Venerable yacht captain Phil Wade was born in Purley, South London, in 1944 but, as his family emigrated to South Africa three years later, considers himself to be wholly South African. Phil had an intense introduction to a life at sea by attending General Botha Nautical College in Cape Town, a strict disciplinarian school that gave good grounding in navigation and seamanship – and a good hiding when you needed it. There followed a rich, yarn-filled career, including a stint in the Merchant Navy, hundreds of thousands of nautical miles as a sailing yacht captain, two seasons commercial salmon fishing in Alaska, dozens of offshore races, and a very high-profile rescue from an upturned Drum in the 1985 Fastnet – alongside a certain Mr Simon Le Bon. Phil also managed to squeeze in two wives – including Anne, the present and final Mrs Wade, a daughter whom he met when she turned 18, and a lot of fishing – boatloads in fact.
Indeed, so riveting is Phil’s life story, that he has already been the subject of a lengthy interview at the hands of Colin Squire from Yachting Matters magazine – 18,550 words to be precise. (Ask Phil for a copy.) It would be futile to replicate Colin’s work, instead we’ll pick up where he left off, in 2008, when Phil had spent around 17 years at the helm of 45-metre sailing yacht Timoneer and was really (really) keen to get out of yachting and retire.
Phil continues: “The boss, Mr G, died in 2009 and I thought, ‘this is it, retirement beckons!’. Shortly after, his widow, Mrs G, asked, ‘you are staying aren’t you?’. Retirement was once more put on ice. The wife was steering much of Timoneer’s adventurous side and, as she hadn’t been able to travel much in the last year of her husband’s life, was keen to get going immediately – starting with Cape Horn. I put forward two options: through the Panama Canal and turn left, or turn right and go via Alaska. As the children still had raw memories of their father being medically evacuated out of Antigua, they persuaded Mrs G into going via Alaska, where she’d surely be closer to assistance should she need it.
“Summer 2010 was therefore spent in a pristine wildlife paradise, taking endless photos of playful whales, cheeky sea otters, pods of orcas, packs of whales, and countless bears with their cubs. Having ticked Alaska off the itinerary, I suggested we continue round to Japan and China but for Mrs G it was Cape Horn or bust, so we headed down via San Francisco, the Galapagos and Easter Island, before making the several-thousand-mile journey across the Atlantic to Palma, Mallorca.
“By now, I was handing more and more things over to another captain, only making appearances when guests came on board. I was managing the boat from a distance, helping out with the paperwork that was rapidly becoming too much for one captain to handle on his own. And then, in December 2014, Mrs G passed away. I’d been part of that family’s colourful life for almost 25 years and was so sad to see her go. She was an icon and an example of how to enjoy life. Timoneer was sold and finally, at the age of 71, it was my moment to retire.
“Retirement essentially means being busy the whole time, juggling so many projects that everyone around keeps telling me to slow down. But there are two projects I refuse to neglect: charity and writing.
“The charity work took shape in 2011, when I and my class mates from the General Botha celebrated a 50th anniversary reunion. It was a five-day event and, as part of the programme, we visited Lawhill Maritime Center at Simon’s Town School. It was a strikingly similar setup to the General Botha – minus the beatings of course. I witnessed polite black students from disadvantaged backgrounds enthusiastically preparing themselves for a career in the maritime industry – it was a pivotal moment. I’d never been a particularly charitable fellow, a typical right-winger who looked after number one, but I had an instinctive feeling that we should be running a bursary for these aspirational kids. Well, the General Botha Old Boys’ Bursary Fund celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. During this time, 40 students have been sponsored and educated at Lawhill, 100 students have participated in the Fund’s extracurricular activities, nine students funded through tertiary education, and five officers and five cadets are on their way to becoming captains.
“The next pivotal moment came three years later in 2014, this time in Mallorca, where I met fellow South African skipper, Anthony Just. I told Anthony about our Bursary Fund over a long Spanish-style lunch, and he said he wanted to get involved. Together we came up with the idea for Marine Inspirations, a charitable mentoring programme that would showcase the superyacht industry, as opposed to the Merchant Navy, to these aspiring youngsters. The time was right to empower and inspire those who wouldn’t ordinarily get a toe, let alone a foot, inside the door of this wonderfully white middle-class world.
“Anthony was co-owner in classic 24-metre schooner Aloha-J of Cariba lying in Palma and I, of course, had access to suitable candidates via the Bursary Fund. That October, we invited two Lawhill students to join our race crew in the Ibiza Rendezvous – they were treated like celebrities. In June 2015, three youngsters came over to race in The Superyacht Cup. And so we went on – until COVID-19 took away the ability to travel and fundraise.
“Two of the kids we’ve helped are now giving back to those who are valiantly following in their footsteps. Back in 2015, Colin Richardson, the South African captain of 52-metre Feadship Mirage, offered to take one of our students on a transatlantic delivery from the US Virgin Islands to Palma Mallorca – we selected Theo Jack. Theo was born in a Township in East London, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, but his parents quickly moved to Cape Town to look for work. Despite being very young, Theo became fascinated with boats and, when he was old enough, joined the Sailing Academy at Royal Cape Yacht Club. When family funds ran out, his education was put on hold. The timing coincided nicely with Colin’s offer. Having fought tooth and nail to get him a US visa, Theo was on his way to the States.
“Upon arrival in Palma, Theo met Richard Masters – another fellow South African who founded a yacht management business in Palma – and was offered a seasonal deckhand position on a well-known charter boat in Ibiza. With an infectious smile and easy-going manner, Theo was such a hit he was invited back the next season. He’s since forged a wonderful career and is currently working on 52-metre sailing yacht Anne, clocking up 20,000 miles in 2020 alone.
