Though entirely digital and all things contemporary, eOceanic’s history spans more than two decades and it has an unusual and improbable genesis. The site you see today is based on the inspiration of Michael Harpur an Irishman from rural County Wexford. In the early nineties, after having worked for a few years within England’s computer hardware business, he started to save and search for an offbeat life-defining adventure. At that time, he had not set foot on a yacht which made the challenge of buying a boat and sailing it around the world appear the perfect challenge. So, in 1996, on the day after his 31st birthday and with little or no sailing experience, he set out from Ireland on a classic yacht called Obsession in his bid to circumnavigate.
Initially founded as inyourfootsteps.com, eOceanic first appeared in 2006. Though a decade later, the site’s founding building block of ‘Experience’ was to come directly from that first point of contact with the attempted circumnavigation. For finding himself in the Atlantic in 1996, on a craft that was to the largest part foreign to him, Michael Harpur was to feel the absence and criticality of experience like few others could. To compound his problems, he was discovering that the seagoing books he was relying upon to address the deficit were not working for him.
The problem was that they were all written by sailors who had as their first language the ancient language of the sea. In them, there was no front or back to a boat, but a stem and a stern or aft or forward of amidships along with several other names depending upon the circumstances they are used. No left nor right, but port and starboard or bearings based upon specific quarters of the vessel. No maps, but charts, no ropes or pulleys but countless individually named lines that pass-through or around fairleads, blocks and sheaves and so on. Every aspect of a sailing vessel and the seagoing environment had not alone a precise name, but suits of nuances that could be quickly interchanged depending upon the context.
The advanced books he needed assumed a deep familiarity with the naming conventions. However, to him, a complete outsider without a tutor, this presented an almost impenetrable wall of sailing nomenclature. Every procedure described used layers of named items that came together in specifically named ways to achieve named outcome for reasons he did not know, avoiding specifically named situations he did not understand. Confusion regarding any single item and its function within a textbook's explanation, let alone several, meant that any understanding he was attempting to assemble completely fall apart very quickly.
To overcome this problem, he began a determinedly disciplined practice of recapitulating key areas of the books into a plain English ledger that he called ‘Knowledge and Experience’. Through this level of focus, the needed concepts could be contained in simpler English with drawings until their meanings were fully derived. These then become the practices, procedures and policies implemented aboard. Over time, noting down boat-handling procedures, efficiencies and innovations became habitual. As the sea miles increasingly passed under the keel, the pages of ‘Knowledge and Experience’ began to fill. Almost a decade later, and most ironically, it was this handwritten ledger that would spark the creation of the site.
Then, one hot late summer’s evening in 2005, the ledger resurfaced in a very different context. At that time Michael Harpur was happily married in London working for the computer company Hewlett Packard. A toddling first son Robert was bringing about a house move, and part of the preparation was a garage clear-out. All those who have ever sailed to distant places are left with an inclination to hold onto items that can be repurposed, adapted or disassembled to fix things. Jury rigging is the sailing term but this tendency, alongside modern life’s peripheral kilter, meant that his garage required a particularly firm and unwavering rationalisation. There could be no sentimentality about it, either an item had a definite purpose in the new home, or it had to be jettisoned. ‘Use it, or lose it’was the resolute rule.
Amidst the sorting process, a dusty old box of ancillary boating items emerged from the recesses. Between a set of well-worn books, he saw the immediately recognisable long upstanding spine of the old ledger. He could not help but pause to leaf through the handwritten summaries and sketches, smell again the vestiges of Obsession’s scent that clung to its pages. How those notes had served him so well, how he could fondly picture where he was when he set each item down. Returning from the revere, he realised that he had been leafing through the ledger for more than fifteen minutes. Piqued for being so easily diverted from the purpose by the sentimentality that he specifically set out to avoid, he applied the ‘use it, or lose it’ rule more severely in that moment than he should. Reluctantly, he concluded that all of these notes were entirely superfluous to his new life and he forced himself to discard the ledger.
It was a decision that would not sit well with him in the following weeks. A sense of remorse, tinctured by wasteful guilt, began to occupy a place in the back of his mind. Several months later, when taking the hand and foot imprints of his son Robert, the background stewing in his misstep would take a new direction. Looking at the dried small hand and foot imprints on the paper, it occurred to him that, he may not need the leger’s information, but what about the next generation, what about them? Reaching for a pen before the thought escaped him he noted down what about those who follow in your footsteps beside the imprints.
