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S/V Merlin Dean 44' Catamaran - Homeport: Cape Town, South Africa

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Emmanuelle & Gregory HALL + Victor (10), Felix (8), Cléa (4) - The French-South African couple started their circumnavigation in 2008, with 3 children and ... Emmanuelle's mother as extra crew. Currently in Polynesia - More about the MERLIN family

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1. The biggest challenge you faced in getting out there?   7. How do you handle: HEALTH and SAFETY?
2. Is there a best age to take children cruising?   8. How do you handle: EDUCATION and FULFILLMENT?
3. Any modifications to the boat for your children?   9. How do you handle: TASKS and CHORES?
4. Any advice for would-be sailing families?   10. What do you like BEST / LEAST about cruising?
5. A typical day aboard?   11. Has cruising changed your family?
6. What are the kids' responsibilities aboard?   12. A recipe for cruising families?

Update (2016)

The MERLIN Family 6 years later...



1. What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting out there?

The biggest challenge: finding the right boat in South Africa.

It took us a while to find the right boat, as there were not many boats for sale in South Africa. We weren’t sure about spending money traveling to find one.

We would do that now: fly to the Caribbean and look at the boats for sale there!

In the end, we bought an empty hull of a 44ft catamaran.

Finishing a boat wasn’t part of the project. We don’t regret it at all however, as Gregory knows Merlin by heart, and we have on board what we wanted and the way we wanted it.

However it took us much longer than we thought (18 months to complete the boat), and we learned to be very patient with our boat builder and his team!

2. How old were your children when you left? Is there a best age to take children cruising?

Our family as we left Cape Town (Sept 2008)

Victor was 8 years old when we left, Félix 6 and Cléa was 2½.

We think the best age to take children cruising is between 4 and 12. You don’t have the baby naps any more (and no more nappies to keep during a long passage), so you can move around during the day. The kids are still happy to spend so much time with their parents, and schooling is not too challenging.

Babies demand more attention and need to be entertained more. Their sleep pattern can be disturbing to visit around (one or two nap(s) per day). However, there is no school to do.

Teenagers are eager to meet other teenagers and need to have some social life which can be difficult to realize. From time to time, we go without meeting any kids, and the kids we do meet are usually younger than 14 years old.

All questions

3. Did you make modifications to the boat for your children? Any suggestions?

The boat was built specially by us for the trip, so we have what we wanted on our boat. During the building process we had three focus areas: first, an efficient sailing boat; second, an energy-efficient boat; and third, layout and storage that works for family cruising.


Never too young to help!
Lines lead back to the electric winch at the helm

1) I am a racing sailor at heart, so I wanted our cruising catamaran to sail at its best.

Folding props were fitted which possibly make the biggest difference in speed.

One electric winch at the steering position makes short-handed sailing a dream. Our kids can easily handle the spinnaker halyard, while I deal with the rest of the spinnaker stuff on the bow. All the main working ropes - such as both genoa sheets, the main halyard and the spinnaker halyard - lead back to this winch.

We have no winches on the mast, so time out of the safety of the cockpit is reduced.

Our spinnaker guys also lead back to the cockpit winches for easy control. Our main and spinnaker halyards have quality Harken blocks all the way, including at the top of the mast, as these are the two items that are pulled up a lot when cruising. The sails are of the best material available, which should result in the sails still having a perfect shape in 5 years time and being lighter to lift.

Our symmetric and asymmetric spinnakers, with socks, are both used extensively.

Our mast section is a little larger, allowing us to get rid of the inner forestay, which makes tacking much easier.

Weight saving was always a focus, and weight was saved where possible. All our doors are made of the latest honeycomb cardboard construction that saves about 60% of the weight of a standard door. The inflatable has an aluminum hull made by AB which is one of the lightest for its size.

2) We wanted to charge with the motors as little as possible.

To enable this we fitted 210-amp quality alternators on each motor and installed 760 watts of solar panels.

