The Johnsons are part of the 90 crews in this year’s ARC+ rally from Gran Canaria to Grenada, five of them sailing Oyster yachts. For some, like them, it’s the first stage of a much longer voyage, or even a circumnavigation. Others are staying in the Atlantic for now but have plans to transit the Panama Canal and go into the Pacific in the future. Something they all have in common is the ambition to go further. The reason the Johnsons bought an Oyster was to have the adventure of a lifetime.
Hugh and Mariana Johnson and their crew are crossing the Atlantic for the third time, aboard their second Oyster, previously owning an Oyster 54, and are both highly experienced bluewater sailors who have sailed across the Pacific as far as New Zealand on Nikitoo. Now, they are about to retrace that route.
90 CREWS, INCLUDING FIVE OYSTER YACHTS, SET SAIL ON THE ARC+ RALLY FROM GRAN CANARIA TO GRENADA. DISCOVER THEIR STORIES FROM THE OCEAN PASSAGE AND ONE’S PLANS FOR A CIRCUMNAVIGATION.
It was important for them to choose a boat that would be safe and comfortable on long ocean passages, capable of consistent average speeds to gobble up the miles without stress to the boat or crew and suited to being a home from home for family and friends.
Asked about Nikitoo’s best attribute, Johnson says simply: “Being able to stand on the dock and look at the boat. It's just beautiful. There is a huge pride of ownership.”
For Mariana, there’s another angle: “Nikitoo means home for me. I love the safety,” she says. "I feel very comfortable in this boat,” she smiles. After 30,000 miles of sailing together halfway round the world and more, there’s not much the Johnsons don’t know about their boat. It is their base for nine months of each year and as such carries all the comforts that make life easy and enjoyable.
“This is a heavy displacement bluewater cruiser with oodles of storage space,” Hugh says. To illustrate the point, he lifts the companionway steps to reveal neatly stacked boxes of tools and spares. “Oyster will put shelves in wherever you want. They’re very clever and they can do whatever it is you want. We wanted a locker where we could store ten plastic bottles and they made that.”The Johnsons also wanted a special 70-litre tank for rum, with a tap dispenser, a deck filler and a sight gauge.
“The great thing about the yard visits is that you can see where you have got space to use things and the boat can be modified. Oyster is great, they will change anything. For example, Mariana is a little short and they moved the galley counter in by 15cm so she could reach the lockers. On deck, the layout and position of the winches can be changed. I have the keyboard [at the nav table] positioned for the exact length of my forearm."
Nikitoo easily swallows all the provisions needed for a full crew, bluewater equipment and toys, and with 1,700lt of fuel and 1,200lt of water, she has the capacity for long periods of self-sufficiency at sea. She sails well and reliably logs brisk passage times.
“This boat sails like a dream and it is dry. We are very confident in her ability in any conditions, and she handles any weather if you reduce canvas early,” says Hugh. “In all the miles we’ve sailed, there has never been a moment when we felt she wasn’t solid underneath us.”
When considering what else he values about his boat, he adds: “It is also very good for entertaining people. When we were in the World ARC, we were the party boat. Our record is 43 people on board at one time for a birthday party!”
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Sailing is a thread running through Jim Holden’s life. He began in Annapolis at the age of six and went to sailing camps every summer. Since being based in the UK, he has owned a succession of bluewater cruising yachts and ranged extensively from the Mediterranean to the Azores, British Isles and Norway. Now he is getting ready for his first transatlantic voyage with his wife, Peri, and adult daughter, Elsa, on their Oyster 56/67, Yuva.
After sailing across the Atlantic, they intend to continue through the Panama Canal and onwards across the Pacific to be in Fiji by next August. The Holdens chose an Oyster because they saw it as the perfect, well-found yacht for their family and friends to enjoy these ambitious and far-flung plans. “I like the Oyster’s overall balance and lack of bad habits,” Jim says. He likes the sea-kindly attributes of the design, the deep forefoot that gives it a soft motion in a seaway and makes long passages comfortable. “And,” he adds, “she sits in the water well and has fairly low freeboard so you do feel connected to the water.”
