Making the switch: How we become a liveaboards

A gentle introduction to the cruising life set Kate Ashe-Leonard on course for a full transocean liveaboard adventure

We’re sailing by the Gulf of Venezuela as we approach the Colombian coastline, a notoriously difficult stretch of water with frequent high winds, big swell and current. This night is no exception. It’s 0100 and Jim and I are both in the cockpit under a ceiling of stars. It’s Jim’s watch, but tonight is all-hands on deck.

Polaris is surfing fast down waves which have now built to over 4m. The wind has just reached 40 knots but, mercifully, is coming from behind. Swell breaks into the cockpit once again, soaking us both. We decide to put the tiny sliver of genoa away, and begin sailing under bare poles. Our speed drops from 16 to 7 knots, but it’s still too fast, we don’t want a night-time arrival.

Under the full moon that lights our way, I can see crests of white water battering the Colombian coast in the distance. Outwardly we’re both calm, although adrenalin is running high.

The speed is thrilling but we feel secure, Polaris is handling it just fine. So are we; we have done so many miles together on this boat that has kept us safe. I catch my breath to realise that it was just three years earlier that I set foot on Polaris for the first time, having never sailed before in my life.

Into the unknown

My partner Jim has sailed his whole life, I had zero experience. Together we made a decision to sell almost everything, rent out our flat in London, buy a boat, move on board full-time and complete a global circumnavigation. It was an ambitious plan. But Jim was adamant that my introduction to cruising should be as gradual as possible.

The last thing he wanted was for me to do too much too soon and be scared off sailing for life. If we both still liked it after all that, then maybe we’d keep on going, becoming long-term liveaboards.

It took us 12 months to find, buy and move onto our Catana 47 catamaran. Those months were a chaotic haze of activity; we moved house twice and totally immersed ourselves in the pursuit of the boat and obtaining everything needed for it. We did training courses at weekends, attended boat shows and test sails.

Kate Ashe-Leonard at the helm of her Catana 47 catamaran, Polaris.

In fact, we did a lot of things related to becoming sailors, but hardly any actual sailing, so I was relatively unprepared by the time we moved on board. We’d at least experienced a bareboat charter holiday for two weeks: a miniature proof of concept to try and be as certain as we could that I really wanted to do this. And I did.

We delivered our own boat from France to Marina di Ragusa, Sicily, where we would spend the next eight months. We took two additional crew for that first passage. It would be five days and 600 miles of offshore sailing and, while I had barely sailed at all, Jim also didn’t know Polaris yet. That was my very first experience of being at sea and out of sight of land. I could have flown to Sicily but I really wanted to be part of that first voyage. I shadowed Jim as he taught me how everything worked, helping prepare me for when I would stand night watch alone in future. Taking crew on that trip gave us the breathing space to do that.

Soft landing

Overwintering in Sicily was one of the best decisions we made. It was the perfect soft introduction to liveaboard life. The wealth of knowledge so generously offered by the liveaboard community there was invaluable. We’d head out on day sails to get to know the boat and practise together. New friends would often come too, letting Jim safely experiment with trim options for flying our new spinnaker without worrying about my inexperience.

Hours spent installing our radar were made easier with the help of other sailors who had the knowledge and tools. There were afternoon provisioning trips, pooled car rides out to chandleries and hardware stores searching for obscure parts.

Polaris heads into the Atlantic

Jim and another cruiser arranged for the local sail loft to hold a splicing class, one experienced liveaboard put on a celestial navigation course, and an Atlantic crossing planning group was formed where both newbies and experienced transatlantic sailors could meet, discuss experiences and share our plans.

This time made us realise the importance of having a network of knowledgeable people who understood some of the challenges we faced.

I soaked it all in. I didn’t realise it at the time, but some of the friendships we made there would continue in the years that lay ahead when our paths crossed in the Caribbean and beyond.

Arrival in Antigua.

Just the two of us

With lots of boat work complete, we left the marina in May and did a few day sails up the coast of Sicily with a buddy boat before our first double-handed overnight passage to Greece. In my naivety I was all for heading out in the forecast 30-plus knots and going straight to Preveza, but Jim urged caution.

As we cruised the Greek islands in the months that followed, we’d swap roles so that I’d learn both sides of a process rather than getting too comfortable only doing the bit I thought was easier.

Sometimes I took the role of skipper for a day and Jim would be there to correct any mistakes. I also wrote out basic operating procedures to help me understand each step and why we were doing it.
The Greek islands were sometimes a tricky training ground with katabatic gusts, wind acceleration zones and strong Meltemi northerlies in the Aegean in July and August. The livelier sails took me to the edges of myself as I learned where my comfort zone lay.

Sunset cruising in the Mediterranean

Sometimes, Jim had to insist that I complete a manoeuvre in spite of my protests. He made sure I was confident raising and dropping the mainsail on my own from start to finish, but turning the boat head to wind in strong breezes and big waves could be frightening as a beginner.

During our test sail a year earlier, on my first time on Polaris, one of the broker’s crew had cranked the mainsheet down so hard that the halyard snapped, and our fully battened mainsail of over 80m2 and all its cars came crashing down. A few minutes later the genoa furling gear had seized, leaving the genoa sheets flogging around, smashing all the solar panels on our coachroof and spraying the cockpit in its glass. Jim instilled in me a healthy appreciation of the potential dangers of lines and winches, and with practice I got over these fears.

