Guy Clegg shares how his family became sea gypsies, leaving behind their lives as organic farmers to become full-time sailors in the UK
Becoming sea gypsies: life as full time sailors in the UK
Perfect stillness. I drift across a reflected evening sky, writes Guy Clegg.
Somewhere in the distance a raven gives an occasional croak, but apart from my kayak gently turning on the incoming tide of this remote Scottish loch, everything is motionless.
I am entirely absorbed in my surroundings, no internal chatter, at one with the ‘now’.
Hugging the shore, I pass a birch tree, a shower of golden autumn leaves and then, suddenly, the stillness is ripped apart by the startled piping of an oystercatcher.
A herd of female red deer and a few fawns have raised their heads and are standing motionless and alert.
One second, two, then, like a released spring the whole herd bursts into a panicked sprint across the shallow water in front of me in an explosion of spray.
They carry on up, through moor-grass of a nearby hill. My hairs are standing on end and every sense is on high alert.
As I slowly calm myself I feel the sense of privilege that comes from having such wild encounters in the natural world.
This is what we had dreamt of, the ability to travel in relative comfort to remote and wild places and immerse ourselves in nature.
In a perfect world, we imagined a cosy home we could potentially relocate anywhere along uninhabited coastlines from which we could make excursions on foot and by kayak, throughout the seasons.
What better way of doing this was there, other than to learn to sail, live aboard full time and become sea gypsies.
The years 2017-2018 marked a turning point for us.
My wife, Joanna and I had been organic farming for more than 20 years and were tenants of a 360-acre National Trust coastal farm in Cornwall.
The political and environmental climate was changing, as were the buying habits of our end customers.
We could see that, for our farm tenancy, the best years had passed.
It was time to make a change. Why not make it a radical one?
We, and our daughter, Jasmine, have a passion for the sea, for wildlife, simple living, self-sufficiency, sustainability and a desire to keep our carbon footprint to a minimum.
Enticed by the freedom and adventure that our hobby of sea kayaking had given us, we began to explore the possibilities that an ocean capable yacht could provide.
At this stage we had next to no sailing experience other than having joined friends for a couple of day trips and a cruise to the Isles of Scilly.
We did RYA courses, both theoretical and practical and, for a year or so, I was fortunate enough to occasionally join the crew of an offshore racing yacht, which massively expanded my comfort zone for rough water sailing.
The next step was a bareboat charter.
Our first was in home waters and we were lucky enough to be accompanied by experienced friends in their yacht.
Both occasions were full of steep learning curves and poignant lessons, but both had occasions that confirmed we were on the right path.
So now the search began for our perfect yacht.
By this stage, I had sailed on racing yachts, light production cruising yachts, heavy displacement cruising yachts, classic wooden yachts, both Bermudian and gaff rigged. I had used tillers and wheels, sailed on boats with centreboards, narrow fin keels and full-length traditional keels.
I had sailed on sloops and cutters and been on wooden, steel and GRP vessels.
I had also listened at length to the owners of each of these vessel types sing the virtues of their design (some rare souls even told of their failings), and I compared these to the opinions voiced in the numerous books, magazines, films and YouTube clips, that I devoured.
In this way we began to shape a list of preferences, based largely on our sailing experience, our sailing intentions and the financial resources available to us.
Finding the right boat for sea gypsies
The final choice of sailing vessel had to have the capability of being able to go anywhere; a ‘tank’ that could sail well, and was beautiful and cosy to boot; it also had to fit our fairly limited budget and be able to carry our kayaks.
In addition, we had a wish list: ideally it needed to comfortably accommodate four, in two separate cabins, have a Bermudian cutter rig, be made of steel, have a full-length keel, a solid spray dodger, be ready fitted with a gravity fed diesel heater, have a clean flush deck, have windvane steering, as well as some form of alternative energy source and be less than 12 metres in length.
The gods were kind! We got all that we had wished for at a jaw-droppingly low price, in the shape of a Dutch-made, 20-year-old, long-keeled, steel, Koopmans 39.
To represent our new life and in honour of the four winds that can’t be chained, we renamed our new yacht Free Spirit, before sailing her from Holland to Mylor, near Falmouth.
The maiden journey between the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 was a baptism of fire, but we saw it as an opportunity to define what needed doing in order to have Free Spirit ready for living on the following season.
The next big decision was what kayaks to get.
For us these were not to be cruising toys but our principal means for coastal exploration.
Our experience of sea kayaking had proved to us that these sleek, fast craft were infinitely better than both rigid and inflatable tenders for intimately exploring rocky shorelines, nosing up creeks, entering sea caves, visiting stacks and skerries, sliding through shallow waters, landing on surf beaches and quietly observing wildlife.
Ideally we could do away with a tender all together.
Eventually, after much research, we settled on a single and a tandem kayak, from the expedition touring range from Advanced Elements.
These hybrid inflatable kayaks use a combination of aluminium frame, rigid panels and inflation chambers and provided the tracking, speed and paddling performance we required to cover the miles, while still remaining highly manoeuvrable.
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Like a stand-up paddle board, they have a rigid high-pressure floor, which enhances both the hull speed and stability, allowing easy entry and exit from Free Spirit, which does not have a bathing platform.
