Captain : Rob Donald Born 06.00 . 06/06/66 !
Current Yacht : Drumbeg 43 mtr Vetters Sloop
This edition of Yacht & Captain is very different to many of the preceding similar themed articles in as much Rob has only been Captain of Drumbeg since mid-October of this year, and really the article focuses more on how he’s arrived at this point in his life, rather than his current charge. It’s an interesting trip to say the least!
Rob’s early sailing life was, like many of us, shaped by his introduction into dinghy sailing by his father at the local sailing club of Belmont on Lake Macquarie, just north of Sydney, Australia. He took an instant shine to the sport, and quickly realised that boats would play a big part in his life.
Leaving school at the age of 16 he moved to Sydney and started a carpentry and boatbuilding apprenticeship, from where he progressed to get his first job at Sydney’s Double Bay marina. Many hours were spent watching the boats come and go from the marina and then one day in 1987 he saw “Aquarius”, the 175ft three masted schooner, charging down the harbour around 14kts under full sail. This was his first real inspiration to make sailing his life’s ambition.
The first big step in Rob’s illustrious sailing career came when a 75 year old man called Dick Johnson invited Rob to sail with him on an 8 month passage from Australia, across the Pacific to America. Dick asked Rob to join him due to his wife’s refusal to partake on another long trip across the oceans. The boat was a 40 ft Junk rigged schooner, which Rob describes as going to windward like a well trimmed refrigerator!! Rob jumped at the chance, and was probably the single most significant decision he has ever taken.
This trip proved to be groundbreaking for Rob’s sailing career. Dick taught him all about seamanship, celestial navigation (as that’s all they had) in addition to the many other facets of long distance cruising which would become of immense use in his later sailing life. Rob describes Dick as a great teacher, especially of backgammon, which was played twice daily throughout the voyage! Despite their huge difference in age, Rob held Dick in the highest esteem. Sadly, Dick is no longer with us.
The final part of this huge voyage was a 42 day sail from Pitcairn Island to Mexico a voyage which would take them across the equator and the dreaded doldrums. Rob described to me that whilst learning a great deal and enjoying the trip for the most part, he had had just about enough and when the boat was 50 yards from the Mexican beach of Zihuatanejo, Rob jumped off and made his way through the Mexican jungle overland to New York, via California and Canada by any means of transport! Rob described this journey a good book in itself!
From New York Rob decided to fly to the UK with less than 50 bucks in his pocket! On arrival in the UK he was questioned by the immigration department as to his reason for entry. His reply was “I’ve come to work!!”. Luckily for him, being an Aussie and his young age, he would be allowed to stay for 18 months unchallenged. He lasted 1 week, saying it was too cold for him!
From London he travelled to Antibes, at this point aged 22 he’d heard this was a major yachting centre and work was plentiful.
He quickly landed a job as deckhand on Alan Bond’s Southern Cross ΙΙΙ, which was acting as Mother Ship for the crew on his racing yacht “Drumbeat” which was competing in the World Maxi Series.
After this job, Rob felt the cruising bug getting the better of him and so decided it was time to have an adventure of his own!
He walked the dock in Antibes and found his dream boat. She was a 33ft, 1937 Feadship, by De Vries, called “Misha.” She was a cutter rigged vessel constructed from 25 mm Teak Planks, with steel and oak frames. Rob and his Kiwi mate managed to negotiate with the French owner to pay off the boat over the course of a year whilst they lived on board and worked on her, in between doing day work on yachts in the marina.
On 20th December 1990 Rob decided to set off on his circumnavigation, not really knowing what the future had in store. He set off with nothing other than a food hamper, donated by a sympathetic fellow berth holder in Antibes, and a road atlas for navigation! He paid for the trip by getting day work as he travelled around the globe. The voyage took him from Antibes to the Caribbean, Panama, Galapagos, Pitcairn Island, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Maldives, Red Sea, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Suez Canal, Greece, and Italy then onto Antibes France.
On arriving in Australia, at Double Bay Marina, where he was able to get a free berth, he commenced a major refit on Misha. Whilst he was in Oz, he got a call to do the Sydney Hobart race in 1993, on a boat called Cuckoo’s Nest. She was a 40 ft yacht, quite small for this epic race, but in spite of that they managed to win the race overall!! Of the 130 starters, only 28 managed to finish due to the gales and huge seas.
After completing the refit, Rob set off again for Antibes. En route from Australia he came into contact with a yacht which he liked the look of parked in the desert in the Red Sea, and subsequently made an offer to buy her! The American couple who were sailing her had no intention to sell the yacht at that time. She was a 40 ft steel cutter called Sequel, but amazingly 10 years later the yacht became Rob’s, after the old owners had sent a letter to Rob’s Australian address, whereupon his mother opened the letter and informed Rob of its contents!
Anyway, Rob finally returned to Antibes after his 5 year adventure, into the same berth he had departed from and the people who had given him his food hamper were still in their same berth!
