easterlies and, as it was by then late August, I was keen to take the opportunity. It got a little wild towards the end with well over 30 knots at times but we made landfall in Camarinas, just south of La Coruña. Dolphins greeted us in the anchorage and the boys were happy as could be. Over the following weeks we worked our way along the Spanish rias and offshore islands.
After restocking in Baiona we sailed direct to Porto Santo, Madeira. This hadn’t always been our plan but I was keen to avoid any orca incidents on the Portuguese coast and the forecast was ideal, so we went for it. A few days in Porto Santo gave the boys their first taste of the Atlantic islands and then we moved on to Madeira, so our additional crew, friend Jo Royle, could travel home.
Madeira has very few anchorages and the marinas were full with boats who had their plans disrupted by Covid, so Sophie and the boys explored ashore, while I chose to remain largely on board and look after the boat. My time was not wasted, however, as I developed a plan that had been in my head for several months.
Lying almost directly between Madeira and Lanzarote are the little known Selvagem Islands, a small archipelago designated as a nature reserve. The scientific and natural interest of this tiny group of islands lies in its marine biodiversity, its unique flora and the numerous seabird species that breed on its cliffs, or use them as a migratory stopover.
With the wind in the north-east and due to go very light as we were passing, we decided to give the anchorage to the south-west of the larger island, Selvagem Grande, a go. There is one large mooring buoy available for visitors brave enough to nudge in there.
After a bit of chat with the wardens on the VHF we picked it up and waited nervously as the swell rolled in, taking us close to the rocks. Having monitored things closely for a tense hour or two we decided the mooring was fine, but we’d need to wait for high water to attempt the landing. We’d decided to celebrate Rory’s birthday a day early so had an impromptu celebration on the trampoline as he opened various presents we’d hidden on board.
We went ashore and completed immigration formalities before meeting the wardens who quickly offered to take us on a tour. We ended up having the most amazing few hours hiking amongst juvenile shearwaters and tracking the endemic Selvagem wall geckos.
The boys were blown away to discover they were the only children to have landed on the islands all year. To cap a very memorable birthday, we shared cake with the locals during a wonderful little tea party, before picking our spot between the waves to get back out to Quickstep, continuing on to Lanzarote just as the sun set.
Over the next six weeks or so we cruised extensively around Lanzarote, the north of Fuerteventura, Lobos and La Graciosa. We spent many happy days getting the Oppie out for the boys to sail, and surfing for hours on end. Sophie and I took our bikes to explore Lanzarote from end to end while the boys loved the busy Marina Rubicon, where they made many great cruising friends.
We’d decided not to do the ARC. The rally leaves a little too early in the season for us, and more importantly I didn’t want to be committed to a specific date. With work commitments to manage too, our decision was straightforward: we wouldn’t leave Lanzarote until the end of November and would also spend a few days in Cape Verde.
The Cape Verde Islands were another place I’d raced past many times but had never stopped at and was keen to explore a little. With our crew very keen to make it to Antigua for Christmas, we only spent 48 hours in Mindelo but we got up into the hills and loved the vibe around the dock with countless boats nervously preparing for their Atlantic crossing.
Our transatlantic could hardly have been more straightforward. We left Mindelo in ‘muscular’ conditions and flew south-west initially. After clearing the wind shadow off Santo Antao, we hooked into the north-easterly trade winds and never looked back. We made the crossing without a single gybe in a shade over 13 days, having only slowed a little on approach to allow for a daylight arrival.
We rolled into Antigua and pretty much straight into the bar at Pigeon Beach. We reflected how – almost without fanfare – the boys were now transatlantic sailors. Whatever happened from now on, we’d all shared the great family adventure we’d dreamed of.
After celebrating Christmas in Antigua, we headed north to Barbuda, seeing in the New Year in splendid isolation at Spanish Point with a handful of cruising friends. The stunning pink and white sands on Barbuda’s coastline are remarkable and despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma, we found the local community to be very friendly and upbeat.
Next was Martinique, the cruising mecca that is Le Marin and the beautiful little village of Saint Anne, just a few miles south. We made many friends there and loved exploring the lush green interior and white sand beaches.
Though symptomless, Sophie and Billy both returned positive PCR tests so we quickly moved away from the cruising community, a few miles around the corner to a peaceful anchorage called Anse d’Arlet, which had some of the biggest starfish we’ve ever seen, clear water and excellent shelter close to the cliffs.
Isolation complete, we headed to St Vincent and the Grenadines. More magic days followed in Bequia, Tobago Cays and then Union Island. In Union Island we got to spend time with one of FFI’s local partners and all took a full day hike with a local guide to see the incredible Union Islands geckos and hike up to the highest point in the Grenadines.
The marine park in Tobago Cays is really something very special with turtles and rays constantly surrounding the boat. One of the things we were all desperate to do on this trip was learn to wing-foil. It’s always fun to learn something new together and the logistics are so easy off the back of the cat.
We started tow-foiling behind the dinghy and the boys refused to let us have all the fun; Rory is now tow-foiling around on his own when conditions are calm and Billy isn’t far behind. Wing-foiling from the boat in Tobago Cays in crystal clear water, having to carve around the turtles as they come up for air, was a very special moment. Sophie and I can both rip along now but neither of us can properly gybe yet, so that’s the next goal!
From here it was all eyes west, as we prepared to start the big move towards the canal. We had a perfect sail down to Bonaire, the kind of trip you dream of with 15 knots, full mainsail, gennaker and flat water the whole way; 400 miles later and we were in diving heaven!
In Bonaire this felt like torture for the boys – they can’t dive with compressed air until their lungs are fully developed (the advice seems to be wait until 12). So the obvious answer seemed to be to try freediving.
A lovely local instructor came out to the boat and spent an hour with us, teaching us all relaxation and breathing techniques, along with how to safely descend – and ascend – a line. Both boys hit their 5m targets, I got to around 15m, but Sophie discovered yet another sport she excels at and disappeared into the depths! By the end of our stay she was diving down close to 30m and holding her breath at the surface for over three minutes.
All the time there I had my eye on the weather for the last hop west to Colon and the entrance to the Panama Canal. Options included a stop in Cartagena, Columbia and the San Blas Islands but all were weather dependent. In the end, despite waiting for a window, we still had over 30 knots and 3-4m seas at times.
Our predicted 650 miles became nearly 800 but we rolled into the San Blas after just over four days at sea, as a weary but jubilant crew. The Kuna people were incredibly welcoming and the San Blas is the kind of place you could spend years visiting with close to 300 islands.
In just a few days we still got a real feel for the place and ensured it’s committed to our memories forever. We left with the feeling that we’d probably met our first community who have big challenges just ahead. Most of the islands sit just a few metres above sea level and already it’s hard to see how they will survive living as they do, in the long term.
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Our final stop before Colon was Portobelo. Supposedly named by Columbus and famously Drake’s final resting place, here was a perfect history lesson for the boys all in a morning. With ruins of forts and old cannons to be found all over town, their imaginations ran riot and we surely found gold ingots on every corner, as the life of pirates was brought into sharp focus.
The final few miles to Colon were an easy downwind slide and we entered Shelter Bay Marina at sunset to bring the curtain down on chapter one. Next; the Panama Canal, Las Perlas Islands, the Pacific and on to the Galapagos.
About the author: Nick Bubb
Nick Bubb is a lifelong sailor who has competed in the Volvo Ocean Race, Transat Jacques Vabre, and Route du Rhum among other ocean races. His wife Sophie is a professional ironman athlete and coach. They are documenting their travels on Instagram @OceanOdysseyCrew
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