Infinity Expedition Review by Bill Shaproski

PLEASE READ THIS BEFORE JOINING INFINITY EXPEDITION

Introduction

I just returned from a 6 week “adventure” as a crew member on the 120 foot long sailing vessel Infinity.  I met the ship outside the city of Cebu in the Philippines and then after 10 days or so in the Philippines we sailed to Palau which is a small chain of islands 600 nautical miles east of the Philippines noted for its world class scuba diving.  The basic deal is that you pay 40 Euros per day for your room and board and 12 Euros per dive (24 Euros if you use their dive equipment).  Everyone except the captain/owner, his five member family, and two other people are paying crew who share in the duties required to run the ship including cooking, cleaning, sailing, helm, watch, etc.  There were from 23-25 people on board including 4 to 6 kids from 6 months to 16 years old.  Nationalities included people from the USA, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Argentina, Russia, Israel, Australia, and England. 

I had intended to stay with the boat for 6-8 months until it went to Antarctica and came with about 140 pounds of stuff including winter wear and scuba gear.  But as it turned out I stayed for about 6 weeks.  This posting is a kind of review of my time on the boat.  I was disappointed that I didn’t feel comfortable staying longer than 6 weeks, but I’m not sorry I went.  It was a really great experience and I’ve had some good ones in my time to compare it to.  Below is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly regarding this boat as well as a formal Recommendation and Conclusion for those thinking about joining the boat. 

Recommendation

  1. If your under 25 years old, a vegetarian, want to experience a 60s style hippy commune on a boat, want to explore remote areas in the South and North Pacific Oceans, want to sail or mostly motor on a big boat, don’t mind marginal cleanliness and safety standards, like unstructured time, like snorkeling and scuba diving, and can afford 40 Euros a day (plus 24 Euros per dive), this might be your boat. 
  1. If you’re over 35 years old, are not a vegetarian, have already experienced the 60s or don’t want to experience them, don’t like cockroaches or Staph infections, are not fond of large communal gatherings for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, need to know what’s planned for at least a few days in advance, are concerned about safety standards, and think 40 Euros a day is unreasonable for what the boat offers, this is probably not the boat for you. 

 

  1. If you’re between 25 and 35 years old, see 1. or 2. above and make your own choice.    

The Good!

The people on the boat were all great with no exceptions and I’m sure future crew will be as well.  It took a few days to work out the relationships, but once we did it was all good.  There are several people I know will be my friends forever and we’ll definitely meet again.  The majority of the crew were under 27 with a 30 year old, 37 year old, two 48 year olds, and, of course, me at 68 dragging the average up which is probably why I was accepted as crew. Maybe it was an insurance requirement. Just kidding.

The route selected by the captain/owner was one that no other boat is doing.  We started in the Philippines and then went to Palau for diving which is where I left the boat at the end of Palau visit.  It is now headed for Micronesia, The Solomons, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Antarctica, and ending March 2014 in Chile.   If they make it that far it will be an epic cruise which is why I wanted to join them.  This route takes one to remote infrequently visited destinations in the middle of nowhere.  

There were two days of pretty good sailing with all sails up which included a genoa, jib, staysail, main, and mizzen.  When all the sails are raised it’s a pretty awesome sight.  One night with a strong squall driving us, we hit 11.5 knots and had the opportunity to raise and lower sails and set and shake-out reefs.  We blew-out the clew of the genoa on that same night resulting in a two square meter section of the clew ripping off.    The owner/captain skillfully repaired it two days later with a little bit of help from me. 

The scuba diving, snorkeling, and free diving were excellent due to where we were.  I mean “come on”, how can you mess up diving in Palau?  Well, uh…actually we kind-of did, but it was no biggy (see The Bad).  It was also fun swimming in the ocean at sea. 

Once the boat got pretty much cleaned-up, the 1-3 person cabins were OK and not small in size.  They were mostly all equipped with fans, reading lights, electrical outlets, and port holes.  There was a small well stocked library, a room under the aft cockpit (although it was really never useable due to stuff stored there), and a large galley/main cabin combination.

Lastly, the captain/owner, Clemens Oestreich, is a 40 year old German who has sailed Infinity for ten years in the Pacific.  He is a capable sailor and very knowledgeable about his boat which he has been sailing and upgrading since he bought it.  Most everyone likes and admires him even when they are not too happy with some of his decisions. 

The Bad!

