The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

It’s So Nice When I Stop

Over twenty years ago I received an offer from Britain’s leading whale and dolphin researcher to become a reserve skipper on his annual survey in the western isles of Scotland. Wow, I thought, what an opportunity, and promptly seized it with both hands. Which only goes to show that you should always look before you leap, as I later found out that many wiser men had already turned the offer down – and by the end of the first fortnight, shell-shocked and absolutely on my knees with fatigue, I understood why.

Licking my wounds at home after such a baptism by fire, I had time to reflect on the strange turn my sailing career had taken. The easiest thing would have been to quit, but I couldn’t face that, and besides, as time passed the good parts (as always) rose to the surface and much of the bad faded away. I also realised that having a purpose to being out there made sense to me, and actually enhanced my enjoyment of cruising. And it gradually dawned on me that the tenacity needed to carry out such work was of great benefit to me in many other ways (not least as a skipper), which may well explain why I’m still banging my head against that particular brick wall all these years down the sea way.

Why do we do it?

It’s a strange sailing life, which consists of taking crews of keen volunteers and subjecting them to extremes they might never experience sailing conventionally. When the weather is good you work every hour you can until exhaustion sets in, knowing that the good conditions can’t last. And when it’s bad you bash through it making some poor soul seasick as you try to position the boat and yourselves to best advantage for the forecast improvement. And when it’s really bad you pace the floor and peer hopefully at every forecast hoping against hope for an unexpected improvement.

Your volunteers are of course looking forward to seeing lots of wonderful wildlife, whilst the survey pattern demands that you cover all areas, the majority of which prove not to be favourable for the wildlife you seek. Therefore your team are often disappointed, whilst you’re happy watching the patterns emerge over a period of years, secure in the knowledge that a negative result is just as valid as a positive one. Doesn’t seem to make sense? – I’m with you on this one in human terms, but trust me, in scientific terms it does.

It isn’t all bad

But when it goes well there’s nothing quite like it – over two weeks in the Hebrides this summer we lost only one day to the weather and endured only two days of soakings. Both our project and another we are involved with are going extremely well, the yacht we chartered was fine for the job and totally reliable, and only one of the crew took a pasting from the demon mal de mer – but bravely stuck it out.

And we recorded a most extraordinarily rich palette of marine life – six different whale and dolphin species, including orcas (only the second time in twenty years in these waters) and nearly a hundred basking sharks. With each successive encounter we swore it couldn’t get any better, only for the next to make us realise that we really had no concept of what ‘better’ is. The final encounter with a juvenile minke whale that approached us and played around our bows for nearly fifteen minutes provided the proverbial cherry on the cake that left us all smiling for the next twenty-four hours.

The calm conditions and almost constant northerly winds also allowed us to explore new anchorages normally off limits, as well as to visit many old favourites. Our crewmates were truly fantastic (as they have always tended to be), and stepped up to the mark every time we demanded more from them. And with Lou organising the logistics like a veteran Field Marshall, we all put on weight and stayed healthy and happy.

And it’s not just us

When John and Phyllis decided to put Morgan’s Cloud at the services of their Norwegian anthropologist friend last year for their voyage to Greenland, we were filled with admiration at their guts to take on such a demanding project. This was truly sailing as a military exercise, and it’s both a testament to their combined sailing and logistical skills, as well as their deep commitment to the people they hold in such regard in those remote communities, that they saw it through with such élan. They made it look easy, but we (of all people) had a very good idea of just how tough it must have been, and what extraordinary reserves of stamina and tenacity it would have taken, way beyond what we put up with – it made our usual travails look like a trip round the bay. But as I’m sure they would agree, ‘sailing with a purpose’ has its good points, especially when reviewed from a distance many months later, and with a stiff whisky to hand.

Naturally, we now can’t wait for next year’s survey while we bask in the afterglow of this yea’rs achievements, sure that it will be just as successful, despite all the evidence and bitter experience of many previous years to the contrary. And after twenty years I remain truly glad that I didn’t give up this strange but rewarding career at the first hurdle. The lessons I learned then from a non-sailing scientist have stood me in good stead time and time again out on the water, and at least some of the many hundreds of volunteers who have passed through the project over the years still speak to me, so it can’t be all bad, can it?


And I know that at least some of you out there have your own experiences in sailing beyond cruising – let us know your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dave Benjamin

We’ve proudly supported OceansWatch for many years. They’ve done a fantastic job of linking the yachting and recreational diving communities with opportunities to serve. Right now they’re setting up a MMA (Marine Managed Area) in the Solomon Islands. Worht checking out at

Colin Speedie

Hi Dave

I’ve mentioned Oceanswatch in the past here at AAC.

They’re doing some great work in the Pacific, and are hoping to expand their operations into the Atlantic area. I’m a supporter, and had it not been for an injury suffered this last autumn hoped to have been helping them with a project.

The approach they are taking, empowering local communities to take an active role in managing their own resources seems to me to be a good one, and I applaud them for it.

Best wishes


Paul Mills

Hi Colin and Lou,

I’m glad to hear that your trip was such a success. As you know, Hazel, I and the boys had a fantastic 3 months up there this early summer and are very keen to return. For us also the wildlife was a real highlight for example the family of otters swimming across Loch Feochan and also Haisker on a calm day with thousands of birds, seals and snorkelling to die for; add to that the amazing scenery and the lovely locals and well… it’s sublime.

As I sit here in Milford Haven with 1 night off after a 2 week charter and a new crew packing as I write I can but appreciate your experience above; and agree that it’s a fine way to spend your time and energy.

All power to both of you and your cruising life together


Colin Speedie

Hi Paul

I’m obviously delighted that you, Hazel and the boys had such a great time in the Hebrides this summer, and I’m not surprised that the same things that appealed to you appeal to so may others – us too. It’s a magical cruising ground.

Ah, the memories of changeover night, though. Time to have a good shower, clean your clothes, then check the engine, prepare the food list etc. I’d love to say how much I miss it, but, well…. Good for you for taking on the work you do, and I hope the rest of the season goes just as well.

Kindest regards


Maria Hood

Great web-site and articles !

Another opportunity for sailing with a purpose is the Argo Float program, which is part of the United Nations-sponsored Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). These automated profiling floats are used to take measurements of temperature and salinity all over the world’s oceans, and the offshore sailing community can assist by deploying floats. The measurements are used for studies of ocean climate change and improved weather forecasting, so it’s a great way to help ourselves, too. (I worked for GOOS for 12 years before leaving to go sailing.) The contact email is: .


Hi Maria

Great comment!

This is just the sort of thing that we, as crews who visit less frequented parts of the oceans can help with, and we’ll definitely follow this up ourselves, probably via VSF as we’ll be in the Atlantic.

Thanks for the comment, and if anyone else has any other good ides, pleaase do let us know.

Kindest regrds