“Theo announced he’d like to ‘send the lift back down to the ground floor’ and is now paying it forward by supporting Lawhill student Sifundo. Theo has launched a fundraising website, www.amanziwethu.org, and is now not only covering Sifundo’s school fees, boarding and travel expenses, but is also acting as a mentor through regular calls. This is such a success story for us.
“Our other star is Lutho Thomas. Keen to start a career in the yachting industry, we facilitated Lutho’s travel to Palma at the end of 2020 – no mean feat in COVID-19 times. The former Head Boy of Simon’s Town School is now working on Mirage with Colin and, like Theo, sponsoring another kid behind him. So blown away was Lutho by the tips he made during this summer charter season, that he decided to use his thank you money to say ‘thank you’. Lutho is now seeing Lawhill student Jonoel Lee Meyer through his STCW, powerboat licence, ENG1 and so on. I’m 77 now, 78 next, and it’s heart-warming to see the next generation slowly taking over the Marine Inspirations reins.
“Charity work, as glorious as it may be, does not keep me in shoe leather, so I also have a property portfolio to manage. The likes of me who spend their lifetime at sea never pay into the system, so I have no social security, no pension, no nada. It’s been up to me to provision for my future. In the 1990s, I played with the stock market and, on paper, was making more money buying and selling investments than I was skippering boats. In 1998, I was in Mallorca, wandering around Palma, and started using my gains to acquire property in the historic fishing district of Es Jonquet. At one time, I had eight in one plaza, but I am gradually dismantling the portfolio to release capital, which is what we now live on.
“I’ve always been interested in finance and am astounded at young peoples’ – and a lot of adults for that matter – general ignorance on the subject, through no fault of their own. Why are we not taught this at school? I’m 20 or 30 pages into writing a short book about it, explaining the basics of mortgages, compound interest, and so on, but I always get distracted. Instead, I think I will incorporate this brief education into my memoirs, which I’m also struggling to write. For a lot of my life, I have had this inclination to teach and inspire others, and share experiences, which is why I really would like to write my story. I want to encourage youngsters to learn about adventure and life, and just get out there and do things.
“When I took off sailing, I was amazed that most yachties did not understand basic celestial navigation and their ‘bible’ was a book written by Mary Bluett. I was astonished how complicated she made it all sound, so I set out to write a thin booklet with ten easy steps to taking a sextant sight and fixing your position – it really is quite simple. However, this little booklet did not get finished, and someone else wrote one in the meantime, so that dropped by the wayside.
“Years later, I started writing another book on how to catch fish from a yacht. There are of course hundreds of books written about sports fishing, river fishing and commercial fishing, but there was nothing for the cruising yachtsman who would just drag a line and pull in his supper. Again, very easy, but you had to know how. The book was also going to have short anecdotes of fishing stories. This was back in the 80s, before laptops, so I was using a thing called a word processor. I was about halfway through when I visited my parents in Durban. One night, I was out for dinner with friends and when I came back firemen were hosing down the remains of the house. Fortunately my parents had escaped, but the word processor and everything else was burnt to a cinder – so that was the end of that project. The fishing stories will go in the memoirs.
“Another subject I try to teach youngsters is the importance of communication. I strongly believe that a large part of my career success is a result of me keeping in touch with people. I met Skip Novak in Rio in 1977, when he was on the Round the World Race and I had just delivered a Portuguese 70-footer. I kept in touch, and he introduced me to the delivery of a 77-foot maxi from Palmer Johnson shipyard in Wisconsin to Greece. I stayed in contact with the CEO of Palmer Johnson yachts, who became a friend. Some years later he also recommended me to the owner of Blizzard, whose boats I delivered and raced for many years. Later, he introduced me to Rahmi Koç, the richest man in Turkey, and I delivered his boat Nazenin from Connecticut to Istanbul in 1987. Rahmi is now also a friend, and he sponsored a Marine Inspirations’ trip for three Lawhill boys and myself to Turkey. When he chartered a 115-foot boat to go fishing in Alaska, he invited me, and so it goes on. In fact, Mike Kelsey from Palmer Johnson also introduced me to the owners of Timoneer when they needed a Captain in 1991 – and the rest is history. Without communication this would not have happened. I will write about this in my memoirs too but, as you can see, my track record of finishing books is not great.
“As for the future, I don’t want to achieve anything. I’ve never been here to achieve anything, I just like doing things. I’m not itching to tick anything off any bucket list, I’ve already done so much, I just bimble along and if something pops up I grab it. I guess I’m more keen to return to places I love and do them some more. Alaska is my second home and I’m already planning a summer 2022 trip. I have many friends there, so we’ll probably fly into Anchorage, rent a motorhome and drive down Kenai Peninsula, chartering a boat here and there to go fishing. But before that, in January I shall be in the Kalahari Desert. I love being in the bush, lighting an open fire, barbecuing food, being with nature – it’s good for the soul.
“Although we’re Spanish residents, we also have a nice three-bedroom home in Helderberg Village in Somerset West, part of the wine-producing Western Cape. It’s a secure retirement estate surrounded by vineyards with a huge spread of facilities, from a nine-hole golf course to four swimming pools. When I’m old and frail, this is where I’ll probably spend my final days – but who knows?
“Do I miss anything about being a yacht captain? Absolutely nothing. Do I have any regrets? None at all. When I was racing in the Whitbread Round the World Race, the Admiral’s Cup, it was a lot of fun. We’d enjoy a drink at the end of the day, wake up with a hangover, and crack on with the sailing. Today yacht racing is full of professionals who are there for the money. It is the same with a lot of the new deckhands, when you interview them their first question is always, ‘what’s the salary?’ When I was their age, being paid wasn’t even a thought. I was sailing round the world, meeting people, while someone else was buying the groceries – any pay was a bonus.”
Sarah Forge, firstname.lastname@example.org