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Kevin Holley – 60 and Going Solo Sailing – Meridian

Solo Sailing

In this podcast, Kevin tells us how he started sailing in small yachts on the southeast coast of South Africa. You’ll get some insight into his preparation, on-board systems, how he plans to go solo sailing and how he intends to fund his cruising lifestyle.

Kevin Holley is a young 60-year-old who has always yearned to spend a large part of his life at sea, but work got in the way.

If you are thinking about going offshore in your own yacht, this could help you work out how.


LINDSAY: Today I’m interviewing Kevin who owns a beautiful yacht called Meridian which is a Roberts Mauritius 45. Kevin’s just planning on heading off on a major overseas trip to see where that leads him. Now I only met Kevin two days ago when I was paddling around the canals on my stand-up paddle board. We chatted for a few minutes which was long enough to learn that Kevin has a story to tell.

What we’re about to do is a recording of something that’s very common once you start hanging around boats. Complete strangers with common interests, sharing their stories and passion simply because of their life which is less ordinary.

Kevin, can you give us a quick overview about yourself and your work, and what you do or have done for a living in the past?

KEVIN: I’m a young 60-year-old. I’m trained as an engineer specialising in geosystems engineering. Having travelled most of my life work wise working in places far afield as Alaska or Siberia and South America. Focusing on mining. After a five-year stint in Indonesia most recently on secondment, I returned and decided I didn’t really fit into the corporate world anymore and took the opportunity to branch off and dream about things like sailing.

LINDSAY: That’s great. We did have a little chat and you hinted that you’ve got some sailing experience. I’m going to take back now to when you were young. If you could tell us a little bit about the feelings you had growing up and when you first started wanting to be on the sea, or interested in boats.

KEVIN: I can remember far back as day dot and I wanted to grow up on the sea and with the sea. I started sailing initially with Dad on an Enterprise on small lakes and dams.

LINDSAY: An Enterprise is a…

KEVIN: Enterprise is a little dingy in a sail boat being used she was about 18 feet. Purely a day sailor and really into racing. As I grew up and grew a little bit more competent I graduated to what was called a Dabchick. Basically, an overgrown surfboard with a mast on it.

I was captain of my own little boat. Again, Dabchicks were very competitive so a lot of racing – all dam work.

Grew up onto a Tempo. Grew up onto Spearhead and then into a Flying Dutchman. All racing boats. All crewed with two people.

As I went through secondary school I became more closely involved with offshore sailing. I had a really good friend who was a very competent offshore racer as a navigator and a skipper who’d done a lot of cruising. He taught me to sail basically. Sailing weekends, weekdays, whenever we could.

That graduated a little further to sailing up and down the south west coast. As far north as Richards Bay from Durban, as far south as East London from Durban. That cemented my belief that I belong on the sea.

I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had opportunity of sailing on all the oceans including the Med about three times. Extended trips along the Med – that’s up to six weeks, and a trip to Alaska from Vancouver for a little over six weeks. I’ve done the rounds.

I’ve been in Australia since 2000. I had a little Aquarius in Raby Bay on Moreton Bay and have sailed up and down there, mostly single-handedly for the last 15 years.

Graduated now to Meridian and working to fulfil life’s dream.

LINDSAY: Now you’ve bought Meridian, which is a beautiful looking boat. I can see it sitting out there on the pontoon as we speak. A very capable offshore boat. You’re making the change to move on board and go cruising. Now are you going to do this single-handed? Is that correct?

KEVIN: That’s my intention. My wife Pam gets very seasick. She’s just not interested in doing that. She’s given me a leave pass and I’m using it.

LINDSAY: Right. Well you’ve got to grab those opportunities when they’re there don’t you. What have you had to do to change your situation and the situation you were in, you were working. What have you done to start planning for this life at sea?

KEVIN: First of all, the biggest was breaking tie with the company I worked with for 15 years in Australia. I bought a boat last year. A lot more needed to be done on her than I imagined. I think that’s just the norm with any boat.

LINDSAY: It certainly is. It’s always the norm.

KEVIN: I’ve overcome those disappointments and facing the challenges of readying her for example, finding you had bad fuel, finding that people wanted to charge you an exorbitant amount of money to filter and clean fuel, so learning how to do it yourself. Just preparing those silly little things that have taken up a lot of time over the last couple of months. I’ve been a man of measure.

