Helming Hemisphere

Gavin Bladen is skipper on the 145-foot Hemisphere, the largest privately owned sailing catamaran in the world. Here, he speaks about his illustrious career.

Written by Hillary Buckman
Photography by Burgess

30 March 2017

Name: Gavin Bladen
Nationality: British
Age: 42
Current Yacht: Hemisphere

OCEAN: How did you start out in yachting and how long have you been at sea?

While backpacking around Australia for a year in 1992/93 I did my PADI Open Water Course with Cairns Dive Centre, which led to my first boat job as deckhand on board their Coral Reeftel.

While Coral Reeftel taught me the basics of deckhand work, cleaning, engine checks, tender handling, mooring and docking, assisting the engineer, painting and chipping and generally sweating away in the engine rooms, I was more drawn to the diving side of the industry after watching the diving instructors and dive masters interacting with the backpacker girls.

It was then down to Airlie Beach to complete my PADI Divemaster’s course with ProDive. I then worked as dive master on their SY Flying Dutchman and occasionally SY Romance for the rest of my stay in Australia.

After 13 months away it was back to the UK to save up for the next adventure, which would be focused on diving. In 1994 I headed back to Pro-Dive in Airlie beach to refresh my diving skills and get ready to sit my PADI Instructors Exam. It was on this trip that somebody said I would like the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean if I enjoyed the Whitsundays so much, however my goal was to move to Australia.

I spent 1994 investigating the option of moving permanently to Australia, but with no degree and no formal training in any occupation Australia was keen to attract, my score in the immigration point system was struggling to get out of single figures never mind the 150 points required.

Over the next few months, drawings were reviewed, conference calls held and the list whittled down to Marc Van Peteghem over in Paris. A month later, I left the British Virgin Islands and was sitting in a naval architects office to oversee the design phase – this was July 2004. At the first preliminary meeting it was recommended that the design should increase from 130 to 136 feet to provide more room in the aft cabins.

Then, sitting in Paris I’m presented with drawings for a 145-foot cat. Everyone was shrugging shoulders and couldn’t explain the additional nine feet. When I called the owner he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a use for the space” – so we were now going to build the largest sailing catamaran in the world!

It was a long process and the learning curve was often vertical, but we surrounded ourselves with the best designers, engineers and vendors we could and after 18 months in Paris we were ready to cut aluminium in America. Unfortunately the next four years proved tough as the American yard mismanaged the build contract and drove themselves into bankruptcy. We were beset with legal battles, negotiations and a constant stream of unfulfilled promises until we were able to free the project from the failed yard.

Hemisphere was completed at Pendennis Shipyard in the UK, where the project was shipped to in October 2009, and over the next 22 months we finally reach our goal, with Hemisphere launched and commissioned in August 2011.

Unfortunately Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn had beaten me to the Caribbean and brought havoc to the area. While the British Virgin Islands had faired extremely well, the US Virgin Islands were devastated, along with the start of the tourist season.

OCEAN: Can you describe some of your most exhilarating and challenging adventures to date?

Overseeing the design and building of Hemisphere was the most challenging adventure, but also one of the most rewarding. Our farewell from Pendennis and the town of Falmouth was a firework display off the main beach. We departed the shipyard in the failing light of a summer’s evening, and headed out of the bay and around past the castle and down to the beach. Hemisphere was finally clear from her shrouds of protection and could finally be seen in all her glory. We hovered off the beach as dusk gave way to dark, which was quickly replaced by the chaos of fireworks overhead. Hemisphere turned to face the beach and blasted her horns as a final farewell, which was greeted by an amazing applause that gave me goosebumps – I will always remember that evening. Then we turned and he headed off into the English Channel, en route to the Med.

OCEAN: What is your favourite thing about being a superyacht captain?

Teaching and showing people something new. I take as much enjoyment teaching a kid how to snorkel as I do an adult how to dive. It doesn’t matter how outgoing or adventurous the guests are when they arrive, we can always find something new to make their trip memorable.

