Patrick & Martha’s voyage on Skyeboat II

Patrick Higgins & Family on AdventureIn 1990 we sold up our Minnesota home, loaded our three boys (then 3, 8 & 11) aboard our sailboat Skyeboat II and set sail from Bayfield, Wisconsin in July on what was to become a four year, 27,000 miles odyssey.

Skyeboat was a 43 foot Cheoy Lee pilot house ketch designed by Bob Perry that had been made 9 years earlier in Hong Kong that we had bought the year before. She had an ideal layout for our family, with 2 separate cabins aft with their own head and shower for the kids. Forward of that and up some steps was a fully enclosed pilot house with a chart table, inside steering and our navstation that provided protection from the elements. This meant our two oldest boys could safely share a watch at sea, as we had a rule at sea that no one was allowed on deck at night unless another adult was up.

Forward there was an en-suite master cabin that gave us a bit of privacy as there was almost 30 feet between us and the boys. However it provided a rather bumpy ride at sea. We often spent nights on passages lying crosswise with our legs braced against the hull as we slammed down the waves.

In between our accommodation and the boys’ was a full galley and dinette that converted into another double for visitors or to provide play space at sea – a sort of romper room. It also made a soft landing for Martha when she was cooking at sea as the galley was opposite. She perfected making a soft landing, skillet in hand without losing the contents when we were hit by a rogue wave.

Underneath the pilot house was a large engine room accessed via a door in one of the aft cabins that housed our 120hp 6-cylinder marinized Ford diesel engine.

On deck there was a huge aft cockpit that could accommodate 10 and an outside steering station. Skyeboat’s canoe stern and full keel ensured she tracked well and was very sea-kindly. On coastal passages we carried a 10 ft sailing dinghy on stern davits that we upturned on the foredeck at sea. We also carried a carried a Zodiac with an 8 hp outboard engine and an inflatable life raft in a canister. Amazingly with the upturned dingy protecting our open hatch at sea we were often awoken by flying fish flapping about in our cabin accompanied by an oily fish smell.

We made lots of additions to Skyeboat including mast steps leading to a crow’s nest on the main mast which was located just above the lower spreaders – a feature that really helped us navigate coral waters and penetrate deep into uncharted tropical lagoons. We also installed a 12 V water-maker and wind generator to power it that meant that we could have freshwater showers daily, even at sea. We also had a fridge/freezer, radar, a generator and a hydraulic autopilot which were already installed, but amazingly no GPS. They had just come out and even Magellan’s newly released handheld budget model cost over $10,000. So we made do with what we referred to as the ‘steam’ satellite system that was already aboard. It used predecessor satellite technology that would give a fix about every two hours, although at crucial moments the gap could be as much as six. We had back-up astronavigation capability but with solid dead reckoning in between fixes, fortunately never had to rely on the our sextant and Patrick’s math.

Besides, we figured that in the middle of the ocean it didn’t really matter whether we were a few miles one way or the other – it was only the rough bits around the edges that mattered and as civilian GPS was so new, chart information hadn’t caught up yet anyway. In fact the coastal charts we used for the Red Sea were based on surveys from the late 1800’s. We had to rely more on sailor’s eye there than on navigational instruments, as was the case in most remote anchorages.

Once we left the shores of USA we didn’t have insurance either, as no one would cover us unless we had 4 competent adults aboard for off-shore passages, which we never did, although by the time we finished we would pit our child crew against any professionals.

We can only give you a flavour of our voyage in this addendum to TropicBird’s website, but we had 1100 miles of freshwater across the Great Lakes and down the Erie Canal and Hudson River from Wisconsin to the sea. For the Erie Canal we had to unstep our masts and carry them on deck. The only other occasion we did this was for our passage up the French rivers and canals from the Mediterranean to the English Channel. By the time we reached New York City we had a established a rhythm of life aboard, figured out how to sail Skyeboat and made a few more upgrades, including a new 60 lb Bruce anchor on our all chain rode and replacement heavy-duty ship’s batteries.

