Around the world in a 24m boat: Part one – How Iain Macneil found MV Astra

In the first of a new six-part series, MBY reader Iain Macneil explains what drove him to plan a circumnavigation via five southern Capes in a sub-24m motoryacht…

Growing up on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, there are only two solid career options – sheep or ships!

With my father, grandfather and uncles having all gone to sea, it was fairly easy to see the direction I would head, even though we lived on a croft with about 200 sheep!

I was what might be described as a challenging school pupil, investing more time in my lucrative lobster fishing business and tending the family’s sheep than on my studies.

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Eventually my father pointed out that fishing could be a difficult business and that having my “ticket” as a merchant mariner would be a sensible backstop to my main ambition of owning the biggest fishing boat on the island.

For the next 13 years I rose through the ranks of the Merchant Navy, travelling around the world on a mixture of general cargo ships and tankers, with time spent with Blue Funnel, Bibby Line, Esso International and Maersk.

As a deck officer I quickly found that navigation was my primary area of interest and skill, and I won a national prize for the subject in the course of my studies at Glasgow Nautical College.

Aged 16 Iain joined the Merchant Navy

However, in the process of sitting my captain’s ticket, I realised that a lot of seafarers struggled with the MCA oral examination part of the process.

I developed a product that would help calm a young officer’s nerves and provide them with guidance on model answers.

The product took off and in 1998 my next challenge was to quit the ranks of the paid and set up a business: Seamanship International.

Iain’s affinity for the sea and business were apparent from an early age

In 2008, Seamanship merged with and then subsequently took over Witherby Publishing. Today, the company is run by myself and my wife Kat Heathcote, and is the world’s largest independent technical marine publisher, publishing maritime regulations and guidance.

Of course, for a seafarer and islander, sitting in an office is difficult. While the nature of the business meant that I still spent time at sea, accompanying deep-sea pilots on the bridge in connection with the passage planning guides that we publish, there was still something amiss.

With my 50th birthday looming on the horizon I began to think about my big next challenge…

Iain as a teenager on board the fishing boat he used to set up his own lucrative lobster business

In my thirties I had read accounts of single-handed ocean crossings and circumnavigations, and with my navigational background it definitely felt appealing to try and find something new or different that I could make my own.

However, I had never really spent time under sail and so a few years of family holidays were spent skippering yachts in the 36-40ft range, undertaking journeys totalling about 1,500nm in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sailing yachts, while fun, didn’t give me the predictability I was looking for and I found the restrictions caused by wind direction and speed frustrating.

Silver Dee, which Iain first spotted in MBY

In my world a passage plan was made, set and undertaken, and a reliable vessel meant a largely predictable voyage.

The ability to get to where I wanted when I wanted was my priority, so in 2015 I decided that an explorer-style motor yacht would suit me better.

Before committing ourselves to the project, we went in search of a “proof of concept” boat, although the concept we were trying to prove was somewhat different for me and my wife, as would become evident later!

Iain and Kat racked up 6,000nm in it preparing for his big circumnavigation

In early 2017 we attended an event called Trawlerfest in the USA, to see up close a wide range of different production GRP trawler yachts.

This trip confirmed to me that my smaller vessel upbringing had definitely left me with a keen eye for robustly built and capable sea boats.

We were both drawn to the 24m steel-hulled boats built by the Dutch shipyards. However, even for someone with my experience, that would be a big (and expensive) jump, so we began to look for a smaller boat in the 15-20 metre range, intending to use it to build our experience and refine our target specification.

Now that I had a focus, I opened my copy of MBY each month, starting at the rear to check the Boats For Sale listings.

I quickly decided that even though this was effectively a prototype purchase, I should use this buying experience as if it were a much larger purchase.

I appointed a buyer’s broker (Seaton Yachts of Newport) after a meeting with John Seaton at Trawlerfest.

John, Kat and I then visited the Netherlands to look at steel-built boats in the 15-20m range and quickly concluded they were around 8 times the budget we had in mind for this starter boat, so GRP construction was now reluctantly added to the spec.

Chance discovery

With that in mind, when the September 2017 issue of MBY magazine dropped on my desk featuring an article about an owner who had just completed a refit of a 16m motor yacht called Silver Dee, I was more than a little interested, particularly when he mentioned that the vessel was now for sale in Antibes.

We flew out to see her in late August 2017, made an offer and completed the purchase in October. Although Silver Dee was of GRP construction, she had an RNLI Arun 16 hull (but had never served as a lifeboat).

Constructed in 1974-76 and based on a GL Watson design, the hull moulding was 1/2in thick and showed no signs of osmosis after 40 years.

She had recently had £350k spent on her, with two new John Deere engines, Sleipner stabilisers, thrusters and a new generator giving her an estimated range of 850nm at 9 knots.

As part of the purchase survey the John Deere representative created performance curves for the engines and I assessed the accuracy of that data on a 500nm shakedown voyage from Antibes to Barcelona via Corsica.

I found that at an economical speed of 6.3 knots, Silver Dee could increase her range to 2,200nm. I then cruised her from Barcelona to Troon on the west coast of Scotland via the Bay of Biscay in June 2018.

