Boys own adventure: 12 year circumnavigation

When Pittwater local Tony Roberts took off on his Crowther 42 foot catamaran, TacticalDirections on May 1 2006, he had no idea his travels would take him 43,629 nautical miles to 49 countries before completing his circumnavigation just last year.

Cruising the world does not necessarily mean hours at sea and living aboard a boat for months on end. For the 67 year old father of three adult sons it was the opportunity to explore countries he would never have seen if it were not for boating.

Setting sail

Tony has had sailing “in his blood” from the age of 17. But it was not until he turned 55 that he started a voyage that became one big adventure.

In 2006, Tony had no commitments. He had sold his advertising and marketing consultancy business and rented out his Clareville home in Sydney. He had built his catamaran with a view to bluewater cruising eleven years earlier, but now had intention of sailing around the world.

“I only wanted to go to Thailand to participate in the Kings Cup in Phuket and get renovations done on my boat,” Tony says. “My vision was to spend one or two years in Asia then come back home.

“All my friends said I wouldn’t even last that long and would come back in a year.”

Tony says he found the courage to journey from meeting other cruisers, “after eight months of renovations in Thailand, I couldn’t say farewell to my friends who I met cruising. They were going west. So I decided to go west as well.”

Tony was rarely alone on his voyages, “generally speaking, the cruising community is close knit and I would often find myself travelling in company with other yachts. Just knowing that you communicate over an HF radio every morning and afternoon made crossings easier on the nerves.”

He discovered numerous radio nets available to cruisers all around the world where fellow cruiser volunteers bring communities together at set times.

He did enlist crew to assist him about 85 per cent of the time, although this was normally only one other person as the boat is well set up for singlehanding. “My crew are mainly friends who have joined me at various stages through my travels,” Tony says. “And, whenever I’ve paid their airfares, my sons and their partners have joined me. Funny though, they haven’t been since I stopped paying.”

When stuck for crew Tony also used a website:

Dressing up in Yemen

By 2008, Tactical Directions was sailing to Oman for reprovisioning, then coastal hopping along Yemen for a month.

It was the time when pirates were active and the boat was watched closely by the command of the coalition fleet, the US-led ships patrolling the Gulf. He was given a phone number for the commander in case of an emergency. In addition, the fleet tracked Tony’s progress along with the two other boats with whom he was travelling.

Once on land, Tony joined five other yachties from three boats and travelled by armoured van from Aden to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, with a driver and armed guard. “Our guard was chewing an hallucinogenic plant called Khat. He was as high as a kite and holding a loaded AK47,” says Tony, who remains somewhat incredulous at the thought of this craziness.

“When they arrived at the hotel they dressed us up as Bedouin riflemen, just for the fun of it, before being taken on a walk around the town to meet the traders and other local people.” Tony says the locals responded positively and they were even interviewed on Yemen TV.

The odd scary moment

Sometimes, though, the adventure became downright life-threatening. Like when Tony and his crewmate, Gary, were threatened as they approached Eritrea.

Tactical Direction’s spinnaker was up and she was sailing at about ten knots. “For a few minutes, a fishing boat approached us,” Tony recalls. “They demanded that we stop. Not willing to do that, we continued and they finally gave up and went back to the island.

“But the fun was not over: they came back.

“When they returned, the man on the bow had a gun and fired warning shots trying to stop us. Gary and I could see that the two on the fishing boat were arguing with each other; it was the one on the outboard controls who was obviously not wishing to pursue their course of action,” Tony explains.

“Had those fishermen pointed the gun at us I would have stopped immediately. Eventually they seemed to understand that we weren’t going to stop and went away.

“Half a bottle of Bundy finally calmed our very stressed nerves.”

Excitement in Anzac Cove

Tactical Directions then sailed to Egypt and through the Suez Canal to reach the Mediterranean.

They went through Suez and sailed straight to Israel, stopping at the marina in Haifa on the northern coast. They travelled by land in Israel and Jordan and, unsurprisingly, fell in love with the Med.

Says Tony, “we ended up doing four seasons in the Med: 2008 on the east coast of Turkey, then again in 2009. The highlight for me was anchoring Tactical Directions in Anzac Cove, Gallipoli on July 25, 2009.”

When they left Turkey, they left the boat in Marmaris Yacht Marin, one of the biggest marinas Tony says he has ever visited.

He reckons there would have been 750 boats in the water and nearly 1,000 on the hardstand, “it’s monstrous.”

In 2009, with an American crewman called Bill onboard, Tactical Directions sailed through Turkey to the Greek islands and the Cyclades. But when returning to Marmaris after a visit to Anzac Cove, Tony lost his rig.

“We were constantly doing speeds up to 17 knots in 35 knot winds. It was so tiring I thought we’d have a break by going through the strait between Mikonos and Tinos.

Big mistake. I didn’t read my guidebooks.”

They had to sail though a wind tunnel where it was gusting 55kn to 60kn between the islands.

“After a fairly harrowing time we motored back to Marmaris, Turkey where I got the boat rerigged. I came back to Australia for six months while the work was being done.

“The mast was made in the UK and the sails in Marmaris.”

Tony returned to Europe and had a couple of adventures. He left Turkey in May 2010.

With the new rig in place, he sailed to Crete, Sardinia, Italy and Corsica before heading for Barcelona. There he left the boat on the hardstand for the winter in a marina at Port Ginesta.

