Domenic Pilla and Louise de Serres’s love of sailing started early. At 16, Domenic began racing a Laser that he had bought in secret, while Louise was into windsurfing. Both Canadians, their first boat together was a Beneteau First 305 that they sailed on Lake Champlain, an hour’s drive from Montreal. But after a few years, family life pressed pause on boat ownership as Domenic’s work involved extensive travel, with many trips away from home.
“For around 25 years we chartered instead as we moved around,” explains Domenic. “So even though we missed having our own boat, it was a great opportunity to explore different parts of the world from Thailand to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. We also got to try out a range of boats in the process which, as it turns out, helped us when it came to understanding what we might want in a boat if we ever got to own one later on.”
Unbeknown to them at the time, it was here that an affection for Oyster began.
“While we were chartering we started to see a few Oysters,” says Louise. “To us they were beautiful yachts and we kept recognising them in all kinds of places. We never thought we would own one though, we simply admired them from afar.”
In 2015 they took delivery of their Oyster 575, ‘Pearls of Nautilus’, named after their two daughters Cassandra and Alexia.
“In the lead up to ordering the 575 we had spent a great deal of time looking at a wide range of other alternatives, but it was one of our daughters that hit the nail on the head,” she continues. ‘I don’t know why you are looking at any more boats she told her father, it’s clearly an Oyster that you want!’. She was right.”
During the next five years Domenic and Louise covered around 10,000 miles as they cruised the Mediterranean, Caribbean and New England. For much of it they ran the boat themselves. Their methodical approach to choosing each bit of equipment and understanding how it worked played a big part in this independence. Interestingly, during this period the boat never sailed across the Atlantic, she was always shipped.
“My work responsibilities meant that we had to be back in Canada every six weeks,” explains Domenic. “Plus we wanted to see our daughters so we used those windows to ship the boat to the next destination. Most of the time this was between Antigua or St. Thomas and Palma.
“Then there’s the cost. To sail across the Atlantic you need increased insurance, you also need to allow for other costs such as fuel, additional crew and of course the additional wear and tear on the boat. With shipping there are fewer hours put on the engine, the generator, water maker and other items that can be expensive to service. Overall, I’d say on the 575 the cost of shipping versus sailing usually broke even.”
So, what was it that made them upgrade to their current 745?
“We wanted more space for family and friends to come and sail with us,” he continues. “Originally, when we were looking to upgrade the 575, we were looking at the 825 and the 675 as the possible options. The 825 isn’t built any more, but the bottom line was that an eighty footer was too big to handle by just the two of us, while the 675 didn’t offer the step up in size and versatility that we were looking for. Instead, we felt that the 745 was the biggest boat that we could comfortably handle while giving us the option to accommodate a full crew when needed, yet all the while without limiting the number of guests that we could have aboard. Sailing with our family and friends is very important to us, so we think that the 745 hits the sweet spot for owner/operators like us.”
With the key issue of size decided, the next task for the couple was to decide how the new boat should be arranged. Once again, their methodical approach, which now included a try before you buy approach, came into play.
“We chartered the Oyster 745 ‘Graycious’, which demonstrated straight away that we loved the boat, the way she sailed, her size and the ease with which she could be managed,” said Domenic. “But it also helped to crystalise our views on the accommodation layout that would suit us.
“Graycious has three cabins plus crew quarters which we felt wasn’t going to be sufficient for us. Instead, we have five cabins, five heads and a total of 11 berths. Two of the cabins can be configured as a double or a twin. In addition, we have separate crew quarters with independent access to the deck which gives both us and them privacy.
“We also went to see the Oyster 745 at the Miami Boat Show which gave us another opportunity to look at what we would want which was clearly much easier to do than from studying drawings alone. On deck the main departure from the standard specification was to have a cutter rig.
“We believe in a cutter rig for offshore passages, we have furlers on both headsails which again makes it much easier for the two of us to handle the sail plan ourselves. We also decided to go for an in-mast furling mainsail for the same reason, simplicity of operation.
“Below the waterline we have gone for the uprated thrusters which means that we can handle her easily in harbour too, whether we are in the Caribbean or stern to in the Mediterranean. To be honest, we were a little apprehensive about docking her stern to with twin rudders, but now with the thrusters we’re very happy with this system, it works really well.”
But with a detailed specification comes a more complex level of equipment, all of which needs looking after. As well as chartering, over a period of years the couple had enrolled on a variety of training courses to help them feel more comfortable with the kinds of sailing they wanted to do. Having moved through the process Domenic ended up with a Commercial Yacht Master qualification.
In fact, despite being experienced sailors with many miles under their belts, training continues to be a key part of maintaining both the knowledge and the confidence to take on bigger challenges. And it is this that underpins their understanding and knowledge of the on-board systems.
While sitting at the dock in Southampton during the final commissioning stages of their brand new 745, ‘Perle di Nautilus’, both Domenic and Louise headed to Warsash Maritime College for a safety training refresher course.
“We were in the area so it made sense, as did heading to Cummings for a course on the engine,” says Domenic. “Even though we have a skipper on this boat I like to know as much as I can about the systems.On our 575 we didn’t have a permanent crew so we needed to know how to run the boat ourselves. This boat is clearly a lot bigger and has far more complex systems but there will be times when we will want to sail just the two of us or with friends and family, so I think it’s important that we know how to look after her.
So what had led them to take on a full time crew? “From our previous cruising we realised that we don't want to spend all our time looking after the boat, we want to spend our time sailing and enjoying the destinations. With a bigger boat, we felt we would be spending our whole time looking after her,” explains Louise. “Plus, on passage we felt we wanted a crew so that we could operate a sensible and comfortable watch system.”
“The bottom line is that we won’t be doing passages with just the two of us,” adds Domenic. “We could if pushed, but it’s not what we want to do. We think a single person on watch on a boat of this size is not enough.
“What we’ve agreed with our captain is that we have two people on watch which means you need six in total if you’re to have a comfortable watch system.”
So what are their plans for the seasons ahead? "We are going to be in the Caribbean through to May 2021 and back in the Mediterranean for summer 2021 before then heading to the Adriatic. After that we plan to return to the Caribbean via the ARC [Atlantic Rally for Cruisers]. And then we like to keep things open, it’s part of the adventure.”
An adventure that started with a Laser dinghy and a windsurfer.
Which leaves just one obvious question – why was the Laser a secret? “My parents were immigrants from Italy and our family had very limited means. By the time I grew up to be 16, I was able to save enough money to buy a pre-owned Laser but kept it a secret from my family because I feared that they would find it to be an overly extravagant purchase and that I would be ostracized. Instead, I kept it at a friend’s house.”
“I'm not sure why I was drawn to sailing other than I felt it was something that I would really enjoy. I did and I haven't stopped since.”