The Holdens really liked the quality of build and finish and the fact that the design was created with all the space, systems and comforts needed for long periods of living on board. “We don’t consider our boat as a tool; it’s our home on the water and somewhere for us and our kids to be safe and happy,” Peri comments.
“This is about your trust. But you also have to be able to look at your boat from land and go ‘She really is good-looking.’”
“We set the boat up thinking that we would like to do this a long time ago,” says Jim. “What Oyster does so right is in the detail and workmanship. The joinery is fabulous. Nothing has ever fallen apart; no hinge has ever broken. They are also willing to do lots of things that are not standard. And there are massive amounts of storage. There is a lot of space so it's easy – very easy – to work on and you can easily upgrade things and run the cabling.”
Although Yuva was well-equipped when the Holdens bought her from her previous owner, they have thought carefully about how to upgrade and prepare for the voyages ahead – safety has been the foremost consideration.
“Even if you think you know all the things you need for safety, one good thing about the ARC+ rally is the safety checklist the rally gives you,” Jim says. “We have more spares than normal, such as pumps, engine and generator parts. And we’ve upgraded the sails because they were 10 years old and we needed replacements, so we’ve got a North 3Di North mainsail, gennaker and staysail. We also renewed all the deck canvas, increased the solar panels on the bimini from 170 to 460w and added a 600w Watt&Sea’s hydrogenerator.”
While they consider the Oyster 56 the ideal size for family sailing, the Holdens admit that they were “very tempted by the new Oyster 565 and 595. We don’t have a sail locker, for example, and we’d like one. Peri likes the twin rudders and would like a walkthrough between the two wheels. But there just wasn’t enough time for us to order one and get ready for this.”
Oyster 56/20 Mistral of Portsmouth is Chris and Karen Parker’s first yacht. Both are lifelong sailors but had never owned a boat. They only began to plan their purchase four years ago. Chris was coming up to retirement from his job as a pilot, and Karen, then still working as an HR director, realised how much he was dreading it. “I knew he was hating the thought, so I said to him: ‘Why don’t we sail around the world?’ It appealed to both of us as a project.”
The couple began by looking at the Oyster World Rally, which then shaped their choice of boat. “There were not many we could have afforded at the time, but we found a boat in Valencia that had already been around the world in 2015 or 2016. We loved it and bought it in September 2019. Then lockdown happened,” Chris says.
The duration of the Oyster World Rally subsequently changed to 17 months. As the Parkers want to circumnavigate more slowly, they didn’t join in the end, but they are grateful the initial idea shaped their choices. “If it hadn't been for that, we would have been looking at Discoveries or Swans and other types of boats, and we could still be looking now. As it was, we saw only three or four boats,” says Chris.
After buying Mistral of Portsmouth, they took on a project manager to help them work out the equipment they would need and coordinate the work in Palma. That included installing new lithium-ion batteries, upgrading the battery monitoring system, getting a new genoa, staysail and Code Zero, new chart plotters, two new autopilots and new solar panels. The project manager’s role included familiarising the couple with all the systems and routine maintenance.
“Neither of us is from an engineering background and we needed the reassurance,” says Chris. “Sometimes you can see something is wrong, but you don't know if it's important. We got to know what a priority is and what is a nice to have.”
Three years on, Karen has also retired from her job and the Parkers have immersed themselves in the cruising life. Since the lockdown in 2020, they have sailed widely in the Mediterranean, from the Balearics to Italy and Spain. They sail and run the boat entirely themselves and take pride in that.
Settling into new roles on board, Chris is the skipper – final decision maker and navigator – and Karen is “the chief engineer”. Life on board has been both challenging and fulfilling.
“Learning to maintain the boat has been a massive learning curve,” Karen says. “I’m still adjusting to it. We had always chartered boats in the past, but it's a bit like renting a house - you just call the landlord if something goes wrong. With ownership, you have to know how everything works, how to service it, how to change the filters and clean the strainers.
“I service the toilets. If there's a leak, I'm on it. When I am on board, I've always got jobs to do. I have taken on a job of work. It is hard to get the right balance between dependence on people coming on board and doing it yourself but there is a part of me that finds joy in my practicality.”
In preparing for their transatlantic crossing with the ARC+ and ARC rallies, Oyster owners have been supported by the experienced Oyster Technical Team on the ground in Las Palmas, who perform complimentary ‘health checks’ on board.
Will White, from Oyster Yachts in Newport, Rhode Island and who heads the team, said: “We go over each system, such as the steering, pumps, rigging and electrics. We might find small leaks, loose fittings, wires that have come adrift etc. and we ask skippers about their questions and concerns.”
“Safety and seaworthiness is our priority. We are not there to fix things as such, although we frequently do if they have a spare on board. For example, on one boat we changed out a universal joint on the steering and fixed a bilge pump. But we are there more for guidance and to give an assessment and make skippers aware of the condition of their boat.”
He adds: “We also do a fair bit of crew and owner training. For example, we’ll show people how to service the electric winches: how to set them up, the tools needed, how much grease to use, and where to use oil instead. We show them the last-minute things to look at.”
Chris and Karen Parker point out that it has been “a great service. They inspect your entire boat. We had five experts on board for two hours and they spotted one thing that needed to be changed that we wouldn't have known about it. That gives you great confidence. You can give everything a tick.”
They also praise the company’s After Sales service. “We have used it three or four times and they always responded quickly. When we needed a swivel for the main halyard, they shipped it express the same day. It’s a really good service.”
Two years after buying his Oyster 675/01 Alika, Ross Allonby is on what he calls a ‘sailing sabbatical’ that will last until next summer. He is crossing the Atlantic with a crew of nine: his wife, Poppy, their children aged 12 and 14, his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, a friend and two professional crew.
The Allonbys are a longtime sailing family and also own a boat they keep in the US, a classic 34ft Herreshoff-designed day sailor. The Oyster is to be the vehicle for a month’s long sabbatical and even wider horizons in the future when the children are older.
“Alika is for shared fun and adventure,” he says. “Sailing provides a great platform for learning.”
“I had been thinking about this for quite a while. I looked at different models and makes and the Oyster 675 was the right one for us as a family and ticked more of the boxes. We wanted a bluewater cruiser that was comfortable, safe and could embark on some longer voyages with our friends. You can sail it shorthanded but it benefits from a professional crew for maintenance and we will put her on light charter to keep the boat used and moving, and for the crew to do a great job.
“There are eight good berths and ample space for provisions, fuel and water. With Oyster’s new G6 set-up, there is a lot of light below, it is very comfortable for non-sailors, and you always have contact with the water.” For him, as for all the other Oyster owners preparing to cross the Atlantic, the appeal of an Oyster is its marriage of safety, sea-kindliness and comfortable living.
They know they can trust that behind the scenes everything is well built and installed and set out for ease of maintenance by people who understand exactly what it means to run a boat at sea. “I appreciate the way Oyster provide schematic diagrams [of electrical and other systems] for owners and all the records and maintenance schedules they provide. They do a lot to help owners to have that information,” Ross says.
Despite sailing all his life, this is his first transatlantic crossing and he says: “We have spent a lot of time preparing the boat and improving it. We have added things like SSB radio and additional sails, for example, a new staysail and a furling gennaker. We try to be thorough. We have learnt as much as we can to be as safe as we can be and we have gone through all the what-if scenarios as sailing teaches you that life is more random than you think,”
Above all, the ideal bluewater cruising boat has to sail well, cover the miles easily and consistently, and make sailing a pleasure, and Ross prizes these qualities. “The Oyster 675 has exceeded our expectations in many ways – both in terms of comfort at sea as well as handling and performance. She handles well upwind with the twin rudders and off wind she is quick for a heavy displacement boat. You feel like you are on a very safe platform.”
To be at the start of a transatlantic crossing is the culmination of many months and, in most cases, years of planning and preparing. So, Oyster owners also value the expertise of a build team that understands what they need, creates boats ready-made for these adventures and are on hand to help and advise throughout the life of a boat.
Will White of Oyster Newport perhaps puts it best when he says: “Owners do appreciate this and when it is time to buy a new boat, they find themselves asking whether they can really remove themselves from that support and family. The thing is, we are all sailors ourselves. Most of us have been that guy and we have a lot of empathy. We’re always asking ourselves: in the same situation, what would I want? What Oyster owners want, and what they have, is a yacht that gives them complete confidence."
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