On the Job

Yacht Captains Share Tips for Preparing for Difficult Passages

3 February 2022By Louisa Beckett
Courtesy of Sean Meagher
Louisa Beckett

Written by

Louisa Beckett

Louisa Beckett is the former editor of Motor Boating, ShowBoats International, and Southern Boating magazines, and a longtime contributor to Dockwalk. Over her career, she has written about a wide variety of vessels ranging from Sea-Doos to superyachts, and has had many adventures on the water, including riding in a U.S. Coast Guard “rollover” boat in heavy surf off Cape Disappointment, Washington.

Is a voyage to Southeast Asia, Antarctica, or the Arctic on the boss’s bucket list? Yacht owners are getting more adventurous, and as a result, explorer yachts capable of voyaging to these extreme destinations have been growing in popularity. But no matter how ruggedly built and well-equipped a yacht may be, it’s the effort the captain puts into planning a challenging passage that can make or break the trip.

Traditionally, long-range ocean crossings have been considered the world’s toughest passages for a yacht. But today, a number of factors determine what makes a passage more difficult than another.

“Any passage can be difficult. It doesn’t really matter if it’s long, short, or what. I think it all has to do with your preparedness; your knowledge of what you are going to get into, and how to deal with it,” says Capt. John Crupi, who visited 70 countries on six continents with the 146-foot Cheoy Lee Dorothea III.

Here are some tips on preparing for a difficult passage from captains who have done it before.

M/Y Dorothea III and her sportfishing tender
Courtesy of John Crupi

Planning Ahead

How far in advance to start planning a challenging passage depends on how much information is readily available about the areas, and how much yachting infrastructure is in place.

Crupi began preparing for Dorothea III’s Pacific passage from Hokkaido, Japan, to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a year in advance. In particular, he researched the local weather patterns to learn what he could expect. “You’ve got fast-moving low-pressure systems that move rapidly west to east. So, to try to find a fourteen-day window where you’ve got good conditions…is difficult,” he says. “I knew how bad it could be, so I had to do a lot of research with sailing blogs, pilot charts, and a lot of other things, because there are no yachts that do this stuff.”

Deciding on a June departure to avoid the raging 40-knot winds that can occur at those latitudes at other times of the year, Crupi and the crew of Dorothea III saw many days with less than a quarter mile of visibility due to fog while en route but had no other weather issues. “We were the first yacht to clear into Dutch Harbor; at least, it was the first yacht that group had ever seen.”

Not every captain has the luxury of a year or more to prepare for a passage, however. Typically, the yacht owner’s timetable is shorter. For example, the first time that Capt. Sean Meagher took the 147-foot Latitude through the Northwest Passage, he only had six weeks after the owner decided he wanted to take the yacht from Fort Lauderdale to Alaska — the hard way. The successful voyage saw Latitude becoming only the 216th boat to complete the notoriously ice-choked passage.

The voyage was a success, with Latitude becoming only the 216th boat to complete the notoriously ice-choked passage.

Capt. Franck Catsuris currently is planning a trip from New York to Greenland and on through the Northwest Passage for the summer of 2022 in his new command, the 160-foot tugboat-to-yacht conversion Asteria. (Meagher is coming along to act as a guide.) “Today, it is much easier than 20 years ago,” says Catsuris, who captained yachts in Asia in the late 1990s. “There was not much [in the way of] weather forecasts — we were using weatherfax. Twenty years ago, we used to plan weeks in advance. Today, I think is a little bit easier because there is more outside help from the Internet, weather routing, agents….” In addition, he continues, “Air travel is so much easier now.… It’s not the biggest challenge to fly the guests to and from the boat.”

Courtesy of Sean Meagher

Weather Routing

The availability and accuracy of today’s weather forecasting services makes it easier for captains to avoid dangerous sea conditions and storms. “Basically, today, if an owner says he wants to charter or he wants to meet me in New York in a week, in five minutes I can tell him yes or no just by looking at the forecast,” he says.

The open ocean is not where Crupi has encountered the worst weather. “Weather systems offshore are pretty benign, number one, and number two, they are pretty predictable. And there are a lot of resources that will tell you what to expect in the middle of the ocean in any given month,” he says. “What changes all of that is coastal. There are more elements to it because you’ve got the ability not only for pressure systems to affect your position, but you’ve also got temperature differentials that usually change wind direction and wind speed, so therefore, the unpredictable values of a forecast become greater.”

During his time on Dorothea III, Crupi used Weather Routing Inc. to help him plan. “Typically, [when] we were out there cruising, I was probably on the phone with them or emailing five days a week,” he says. “I’ve never had the scenario where I wasn’t able to avoid heavy weather. Once you break it down into little bits, it’s relatively easy....” He adds, “Our itineraries always went with the season. … There’s a cyclical thing that happens with weather systems. It’s so much easier to go with it than it is against it.”

Courtesy of Sean Meagher

Remaining Flexible

Another important factor in planning for a difficult passage is to make sure the owner or guests are willing to be flexible about the timetable for safety’s sake.