When I arrived in Cebu with 100 pounds of boat parts in my luggage, the boat was not ready and I was told to stay in a hotel the first couple nights.  Then I decided to come to the boat, but when I arrived I was appalled to find that the interior was mostly or partially disassembled and the boat was filthy dirty.  I declined to sleep in the boat (like where?!), so just delivered my parts and went to a small hotel in the nearby village along with another unhappy crewman.  I was so disappointed that I already realized at that point that it was going to be very difficult for me to stay on this boat for six months.  But I was still hopeful because I really wanted to make it work. 

I took a bus down to Oslob five hours south of Cebu with three other crew members and we saw whale sharks and a beautiful waterfall.  When we got back a few days later the boat was still not ready and we checked back into our hotel.  Then two days later the captain suddenly announced we were ready and the boat was leaving that night for Malapascua.  To complete the work on the boat and get it cleaned up he hired several Filipino workers who stayed with us until we were out of the Philippines.  A lot of decisions seemed to be made on the spur of the moment or at least told to the crew on the spur of the moment.  I kept thinking this is no way to communicate with the new crew members. 

The next thing I noticed were the little red boxes scattered everywhere.  On closer scrutiny I found that they were filled with dead cockroaches and were actually cockroach traps.  One of the duties on the roster was to put the little traps in all of the sleeping cabins, in the galley utensil drawers and cabinets, in the food storage areas, etc.  I had been raised in inner city Philadelphia and lived in Africa for 12 years, so cockroaches were not strangers in my life.  But some of the other crew were totally turned off by these unwanted passengers.  Why the captain had not wrapped the boat up and bombed it while it was in dry dock for 5 weeks is a mystery. It was especially annoying when I found them in my bed.   I remember one cockroach incident where I was talking to the little 5 year old girl on the boat and noticed something on her leg.  The something turned out to be a ½ inch long cockroach.  Cute.

The inadequate hygiene, unwanted six-legged guests, and decks apparently infected with Staphylococcus aureu had caused one crew member to sleep in the crows nest or on the very large boom to avoid the sleeping quarters at night.  This resulted in the person falling off the boom one night outside the Palau reef and fracturing their back!  They’ll recover but it required serious hospitalization back in their home country. 

Before the boat went into Dry Dock in Cebu, it had been a boat that served meat and fish as well as vegetables.  Several of the crew had temporarily left when the boat went into Dry Dock and when they came back were surprised to hear that the Captain had decided the boat would be vegetarian only.  Apparently, the Captain had an epiphany regarding how meat and fish were obtained for food and had become a vegetarian.  He took many of the other younger crew members with him in this new direction. 

Unfortunately, there was still half the crew who not only liked meat but felt they needed it!  In one of the captain’s many speeches (more like harangues) to the crew he advised that the meat eaters had dominated the food and disregarded the feelings of the vegetarians for too long (actually not true).  Inexplicably, he saw nothing hypocritical with his unilateral decision to disregard the feelings of the meat eaters in the same way he claims they disregarded the vegetarians feelings.  This became the topic of many “Talking Stick” meetings but he only made one concession from his position.  He advised that meat could be tolerated if purchased from a local farmer who had raised it responsibly himself and slaughtered it himself.  Although he did advise it would be OK if we got a piglet and slaughtered it ourselves on the boat.  Good luck with either of those options!  The same went for fish.  Having said that he did spearfish a small Parrot fish one day.  The meat eaters shared it.  Many thought the captain became a vegetarian to save money which may be possible.

I was beginning to think that I had been transported 40 years back to the 60s when I was a hippy living in communal like conditions in East Africa.  Except this time it was a communal boat.  The question I was facing was whether or not I could relive the 60s.  The obvious answer was “No!”  Ouch!  Let’s continue with my assessment of The Bad. 

Until a few days before I left the boat there was no working shower on board for 23 people, some of whom had diarrhea and serious rashes including myself. I was diagnosed in the Koror hospital as having a Staphylococcus aureus infection due to unhygienic conditions.  Others still had infections when I left the boat but mine is pretty much gone due to anti-biotics.  There are now two working showers (Yay!).  I will note that there was an outdoor shower on the swim step, but it was recommended we not use it due to the danger of falling overboard. The washing machine was out-of commission even though I had brought parts from the US to fix it.  It’s tough to clean clothes and bedding with no washing machine and limited water, especially when you sweat buckets every night.  Lastly there is only one working toilet for 23 people.  It seemed to work ok but it is electronic and if it failed in the middle of the ocean, I wonder how we would have fixed it.  How do you think 23 people, many with diarrhea, would respond to that challenge?  The one thing I really liked about the toilet was the lack of any toilet paper.  Instead there is a hose that you squirt on your bum to clean up after using the toilet (I found this to be very sanitary and am installing a similar one in my house).  But unfortunately, the sink in the bathroom was not hooked up to allow you to wash your hands before going back to the kitchen, for example.  There was one on deck not too far away. 