The following month he took clients out for a friendly pre-Christmas lunch to celebrate a major installation. The associated conversations extending well into the evening and in high spirits, within technology circles, he found himself vocalising the possibility of creating a ‘.com’. One where personal sailing experience would not be wasted but could be made freely available to all who needed it for the common good. And so the Rubicon was crossed travelling home by train that night when searched for URLs he purchased ‘inyourfootsteps.com’. Soon after he had scanned the imprints of Robert’s feet and added ‘for those who follow inyourfootsteps’ beneath. After a little coding inyourfootsteps.com, replete with that first logo, went live in 2006. Its sole intention was to share what had been recorded, as best it could be remembered, in the ‘Experience’ ledger.
In the beginning, it was a flat website that he designed and programmed himself. His Hewlett Packard role centred around the introduction of complex new technologies and he found the most effective way to present to clients was to re-author hardware presentations around three simple themes of ‘what’, ‘why‘ and ‘how’. Having found this worked well for live presentations the same basic layout was adopted for sailing experience.
The ‘Knowledge and Experience’ ledger had long since been discarded, but he could still recall most of the experience and innovations he had noted, but drawings and images were a limitation. At this time his father-in-law, Tony Gibson, had just retired from his building company. Having started his career as a draftsman, he was co-opted into the project for his technical drawing skills. Over the years Tony slowly began to take on many more challenging aspects growing to become a solid backbone to the project and its progress.
By 2007, increasingly curious and intensely innovative, Michael Harpur found his desired site functionality had quickly stepped ahead of his amateur development capabilities. A chance conversation with the son of his next-door neighbour had him mention school friend that was a programmer. This was Michael Sheldon who lived within a couple of miles and was, at the time, studying for his Doctorate at Aberystwyth University in Wales. The two soon met and Michael Sheldon took on the short task of taking the site’s flat ‘Experience’ layout and turning it into a dynamic site.
What was to follow was an unending flow of innovation, functional and design development that would continually press, but never surpass Michael Sheldon’s capabilities to bring alive. He proved to be a world-class developer who never failed to implement a requested technical enhancement. But Michael Sheldon brought more than coding and development skills to the project. He brought with him the core values of computing's ‘Open Source’ movement and instilled it deep within the project’s DNA and ethos. A year after his arrival, a fledgeling new category called ‘Havens’, appeared alongside ‘Experience’.
‘Havens’, like ‘Experience’, was also born out of the early days of the attempted circumnavigation. Its genesis came from a salutary tale heard during the first months of the voyage in the ancient trading port of Porto. The story was the account an English yacht enduring rough weather off the Portuguese coast. Worse for wear and seeking sanctuary for his family, the skipper ran for the safety that the capital port of Lisbon must surely offer. But ports built on river estuaries, such as Porto and Lisbon, can be subject to bars being deposited outside their entrances. In heavy onshore conditions, the seas tend to break over these elevated bars rendering the port inaccessible. In the event, the English yacht came up on the bar and was destroyed amidst its breakers. All were lost.
Singularly accountable for the vessel and its crew, this account had an enormous impact. He had, upon reaching Porto, experiencing some short spells of rough oceanic conditions and was deeply empathetic to the plight of the family. He knew it all too well. The feeling of complete exhaustion. The underlying nausea. The total incapacitation of many hands. The endless and violent hurtling about and the sirens lure of a haven to make it all stop. These are the times it is easy for the losing gambler to throw everything behind one last play, overlooking the single most important rule of the sea; the land is the danger. A dozen years later, whilst inspired by the possibilities that site enabled, that tale from Porto was to revisit him.
It was summer 2008, and Michael Harpur had returned to his County Wexford homestead for the traditional family holidays. By chance, he was looking at his old leisure sailing guide for the county that he had used before setting off in 1996. Seeing it anew, in the light of the subsequent seagoing experience, something occurred to him that he had never noticed before. Though a pivotal national corner county, the pan European pilot could only feature a few Wexford locations. Two of which catered for visiting yachts and offered complete protection. However, like Lisbon and Porto, both would endanger a vessel running for their protection in strong onshore conditions.