“You have to leave enough of a window that you don’t get pinned into a corner,” Crupi says. “I know that there’s always this mentality about having to be somewhere…. You hear it all the time, ‘We have to go, or ‘We’re leaving on [such and such date].’” Working for Dorothea III’s owner, he says, he never had to deal with that mindset. “My first instinct would be, it’s not a warship; there’s not a big gun on the bow. Why do we really have to be there? Because the money made in these charters is nothing compared to the amount of damage you could do in a storm,” he says.

While charter programs have to run on a tighter schedule than private yachts, many of the clients who seek out the boats going to extreme destinations like the Arctic have different goals than simply enjoying a vacation at sea. “We don’t only do normal charters; we want to do scientific research, and we also want to do charity [trips] like bringing books to a school,” Catsuris says. “People have to understand that we might not be able to do the full trip, or we might have to do something else.”

Courtesy of Sean Meagher

Asking Someone Who’s Been There

“If you can find someone who’s done it before and can give you a bit of a blueprint, then that’s the best way to prepare,” Meagher says. In planning his first Northwest Passage transit, “I contacted a couple of guide companies and they were like, “Give us a hundred thousand and we’ll do it.’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ and I never got a clear answer for that.”

So instead he talked with a peer, Capt. Phil Walsh, who had taken the first superyacht, the explorer yacht Turmoil, through the Northwest Passage in 2001. “We sat down and we went over the charts and he said, ‘This is where you want to go, and this is what you want to do.’ He gave me some good ideas about equipment and some good insights.”

Meagher also wanted to consult with an expert on one of the most critical challenges in the Northwest Passage. “In the higher latitudes, the biggest factor is ice,” he says. “In Disko Bay, [Greenland], you can get stuck in that harbor for days. That’s where icebergs are born.”

M/Y Dorothea III and Pia Glacier
Courtesy of John Crupi

So, he contacted Patrick Toomey, a retired Canadian Coast Guard Arctic icebreaker captain who was the 19th captain to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage and has transited it multiple times. “He said, ‘Read Ice Navigation in Canadian Waters,’” Meagher recalls. He already had read the book and commented that it was extremely well-written. “He said, ‘Well thank you, I wrote it.’ And with that, I knew I had found the right guy,” Meagher says. He promptly asked Toomey to be the ice pilot for Latitude’s Northwest Passage trip.

Hire a Local Guide

While you can learn a lot by talking with a captain who has regional knowledge and experience, in some parts of the world, it’s also invaluable to use a local guide. Crupi points to the rivers in Central American countries. “Those are dodgy as hell because you have no idea. The currents are always changing; the depths are changing,” he says. “We’ll hire local guides and fisherman to help us get in through the river mouth, [sometimes] with breaking waves in it.” Typically, Crupi uses a yacht agent specializing in the region to find those local guides.

In many parts of the world, legal regulations require pilots to guide them. “And they do help out, especially in Southeast Asia, going up some of the rivers, like the Saigon River, and the Mekong Delta,” Crupi says.

Hiring Extra Security

The MAST security team on board V6
Courtesy of Franck Catsuris

In some regions, it’s important to hire additional security for a transit. A recent example was the winter 2020/2021 trip that Catsuris captained in the 159-foot explorer yacht V6. They traveled from Athens through the Suez Canal to the Maldives.

In planning that trip, Catsuris knew that security might be a concern in some areas, and they hired MAST. “We picked up some security guards with arms at the bottom of the Red Sea…. In the middle of the sea, there’s a ship with 20 or so security guards on standby, and they come by tender to join any boat, cruise ship, or cargo ship,” he says.

It turned out that V6 did have an encounter with potential pirates while in the Red Sea. “We took the decision with the security company that we had a target boat; we don’t know if it’s a fishing boat, or if it’s a pirate,” Catsuris says. When the target boat saw the MAST team on deck with their guns in hand, it immediately turned away.

Sourcing Fresh Produce

While bunkering can be a concern when planning a voyage to off-the-beaten-path destinations today, any agent who specializes in that part of the world should be able to help. Captains also should remain wary of taking on a load of bad fuel. “If you don’t have a bunch of fuel filters on board, you’re not going anywhere,” Meagher says, adding, “You also need to make sure you can make enough water.”

“Know where you’re going to get food. Know where you’re going to get fuel. Have a bailout plan. If you’ve answered these questions, then it’s much easier.”

Any explorer yacht also should have storage for enough spare parts to handle any problem short of a catastrophe, and enough dry stores to last for the voyage’s duration. Sourcing fresh food during a trip remains a real challenge in some regions, however. It’s not as easy to prepare the boat as if you were in Fort Lauderdale or the South of France. You need a good network to help you with the provisions.”

Before taking Latitude to the Arctic, Meagher asked a crewmember to research the ports of call along the route and call the local grocery stores directly. “...Find out how they get deliveries — then piggyback on those deliveries,” he recommends. When the yacht was able to take on fresh produce during the trip, he adds, “It was so cold, we used the hot tub as a vegetable crisper.”

Preparing for a difficult passage follows the same basic formula as planning for any cruise, Meagher says. “Know where you’re going to get food. Know where you’re going to get fuel. Have a bailout plan. If you’ve answered these questions, then it’s much easier.”

This article originally ran in the January 2022 issue of Dockwalk.

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