In the company of friends

In 2011 Tony had a respite from sailing. He rented a motorbike in Barcelona and set off to fulfill another dream: ride through Europe. In May 2011, he rode 7500 kilometres through ten countries and visited the friends he had made cruising. They included Austria, France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium, Switzerland and The Netherlands.

Afterwards, back onboard, he set sail to the Balearic Islands, an archipelago of Spain in the western Mediterranean Sea and then back along the Spanish coast to Gibraltar.

It was in Gibraltar that Tony endured the worst experience of his journey.

Hairy experiences

“When we were 25 miles out of Gibraltar, the wind dropped and there was fog. For hour upon hour we used radar only to make our way through all the anchored ships off Gibraltar,” Tony says.

“You could hardly see the bow. You could hear the foghorns of big boats heading toward you, but I didn’t have AIS transceiver. It was so scary. It was still foggy as we approached the marina, still at one or two knots. My radar missed a massive moored ship and we very narrowly missed running into it.”

But in terms of the most challenging experience, Tony does not hesitate to nominate single-handedly crossing the Atlantic.

Tony only sailed single-handed on a few long passages but the most notable was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the Cape Verde islands to Barbados.

“I hadn’t intended to cross on my own,” Tony says. “However, we had a rough crossing from Canary to Cape Verde and my crew got scared. But I needed to leave Cape Verde to get the sou’easterly winds.”

With no crew, he tackled the crossing solo.

“It took 15 days to reach Barbados, using only a jib for 90% of the time because of strong winds. It was the only situation where I thought I could lose everything.

“I put out my Code Zero, the wind came up and I couldn’t furl it by myself. I had to drop it in one go onto the deck. If it landed in the water I was at risk of losing my rig again. The gods were with me that time.

“The first eight days were taxing, just terrible. It was really rough. The last seven days were beautiful, but I would never do it again.”

Tony spent his birthday and Christmas Day in 2011 in the middle of the Atlantic.

Smooth sailing in the Bahamas

At the start of the cruising season in 2013/2014, Tactical Directions settled back into smooth sailing, taking in Miami and the rest of that year in the Bahamas with a side excursion to Cuba.

He and his crew sailed to the Exuma chain, an archipelago south-east of Nassau in the Bahamas, participating in the Georgetown Regatta where they took out first place in the multihull cruising division and third in the racing division.

March 2014 saw an excursion to a little chain called the Ragged Islands at the bottom of the Bahamas, 60 nautical miles from Cuba.

They did a day sail south to the north of Cuba, left the boat on a marina and spent four weeks travelling all over Cuba by road. Tony smiles, “there were three of us in the back of a 1947 Chevy, plus a guide and a driver, an experience in itself.”

They returned to the Bahamas, leaving Georgetown in 2015 to sail to Montego Bay in Jamaica. “We toured Jamaica by road before sailing to the superb Grand Cayman. We went diving there in crystal clear waters and took a helicopter ride, which was fabulous,” says Tony.

Belize and Guatemala were next. They motored up the Rio Dulce through the jungle to a town with 15 marinas. The barnacles dropped off the boat in the freshwater river.

Tony put the boat on the hardstand at a marina managed by Australians and returned home for our summer. Totally impressed by the service, he had two engines installed and was sent photo updates weekly while the work was being done.

It was moments like these that brought warmth and satisfaction to Tony’s experience, to his sailing, to his story.

Oceans of camaraderie

He says the most satisfying aspect of cruising is the people that you meet: both the cruising community and the people of different countries. “Fellow cruisers went out of their way to assist me,” Tony says.

“At times, I’ve been lucky to repay them, right down to towing a 28 tonne Hans Christian monohull some 20 nautical miles to safety. I have so many great memories of the camaraderie among the cruising community.

“It’s also the people of the countries that you go to, like the ordinary Indonesian people, the Thais, the Indians in the Maldives. People are very welcoming.

“It’s often little things, like in Mali where I met a local who invited me to his home. The family taught me how to make a proper Indian dhal while I discussed our mutual heart health issues.”

Homesick cure

Keen to sail according to the seasonal weather, Tony also returned frequently to Australia to see his family; including leaving the boat in Fiji for a two week trip to Sydney to attend his son’s wedding in October 2016.

“I escaped winter or the hurricane season in the US, by flying back to Australia. I spent up to 18 months at one time on the boat because the weather dictated that I follow the weather across the world,” he explains.

In January 2016, Tactical Directions sailed from Guatemala, through the Panama Canal and French Polynesia to Fiji. He sailed from Fiji to New Zealand, getting off the boat in December 2016.

TacticalDirections arrived back in Pittwater on October 30, 2017.

Since leaving home twelve years ago, Tony has had a hip replacement in Thailand and two major open heart surgeries: a quadruple bypass in Bangkok and a new valve in Sydney.

These small hurdles have never dampened his enthusiasm. “I am now a quarter of a century older than my dad who died of heart disease at 42. I wanted to be fit and healthy enough to do the things I want to do.

“Sailing is in my blood, no doubt, I started in a 14 foot skiff when I was 17. That was 50 years ago. I think I will cruise for many years yet.”

Tony plans to return to Asia to explore the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines before coming home to Australia.

What is the biggest lesson Tony has learned? “Just to broaden my mind to other cultures and other people. That’s got to be the biggest thing.

“I have seen places that if you are not on a boat, you’d never get to see. Who is going to travel to go to Sudan or Yemen or Eritrea?”

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