So the second wing of the site ‘Havens’ came into being and found its beginnings by reaching out to local Wexford boatmen and trapping their local knowledge. The first havens were each written in the vernacular of the seagoing people engaged. With the focus and breath the site offered, Wexford was found not to have as few as three havens, but nearly ten times that amount. Soon the flanking counties were added and the berthing opportunities would continue to increase.
As ‘Havens’ started to spread beyond County Wexford, its narrative started to mature and it had developed its own voice. The ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ type framework was used again but also a strict focus on consistency within the underlying descriptions. By maintaining tight standardisation, the site users may only read one haven to know how all others are set up. This makes it easy to take in the information when moving from one haven to the next. Most of all, the language was open, non-elitist and jargon-free. Each haven’s discussion being put across in such a way that it could communicate to the novice just as well as to the seasoned sailor. Likewise, through an extensive focus on imagery and the telling of each location’s background story, it sought to communicate to the non-sailing community as much as to sailors, providing and an open invitation to all readers to come and enjoy the coastline.
As ‘Haven’s’ voice and structure began to develop, a curiosity turned to how this information could be melded with the technical capability offered by the online environment. A constant stream of technical innovations was to follow so that dynamic data seamlessly flowed and fused with the individual variables of each haven. Countless micro innovations followed such as a self-monitoring, alerting and reporting system to flag situations that could make an approach or stay unsafe. All combine, to make it easy to find true sanctuaries, in both good and unsettled conditions. By the time the majority of Ireland was complete, not only had it made the country freely available to the sailing community, but it had by degrees of a continuous flow of small technical innovations, redefined how sailing information could be conveyed.
The sites third and final category of ‘Routes’ came into being after ‘Havens’ had grown to embrace Ireland’s national coastline. ‘Routes’ was initially added to provide a clean hand-off between coastal approaches and the individual heavens themselves. It first appeared as a set of national ‘coastal overviews’ intended to provide guidance to support inshore navigation and safe approaches to the individual havens. However, when set in place, it was found to present the perfect vehicle for the collection and sharing of coastal cuts and tidal strategies that support intelligent and efficient passage making. Soon, like ‘Havens’, the natural process of a constant stream of technical innovation took place to enable ‘Routes’ to make efficient passage planning a joy.
With the addition of ‘Routes’, the site had found its final natural structure, creating and fulfilling its own brief as it grew. Armed with a seaworthy vessel, plus a good set of charts, like nothing else before it, the data it provides completely empowers all those afloat for leisure to enjoy the areas the site covered. And in 2014 Michael Harpur joined in by buying a sailing yacht called Whistler.
During all this time his son Robert, then accompanied by younger brother Giles and sister Lauren, had grown just old enough to steer the vessel. Being just a couple of years younger, it was decided that the site, still called inyourfootsteps.com, had also lost its baby feet. The original red feet logo was replaced by the current representation of the family boat Whistler sailing close-hauled up through The Solent.
To this point, the focus of the site had been on development, innovation, the art of the possible and the joy of creating something helpful and novel. It was a side hobby whilst Michael Harpur earned his living from working in Hewlett Packard. However, by this stage, the value and importance of the site was widely recognised and a constant stream of user well wishes and thankyous were being mailed in. The scale of the site had also grown extensively and become a hugely demanding project. Although it had taken on its final structure, of ‘Experience’, ‘Havens’ and ‘Routes’, it had done so organically and it needed harmonisation. Likewise, web technology had moved forward requiring new capability, a new look and feel and one that could be used comfortably on mobile devices. A singular mission-like-focus was required to bring it all together cohesively and seamlessly. To this end, Michael Harpur resigned his post at Hewlett Packard in 2015 and dedicated himself entirely to the purpose.
With this concerted effort, and Michael Sheldon adding further waves of development, a version 1.00 of the site was first called in the summer of 2017. Chief amongst these new developments has been the site’s new responsive design, allowing it to be optimally viewed on a wide range of devices, first and foremost being smartphones. Alongside this came more enhance data integrations, cleaner lines and countless other small enhancements. Hand in hand with this overall development was the introduction of the ‘Havens’ and ‘Routes’ to the south coast of England and the journey to cover the UK was well underway. Most prominent of all changes was inyourfootsteps.com was reborn as eOceanic.com. A name that more aptly described what the site had grown-up to become in the preceding decade.
This is how eOceanic.com has come to be what it is today. It is, however, only part of the full story of this great resource. