Sailing Alaska: 55 days at sea

Stephen and Debbie Gratton were set up by friends on a ‘Blind Date’ because of their love of sailing. Debbie’s previous sailing experience included charter holidays in the Caribbean and Mediterranean and owning a 40-footer for sailing in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay. Stephen sailed dinghies from an early age before getting the cruising bug with a Cornish Crabber 24. Offshore, Stephen finished third in the 2005 OSTAR and the following year competed in the Sydney-Hobart on a chartered yacht with his son, Tom. Stephen retired his partnership in Ernst & Young in 2008 and his non-executive directorships in 2012 to move as a liveaboard, with Debbie, onto their Oyster 53, Amelie. This is what they have to say about life at sea.

Sailing Alaska: 55 Days at Sea

It’s now ten years since we commissioned the building of our Oyster 53, Amelie. We based our decision on Oyster’s reputation for after-care service and as a result of our sailing trial we were more than satisfied with the sailing performance and delighted by the accommodation that she would provide for us to live aboard. We’ve not regretted our choice some 53,000nm later.

We took delivery of Amelie in Ipswich and having spent the spring and summer in the Channel Islands we then sailed her to the Canary Islands where she would stay for the next four years whilst we both finished off our careers in the UK. We had never really thought about a rally. When we heard that Oyster were organising the World Rally we decided that, the experience of being with like-minded owners and also testing some of places we would want to visit, we would sign up. In the 15 months we had 166 days at sea, 289 days in port visiting 16 countries and travelled 26,400nm. Our longest at sea being Cape Town to Salvador in 23 days. We were one of the two boats who sailed two-handed. What was gained from doing the rally?

Firstly we had a lot of fun both at the Oyster organised parties but also in the impromptu parties between the boats. Thanks to Eddie Scougall, we also learnt a lot about maintaining and looking after Amelie in remote places which has been part of our learning curve in building confidence to do longer ocean passages. We also enjoyed being part of the Oyster community, and as result of the World Rally have built lasting friendships. 

How do you follow a fantastic experience like the World Rally? We were certainly nervous about dropping out of the community and being on our own. We made some fantastic new friends, Clive and Ju, on Oyster 406, Sephina and Peter and Wendy who live in Grenada and decided to prolong our Caribbean sailing by visiting all the islands which thus far we’d missed. We also had a party to celebrate a special birthday for Stephen with nine Oyster World Rally boats represented at Ile Des Saintes which ended up spinning on for a month! We were enjoying our independence.

Our master-plan had been to transit the Panama Canal and get back to the Marquesas where we’d only spent eight days on the Rally. Our very good friend Leo on Oyster 625, Bubbles was going to celebrate a special birthday in Victoria, BC and after some careful thought we decided to turn right out of the Canal and explore Alaska for the summer before joining him for his birthday. Panama to Canada is 6,000nm and if you want to sail it, you spend half the trip aiming at Hawaii. We got becalmed at the start and made little progress for the first week. The progress we’d made by motoring had left us shy of where we wanted to be with fuel supplies, but on day six Bubbles made a mid-ocean fuel delivery with two 60 litre diesel cans – that’s what you call friends. We battled the North Pacific Ocean with its weather systems, currents and falling temperatures, fixed boat issues as we went along, celebrated 1,000nm stages and enjoyed the majesty of sailing together. Before we knew it, 55 days had passed and we were checking into Sidney, BC. 

The lure of Alaska was the wilderness and the wildlife and we were not disappointed. The highlight of the six weeks was our trip to Glacier Bay with friends Peter and Wendy, and David from Oyster 575, Serendipity. Having acclimatised ourselves to the cold we experienced tidal glaciers calving, iceberg dodging and wildlife watching. During our northern adventure we’ve been bluff charged by a young male grizzly, seen a bald eagle swimming ashore with its salmon in tow too heavy to fly with, orcas hunting a harbor porpoise into the shallows, sea otters lounging on their backs clutching their stone tool, a humpback and calf bubble-net feeding right beside Amelie, catching a 30lb salmon on first fishing attempt and grizzly bears pulling salmon out of the streams. 

Where next? Haida Gwaii this summer, then San Francisco and onto Hawaii for Christmas, followed by French Polynesia for who knows how long.

To view more images of Amelie's adventures visit,