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Testimony

World tour on Astréa 42 – Cruising Orinoco Too

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Viviane and Luc’s odyssey

It is a long road from Africa to Alaska; from backpacking in Burundi to bluewater adventuring. But that is the path taken by Luc and Viviane Bulterys, a pair of avowed travellers who have found their life’s meaning through an Astréa 42 from Fountaine Pajot. Sam Fortescue caught up with them via Starlink in the Sea of Cortez.

“The contrast, the colours, the ease of anchorage and the ease of the Mexicans,” rhapsodises Viviane about their recent explorations. “If you like the desert and the sky and the sunset and the beach and the food, you feel like you’re in a kind of movie. Or maybe a Hemingway novel or something. There are so many spots where you are alone, because Americans stick to the more popular places. The coast here is so, so freaking beautiful!”

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A first voyage aboard a monohull

Luc and Viviane are just starting on their fourth year of bluewater living, but their sea story goes much farther back. They owned a 49ft monohull from 2011-18 in which they explored first the Channel coast west of their home in Belgium, then across the Bay of Biscay and eventually as far south as Morocco. In 2016, they decided it was high time to chance the cruising life with a year’s sabbatical from work.

“We sailed to Senegal, then across the Atlantic to Fernando de Noronha,” says Viviane. “It’s an awesome island! Crossing the ocean was one of the great experiences, but the monohull was moving and heeling like a metronome, so I did get seasick.”

After Brazil, they cruised on northwest to French Guyana, where they daringly nosed as far as they could up the Cayenne River, which gave its name to the chilli pepper. “It was a real adventure,” says Luc. “There are lots of rocks in the river and we had a deep keel. But we made it, and when we arrived, they told us we were only the second boat to get there. We met the first boat, and it was a crazy German. He told us he was on the rocks with ths boat and the fishermen had to pull him off.”

It had been the same story exploring the River Saloum in Senegal, except that there it was sandbanks rather than rocks that littered the riverbed. This draft problem planted a seed that began to blossom after a chance invitation aboard a catamaran from fellow cruisers in Brazil. “The deep keel was keeping us from exploring the rivers, and then there was the seasickness. We decided we would definitely like a cruising life once we retired, but that we would be on a catamaran and preferably a Fountaine Pajot,” Luc adds.

Adventure on their Astréa

So once we were back in Belgium, we decided to sell our monohull and order a Helia 44. It was few months later that Fountaine Pajot launched the Astréa 42 and we loved the design. We saw the goods sailing reviews. So we asked Fountaine Pajot if we could still swap and then go for the Astréa 42 instead. And they agreed. The sleek design  from the Fountaine Pajot boats that we loved. Unlike most other catamarans that we didn’t like so much. We have so much more comfort. We live on our boat, so this is for us now a point where we can’t return.

While Viviane completed a short-term contract in Brazil, Luc set about orchestrating a suite of upgrades and customisations to the boat using aftersales specialists located close to the shipyard in La Rochelle. “We eliminated all the LPG on board – everything had to be electric,” he says. “Then, we changed the batteries for lithium-ion. We didn’t order a generator but did put an Integrel alternator system on the boat.

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The first challenge

The maiden voyage of Orinoco Too across the Bay of Biscay was an eye-opener for Luc, who undertook it alone – in November. “I ended up in 55 knots of wind by myself, having never sailed a cat before,” he remembers with a quaver in his voice. “Arriving in Lisbon after three weeks, I realised that the weak point was myself, not the boat – the boat was fine!”

Such fears are now long forgotten, and 22,000 nautical miles now lie astern. The couple bounced around the Caribbean during the pandemic, abandoning a plan to traverse Panama and cross to French Polynesia in 2020. Here too they found a silver lining. “We dropped the schedule completely and it was so much fun,” says Viviane enthusiastically. “It’s been a discovery for all the best places we visited. Bonaire, for instance. We never meant to go there, but we spent five months diving and kite surfing as we waited for Covid and the hurricane season to pass.”

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Arrived in the Pacific

After that they did pass through Panama, but again, the plan had to adapt. French Polynesia was still closed and there was a family wedding scheduled for the summer in Seattle. In their new-found spirit of improvisation, they set sail for Hawaii as part of a continental hairpin to follow the winds round and up to the Canadian border. Hawaii was spectacular, but hard work, the couple say. “In Hawaii, you are literally regarded as an ‘alien transient’ and there are few marina spaces,” says Viviane. “The islands were beautiful, but it was a big, big hassle.”

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“We decided to see Alaska and, for us, that is the top experience so far”

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The beauty of North America

They risked a battering sailing back downwind towards Seattle, but steered a safe course thanks to the routeing advice of Chris Parker in Florida. They ran out of fuel within sight of the coast, and had to use the dinghy to tow Orinoco Too the last few miles. But what a treat lay in store. “British Columbia is an absolute highlight,” says Viviane. “It’s the cruising grounds that we as Europeans don’t know. Then we decided to see Alaska and, for us, that is the top experience so far. Glacier Bay with your own vessel is a dream come true. It’s huge and the glaciers come right down into the bay. The animals were astonishing! We heard crunching noises before we saw the grizzly diving for clams and breaking them open. We saw a bald eagle flapping at the side of the shore before we noticed it had a seal that it was dragging up onto the shore. There are sea otters everywhere – we felt like David Attenborough!”

The vibe in Alaska is more open and relaxed than in British Columbia, where there are more restrictions on fishing and landing. But both cruising grounds offer long, protected stretches along an inside lead, and it’s easy to find a quiet spot of your own for the night.

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Back in Mexico

Back in Mexico now after river-hopping down America’s west coast, the couple is preparing at last to realise their French Polynesian dream. They are alongside in Puerto Escondida making the final preparations for the 3,000nm passage to Nuka Hiva. Belgian chocolate is close to the top of the list of treats, but they have so many more options on the Astréa than they did on the monohull.

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The journey continues

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Besides revictualling, the couple have used their time ashore to tweak some of the catamaran’s control lines. To the existing asymmetric spinnaker and huge Parasailor (they call it the Jurassic Butterfly and are slightly afraid of its power), they have added a Code Zero. Thanks to the addition of a number of blocks and jammers, all the lines for these sails now come back to the cockpit. “Luc bought a machete here in Ensenada,” says Viviane with a laugh. “I thought it was for cutting coconuts, but it was actually to prise off the headlining to fit the jammers!”

For the first time ever, Orinoco Too will have a buddy boat for the long crossing – a 60ft monohull. The Astréa’s high average speed of 6-plus knots means that they are unlikely to stay in visual contact for long, but it’s a comfort all the same. “Now we’re just waiting for a weather window,” says Viviane. “We like to start on a full moon – it makes for an easy departure.”

Luc and Viviane have captured their travels in images, which won them the “Freedom and Adventure” category in Fountaine-Pajot’s annual photo competition. See more on social media at #MyBoatAndI2023 and at the couple’s own website: orinocotoo.com