Retirement a breeze for US couple who only learnt to sail in 2012

They say it takes all sorts of people to make the world go round, but only one type of person to go around the world – the adventurous kind.

That’s certainly true of Americans Jill and Dave Higgins who last week became the first people to circumnavigate the globe in a Cape Town-built Maverick 440.

The California couple have a military background in the American Air Force, but had barely set foot on a yacht before 2012 when they both signed up for a beginner’s sailing course. They then rented a catamaran for a week during the holidays to get a taste of the real thing: “We purposefully stayed at anchor to see if we could live aboard, just the two of us, without killing each other,” recalls Jill with a smile.

In fact they got along quite well.

It was during this time they also started thinking about an alternative retirement – on the water. Says Dave: “We thought we could live in one of these things.”

Thus began a trans-continental shopping trip that culminated in a trip to South Africa to visit three boat yards on their short-list, an opportunity facilitated by SABBEX executive director Vanessa Davidson. In the end Maverick secured their order, and in June 2016 the couple returned to take delivery of a brand new 440, aptly named Air Power to honour their military careers.

However their first passage back home brought Air Power firmly down to earth with a taste of what the ocean can dish up. “The skipper (on hire to show them the ropes) showed us what the boat could handle, but I don’t know if that was his intention,” says Dave of the heavy weather they encountered on their way back. “We learnt that we don’t want to be in those conditions.”

The next big turning point in their sailing career was a chance encounter at last year’s Annapolis Boat Show, where they attended a breakfast hosted by the World Cruising Club – ARC. By the end of the week they had decided to set off on the next ARC trip, which was in three months time. It was a snap decision made possible by the couple’s military history with its many postings and aversion to dilly-dallying. Says Dave: “For 40 years I basically moved every two-and-a-half-years.”

Jill believes the repeated moves might also explain why the thought of simply lifting an anchor became more and more appealing, rather than having to sell an entire home and find another one. “There have been places where you build the home of your dreams and then the neighbour from hell moves in next door. With a boat we pull up anchor and just move to another marina – we just change neighbours. We now have no house. No car. This is home.”

Setting off was not without its hiccups, notably a panicked call from their eldest son who feared his parents may have lost their minds: “He suddenly realised that we were actually doing it,” says Jill with a chuckle.

And then they were off, down to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific, Australia, and then stopping at a few islands in the Indian Ocean. They cruised into Table Bay on November 24, completing a full circle.

“Coming back to Cape Town was just an amazing feeling,” says Jill. “We don’t think that we are done yet — we still have to go back home.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing of course, no matter that they took it slow and opted to take the sail down most nights. The couple ended up navigating by the stars when their auto pilot malfunctioned just as Dave fell ill with a serious tummy bug, an experience that prompted them to make a minor onboard alternation — moving the compass higher for ease of starlight use.

Currently they are due to take the Rovos Rail up to Victoria Falls while Rudi Pretorius and his team work on the boat.

In contrast to their son’s jitters at the start of the cruise, their family are now literally on board. Says Jill: “We’ve taken our grandkids out, but not their parents yet. We do Facebook chats with them, and when we were in Oz we sent them trinkets from the first part of or trip. Everybody is getting a good geography lesson.”

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