The owners and captain of Heesen superyacht Odyssea describe their experience of isolating for seven weeks on an uninhabited atoll in French Polynesia.
When Mike and Terri Noell purchased the 46.7-metre Heesen Odyssea, they always had their sights set on attending the America’s Cup. “Being a competitive sailor as a kid and then going into the Navy, we really wanted the opportunity to go to the America’s Cup when it was on foreign soil. We wanted to carry the American flag and show support,” explains Mike, a former US Navy SEAL. With this in mind a plan was hatched: leaving Fort Lauderdale in late 2019 Odyssea was bound for French Polynesia, before heading onto Fiji and then New Zealand for the America’s Cup. Afterwards, the loose itinerary would see her continue onto Australia before cruising the Philippines and Indonesia.
Setting the plan in motion, Odyssea was shipped from Fort Lauderdale to Tahiti by barge in December 2019 and arrived in the New Year. “She’s 100 per cent capable of world travel, but we like to ship the boat from time to time,” explains rotational captain Christopher Seago. “You are not putting 4,000 nautical miles worth of wear and tear on the boat and it’s a brilliant time for the crew to take leave.” The owners flew in to meet her in early January and spent time in French Polynesia’s volcanic Society Islands and the flatter, sandier atolls of the Tuamotus.
“For a couple of months, we got to bounce around and see all the atolls that we wanted to explore,” says Mike. “We just loved the people there; they were very warm and gracious and always happy. At some anchorages in the afternoons the whole place would come alive with outrigger canoes. We used to love watching them race – they are fast and the guys are ripped.”
Covid-19 seemed like a distant concern as they were hidden away in this remote paradise. But while the couple’s children (who study at the University of Miami) were on board for spring break, the situation began to escalate. “In mid-March it started to get real,” recalls Terri. “The kids started to get notes from their college saying that spring break was extended. We didn’t know whether it was safer for them to stay isolated with us or go back.” In the end their children flew back to Miami, but Mike and Terri opted to stay on board. “We weren’t planning on coming home until the first week of May anyway, so we thought we may as well stay with the boat. We knew things were going to get weird, but we didn’t know for how long,” says Terri. “Then we got notice that Tahiti International Airport was going to shut down.”
Captain Seago was on leave in Florida and faced a race against time to get back to the yacht before the border closed. “For about four days I was constantly booking flights and they would just immediately get cancelled,” he says. “Eventually I got a flight and I got in 12 hours before they shut French Polynesia down. I got onto the boat, and I said to the boss ‘Let’s leave the dock or we are going to get stuck here,’ and we left pretty much immediately.” By this stage the yacht had been told that they either had to stay in port or go to an uninhabited atoll to quarantine. After doing a rapid provision and refuel they decided to head for Tahanea, 260 nautical miles east of the island of Tahiti. “The day we got there the French Navy flew over and called us on the radio to ask our intentions. They reinforced that if we left, we either had to go immediately back to the dock or leave French Polynesia altogether,” Terri recalls. Captain Seago thought the 15-kilometre by 48-kilometre atoll was the “perfect spot” to fulfil the government requirements. “We were completely isolated in a beautiful spot on a completely self-sustaining yacht. We had this playground, which we got to know every square inch of,” he adds.
Being stuck in a remote destination was intense for both owners and crew. “The owners are fantastic, and we are used to them spending a lot of time on board, but we did have to adapt,” says Seago. “You can’t continue with that formal high-end charter-style service because that just isn’t sustainable in that kind of situation.” The owners also tried to make the situation fun for the crew with themed days, such as Palm Sunday, a daily trivia question and on-shore missions to secure coconuts (despite the lack of a machete) and catch land crabs. “We felt like we had a boat full of kids taking care of us, so we wanted to make their experience great as well,” says Mike.
The crew also spent a lot of time spearfishing with Mike, learning to share the water with the plentiful resident shark population. “We had to adapt, we would shoot two or three fish and then you had to move because the sharks would get more aggressive,” explains Captain Seago. “We would normally always have three guys in the water, one shooting the fish and the others keeping an eye on the sharks. We weren’t perfect though and we still lost plenty of fish to them.” Mike found the experience exhilarating. “It was actually a really good confidence builder because they were clearly not interested in us, they just wanted our dinner,” he says.