Preparing to sail I really try and spend weekends on board her and learning the sails, learning the anchoring, just managing a bigger boat really on my own in preparation for what’s there. That’s it really.

LINDSAY: So, you’ve been testing all the equipment on board, pulling up all the sails that are around and making sure they all work, and are in good condition. Just by using the boats you’re finding there’s things need attention.

KEVIN: I’m finding I get more and more confident every single time. Initially when I got her she was the biggest boat I’d sailed or skippered. I found it very daunting to be either leaving dock or coming in to dock. Now that I’ve done it probably several hundred times it becomes second nature. Its practice makes perfect. You have to be able to do it. You have to be familiar with all your systems. You have to be familiar with gauging distances, gauging speeds, and being aware of what’s around you as much as anything else.

LINDSAY: Spatial awareness is a big thing when you’re operating a boat. When I look out here and you’ve got rowing skiffs going past the window, and launches coming in and out of the canals. Just being aware of what’s around you in Meridian is pretty important. She’s a steel boat so she’s reasonably heavy.

KEVIN: 18 tonnes.

LINDSAY: Okay. She’s got a brand-new motor?

KEVIN: She has. Hopefully that keeps going.

LINDSAY: A nice new Yanmar we were chatting about earlier. That will look after you and that’s a major part of the boat and you picked a reliable engine.

We’ll move on a little bit. Everyone needs some money in this world, especially cruising yachties. What are your plans to fund your life while you’re on the sea?

KEVIN: I guess part of my philosophy has become now, if you don’t do it now you won’t do it. I’m making a break and doing it the best way I can do it with what I’ve got. It’s just really an early retirement that I’m taking in effect. I will make the penny stretch as much as I can. I also have a lot of company management experience so I’ve joined a board on a London exchange listed company, and that gives me a fairly good income with actually minimal work. It requires two days a month of my time and it gives me a very acceptable salary. That will go a long way to helping the kit stretch.

LINDSAY: That’s interesting which is in another country. Do you actually have to fly to that country or can you do that remotely through modern communication systems?

KEVIN: Beauty of modern communication systems. Satellite phones and video phones and conference calls. I’m required under the terms and conditions of the contract to attend one face-to-face meeting a year and normally a minimum of four board meetings a year which will be remote. The company is based in China, listed in London and the project is in Mongolia. It’s a truly international company.

LINDSAY: So effectively you’ve got a portable income. You can be anywhere in the world so long as you’ve got good internet or satellite uplink.

KEVIN: Absolutely.

LINDSAY: My next question that I always ask is do you get seasick, and if you do can you tell us a bit about how you deal with that?

KEVIN: Everybody gets seasick I believe. I haven’t found my limit yet. I have had one uncomfortable night off the coast of Durban where we had about a 10-metre swell, which meant these 10 metre drops every few seconds. How did I manage that? I managed it by moving to the roughest part of the boat – in the bow and understanding the motion. I believe that is what’s essential to it. Is understanding what the boat’s doing and what it’s going to do. Once you achieve that you don’t get seasick anymore.

Back to what I said earlier on, everybody gets seasick. It may be at a forced hand – hanging upside down where diesels not working and rocks coming up rapidly. Once you understand your situation I believe you can manage it. I’m very fortunate.

LINDSAY: That’s interesting. That’s not the answer I was expecting either, but it makes a lot of sense what you said because your body does adapt eventually and by moving to where the boat’s moving the most, you’re really forcing your muscles and your balance, and all the rest of it to adapt quite quickly I guess.

KEVIN: That particular occasion was the first offshore competitive event and I think it had all sorts of reasons behind being uncomfortable. Putting me in a situation where I stopped thinking about that, helped me understand the motion of the boat and get on with it. That worked beautifully. We won that event.

LINDSAY: Well there you go. The results.

KEVIN: My wife gets terribly, terribly seasick. We used to laugh at her saying first of all she was scared of getting sick and then she was scared of dying, and then she was scared that she wasn’t gonna die.

LINDSAY: That’s right. I’ve heard that before.

KEVIN: I can never imagine that situation.

