‘What can go wrong?’ Global headwind blocks Australian couple’s epic world trip – The Guardian | Dauktion

It was late August when Peter and Jennifer Bernard tied up their 50 foot cutter ketch, Steel Sapphire, in the marina below London’s Tower Bridge.

Their circumnavigation voyage should have taken them back to Sydney within five years, but it took them four to reach the British capital. They were halfway there and years late.

The forces of the natural world, with the dictates of seasonal cyclones and a global pandemic, had seen their “beautifully laid out plan fall apart.”

Peter, 50, learned to sail as a teenager and always planned to sail around the world when he retired. It was Jennifer, 52, who had lost a close friend to cancer, who challenged Peter as they got together: “Why should we wait until we’re in our 60s?”

Unlike most who tackle the Odyssey, they didn’t come from engineering or commercial backgrounds, so the two self-proclaimed “desk jockeys” spent eight years learning about engine maintenance, plumbing, and first aid.

“But the truth is, we could never have learned everything,” says Peter. “Ultimately, all you have to do is set a date.”

The couple sold their three bedroom home in Glebe to purchase the yacht that would become their home at sea. They left their management jobs in the pharmaceutical industry and set sail from Sydney Harbor on July 1, 2018.

“Between 2010 and 2018 we executed everything we had planned to the letter and left on the day we said we were leaving,” says Peter.

“Everything was perfect. And we then had a very detailed plan for what was going to happen next – month by month, anywhere in the world we were going to be and not at all [that] has come true.”

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Take off

Jennifer Bernard in Thailand in December 2018, where her
Jennifer Bernard in Thailand in December 2018, where the couple’s “beautifully laid out plan fell apart”

After traveling along the east coast of Australia and then from Darwin to Indonesia, Jennifer says her “nicely worked out plan fell through in Thailand”.

There “a minor overhaul was delayed and delayed and delayed and we missed our opportunity to sail across the Indian Ocean”.

Because of seasonal hurricanes, “you have to follow the weather. The weather determines where in the world we could be and when it is safest.”

The pair decided to make the best of the situation by returning to Indonesia’s Anambas Islands, which they had “run through” on their way north.

“If nobody knows about them, that’s great because they’re a hidden gem,” says Jennifer.

“Back then,” says Peter, they thought, “It’s not that bad, it’s just the first year. We have all of 2020. What can go wrong in 2020?”

The Bernards arrived in the Maldives on the same day that authorities declared a Covid-19 lockdown, confining them and those on board 15 other boats to their ships.

After a month of being banned from entering land, the government gave those on private boats permission to go ashore on a private island during the day.

Lockdown anchorage in Uligan, Maldives in 2020
Lockdown anchorage in Uligan, Maldives in 2020

After four months in the Maldives, the couple set sail on July 11, 2020.

They were one of nine boats to have been granted a British Indian Ocean Territory Administration permit to enter the Chagos Islands despite Covid restrictions.

The islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 500 km south of the southern tip of the Maldives and thousands of kilometers from the mainland, were home to the Chagossians until 1973, when the entire population of the Maldives was forcibly expelled by British colonial administration.

While the British allow private boats to stop in Chagos if they can show they have a valid reason for safety at sea, the UK refuses to allow the descendants of the Chagos Islanders to return.

As part of their three weeks on the islands, the couple spent some time on Boddam Island, seeing the remains of houses, shops, a church and a graveyard – “all solidly built of stone over a period of 100 years and now in ruins since the people were forced to leave”.

Peter says what was equally sobering was the rubbish — broken beer bottles strewn among the ruins and various sail debris, including buoys, floats, canisters, a damaged rudder, even a mast — left behind from another era of cruising before the concept of leaving a clean trail was established.