Coffee time in the Tuamotus

Soon we were doing a two-night, 350-mile passage to Malta. The voyages were getting longer, but my competency was also increasing. I loved the quiet and dark of solo night watches giving space for reflection in a way I hadn’t experienced in years – if ever.

Next there was a two-night hop to Sardinia and a few days later, a four-night passage to Cartagena, Spain. These passages went well mainly because we were disciplined about getting as much sleep as possible during them and choosing conservative weather windows. In the lead up to every passage Jim and I would look together at each new weather forecast on PredictWind twice a day. Our priority was always to leave when there were favourable but not overall windy conditions forecast, to avoid upwind passages where possible, and to avoid a night-time arrival.

By October it was time to get ourselves from Gibraltar to Lanzarote, our longest passage yet at 590 miles. We were by now so used to sailing double-handed, it felt natural. We then discovered that for our upcoming Atlantic crossing our insurance company required us to take a minimum of two additional crew (as it would be our first ocean passage); the idea of bringing strangers into our home and trusting them with our boat was daunting.

Moored with friends on another catamaran in a tranquil bay in the Med

Preparations for crossing the Atlantic included testing all our boat’s systems, assembling the safety equipment, compiling extensive medical and first aid kits and bolstering our refrigeration capacity. We calculated fuel, water and power requirements. We made contingency plans and did endless rounds of provisioning. We also had to select new crew. We screened over 50 candidates and identified two who had the right balance of compatible personalities and experience. Jim and I were used to doing everything as a team and so it was strange to share the workload around.

Student to teacher

We decided to do the Atlantic crossing in two stages; from Lanzarote to Sao Vicente, Cape Verde; then on to Antigua. Going via the Cape Verdes was a chance to review how the crew were working out so far, as well to rest, top up fuel and reprovision. Jim and I taught the new crew how we do things and to ensure this was adhered to. For this first leg, we split the night watches between Jim and one of the crew, and myself with the other.

Kiteboarding at Cape Verde

Unexpectedly, having crew on board and teaching them the way things needed to be done on Polaris was a really good exercise for my confidence. I realised that I really knew how we use our sails, how we managed power, and how our AIS, radar and Open CPN chart software worked. Things that only a few months earlier had felt alien and intimidating were now part of my everyday life.

As we weren’t in a rally we had the freedom to select our departure dates based on the best weather window. After a week exploring Sao Vicente, we set off in early December in what can only be described as intense conditions. Thankfully, the weather moderated as forecast, from 30-plus knots from behind to 18-20 knots. For this passage we split the night watches into four with each person standing watch for three hours and all felt spoiled with all the extra sleep. We developed a pleasant routine during the day; fishing, listening to podcasts, playing cards and making sure to gather together for the lunches and dinners I’d prepared.

Practice with the spinnaker and other crew

A friend in Sicily had advised against getting others involved in meal preparation, as she’d found that using a meal plan meant she knew which ingredients she needed to save for upcoming meals. I handed over control of the kitchen once or twice, but seized it back when I noticed eight heads of garlic on the chopping board for just one meal. After that I followed her advice, although it was exhausting cooking for four along with all the sailing.

Caribbean and beyond

After 13 days Antigua was in sight. A regal looking pelican swooped down to the water in front of us, before returning to his perch on an old stone column. We tied up our boat in historic Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour, a momentous arrival after our first ocean crossing.

We’d graduated to become true liveaboard sailors, and spent the following months enjoying tradewind sailing in the Eastern Caribbean. We fled to the Grenadines when the pandemic began to impact travel, and spent a year there in total. The situation taught us that we prefer to cruise slowly, to really get to know the places we visit and the people we meet. We had our first hurricane scare at Union Island and prepared to go to sea and hove to with another boat – a stressful experience which thankfully ended as it was downgraded to a tropical storm.

Mindelo’s marina

In Dutch Sint Maarten we installed lithium batteries, a washing machine, new instruments and significantly increased our solar capability in readiness for the Pacific. A sail to Bonaire was one of our fastest and most exhausting so far, breaking 200 nautical miles in a day. Then west to Colombia, followed by Panama.

In March 2022, we transited the Panama Canal to the Pacific, where we prepared for our biggest double-handed passages yet – to the Galapagos and finally to French Polynesia. I know lots of people who love sailing but really dread really long passages. I’ve discovered that I’m the opposite: I love the buzz of activity as we spend weeks getting ourselves and the boat ready, the endless rounds of provisioning and planning, and then the relief when you finally set off.

We have been living and sailing on board for four years now and Jim and I know that we work best sailing double-handed. As a couple, we spend a huge amount of time together and have sometimes gone weeks without seeing anyone else. So, it’s important to have our own hobbies, like photography and writing, as well as all the ones we do together: diving, paddleboarding, hiking or kiteboarding.

From ripped sails to arrival parties and back breaking hikes to gather provisions, this lifestyle has us hooked. I have never once doubted whether this was for me but building my miles gradually in the beginning was crucial. Jim taught me how to trim the sails, how to read the sea and the sky, how to recognise wind coming across the water. In the moment I was very reliant on him, but there hasn’t been any teaching going on here for a long time.

Though this journey has brought many challenges, none have been insurmountable as we take each step together on this incredible adventure.


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