We spent a few weeks revisiting some of Patrick’s childhood cruising grounds then headed south via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW):“The Ditch” whose official dredged depth is 13 feet but due to shoaling is often considerably less, and whose unofficial northern terminus is New Jersey’s Manasquan River Norfolk Virginia (milepost 0.0)

Landfall TahitiThe narrowness of the channel and our five and a half foot draft meant we had to pay close attention to navigation and to steer constantly instead of relying on the autopilot, but the ever changing scenery and wildlife along the way was a delight, from vast prairies of marsh grass stretching out in every direction, to winding rivers, wide estuaries, quiet backwaters and rustic water fronts, as well as right through the US Marine Corps Camp LeJeune firing range. We spent long days mostly motoring to take advantage of the daylight and managed to make it all the way to St Augustine, Florida spending only one night at a paid dock. Most of the time we anchored out. One of the prettiest parts of the trip was the Dismal Swamp Canal, first surveyed by George Washington, that straddles the North Carolina-Virginia state line. Our spreaders raked a tunnel of trees as we proceeded, raining autumn leaves down on our deck.

We spent Thanksgivings and Christmas in Florida visiting family and final provisioning and left Fort Lauderdale early January for the Bahamas. Per the advice of our cruising guide we planned our departure for 2 am to make our first land fall at Cat Key in good light; a disaster and the last time we followed that advice. We had been at a dock for almost 6 weeks and had lost our sea legs. Groggy and in the dark, we caught not one, but two anchor lines as we raised ours. Once free of them leaving the inlet we were hit by a thunderstorm and giant waves breaking on the bar, bringing the two youngest children topside in terror followed shortly thereafter by seasickness. We almost turned around and went back but it did get better as we went further on. From then on we decided that we would always leave in daylight and go slower if need be as we adjusted to the routine of life at sea. However the Bahamas incredibly clear blue-green water was worth it and as we look back we still think that for the minimum amount of effort to get there, it was one of the most rewarding cruising areas on our trip. By the end of January we were in George Town, Great Exuma, some 300 miles down island and had already discovered one of the great joys of cruising: how easily real friendships are struck up between fellow ‘yachties’.


Nine months later we were safely berthed in Whangerai, New Zealand to wait out the cyclone season. We had traveled 10,178 nautical miles since Ft Lauderdale, had spent 78 days at sea, anchored out 218 days, docked 25 days, gone through the Panama Canal, crossed the Equator, International Date Line and South Pacific, had our main sail blown out and visited 12 countries, including Jamaica, Panama, the Galapagos, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Tahiti and the Society Islands, Suvarou Atoll in the Cook Islands, both American and Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.

Our watch routine at sea was the two oldest boys from 9-midnight, Martha from midnight to 3 AM and Patrick the dog watches until daytime when we adopted a less formal system. Our youngest son didn’t stand a watch so was up bright and early to share a hot chocolate with the skipper as the sun rose. His morning duty consisted of counting the flying fish that had landed on deck.

While our children blossomed we acquired a lifetime of memories; the beautiful singing and dancing of Polynesia, swimming with seals and sea turtles, azure waters, sunsets, frolicking dolphins, native feasts, the humbling spectacle of unpolluted tropical night skies, spectacular scenery and the friendship of strangers. Along the way Martha of course was home schooling the boys, as well as standing her watch, sewing courtesy flags for each country we visited, repairing the sails and keeping us clean and very well fed.

We brought an old car and spent 6 months in NZ with the boys briefing attending local schools and becoming quite integrated into the wonderful Kiwi lifestyle. Skyeboat was refitted including a new fully battened main, which increased our best daily runs from about 150 nm to over 170!

We weighed anchor mid April and 7 months later we had gone from the South Pacific all the way across the Indian Ocean and had a taste of SE Asia in between, spending another 58 days at sea ,149 days anchored and 7 days docked, and putting another 10,031 nautical miles under our keel.

We had a mixed bag of sailing that year. El Niño was stirring up and provided us a few anxious moments dodging a late South Pacific tropical depression and two completely out of season cyclones in the Southern Indian Ocean.

