James Ashwell and his two housemates Juan Pena and Hamilton Arroyo were burnt out. Although they were committed to their jobs, as the years rushed by it became clear that their hectic lifestyles were not sustainable. They were also united by a more sobering bond as all three had lost their fathers and had seen at first hand how short life can be. James had lost both parents. As a result, all three were determined to make the most of their time. They knew they needed to do something bold and different. So, they thought big - It was time to cross an ocean.
But with no boat and no offshore experience there were several mountains to climb. Between them they had some sailing knowledge in small boats sailing European charter holidays, but nothing to take them across an ocean. Plus, James had set himself a 5 year window to live the dream and the clock was now ticking.
That was February 2017, with a plan to leave just 8 months later. In anybody’s language, a short time frame to buy a boat and learn to sail it over the horizon.
Two and a half years later after setting out from Southampton following a comprehensive refit of the Oyster 62 at the Saxon Wharf facility and with 17,000 miles under Uhuru’s keel including visits to 34 nations, James and his crew are in New Zealand
Despite now being on the other side of the world, they hadn’t originally intended to go this far. But as their plans evolved, the goal turned into a full circumnavigation. And even as the global Covid crisis put the schedule on hold, James and his crew adapted once again and used the time to their advantage.
So while they may be a young crew, (all in their thirties), low on previous experience but big on ambition, their trip demonstrates just how much can be achieved from a cold start. It is a fascinating story that provides an insight into how they have learned on the hoof and at times taken an alternative approach to blue water cruising.
We caught up with James during Uhuru’s stop in Auckland.
“In many ways, buying the boat was the easy bit. I knew it would be a steep learning curve, so I surrounded myself with people who could help me make the right decisions. The more time consuming part was learning to handle her.
Their answer? Hire an expert to join them full time for six months during the season to teach them how to sail.
“We hired an instructor called Jean Petty. She came with stacks of solo offshore experience and was really strict with us, it was like living with a school mistress, but she was utterly brilliant. She stayed with us all season and taught us how to be proper offshore sailors and came with us across the Atlantic before then leaving us. Since then we’ve been on our own.
“My goal was never to sail around the world but to spend time with people I care about, have time for those I meet and get away from the crazy life I had been living.
“And while I have achieved those objectives, what actually happened was that after a year in the Caribbean we decided we were enjoying it so much we decided not to sail back to the UK as planned.”
Instead, first they headed to crewmate Hamilton’s home country, Colombia. From there, heading through the Panama Canal in January 2019 seemed like an obvious choice. And as it does for most that pop out on the west coast, the next goal was clear, to cross the Pacific.
Their offshore adventure had now turned into the early stages of a world tour.
“We had discovered quite quickly that we preferred going to places that other boats don't go to. We’ve been to some truly amazing places where we are the only boat. The trouble is that when you head so far off the beaten track there are very few charts available.
“It might sound strange, but I use Google Maps and Google Earth for a lot for our planning. It has an amazing feature that allows you to plan your itinerary in incredible detail.
One example is our trip to Papua New Guinea which will be one of our most adventurous trips coming up. I start by looking at Google Earth which you can do in real detail and then put markers on everything that’s important. You can colour code, add pictures, symbols, notes, links and all kinds of information to build your plan.
“I can plan our anchorages for the trip as well, all of which allows me to plan our off-line satellite charts for those areas.
“Papua New Guinea requires a great deal of careful planning for safe anchorages. You have to be very mindful of local customs and security so I use a minimum of 3 confirmed sources to ensure that a planned anchorage is safe and appropriate. To do this I contact local hotels, guest houses, travel agents and tourist agencies to get their advice to build a complete picture in advance.
“It takes a lot of time though, around four hours a night for two months but it means that I’m now much more confident about our time in this region.”
Before we crossed the Pacific I spent 16 hours a day for a week in a guest house in Costa Rica creating our charts.
Figuring out a ratio between days at sea versus days on land is really important. Our ratio is three to one, three days ashore for every one at sea. The ratio will be different for different people, but in our case if we’re at sea for seven days, we’re looking at three weeks ashore. It sounds like a lot of time ashore but if the overall cruise schedule is more demanding people spend the whole time tired, exhausted from sailing and you’ll end up with an unhappy crew. Interestingly, when you overlay this ratio onto your cruise plans before you set off you realize that you’re going to have to slow down. It’s a really good sanity check when planning.
“One of the advantages of such detailed planning using Google Maps is that we can share it with our friends and family but also with the guests that are heading out to join us. They know exactly where we plan to be and we can put updates on the plan. I guess you could say it’s our project pin board.
“But you have to be realistic with people. We tell our friends who are coming, we can give you a time or a place, but we can’t give you both.
“We learned by our mistakes in the Caribbean where we were rushing from island to island simply to meet a schedule. It can ruin your trip and also lead you to make risky decisions in the face of poor weather because you have promised to be at a certain place at a certain time.
“So instead and as an example, in Asia we’d say, fly to Singapore and a week before we’ll tell you where you need to go to from there. As it happens, we’ve never had anyone have to wait more than a day but at least everyone’s expectations are the same and pressure and stress of deadlines have been reduced for both sides.”
“We have an Inmarsat Fleet One satellite system and we use WhatsApp for our communications most of the time when we are at sea because it uses tiny amounts of data.