OCEAN: Hemisphere has cruised through Panama, Costa Rica, Cocos, Galapagos and French Polynesia. Was this an easy process and how successful has it been so far?

It’s all about organisation, research and having the right contacts. It’s easy to run yachts that only do the milk run, however the effort to venture off the beaten path is rewarded by discoveries, adventures and friends you make along the way and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Galapagos was probably the trickiest out of these destinations. Unfortunately while they are busy thinking up new rules to protect the area, they are sometimes losing sight of the initial goal. I’m not one to typically write thank you notes to the places we visit, however I did elect to write to the national parks with suggestions how they could help themselves and maybe make things easier for future visiting yachts. In the letter I praise the decision to limit visitor numbers to the Galapagos, but point out that the initiative of giving local boats first visiting rights results in visiting yachts having to revisit certain areas, thus meaning a lot of unnecessary travel, traffic and fuel being burnt.

I was also critical of the diving legislation; regulations have contributed to the development of a monopoly situation where only six live-aboard dive boats have the right to the two premier dive sites, Darwin and Wolfe.

Hemisphere paid out US$48,000 in cruising fees, $1600 in Park entrance fees, over $5000 in port and harbour fees, almost $10,000 in having two guides onboard and just under $20,000 in local dive boat services but we still didn’t have the right to take the owner to Darwin and Wolfe. To do this we would have had to rent a live-aboard dive boat on a weekly basis and paid out an additional $60,000! Why should a private company have the right to charge $60,000 for the privilege to dive the premier dive sites in Galapagos, while the park sees nothing of this income? The park also needs to improve the standard of its local dive operators, unfortunately a few operators fall well short of acceptable standards.

OCEAN: What has been your favourite destination to visit so far and why?

Isla Cocos, Costa Rica. It’s a small island off the coast of Costa Rica. The island is stunning and was used in the opening credits of Jurassic Park. It’s lush, green and while we were there it rained, creating over 60 waterfalls that plunged into the ocean off the cliffs. The camera crews for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week are regular visitors and for good reason, the diving is phenomenal.

OCEAN: You recently undertook some maintenance work. Where did you get this done and what work was undertaken?

Doing maintenance in remote places is always tricky, however we have been able to haul Hemisphere out in French Polynesia at the navy dry dock facility in Papeete, which went very smoothly.

For some of the more technical maintenance we have flown in professionals from Europe. It does add to the cost, but it allows us to stay in paradise and with a little creativity we have managed to undertake everything we wanted to do.

OCEAN: What honest and direct advice do you have for maritime authorities/government/superyacht industry association types on how to better serve the needs of private visiting superyachts and charter yachts?

Yachts can bring a wealth of economic advantages to the locations they visit, and the easier it is to arrive, stay, have access to visas for crew with less favourable passports and operate the yacht’s business, the better it is for all.

This year we will cruise French Polynesia, Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand, all of which will be fairly easy to operate in, however we are already starting to jump through hoops to set ourselves up in Australia, which is 10 months before we actually arrive, just to ensure everything will be in order.

OCEAN: If young Australians and Kiwis are looking to enter the yachting industry as a profession, what advice do you have for them?

Don’t jump around. Find a yacht you like and stay with it for a while and learn everything you can. Unfortunately it is becoming the norm for crews to jump boats to look for career advancement or more lucrative deals without building up any meaningful duration or experience from the yachts they’ve worked on. While certificates and tickets are required in the industry, it unfortunately doesn’t mean the candidates have the practical skills to hold the position.

One of the first things I look at when reviewing a CV is longevity in past positions, if the candidate moves frequently I just pick up the next CV.

OCEAN: If you weren’t in the yachting industry what do you think you’d be doing?

Taking anti-depressants and looking out of a dreary office window thinking that there must be more to life!