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Going West

Going West

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Going West

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Jan 1, 2020


Frank and Barbara Fitzgibbon, an ordinary Irish couple in their 50s, decided to pursue a dream to see the world.  They sold their home, farmed out their business and traded up their sailboat for a 40-ft oceanworthy yacht, and leaving their family of six young adults, set off on a two-year circumnavigation.  Beset by accidents, ill health and dangers, they completed the voyage of a lifetime only to return home to tragedy.

This is a tale of courage and joy, a travelogue and adventure story which will captivate sailors and land-lubbers alike

Jan 1, 2020

Sobre el autor

Barbara Fitzgibbon has a BA in French and Spanish and has worked as a teacher, airline rep, administrator, tour guide, car shunter, childminder, ocean-going cook and confidante.  Mother of six and grandmother of 11, she lives near Crosshaven Co Cork with husband Frank.  They currently own a Southern Cross 39 which is overwintering in Vigo, Spain

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Going West - Barbara Fitzgibbon


Two years sailing around the world

Copyright 2020 © Barbara Fitzgibbon

ISBN  9781393527343


First e-dition

Originally published in 2000 by Mercier Press Ireland

Table of Contents

Preface to the 2020 e-dition



Origins of the Dream

Buying the boat


France and Spain

Discovering Portugal

First Steps

Atlantic Crossing

Islands in the Sun

Between two Oceans



Polynesian Paradise

South Seas Contrasts

Down Under


Malaysia to Phuket

Towards the Pearl

Unexpected Adventure : the Red Sea


Home Straits



From the author

Preface to the 2020 e-dition

Almost 25 years have passed since Frank and I departed from Crosshaven on our Grand Adventure.  It’s hard to believe that we could leave our family of six and set off without any form of contact other than calls from distant phone booths and remote poste-restante mail-drops.  None of us owned the new-fangled mobile phones, and we were unable to afford expensive satellite communications.  The internet was totally unknown to us elders, emails and texts were beyond our ken.  We also had relatively limited sailing experience, and were far from the first flush of youth.  But we had huge enthusiasm and tremendous family support, and the interest our trip generated was contagious.  I felt compelled to write up our experiences, and this book was born some three years after we returned home.  It is now out of print, and since I have become a little more adept with modern technology, it is high time it was reborn digitally.  I owe thanks to all my children for their technological know-how and help in mastering the intricacies of the web.  By the end of the voyage we were grandparents to baby Ciara – now she has left university, and we have eleven amazing grandchildren.  Hopefully they, and you, will enjoy our tale.

Myrtleville, Co Cork. January 2020


Our round-the-world odyssey would simply not have been possible without the input of the following people : my patient husband-skipper Frank who took all the major responsibility for successfully realising this dream; Frank’s brother Liam who spent weeks preparing the boat for a tough voyage; our six forbearing offspring who allowed us to abandon them for two years, and spent time aboard on various stages of the voyage; my step-mother Mag who was an eloquent and diligent correspondent, sometimes waiting weeks for a reply; my brother John and his family in Australia who made us feel so welcome there; our wider family who provided so much encouragement, and followed our progress with great interest; the willing sponsors who gave us equipment and foodstuffs; Dr Tony Casey who set us up with excellent first aid equipment and advice; Tom MacSweeney who arranged to broadcast our newsletters on national radio; the national TV station which entrusted us with cameras and film, and local film-makers who enabled this; staff and members of the Royal Cork Yacht Club who facilitated us before and after the cruise; the students at Glenstal Abbey who set up a website and followed our progress; the staff of Mercier Press who were responsible for the print edition, and my sons Dave and Gary who have helped get this e-book produced.  Also all the wonderful voyagers young and old whom we met around the world. Special mention to current sailors Alena and Chris who allowed me to use their photograph on the cover of this e-dition. 

Special thanks go to my dear sister Sue, who did so much ashore for us.  This e-book is dedicated to her memory, and to those of my deceased father and mother, and to my brother John, who tragically died of cancer in 2007 – intrepid travellers and noble adventurers all.


Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.  Sunday, November 21 1995

The hands of the big clock on the theatre wall pointed to noon.  I lay on the operating table, a green sheet pulled up to my chin, my right arm outstretched as the resident surgeon and her intern assistant prodded and jabbed at my injured fingers.  A drip fed into my left hand, and a nurse stood by my head monitoring its flow.  At the nearby marina in Puerto de la Luz, scores of yachts were making their final preparations for the start of the tenth Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, due in two hours’ time.  Frank and I were to have been among them, but I knew now that Atlantic Islander would not be starting with the 180 other boats.  However, perhaps in a few days’ time we could try to catch up with them and make our first transatlantic crossing as part of the fleet?  This would be the first really big step in our two-year circumnavigation which had begun three months before, and was a vital leg, our longest passage by far; a distance of 2,670 nautical miles which we had hoped to undertake with the backing and experience of an organised group.

It was Sunday, not the best day of the week to be in A&E.  I prayed that the on-call doctors would not be in a hurry to patch me up, but would refer me to a specialist next day.  I was not disappointed.

‘You have done quite a bit of damage to your index finger, and we will simply clean and dress it until our plastic surgeon can see you first thing tomorrow. The second finger we will stitch now, and send you back to A&E for monitoring.’

The young intern had spent a summer in Cork and spoke excellent English: up until now I had been labouring in my rusty Spanish, much to the amusement of some of the nurses.

‘I suppose I will need surgery. How much time will I have to spend in hospital?’

I began to have visions of being stuck in port for up to a week or two, thereby messing up the Rally for our French crew-member who had arrived from Paris just two days before, and with whom I had spent all of the previous day provisioning the boat with boxes of fresh and tinned foods and mounds of fruit and vegetables. Christophe and I were to share the cooking duties on board as he is an excellent chef, and his input in the selection was vital.  He had a much tighter schedule than we did, and would have to be back in his office in a month's time.  The Atlantic crossing had been a dream of his for many years.

‘Naturally the plastics consultant will be able to tell you more precisely, but if I were you I would consider going home for surgery. You are likely to be in hospital for up to five days, but will probably need about a month to five week's outpatient treatment before being able to re-join your yacht.’

I was devastated. All our preparations and plans lay in ruins - and all through my own fault. If I hadn't tried to reposition the mooring lines a few hours earlier, when the boat was pitching in the strong wind and surge at the Las Palmas marina... but three strong ropes had already snapped through during the night, and their replacements were very near breaking point. Frank and Christophe had gone to the Immigration Office to sign us all out of the country, so there was no one else to attend to the mooring lines. But why had I not left the wretched warps alone?  Why had I not simply ignored them, and carried on with the simpler task of washing down the decks with fresh water - keeping my pre-race nerves at bay?  Why, why, why?

The tears that I had valiantly fought since the accident we close to falling now. But I shook myself internally and remembered that I had a lot to be thankful for despite the apparent disruption to our well-laid plans. I had been very fortunate not to lose the top of my finger, as bone and nail had remained intact though much of the tissue of the inner tip had been removed, crushed between the warps and the fairlead. I had received the best possible help from the two people who came to my aid as I shouted for help from the bow of our boat: a neighbouring French sailor who had had a very similar injury some years before, followed swiftly by a local surgeon whose yacht was berthed further along the pontoon. With such an excellent back-up I was expertly bandaged before the ambulance arrived to take me to the hospital.

The doctors finished their work. An analgesic kept most of the pain at bay, and I was relieved that the more delicate plastic surgery would be left to the experts - and to a general anaesthetic!  As I was wheeled back to the Accident and Emergency Department, where Frank waited anxiously for news, I looked more calmly at the possibilities which lay open to us.

It seemed clear that I should follow the intern's advice and arrange to receive immediate treatment at home in Cork.  But there was no reason why Frank should come with me, or that Christophe's hard-earned vacation be cut short: they should look for an additional crew and join the rally as soon as possible.  It all began to fit into place, and when Frank mentioned that on his way back to the boat earlier he had met two young Danes looking for berths across the Atlantic, both recommended by a famous Norwegian round-the-world yachtsman, our fate was sealed. 

