It began as a pipe dream for East Cowes husband and wife Stewart McDonald and Tara Perris, but culminated in an 18-month adventure of a lifetime.
Although both had sailing backgrounds, neither Stewart nor Tara really thought they would ever find the boat, the time or the finances to island hop around the Caribbean.
Then one day they visited the Southampton Boat Show and met Mary Billing who had recently published a book called ‘Seize the Day’. It explained how she and her husband had often put things off, until one day he was involved in a road accident.
Although he was unhurt, it prompted a change of attitude. It also proved a catalyst for Tara and Stewart who also decided to seize their day. They searched for the right boat, renovated it, and then setting off on an amazing voyage that saw them nearly come under military attack, get covered in volcanic ash and battle fierce gales and massive waves.
“There were times when I just sat on the boat crying, wondering why we had done all this in the first place,” Tara admitted. “But now, looking back, it was an incredible experience, and yes, I would definitely do it again!”
Tara and Stewart met in 2002, married 18 months later, and although they already owned a 26ft boat, they accepted it was not quite big enough for their dream ticket. A search on the internet eventually unearthed a Jeanneau Melody boat, built in 1978, 33ft long, and left virtually abandoned in the Dominican Republic after its former French owner had been robbed at gunpoint near the Haitian coast.
They made a flying visit to the Caribbean, discovered a boat with no mast and in desperate need of TLC – but decided to take up the challenge. It was on sale for 10,000 US dollars, but they managed to strike a deal at $8,000, not realising at the time a replacement mast would virtually double their expenditure.
“The boat’s previous two owners were French, and because both Tara and I are big fans of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ we decided to name her ‘Mange Tout’,” smiled Stewart. Tara continued: “The boat had only been sitting around three months, so we thought it must be good, even though it looked a real mess. We spent three days taking it apart, and soon realised it was going to be a massive project just to get it seaworthy again. We hadn’t even started the engine when we bought it, so we were a bit crazy, but it was just one of those things. We had an opportunity, and a tiny bit of savings, so we felt this was our big chance to fulfil our dream.”
With all the boat’s documentation still intact, they knew which parts they needed to buy, and shortly after returning to their East Cowes home they booked flights to begin their major task. So in January 2006 their project was off the ground. One of the biggest problems was trying to get the 14-metre two-section mast to the Caribbean from Europe. It was due to arrive inside a fortnight, but took more than six weeks to turn up via Rotterdam and Miami.
“While we were waiting for it to arrive, we got on with other jobs. We would be up at 7am, work all morning, have lunch, and then work all afternoon. It was rare to have a day doing nothing,” said Tara. “A wind generator provided enough power to listen to two CDs a night, and give us light on the boat.”
It took many man hours to put the mast together before 13 people and two other boats combined to haul it into place. An old set of sails were used, and within three months of arriving in the Dominican Republic, the boat was ready and the adventure was about to begin. The first leg, to Porto Rica, resulted in a blown head gasket, and a two-day trip took more than five days. The journey then took in the Spanish Virgin Islands, including several that were old military installations used by the United States.
Tara and Stewart were told to listen to a local radio station every morning to ensure there were no bomb disposal operations taking place. Tara continued: “The day seemed trouble free, so we sailed into the bay to be met by flashing lights on the shore. Then an American officer informed us ‘the people on the boat entering the bay are in danger of their lives!’ Bombs were being exploded to clear the area, so we turned tail and found a safer haven.”
The couple sailed where the breezes took them, although they knew as their trip continued the hurricane season was looming on the horizon. The plan was to get to Grenada to see out the hurricane season, but as they progressed, strong currents took them off course and they found themselves 60 miles away from where they intended. But after finding land they spent several weeks island hopping down the Caribbean on legs ranging from 40 to 60 miles, occasionally swimming with dolphins and enjoying the crystal clear waters.
“We finally found St Kitts, and then passed the Montserrat volcano, which had blown a couple of weeks earlier. So the ash in the sky drifted towards the boat,” Tara recalled. “It was like travelling through a fog, but you could taste the sulphur, and when we came out of it, the boat was completely covered in grey ash.”
Eventually they arrived in Grenada, and stayed there for several months, not only to avoid the hurricanes but to draw breath after realising the trip had been much harder sailing than first anticipated because of strong currents and winds.
Tara and Stewart then based themselves in Grenada, hopping from bay to bay and immersing themselves in the atmosphere and culture of the area. Although fully prepared for any hurricanes that passed their way, they were at least spared any inconvenience, apart from a tropical storm that split, went either side of Grenada, and then rejoined the other side. So the anticipated 60 to 70 mph winds did not materialise
“It is so easy to become lazy out there. We met a lot of very nice people and just had fun,” said Tara. “We left Grenada in the October and slowly worked our way back up another dozen or so islands, spending a couple of weeks in each. We spent Christmas in Martinique, but had to cancel the barbecue because it was too windy.”
New Year’s Eve was spent in St Anne in Martinique, and then they continued on to Antigua, preparing for the trip back home across the unpredictable Atlantic, but not before a two-week rest to charge the batteries in the Virgin Islands. Then with provisions on board, they waited for the weather window to open to head for home. But after doing what they had been told to do, they spent a week in the midst of thunder storms, ever changing winds and total calm, before finding themselves at the mercy of gale force winds and 15ft high waves. Tara admitted: “It was absolutely horrible. We were 10 days into the journey home, and after managing to stay stationary and ride out the storm we realised we were further away from home than we had been three days earlier.”
The trans-Atlantic trip was littered with the threat of storms, and they just managed to reach the Azores before six days of 30-knot winds again halted their progress. “During one three-day storm, I was just sitting there crying, wondering why we had done all this in the first place. We had no self-steer on the boat, so we took two-hour shifts of steering and sleeping to keep us moving forward, and we finally arrived in the Azores after 24 days at sea,” said Tara.
They were in the Azores three weeks before the weather improved, and then it was another 10 days back to Falmouth. The reliable ‘Mange Tout’ is now moored at East Cowes Marina, where Tara is assistant manager, while Stewart runs a successful building firm.
But the couple have found time to introduce sailing to a group of guys who drink in the Ship and Castle pub, and had never been sailing before. Tara reflected: “It would have been so easy to say we can’t do it because of whatever. It is easier not to do things than to do them sometimes. I don’t know why we did it, maybe a hint of craziness. We saw the boat, went out there and bought it, and didn’t have a chance to talk ourselves out of it. It was great fun, and ‘Mange Tout’ is an excellent party boat!”