Alaska, Harbor News, Travel

From South Africa to Seward by Sail

By Rick Smeriglio for SCN –

Sailing vessel Rainbow Gypsy moored in Seward at X-float. Photo by R. Smeriglio
Sailing vessel Rainbow Gypsy moored in Seward at X-float. Photo by R. Smeriglio


Over a perfectly lovely cup of Sri Lankan tea in the literate saloon of their homey sailboat, Rainbow Gypsy, Cherry and Alec Yarrow recounted their voyage starting in Durban, South Africa that has landed them in Seward. Their voyage began six years ago with many roundings, setbacks, frights and delights along the way. Before the cheer of introductions and the aroma of well-brewed tea subsided, it became clear that their voyage had barely passed its midpoint.

The two seventy-somethings met on the internet and married in 2004. She had never sailed; he had never sailed anything larger than a dinghy. Both had family and friends scattered across the globe. Neither wanted to retire just to sit and watch the world float past. They bought a 36 and a half-foot catamaran, spent 18-months outfitting and modifying her into a trimaran and then cast off lines in May of 2008 from Bluff Yacht Club, Durban, South Africa.

Says Alec, “You have to retire to do something! Our retirement is to do something different … that also stretches you. Never stop learning. We started off knowing nothing; after six years, we‘re fairly experienced and competent sailors.”

Alec and Cherry spent their first Christmas in Tanzania, south of the equator on Africa’s east coast. After an inland excursion to tread the Serengeti Plain, they shaped a course for India which required them to cross the equator northbound. Maritime custom requires proper ceremony when crossing zero latitude. Cherry joked that failure to celebrate caused them to lose their mast the first time.

According to Cherry, who says with twinkling eyes, “Neptune took his due. A squall blew up in the Maldive Islands and the mast just crumpled, the worst thing that can happen to a sailboat short of the keel falling off and sinking.”

Construction engineer Alec pointed to faulty attachment angles of the cables that stay the mast as the only provable cause. Rainbow Gypsy motored to Sri Lanka where Alec’s father and grandfather had established a tea plantation years ago. After a two-year sojourn in Bentota Bay, Sri Lanka (source of the lovely tea) and a new mast, the couple again set sail and circumnavigated the Indonesian island of Sumatra, climbed up as far as authorities allow on the blasted remains of Krakatoa Volcano, and navigated north to Hong Kong and then farther north to Japan.

“We had seven weeks in fog after leaving Japan,” says Cherry, good humor for the first time leaving her face.

When asked to describe her feelings on a night under sail on the open ocean with no motors throbbing, no other boats nearby and her mate asleep, Cherry for reached for her words.

She says, “You feel very, very small … and alone. It’s scary, not terrifying, you’re not going to die … there’s no end in sight, it’s unsettling.”

Alec agrees, saying in his clipped, British accent, “totally alone, can’t see the stars, no ships on radar, very lonely.”

Cherry Yarrow (l) and her husband Alec Yarrow (r) with inflatable globe aboard S/V Rainbow Gypsy. Photo by R. Smeriglio
Cherry Yarrow (l) and her husband Alec Yarrow (r) with inflatable globe aboard S/V Rainbow Gypsy. Photo by R. Smeriglio










Thirty-five knot winds in October 2013, strong enough to strip water from the ocean surface, pummeled Rainbow Gypsy about a thousand nautical miles south and west of the Aleutian Islands. Cherry stated that it was not an unusual occurence. “Hairline crack in metal,” said Alec as he fingered a bit of torn stainless steel recovered from the failure point. The attachment fitting of the device that controls the big sail on the forward part of the boat, had simply given way. Five or six hours of grim struggle later, Alec finally wrestled hundreds of square feet of demonically flogging sailcloth down to the deck of Rainbow Gypsy. Those hours of vicious whipping had fatigued metal atop the mast and ten days later, the entire rig plunged overboard. With insufficient fuel to motor to Dutch Harbor, and water coming aboard through failing seals, Rainbow Gypsy limped to Atka for fuel and respite. US Coast Guard recommended King Cove as the best place to put ashore and haul the boat for repair. Alec and Cherry motored an additional 650 nautical miles from Atka to King Cove.

Cherry says, “The people of King Cove took us to heart.”

“We take cruising one day at a time,” says Alec.

After wintering their boat “on the hard” and wintering themselves in Canada with family, the dauntless sailors rode the good ferry M/V Tustumena to King Cove, stepped a new mast on Rainbow Gypsy and made for Seward.

“This is the most civilized port we have seen in a while,” says Alec.

“Love it, love it, love it,” says Cherry with her characteristic exuberance, “the shuttle could stop at a few more places though.”

Cherry and Alec found Seward harbor staff “very helpful”, no small compliment from sailors who know their way around foreign ports. When asked about the most satisfying bits of their voyage so far, Cherry spoke without hesitation.

“The kindness and hospitality of the people we meet. The more off the beaten track you go, the better the people,” says Cherry.

Rainbow Gypsy planned to depart Seward bound for Icy Bay near Yakutat as soon as Alec repaired the refrigerator. The two sailors who clearly delighted in each other’s company said that they would sail down the western coast of the Americas, re-cross the equator southbound and lean into a westbound crossing of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand where Cherry has family.

“We don’t know the ultimate goal, it’s open-ended,” says Alec.



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