LINDSAY: No. It’s interesting. I did an interview recently with Professor Stoffregen who is an expert on motion sickness. He mentioned that females are more susceptible to seasickness and nobody really knows why. It’s an interesting interview if anyone’s listening to this that they can go back through the website at ToSeeTheSea.com and find it there.

What do you expect some of the downsides to be about going cruising on Meridian?

KEVIN: I don’t know. I don’t know what downsides there are. I guess just being on your own. I guess things like rationing or very aware of what you’re drinking. Power to me is the one that scares me more than anything. I’m actually petrified of not having enough power to be able to run properly.

LINDSAY: So, what systems have you got in place on Meridian to generate power? There’s more than one way to do it these days.

KEVIN: Ah yes. I’ve got a wind generator and that’s 300 watts. I’ve got solar power. That’s two 100 watt panels and three 80 watt panels. I’ve got a Honda 2000-watt generator.

LINDSAY: Diesel generator?

KEVIN. Yes. Ah, not diesel. She’s petrol sorry.

LINDSAY: Petrol. So, you just put that up on deck?

KEVIN: She’s permanently on deck mounted in a storage area on the deck. She runs from the storage area. Very easy to just pull a cord and run it. Then of course there’s a diesel 80-amp charger.

LINDSAY: Right. That’s through an alternator?


LINDSAY: Charging the batteries whenever the diesels running and you’ve got power going out to your batteries.

KEVIN: Yes. that’s right.

LINDSAY: How many amps do you have in your batteries?

KEVIN: I’ve got 650 amps on the battery yeah.

LINDSAY: That’s good.

KEVIN: She’s fairly big. A big system. Series of charging six watt batteries set up as a twelve-volt system. I’m told that’s a pretty good way of doing it.

LINDSAY: What sort of devices have you got that are going to drain the amps out of those batteries?

KEVIN: Ah let’s see. Your navigation, lighting – all on board lighting, pumps…

LINDSAY: Have you got LED lighting in there?

KEVIN: Most of it is LED. I’ve converted most of it myself.

LINDSAY: With aftermarket light bulbs that just fit into the original socket?

KEVIN: No. New fittings. I felt it was the best way of doing it.

LINDSAY: So, you’ve got very few amps going out when you’ve got those on. LED’s are very efficient these days.

KEVIN: Yeah. I’ve then got refrigeration batteries. Those are the two biggest drains. Then of course there’s navigation equipment. There’s the AIS, there’s the radios, there’s the chart plotter and all those sorts of things that draw. Biggest one of course is the auto-pilot.

LINDSAY: When you’re single handing that’s as good as having another person on board.

KEVIN: I think it’s essential.

LINDSAY: It’s important to have a good auto-pilot.

Is that all interconnected with your instruments and things like that for….

KEVIN: It is yes. They’re very all mixed together. After trying to do that, and it’s going to work I hope.

LINDSAY: You’ve got handheld GPS and things like that if you need to get positions from GPS?

KEVIN: I’ve got two spare. I’ve got a main system which was installed with a multi-function chart plotter, I’ve got two hand-held GPS’s and then of course there’s the regulatory safety equipment. As in, the EPIRBs and PLDs – that sort of thing.

LINDSAY: Sounds like you’ve put a lot of work into getting ready. How long before you head offshore do you think?

KEVIN: I don’t really know what I’m going to be able to do as a single-hander. Whether I’m going to cope long term cruising as a single-hander. So, what I’ve done is I’ve joined the Sail to Indonesia Rally, leaves Australia in July. Most get together in Cairns from early June. Ultimately leaves Thursday Island, supposed to be on the 17th of July, give or take a few days during the weather.

I figured that was a good introduction would help me with all the paperwork, with the Visas, and at the same time give me access to the wealth of experience of skippers and crew that have been there, done that.

LINDSAY: Yeah, you learn so much from talking to other people.

KEVIN: Absolutely.

LINDSAY: It something that just happens in the cruising community.

KEVIN: It’s also a bit of a safety net really because there are 50 odd boats are going to be there, which means I’m in company. I’m pretty sure I won’t see any other boats on the initial leg, but there will be people in ports and moorings, and anchorages to help. The first three or so months I will be in Indonesia. It ends up just outside Singapore. The next logical Singapore, up the west coast of Malaysia and to Thailand. At that point, I’ll be making decisions – am I suited to doing a circum nav, or is it time to sail off with my dream.

LINDSAY: Okay. That’s good. No firm plans for the long term and just out there testing the waters.

KEVIN: I’ve got to suck it this year. I’ve not done any very extended long term cruising and you can’t really have a plan for that. I need to see whether I’m going to fit into that lifestyle.

LINDSAY: How long is your leave pass?

KEVIN: It’s indefinite.

LINDSAY: Oh, very good.

KEVIN: But I do tend to be flying back or taking Pam to where I am, so we can spend some time together. She has a job that she might be interested in flying up. She’s very into Toast Masters. She’s a very busy person. She’s not interested in sailing at all. She’s been there with me and done that. Not going to do it again.

LINDSAY: If you had a magic wand a chance to start your life again, the opportunities to go to see for extended periods when you were younger, what would you do to maximise your life on the sea instead of having to have worked as much as you have? Would you change anything that you’ve done?

KEVIN: I probably would. As I’ve got older I’ve heard so many people say, “Don’t wait. Get on and do it. You’ll make things work.” When I was younger I desperately wanted to go and do it, but was concerned about making money, about getting on living life in the conventional way. As I’m getting older I’m seeing more and more people have bypassed that and they’re all doing well. If I had it again I would go and do it.

LINDSAY: Yeah so, you’d just not focus so much on the money and keeping a good stable job. You’d get out there and you’d live the life.

KEVIN: Live your dream, don’t dream your dream.

LINDSAY: Not always easy to do though.

KEVIN: No, but we’re talking about the benefit of hindsight aren’t we.

LINDSAY:  Yes, we are, and magic wands, and things that don’t really exist.

It is an important question because there’s people listening to this that are “umming and arrhing” whether they’ll go and do that. I hear it time and time again, people saying, “Yeah I wish I’d done it earlier. Taken the risk to leave the job and still make it work somehow.” The world has changed a lot in the last…We were just talking about it before, in the last ten years just with the connectivity that we’ve got through iPhones and various devices and the internet is becoming more widespread. There are opportunities to earn money as you go through the internet. Jobs are becoming more remote so you’ve just got to set yourself up with that portable income realm.

You go down this track of heading offshore. You’re all focused on getting the boat right and learning the boat. Is there anything you can offer our listeners to help them get started and make that transition from their jobs to buying a boat, the methodology you used to find the right boat, and help them get started living their dreams of offshore cruising.

KEVIN: I probably spent about a year looking at boats and got down to what I thought was going to be an appropriate boat for sailing. Kept getting bigger all the time so I tried not to make that mistake and get on and do it. Ultimately, I listed all the different makes and compared them over the year. I had a fairly good database of boats so I was able to focus on price and how much I could be paying for any given boat. That helped a lot. Having looked at it all and made my own database and moved on from there. I went and physically saw five or six boats. One of them in Cairns and the rest all in local area. I ended up buying Meridian in Mooloolaba. She’d been brought across from Japan to Bundaberg, and then had an engine replaced close to Bundaberg and sailed down to Mooloolaba. The owners put her on the market there because Mooloolaba is a fairly big centre. It was convenient for me to be able to sail her down to Raby Bay and over Moreton Bay. That worked very well.

I would advise anybody interested in that just to first of all do your research. Don’t get involved 100% with your research. You need to have some positive action. It’s so easy to become an armchair sailor. Get on and do it.

LINDSAY: Make a decision.

KEVIN: Make it happen. Yeah.

What you also need to be aware of when you’re buying an elderly second-hand boat, there are going to be things you have to do. I’ve heard numbers – 30% of what you paid for it, cost wise. I would say it comes close to that.

LINDSAY: That’s a fact. Every boat needs things doing to it. It’s my experience that a well-maintained boat has a major refit every ten years. That might be replacing the engine, or painting the hull, or replacing the rigging and all those reasonable expensive items. The systems do wear out on boats in the harsh environment on the sea. It’s a corrosive environment. When you’re buying second-hand you just know there’s going to be expense there. There’s going to be costs after you’ve bought the boat. Getting a good survey, I think is important because that helps you negotiate the right price once you’ve found the right boat. The boat that suits you.  It is difficult. Maybe just you want to factor that into the price of the boat. I know that on my boat I probably spent the price of the boat – what I paid for the boat originally again in maintenance thereafter, replacing the Teak decks and things like that. Definitely spent a lot of money on the boat. Boats cost money so you do need cashflow.

