Voyaging couple helps cruisers gain the knowledge and confidence to expand their horizons
John Harries calls the adventuring that he and Phyllis Nickel do "home waters cruising" - or more accurately "home waters voyaging" - because home waters suggests a depth of local knowledge. And voyaging implies a purposefulness.
The couple prefers to be known as voyagers instead of cruisers because cruising conveys a kind of aimless wandering. Like the great ocean explorers who inspire them, Harries and Nickel say they always voyage with a purpose.
After 15 years of sailing together, it isn't the journey that delights them so much as the destinations - their rugged beauty, the rugged people, the rugged life in the northern latitudes. Exploring those destinations gives them purpose, as does keeping up their website, www.morganscloud.com, a cornucopia of cruising information for aspiring and already launched voyagers.
The pair's home waters are a beautiful, sometimes remote, often harsh and frozen region stretching from Maine's Penobscot Bay to Nova Scotia, Labrador and Newfoundland; across the North Atlantic to Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland and Norway; and north to Svalbard, a frozen archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
"Our home waters are just a bit larger than most," says Harries, 60. They also are quite a bit farther north.
The Bermuda native, now a Canadian resident, has cruised Greenland four times during the last 15 years - Nickel twice - on Morgan's Cloud, their custom 56-foot McCurdy & Rhodes aluminum cutter named for the daytime cloud that forms over Bermuda when a moist southwesterly blows.
The couple received the Cruising Club of America's prestigious Far Horizons award in 2008 for their "extensive cruising and voyaging" - the Greenland explorations; two Newfoundland circumnavigations; their cruises to Labrador, Iceland and Norway; and two trans-Atlantic passages via Iceland.
In the summers of 2000 and 2003, the couple hopscotched up the southeast coast of Greenland, which includes 350 miles of mostly uncharted coastline broken by soaring rock-strewn mountains, deep fjords and vast white glaciers.
Nickel, 50, who grew up in Canada's prairie midlands and took up sailing after meeting Harries, says they are history buffs steeped in the perilous expeditions of the great Arctic explorers - what Nickel refers to as "death and destruction on the ice." She tells of anchoring in a fjord in southeast Greenland where the Danish naval officer Wilhelm Graah wintered in 1829-30 while searching for the remains of Icelandic farming colonies lost since the mid-1400s. He and his Inuit guides explored the coast in kayaks, at one point spending nine terrifying days tucked behind a rocky point in a storm as seas broke over the rocks onto their skin boats.
"If you [seek out] these historical things, it enriches your experience of a place," she says. "You feel like you are reliving history. You make that connection."
The couple makes connections wherever they go through their historical research, Harries' photography - he captures places in stunning images - the lasting friendships they make and their insights into the places they visit.
A showcase and forum
Their website, "Attainable Adventure Cruising, The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site," is a showcase of their experiences, their observations and their photography. More than that it is a forum for sharing helpful information with others who may aspire to go voyaging but don't feel competent to do it. Harries says one of the site's purposes is to help these wannabe cruisers realize their dream. Thus its name: "Attainable Adventure Cruising."
Harries says an adventure doesn't have to be harrowing. "Adventure" - or perhaps better said, misadventure - "is just bad planning," Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer, once said. Harries agrees. He says the website's chief goal is to take the misadventure out of adventure - to the extent it's possible - so the cruiser can have a "good time," which is, after all, the aim of recreational voyaging. He and Nickel firmly believe that the key to having a good time offshore is to be properly prepared. Poor or simply uninformed preparation is a "recipe for tears," Harries says.
The website, redesigned and reorganized last year, conveys information through blogs written by Harries, who has more than 100,000 cruising miles; Nickel, with 40,000 to 50,000 miles; and Colin Speedie, a onetime English marine wildlife researcher who cruises now on his Ovni 435 with partner Louise Johnson and brings a European perspective. But it also generates far-ranging discussions through a question-and-answer format. Readers send in questions, the bloggers answer those questions and other cruisers - many of them accomplished voyagers in their own right - offer their perspectives.
"Most of our how-to posts are getting 10 to 30 comments," Harries says. "These comments provide a lot of information about how to do things. It's not just John and Phyllis' way." Harries encourages a variety of informed viewpoints.
The website now has more than 400 pages of information and photos, and 300 to 500 discrete visitors a day. Not bad for a website that began nine years ago as a humble home page for a couple of cruisers looking for a way to challenge themselves intellectually and add another dimension to their sailing experience.
The couple, who live aboard Morgan's Cloud year-round, spend 20 to 30 hours a week - even while under way - managing the website and updating "The Norwegian Cruising Guide," which they edit and publish (www.norwegian cruisingguide.com). The pair also do some paid consulting, helping cruisers choose and outfit their boats and map out the training and experience they need to voyage.
"It's a labor of love," Harries says. Though not very profitable, the work is satisfying and it meshes with their cruising, which is its own reward. "A lot of [the joy of cruising] is satisfying your appetite for going somewhere fairly remote and difficult to get to completely on your own," Harries says. "You buy the boat, fit it out, prepare yourself, then sail off, and one day you see the mountains of Greenland. ... You rely on yourself." And, Harries advises, the pair's website.
