On board with superyacht owner Mike Ryan
by Mark Chisnell
There are two unavoidable questions for every Lunch With guest. The first is: how did you get started in the sport? The second: why? I throw the latter at Canadian real estate developer Mike Ryan, just after he has ordered coffee (latte in a cup not a glass). We are in the elegant Mayfair surroundings of Sartoria, a restaurant on Savile Row, and his answer encapsulates all the energy, enthusiasm and appetite for life that has been fizzing off him right through a highly entertaining lunch.
"It's probably an interesting combination of freedom and control. You are free to go in any direction that you choose, in control of where you go and how you get there, and there's an intoxicating element of being fully responsible for yourself. If good things or bad things happen it's because you made them happen. As an individual that's very appealing. And as a family, to feel you are collectively able to shape your destiny, that's very appealing.
"And if you are a sailor nothing in the world compares [to the moment] when you come out of the harbour, put up the sails, get everything trimmed and turn the engine off. There's that silence, just the wind and the water and the horizon and that brings out the romantic in all of us."
Ryan is probably best known to BI readers for the year-long adventure he, his wife and their three young daughters undertook from the Mediterranean to Australia, via the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. The journey won the Voyager Award at the World Superyacht Awards in 2010. It was the culmination (so far) of a lifetime association with boats and adventure.
So how had he got into sailing? "'Im from Central Canada and the good news was that I grew up in Hamilton on the shores of Lake Ontario," he says. "I've been around boats my whole life. My father was in the Royal Canadian Navy, so that connection introduced us (the family) to boats. The first boat I recall was a Sunfish my parents had; they used to put it on the top of the old wood-sided station wagon and take it to a converted quarry. I was five at the most, maybe younger - I have early memories of my mother squishing one of those keyhole lifejackets down on me."
There was no tradition of sailing in the Ryan family; his father had gone into the navy to get his tuition paid to become a naval architect. He became a victim of military downsizing. He started an engineering business and was doing well, so like a lot of newly affluent people in that period one of the things he did was to give the kids a chance to sail the Sunfish, says Ryan.
"In the late 1960s we started going up to a place called Georgian Bay," he continues, "which was on the shores of Lake Huron. We would go to summer camp up there, and I got introduced to an Optimist. We all had someone who inspired us, and there was a great counsellor who was very in to sailing, and he got me all excited about racing the Opti. There was an old plywood one in the woods that was all rotted. I was a bit of a loner, I guess, and I repaired it with his help and then raced it, and I think I was hooked from then on."
The family then bought a C&C 35 that they sailed up through the Great Lakes from Hamilton to Georgian Bay when Ryan was about 10. It stayed there to accompany future summers at their holiday cottage. Meanwhile, Ryan had switched his own sailing from dinghies to boards.
"I got excited by the early days of windsurfing, and so it was much more exciting to be on the Bic windsurfer than an Albacore. My brother was significantly better at it (Albacore racing) than I was and there was no fun in getting beat by my brother.
"All the water sports made a deep impact. I always felt like I was a boater. And I had a long-standing dream to go on an extended sailing trip around the world," says Ryan. The first attempt to fulfil his dream came soon after he left college, when he bought a Hunter 54. Ryan found a berth on Toronto Islands (a small chain of islands within the city), "I lived on the boat while working in Toronto, and thought at some point I'd take off and go sail around the world."
By early 1991 it seemed the dream might actually come true. "I married my wife (Judy) in January of 1991; we eloped to New Mexico, came back and she moved on the boat with me. We were relocating to Costa Rica (in 1993) and decided to ship the boat to San Diego (in 1994). The plan was to sail it down the coast of Central America and see how the Ryans enjoyed long-distance cruising together.
"Just before we were going to take off my wife got sick," he says, "and I was very concerned. She says, 'Good news and bad news. Good news is that I'm pregnant; bad news is that I have terrible morning sickness and I throw up non-stop.' She basically threw up from San Diego to Acapulco, and as soon as we got to Acapulco she was like, 'You know what, is there an airport? I will see you in Costa Rica. Goodbye.' It was too bad, it was a lovely trip and confirmed that I enjoyed blue water sailing and enjoyed being on the water more than being in port."
Ryan sailed down to Costa Rica without his wife, but was joined by his father for one memorable section when they got hammered by a storm rolling off the Nicaraguan coast. Ryan is a great storyteller, and his account of the cockroach that blocked a drain and nearly sank his home is a good one, concluding: "We make it in, only mildly bashed about [except] I herniated my discs."
The injury put paid to one of his other pastimes. He was a climber and mountaineer in his 20s, summiting Mt McKinley (in Alaska - North America's highest peak) and leading an expedition to the Andes a couple of years later. Age and muscular-skeletal operations; herniated discs and torn knees have put paid to that.
Ryan also played a lot of tennis, and ran the Legends Tennis charitable event for 12 years, benefitting the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre. He still feels the call of sport and adventure. "Lately, I've gotten into surfing. It's something I always wanted to do and just never got around to it." Typically, Ryan sees only the advantages. "'Im slower on the tennis court and getting worse every year. I used to be a great skier and now I'm just old and slow, but I surf better than I ever have."
Once the couple were settled in Costa Rica, life again intervened in the planned global voyage. The couple had three daughters there, but it also proved a less than perfect place to keep the boat. They shipped her to Panama and sold her. The family moved on to Grand Cayman where Ryan developed the Ritz-Carlton hotel. "I was sitting with my wife and we've overcome all these hurdles, we've opened the resort, it's a smashing success, everything is going great and we looked at each other and said, 'What's next?' Let's go sail around the world."
Judy set out to find tutors for the girls, who were eight, 10 and 12, while Mike looked for a boat. It turned out Judy had the easier job. "Who knew there was an entire industry in portable tutors?" he asks. "Well, there are lots of rich and famous people who are mobile and lots of really interesting educators who would like an opportunity to travel. We were astounded at the résumés. Pick your school: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale ."
Meanwhile Ryan was looking for the right boat. After several test-charters and months of searching they found the 1996 Pendennis-built and Dubois-designed Mamamouchi in Italy, just south of Genoa in Lavagna. They renamed the superyacht Tenaz, and took her to Palma for modifications, putting an office into the master cabin. "They hooked up a whole bunch of electronics so I could be in touch with the office." The family left Palma in September 2007, sailing east across the Med, visiting Tunisia, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt, before transiting the Suez Canal.
An interesting route. "There were two reasons," explains Ryan. "If you do [the regular west-about route via Panama] your crew starts with a whole lot of open water and you can use up a lot of time. And because I'd been in the Caribbean, I'd seen that a lot of people made it that far and stopped. I thought, I don't want that to happen. The second part is that you have to be open to things. We originally planned to go in May, but things happened and we were now leaving in September. And for us to get on with it, this was the right direction to go."
Once out of the Red Sea, they risked encountering the pirates off Somalia. This was three years before the crew of the sailing yacht Quest were murdered. If that had already happened, would he still have set out? "I like to do my own research and make up my own mind. It was a rarity that they were going after these boats. Our view was that we are big enough to stay out here a couple of hundred miles offshore, and I thought we'd be OK once we had no females on board. Worst-case scenario they are going to take your boat. I can live with that. I thought it was a reasonable risk to take."
The women (including the teacher, mate, chef and stew) left the boat in Djibouti. Ryan hired an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire and equipped Tenaz with a long-range acoustic device which could pop a guys eardrums at half a kilometre as a defence measure. He didn't want to arm the boat further. "If you put guns on a boat you better be prepared to get in a gunfight. If you are going to get into a gunfight you better win. You have to say, 'What's the maximum [firepower] I think can come against me and can I outgun them?' These guys have RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and machine guns."
In the end they crossed the danger zone without incident and continued east across the Indian Ocean to the Maldives, Thailand, the Andaman Islands, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu before finishing in Brisbane, Australia, in July 2008. Tenaz was shipped back to the Med, where she resides in Palma.
"We've done some wonderful cruises post-the-trip - for the family to go back to the boat is to reconnect," Ryan says. He emphasises how important the experience has been for them all. "It's the best thing you can do for your kids' education, and you will have a relationship with your kids that will withstand all sorts of other stuff. For our family that's the unifying story: spending that time together." Coming from a man who's done it, you can hardly get a better recommendation.
Photographs by Ian Roman