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Sailing through the wilderness: Interview with John Kretschmer

Author, expeditioner and sailing guru John Kretschmer has circumnavigated the world several times in various vessels. He’s survived challenging ocean crossings, a narrow escape from a coup in Yemen, and an unlikely deliverance from a coral reef off Belize

By John Kretschmer
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:17 BST
John Kretschmer
John Kretschmer: "what most of us seek is an interlude from life. Sailing provides a sense of freedom that seems harder to find these days."

I’ve been sailing since I was 20. After I dropped out of college for the fourth time, my mum urged me to try sailing. So, I bought a little 27ft boat and have been making my way as a sailor ever since. After completing a classic Cape Horn voyage, which helped to put me on the map, people began asking me to deliver boats all over the world. One included sailing from Newport in Rhode Island to Stockholm in January. There were moments on that trip when I questioned my sanity.

All sailors are adventurous, but it’s more than that. Everyone who signs up for a sailing expedition knows adventure is a given — a big storm in the Atlantic or challenging winds are always on the horizon. But what most of us seek is an interlude from life. Sailing provides a sense of freedom that seems harder to find these days. And you need patience. Ocean sailing is an activity that reveals its charms slowly. Sometimes it seems like you’re putting in a lot of energy, effort and expense and not getting much back. But like a lot of athletic endeavours, you go over a curve and it starts to pay dividends.

Sailing gives you a wonderful sense of humility. I don’t think many people realise that the oceans are the last great wildernesses left on our planet, and you’re really alone when you’re at sea. You feel a deep relationship with your shipmates and you feel very small. It helps if you’re in great shape but it’s not essential. What really matters at sea is the attitude you bring to each passage. Sailing demands commitment. It’s a skill set you gain over time. You have to be willing to accept that you won’t be an expert on your first passage, and that it won’t all be wild excitement. A classic expedition experience for new sailors is to go from initial exhilaration to a bit of despair on realising they’ll be at sea for days with the same people. But then there’s always disappointment when land appears at the end; that special allotment of time away from normal life has ended.

My favourite place to sail at the moment is the Canadian Maritimes. Of course, the Caribbean still has a draw — what sailor doesn’t like navigating those waters? But the Maritimes and Arctic really speak to me with their rugged rocky landscape and proud maritime history. I think it’s partly the weird sailing obsession, as well as the thrill of going somewhere few others have been — moor up here and you’ll be one of the only boats. Locals will come on board for a beer and a chat. It doesn’t feel like the yachtsmen are jaded here. Up until the 1930s, sailing dominated the local fishing industry and many people still make a living from the sea, so there’s a keen appreciation of what life on a boat is really about.

John Kretschmer is author of the new book, Sailing to the Edge of Time: The Promise, the Challenges, and the Freedom of Ocean Voyaging. RRP: £18 (Adlard Coles)

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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