Justin was born in Banff in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, about as far removed from a seafaring location you can get. His parents separated when he was five, so Justin, his siblings, and his mother, moved even further from the ocean, to Calgary. So how on earth did he end up captaining the world’s largest sailing yacht?
“Perhaps my adventurous spirit, my ability to pack and go at a moment’s notice, comes from my father’s father,” says Justin. “He was born in Canada in 1915, but spent his childhood with family in Greece. Then, in 1927, it was decided that it was best for 12-year-old George Christou to return to his birthplace. A nametag was sewed on his jacket and, a trip across the Med, jaunt through France, a Transatlantic and a train ride across the entirety of Canada later, he was with his uncle in Alberta. But there’s more. Mum loves all this ancestry stuff and, in addition to her Irish side of the family being among the first settlers of the ‘wild west’, has traced a connection all the way back to the Mayflower in the 1600s. She also came across a family member’s job application to become a ship’s master, dated 1885. He was a well-respected captain with vast worldwide experience, applying to travel up and down the west coast of North America on a timber trading schooner. Perhaps I have some of his blood running through my veins too.
“After the split, Dad settled in Kelowna, British Columbia. From about 14, he organised dinghy sailing lessons in the summer – my first taste of life on the water. Back in Calgary, Mum allowed us plenty of freedom. She kicked us out first thing and ordered us not to come home until the street lights came on. We played on railroad tracks, fell out of trees and stepped on rusty nails – but we all survived. On reflection, if I allowed my son to do all this in today’s world, I’d probably be in a spot of trouble.
“Decades later, I witnessed some of this responsibly-negligent parenting in Mallorca. It was late autumn, a beautiful day, and my wife Brenda and I were walking along Playa de Palma. Kids were messing about on the beach, while the parents drank cañas across the street – just half an eye on their wellbeing. I thought, ‘This is where I want to raise my kids’. We bought a house in Palma in 2012, and have not once regretted it.
“I did well at school – above average – but without studying. This technique worked perfectly well in primary and secondary but, when it came to further education, it was apparent I didn’t have the studying skills to truly succeed. After graduating from high school, I took a year out before Uni and started bartending. This is a well-paid and well-respected job in Canada, and the more I did it the less desirable a white-collared job seemed. I did not know what I wanted to do, but sitting behind a desk was not it.
“In 1994, when I was 21, I relocated my bartending career from Calgary to Vancouver. By day, I’d lend a hand day working on a Feadship owned by a local businessman, at weekends I’d be around-the-buoy or regatta racing a 41-foot cruiser-racer called Maestro, and by night I would be back at work slinging cocktails.
“By the time I was 24, things stepped up a gear with plenty of offshore racing. We did the Vic-Maui, starting off in Victoria, British Columbia, and finishing near Lahaina, Maui – a distance of approximately 2,308 nautical miles. We won our class. And then there was LA to Puerto Vallarta – well over 1,000 nautical miles. I was young, keen, and often did it the wrong way. I would jump on a heavy mini-maxi for the downwind race, and then catch a ride delivering a light hi-tech boat upwind, taking 40 knots on the nose and getting smashed. It was neither glamorous nor flash, but if it was all beautiful downwind sailing you wouldn’t learn so fast. Sometimes you need to go the wrong way to learn the skills. I never sailed for money, always on a voluntary basis, and not once dreamed it could be a career.
“Vancouver Indy weekend 1995, a chap called J P English was sat at my bar. He was first mate on 40-metre sailing yacht Sariyah and invited the bar staff out the next day for a day sail – it was definitely a thinly veiled attempt to hit on the waitresses. As it turned out, all the girls backed out, so I was the only one who showed up for a proposed friendly duel against J-Class Endeavour. The race never happened, but I made a good friend in J P and we still keep in touch today.
“Afterwards, I never gave it a second thought. I certainly didn’t equate the experience I’d had with a possible career. And then, in 1997, 53-metre Feadship Royal Pacific was in Vancouver. The crew would drink in the bar and I ended up doing some day work. In April, day work became deck hand and the start of my professional yachting career – my nights as a bartender were over.
“Royal Pacific was a cool boat. It was enormous and I loved it. We spent summer in Vancouver and winter in Baja California, Mexico. But, barely had I progressed from deck hand to second engineer than the owner came upon hard times and lost his fortune. Shortly after, he passed away. So, in September 1998, I jumped across to 50-metre Amels Tigre D’Or, which had the accolade of being the first yacht to be built from the ‘keel up’ to the MCA Large Yacht Code. The boat was great, but it was not for me.
“Less than a year later, I went to work for Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark on his 47-metre Royal Huisman Hyperion. I hit the jackpot, not only was Jim a total superstar to work for, but the sailing yacht was also the largest and most advanced in the world. We sailed the South Pacific, went to the America’s Cup in Auckland, did the Galapagos, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Fiji, Tonga, the Caribbean, east coast US, and Europe. I left the week before the Twin Towers’ attack.
“The time was right to get away from it all. I bought a Yamaha TDM 850 in St Tropez and cruised all around Europe, including Gibraltar, mainland Spain and the island of Mallorca. I had a blast. Three months later, I sold the motorbike back to the dealer – it was cheaper than renting. Appetite for adventure satiated, I joined 40-metre Bill Tripp-designed Alithia as first mate. She was a really sexy offshore cruiser, flush deck, plumb bow. I was at Abeking & Rasmussen for the last three months of her build, then instructed to deliver her to the South Pacific, via Antigua and Panama, where the owner’s family and security team were going to take over as crew.
“Contract finished, I flew to Newport Rhode Island and became engineer on 37-metre classic 1930s motorsailer Atlantide, owned by my second superstar owner – venture capitalist Tom Perkins. Atlantide was a real gentleman’s yacht, all clear varnish and gold leaf with an Art Deco interior – simply stunning. She acted as mothership to Tom’s 1915 classic Herreshoff 42-metre Mariette, and tender to 88-metre Perini Navi Maltese Falcon that would launch in 2006.
“Winter 2002/3, Atlantide and Mariette were laid up in Antibes while attention turned to the in-build Maltese Falcon. Both captains were quietly let go and we engineers drafted in as deputies. In effect, I had been ‘promoted’ to captain. I was sceptical, I never wanted to be a captain, and rightly felt that there was far more job security in engineering. While the engineer on Mariette was proudly professing, ‘I’m captain!’, I was careful to say I was, ‘looking after Atlantide’. I gently grew into the role and gradually came to accept it.
“That winter, I hosted a Christmas barbecue for ‘orphaned’ yacht crew and was introduced to fellow Canadian Brenda. We became friends. Six years later, in summer 2008, Atlantide was scheduled for a trip to Alaska, but it got cancelled. Instead, we cruised Desolation Sound and enjoyed some downtime while moored in Vancouver. Coincidentally, Brenda happened to be in town taking some courses. We literally bumped in to each other on the Stanley Park Seawall and the rest is history. It was a whirlwind romance and I loved every second. A few months later, she joined me on Atlantide in San Francisco as chef and we got married in 2016.
“For 12 happy years I travelled the world on Atlantide. From the Black Sea Russia to the Mediterranean, Northern Norway to the east and west coasts of Canada, the Caribbean and Central America – we turned heads wherever we went. There was plenty of time between trips to smarten her up, keep her pristine, and we always chose a port with good facilities so we could jump off, keep active and healthy, and enjoy life.
