Barra man zeroing in on a world first

A Barra man is leading a world first as he skippers a team attempting a circumnavigation of all the ‘Capes’ in the southern hemisphere.

The Astra crew.
The Astra crew.

Captain Iain MacNeil, born and raised at Criochan overlooking Brevig Bay in Barra, is the CEO of Livingston-based maritime publishers, Witherbys, and he has spent the last four months navigating some of the planet’s most treacherous and remote areas.

On the MV Astra, Captain MacNeil is both the skipper and the owner and has overall responsibility for the four crew onboard, choosing the route and day to day management.

This unique and challenging expedition comes after ten years of ambition and two years of preparation and sea trials by Captain MacNeil and his crew, with the trip showcasing what can be achieved by a vessel such as the Astra, using the latest technology, equipment and skills.

Captain MacNeil. (Photos @andrea.gagliano.fotografia)

Their circumnavigation started in Lanzarote in December 2021 and are scheduled to wrap up the mammoth 25,000 nautical miles on May 20 when the MV Astra berths again where the adventure began all those months ago.

As expected, this isn’t for the fainthearted and is certainly not without challenges, including a weather enforced major route change which saw Captain MacNeil replot the ship’s course and switch direction en-route to the Pacific island of St Helena.

A mechanical issue while sailing south of Montevideo caused several issues as the crew discovered a mooring rope or fishing net had become entangled in the propeller, which required them to reduce speed overnight until it cleared. The vibration badly shook the mechanical stern seal and resulted in a loss of 15 litres of oil into the vessel's bilges.It cleared the following morning, but for safety purposes a team of divers had to inspect the propeller and rudder in Ushuaia (Argentina) before Captain MacNeil rounded Cape Horn and undertook the crossing of the Pacific.

Captain MacNeil continued: “After rounding Cape Horn, the Chilean authorities would not let us enter Chilean Territorial Waters to proceed to Ushuaia in Argentina to refuel. We did not have enough fuel to reach Valparaiso in Chile and had to double back 140 miles to approach Ushuaia from the Beagle Channel.“This coincided with a storm we were racing ahead of, which now caught us and so we were stormbound in Ushuaia for three days. We successfully rounded the Horn on 19 January 2022, but it felt like an old friend as it was the second time we had been there in a week.”

The MV Astra.

Another enforced stop took place in Tahiti as shortly after having left for the journey to Wellington, the maritime borders of New Zealand were slammed shut.

At this point the MV Astra was some 800 miles away from Tahiti and with an approaching Tropical Storm, they were left with no option but to return. “While in Tahiti the second time, we had to await the passage of another Tropical Storm with eight metres seas,” recalled Captain MacNeil.

“This created a 12 day delay, all due to the actions of New Zealand and because of it we are now facing a very challenging leg where we need to ensure we can reach Hobart, Tasmania, from Tahiti in head seas and with the autumn storms and cyclones of the Southern Hemisphere.

“It is never a happy situation for any mariner to have to navigate along a stretch of coastline in the knowledge that they will not offer you a safe port even if required for fuel or repairs and it is something we will take up with the maritime authorities formally in due course.”

Captain MacNeil, who is known on home soil as Iain Gerard or Mac' Ian Alick a Doghaidh, admits that successfully navigating around Cape Horn was one of the ship’s biggest challenges and also one the most rewarding – due to its extreme southern latitude it is prone to gale force winds and choppy waters. It’s one of the most hazardous shipping routes in the world and regarded in maritime circles as the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

Captain Macneil explained: “I turned 50 in 2021 and was looking for a suitable challenge that incorporated Cape Horn, which as a mariner has a certain allure. I had never sailed around Cape Horn when I was at sea on merchants’ ships, so skippering my own boat around it was an exciting idea. I have always been drawn to endurance challenges and in my 30s read many accounts of single-handed ocean crossings and circumnavigations.

“I started to take family holidays on 36-40ft sailing yachts to see whether a sailboat was something I wanted to own with, perhaps, the potential goal of completing a single handed ocean transit or circumnavigation. However, by 2015, I had decided that a larger explorer vessel, with an ability to get to where I wanted (in the time I wanted), was really what I was drawn to.

