John Kretschmer is a sailor, writer and philosopher who has logged more than 300,000 offshore miles, including 26 transatlantic crossings and several passages in every ocean on the globe. His record-breaking voyage in a 32-foot sailboat from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn, against the wind, is just one of his numerous sailing accomplishments.
A self-taught sailor, Kretschmer has been sailing nearly full-time since age 21 and has developed a successful hands-on sail training business aboard Quetzal, a 1987 Kaufman 47. He also teaches workshops and lectures all over the world including the upcoming Bluewater Cruising Association’s 45th annual Ocean Cruising Adventure speaker series, delivered virtually on March 6, 2021 at 19:00. Tickets are $25 and available here.
Ocean Cruising Adventure is a 45-year Vancouver tradition featuring engaging presentations of exciting world travels, independent adventure and a good dose of practical advice about sailing offshore. It is presented by the Vancouver Chapter of the Bluewater Cruising Association (BCA), a not-for-profit organization.
Q: You sailed around Cape Horn for the first time, aboard Gigi, a 32-foot Contessa sloop, almost 40 years ago now. Can you share a few of your most memorable moments, sights or locations since then?
A: This is a really hard one to answer. My sailing career has essentially had three phases. The bungling college dropout, fueled by dreams of the ocean who finds his way—definitely the hard way—and then, somewhat amazingly, rounds Cape Horn, that was phase one. The next phase was the hard-working delivery captain, and this is where I really learned my trade, and there were definitely some adventures: Sailing into a coup in Yemen that we were very lucky to survive, the delivery of a Gulftstar 50 ketch from Fort Lauderdale to Japan and surviving Typhoon Roy near Guam and General Noriega’s henchmen in Panama. Sailing wise, I think the delivery of an Ocean 71 ketch, from Newport, Rhode Island, to Stockholm, was the most challenging sail of my life because we left Newport in January and crossed the North Atlantic in February. I discovered Force 13 winds! The third phase has been the last 20 years running training passages all over the world and it’s been the best phase by far. My clients have become my best friends and the people that make their way into my floating world are amazing.
Q: What is something you wouldn’t go offshore sailing without?
A: This one is easier, my sextant. Even now, when GPS has conquered the world and heavens, I still never begin a passage without my sextant, almanac, sight reduction tables and watch with known error. It sounds silly, but really, GPS could die tomorrow and it would not impact my voyaging one bit, in fact, it would make it safer as we sailed more responsibly in the celestial days. But it is more than that. GPS is part of navigation, not navigation. Navigation is a process, a way of thinking, a way of looking at the world, the sea, your life. An ocean sailor uses all of her senses to find position, confirm position and remember that position is fluid. I guess in short, celestial navigation forces you to pay attention!
Q: What is your go-to non-perishable food on long passages? After all these years aboard, are there certain foods you can’t even look at anymore?
A: This is a great question. This one has also had phases in my sailing life. In the early days food was something to keep you alive, and we ate a lot of pasta and canned meats. We had no refrigeration on the Cape Horn passage, or on most of the early voyages. Then, during the delivery phase, the owner of a Hylas 49 that I delivered every year down to the islands taught me a valuable lesson—a boat is not an excuse for a bad meal. George made delicious food every day, no matter the conditions. That was eye opening and I have tended to follow his lead. Luckily, when my wife Tadji came into my life, my culinary skills improved dramatically. So now we eat like royalty on passage, I refuse to let the ocean win. If it’s blowing a gale, I head below and cook. There’s something reassuring about a good meal when the ocean is really pissed off.
Q: You’ve written an article on your website, John Kretschmer Sailing, highlighting the best affordable offshore sailboats. Do you have any key advice for those looking to purchase an offshore sailboat?
A: I am full of advice, sure, but ultimately the decision to go cruising is the single most important one you make. There are lots of capable boats out there and I try to steer folks toward boats that have ocean-friendly hull shapes as the starting point for a boat search. It’s really easy to be seduced by big, beamy boats with shallow forefoots and very small keel cords and dangling rudder blades. There’s nothing wrong with these boats, indeed, they are usually the most fun to sail and hangout on, they’re just not great boats on the ocean. At sea, a hull that has a soft ride in a seaway changes the equation. Suddenly being at sea is a pleasure, not a sentence—not a dreadful race between landfalls. Also, a hull that tracks, that literally lays down a course over ground very close to what the heading is, is ten, twenty, thirty times more important than a boat that can sail close to the wind. Oh, there are lots of things that separate ocean boats from others. I tell people, and I mean it, with a good boat anything is possible—and that’s freedom.