KEVIN: Sadly, you’re right. You can’t get away from that.

What I am learning is to do more and more myself. I’m not very practically minded. I’m not particularly good with my hands. I’m a thinker more than a doer. With Meridian, I’m slowly learning that where there’s a will, there’s a way. I have to make a way.

LINDSAY: Necessity is a great teacher isn’t it.

KEVIN: It absolutely is. To call somebody in is just staggering expensive. You asked earlier on what would I do if I had a magic wand and went back, first of all I’d become a tradie with my hands. Forget a professional degree or profession. I’d probably enter the what’s called the, “service industry” if you like that deals with hobbies and leisure, because you’ve got people by the short and curlies. Calling a diesel mechanic out, and actually the diesel mechanic was the cheapest of the whole bunch. And bring an electrician out…Well bring a plumber…Wow! If I had skills to do that myself.

LINDSAY: I rewired my complete systems and that was with me doing most of the work was $15,000 including the new switchboards and things like that – 300 metres of wire going into a 13-metre boat. Where did it all go?

KEVIN: 300 meters?

LINDSAY: Yeah! It’s incredible. That’s only the small stuff. Not including the big wires for the winchers and things like that.

KEVIN: Now I understand why there’s so many spare wires on Meridian.

LINDSAY: Yeah. It’s incredible isn’t it and who would know until you actually go and do it. But I know that boat now and I know that the wiring and the electrics are good, so I have great confidence in them.

KEVIN: That’s one of my big challenges getting to know the boat. The previous owners had a number of issues – health issues and whatever. They’re down in New South Wales. They’re really not interested in learning more, so getting any support on the systems that are fairly complicated anyway on a big boat has been a challenge. They weren’t even interested in doing a handover really, so I didn’t have the benefit of a proper handover, and that has set me back significantly. I probably wouldn’t enter into a deal again unless there was a physical handover. It’s not on trying to get it all yourself.

LINDSAY: It’s interesting yeah. If you could do an offshore passage as part of a handover that would’ve been very beneficial?

KEVIN: Absolutely. I would’ve benefited just having the owner join me and sailing her down from Mooloolaba to Raby Bay which is only a day – a fairly long day but it’s only a day. In that time, I could’ve tried all the sails, I could’ve turned on everything, I could’ve found what valves didn’t work and what valves do work. Absolutely. The previous owner – they had serious health issues they were dealing with.

LINDSAY: Yeah. That’s understandable.

Well, thank you very much for your time Kevin.

KEVIN: It’s been great talking to you. Thank you for the opportunity.

LINDSAY: Hopefully we’ve produced something here that will help others to get their boat and probably avoid some of the pitfalls of buying a second-hand boat, which most of us do when we’re going cruising. There’s good value in a second-hand boat that’s been well-maintained but just be aware that there are costs that are going to follow that. Don’t spend everything you’ve got on the purchase price. Always allow some for backup. Is that what you would advise?

KEVIN: Absolutely. But get on and do it. Don’t just dream about it.

LINDSAY: That’s right. Time is a very value resource. It does take time to learn the skills to maintain your boat and get to know it. That’s another factor before you go offshore to allow yourself enough time to get to know the boat.

Thank you very much Kevin and we wish you all the best with your sail north to Cairns for a start, up through the Great Barrier Reef, and then off overseas to…

KEVIN: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand – and at that point decision time – do I do a circum nav or do I head back home.

LINDSAY: Well we’ll be following you. Will you have a website that people can find?

KEVIN: I haven’t got one yet. I probably will end up with one somewhere. I believe that when you set up your Iridium go whatever you get all those sorts of facilities. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

LINDSAY: Maybe we can do a follow up interview. That would be great.

KEVIN: That would be fun.

LINDSAY: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure meeting you. Like I said at the beginning, I only just met you two days ago when I was out on my paddle board, so very interesting talking to you. Thank you very much.

KEVIN: Thank you for the opportunity.

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