By the time I was discharged Christophe had had an initial meeting with the potential crew members, Jurgen and Christien, and felt that they were competent and compatible.  Over a special dinner that Christophe had carefully prepared we looked at the reality of the boat carrying on without me.  He would have to take my place as chief cook and second-in-command, and was somewhat overwhelmed by this unexpected turn in events as it was many years since he had sailed seriously.

Frank was still in a state of shock. Barely recovered from surgery in Madeira three weeks before, he was now faced with training in totally unproven and untried crew on the longest passage he had ever attempted: and yet to abandon the project at this stage seemed unthinkable.  None of us had expected something like this, and each had their own fears and worries that night.  I found it almost impossible to sleep: the wind was still extremely strong, and the mooring lines were groaning and creaking all night long as they tightened against the bucking pontoon. With every creak I relived my experience of the morning, and had to force myself to read in order not to succumb to the horror of that memory. I knew tomorrow would be a long, hard day, and I needed to gather my strength.  At about four am a troubled sleep came.

By nine o'clock next morning I had met the local plastic surgeon who passed me fit to travel and changed my bulky dressings for something more streamlined. A consultant in Cork would operate the following day. Frank’s interview with the Danes had gone well and he was pleased enough that all four would cope well with the passage. I was flattered that it took two 25-year-olds to replace my 50 years!

With the help of my surgeon rescuer, within an hour I was booked on a flight to Madrid and thence to Cork: everything was slotting into place, though we were all three still somewhat numbed. It was so touching that we had found a friend when we needed one most. Our farewells were of necessity more hurried than emotional, which was probably just as well. How would the crossing go?  How would my surgery work out?  How would Christophe and the Danish boys settle in together?  How would Frank work with such a hastily gathered team?  It was not the ideal beginning to a world cruise - but much worse could have happened if our accidents had befallen us at sea.  This was not the sort of start we had envisioned - but surely things could only get better?

Two days later I was out of Cork University Hospital, staying at our eldest daughter Rachel’s home nearby.  There was no way of contacting Frank, though the Rally office in London was able to give me one position fix after about ten days: it looked like Atlantic Islander was making very good time.  I attended the hospital twice weekly for changes of dressing. After 10 days the flap graft had taken, and my donor finger was separated from the index.  The doctors were very pleased at my progress, and eventually I was well enough to start physiotherapy.  All the time I was anxious for news of Frank and the crew, and on December 15 the longed-for phone-call came through: all were safe and well in St Lucia.  When was I coming out?

My surgeon was adamant that I should be totally healed before going back to a boating life, so I willed it that this would be in time for Christmas.  I did go through guilt pangs about leaving my orphaned family yet again, and at this special time of year.  However they were as keen as I that I should re-join Frank, and finally two days before Christmas I got the all clear from the hospital!  Hurried arrangements for flights followed, and I finally got away on Christmas Eve for a short eight-hour passage high above the Atlantic's waves and currents.

As I sat in the comfort of the big 737, gliding over the ocean thousands of feet below, my mind went back to the beginning ...why were we attempting to circle the world in a sailing boat - at this stage against several odds? What drove us on despite the setbacks that we both had had? 

Origins of the Dream

It was early January 1994.  A howling gale tore at our 100-year-old house, which faced north over the sleeping village of Crosshaven, inside the mouth of Cork Harbour in the south of Ireland.  Rain lashed at the tall windows, and wind found its way through their time-worn frames.  The wooden shutters were closed and yet the long curtains shivered in the stealthy breeze.  A huge log fire roared up the chimney, and we were tucked into our usual chairs, drawn up close to its warmth.  The big house was deserted except for us: four of its five bedrooms empty now.  Our family of six had flown the nest, five of them scattered to universities in Cork and Dublin and Edinburgh, in the mainstream of life, and we were marooned in the once-bustling home, alone.

Frank stirred in his seat and passed me a slender brochure which had arrived in the morning’s mail.

‘Read this, and tell me what you think’, he murmured as he resumed his favourite evening occupation - reading the current edition of Yachting Monthly which he devours from cover to cover and which pastime renders him almost totally incommunicado for several nights on end.

I set aside my knitting and examined the slim brochure.  The cover showed a ketch at anchor in an aquamarine bay, dipping palm fronds etching arcs on the white beach in the foreground.  ‘Trade Winds Cruising Rally’ invited the title.  Entranced, I read the details of an eighteen-month world cruise to be organised by members of the RAF Yacht Club, taking in all those exotic destinations I had often dreamt of - Caribbean, Galapagos and South Sea Islands, Fiji, Australia, Bali, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Suez and the Mediterranean: a total of five oceans and nine seas, and countless lands and islands.  Much of the difficult preparations and worldwide arrangements would be taken care of by the organisers in advance, and expert advice would be given by specialists and members of the RAFYC in the form of seminars and lectures ashore prior to the rally's commencement in October 1995.  While at sea full safety and communications back-up would be assured during the eighteen-month passage.  Here, on a plate, was every aspiring circumnavigator's dream come true: the luxury and adventure of being their own master on a challenging voyage, while having much of the anxiety and pre-trip hassle reduced considerably.  I became more and more excited.

Ever since I was a child in Limerick, listening to my father's tales of far-away places, I had wanted to travel, and ever since Frank and I had moved to Crosshaven nineteen years before, I had been involved in boats in some capacity or another - never, I must confess, with the same enthusiasm as he - but for the past sixteen years I had accompanied him in racing and cruising adventures.  He had often spoken of making an extended passage, and while I was never too keen on being at sea for days on end, the prospect of getting somewhere new and different was reward enough for the broken nights and rough-and-ready meals.  Here, however, was the opportunity of being hand-held while making a far greater voyage than we had ever dreamed of: I would visit more countries than I had ever hoped for, and Frank would have enough sailing to satisfy him for some time to come.  It seemed heaven-sent, and as soon as I had finished re-reading the list of magical places the cruise would visit, I was ready with my answer.

‘Are you really serious about this?  It seems absolutely fantastic!’

Frank was usually the one who needed to be coaxed into the annual foreign holiday - but never needed pushing to take the boat away, whereas I usually preferred getting on a plane and reaching somewhere foreign as quickly as possible. Within the normal two-week time frame this for me was a necessity: cruising always took so long to get anywhere, but here was an opportunity to go everywhere I ever wanted within a year and a half, and in the luxury of one's own floating home:  it sounded too good to be true!

‘But first of all, we had better get the family's reaction.  They might think it was a hare-brained scheme, and be worried about us.’  My motherly conscience began to itch.  While all our family were really independent, and happily out of the nest, those still at university would be left to fend for themselves in our absence, and it seemed only fair to put the proposition to them first.  With that, we picked up the phone and spoke to all six.  Each one in turn was excited, delighted, and not at all as surprised as we had expected, but hopeful of being part of the Great Adventure during their holidays.  They were all keen travellers and good sailors.

And so, in a matter of half-an-hour, the decision of a lifetime was made: we would lease out our business (career change and development, recruitment and training), rent out our home, and take a well-earned sabbatical.  The seven-year-itch which had prompted regular moves and had taken Frank up the Human Resources career ladder from banking in Dublin to pharmaceuticals in Cork, and thence into the electronics industry before setting up his own consultancy, now had got a grip again, and his thirty-six years of working long beyond nine-to-five surely now deserved an eighteen-month break.  I too had had a variety of jobs, and while I had really enjoyed the last eight years with Frank as general factotum, by now the novelty was wearing a little thin and our lives were lacking adventure.  My parents and Frank’s mother had died in their early sixties, and fearful that a similar fate might befall us, we strongly felt that such a project should be attempted now, while we were still in our fifties, rather than waiting for ‘retirement’ age.

The first and most important part of this undertaking would be to find a suitable boat. Our current Moody, 31 feet long (9.5m), was too small to complete such a journey in comfort, though it had served us well in pleasant trips to the south of England and along our south-western shores, as well as putting in regular appearances in the weekly racing leagues.  Prior to In Pursuit we had owned a Cobra 850, bought sight unseen from a charter fleet in Sardinia. In the ensuing delivery trip organised by the Irish broker some difficulty was encountered with the main halyard during a storm: the incompetent crew abandoned the yacht to her fate midway between Sardinia and Corsica and took a ride on a cargo ship.  Étude was subsequently found by the Coastguard and safely brought ashore for a professional road delivery to St Malo.  The story of how we rescued the poor woe-begotten holed vessel whose engine was totally seized would take far too long to recount here - but her restoration and subsequent voyage to Cork was more than memorable and provided a sharp learning curve for the six family members who were involved.  The following year we survived a never-to-be forgotten return from Plymouth with four of the children (then aged between six and twelve) when we were battered by a 48-hour gale and were close to calling for assistance, exhausted and anxious, without an additional adult on board.  Four French trawler men met their deaths off the fishing village of Castletownbere in the same storm a few hours after we reached the safety of our home port.

Before settling in Crosshaven some 21 years previously, we had had no sailing experience whatsoever.  Frank picked up the rudiments through crewing on a well-run National 18 dinghy with skilled and patient friends who had grown up with boats.  In love with this new sport, he subsequently restored a 4.3 metre wooden dinghy in which we did our early family practice.  Our first serious yacht was a 6.4 metre Puppeteer, which we bought new in very basic sail-away mode, and christened Barbara in time-honoured tradition.  Made in the north of Ireland she was a superb racing boat in which Frank, our eldest son Andrew and I slowly built up experience and managed to carry away many prizes in the several monthly leagues right up to the frostbites.  To date our sailing career had been varied but quite limited, yet we felt we were now ready for a challenge.

We waited a week or two for the idea to really settle in our minds, and consulted a few close friends for their reactions, before committing ourselves to a £500 Rally deposit (10% of the total fee), and then tried to carry on as normal while waiting for the response.

Within a fortnight a letter arrived from the Trade Winds organisers in the Isle of Wight: the Rally was already oversubscribed by several boats, and they were returning our deposit while holding us on a list for a second rally to commence in 1997, if we were still interested.  We were devastated, and the building excitement was instantly deflated - but not for long.  We had already considered the possibility of not getting a place, for one reason or another, and had also weighed up the pros and cons of travelling such a distance in a large, homogenous group, with a lot of pre-arranged activities, regulations and possible restrictions.  Having committed ourselves mentally it now seemed impossible to postpone our departure for another three years, when we would both be older, and we had made up our minds that if necessary we would go it alone, at roughly the same time as the Rally - the optimum time from a wind and weather point of view.  So in a sense we were now relieved to have the freedom to make our own decisions, to go where and when we pleased, though we were quite apprehensive at our ability to manage alone.  In compensation, the £5,000 Rally fee would certainly help our budgeting for a replacement boat.

We navigated our own way through the masses of literature and specialist advice available to dreamers of the circumnavigation odyssey.  We avidly read every practical book on the subject - and there are plenty.  As working weeks shorten and career spans are diminished through ‘downsizing’ and increased technology, so more leisure-time has become available to more people, and the number of couples opting for several years afloat grows annually.  Many of these adventurers write well on the practical aspects of this lifestyle, and so our bookshelves began to swell with excellent titles like ‘Sell Up and Sail’, ‘Blue Water Countdown’, ‘Just Cruising’ and many more.  We contacted people who had done extensive sailing themselves, and extracted as much information as we could: all were generous with their time and advice.  Frank consulted hundreds of magazine articles, seeking practical advice, while I wrote to the embassies of all the countries we were likely to visit, to get information on visa and other entry requirements. (This was all pre-internet, so research took somewhat more effort.) Frank gathered information on radio operators’ licence courses and boned up on his navigation and electronics skills.  During a sailing career of 20 years he had completed his Yachtmaster's

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