Having come to superyachts later in life, healthcare entrepreneur Peter Watson is making up for lost time. He tells Sophia Wilson about his journey to take the helm on board his beloved 26 metre adventurer Grey Wolf...
“It might surprise you, but my favourite thing to do on board is the early morning watch from four to eight,” says medical entrepreneur and owner-operator Peter Watson. “I just sit, think and watch the dawn come up. Some of my best business thoughts come to me when I am out on the boat in the middle of nowhere.”
Having spent the past hour chatting to Watson on board his 26 metre motor yacht Grey Wolf there is little he could say that would surprise me at this point. From tracking polar bears in the High Arctic to sailing his previous 20 metre yacht from New Zealand to Guernsey, Watson’s tales could compete with the saltiest of sea dogs. And what makes his adventures even more impressive is that a majority of them have taken place during a period of his life when most people are thinking about slowing down.
Despite sailing as a child, Watson only returned to the water when he moved to the Channel Island of Guernsey 27 years ago. “You can’t really be in Guernsey without owning a boat,” he says. “So, I got myself a small Botnia Targa. I very quickly decided that it wasn’t big enough, so I bought a bigger one. I then figured I should probably start knowing what I was doing a bit more formally, so I started my Day Skipper and Yachtmaster qualifications.”
It was a daring trip to Greenland, however, on board a friend’s 10-metre Rodman, that opened his eyes to the wider opportunities of adventure cruising. “We set off in this fibreglass boat up to the east coast of Greenland, which was somewhat crazy,” he admits. The trip took six weeks and, despite a minor run-in with the Greenland police and getting stuck in an ice flow for nearly 24 hours, Watson wasn’t deterred. “It was the first time I had ever been to a place where it was illegal to leave town without a rifle [because of the polar bears],” he jokes. “We went off and saw the bears and were basically living with the Inuit community. It was fascinating and I think that’s what excited my interest in colder regions.”
Alongside his nautical exploits, Watson’s career has followed an equally intriguing journey. He started off in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary as a Merchant Navy radio officer before returning to run the family’s hardware retail business near Bristol. He then sold the company, which prompted the move to Guernsey with his wife, Judith, who was an optician. This in turn led to a chance conversation with Specsavers. “They wanted somebody who had business and property skills, and I think they thought I could learn tricks from my wife, so I ended up as business development director,” he explains. From there, Watson went on to become the managing director of Vision Express, before deciding to forge his own path.
“I thought about what my core skills were, and I decided it was working with medical professionals in a money changing environment, so I started Vets4Pets,” says Watson. The business created a network of joint-venture partner veterinary practices focusing on the treatment of small, domestic animals. “We grew that to a couple of hundred outlets and then Pets at Home came along and wanted to buy it before it went public,” he explains.
With the business sold, Watson had more time to contemplate what he wanted to do. “I thought, I want to go around the world, but I’d like to do it on boats. I decided I had better get myself even more equipped with qualifications,” he explains in his matter-of-fact style. “So, I went back to college at the age of 59 to get my MCA Yachtmaster, my MCA Master 200 ticket, and at the same time I got my MCA Chief Mate 3,000 tonne ticket. Then I flew to New Zealand to pick up my next boat, a 19.5m Dashew Offshore, and brought the yacht back.”
This was the first Grey Wolf and was built by Circa Marine to a Dashew Offshore design. Watson assembled a crew of two friends – one of whom was a retired naval architect, the other a former merchant navy engineer – and two apprentices to sail the yacht back via the Panama Canal to Guernsey. “I was very fortunate that I managed to assemble a fairly good team,” he says. “It was my first real experience with a boat that was designed to do a bluewater ocean crossing. We had some great adventures along the way.”
That wasn’t the end of the first Grey Wolf’s adventures, and as well as spending time with family in the Mediterranean, Watson also took her on trips to Norway, the Baltic and Svalbard. “During that period, I had obviously been building up time in ice conditions, so I thought I had better go off and become a qualified ice pilot,” Watson explains. This led him to Kittilä in Finland, which is one of the few places in the world that has a suitable simulator. “In the mornings we did theory, and in the afternoons, we would go on the simulator. I remember one of the simulations was driving a boat out through iceberg-scattered Aberdeen, which was quite amusing.”