“Before we head off on a leg everybody sets their phone data count to zero during the crew briefing. Then every day we look at our phones to check how much data we have used to keep our usage reasonable and share it out. We turn the satellite on for 15 minutes at a time and that way we spend about $100 per month.”
“We use PredictWind for our weather planning. Their forecasts and weather routeing are so good it feels like cheating at times. You can set criteria for the trip such as not wanting to sail in more than 30knots of wind or a sea state of say more than four metres and it will route you accordingly.
“We get a daily GRIB file from PredictWind so we can adjust our routes as we go.
“I also use WRI (Weather Routeing International) as well, as a cross check. For $60 you can have a really good in depth chat with them which really helps to confirm or otherwise what you’re seeing through PredictWind.
“WRI are also very good when you’re on passage and you have concerns say about a weather system that’s ahead. It’s really good to be able to call someone up to talk the options through.”
“Clearly this is one of the most important aspects of any cruising plan but especially important for Blue Water cruising. At the very least it’s the difference between spending your entire time in a beautiful location fixing the boat.
“Of course, having mechanical breakdowns can also be far more serious than simply missing out on enjoying the place that you’ve just spent weeks getting to, so there’s plenty of incentive for being on top of the maintenance.
“I’ve built my plan on an Excel spreadsheet where items that need attention at a particular point turn red which makes it easy to keep with the plan.”
“Heading off the beaten track means that we do have to think very seriously about our provisioning. There’s a lot to think about and we take the issue of packaging and storage very seriously and try to make sure that we have no plastic aboard the boat.
“We have put a lot of work into every aspect of stowage. We've built tin storage into all kinds of places including under steps and using spare space where the electrics are.
“We have twenty two five litre jerry cans where we keep all of our chemical free hand wash, washing up liquid, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, even mouthwash and shower gel. We buy these products from an eco store and decant them into our own containers. It also means that we cut down on a huge amount of rubbish.
“We do the same with much of our food which we keep in a sophisticated glass food storage setup with units throughout the boat. “Again, it means that we are package free.
“It’s a big exercise, but with all the pressure about plastic in the oceans there is no way that we want to be contributing to the global problem.
“When we were stocking up in Panama the amount of food we had bought really struck home as we had 22 shopping trolleys in a line in the supermarket. In fact, the staff made us pay every $5,000 because they weren’t convinced that we could be able to pay for the whole load in one go!”
“The cost. Everyone tells you its expensive but even though I thought I had planned thoroughly, I didn’t realise just how expensive it can be.
“Aside from this, one of the other things that really took me by surprise, I guess particularly because I didn’t have any previous offshore experience, is what an incredible experience offshore sailing is. “It takes you to a very different place mentally and while it might sound strange to say it, once you have settled into a passage there is a wonderful calm compared to normal life ashore that I simply wasn’t expecting. Without doubt it’s changed me.
“By way of a contrast and as a further illustration of the state of mind you develop while on passage, by the time we arrived in Auckland, this beautiful, clean and organised city felt really stressful to start with after having spent nine months crossing the world’s biggest ocean.”
“My view is that retirement is a complete gamble that you may never get. You may not be healthy enough, or have the energy or ability to do something like this if you wait.
“The reality is that most of us avoid a project like this because we’re scared, it’s as simple as that. But if you break those fears down they never bear scrutiny.
“So I say, get out there and go and do it before its too late and you end up regretting you never did it.
“We all could do with getting back to basics and having a slower, calmer pace of life where we connect with ourselves better and realise a lot of stuff we need to know about our lives. You'll never see it if you're running around like a headless chicken.”
After arriving in New Zealand in November 2019 with a view to heading on a few months later the Covid-19 crisis caused the global lockdown forcing James and his crew having to adapt their programme.
“We’re not stressed about it, we’ve accepted that we will now be spending a year in New Zealand. It’s a pretty nice place to be stuck and we’re taking the time to do a re-fit on the boat which has already proved invaluable.”
And here lies the moral of the tale – having the time to change, adapt and plan any cruise, be it around the world or along the south coast of the UK, having a plan but the time to make it fit to the weather and your own changing circumstances is the key to success.
Half way around the world and the Uhuru story is already a remarkable one and provides some valuable, confidence boosting advice to those who might be thinking along similar lines.
You can follow Uhuru's adventures on their website, The World in Our Oyster.
Uhuru was a well travelled and adventurous Oyster 62 before James bought her after her previous owner Steve Powell took her down to Antarctica and back.
Refitted and recommissioned she is demonstrating once again what comes naturally to so many Oysters - adventure.
Length – 63’4” / 19.28m
Beam – 17’8” / 5.39m
Draft – 8’11” / 2.71m
Height – 54’11.5” / 16.75m
Sails – (Dolphin) Main Sail, Genoa, Stay Sail, Parasailor + Storm Trisail
Fresh Water – 2 tanks totalling approximately 1300 litres (285 gallons).
Watermaker – Seafresh 206A 220v AC watermaker (104 l/hour) with auto freshwater flush
Fuel Capacity – two tanks totalling approximately 2000 litres (440 gallons)
Engine – 1 x Perkins Sabre M185C (potential power of 136kW (187hp)
Generator – Onan MDKAV 13.5kW 220v/50Hz with 24v start diesel generator