Homeward bound: Brian O’Sullivan on the wonders of British Columbia

Written by Georgia Tindale

“When people ask, of all the places you’ve been in the world, where was your favourite? I might say how much I loved the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Montenegro are nice enough but by far, by at least double, the best cruising place in the world is British Columbia.” 

Behind the helm of his 41.15-metre superyacht Komokwa, Canadian owner and wind farm entrepreneur Brian O’Sullivan has visited more places in the world than most people will ever go to in a lifetime. Embarking on a major round-the-world cruise in 2013 (the whole reason for upsizing from his previous 22.5-metre Hatteras in the first place) O’Sullivan and his Horizon 135 have graced shores including the USA, , Mexico, Tonga, Fiji, Bora Bora, Moorea and Papeete, Australia, New Zealand, the Mediterranean, including Italy, Mallorca, the Adriatic and the Côte d’Azur the east coast of the US as far north as Maine and the Caribbean.Brian O'SullivanPhoto: Brian O'SullivanOver the course of his travels, 68-year old O’Sullivan has collected a wealth of anecdotes which he loves to share, alongside some stern words of advice to potential superyacht owners based on his years of experience with Komokwa ("First and foremost, really pay attention to who you hire as crew because you’re going to be living with them. Never trust a written reference - always call!”). Despite this, and with more than 55,000 miles in his back pocket, it is when describing the virtues of the coastline closer to home, whether that be its breathtaking natural beauty, peaceful cruising grounds, or surprisingly clement water temperature, where O’Sullivan becomes his most animated. “It is just so spectacular here, I could talk about it for hours!” Komokwa yacht lifestylePhoto: Brian O'SullivanBut let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Skipping back over 50 years, Brian O’Sullivan’s move into yachting began in his back garden. “My dad started building a 34-foot cabin cruiser when I was seven years old and finished it when I was 10. He built it in our backyard and steamed the stem for it in a carpet tube.” From there, his boating journey continued when his father purchased an ex-Canadian Government fisheries patrol boat which had been converted to a family cabin cruiser, when he learned how to operate a boat for himself at college and then with his first purchase of a seven-metre cuddy cabin, a 13.7-metre Bayliner, a 17.7-metre Hatteras and then his 22.5-metre Hatteras, before finally making the investment in his current vessel, the 41-metre Horizon Komokwa (named after the First Nations deity of sea creatures, tides and currents). 

Doubling the size of his boat certainly didn’t come naturally to this unassuming Canadian and it was a decision made based on necessity - mixed in with a hint of good luck and timing too. “I loved the Hatteras boat but it just couldn’t carry enough fuel for the journey I wanted to make around the world, so I went for the smallest big boat I could buy that had the range and accommodations I needed.” Bought using the American assets to O’Sullivan’s wind farm business, the purchase itself can be described as an example of right place, right time. Komokwa yacht anchoredPhoto: Brian O'SullivanHaving respectfully admired the Horizon 135 model from afar but realising that it fell far outside of his price range, O’Sullivan had heard a story from a friend which piqued his interest about a boat which had been lying in a warehouse in Turkey brand new for several years. The original buyer had started the project and decided not to complete it. After this, the boat had been sent back to the dealer, who had been unsuccessfully attempting to sell her ever since. With his original intention being to buy a used Westport 130, the owner-to-be made a canny financial decision. “When she was launched and completed in 2010, the recession was in full swing and values on yachts just kept plummeting, so I was able to make an offer for what I would have paid for the used Westport and they accepted it!”

Vitally, at 41.15-metres, Komokwa was large enough to meet all of her owner’s globetrotting requirements but not too large that he wasn’t able to skipper her himself: a factor which was completely non-negotiable for O'Sullivan and resulted in him attending three weeks of skipper school in Fort Lauderdale to ensure that he could obtain his captain’s licence and secure insurance for his planned world cruise. 

Indeed, the boat’s layout seems designed to be perfect for this keen owner-operator, with the owner’s suite positioned behind the wheelhouse and a total of five steering stations, one of which is located on the flybridge. Being at the helm also provides the wind-farm entrepreneur with much-needed time to himself and a chance to reflect. “I do find it’s a great way to relax. I focus on navigating, of course, but I also think about other things that are going on. I don’t have a screen in front of me and I can almost get in a zen-like state. I’ve driven the boat so many miles that I have had plenty of opportunities to sit there for weeks at a time. You’re steering the boat to a new destination, but you might be steering your life to a new destination as well.”Komokwa yacht af deckPhoto: Brian O'SullivanDiscussing the topic of his helmsmanship also brings us onto a slight sticking point for O’Sullivan: the issue of the crew, which he views as something of a necessary evil of owning a superyacht. As Komokwa is available for charter, O’Sullivan will occasionally hire a captain by necessity - as well as for social and charity events where he needs to be active with guests. “I’ve never found a captain that is a better navigator than I am and I don’t like the idea of some guy strutting around the boat like he is the king of the castle. It’s my boat - I paid for it!” As with many owners, it also comes down to the important issue of privacy. “When I am on board, I don’t really like having crew. I know I need them for safety and from a maintenance point of view, and I don’t have anything against crewmembers, but I like my privacy. I prefer to be able to get up in the morning, have my coffee and not have anybody interrupt me. I just want to be left alone, and the more crew you have, the less likely this is.”