With this new qualification under his belt Watson set his sights on Antarctica. Thankfully, the second Grey Wolf, a Dashew Offshore FPB 78, was already being built in New Zealand and was perfect for such a trip. The three hulls in the range were built simultaneously with Steve Dashew (founder of Dashew Offshore) owning hull No 1 and another Dashew 64 owner purchasing hull No 3. “Steve and ourselves came up with the design, with Steve working on the hull and us working on the inside and how we wanted it to look,” explains Watson. “It was about having an economical long-range boat that was designed to go to places other boats couldn’t.”
Once completed, Watson immediately set out to test out Grey Wolf’s explorer capabilities, which include a range of 7,100 nautical miles when cruising at 10 knots. “We did most of the Pacific Islands, then we took the boat up to Tahiti, down to Chile and then had the opportunity to go to Antarctica twice,” he says. Once there Antarctica more than lived up to Watson’s expectations.
“Antarctica just was stunning,” he says. “One moment I won’t forget was being out in a dinghy when suddenly this huge pod of whales came right up to us. They were so close you could have patted them if you wanted to. They stayed for about 15 minutes; it was just awesome.”
His time in Antarctica was further enhanced by the charter guests he was able to welcome on board. “We were down there with two other superyachts who had taken down a group of scientists along with the people who were paying for the trip and we hosted them,” he explains. “All they really wanted at the end of the day was some nice hot food and a beer or a glass of wine and they were absolutely fascinating to talk to. I learned so much about Antarctica from them,” he recalls.
With its three guest cabins, the new Grey Wolf also made it easier for friends and family to spend time on board. Judith, “the true boss”, joined for parts of the trip, including Antarctica. “She loves seeing the wildlife, but she tends to fly in, tour for a few days and then leave me to it,” he says. “However, I suspect because of Covid-19 she might get into travelling more with us to some of these remote locations, because that would be the sensible way of going.”
On the second time around Watson opted to let his captain return the yacht to Guernsey, leaving her in the Falkland Islands. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic his adventure aspirations were temporarily curtailed, but Grey Wolf’s rugged appearance ensures that she still gets plenty of attention in her home port. “I rather like her raw aluminium look because you don’t constantly have to polish it. You also tend to get mistaken for a government boat, which makes it easier in terms of worrying about piracy,” Watson explains. “We have joked in the past about making a plywood gun for the front and then covering it, so we look armed as well.” However, Watson warns not to judge a book by its cover. “She may look a bit like a warship from the outside but that is just a skin. Inside she is really well appointed and fitted out, people are taken aback when they come inside by the level of workmanship.”
Watson has hopes to take Grey Wolf to Sweden, Norway and Svalbard to spend more time spotting polar bears. “There is just no other experience like it,” he says. “They look at you on the boat about 15 metres away, and you can almost see them rubbing their tummies and thinking ‘Yum, yum, if I could get across there that would be a nice meal.’ I’m glad I am on a boat that; if they could make it across, which is unlikely, you could lock the doors and they wouldn’t be able to get in.” The yacht will also be available for charter as Watson enjoys introducing others to these icy climes. “I tend to rely on the captain to do more on the charter side,” Watson explains. “I do often go as the first mate though. I try and keep it a secret that I’m actually the owner, but they tend to inevitably discover it in the end.”
Watson’s other “hobby”, which he is hoping to return to shortly, is doing stints of relief work on larger superyachts. “When I qualified with my 3,000 ticket I was desperate to go off on trips so I brought a few superyachts across the Atlantic as a relief watch officer,” he explains. “It’s nice – because of my age, nobody sees me as a threat to their career. I’m normally older than the captain, so they tend to spend time talking to me about their problems. I love helping the youngsters out.”
Watson will soon have another youngster to help with as his first grandchild is due imminently, but he has also started a new business venture, creating one-stop clinics for musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries. “It’s about being able to have a doctor, physio and any imaging – X-ray, ultrasound and MRI – you might need all on one site,” he explains. “So, we can take someone with an injury and either get them set up with rehab or to the point where they need to go hospital for an operation.” With Covid-19 causing so much stress to the NHS this is something Watson believes is going to become increasingly valuable. “Unfortunately, the NHS is going take a number of years to recover from Covid. MSK has always been the poor relation because it doesn’t kill people, so therefore it is not treated as a priority.”
With so much going on I can’t help but wonder whether Watson fancies just being served a cold beverage by a smiling crewmember like most superyacht owners? “Well I do have a captain and sometimes I like being away with my friends and saying ‘I’m not playing today unless you really have a problem,’” he admits. “But, for me, I can’t enjoy a piece of technical engineering without understanding how it works. Plus, I love taking people to places they couldn’t go to and sharing wonderful things with them.”
Grey Wolf is available for charter with West Nautical from €58,000 per week.