After crossing the tempestuous Tasman Sea we had a long slog up Australia’s Queensland coast inside the Great Barrier Reef, but the trade winds were in force and Skyeboat roared along often hitting 8 kts. Poor Skyeboat also suffered 2 traumas – she was rammed by a drunk while docked in Townsville and then hit while at anchor by a large fishing trawler off Cape York severing two stays and lopping off a spreader. Only quick action by the boys prevented the whole rig from toppling over.

Still we managed to participate in two group events – something that was new to us – the Over-the-Top Rally along the crocodile infested coast of Australia’s Northern Territory and an international yacht race from Darwin to Ambon in Indonesia’s Spice Islands.

From Ambon we cruised remote regions of Sulawesi, visiting villages on stilts where our arrival was greeted like the landing of the Starship Enterprise. We encountered 12 foot dragons in Komodo and loved Bali with its temples and terraced rice paddies.

We broke our crossing of the Indian Ocean by stopping on some of the little specks on the chart; Christmas Island with its teeming bird colonies and crabs, Cocos-Keeling and the Chagos Archipelago where we played Robinson Crusoe. In the Seychelles we enjoyed Creole culture and hiked the mist forest.

We made landfall at the end of November in Kilifi, Kenya about 40 miles north of Mombasa on a coast that was once the fabled land of Zinj settled by merchant sailors from the east. Their dhows made use of trade winds which obligingly reversed every six months. The north-easterlies kakazi brought traders from exotic locations like India, Persia and the Gulf sheikdoms from October to March. The south-easterly kuzi, starting in April, carried the cargoes back. It was the kuzi that Skyeboat hoped to use to journey around the Horn of Africa to the Red Sea.

In the meantime we set about making good use of our stay to explore East Africa’s fabled national parks in one organised and then a number of self-guided safaris, bravely leaving Skyeboat at anchor up Kilifi creek each time. That Christmas we enjoyed the luxury of renting a house overlooking the Indian Ocean for a few weeks. It was only affordable and available because Kenya was holding its first multi-party elections in 26 years and tensions were high. The UK government had contingency plans at the time to evacuate 40,000 Europeans and a warship was hovering over the horizon. It proved another adventure, especially managing a cook with whom we shared no common language, leading to some interesting meals.

After an unforgettable visit we left Kenya in mid-March, making a final stop in the ancient Swahili island town of Lamu just north of the Equator with its white washed warrens and narrow lanes. The only transport there were small swift sailing dhows, which so intrigued us we passed our last few days on terra firma plying the waters in them.

What a year of contrasts in was. Ten months after setting out from a very different village in East Africa we had put another 5,420 nm under Skyeboat’s keel and had settled in England’s beautiful Wiltshire countryside in a 16th century cottage on the River Kennet in an altogether different village.

In between we had rounded the Horn of Africa, said goodbye to the Indian Ocean and journeyed up the Red Sea and across the Mediterranean, visited Aden, been chased by pirates, sailed through a swarm of locust, survived a hurricane force desert haboob, had the boat covered in mud, transited the Suez Canal and toured ancient sites in Sudan, Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, Turkey and Greece. But the highlight was feasting on pâté, wine and cheese as we travelled up the great rivers and canals of France from Port St. Louis du Rhône to Paris in the full bloom of summer and then down to the sea again at Le Havre. Except for 164 locks along the way it was very bucolic.

However back under the frangipani trees in our house in Kenya we used to sit reclined in relative luxury and talk as we gazed out across the Indian Ocean. One day the conversation drifted to Patrick’s school days when he spent two years as a border in the countryside of southern England. The idea sparked the older boys’ imaginations. In part, probably because it was a life so different to theirs, in part it represented escape. In part too, perhaps, because they had a taste of conventional school life in New Zealand, but mostly out of a sense of adventure.

As the idea germinated other rationales came to the fore. The time was approaching when they needed to develop their personalities without being so closely under the eyes of their parents. They would benefit from a broader curriculum. They needed interaction with peers. We decided to give it a try and so from Le Havre we set sail across the Channel for Falmouth, England and to what were to become new adventures ashore, settling into a cheery little cottage with a low beamed ceiling to bump our heads on and remind us of life afloat.

Patrick and Martha are now in the process of translating the full log of Skyeboat’s voyage into book form as a memento for their now grown-up crew.

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