Like most inflatable tenders, the kayak’s hull is made of a PVC tarpaulin mesh, which has proven to be most durable.
The tandem and the single being 4.6m and 4m in length respectively can be stowed on deck, but for passage making the kayaks can be packed away into relatively small bags.
Setting sail to a new life
We now had everything we felt we required for our new voyaging life: a modicum of experience and the right vessel, newly painted, newly rigged and refitted, that would take us where we wanted and look after us.
In truth, this final transition from farm to yacht was incredibly stressful.
Leaving the tenancy, selling our livestock, equipment, vehicles, furniture and even rehoming our beloved dogs, with no accommodation of our own to return to, was a huge mental challenge and leap of faith.
For a while we were wracked with anxiety: we were burning our bridges, there was no way back.
We decided one thing was for sure, we would regret it if we didn’t give it a go.
Fast forward 10 months and we’re doing it, the three of us, living and travelling full time aboard Free Spirit, occasionally joined by Jasmine’s boyfriend, Rowan, a qualified marine engineer.
Our preparations, in terms of equipment, experience and mental expectations have paid off.
We have massively extended our comfort zones, but in a gradual way, allowing us to fine-tune procedures and practices onboard and leading to smoother, safer and more enjoyable sailing.
We have sailed to the Isles of Scilly and up to the magical highlands and islands of Scotland’s west coast. We have perfected our anchoring, allowing us to stay and explore some of the wildest and most remote places for extended periods, and at no cost.
We have caught and eaten fish, harvested a variety of seaweeds, mushrooms, leaves, nuts and berries for interesting meals to supplement our shop-bought produce. We have snorkelled in crystal clear waters with grey seals, seen whales and had encounters with common, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins, and even a walrus.
We have watched golden eagles and had white tailed eagles fly over us regularly. We have kayaked with common seals, dolphins and otters, which we have also observed playing and eating fish beside our boat.
We have regularly watched red deer, followed their tracks and pathways on land and have gone to sleep listening to the deep bellow of the stags during the autumn rut.
The piping, calling, squawking, screeching, hooting, croaking, cawing and twittering of birds often accompanies us at our anchorages together with the sounds of the sea, wind and rain.
We have hiked up mountains, through bogs, streams and woodlands. We have kayaked along sheltered and exposed coasts, found hidden coves, swum in pools and beneath waterfalls.
We have had the immersion into nature we had hoped for.
We have also had our testing moments, our anxieties, breakages, frustrations, injuries, days of non-stop rain, frightening storms at anchor and unpredicted gale force winds at sea.
With the right attitude, the right equipment and a degree of tolerance for a little hardship, most situations can be overcome and even enjoyed.
We have come to accept it all as integral to our journey.
This is the essence of our voyage aboard Free Spirit, which, coupled with the simplicity of our new life, gifts us numerous excursions into paradise.
We have no regrets, just never-ending life experiences and destinations to explore.
Tips for becoming a full-time sea gypsies and liveaboards
- Make sure you sail plenty of different types of boats – either on charter or going out with friends or yacht club members – before drawing up your shortlist.
- Think about the kind of liveaboard life you want to have and where you plan to sail. Bluewater or cooler climes? Anchorages or marinas? This will all make a difference when choosing the best boat for you. Remember some marinas do not accept long-term liveaboards or charge a higher fee.
- Being organised is key to making the most of the limited space onboard. It is a good idea to store items that you use most often in places that are easily accessible.
- Mildew and condensation is part of boat life so make sure you keep on top of it. Consider investing in a good dehumidifier.
- Boat maintenance is a never-ending job. Boat gear breaks all the time, which can leave a dent in your budget and your plans. Be proactive about resolving any small issues, which can turn into a bigger headache over time. Knowing the basics when it comes to plumbing, electrics and engine maintenance will certainly help and save you money.
- It goes without saying that if you anchor a lot then weather will play an important part in your life. A change in the wind direction can ruin a comfortable anchorage and force a move in the middle of the night.
- Remember you might not always have access to the internet in remote areas and may need to rely on the likes of the Coastguard VHF radio transmissions. Learning to analyse forecasts and interpret changing cloud patterns is a skill worth learning. There are plenty of weather books out there for sailors.
- Make sure you take good ground tackle with you. Check that all of the shackles are moused.
- Solar panels or a wind generator can help with electrical power, at least enough to charge mobile phones and keep the GPS running. If you need internet onboard, consider a WiFi hotspot to boost reception in marinas or a 4G set-up on your mobile phone. Service quality will depend on your location. Websites like www.opensignal.com provide signal coverage maps if you need guaranteed connection.
Useful guides and publications
Get Real, Get Gone: How to Become a Modern Sea Gypsy and Sail Away Forever by Rick Paige, 1st edition (Amazon, £11.16)
The Voyager’s Handbook: The Essential Guide to Blue Water Cruising by Beth Leonard, 2nd edition (Adlard Coles, £26.99)
The Intricate Art of Living Afloat by Clare Allcard, 2nd edition (WW Norton & Company, from £14.99)
The Self Sufficient Sailor by Larry and Lin Pardey, 3rd edition (L&L Pardey Publications, £27.99)
Sail Away by Nicola Rodriguez, 2nd edition (Fernhurst, £18.99)
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