“If I was going all that distance to round the Horn, I wondered what else I should do and so I started to research the other capes and circumnavigations. Interestingly, I had also noticed that the landscape at Cape Horn/Tierra del Fuego is very similar to the Western Isles, with Cape Horn at Latitude 56.5°South. Barra head is at 56.5°North and both are battered by unobstructed seas across an expanse of ocean from the SW.”

The usual circumnavigation route for small motor vessels avoids areas like Cape Horn and instead plots a course through the gentle waters of the Panama and Suez Canals.

Taking on the much more challenging route via the southern oceans, which is typically only taken by merchant ships or expeditions heading to Antarctica, had never been done as a complete circumnavigation on a vessel of such a small size and Captain MacNeil’s challenge and bucket list journey was born.

Having identified his circumnavigation challenge the next goal was to identify a suitable vessel.

Captain MacNeil recalled: “Across 2015-16 I started to look for a ‘trawler yacht’, which would draw on my early experiences working on and around fishing vessels.

" I was brought up in a seafaring family and at 16 I went into the Merchant Marine, initially on cargo ships and, at the end of my seafaring career, on tankers, before then I spent 5 years in and around fishing boats on my home Island of Barra. At that time I was drawn to the prospect of a steel built vessel, but they were beyond my budget!

“In 2017, as a major first step, I bought a 16 metre motor yacht called ‘Silver Dee’ in the South of France. While ‘Silver Dee’ was of GRP construction she had an RNLI ‘Arun 16’ hull, although she had never served as a lifeboat and entered service as a motor boat.

“I used ‘Silver Dee’ to develop the specification for a vessel capable of undertaking this challenge, built around the capabilities of a deep-sea fishing vessel and with the benefits of steel built rescue vessels for service in the conditions of the North Sea. I looked very closely at steel built vessels in the 20-24 m range: ex Norwegian rescue vessels, ex Danish Naval Patrol vessels, ex German research vessels, ex deep sea fishing vessels (Norwegian and Dutch) and vessels of the Swedish Sea Rescue Service (SSRS).”

Them in March 2020, just before the global lockdown and with airports remaining open, Captain MacNeil made a trip to Gibraltar with his broker to view Astra which he bought shortly afterwards.

With the crew having now been at sea for four months both Christmas Day and New Years were spent without their families but for all four, this is nothing new or unfamiliar to them although the Captain will owe his wife a very special gift when he returns home at the end of the adventure.

“While I have been ashore for over 20 years, I was mentally prepared for being away over that period,” explained Captain MacNeil.

“When I was deep sea, I had the unfortunate knack of spending Christmas and New year at sea and did nine in a row. The other crew members were also all used to being away from home at Christmas/New Year as seafarers and were ready for it.

“I suspect our families were less happy about it, particularly mine as it coincided with my tenth wedding anniversary.”

While passing through the dangerous waters off the coast of West Africa which are often frequented by pirates, Captain MacNeil ensured he maintained a 150 mile minimum distance from the coast while also running for three full days with their marine transponder switched off and completely blacked out, with all ports and deadlights shut and navigation lights off.

“We did keep piracy watches and had additional equipment fitted, such as small radar unit to monitor the wash area behind us where pirate skiffs may creep up on you,” said Captain MacNeil.

“We used night vision binoculars and additional infrared equipment that can detect movement up to one km ahead of the vessel and 50° on either bow.”

For this voyage, Astra was fitted with satellite technology that maintains a 2mb/s connection. The only drawback for the crew has been the remoteness of our route, which means that they have spent over 30 days in satellite blackspot areas that are not currently covered as so few ships pass through there.This past weekend they passed South Cape, NZ, two months after they rounded Cape Horn. In that time, and across some 9,000 miles at sea in the Pacific, the MV Astra only saw two merchant ships, one ferry and a single fishing boat.

For their epic world first Captain MacNeil made sure to take a handful of tastes from home with local shortbread, homemade jam from a neighbour in Aviemore and five large batons of Stornoway Black Pudding - of which the crew are now down to their last one.

He added: “The trip has more or less been as expected. However, it is extremely tiring in such a comparatively small boat on the open ocean, but it would not be much of a world first challenge if it was easy.”