Knowing the ropes: David Smith in the Corinth Canal
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

At parties, I love it when people ask me: “What do you do for a living?” I am a commercial skipper, delivering yachts around the world. Yet 10 years ago, this was an industry I didn’t even know existed.

Those wealthy enough to own a yacht are unlikely to have as much time as they would like to sail it. So they’re happy to engage a professional delivery crew to get their boat where it needs to be.

Many of my regular customers are tycoons from the worlds of aviation, shipping, pharmaceuticals and oil, prepared to entrust my crew with their pride and joy. Some of them love sailing so much, they have even asked if they can come along as a crew member on our other deliveries. Other customers lack the experience for long offshore or ocean passages, and many of our deliveries are for brokers delivering brand new yachts from the factory to buyers around the world.

So how did I get here? Sailing is in my blood. Starting with dinghies at school and Scouts and sailing on my dad’s Sadler 25, I am at my happiest when afloat. Nevertheless, my career for 30 years was firmly on land working as a chartered surveyor, mostly for Land Securities, where I latterly managed a £700m property fund.

In 2009, I left the corporate world. I was in my fifties and looking for a new adventure. Almost by accident I found an advert on Facebook. A professional yacht delivery company was looking for a crew member to take a new 45ft Jeanneau from the south of France to Istanbul. After a quick exchange of emails, I was on a flight the next day to Beziers to meet the crew.


With a professional skipper at the helm, we headed into the Gulf of Lion — well known among sailors because it roars. Wind speeds of 40 knots are to be expected as the Mistral barrels down the Pyrenees.

We soon settled into our routine of three hours on watch and six hours off. After two days sail, our first stop was Bonifacio in Corsica — the most beautiful natural harbour, with an entrance dominated by a castle, complete with a chain that can be pulled across to prevent ships entering. Having refuelled, our next stop was Salina — one of the Aeolian Islands to the north of Sicily. We tied up on the fishermen’s quay, and settled into a lovely restaurant overlooking Stromboli island, with its active volcano. The boat is always dry, but the gins in that restaurant were outstanding.

David Smith with legendary sailor Robin Knox-Johnston

Sail away

After that trip, my heart was set on becoming a commercial skipper. As skipper, you are managing a project to deliver a yacht in as good or better condition at handover. You are responsible for managing people, navigation, fuel and food.

The business model for yacht delivery means that, usually, only the skipper gets paid. The crew do it for the love of sailing and to build miles, but travel expenses and meals are covered. This is how I started off. The biggest reward is the people you meet. Sailing on boats, you get to meet the most amazing characters, both owners and crew.

Some crew are young people hoping for a career in sailing, building miles for their qualifications. Many are retired. One group I really like are ex-forces. Two of my regular crew, Brian Seage and Nigel Langorn, were formerly senior officers in Royal Marines and Royal Navy. They have seen active service and tell some super stories when we’re at sea, but have an attitude focusing on getting the job done. They understand the chain of command and — thankfully for me — are happy taking orders from a civilian skipper.

After a few years, I sat and passed my RYA MCA Yachtmaster exam — this was an eight-hour ordeal, but it is a highly respected qualification recognised worldwide. Having qualified, one itch I wanted to scratch was crossing the Atlantic. So when I was offered first refusal on a delivery from the British Virgin Islands to Falmouth in Cornwall, I did not hesitate.

Next stop: Gatwick, flying out to Antigua at someone else’s expense, then on to Tortola. Sitting on a beach where coconuts grow felt a world away from visiting shopping centres in Leeds in my days with Land Securities.

After sailing 700 miles to Bermuda, it was over to La Coruña in Spain and after a few days, the final push up to Falmouth. Then, 10 metres off the mooring buoy, a UK Border Control team boarded our Rustler 42 yacht and literally took it apart. Any boat coming out of the Caribbean is a target for cocaine smugglers. Fortunately, we were free to go after a delay of several hours.

For me, the night watches are just amazing. Away from land you see the stars and the Milky Way in a way that is impossible to describe. The wildlife is enthralling. To see dolphins herding tuna into a tighter and tighter ball is incredible. I’ve frequently seen whales, sharks, turtles, sunfish weighing up to 1,000kg, and flying fish.

Bioluminescence at night is stunning. The boat disturbs small organisms which emit light — a bit like diamonds sparkling in the wake of the boat. I never tire of watching gannets fishing — they drop like a stone from 100ft. Once, we had a cormorant join us over Biscay. They are shallow water fishers, so the poor chap was quite literally out of his depth. He had to hitch a ride home with us.

Choppy waters

Life as a commercial skipper is not always plain sailing. The first rule of running out of diesel is don’t. One day I did just as we were passing Land’s End. We sailed on to a mooring buoy at Penzance. At 2am the bay was filled with fishing boats waiting for the tide to go into Newlynn.

A call on the VHF radio secured the offer of a 20-litre can of diesel. Out of the darkness with dazzling deck lights, a massive oceangoing trawler from Troon threw a heaving line and passed the can. The skipper would not accept payment, but we popped down to Newlynn the next day with a big bottle of whisky for him. Seafarers have a respect for the sea and helping someone in need is part of that.

Sailing is often seen as a male activity, but some of the best crew I sail with are women. Recent female crew members have included a soldier and a trauma surgeon from Munich. They were terrific sailors and gender was simply not an issue. Hard as nails, female sailors can match any man in adverse weather.

Stormy weather generally produces great seafaring stories, but it’s the little experiences that are often the most profound. Seeing shooting stars as you pass Africa; watching dolphins playing with the bow wave; and I’ll never forget the day I almost sailed over a sperm whale. Equally, walking into a small grocer’s shop in Sicily to be greeted with “prego!” makes you realise you are in a different land. When you pass Trafalgar, you’ll see it exactly as Nelson did.

Technology means you can navigate the Seven Seas armed with an iPad. Nevertheless, you have to prove you can do it the old-fashioned way too. Much of the training to become a yachtmaster is to prepare you for things going wrong, and knowing when to call for help.

Last year, one of my adventures involved about a dozen unrelated problems all coming together. Delivering a new yacht from Southampton to Greenock, the engine started spluttering in worsening weather. The autohelm — the yachting equivalent of an autopilot mechanism — had failed and a crew member had been taken ill. Then a second crew member suddenly developed severe chest pain. After passing the Eddystone Lighthouse in Cornwall, we diverted to Fowey, and I dialled 999 so an ambulance would be ready to meet us when we tied up. In building seas and failing light, I had to find the entrance to the Fowey river among the towering cliffs with waves breaking up the cliff face. This is where your training kicks in — but it was very lonely experience, staying calm at the helm and prioritising tasks.

It turned out to be only angina, but for both crew, it was the end of their trip. By chance, my regular crewman Brian was available a short hop away in Falmouth. As we headed up the Irish Sea to Greenock, still with no autohelm, my lasting memory was Brian pointing the forestay at the north star reciting the John Masefield poem Sea Fever: “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

Reflecting on the 12 deliveries I’ve made last year, what motivates me is sailing with a purpose, meeting new people in new places and enjoying their stories.

In March this year, I delivered a thoroughbred racing boat from Cowes in the Isle of Wight to Mallorca. We decided to have a final dinner in the Royal Yacht Club in Palma, where we swapped sea stories with three Swiss nationals on the next table. A selection of liqueurs arrived and the conversation flowed. At the end of the night, our new Swiss friends picked up the tab insisting that people had been kind to them at sea, and they wanted to pass on the kindness.

My advice to anyone thinking about taking the same change in career direction as me is just get on with it. Becoming a commercial skipper is very different from racing around at your local sailing club, but a modicum of offshore experience and some qualifications could get you aboard as crew.

I say to my friends that there is no better feeling than stepping ashore with your skin slightly tight with the sun, some salt in your hair, a drink in your hand and the sound of good music ashore as you set off to trade tales of your adventures. If there is a heaven, it must look a lot like Tarbert Loch Fyne in the sunshine.


David Smith is a professional yacht skipper with Halcyon Yachts International Yacht Delivery. To read more stories like this, visit Next Act, the FT’s free online content hub for readers in later life www.ft.com/nextact

Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article