Harries says many of the questions submitted to the site are gear-related, revealing what he believes is an overemphasis on gear and technology among today's cruisers. "We're really concerned about the shift in emphasis from traditional seamanship to technology and gear," he says. Navigation software is great, he says, but every offshore sailor ought to carry charts and know how to use them.
"Certainly gear is important, but it's also important to sail offshore with other people before you sail offshore by yourself," he says.
When you're voyaging offshore, nothing substitutes for on-the-water experience. Harries says he logged 15,000 miles offshore and made 10 voyages to and from Bermuda as a crewman on other people's boats before he skippered his own. He recommends doing some serious racing - as he did when he lived in Bermuda - to sharpen boat-handling and decision-making skills.
Buying the right boat
The right training, the right experience and the right boat are just as important as the right gear on an ocean voyage, he stresses. Harries says you need a boat designed by a naval architect who understands voyaging, not one "designed by a marketing department."
He says beamy boats with fine bows that are designed to maximize interior space don't handle well at sea. For northern latitudes, he likes the strength of an aluminum hull. For offshore cruising, he has been impressed with the French-built Ovni centerboarders and Boreals, his custom McCurdy & Rhodes, and Chuck Paine's voyagers (aluminum and fiberglass), among others. "I encourage people to buy a sensible boat and not just fall in love with the interior," he says.
He says it's also important to sea-trial your boat often - take it on short cruises - before setting off on an ocean voyage because inevitably the "boat is going to let you down in 50 different ways because you didn't know how to prepare it right."
Each short cruise will reveal some deficiencies in the boat or in your preparation, and this will require some changes in boat and your own skill set. "That jump to going to sea is a big jump," Harries says. "A lot of people find that out the hard way. There is nothing intrinsically hard about it. You just have to know how to do it. That's where we can help out."
He favors slow-revving, high-torque diesel engines over high-revving, lighter-built ones for their economy and durability. He's not keen on "hugely complicated electronics systems" because they are prone to fail. He prefers to focus on basics, such as having a reefing system that works well. He insists on paper charts and GPS as backup in case the chart plotter fails.
Harries is skeptical of the quality of a lot of marine gear. "Close to half of everything installed [on their boat] has not worked per the specifications out of the box," he says. "It had to be modified to work. Either it doesn't work as specified due to a design issue, or it doesn't work due to a quality-control issue." In a few cases, he concedes, the fault was his because he didn't install it correctly.
Two menu choices on the website are "Stuff That Works" and "Gear Failures and Fixes," which share the couple's hard-earned experiences with gear. Harries says he gives manufacturers a chance to respond when he writes up failures. Some work with him to solve a problem; others ignore him. He writes up their responses.
He says the high incidence of gear failure is one reason he advises cruisers to thoroughly trial the boat and test all of its gear before going offshore. His mantra: "Keep the water out, keep the crew on the boat, keep the keel side down, keep the mast up, keep the rudder on. The rest is small stuff."
Overcoming their fears
Harries says neither he nor Nickel is larger than life. Aspiring cruisers tell him that cruising Greenland is a "huge adventure" they could never do. "We've done it," Harries answers. "We have anxiety issues. We have fears. I'm not a hard man. Phyllis isn't a hard woman. You take it step by step. It was attainable for us," although he cautions that cruising Greenland and other extreme latitudes is a cruiser's doctoral thesis, not a project for high school or bachelor's-level training.
Harries grew up sailing in Bermuda and was what he calls a "serial entrepreneur" who started successful computer and printing businesses, among others. He raced often - inshore and offshore, on big boats and small. Nickel, an occupational therapist, acquired a taste for the sea while living in Newfoundland for eight years. However, she had not sailed until she visited Bermuda and met Harries, who was having trouble finding someone to help him sail Morgan's Cloud from Bermuda to Maine - a five-day voyage.
Given the opportunity to go, she thought she would always regret not giving it a try, so she joined him. "I was an extra pair of eyes," she says. "I fell in love with it." She also fell in love with him. "I love living on a boat. I can't imagine living ashore full time at this point."
The couple maintains a "base camp" - a cabin on the water - in Nova Scotia where they retreat in the fall and spring, or occasionally in the winter when the boat is hauled. Usually, though, they stay on the boat on a mooring rather than sleep in the cabin. "That boat's really our house," Harries says. They have been broadening their voyaging, cruising to the Abacos in the winter of 2008 and down the U.S. East Coast to Charleston, S.C., this past fall on vacation.
The 2011 itinerary: Nova Scotia; Northeast Harbor and Camden, Maine; Block Island, R.I.; Sandy Hook, N.J.; Hampton, Va.; Cape Lookout and Beaufort, N.C.; and Charleston. They left in mid-October and didn't plan to make Charleston until about Thanksgiving. "That way we can stop and really explore," Nickel says.
But they won't be forsaking the northern latitudes. If the stars align, Morgan's Cloud could be working as a research vessel in Greenland this summer.
"It's one of those places that just keeps drawing us back," Nickel says.
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.