Taking perilous winds in her stride, 86 metre Aquijo has just completed a mesmerising circumnavigation. Captain Gerhard Veldsman tells Georgia Boscawen about their awe-inspiring encounters
“When a glacier cracks and an apartment-sized block of ice falls to the water, it sounds like a gunshot,” recalls captain Gerhard Veldsman of Aquijo. Few things in life could compare to a spectacle as thrilling as a lone 86 metre sailing yacht anchored at the face of a gargantuan glacier in the Chilean fjords. However, for Veldsman, his crew and the owners of Aquijo, this is just one of a long list of awe-inspiring encounters they had during their circumnavigation of the globe. Setting off in the Med, they headed to Cape Verde, then down to Patagonia and across to Oceania in a voyage that spanned more than three years.
At 86 metres, Aquijo is the largest ketch in the world – a thoroughbred, and the fruit of not one, but two Dutch powerhouses: Vitters and later Oceanco, which joined forces to complete this unique sailing yacht.
In 2010, Bill Tripp of Tripp Design Naval Architecture penned the lines for a yacht capable of both global cruising and racing. This proposition drew the two shipyards together. Vitters brought high-performance sailing yacht pedigree, and Oceanco brought its prowess in the 80-metre superyacht sphere.
Aquijo’s design is influenced by the need for flexibility. The sailplan is subdivided with each sail producing similar forces, while keeping the number of sails and system parts to a minimum. The result is hasty sail setting, easy tacking and a vessel that is unequivocally fast.
“She responds very quickly,” says Veldsman. “For such a big boat she sails incredibly well. You can turn the rigs like you would on a raceboat – I think a lot of people find it surprising how fast she sails for such a big boat.”
This design also means she is more than capable of handling conditions when things get rough, which, as Veldsman points out, they certainly did on several occasions. The first leg of the tour – cruising to Cape Verde and over to Punta del Este, Uruguay, before heading to Patagonia – was already remarkable, but it was when the yacht reached Ushuaia, in Argentina, that the owners came on board for an extremely windy bucket list moment.
“We picked up the owners for a four-week trip that would see us round Cape Horn,” recalls Veldsman as he brings up charts of this once-in-a-lifetime expedition. “Of course, it was windy, and we anchored in a spot called the False Horn – a protected area often mistaken for Cape Horn – and I remember saying to myself, ‘If the wind is blowing more than 45 knots in the morning, I’m going to call it.’”
Veldsman awoke to find the wind blowing far over 50 knots in the protected anchorage – a moment that could have seen a sheepish retreat to base. “We poked our heads out from False Horn, and we had wind speeds of 60 knots.” Determined, Veldsman proceeded anyway, and sailed Aquijo around the perilous cape in violent conditions.
“Travelling upwind on the starboard side, that was the worst part, and we had ski goggles on, rain and sleet coming at us, and the whole family outside – it was amazing,” he adds.
From here, Aquijo sailed to Patagonia, cruising through a place informally referred to as Glacier Alley and up to Puerto Montt in Chile – a leg that reinforced the need for meticulous planning in blissful isolation. “That southern part is very remote and it’s quite a distance. There’s nowhere to buy food, no civilization at all – it was incredible,” says Veldsman. “The boat was built for this purpose. So, it’s quite well set up to be able to cope with cold weather, and we carry enough food, fuel and water to deal with just about anything.”
In this part of the world, the weather can change in an instant, from no wind to 60-knot winds at a moment’s notice. Veldsman explains that the ice here also flows down at speed in the middle of the night and you can wake up to find the yacht entrenched in it.
For Veldsman, Patagonia was the highlight of the whole tour. Aquijo even took a couple of charters while in the region, before relocating to South America and cruising around Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and over to the Galápagos with a stop at the secluded Cocos Island.
Aquijo then sailed back down to the Southern Pacific and French Polynesia, but this wasn’t a case of passing through. During the tour, Aquijo hosted local guides, scientists, expert divers and often worked with EYOS to source the very best people for each adventure. “It was all very action-packed – there was an excursion every day, with a guide, too,” explains Veldsman. “It’s important to get the right guides when you go to these places as you’re only going to do it once. It was incredible.”
Unfortunately, one of the activities in the tropics almost had sinister consequences. “We had fantastic diving along the way and across to Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu,” says Veldsman. “Although our boss got an infection over there that almost killed him. It’s quite common in the Tropics as small cuts and bruises can get infected very quickly.”
Veldsman recalls Papua New Guinea as another defining moment on the trip, on a par with Patagonia. Aquijo headed there after a short maintenance period in New Zealand. “Papua New Guinea is very remote, but the nature and the tribes are beautiful. We had a local guide with us who took us deep into the jungle and we even saw the Baining Fire Dance,” he recalls. This is a traditional night-time ceremony, celebrating many of the tribe’s life-changing events, such as initiating young men into adulthood. Tribesmen partake in passionate dance-based rituals.
“We will go back there and see the tribes of the Pacific river,” vows Veldsman. “These tribes won’t exist 20 years from now. You can see the crocodile men, who scar themselves to look like crocodiles, with bones through their noses, living in the jungle. It’s incredible – I look back and just think, wow!”
While the yacht was in Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland Province, another medical incident struck when one of the stewardesses fell victim to decompression sickness. “I needed to get her to the closest decompression chamber and our options were Port Moresby [Papua New Guinea’s capital], which is one of the world’s most dangerous cities, or Australia [almost 900 nautical miles away].” The stewardess ended up flying to Australia, where she made a full recovery.
Diving was an integral part of the tour and those on board were able to swim with whales and sharks, as well as taking in incredible coral reefs. “A lot of what happens in the Southern Pacific is in and under the water,” says Veldsman. “We used a well-known local diver, Rodolphe Holler from Tahiti Private Expeditions. When you’re in the water, the whales breach so close to you that you can touch them.”
As we talk, Aquijo is in Palma, almost 9,000 nautical miles from the whales that make their annual migration through the balmy waters of French Polynesia. However, plans are already afoot for her to embark on another global migration through the Northwest Passage, back to the Pacific and over to Japan. With adventure-seeking owners and Veldsman at the helm, there is no doubt that the largest ketch in the world will handle whatever is thrown at her.
First published in the September 2022 Life Under Sail supplement. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now