Listen to this article
Some advice that every sailor is sure to get, sooner or later, is that when you leave port your vessel must have no weakness – if there is, the sea will surely find it. First impressions of the Hummingbird put me at ease: a 60ft modern ocean-racing yacht with three circumnavigations of the world to her name, she’s a fine piece of nautical architecture, every surface immaculately polished and swabbed.
I was, instead, more worried about any weaknesses of my own. It had been two decades since I’d been on a sailing boat, and my experience on a little dinghy on a lake as still as glass with my sister, where the only time we’d been out of sight of land was when we capsized, hardly qualified me for an open-water adventure.
When I stepped on to the Hummingbird for a week-long 330-mile journey from Helsinki to Stockholm, things were still so new to me I didn’t know port from starboard. Nor could I master any of the three basic boating knots. And, next to the other crew members in their waterproof boots and windproof jackets, I felt a bit silly in trainers and a Breton top. Proper sailors, it turns out, no longer favour stripes.
The Hummingbird set off from London in May and, by the time I joined her, she had already taken in Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. After Sweden, she would go on to Scotland, and then to the Arctic Circle, the Lofoten Islands and the Norwegian fjords before returning to the UK in late September. All in, five months and 8,000 miles at sea.
Unlike most other sailing holiday companies, Rubicon 3, which operates the Hummingbird, invites people to hop on and off the boat at any point on her journey and to stay aboard for as long as they like. No sailing experience is required.
Which is just as well, because shipshape I was not when, soon after I stepped aboard, our captain announced that the winds were favourable for a 170-mile overnight passage to Kökar, a small island to the southeast of the Aland islands. There was no time to spare. All hands were needed on deck to bring up the anchor, take in fenders, attach rope halyards to the three sails, then rig them. One person steered while another helped them to navigate and kept lookout; below deck, one person made tea and coffee while another prepared dinner.
Within a few hours our crew of eight was far out in the blue. We sailed west along the Finnish coast at about 5mph, not much more than walking pace, weaving through the narrow channels between deserted islands of pine forests and flat granite rocks. The Finnish archipelago, made up of around 18,000 islands, little separate dots covering the chart for hundreds of miles, is one of the largest in the world.
In summer, the sun doesn’t really set, it just sits on the horizon before morning comes. But the daylight started to fade at around midnight, grey showing off its many shades: blue-grey, platinum, pale silver, slate.
This was like a holiday, but not. That much had become clear when I received the 42-page crew manual ahead of my trip. The opening few pages warned: “If you want luxury and an easy journey, then the Hummingbird is not for you”; “If you see a job – do it”; “If you do a job – do it properly”.
Conventional sailing holidays keep to strict schedules, but we made it up as we went along. Each morning we discussed – then plotted – that day’s passage, taking in as much or as little of the archipelago as we liked. Some days we’d take it easy, sailing for just four or five hours; others from morning until nightfall.
Most of the crew were regular seafarers; the only total beginners were myself and Jake Russell, 20, a former electrician who downed tools for a two-month apprenticeship at sea with the hope of becoming a professional sailor.
The only condition for us all, really, was that we mucked in and did our bit. As one crew member told me, normal life vanishes when you come aboard. There are two states on ships: work and sleep. You have to give up control either to the weather and the route, or to your captain.
We had not one but two captains: Bruce Jacobs, 40, who “ran away” from a career in marketing at Rupert Murdoch’s News International to become a professional sailor, formerly as chief engineer on a 112ft superyacht owned by a “mega billionaire”; and Rachael Sprot, 27, who “grew up on yachts”, races them and recently skippered an 80ft jet boat servicing offshore wind farms in the North Sea. Last year they set up their company, Rubicon 3, bought the 60ft former racing boat and spent half a year kitting it out for the “adventure expedition” they had planned. This was their maiden voyage with the Hummingbird.
It certainly wasn’t conventionally luxurious. Our bunk berths were cramped; there was no shower; the galley was utilitarian. I liked the gimballed stove the best, designed so that when we were sailing the pots and pans stayed perfectly horizontal no matter how much the boat tipped from side to side.
In yachting terms, 60ft isn’t small, but still, it isn’t a great deal of space for eight adults and their needs: a dinghy, a life raft, three sails, a fold-up bicycle, numerous charts, a cool box, food, fresh water, a good deal of beer …
“A boat has to be completely functional,” said Jacobs. “It’s nothing but design.” And yet there is not room for a single flourish or contrivance. “Everything we carry on board must earn its place.”
Ditto, every member of the crew. We needed to sail, to cook, to eat, to wash, to sleep and to enjoy all these things, all together, all of the time. And we did. A rota dictated which days we’d wash up and which days we’d cook for everyone. The food on board was robust and plentiful rather than refined.
We did without smartphones or the internet or showers and yet we ate hot meals and had books to read. We were comfortable and, because Jacobs and Sprot had fitted a small radiator in our saloon, always toasty warm.
If spending time aboard was occasionally hard work, it also afforded a real sense of freedom and adventure. I loved the emptiness of the water and the sense of speed as we coursed the waves. And that first overnight passage was an unquestionably fast start. My shifts on deck were from 6pm-9pm, 11pm-2am and 5am-9am. The rest of the time I slept.
Dawn at sea came slowly. At around 5.30am it was still getting light, slowly, not quite reaching the point when you could say it was daytime. It was misty and cold. A dull red sliver hung on the horizon and, eventually, shot upwards becoming an orange ball. The sky behind it was striped pink to pale blue.
Always, under the excellent (and patient) tutelage of our skippers, learning continued at a rate of knots. We went through man-overboard manoeuvres; we practised hoisting sails, putting them up as quickly as we could against the clock; we were taught how to plot routes on the chart; and we practised our navigation skills.
Another day, from Swedish waters, we spotted little wooden candy-coloured holiday homes scattered across rocky coastlines. We continued to weave through the archipelago, stopping off to explore the islands, pick up supplies or have a sauna and shower.
That night, in darkness, we arrived at our anchorage. The channel we were passing through was tight, only slightly wider than the boat. We navigated by lights, charts, depths and instinct as the fog closed in.
By the end of my week on the Hummingbird, the combination of theory and practice had finally, it seemed, hammered home the basics of sailing. No pleasure cruise, this, but when we arrived in Stockholm, my final destination, no one was tired – instead, we felt high on the adrenalin and the intensity of the shared experience.
John Sunyer was a guest Rubicon 3 (rubicon3.co.uk), British Airways (ba.com), Visit Finland (visitfinland.com) and Klaus K Hotel (www.klauskhotel.com). Rubicon 3’s next trips include Trondheim to Edinburgh from September 8-30 for £2,520 per person; or Trondheim to Bergen from September 8-19 for £1,392
Anchors aweigh: Holidays for novice sailors
Seychelles The islands of the Seychelles are a dream sailing destination, with azure water and porcelain-white beaches, writes Clare Kendall-Bohoslawec. Charter company Sunsail demands those renting boats from its base on Mahé have sailing qualifications but beginners can get around this by also booking a skipper – who can either quietly take care of all the sailing, or else provide one-to-one tuition. From £2,150 for a four-cabin yacht sleeping up to 10 for a week, plus £110 per day for the skipper. sunsail.co.uk
Caribbean Classic Sailing offers a more hands-on experience on board traditional tall ships – the largest is 213ft and has 21 sails. Crew members will soon be helping with boat manoeuvres, climbing the rigging and performing watch duties under the stars. From £1,095 per person for an 11-day voyage. classic-sailing.co.uk
Lofoten Islands Oceanwide Expeditions takes up to 20 guests (no experience necessary) on board the Noorderlicht, a century-old schooner which sails throughout the Arctic. In October and November it runs several week-long trips around the Lofoten Islands, offering unspoilt scenery, wildlife (including orcas and polar bears), and the chance to watch the northern lights from the deck. From €1,530 per person. oceanwide-expeditions.com
Greece Even those without experience can captain their own yacht on a Mediterranean flotilla holiday. On trips run by Sailing Holidays, an instructor will come on board to show novices the ropes for the first few days, before leaving them to take over. The yachts travel between islands in a 10-12 strong flotilla, so further help is always at hand. From £495 per person per week, based on four sharing. sailingholidays.com
Photographs: Miranda Delmar-Morgan