Over the following three years we completed approximately 6,000nm, cruising from the South of France to Scotland and then thoroughly exploring the west coast of Scotland from the Clyde to Cape Wrath and then from Skye to the rugged landscapes of Saint Kilda.

Across this period I spent a further £100k on safety and navigational electronics for Silver Dee and used what I learned to more accurately determine the specification requirements for a 24m steel-built boat that would be capable of long distance ocean passages and perhaps even a full circumnavigation of the globe.

This was when the divergence on that proof of concept idea started to set in. While Kat was looking at the beautiful designs of the Dutch expedition yachts, dreaming of time spent on the coasts of Norway and trips to the Caribbean, I had started to form the basis of my big challenge, circumnavigating the globe via the southern oceans – and a very different type of ship would be required to complete it.

The adventure takes shape

Luckily, with the understanding Kat has achieved during more than 15 years of reading and proofing on both a grammatical and technical level, she quickly came to the conclusion that if I were mad enough to want to take on a challenge of that magnitude in a 24m vessel, it was going to be on a very specific type of boat and one that she was highly unlikely to wish to spend time on. She was proved correct in both assumptions!

My experience of cruising aboard Silver Dee had given me a good idea of what I was looking for, but at the time I only had a vague outline of the route I wanted to take.

The more I looked into it, the more enticing it became because the perceived wisdom seemed to be that it was impossible to achieve in a sub-24m motor boat.

But there are motor boats and there are motor boats, and if I could find the right one anything seemed possible. With this in mind I drew up a list of requirements:

Watertight integrity – Essential for any challenge that takes in the southern oceans. I drew the conclusion that the chosen vessel should be constructed to ship classification requirements or built to EU design category ‘A’ (ie with no restrictions).

The hull should be steel and reasonably new with no repair work. This would need to be verified during the survey.

Shape of the stern and bow – With a route that would involve a substantial period in the southern oceans, I didn’t want a transom stern that following seas would push against, continually nudging the vessel off course while straining the steering gear and the autopilot.

I was looking for a finer wine glass-shape stern or canoe stern to allow the waves to cut through, rather than push against, the stern.

A good flared bow, similar to a fishing boat, would minimise green water on deck.

Length versus breadth – A beamier boat would be required as I anticipated the need to carry additional fuel on deck.

Rudder and steering gear – The largest rudder area was desirable to get as much of the propeller flow as possible for steering.

Rather than a system with visible hydraulic rams, the preference was for a keyed rudder with rotary vane, more commonly found on larger merchant vessels that operate in heavier seas.

Autopilot – I knew that full redundancy of the main equipment was vital for long passage lengths, so a back-up autopilot system would be required, even with a full crew.

Propulsion and engines – The efficiency of a single propeller was desirable, although that creates its own challenges in managing any loss of the main engine.

I also had no appetite to replace the main engine and wanted an economical medium/slow speed engine rather than a high-speed one.

Engine room and related spaces – They could not be cramped and needed to provide plenty of room to work in.

Range/endurance – There should be as much capacity for fuel storage and/or additional fuel storage as possible!

Desirable auxiliary equipment – This would include numerous sources of power generation and UPS/battery back-ups, fresh water maker, air-conditioning, stabilisers, bow thruster (hydraulic rather than electric).

Wheelhouse/bridge – The bridge should not be located too far forward or aft and be as close to the longitudinal centre of the vessel as possible.

This is the tipping point around which a ship will pitch and it reduces watchkeeper fatigue. The bridge also needed to be as large as possible to accommodate all the required equipment and their back-ups.

Aft mast – We would need significant navigation and communication equipment, so a vessel that already had a substantial communication mast was also top of the list.

Beginning the search

Armed with this checklist, we began looking in earnest and a lot of profiling of potential vessels was undertaken. We viewed one possible boat in Maine in late 2019 and then three further vessels just before lockdown in March 2020.

Of these, a boat called MV Astra quickly became our favourite. She is a retired Swedish search and rescue vessel (24m/175 tonnes) and she ticked every box and then some!

After a short negotiation, made more difficult by the strictures of the global pandemic, a price was agreed.

MV Astra in its original role as a Swedish search and rescue vessel. Photo: Ships for sale Sweden

MV Astra is a 24m full displacement steel boat and weighs in at a hefty 175 tonnes. Her maximum speed is determined by her waterline length rather than engine size, which in her case equates to 11.88 knots.

The challenge now was choosing a route that followed the rules of the circumnavigation and fitting out MV Astra so she could carry sufficient fuel, stores and equipment while still leaving enough space for me and the crew to live and work.

Unsurprisingly, at this stage Kat decided to focus on running the business and undertaking the activities of DPA (Designated Person Ashore), while I started researching where and how to get the refit work carried out.

MV Astra as she looked when Iain bought it. Photo:

After careful consideration of a number of shipyards, we moved Astra 650nm from her berth in Gibraltar to Lanzarote and the real work could begin on what was soon to become my home for the next 12 months.

Next month: Refitting MV Astra begins and Iain commences preparations for his global circumnavigation…

You can follow Iain’s live location during his round-the-world adventure at:

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