We installed 760 watts of solar panels

The Sanyo solar panels are 190 watts each and operate at 110 volts which the Outback regulator brings down to 12 volts.

Every light in the boat including all navigation lights are LED lights, and in the saloon we have dimmers that when turned down only use 0.1 amp for 6 lights. So lights left on are not a stress for us.

For water we went for the Spectra Newport 400 MKIV watermaker as this was the most efficient 12-volt unit on the market for the capacity we needed.

The solar panels will cover the power draw of the watermaker, fridge, two freezers, autopilot and full sailing instruments, and have extra for charging the batteries. This combination results in us not needing to charge with the motor on some days even with a 125L freezer and a fridge running full time.

3) We built in extra storage space so that we would have a place for things like toys, tools, spares, food, etc. Living with a family on a boat and doing ocean passages is very different from doing a one-week charter.

We feel that all these small changes make for an easier and more fun family sailing experience.


  • We would recommend trying to find a spot in your boat for a washing machine (water and energy efficient). Don’t go for a marine washing machine as they are much more expensive, or a light-duty water-hungry top loader; front loaders are best.

  • Oops! Our oven is big so we can bake
    3 loaves and 1 pizza at the same time!
    As we have a catamaran, we have more space. In the galley, we have a normal house gas stove, which is great as our oven is really big, so we can bake 3 loaves of bread and 1 pizza at the same time!

  • The features we love are the water maker, the solar panels, the fridge and the 2 deep freezers. On the entertainment side, we have a TV screen (plus a navigation screen inside) and a hard drive player for movies. The kids can operate these by themselves (great when we are doing long passages).

  • To save some water we have a system which adds air in the water at the tap or shower head. It helps, but a foot pump on some taps would be a good idea with kids.

  • We have an electric toilet, so there are no pump problems, especially with the younger kids…however they must not swallow fruit pips, as it can quickly turn the skipper’s mood at the sound of the rattling toilet.

  • Our primary communication in the open ocean is our sat phone, but an SSB is key to keep in touch with other boats and for the kids to chat with their friends.

If something breaks, buy an extra spare, as it will most likely break again. This policy has worked very well for us.

4. Anything you wish you had known before you got started? Any advice for families?

Things we wish we had known

Nothing in particular. Everybody finds his own cruising way of living. Advice is good but be yourselves.

Advice for families

Emmanuelle & Gregory

  • GET OUT AND DO IT. It is important to realize your dream, and doing it with your kids is something really special. It can be for a year or for 10 years. The most important thing is to try, to face all the challenges, to be proud steering away, and to be out there as a close and united family.

    Get out there and enjoy the open ocean and new faces. Planning destinations, boat maintenance and exploring new places with the family will keep you busy enough; you won’t be bored even on the long passages.

  • You don’t need the perfect boat to do it - as we have seen all kinds of boats out here. So just get the boat within your budget and go sailing.

  • Take some toys: watermaker, washing machine, deep freezers, fridge and a kayak or two.
    But don’t take all the toys. We have on board 5 bikes, 3 kayaks and a sailing dinghy. It is nice to have all these, but we don’t use them as much as we thought.

  • There will be some hard times, but you’ll remember only the best ones. It is not easy and happy every day. However, it is a strong experience as a family, so it is worth the daily effort. There are some fears, stresses, tensions and fights. Try to take a deep breath and re-evaluate the situation when there are problems. They are always manageable.


Victor (10)

Think of taking some card games, and from time to time it is nice to ask for your grandmother to come and play with you.

Félix (8)

Life on board is great. Think of taking your best toys …and some sun cream lotion!

All questions

5. A typical day aboard

A "typical" day at anchor

The kids wake up early. We have breakfast together.

Wake up!
Cléa goes shopping with Daddy.
Repair jobs

School starts around 8:00 – 8:30am and goes on until lunch time. We usually do a small break.

While Emmanuelle is busy with school, she also does some cleaning and cooking. Gregory is then busy with some maintenance/repairs jobs or goes shopping (so we don’t have to do it when we have some “free” time).

