Many of us dream of giving it all up and sailing off into the sunset. But for one Hong Kong family, that dream became a reality. Marianne Rogerson found out what happened when Gemma Simmonds, her husband Ed, ten-year-old Eva and seven-year-old Henry left Hong Kong to sail the world.
The Simmonds family halfway across the Atlantic Ocean.
It all started with the kindness of a stranger in a bar in Seattle. Young newlywed couple, Gemma Simmonds and her husband Ed were struggling to find accommodation during their year-long honeymoon and were offered the use of the stranger’s boat for the night.
This serendipitous act of kindness sparked a lifelong love of sailing and a dream that one day they might sail the world together. Years of learning to master dinghies and crewing for friends cemented this dream, and the jigsaw pieces finally fell into place some 14 years later when they were living in Hong Kong.
“We’re not people to say something and then not do it,” says Simmonds. Their daughter Eva was 10 years old and about to enter her final year of primary school, and the timing just felt right.
“There’s an excellent book, The Missing Centimetre by Leon Schulz, that describes how you look at your life as a tape measure, with every centimetre representing one year of life. Let’s say the average life expectancy of someone is 85, so you cut it there. Then you say okay well I’m around 40, so you snip out a centimetre at 40 and you stick the tape measure together again. And you look at it and it looks just the same length.
“But then there’s that centimetre on the table. And you lift it up and you go ‘What can I do with that centimetre, that one year?’ And you can do so much! Reading that book was the tipping point for us. We thought, what’s the worst that could happen?”
Plotting a course with dad.
Despite their years of sailing experience, there was a lot of preparation required before they were ready for launch, not least of all selling their house and finding the perfect boat to take them round the world. Added to that there was home-schooling to prepare for and courses in first aid, advanced sailing, boat engines, radio use and more.
“We had a medical kit, we had every drug, we had two doctors at the end of a phone should we need them. We had safety equipment coming out of our ears and we had satellite phones and spare parts for the boat.”
Finally, they were ready to go. Their home for the next year would be a 15m x 3m (42 ft) Halberg Rassy named the Aurora B. She was fitted with six berths, two heads (toilets), a fridge, freezer, oven, water maker and generator. There was no air-conditioning and no washing machine. A bucket with a plunger would have to suffice for washing clothes.
Their year-long adventure took them 15,534 nautical miles from England to Australia. They started with crossing the Channel to Europe, where they called into Spain and Portugal before heading down to the Canary Islands to prepare for the Atlantic crossing to St Lucia. From here it was on to Colombia and Panama before sailing through the Panama Canal and onto the Galapagos then crossing the Pacific Ocean to the Marquesas. The final part of the journey saw them sailing around the Pacific Islands before finally ending up in Australia, one year and nine days after they left England.
The experiences the trip rewarded them with included diving with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos, climbing volcanoes in Vanuatu, sleeping under the stars Survival style in hammocks on a deserted beach in the Cook Islands, snorkelling with manta rays in the Marquesas, and a hundred other life-changing moments.
There were parties in St Lucia and Vanuatu, beers on deck to celebrate crossing the equator, and new friendships formed in anchorages and marinas around the world.
But it wasn’t all ‘plain sailing’. The family experienced several what they call ‘Armadillo’ moments. When the code word ‘Armadillo’ was used, it meant there was a serious situation at hand and everybody on board had to stop, and do exactly as they were told.
We did it! Arriving in Australia.
The first such situation came four days into their Atlantic Ocean crossing, when a bolt fell off the oven, causing it to sever from the wall and land on the gas line. Four days from land and with the boat lurching from side to side in rough seas, Simmonds somehow managed to fashion a working oven out of the razor sharp pieces of metal that were strewn across the floor.
“I just had to work out the problem because otherwise there was no oven for the next 15 days of our trip. Whatever happens, you’ve got to trust in yourselves to be resourceful. And you know what? You can be, when you are put to the test. The feeling of working it out and fixing it, then cooking that first meal was the best feeling ever.”
Other times the family’s resources were put to the test included losing their steering control in rough seas off the coast of Colombia (they managed to find a sheltered anchorage and someone to fix it, in addition to persuading the Colombian coast guard to allow them to stay overnight) and their engine failing to start as they came into a rocky outcrop in Fiji (they put both children on deck as ‘spotters’ and navigated the reef under sail).
Before they set off, the most daunting prospect were the two ocean crossings: the 18-day Atlantic Ocean passage and 20 days to cross the Pacific Ocean. For these two stints, the family invited an extra crew member on board so that there were three adults to share the night watches.
At night they would each do four hours on, eight hours off so that everybody got some sleep. In the morning everyone was responsible for fixing their own breakfast, and then someone would rustle up sandwiches for a communal lunch. In the afternoon they would put on music, make bread, and do a puzzle, game or home schooling. Then in the evening it would be a hot meal together before settling into the night watch again.
“It’s amazing how quickly that sort of routine becomes the norm, and actually after 10-15 days you think “I don’t know whether I want to come into land, I like this way of life.” It’s easy; there’s not much asked of you. I was reading, I was listening to podcasts, I was watching the most incredible shooting star displays.
“I felt at peace. The sea was always a different colour morning, noon and night. There were always either fish or birds or squid or some animal around, even though you think you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
This included on their last night at sea when Simmonds was alone on deck and a whale came up beside the boat and swam alongside for 15 minutes keeping her company.
To make these long stretches at sea more manageable, Aurora B signed up for the Atlantic Rally Crossing (ARC), which sees a fleet of around 200 boats cross the ocean from Las Palmas to St Lucia together. Although boats may be several days apart, there is always radio contact between the fleet.
This radio became a source of comfort to the Aurora B crew, whether it was having a random chat with a cargo ship that had come into the 20-mile radius of their VHF radio bandwidth, or the twice-daily roll call of the boats in their fleet on the SSB radio. This daily check-in not only allowed boats to help one another trouble-shoot issues on board, but also built a sense of community, with someone running a quiz one day, and the kids getting together to chat the next.
“Even if you couldn’t see any other boats, you knew they were there. You were in contact with them. You didn’t feel so alone. You could appreciate where you were, like when you’ve got this amazing starry sky and it’s crystal clear waters and there’s phosphorescence appearing around your boat as you’re breaking the waves, and it’s just so peaceful. But at the same time you know that somebody’s over there. Maybe 20 nautical miles away, which is four or five hours away, but that’s okay. We’re okay. We’re all good.”
Far from being lonely, the sense of camaraderie experienced amongst the boating community is in fact one of the things that Simmonds misses the most.
“It’s an unsaid thing that people will just help you, whether it’s with time, resources, spare parts, water, fuel. Whatever it is, people will help, and they’re not looking for you to help them back in any way. It’s like a passing it forward thing. It’s that next level of people going that extra mile and being that extra person for you. I’ve never experienced it before. It’s just brilliant.”
Having returned to Hong Kong and settled the kids back into school, the wanderlust that remains in Simmonds is palpable. She has already completed another six-week ocean sailing from Cape Town to Salvador in Brazil with another family, and is busy plotting when she can return to sail the South Pacific in a more leisurely manner.
So what advice would Simmonds have for other families with a dream to travel the world?
“I would say now to anyone: do something with your family. Whether you can manage six weeks or six months, or a year. It’s different from when you take a holiday and everything is planned. It’s no bad thing for a family to have some boredom, some insecurity, some uncertainty. Yes it’s a huge investment and a huge risk to take, but I genuinely think there can only be a positive outcome.”
This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Asia Family Traveller.