Q: On your website you say that making landfalls is easy, it’s pushing off the dock that is hard. What helps you make that final push off land?
A: For me it’s easier, I have been shoving off for forty years. I am, simply, happier at sea than ashore. However, it is hard, especially these days, I understand. First, you have to shake off the electronic shackles that keep us tethered to screens. That’s very difficult for many folks. Everything in our life is instantaneous and sailing, especially deep ocean sailing, reveals its charms slowly, subtly. Plus, there’s this sense that if you somehow check out of the money-making hotel, even for a year, you will never get back in, or least not back to the same fancy room. One of the things most cruisers learn is that sailing teaches you how little you actually need and with that, the world shrinks, and you feel a sense of freedom that’s hard to describe.
Q: You and your wife Tadji are preparing to depart on “The Big One”, a five-year circumnavigation exploring every ocean, and will be offering onboard training sessions to aspiring offshore sailors along the way. Has COVID-19 affected these plans?
A: We are really excited about this voyage, which will take us up to Greenland and back to Cape Horn, before making our way across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But yes, definitely, COVID-19 has forced us to look closely at our plans. We really get cracking in late April, with a passage from St. Martin to Bermuda, and then up to Lunenburg, NS, one of my all-time favorite harbours and a place where Quetzal has many friends. As of now, we are just monitoring the situation and hoping that vaccines are effective and widely available and that people, especially in the US, become more responsible in the way they deal with the virus. It is possible that we will delay a year but hopefully not. The leg to Greenland starts in July and we are really hopeful that the world will look different by then. At the same time, we don’t want to diminish the experience by having limited opportunities ashore, so, like everyone else during these difficult times, we are just waiting to see how things unfold.
Q: Do participants need prior experience to sign up for your onboard passage training?
A: It helps, of course, but it’s not necessary. Our crews almost always have a wide range of experience and I think this makes them more interesting. Also, I have a lot of repeat crew and they know what to expect. One of the great discoveries I’ve made during 20 years of training passages is that the people who come aboard always have value to add to the passage. To have the inclination, make the time, have the money, clearly, you have been making smart choices most of your life already, and also, we tend to be like minded anyway. My job is not to bark out orders and lay down silly rules cast in stone, but instead, to find what people do best and to empower them. There’s no yelling and very few rules aboard Quetzal. There is respect for each other, and a genuine team environment; we have shared adventures.
Q: You’ll be speaking at Bluewater Cruising Association’s 2021 Virtual Ocean Cruising Adventure. What can the audience expect from your presentation?
A: I am excited to be a speaker at the Virtual Ocean Cruising Adventure, grateful for the opportunity and I think it will be great fun. Before COVID-19, I gave talks all over the world, doing things remotely has been adjustment but I am getting used to it. My presentation will include stories of serious sailing, serious adventure travelling and a bit of philosophy about how to make the most of your time. I always include some funny stories; I’ve made a hash of things so often that I have plenty of material. Just the other day, down here in the US Virgin Islands, I crunched the finger pier coming into the slip. Afterwards, a nice guy took me aside and quietly gave me some docking insights! It was beautiful and he was right, we should have taken the stern line first.
Q: Could you share a favourite excerpt from your latest book: Sailing to the Edge of Time: The Promise, the Challenges, and the Freedom of Ocean Voyaging?
A: Hmm, another tough question! I am proud of this book. I know it’s a bit of a departure from my high-adventure books, but it’s really the book I have been writing my whole life. OK, you asked, it’s a bit long but here it is:
“The promise of another nice day of sailing was in the offing. I didn’t need assurances beyond that. We pulled the reef out of the main and Quetzal surged in gratitude. Looking over my shoulder, toward the southeast, I thought about that young boy swimming for his life on a storm-tossed sea so many years ago. I looked toward the companionway, where my beautiful wife was tucked under the dodger, content to be at sea with me. How had I navigated to this point, to these very coordinates that placed us on the edge of time. What a distance I’ve travelled only to have fetched up back where I started.”
To read more from John Kretschmer, visit johnkretschmersailing.com.