The cooking and dishwashing duties were randomly assigned (really!) to each person on the boat.  There were three people for breakfast, three for lunch, and four for dinner.  Before even arriving I had told the captain I did not want to cook for 25 people and he agreed that I would be assigned with someone who could cook which didn’t always happen.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to imagine what the meals were like, especially given that they were all vegetarian (except for a few towards the end where we rebelled and bought some meat, but not from a farmer).  It was usually served in a bowl with a spoon but you had the option of a plate and fork.  It kind-of reminded me of being in the Russian Gulag as I waited in line, picked up my bowl, put in some gruel (I mean food), mixed it all up, and ate it.  Eventually, along with at least 5 others on the boat, I bought tuna and sardines to provide some taste for the food.  There were lots of salads which I really like, but inexplicably no dressing, not even vinegar (there was oil).  Sometimes there was fresh fruit.

I know everyone tried hard to make special meals which actually made it worse. As an example of the level of coking expertise, one of the younger crew (21 years old) once asked how does one know when water is boiling.  Maybe they were joking.  Each meal became a major event requiring hours of cleanup.  Another issue for me was the fact that there was no table in the main cabin where you could sit and eat comfortably.  Instead, there is just a wide open floor with cushioned seats around the perimeter.  And the floor always seemed to be dirty even after it was cleaned which wasn’t often enough.  Consequently, all meals had to be taken on the floor or seated on the perimeter (if there was space) with your food on your lap.  To make matters worse, there were no napkins onboard, paper or cloth. I tend to be a sloppy eater. If it wasn’t raining, you could sit at the aft cockpit table, but it was normally controlled by the smokers on the boat and if you didn’t like smoke in your face it was off limits.  The smokers were the captain, his two key people, and a few others. 

The stove was a large diesel stove that had basically two settings……on and off.  The captain seemed to be the only one who really knew how to operate it properly.  When it was on (which was often) the entire galley area was unbearably hot.  But the meals always got cooked and the bread got made. 

Even before I came on board I had recommended that the captain consider hiring a full time cook for this vital function.  Many others on the boat agreed with that idea.  It was pointed out that he could hire a married couple from the Philippines for $1,000 a month each and they would be over the moon.  This would add 3-4 Euros per day to the cost of each paying passenger.  But then each passenger would no longer need to do tasks that for most were not pleasant and instead spend time going ashore and on learning about sailing.  It would also help the economy of the local population. 

The facts and data are that at least 3 people on the boat had already started paying two of the young persons onboard $5 (4 Euros) per day to do the chores of those 3 people.  It was being done on the quiet so as not to upset anyone else.  But it proves that this “modified business model” for Infinity of a dedicated couple to do cooking and cleaning is possible and would greatly improve the crew moral as well as providing a much improved diet.  Plus it would help the local community which is what Infinity is supposedly dedicated to doing.  It seems like a win-win-win to me.  The crew wins, the captain wins, and the local community wins.  What’s not to like about this business model?

The seven children (later only five) on the boat (four of whom belonged to the captain and four who were five or under) were all very cute and adorable if they were under 3 years old or very interesting and fun to be around if they were over 10 years old.   However, one of the 2 year olds had not yet been potty trained, but did not wear diapers or clothing of any kind.  Consequently, there were many smelly “accidents” which had to be cleaned up.  On one unfortunate day, there were two accidents on the boat and one in front of a dock full of surprised Japanese tourists. While I actually thought it was a bit humorous, it made some of the crew uncomfortable.  I should note that her Mom and other crew members were doing a great job to get her potty trained and she was doing better before I left. 

When talking about children, I would be remiss if I did not mention my concerns about the children’s safety on the boat.  In spite of there being 240 feet of lifelines on the boat where a child might fall through, there was no protective mesh to prevent this.  I tried to explain the danger by relating a story to them about my 2 year old son falling into a pond at my house outside London and nearly drowning.  It was only our second day in the house and I had just told my father-in-law there was no need for fencing. The fencing was installed the next day!  Often I would find the 2 year old standing at the gate in the lifelines looking out at the sea with no one anywhere near her and the gate wide open.  She would also wander about the deck stomping around like a miniature Suma wrestler with no one seemingly assigned to watch her.  She was cute to watch, but it was scary.  The tragic part was that after four weeks I had given up pointing it out even though I still cared.  It reminded me of living in New Delhi and visiting Old Delhi where I would find tens of thousands of people living on the sidewalk and would feel overwhelming grief at their poverty.  But after two weeks I just pushed them aside because I knew there was nothing I could do. 