There were no injuries from the sharks, but spearfishing did lead to the only medical emergency during their quarantine period when five people contracted ciguatera from eating a red snapper that was speared on the reef. The food poisoning, which is caused by fish contaminated with the ciguatera toxin, causes nausea, vomiting and neurological symptoms such as feeling hot things cold and cold things hot. “Once we got that we realised this is not something you ever want to wish on your worst enemy,” recalls Mike. “It was an experience that’s for sure and not one we want to repeat.”
As the weeks slipped by the monotony of the situation did start to take its toll. “It started out great and amazing and then it gets a little bit like Groundhog Day,” says Terri. Luckily, a fellow superyacht (whose owners had chosen to isolate in the same atoll) ended up being their ticket out of French Polynesia. “There was only one other boat in the atoll, and it turns out they live a couple blocks away from us in Miami. They had their plane come in and they offered us a ride, so we jumped on the opportunity,” says Terri.
With all the other countries in the region in a similar state of lockdown, the owners reached the difficult decision to abandon their plans of heading to New Zealand. “Nothing was going to open anytime soon, and the logical choice was we come back,” says Captain Seago. “Plus, and the trade winds were just starting to set in, so we either had to go or risk missing our window.” With no vessel transporter ships running, the decision was taken that the yacht would make her own way to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.
Odyssea first went back to the main island of Tahiti before embarking on the 3,500-nautical-mile trip. “I had to fight pretty hard for them to allow us to stop and get fuel in the Marquesas; we had to get special permission from the government,” says Seago. “No one went ashore, we didn’t even sign the paperwork – they just kind-of threw us the hose and we filled up and went.” The trip took 15 days in total and the weather was unforgiving. “We had our moments,” says Seago. “We had five or six days that were not fantastic,” says Seago. “It was so rough the girls couldn’t sleep in their cabins, they were having to sleep in the saloon.”
The owners were able to rejoin the yacht in July. They had visited Cabo San Lucas in the past but never by boat and they were keen to experience cruising the area. “We dived, fished and kiteboarded our way through the Sea of Cortez,” says Mike. The couple enjoyed the marine life that the area is famous for, swimming with sea lions, jumping rays, dolphins and turtles. Mike also got to try his hand at sailfishing. “We used our 37ft [11-metre] Invincible cat tender and I got to catch striped marlin,” he says. “You have to go out on the ocean side where it’s rougher, but I loved it.”
Odyssea also had some surprising daily visitors. “The yacht used to get covered in bees every day,” says Mike. “They live in the cacti, and I think they were drawn to the freshwater that we use to wash down the yacht. You could not see the tender because there were so many bees on it, literally thousands of them. We would have to tiptoe onto it, start the engines and run it as fast as we could to get rid of them all and then come back to the big boat to pick people up.”
Mike and Terri had hoped to go on to Costa Rica, but with its borders closed they sent the yacht back through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale and went on to spend time in the Caribbean and Bahamas. Despite it being a different adventure than was planned the couple was delighted with how Odyssea performed. “Before this trip we hadn’t appreciated what a good decision we made buying this boat,” says Mike. “It was originally built by Mr Heesen for himself, and he really did get everything right.” Odyssea’s captain is equally enamoured with her explorer capabilities. “It’s too easy,” he jokes. “The boat is built for remote cruising, the only thing she wouldn’t do is make the food.”
With the yacht’s credentials now confirmed, Mike and Terri already have their sights set on the next adventure. “We have still got it in our heads that we want to experience the Great Barrier Reef,” says Mike. With New Zealand retaining the America’s Cup it could also prove to be a case of second time lucky. “I have got this huge 30ft American flag, it’s the biggest thing I have ever seen,” says Mike. “We wanted to be those patriotic Americans on the start line with the flag from the mast all the way down to the swim deck. Maybe we’ll have to break that flag back out in three years’ time.”
Odyssea is available for charter with Ocean Independence from $200,000 per week.
This feature is taken from the September 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now