Another positive aspect of skippering the boat himself is the privileged vantage point it offers him. “There are really wonderful things to see in many of the places I’ve been to, and if you’re at the helm, your eyes are forward and you get to see it first, whether it’s a pod of whales, other ships or some feature on the land: you’re there first and you get to see it first.” Komokwa yacht lifestylePhoto: Brian O'SullivanAnd what things he’s seen along the way. There was that encounter when he was in St Vincent and the Grenadines when “a fellow in a little Boston Whaler came up and the entire floor of his boat was covered in live lobsters which were bouncing around. He was late to get home and running out of gas, so we traded him 10 gallons of gas for 10 of his lobsters. Highly entertaining!” Or that occasion in Tahiti when a group of local people approached the boat and gave them a 40-pound fish as a special welcome gift for arriving in the bay. Or that less enjoyable time in Australia when O’Sullivan was told that his boat was too big to enter the area of the Great Barrier Reef by the Captain for the Australian property developer and owner of the 58.4-metre Alloy Yachts Kokomo, Lang Walker. "I said, 'Oh great, I’ve come 6,000 miles for this and you’re telling me I can’t actually go. The front cover of the Great Southern Route guide is a 46-metre Feadship on the Barrier Reef!' So I asked him, 'What does Lang do?' And he told me, ‘Oh, he goes anyway.’ I asked him what the penalty is for being caught, and he said, ‘Forfeiture of your boat, but they probably won’t do that on the first time, you’ll probably just get a warning.' We had come all that way, so of course, we went anyway, but it was pretty nervewracking!” Komokwa yacht lifestylePhoto: Brian O'SullivanO'Sullivan's whole experience in Australia in the course of his world cruise can be described as a mixed one. He describes their “complete unfriendliness towards yachts” where they kept his boat under quarantine for 48 hours and prevented the crew from leaving, as well as that time when the Australian officials “literally crawled through the bilges with miners lamps on their foreheads looking for contraband.” To add an extra level of inconvenience to this bureaucratic ordeal, O’Sullivan was also told he would need an Australian work permit to drive his boat there. “I said, wait for a second, I’m not being paid: it’s my boat! But they told me that, 'Well, you’ve got employees, so it’s a business and therefore you need a work permit.' It was such a hassle!” Komokwa yacht flybridgePhoto: Brian O'SullivanDespite these minor hiccups, it is clear from speaking to O’Sullivan that his trip around the world provided both a wealth of unforgettable memories and some important life lessons along the way. “Fiji was an amazing experience for lots of different reasons. It was challenging because the last charts of the area we went to were done by the HMS Beagle in 1898 so you’re navigating a lot by your wit because over time reefs will form where they weren’t before. It was also interesting because some of the places we went there was no running water and people lived in grass huts with straw floors which were not a lot different to how I would imagine it was 50 years ago. It was a good education in perspective for my boys.” Komokwa yacht lifestylePhoto: Brian O'SullivanBoth during the trip and since his return, O’Sullivan has taken every opportunity to share the best which Komokwa can offer, serving 4,500 meals to his on board guests during a particularly busy summer in the Med back in 2015 and with his two sons frequently bringing “as many friends as we have bunks” to stay. Nowadays, he manages to spend an impressive eight months a year on board himself: “I park her in Vancouver, in Coal Harbour right downtown. It’s a little more convenient than where my apartment is, which I also share with my 24-year-old son, so I like to give him a little space. It works perfectly as a kind of floating home and it’s also much nicer than my apartment!”

Indeed, beautiful British Columbia is where Komokwa will be calling home for the next little while, including a trip to the Great Bear Rainforest in September to see the elusive kermodes, or spirit bears, before undergoing some maintenance works over the winter where she will be either painted or wrapped to get her ready for cruising between Alaska and Vancouver next summer. This is hardly a hardship for O’Sullivan, who acts as the area’s best possible tour guide during our conversation. Komokwa yacht anchoredPhoto: Brian O'Sullivan“It truly is the best cruising place in the world. The coastline of British Columbia is longer than the coastline of mainland China and we have inlets that go in some 100 miles long. Just this morning we had a pod of killer whales come within 15 metres of the boat. We have humpback whales - so much wildlife. You can have a herring ball (an accumulation of herring that swim together to protect themselves) that will be 10 metres across and we have more eagles than we do seagulls.” 

But what of the western Canadian climate, surely that’s a little too chilly for superyacht owners who are looking for somewhere pleasant to swim? “People don’t realise that the warmest water north of Mexico is in British Columbia at Desolation Sound. This year was a cold one as the water only reached 24 degrees but it has been as high as 31 degrees. It’s because of the unique condition where you have huge five metre tides and tonnes of sunshine. The sun hits the rocks and the tide comes in and the rocks heat the water. Cactuses are growing on some of the islands in British Columbia it’s so dry.” Komokwa yacht by Horizon YachtsFor O’Sullivan, it is the completely undiscovered nature of British Columbia which makes it such a gem (hoping, of course, that too many superyacht owners don't take his advice literally and come and fill up the isolated bays), with hardly any boats frequenting the area. “I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to escape and be fully immersed in nature and doesn’t care about having their stern facing a Relais & Châteaux in Italy and being looked at. I could spend the rest of my life cruising this coast - it’s just so wonderful." And perhaps he will, although not without a few more adventures further afield along the way. With her owner explaining that “we’ll have to see what happens in my life, but I would like to take on the Northwest Passage trip the year after next,” it certainly looks like Komokwa has a bit more globetrotting on the horizon. 

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