“I have a vivid memory of cruising up a little freshwater creek in the Bras d’Or Lake, Cape Breton Island, and getting attached to the muddy bank with one of the stabilisers. I pulled it off and got back into deeper water, before jumping in to check the hull. When I first joined Atlantide, I asked Tom for some advice. He said the best advice he could give was to not go aground while he was onboard. Well, I just did. And his response? Tom clapped me on the back, chuckled, and said, ‘well that’s what happens when you voyage to the ends of the earth’. Previously, Tom’s 43-metre ketch Andromeda La Dea ran aground in Alaska. A nine-metre tide left her stuck on a gravel bank and eight long hours passed before the water returned and she floated free. I guess a brush with a muddy Nova Scotian bank wasn’t so bad.
“As Tom got older, various yachts in his fleet were sold, including Atlantide, and he passed away in 2016 – a sad day. Tom was a real gentleman, a fun adventurous character, and I counted him as a true friend. As an aside, Jim Clark bought Atlantide at the back end of 2020. She’s now at Royal Huisman for a complete restoration. I’m happy she’s in safe hands.
“In June 2013, I became captain on 71-metre Lürssen Skat, two months after our son Dylan was born. It was a dual-season boat and we moved a lot, from the east coast of the US to Nordkapp, Norway. Skat could cover distances very quickly, so we’d also sneak in half-season trips to New York, or Sweden, The Bahamas. I was working for a warm, gentle, family-orientated owner and, like Tom and Jim before, these guys may eat from the finest place settings money can buy, but they don’t talk business, they talk about boats, the day’s sailing, their families and friends. Clearly, their most valued asset is time, and time onboard their boats is the most rewarding.
“And then, in 2018, the world’s largest and perhaps most environmentally-friendly sailing yacht in the world hit the water – 107-metre Oceanco Black Pearl. Her launch captain, Chris Gartner, invited me to join him on a rotational position – the answer was a resounding yes.
“Black Pearl is often compared to Maltese Falcon – a yacht I sailed and raced in numerous regattas – but she’s two-and-half-times the volume and so much more advanced. Both feature the same DynaRig technology but, while the Maltese Falcon’s hull was not designed for the rigs, Black Pearl’s absolutely was. She is more powerful and more manoeuvrable. We’ve got her to 24 knots so far, but Dykstra Naval Architects reckon she’s capable of 30 – we’ll have fun trying. Her 2,900 square metres of sails can be set in seven minutes at the touch of a button, no booms flying across, no sheets taking off, and no crew getting their heads bumped. And, because she’s optimal in all wind strengths, we hardly ever use the engines. The boss never gave us strict timeframes, just told us to sail and arrive when we arrive.
“I often have to pinch myself to realise how lucky I am to be at the helm of this unbeatable yacht – and I want to stay there. In the short term, I’d be keen to race in next year’s St Barths Bucket. We can’t get in there and mix it up with the rest of them – it’s impossible for a 350-footer to get in to a tacking duel with a smaller boat – but we can sail her hard and fast, while keeping a safe distance from the main fleet. In the long term, I’d love to sail Black Pearl around the world, and be part of the team that perfects fossil-free crossings for the future of the superyacht industry. Black Pearl’s hybrid propulsion system harvests kinetic energy under sail, which is then stored in lithium ion batteries and put to good use powering the house load. We can shut down all diesel-powered generators and run fossil-free. Black Pearl can literally cross the Atlantic without using a drop of fuel – it’s got to be the way forward.
“But, change is on the horizon. In June this year, Black Pearl’s beloved owner passed away. It was very abrupt and unexpected and we are all devastated. He was such a nice, kind and generous man, almost a father figure, and he’ll be sorely missed. It remains to be seen how this will affect my future, but all will become clear as the days progress. The most important thing we have all learned in the past year-and-a-half is that it is the people in our lives who matter the most. I am looking forward to whatever life has in store for us, so long as I am doing it with Brenda and Dylan by my side.”
Sarah Forge, email@example.com
SKAT photo credit to Simon McNeish
Black Pearl photo full sail photo credit to Tom van Oosanen
Cleopatra ship’s cat photo credit to Montee Coursey