The diving was very good because of where we were.  But the diving was very poorly organized.  There was one case where we were taken to the wrong site which was not a dive site and spent an hour looking at nothing.  In another case the dive master took us to the right place but dropped us off at the wrong spot and the current immediately carried us away in the wrong direction.  Fortunately, another professional dive boat saw what was happening and came to our rescue by motoring over to us and throwing us a line so he could tow us to the right drop off spot while our own dive master just smoked a cigarette and watched.  When we returned to Infinity, the captain admonished us for getting off on the wrong side of the boat like it was our fault!  I also wondered why the dive master didn’t tell us to get off the boat on the up current side so it would push us against the boat instead of away from it.  Getting them to tell us where we would be diving on a particular day or time was like pulling teeth and it required constant needling to get an answer. I never understood why it was so difficult.  Finally the captain assigned someone to organize the dives and then ignored that person. In the end only he could make decisions. 

Another issue for me was the lack of a single environmental issue being addressed by the boat despite their claims that they were working with many different organizations like Greenpeace, etc.  One day we came to a beach in Palau that had some trash on it and the crew members spent 5 minutes picking up trash and making a pile.  The only problem was that they didn’t take the pile of trash with them when they left.  Go figure.  They “reportedly” went back to get it when one of the crew pointed out the omission.  There wasn’t even a person assigned to look for opportunities to “do good things” which tells me it wasn’t a priority of any kind.  The old adage in the bad old corporate world is always “What gets measured gets done!”  Clearly environmental issues were not being measured on Infinity.

It is not expected that the boat will be able to raise sails until heading south to The Solomon’s since it is travelling to Micronesia on a route where there is rarely wind, if ever.   According to long time crew members, between Thailand and Palau the sails were only raised a few times due to a route with no wind.  It’s just something to keep in mind if you expect to do a lot of sailing.    

There is one other issue that stands out for me and a few others on the boat who are aware of the situation.  The reality is that clearly some of the financial decisions have resulted in a cash flow problem for the boat that is not being addressed in a business-like fashion.  It has clearly affected the boat’s ability to adequately provision for the crew needs.  The captain knows what I am referring to and he has borrowed money from several people on the boat.  I know of at least $10,000 he owes the current crew including me.  I can only hope that the cash flow problem will improve as less money is funneled to upgrades, which may be desirable but are not mandatory.  He can then apply more funds to the daily running of the boat and begin paying back the money he owes. 

For some people the last straw came when the captain led a group of young people in their early 20s in a prank that was played on the half of the boat not playing the prank.  It went on for over an hour until it was finally revealed that half of the boat had made fools out of the other half and they thought that was hilariously funny.  When the people on whom the prank was being played found out what had happened they were mostly highly insulted.  I noted that this was the kind of activity one experienced in 5th grade.  A meeting lasting hours was held to discuss what had happened and many wound up in tears, both the pranksters and the prankees.  Yet the captain could simply not understand why the prankees were insulted.  Maybe we were all too sensitive, but an intelligent listening captain would have understood that if that’s how we felt he should accept it and not tell us we were “wrong”` to feel as we did.  I told the captain that as the only real adult in the group of pranksters (the rest were all 21 -23 years old) he should accept responsibility.  After all, if the captain said it’s OK to do something it’s difficult to expect a bunch of young people to override him, especially in a situation where the captain is like the leader of a commune and is highly respected. 

Finally, the normal safety equipment one would find on a boat as large as this were mostly absent or out-of-date.  My first action when I arrived was to check the date on the 25 man life raft and to my surprise it was way out-of date.  I never saw a single life preserver but they may have been stored somewhere out-of sight making them worthless if they did exist.  Most of the items in the minimal First Aid Kit were out-of-date as well.  The captain mentioned that there were flares and fire extinguishers on board under the steps in the main cabin, but they were never removed to demo them for the inexperienced crew.  I am certain they were all out-of date as well.  For me this was a red flag for the decision making ability of the captain.  By the way, I hold a valid US Coast Guard 50 Ton Masters License with sailing and towing endorsements, so I know what I’m talking about.  The simple fact that few, if any, of the crew had previous boating experience means that they never realized how poorly the boat was equipped. 

I could go on, but I think there’s enough here for someone to make a decision if they fit or not.  In some instances the negative aspects identified above could be considered cosmetic, but others are definitely safety issues that need to be addressed.  This boat would never pass a US Coast Guard inspection. 

