John Kretschmer is a sailor, writer and philosopher who has logged more than 300,000 offshore miles, including 26 transatlantic crossings and several passages in every ocean on the globe. His record-breaking voyage in a 32-foot sailboat from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn, against the wind, is just one of his numerous sailing accomplishments.
A self-taught sailor, Kretschmer has been sailing nearly full-time since age 21 and has developed a successful hands-on sail training business aboard Quetzal, a 1987 Kaufman 47. He also teaches workshops and lectures all over the world, including the upcoming Bluewater Cruising Association’s 45th annual Ocean Cruising Adventure (OCA). (Visit bluewatercruising.org for tickets).
During his virtual OCA presentation on March 6 at 1900h (sponsored by Pacific Yachting magazine), John will take us Sailing to the Edge of Time while he shares his personal tales of offshore sailing, and the hard-won lessons about making the most of life and fulfilling dreams.
As we gear up for the OCA event, John was interviewed by Pacific Yachting, who gave permission to re-publish his answers:
Six Questions with John Kretschmer
1. You sailed around Cape Horn for the first time, aboard Gigi, a 32-foot Contessa sloop, almost 40 years ago now. Can you share a few of your most memorable moments?
This is a really hard one to answer. My sailing career has essentially had three phases. The bungling college dropout, fueled by dreams of the ocean, who finds his way—definitely the hard way—and then, somewhat amazingly, rounds Cape Horn; that was phase one. The next phase was the hard-working delivery captain, and this is where I really learned my trade, and there were definitely some adventures: Sailing into a coup in Yemen that we were very lucky to survive, the delivery of a Gulfstar 50 ketch from Fort Lauderdale to Japan and surviving Typhoon Roy near Guam and General Noriega’s henchmen in Panama. Sailing wise, I think the delivery of an Ocean 71 ketch from Newport, Rhode Island to Stockholm, was the most challenging sail of my life, because we left Newport in January and crossed the North Atlantic in February. I discovered Force 13 winds! The third phase has been the last 20 years, running training passages all over the world and it’s been the best phase by far. My clients have become my best friends and the people that make their way into my floating world are amazing.
2. What is something(s) you wouldn’t go sailing offshore without?
This one is easier: my sextant. Even now, when GPS has conquered the world and heavens, I still never begin a passage without my sextant, almanac, sight reduction tables and watch with known error. It sounds silly, but really, GPS could die tomorrow and it would not impact my voyaging one bit. In fact, it would make it safer as we sailed more responsibly in the celestial days. But it is more than that. GPS is part of navigation, not navigation. Navigation is a process; a way of thinking, a way of looking at the world, the sea, your life. An ocean sailor uses all of her senses to find position, confirm position and remember that position is fluid. I guess in short; celestial navigation forces you to pay attention.
3. What is your go-to non-perishable food on long passages? After all these years aboard, are there certain foods you can’t even look at anymore?
This is a great question. This one has also had phases in my sailing life. In the early days, food was something to keep you alive, and we ate a lot of pasta and canned meats. We had no refrigeration on the Cape Horn passage, or on most of the early voyages. Then, during the delivery phase, the owner of a Hylas 49 that I delivered every year down to the islands, taught me a valuable lesson—a boat is not an excuse for a bad meal. George made delicious food every day, no matter the conditions. That was eye-opening and I have tended to follow his lead. Luckily, when my wife Tadji came into my life, my culinary skills improved dramatically. So now we eat like royalty on passage; I refuse to let the ocean win. If it’s blowing a gale, I head below and cook. There’s something reassuring about a good meal when the ocean is really pissed off.
4. You and your partner Tadji are preparing to depart on “The Big One”, a five-year circumnavigation exploring every ocean. Has COVID-19 affected these plans?
We are really excited about this voyage, which will take us up to Greenland and back to Cape Horn, before making our way across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But yes, definitely. COVID-19 has forced us to look closely at our plans. We really get cracking in late April, with a passage from St. Martin to Bermuda, and then up to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, one of my all-time favorite harbours and a place where Quetzal has many friends. As of now, we are just monitoring the situation and hoping that vaccines are effective and widely available and that people, especially in the US, become more responsible in the way they deal with the virus. It is possible that we will delay a year, but hopefully not. The leg to Greenland starts in July and we are really hopeful that the world will look different by then. At the same time, we don’t want to diminish the experience by having limited opportunities ashore. So, like everyone else during these difficult times, we are just waiting to see how things unfold.
5. Do participants need prior experience to sign up for your onboard passage training?
It helps, of course, but it’s not necessary. Our crews almost always have a wide range of experience and I think this makes them more interesting. Also, I have a lot of repeat crew and they know what to expect. One of the great discoveries I’ve made during 20 years of training passages is that the people who come aboard always have value to add to the passage. To have the inclination, make the time, have the money; clearly, you have been making smart choices most of your life already, and also, we tend to be like-minded anyway. My job is not to bark out orders and lay down silly rules cast in stone; but instead, to find what people do best and to empower them. There’s no yelling and very few rules aboard Quetzal. There is respect for each other, and a genuine team environment; we have shared adventures.
6. You’ll be speaking at the Bluewater Cruising Association’s 2021 Virtual Ocean Cruising Adventure. What can the audience expect from your presentation?
I am excited to be a speaker at the Virtual Ocean Cruising Adventure, grateful for the opportunity and I think it will be great fun. Before COVID-19, I gave talks all over the world; doing things remotely has been an adjustment, but I am getting used to it. My presentation will include stories of serious sailing, serious adventure travelling and a bit of philosophy about how to make the most of your time. I always include some funny stories; I’ve made a hash of things so often that I have plenty of material. Just the other day, down here in the US Virgin Islands, I crunched the finger pier coming into the slip. Afterwards, a nice guy took me aside and quietly gave me some docking insights! It was beautiful and he was right, we should have taken the stern line first.