“It was hard to know what to be sadder about…the fate of the Chagossians, who were forcibly displaced and unable to return despite UN resolutions demanding that Britain allow them to do so, or the horrific abuse of ‘white privilege’ that the yachts who were allowed to come here when the Chagossians weren’t, and who failed to appreciate the beautiful and unspoilt surroundings so much that they spoiled it for everyone in the future,” says Peter.

The rising tide of Covid

After three weeks in the Chagos Islands, the Bernards sailed on to the Seychelles on August 4, 2020, “and there the world really didn’t open up as quickly as we had hoped or wanted,” recalls Jennifer.

“We had to weigh this decision: do we continue sailing to South Africa and do we miss all the islands that we wanted to see, like Mauritius and Réunion and Madagascar, because they were all closed, and even South Africa was closed, so it was a risk, to sail there, although we have been told that it will probably open soon,” explains Peter.

They decided to stay an extra year in the Seychelles to be able to see all the places they had planned on their adventure.

Lighting the BBQ at Steel Sapphire at Christmas 2000 in the Seychelles.
Lighting the BBQ on the Steel Sapphire for Christmas 2000 in the Seychelles

The Bernards had to accept that they had lost two years of their five-year plan. They decided that to get their finances back on track they would stop in London to work and earn enough money to complete the second half of their circumnavigation.

While the disruptions of the pandemic messed up their plans, it also got them “off the beaten track for most sailing cruise itineraries,” and the couple say some of those locations have proven to be the most memorable. For example, because Covid had prevented them from visiting so many countries, they decided to sail an alternative route through the Red Sea that took them to Tanzania.

There they climbed Kilimanjaro, went on safari, hung out in Zanzibar’s coffee houses and spent a few days helping a remote island community where their friends had installed a generator the year before.

“We certainly had places where sailing was better. We’ve certainly had places where the food was better, but Tanzania was just this diverse experience,” says Peter.

The couple in Namibia in February 2022
The couple in Namibia in February 2022

Sailing the South Atlantic, the couple traveled from Cape Town to Namibia, then on to St. Helena where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled, and finally on to Ascension Island.

Jennifer says it was in that last place “to get on land, it’s the hardest dinghy landing with this huge swell coming in”.

“You have to partially moor to this pier, which you then have to jump between the waves while those giant Galápagos sharks circle under your dinghy just waiting for you to fall in.

“And these are the vicious man-eating sharks. You are not allowed to swim in Ascension because the sharks have developed a taste for humans. It was incredibly exciting and scary and I can’t believe I did it.”

An epic return

For Peter, who emigrated to Australia from Scotland in his 20s after falling in love with the country backpacking, the highlight of their trip was cruising the River Clyde to Largs Harbor where his father taught him to sail.

'It was quite an epic moment': Arriving in Scotland in July 2022
Arriving in Scotland in July 2022

“I expected my father to come out with his boat and greet us,” says Peter. “What I didn’t expect was that my parents had arranged for a bagpiper to stand at the bow of my dad’s boat – when we tied it up in front of them the bagpiper struck Scotland the Brave and then serenaded us all the way into the marina.

“It was quite an epic moment. I don’t know that many other moments in my life will be this epic. Remember this is Scotland and it was supposed to rain but it didn’t. It was beautiful sunshine and the sky was smiling and it was perfect.”

As part of today’s ship intercept, we spoke to the skipper of the Steel Sapphire sailing yacht and his wife.
An unusual one as they had only just arrived in London after leaving their home in Sydney, Australia…FOUR YEARS ago! 🤯 👏 pic.twitter.com/Do24iWVeBf

— MPSonthewater (@MPSonthewater) August 29, 2022

“The pandemic has made us change our plans,” explains Jennifer. “This is just another chapter of our journey. And so we will make the most of living in London and enjoy what this amazing city has to offer.

“We don’t know how long it will take. We know it must be quite a long time because we really have a lot more money to save and it’s an opportunity to spend time with Peter’s family and friends.

“We believe we will complete our circumnavigation, but as the saying goes, seafarers’ plans are drawn in the sand at low tide.”

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