We have a light lunch (usually salads or sandwiches). The sun being too high, we then have a quiet time inside (reading, playing quietly).

Then it is time to have fun: exploring around the anchorage, going for a swim, a snorkel, playing with friends. When we don’t do school, we go and explore the island/town in the morning or for the full day.

Felix practicing in "Miaou" our small dinghy   Ashore or on board,
climbing higher and higher is the aim
  Birthday party
on the beach


We might have some friends on board, or we might go and visit some friends for a drink in the evening. (The kids love that, as it is play time for them, and usually runs later than their normal bed time). Otherwise, we have a quiet evening. The kids go to bed quite early (7:30pm). We might watch a movie or read.

There is always something to do on board!

Great moments

In the Tobago Cays, the kids enjoyed the clear blue water and the marine life. One day, they spent 6 hours jumping in the water and snorkeling with the rays just off our boat. They had their lunch at the back of the boat, still wet, and ready to jump back in.

In Las Aves, the boys went to the beach with their kayaks and played by themselves for hours. They were pretending to be the Robinsons, were building huts with palms leaves, were trying to catch small fishes …. They did the same in the Marquesas, but that time took their sister in their kayak

A"typical" day on passage

The day usually starts the same way.

If the seas are not too rough, we still do school on board during passages. The kids are then occupied and don’t get bored!

Afternoons, we play games (Monopoly, Clue, card games), watch a movie, or start some family cooking.

On very long passages (Atlantic crossing or between the Galapagos and French Polynesia), Emmanuelle’s mother joined us. She is not at all a sailor but is not scared of the boat life. Her help with the cooking, entertaining the kids and the watches gave us less stress and more sleep, and we were under less pressure to do everything (especially for Emmanuelle who does all the schooling and cooking on board).

We still do school!
(Galapagos - Marquesas)
Cléa wins!
On very long passages Emmanuelle's mother joins us.

All questions

6. What are your kids' responsibilities aboard?

We try to ask the kids to be a little bit involved.

Cléa can be a great
mechanical assistant

- The boys do the dishes and sweep the floors every morning and at lunch time. They have to tidy their cabins. They also help when it is time to clean the deck or even scrape the hulls.

- On the sailing side, they help put the spinnaker up and down. Victor is now asking to do some watches, so he might do an hour per day on our next passage.

- Victor helps from time to time with the fishing activities (getting the lines ready).

- Cléa can be a great mechanical assistant to Gregory when he fixes something. She is really good with all the tool names.

- Félix likes being involved in the galley.

Victor (10)

Felix: I go with a kayak to see if there are
other kids around the anchorage.
  • When we have porridge for breakfast, then I do the morning dishes, and I sweep the floor at lunch time.
    If it is cereal, I do the lunch dishes, and I sweep the floor in the morning.

  • I must look after my brother and my sister when my parents leave us alone on the beach or on Merlin.

  • I must check all the hatches before we go sailing.

Félix (8)

  • When Victor does the dishes I sweep the floor, and when he sweeps the floors I do the dishes.

  • I go with a kayak to see if there are other kids around the anchorage to meet new friends.

Cléa (4)

  • I set the table for lunch and dinner.

7. How do you handle: HEALTH and SAFETY?


Keeping the kids safe aboard

We have nets all around the boat. It gives a feeling of safety. The kids know the rules: usually they stay inside when we anchor in a difficult spot; they won't run around.

Caring for the kids offshore

If the kids go outside the cockpit, they have to wear a lifejacket and hook themselves on the lifeline. This often happens when we see a school of dolphins. It could be fine for the boys now, but the rules have to be the same for all, so if Cléa wears a lifejacket her brothers do so too.

Caring for the kids in rough weather

They can't go further out than the cockpit. But we haven't had such bad weather yet.

Keeping the kids healthy / getting medical care

Since we left we haven't had any disease. Life at sea and on board is a really healthy life.

We have on board 3 big boxes full of various medicines. Emmanuelle established a long list of medicines before we left, and our GP came on board to reevaluate it again, knowing our medical past. We have broad-range medicines for major problems.

We would recommend a good antibacterial cream, as the little cuts take a long time to heal.

Emmanuelle did a “ship captain's medical course” where she learned, for example, how to do stitches or put in a drip. We have some dentist and doctor friends who reply via email to all our medical questions when we have any.

The DAN evacuation plan is good for cruisers at a reasonable price.

8. How do you handle: EDUCATION and FULFILLMENT?


The CNED books just arrived!

We do the schooling in French and are using a correspondence system called CNED (Centre National d’Education à Distance). We have all the books sent to us (which is a little tricky when we are moving all the time). The kids have tests to send back about every 3 weeks, and then we have reports on their tests sent to Emmanuelle's mother in France.

We try to be regular with our school time. Holidays depend on the stops, so from time to time there are no weekends, but other times they will have lots of free and exploring time.

Emmanuelle supervises the school work. Victor works by himself most of the time, and Felix can do all his maths without any help. They work very independently but need someone to be around. Otherwise they play around, and nothing gets done.

Friendships and social interactions

If there are kids around, we always make the effort to meet them. It is not always the best friends, but kids are kids and they need interactions.

If the relationships are great between the kids and the parents, we try to sail together for a while.

Keeping the kids entertained

The kids are very good at that. They have loads of Legos and spend hours building various spaceships, boats, houses… They have lots of books, and from time to time we try to organize some book swaps with other kids. Electronic games soak up lots of time, but we need to limit the hours spent on them.

Personal space aboard

When we don't have visitors on board, we all have our own space with one cabin per child. Legos can cover the bed without disturbing anyone. This is also the luxury of a catamaran, but it is nice for the children to have their own space. However, too often we still walk on a little square piece of Lego or slide on a little car.

Family back home and their concerns

We do regular emailing, via the satellite phone, especially on long passages, and we try to keep regular updating of our blog. Keeping in touch and feeding them news seems to keep them happy.


9. How do you handle: TASKS and CHORES?

Big clean-up in Panama.


We have a washing machine (normal front-loader washing machine with a 9kg capacity) on board, and we are very happy to have it. This is a must for a family. We don't spend hours cleaning, rinsing or looking for a laundry place. It is not too greedy on water, and by reducing the amount of rinses (only 2 instead of 4) we use only 60 liters.

We do about one load per week. On long passages, we wear few clothes. On the boat the kids wear only their underwear, so we don't have too much to wash (weather permitting of course).

Clean-up and daily maintenance of the boat

Clean-up is done on a daily basis: a bit every day (floors, galley, heads), and from time to time we do a big clean-up (usually after a passage).

Feeding the family, nutrition and cooking

Baguettes and French cheese in Papeete(Tahiti).
Provisioning in Cape Town.

We eat 3 meals a day, and we don't skip meals. Often we might have one or even two snacks during the day. We try to have a healthy diet like we have ashore. It is not always easy to find everything, but we haven't been stuck without tins!

Because it is hot during the day and because of the school work in the morning, lunches are simple. Very often it is a salad (for example rice or pasta salad, or toasted sandwiches with raw veggies), fruit, or a yoghurt. The evening meals are more elaborate.

We bake our bread when we can't find fresh bread. We make our own yoghurt. We have a yoghurt machine (all it does is keep the right temperature) and are eating yoghurt nearly every day, which is a nice way to have some calcium. We use powdered milk for that.

We also like our sprouts. We use all kind of seeds (soy, beans and lentils). The kids are not fond of them, but we add them in the salads or in the sandwiches that they eat.

We have a blender and do “milkshakes” (smoothies) often, especially when the fruit is getting ripe too fast. All kind of recipes have been tried. A favorite one is mango, banana, honey and milk.

We always have the basics on board: tuna, corn, green beans, pasta, rice, flour, cheese, eggs. The kids' favorites are homemade pizzas and pancakes. It might be boring and repetitive from time to time, but we try to eat healthy and try the local products. (Ask the locals for their recipes.)