Upon arriving in Antibes, Rob, holding just a Yachtmaster’s certificate visited Peter Insull Yachting seeking work as a Captain. He was told in no uncertain terms by Sally, at Peter Insull’s, that he must be joking, he needed more than just his Yachtmaster’s certificate to become a Captain!
Just three weeks later at the age of 28 he became Captain of a 52M 3 masted schooner, St Kilda ! He did five trips to Kenya and two to the Caribbean, adding to his huge count of sea miles for such a young man. The owner, an eccentric German, had a fascination with Africa, particularly Lamu in Kenya, hence the trips via the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, also cruising the Zanzibar Archipelago including Pemba Island. On returning from his first trip to Kenya in 1996, Rob fell in love with the Norwegian Hanne, his lovely wife to be.
They decided in June 1996 to set off from Antibes for the Caribbean on his 33ft Misha for a new life together. The following year, they decided that Misha needed a refit, so Rob and Hanne sailed north from Antigua to Maine where they commenced a major re- fit at Brooklyn Boatyard, which was to last three years, working 6 months on the refit in the summer and 6 months on St Kilda in winter with the German family.
After Misha’s refit, they sailed her back to the Caribbean, where they won the Rolex Antigua Classics Regatta 2001, including a prize of a Rolex watch, worth nearly as much as the boat! The following day Rob & Hanne set off via Panama and the Galapagos to Tahiti, where they laid Misha up for 6 months. The most memorable part of this trip was the 3000 mile passage from the Galapagos to the Marquises taking just 18 days. Not bad for a 65 year old 33ft wooden boat.
After this, it was back to Antibes, where Rob was grandfathered into an MCA Class 4 ticket in 2002 due to his vast experience and huge sea miles. They then flew back to Tahiti and carried on with their trip down to Australia .Shortly after arriving Rob got a call to
be relief Captain on Fleurtje, a 57 metre, 3 masted schooner, a boat which Rob loved and would eventually Captain on a full time basis in 2006.
Whilst they were at home in Australia, with Misha, Hanne fell pregnant with their first child. A few months later, they received the letter to say that Sequel (the yacht which Rob had met 10 years before in Egypt) was for sale. Angus was now 4 months old and naturally Hanne wanted to go home to Norway to show off their new member of the crew. Rob didn’t much fancy the idea of just sitting around the house in Norway, so he said “I know, let’s buy Sequel, (which was laid up in Cornwall UK), and sail to Norway”! Hanne loved the idea, and so they bought the boat unseen over the phone some 12000 miles away!
So the three of them flew to England and set off from Cornwall via Ireland, Scotland and the Caledonian Canal and the North Sea eventually reaching Norway. After a wonderful summer in Norway, they set off via Sweden, Denmark, The Kiel Canal, Holland, (where they lowered the mast) and the French canals arriving in Palma just in time for Christmas 2005. After three days in Palma they set off for Antigua. They had a very rough trip with boulders being launched from the seabed on to the runway at Gibraltar airport as they sailed past!
Angus’ first birthday was spent mid Atlantic in strong winds and big seas, and exactly 9 months later Freya, their second child was born! Some birthday party!! The passage from the Canaries to Antigua was 16 days.
On arriving in Antigua, they hung around for the season doing small voyages south to Grenada and North to the Virgin Islands then Rob help delivered the Fife schooner “Altair” from Antigua to Antibes.
Shortly after arriving in Antibes, Rob was re united with Fleurtje and was made Captain on his 40th birthday. He remained Captain until 2010 when she was sold.
This signalled another adventure in the life of the Donalds! They decided to sail to Australia on Sequel from Antigua via the Pacific. The trip was an amazing experience for the whole family
and whilst the kids may not have been in school, I’m sure they learned much more from the voyage than many years in school! Angus being 7 and Freya 5 at the time
When they eventually landed in Australia, where they already owned a few apartments, they decided to convert them into a backpackers, at Boomerang Beach, north of Sydney, which they still own today. Whilst setting it all up, an Austrian lady came to see them with some new cleaning products, which don’t use any chemicals, called ENJO. They just use water, in combination with a whole range of different textile products, dependent on the job at hand. Hanne and Rob were suitably impressed with the products and trying to be great environmentalists themselves, decided to give them a try. After trialling the products and being amazed at their success despite only using water, they decided to take them on. They both quickly realised that the products would be perfect for the boat market, and after negotiating with the head office in Austria, they obtained the worldwide distribution rights for the yacht market.
They both decided that for the project to be successful they should move back to Europe, with Palma as their preferred choice. After moving back to Palma, Rob helped Hanne set the business up during late 2012 and early 2013. Now that ENJO is up and running, Rob has decided that he can get back out on the water, and has recently landed himself the Captain’s role on Drumbeg, a 43 metre Ed Dubois Sloop.
I have so much admiration for Rob and his family. They seem to have combined the perfect life of huge adventures interspersed with lots of hard work which has provided them with a secure foundation for later life. Their children have had a unique start in life, one which so few get the opportunity to have and I’m sure none of them would swap places with anyone! Good on ya mate!