Three owners joined their superyachts to cross the Atlantic and found more than they expected in the vastness of the ocean, they tell Caroline White.
Crossing oceans is a necessity if you want to get your yacht to the good stuff on either side. But, of course, the owner doesn’t need to be on board – that’s what paid crew (or even a yacht transport ship) are for. The conventional view is that two weeks and 3,000 nautical miles of rolling Atlantic – with bad weather or a technical failure the only likely source of excitement – make the Atlantic milk run a chore, a bore, even a little frightening: a venture you’d probably want to get a pay cheque out of.
But three owners defied this received wisdom to see other possibilities in joining their sailing yachts across the pond, from Europe to the Caribbean. Ilia Rigas and her daughter Nepheli, owners of 50-metre Almyra II, started from Syracuse in Sicily, while Nina Vibe-Petersen, owner of 54-metre Parsifal III and 52-metre Q, started from Gibraltar on the latter. Both yachts left in November last year to arrive in St Barths.
“Our goal was to do a circumnavigation,” says Rigas. “This is the reason we bought a Perini. We thought okay, let’s do the crossing, let’s go to the Caribbean.” She was inspired, in part, by the poem Ithaka, by the great Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, about how the value of a great journey lies in the journey itself, rather than the destination.
For Vibe-Petersen, a physical ailment brought with it the impetus to seize the day. “I was planning to do it with my family, but nobody ever had the time. And then last year I broke my shoulder, and I felt so helpless. I was like, I have to do it now. And then some of my friends said they would love to go with me – they’re not used to sailing at all, so that was exciting.”
In terms of prep, Vibe-Petersen stocked up on craft materials, while Rigas made sure they had a wealth of movies queued up – both on the reasonable assumption that they’d have long, empty days to fill. Nepheli, meanwhile, didn’t think too much about it at all. “I have a few friends that have done it and some of them didn’t have the best experience,” she says. “So I shied away from really thinking about it or discussing it until I was on the boat. I was trying to focus on the moment and not overthink anything.”
Initially, at least, this trepidation was well-founded, as Ilia recalls. “The weather turned bad when we reached Gibraltar and some crew left us out of fear, leaving me in charge of the ship’s kitchen,” she says. “I had reservations about cooking for the crew and loved ones, but I managed to brave the situation, wading through the unfamiliar kitchen and huge waves with nothing but grit and determination. Even with all the uncertainties, I found some much-needed time to relax. I started practising yoga, walking on the treadmill, and looking at the sea’s vastness while listening to the white noise of the ocean.”
Vibe-Petersen and her friends also tried yoga on deck but, “we were just rolling around”, so they put on loud music and danced: “that was really fun”. The endless sea and sky, far from requiring distractions, proved hypnotic, even addictive.
“There’s no light pollution and the stars almost hang,” she says. “You think you can actually take them with your hands. It’s just so beautiful and so peaceful to be there – I think we got less sleep because we wanted to be up and see the sunrise, and then we also wanted to see the sundown.”
In the end, the crossing experience confounded apprehensions for the owners of both yachts. Rigas, who heads the sustainability department of a FTSE 250 energy company, usually has scant time alone with her thoughts. “Normally, I cannot concentrate because my life is so hectic but here, without anything else, I could focus; I could read a book, play backgammon, things that I cannot normally do in my daily routine. And that’s what I loved.” In effect, the difference in situation changed the way her mind worked, “Automatically though, without really making any effort. Because you’re there and you cannot escape.” She kept a journal for the first time in her life, and it helped her reflect on: “my needs, what gives me passion, and what brings me down in life”.
Nepheli planned to catch up on work during the long hours at sea. But instead, she ended up on night watches with her father. “It was very quiet,” she recalls. “You could hear nothing but the sea and the waves. You’re in the middle of the Atlantic so there’s not much to see at night, other than the stars. Sometimes the sea was shining from the plankton. It was the two of us – no one else around. There were times we were talking the whole time. There were other times that we were completely silent. It was amazing.”
In the middle of the Atlantic, owners and guests also spend considerably more time in close proximity to the crew than they would normally. “All of us had a lot of fun with the crew and they were very engaged – they wanted to give us a beautiful first [crossing],” says Vibe-Petersen. “When we were halfway they dressed up and we were [as is traditional] baptised in rotten food and eggs; we also had to swim when we were halfway with all the crew, and had a lot of nice talks on the watches. I think everybody enjoyed that very much and yes, we became very good friends.”
On board Almyra II the owners strived for a relatively egalitarian lifestyle. “We were trying to prevent a disconnect between us and the crew,” says Nepheli. “All of us did six-hour shifts to support the crew – on a boat going 24 hours a day, everyone needs to help. At the halfway point we had a big party on board, with a lunch all together. It was very important for us to have the sense that we’re in this together.”
What about when they finally arrived in the Caribbean – were they itching to jump onto a powder sand beach? “Normally when I come to St Barths I’m very excited,” says Vibe-Petersen. “But this time we were almost crying; we didn’t want to get off the boat again.” Similarly, Nepheli recalls waiting gloomily for customs to clear them into one of the world’s most beautiful anchorages. It is perhaps Ilia, however, for whom the crossing was the most profound experience. “I think when you know that it’s going to finish soon, this makes it more magical,” she says. “I learned to appreciate nature more than before, watching sunsets, the shapes of the clouds.”
The experience was so affecting, in fact, that she did it again. “On my first crossing it took a while for me to realise that I had started with the weight of my city burdens on my shoulders. I had let the problems of my city life, my business life and the crew life follow me onto the ship, inadvertently impacting my experience,” she says. “I knew I wanted to cross again, but this time I wanted to do it all on my own. I left behind any responsibility, family or friends and embarked on my journey with the minimum-possible professional crew. By the second crossing, I felt content exploring and soaking in the different Caribbean cultures, ending the journey with the St Barths regatta. Having such an amazing racing experience made it all so much more memorable. I returned home alone, feeling energised and reinvigorated to take on whatever came my way.”
Throughout this second, pared-back crossing she was freer to do as she wished – she loved being out in the open, setting the sails, letting different music dictate her mood. “The repetition of my daily routine made me feel like I belonged, and I found myself laughing every morning. I savoured every ounce of time away from the pressure and guilt of free time found in the hustle and bustle of city life,” she says.
Aside from the thrill of adventure – exploring vast stretches of open water – this environment offers vistas and sunsets unlike any you can experience elsewhere. On a practical level, Rigas points out, a crossing tests a superyacht’s endurance, stability and navigation systems in the most extreme conditions. It also fosters team bonding and forges deep connections among those on board – no bad thing if you want to keep a well-loved crew for a long time.
She is evangelical about the experience, which afforded her self-reflection and personal growth. It could provide a valuable reset for busy owners before diving into a season in the Med or Caribbean. A superyacht offers plenty of experiences you can’t have anywhere else, and this, perhaps, is a lesser-known one. “I know people who have everything yet fail to connect with nature and themselves. It’s not about having; it’s about daring to take action and having a passion for life. Talking to interesting people and allowing their stories to inspire you to find new ways of living is what truly matters. Remember, where there is a will, there is a way – excuses will disappear.”
It seems that while there may be spectacular cruising grounds on either side of the Atlantic, there’s plenty of good stuff in the middle too.
First published in the September 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW