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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Dan Wise

Captains of Ships – Dan Wise

Dan describes his Home Counties upbringing as very normal and very middle class.  One of four (elder sister, two younger brothers), Dan’s father was a financial advisor and his mother a wonderful homemaker, cake baker and unpaid taxi driver.  The only fly in the arcadian ointment was Dan’s indifferent attitude to hard work.

Dan picks up the story:  “I was bad at school, seriously dyslexic, totally lacking focus, and forever getting into trouble, but one thing I could put my mind to was sailing.  As luck would have it, our next-door neighbour was the father of Jane Coombs, a well-known name in Antigua boating circles, and he took me sailing, and my brother Josh fishing, from early teenage years.

“He had a boat in Chichester, a Contessa 32, and together we did weekend cruising, along the southern coastline, across to France, and even the Round the Island Race.  He would relay tales of Jane’s yachting exploits abroad and I developed severe wanderlust.

“My brother and I grew very close to him, rather like borrowed grandchildren, and it’s terrific that the fun stuff he taught us back then went on to become our careers.  My brother ended up being a big-game fisherman in Antigua for years while I, of course, entered the yachting industry.

“My father gave me the final nudge in the direction of a sailing career.  He’d read something about the Tall Ships Youth Trust in The Sunday Times and concluded it was just what I needed as an unruly 17-year-old, so off I went on an ocean adventure from Falmouth to Lisbon.  The weather was horrid, and there were some decidedly interesting characters onboard, but I really got a kick out of the experience – I wanted more.

“In 1999, age 19, I flew to Malta and did a season with Captain Morgan Cruises – a rite of passage for many young sailors.  It was basically 12 young lads on a square-rigged sailing boat under the tutelage of an ex-military English captain.  He seemed to actively encourage bad behaviour and we were like Malta’s version of Men Behaving Badly.  Wearing a ‘pirate uniform’ of a bare chest and shorts, with a knife tucked in the waistband, we’d take 60 guests on day charter to Comino Island’s famous Blue Lagoon and make sure they were well fed and lubricated.  It was great fun but, on a wage of 40 quid a week, I only managed one season before deciding to study for my Yachtmaster.

“There followed a four-month residential course at the UKSA in Cowes.  One of my fellow students was PE teacher Dee Caffari.  She would go on to become the first woman to sail solo, non-stop, around the world in both directions – it was obviously a vintage year.

“My first proper deckhand job was on 55 metre sailing yacht Adela.  A client of my father’s put us in touch and I joined in Falmouth and sailed down to the South of France.  I returned after a year for the end of the 2000-2001 BT Global Challenge, the Sir Chay Blyth-inspired ‘world’s toughest yacht race’ which started and finished in Southampton.  All the one-design Challenge 72s were back in harbour and I got involved in corporate events with the crews and sponsors.  We’d do regattas and cruises in the Solent and that’s where I picked up great skill and truly learnt how to sail.

“At the end of the summer, I enrolled at Southampton Institute, now Solent University, to study Maritime Leisure Management.  There was an ulterior motive, to be close to a girl I’d met who was already studying there, and suffice to say I didn’t really knuckle down to the course.  I found myself distracted by the desire to earn money.  While I was at uni, I worked on the re-build of classic sailing yacht Mariquita, was a flotilla skipper for Neilson Active Holidays in Greece and did my first Pacific crossing on 24 metre ketch Lord Jim – you can see how the coursework took a back seat.

“Upon graduation, which I am pleased to say I managed, I went straight back to the Challenge Business as a training skipper.  It was short-lived as, by autumn, the company had been placed in the hands of the administrators.

“I then got a job running a catamaran for an English guy who’d made a lot of money through his own dating agency.  He had the helicopter, and the plane, so he now wanted the boat.  With his partner, we cruised the Mediterranean, Caribbean and US East Coast, and the chapter came to a natural conclusion after two or three years.

“Next was 24 metre sloop Coconut.  After a period of not working, I was nearly out of money and, up against it, I wandered into Jane’s Yacht Services in Antigua and they sent me to an interview with Captain Nick Baldwin.  I took a plane to San Francisco, met Coconut’s owner and joined the boat – I would stay for seven years.

“In 2009, I hired a stewardess called Moira who was friends with my brothers when we were growing up.  I’d had a drink with her in Sussex earlier that year, where she confessed she’d grown tired of being an air hostess and wanted to work on boats.  I remember thinking she was pretty cute.  Completely green, Moira joined us on Coconut in December.  We picked up the owners in St Thomas and, although I’d hired her as a stewardess, I revealed she also had to cook.  It was a baptism of fire.

“We had a fun few years together and took the boat all over the place – US East Coast, the Caribbean, Med, and a few epic trips up to San Francisco via Panama.  I invited my brothers, with whom I get on great, on a few trips.  My Coconut days were fairly relaxed and I am so happy we got to have those shared family adventures.

“In September 2013, Moira and I left for Cornwall to get married.  Soon after we returned to San Francisco my phone went, it was my brother Josh who’d just attended the funeral of Kenny Coombs, Antigua Classic founder and son-in-law of our old next-door neighbour.  As it happened Josh, who is now chef on 42 metre Bystander, had bumped into my future manager who told him about the position.

“34 metre Swan 112 Mystery was lying in Palma Mallorca and, after so many years in the States, we were keen to get back to Europe.  We conducted the interview in a video conference suite in San Francisco and were offered the job.  Moira and I joined in December 2013 and launched into an extensive cruising programme the following summer.

“Although I had been to the Med before with Coconut, I had done very little cruising in this continent and had to start my local knowledge from scratch.  In fact, as I spent so much time there, I felt more American than English, and still secretly prefer the other side of the pond for sailing – although it is less practical for us as a family.  And yes, we are now a ‘family’.

“Moira did one year on Mystery before becoming pregnant.  The day we found out couldn’t have been more monumental.  We’d recently bought a cottage in Flushing, Cornwall, and the day we got the keys we also got a puppy, an English Cocker Spaniel called Winston.  We opened the front door, set Winston down, then simultaneously received a follow-up phone call from the local GP innocently asking if there was a possibility that Moira could be pregnant.  New house, new puppy, new baby.

“Moira stayed on Mystery as long as possible, until an eagle-eyed official at Palma’s STP shipyard had seen enough of this pregnant lady helping out with the refit and recommended it may be time to have a rest.  Our baby girl was born in August 2015.  We had a second in 2018.”

“Our life has settled into a routine of me throwing myself into summer seasons and winter projects, while Moira runs all over the place taking care of our daughters and plenty of boat-related admin.  In time off I’m playing golf, or dissolving into a sweat at CrossFit Mallorca.  Fitness aside, CrossFit Mallorca is my community, my space to hang out with really nice folks, and it’s also where I am getting in shape to row the Atlantic in December.

“Yes, it’s quite the bombshell.  I am sure my wife would rather I bought a Porsche or a stupidly-expensive bicycle and lycra shorts, but it seems my midlife crisis is manifesting as an ocean row.  Over the last few years I’ve been contemplating my fast-approaching 40th birthday and wanted to do something epic to mark the occasion.  I’d read about the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an annual 3,000 mile ‘race’ between La Gomera in the Canaries to Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua, and it seemed to fit the bill.  I fired a WhatsApp to fellow Mallorca-based Brit and quadragenarian, web designer Ian Yates, and, after pondering it for half an hour, he said ‘I’m in’.  Our team name is Roaring 40s, for obvious reasons.

“Neither of us are rowers, but our CrossFit Mallorca coach Cathy Clarke is doing her utmost to change this, alongside improving our core strength and stamina – essential for what will be a debilitating two-hour-on two-hour-off shift pattern at sea.  We’ll be up against seven other pairs and we want to be good, to be competitive, maybe even win, or break a record – the current one being 37 days 7 hours and 54 minutes for pair team Resilient X in the 2019 edition of the Challenge.

“I am hoping it will be a life-changing experience.  Spending more than a month of my life doing nothing but eating, sleeping and rowing should help reset my brain, body and my soul.  We’re also raising money for Plastic Oceans UK, a non-profit solving the plastic pollution crisis, but for me that’s rather secondary to what I hope to gain personally.

“So I now have my job, family, wife, daughters and an Atlantic row to juggle.  A lot of balls to keep in the air.  I am not great at coping with a shed-load of stress but I am learning.

“All being well, I will be spending Christmas 2020 at sea and, when I get back, I want to be a better captain, a better person, and carry on doing what I love.  When the time is right, I would like to leave Mystery for a larger 40-metre-plus sailing boat and be not just a Palma-based yacht captain, but a worldwide one.  However, there is that cottage in Cornwall waiting for us should the whim take us.”


By Sarah Forge hello@sarahforge.com