Having said all of the above, there is no question in my mind that many people, especially young ones, will read this and decide the good outweighs the bad.   But it’s important that they have some understand of the issues.  Some of the crew who have left already believe the boat is in a downward spiral, but I believe it’s always been like this.   

The Ugly

The “ugly” to report is the leadership style of the captain which is strictly my personal opinion.  I personally liked the captain even if he wasn’t particularly fond of me.  As already stated he is a good sailor and knowledgeable about his boat and the areas where he sails it.  But from my perspective and based on my experience with him he doesn’t listen to his crew as well as a good leader should and needs to learn how to delegate and make decisions in an orderly, predictable fashion and then follow-up on their execution.  When he does listen to others he often dismisses their opinions.  Every decision had to made by him no matter how small even if it meant waking him up.  He assigned responsibilities to each person (e.g. sails, ropes, water making, diving) but never followed up or asked for status and eventually everyone just forgot about it.  Remember, a good leader knows that what gets measured gets done. 

The fact that he chose not to repair something so important to his crew as the showers and washing machine until 5 weeks into the voyage, is an example of how he prioritizes tasks needing to be done.  Instead, he started several other modifications such as improving the sidelights and stern light which was “desirable” but not “needed”.  There is a difference between desirable and needed. Another very important example regarding the water makers is noted below.  As the boat’s leader, he should have allocated the manpower used to do the sidelights and other “desirable” projects to the more important task of fixing the shower and washing machine or even more important the water makers. I even volunteered several times to fix the washing machine, but was ignored. I should note that I do all the plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and tiling for all my houses and boats, so I’m capable.  Lastly, the fact that he allowed paying crew (guests) to come aboard the boat when it was disgustingly dirty and have that as their first impression speaks volumes on his decision making process and lack of business acumen.

After I left the boat, crew members advised that it continued on to Micronesia and eventually ran low on water while at sea.  The captain turned the water off and began rationing one liter per day per person.  When the crew asked him why he had not yet fixed the water maker with the $4,000 in parts I had brought with me, he got very angry and yelled that it was not “his priority”.  He then reportedly forced the crew to fix it and barely helped. 

Also, after I left the boat, the crew told me that the boat was fined in Micronesia and the captain did not have the money to pay the fine.  Consequently, he forced all crew members to contribute to pay the fine which I’m sure was his fault since he is the captain. 

Finally four more crew decided that they had had enough and left the boat in Chuuk even though they had paid through to New Zealand.  But since the only flights out of Micronesia are to Guam, the 27 year old Argentine man (who was the most liked person on board) was not allowed to board the plane because he could not get a US visa in Micronesia.  He had to very reluctantly go back to the boat and stay until it reaches Vanuatu in November.  He was crushed. 

Final Conclusion

Had I come aboard the boat in it’s current condition I would still be unhappy, but the chances are I might have stayed the six months if the captain simply made changes in how and what is prepared for meals (e.g. hiring the Philippine couple) and improved his decision making process. This is only because I wanted to go to Antarctica and no one else was going.  But I realize now that this boat will never make it to Antarctica and if they do it could wind up being a suicide mission.  Sailing in the Southern Ocean should only be undertaken by a properly equipped boat and a well trained crew familiar with the Antarctic conditions. Given all of the above, the thought of six months on this boat became impossible for me, and I realized that I fell into the Recommendation #2 group.  I am confident that the captain will continue to find people to pay to be crew on his boat, especially those I noted above in Recommendation #1.  BTW, all but one of the four people who left with me early due to the conditions on the boat and all of the other 4 who left in Chuuk, fall into my Recommendation #2 or maybe #3.

One of the Australian women on the boat told me I should stop trying to give the captain advice because he simply had a different vision for the boat than I did and after all it is his boat.  She’s right, but by keeping a closed mind to other ideas means he is depriving himself and his family of the best possible boat he can create and exposing all crew to unsafe conditions.  There are many things he can do to improve the boat and make it safer which will actually make it even better for him as well.  No single person has all the answers.  What he really needs to make the boat a success is a good business manager.  The latest debacle with the water maker (or lack of one) is a clear example. 

I’ve tried to be as balanced as I could in this appraisal.  Although the Good section is shorter than the Bad and Ugly sections, a fair minded person will be able to make an informed decision about what life might be like for them on Infinity.  I repeat that I am not sorry I joined the boat; just sorry I couldn’t have stayed through Antarctica.    I hope this review helps others make an informed decision and maybe nudge the good captain to rethink how he runs his boat.  He has a beautiful dream he is living with his family, but for many other crew it’s a nightmare.

Regards,

Bill Shaproski

Notes

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