10. What do you like BEST / LEAST about cruising?


Victor (10)

I love swinging, meeting friends, snorkeling and driving the dinghy.


I like exploring the different islands above and below the water.


Félix (8)

I love playing a lot of games, crossing oceans, taking my kayak around to explore and to other boats.

I also love swinging and diving with Dad.


I love all the sunsets we are watching all together, calling for the green flashes (we've seen quite a lot of them), the beautiful landscapes we are encountering, and the great people we are meeting. I like seeing the kids grow in such an environment.

Cléa (4)

I love meeting friends and playing with them.

I also like playing with the Gameboy and swinging.

I like doing the dishes with Félix and setting the table.




  • I don't like blowing my asymmetrical spinnaker.
  • And I really don't like motoring.


  • I don't like going too fast (more than 12 knots) with Merlin.
  • I don't like cutting everybody's hair!
  • The schooling is from time to time a task that I would leave to someone else with pleasure (but I am the one speaking French, and they do all their school in French).
  • I miss my free space and own time.


  • I don't like doing my school.
  • Or polishing the stainless steel.


  • I don't like cleaning.
  • I hate eating fish, but I do a little bit, because my mum wants me to.


  • I don't like to swim when there are big waves.
  • and I don't like it when Daddy goes too fast with the dinghy.

11. Why did you go cruising as a family? Has cruising changed your family?

Why did we go cruising as a family

We wanted to spend time together.

We do spend time together!

Sometimes too much time together and sometimes difficult times together.

But most of the time, we spend great times together exploring and discovering … we only remember these good times!

Has cruising changed our family

We find it is difficult to reply for oneself.


Emmanuelle wants more simple things now.


Sailing is really Gregory's life. He is so happy to be on the water, work on the boat, and fiddle with the sails.

He is so much himself.

All questions

12. One of your favorite quick, handy recipes for cruising families?

“Far Breton”

Mmmmmmm! We love it!
(one "far" with raisins and one with peach)

  • 250 gr of flour
  • 250 gr of sugar
  • 1 liter of milk (works very well with powdered milk)
  • 4 eggs
  • Dry/canned fruits (pineapple, peaches, raisins, prunes work well)


> Put the flour in a bowl.

> Add one by one the eggs and mix well (so no lumps)

> Add the sugar.

> Add the milk and mix.

> Add the fruits.

> Pour into a big flat glass container (like those for lasagnas) with a little butter at the bottom.

> Put in the oven for 45 minutes (the knife must get out “dry”).





About the MERLIN family

Who is aboard?

  • Gregory: 42 years old, from Cape Town (South Africa). Started sailing when he was 5 years old

  • Emmanuelle: 41 years old, from Strasbourg (far away from the sea, in France). Sailed when she was a teenager but spent time at sea as a marine biologist

  • Victor, 10 years old

  • Felix: 8 years old

  • Cléa: 4 years old

  • For long passages, Anne-Dominique (Emmanuelle's mother): 61 years old, from Strasbourg (France)

What kind of boat do you have?

Dean 44-ft catamaran, made in South Africa. A strong fast cruising catamaran.

Where have you sailed? Where did you start out?

We left Cape Town (South Africa) in November 2008, crossed the Atlantic. We spent a year in the Caribbean. We transited through Panama in March 2010 and are now sailing in French Polynesia.

How long have you been cruising? How old were your children when you started?

It has been 18 months. The kids were 2½, 6 and 8 when we left. And 2 years younger than that when we bought the hull.

Where are you now?

We are in Tahiti (French Polynesia).

What's next?

Still going West. Then spending some time (may be a few years) in Australia to fill up the kitty again. We are also thinking of selling Merlin and going back to a shore life.

Your blog or website(s)?

http://www.merlinsvoyage.net (in English and French)


Read also, on the Women & Cruising Blog:
Merlin’s voyage: Living our dream for real! by Emmanuelle Buecher-Hall


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