“I wanted the biggest boat that we could get that we could sail ourselves along with a boat that I could realise a dream to sail around the world.”
Forty years in the construction industry, as well as a lifetime of sailing experience, have given him an eye for quality and detail and as he told me shortly after arriving in Cape Town just before Christmas, it was no accident that he chose an Oyster.
RESPECTED SAILING JOURNALIST MATTHEW SHEAHAN CAUGHT UP WITH MICHAEL HUTCHISON, OWNER OF OYSTER 675 SEABIRD, TO FIND OUT HOW HIS SAILING YACHT IS PERFORMING AFTER SEVERAL MONTHS AT SEA ON THE OYSTER WORLD RALLY 2022-23.
What wasn’t part of the plan was the onset of the Covid pandemic, which meant that he was forced to oversee the build almost entirely remotely. Nevertheless, aided by the supply of countless photos from the yard, the process was a smooth one as every last detail took shape.
Seabird, the fourth 675 out of the mould, was launched at Ipswich in August 2021, allowing Michael (60) and his son Jonathan (25) to reach Palma by October for the pre-rally leg to Antigua. Jonathan’s girlfriend Lucy made up the permanent crew of three that has been supplemented for some legs by Michael’s wife and one or two friends. But right from the start Michael’s overall goal was to achieve a boat that could be handled easily by two.
Their trip has clocked up 30,000 miles so far since setting out from the start of the Oyster rally in Antigua. Shortly before Christmas they arrived in Cape Town, South Africa which made for a perfect opportunity to catch up with Michael and Jonathan to find out how the 675 had fared.
With shorthanded sailing in mind, the sail plan played a key part in the original specification but overall sailing performance was also important to Michael.
“I grew up racing in Sydney Harbour and on all kinds of boats so I’ve seen plenty of sails and am used to being focussed on performance,” he said.
But at the same time he was very aware of how important ease of handling would be. As a result Seabird has an in-mast furling mainsail and furling genoa by Dolphin Sails with carbon added to the weave in their tri-radial construction. The foretriangle also includes a detachable inner forestay which allows a staysail or storm jib to be set.
“The sail setup has worked perfectly all the way around,” said Michael, “When we were choosing the sails I asked for the most robust construction, hence the carbon weave, and I don’t regret it.
“We do use the staysail in heavy weather, but we also used it to reduce rolling when we’re goose-winged by sheeting it centrally,” he said. “The storm jib saw some proper service on the recent leg from Reunion to Durban when we encountered the most intense weather we have seen, but Seabird handled it with ease and there were no dramas. There has never been a moment when I doubted the seaworthiness of the boat”.
For downwind work Seabird carries two asymmetric kites, an A2 and an A3, also by Dolphin. These have allowed greater flexibility across the wind speed ranges and angles and lend themselves to being flown from the pole for deeper angles.
“While we do sail wing on wing, we far prefer sailing with our asymmetric kites which means sailing at true wind angles of 120-150 degrees. Sailing across the Pacific we had the spinnaker up for five days solid on one leg,” he continued. “They’re so easy to hoist and lower from the sail locker on the foredeck.”
And when they look back at their log, the numbers speak for themselves with typical average speeds of 11 and 12 knots and with 315 miles being their best 24 hour run on the voyage so far.
Little surprise then that Seabird has gained a reputation among the Rally fleet as a quick ship.
With handling high up the list of priorities, the deck layout was another key area for Michael.
“I’d have no qualms in telling anybody that if you are really serious about sailing blue water, that’s what an Oyster does. It does it easily and comfortably and above all safely. Clearly, having confidence in the construction is important and the 675 has always looked after us. But being able to handle her easily be it offshore or at close quarters is also very important.”
Jonathan had only limited sailing experience prior to the Rally having grown up in the mountains of Canada where skiing had been his passion. He has been impressed by the ease of handling of the 675 in close quarters.
“I had very little experience of sailing anything but what surprised me was that it really doesn’t take long to get used to manoeuvring this boat, even in tight situations such as berthing in marinas is easy without using the thruster,” he said.
But it hasn’t been hands-on all the time. As may be expected with a small crew, the autopilot has been used extensively on the Rally.
“The Raymarine unit has been fine, we use it all the time,” he continued. “We had a bit of an issue with a software update in Australia, but that was soon fixed once we got ashore”.
Given that the primary focus for Seabird was a circumnavigation, some decisions on the spec came easily. And while it may be the less popular choice, Michael chose the extended transom option and is pleased with his decision.
“The longer deck not only gives you a lot more area which is really useful, but the lazarette is absolutely enormous compared to any other boat I’ve been on. If you like blue water sailing you’re going to have a lot of stuff that you will need to stow such as paddleboards, scuba gear, a compressor, and everything else besides. We set up a number of boxes and drawers so all our tools and spares are down there”.
But there are a few items that didn’t get a tick on the options list, among them were the davits. Instead, the tender is stowed on the foredeck and Seabird has removeable stanchions at the point at which the dinghy is hoisted which greatly aids launch and recovery.
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As we moved on to the topic of accommodation it took no time to realise that Michael bought the 675 to sail rather than host cocktail parties. Nevertheless, he freely accepts that his professional background allowed him to appreciate the quality and value of the craftsmanship down below, something he is clearly proud of.
“People come on the boat and say, ‘Wow! This is beautiful’. I understand this is important for many owners but aside from my focus on the sailing and the systems that would make her an easy and rewarding boat to sail, I took the view that Oyster’s considerable experience in this area meant that I was unlikely to want to make any major changes.”
Aside from a few tweaks, Seabird has a standard layout below decks with a conventional owners’ cabin aft and another double cabin forward, each with heads en suite. There is a further double cabin just forward of the mast and to starboard,
“This cabin is great when more of the family come on board.”
There is also a bunk room further aft and again to starboard, which Michael says is used mainly for storage on Seabird.
As well as the 174hp Volvo Penta main engine, Seabird has a 13.5kW Cummings Onan genset.
“I was very keen that this was in a super sound-proofed area so when it’s running you can barely hear it. In fact, it’s so quiet that we’ve sometimes made the mistake of leaving it on with fully charged batteries because we couldn’t hear it at all.”
The twin voltage (240v or 24v) water maker produces around 100 litres an hour.
“It took us a little while to get used to managing the water maker but once you get used it regularly it’s pretty straightforward. One of the key things we learned though was how to bleed the system if air gets into it as this stops it working. It’s actually pretty easy to let the air out and I believe that Oyster has added an easy-to-use valve for this on the new boats.”
Coming from a non-sailing background it is perhaps of little surprise that Jonathan was struck initially at least by the complexity of the boat. Yet he’s also been surprised at how he’s been able to pick things up enroute.
“In most cases it’s simply a question of looking at the manual, pulling some floorboards up, trace some wires or pipework and working it out.”
It’s clear from talking to Michael and Jonathan that the 675 has not only met their initial expectations, but has proved herself in the real world. Achieving this with their first boat is also impressive, yet Michael maintains that this is only possible and desirable if you know what you want to achieve.
In his case that was crystal clear, bluewater cruising for a shorthanded crew with the ability to comfortably accommodate family and friends around the world without the need for a professional crew.
Some might argue that this is pushing it a bit given her size, but keeping things simple in a layout that has been specifically aimed at being a sailor’s boat, makes this possible.
On the other hand, it’s clear that when it came to the accommodation Michael was more than happy to take a largely hands-off approach.
But perhaps most telling of all is his view on whether the 675 was the right choice.
“We nailed it, we did a lot of research beforehand and I honestly believe that we got exactly the right size for us for what we wanted to do.”
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