Suzanne Van der Veeken proves you don’t need a boat, money, or even experience to embark on a grand adventure and travel under sail. After hitchsailing across the Atlantic (twice!) she lives to tell the tale, and has plenty of advice for sailors and travellers wanting to follow in her footsteps.
Standing behind the wheel, Suzanne Van der Veeken grips tightly as she navigates through the Atlantic Ocean. Sails blazing, she watches the huge vessel before her glide through the ocean as spray is fresh on her face and the wind whips her hair into a tangled mess. Not long ago, she was standing on a beach in the Caribbean, watching the sunset and dancing to the sounds of tropical steel drums. And not long before that she was living a life on land, just another nomad listening to the call of the ocean.
As the sun rises over the water and dolphins frolic on the bow wave, Suzanne is sure she has chosen the best mode of transportation. Most people only get excited once they reach a new destination, but Suzanne is adamant that travelling becomes a much more magical experience when you can enjoy the journey as well.
“For me it really didn’t matter where we would touch the shore,” she says. “The transportation was the destination of this trip.” She didn’t want to just go somewhere new. She wanted to connect with the ocean, do some good along the way, and really learn as much as she could about sailing. “The only way to learn is to throw yourself into it and get as much experience as possible,” she says.
A few years ago Suzanne went sailing on a boat around the Whitsunday Islands during a holiday in Australia. Like most sailors, she was immediately hooked. She did everything she could to get a day out on the water here and there, which was enough to whet her appetite but not enough to sail off on her own. She wanted more. She wanted a grand adventure. To lose sight of land, to face the elements, and to disconnect from the real world. In a time when Wi-Fi and cellphones rule everything, she longed to just lie under the stars and be close to nature.
This desire to escape and to explore is one shared by most sailors. But most aspiring adventurers save up their pennies for years. They plan. They learn to sail and they buy a boat. Then, and only then, do they cast off the dock lines.
But what if you don’t have the funds for sailing courses and yachts? Suzanne decided the solution was to just throw herself in the deep end and hitchsail across the Atlantic. But finding a boat in need of crew turned out to be harder than just sticking out her thumb.
She looked everywhere for a good boat going in the right direction, and eventually found one. It was heading west, the costs would be split fairly, and it was full of like-minded young people who she got along with very well. But after a few weeks of island hopping she realized the captain was not making smart decisions. She decided to jump ship.
“I just had a strange feeling,” she said. “I figured this was not the boat to cross an ocean with.” Her instinct ended up right, and all the remaining crew eventually disbanded as well. She says when hitchsailing, it’s important to find a safe boat with fun people. “The journey is going to take a while so you really want to get along with the people. You want to be able to share the experience, not just the ride.”
Crew dynamics onboard a sailboat can be tricky at the best of times, so jumping blindly on board with strangers doesn’t always work out for the best. Her advice to fellow adventure seekers looking for a boat is to spend some extra time with the crew. Island hop for a few days before you leave on a big passage, or at least spend some time together as a group. She said it was hard to know what was right and wrong because she hadn’t really experienced boating life before. “Follow your instincts,” she says. “When in doubt, don’t do it. When you go for an ocean crossing, there is no way back.”
Not disheartened, she eventually found another boat and made her way across the Atlantic. It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of her life. She saw shooting stars and phosphorescence in the water, and enjoyed the peace and tranquility that comes from being at sea. She was not bored for a single second, and swore she would do it all over again in an instant. And she did. When the time came to head home again she hitched a ride on another boat and crossed the Atlantic for a second time, leaving the Caribbean behind her.
After spending so much time so close to the water, Suzanne has seen with her own eyes just how much the ocean is suffering. She has swum with manta rays in a plastic soup, built sandcastles made of plastic sand, and pulled up samples of crystal clear water only to find them full of plastic particles. “People protect what they love,” she says. “So I want people to fall in love with the ocean. To fall in love with the ocean and be triggered to make a difference, I believe you have to really experience the ocean.”
In a mission to help other aspiring adventures get out on the water and fall in love she is writing an e-book about her hitchsailing experiences. “I’ve seen so many people giving up their dream,” she says. “I meet so many people who kind of want to do this ‘someday’ but have no clue where to start or they just think it’s too difficult, too expensive, too complicated.” It’s not difficult. It’s not expensive. And it’s not complicated. There are plenty of boats out there, and plenty of sailors looking for a friendly crew mate who’s happy to pull their weight. With her book, Suzanne wants to help turn people’s dreams into a reality and help others make a meaningful difference in the world.
Enough cash to pay your way and then be able to buy a plane ticket home are all you need to embark on an adventure like this. (Suzanne left on this journey with nothing but 1000 euros in her pocket and a thirst for adventure.) No experience, no money, and no time are the main excuses people throw around when daydreaming about sailing off into the sunset. People put 5- or even 10-year plans into place to prepare for a life of adventure on the sea. But why wait? Suzanne says almost all excuses are null and void. “Many say they can’t do it because they get seasick, they can’t free up the time, or they think they need money or experience. All excuses. Everyone can do it,” she says. “You just need willpower, determination, and a smile on your face.”
Suzanne’s e-book will cover everything you need to know to hitchsail across the Atlantic, as well as information on what you can do to make a meaningful mission out of it and help look after the ocean. There are no more excuses to be on land! For more information on purchasing this book visit www.theoceanpreneur.com/hitchsailing-e-book
To help Suzanne with her conservation efforts and learn more about what she’s doing, visit her website at www.theoceanpreneur.com and follow her oceanpreneurial journey on Facebook or Instagram. She has loads of cool projects in the pipeline.
Also visit theinspirates.co, a new sailing expedition business Suzanne is working on with Roline Prummel, combining play/adventure with making a positive impact in the world.
written by Monique Williamson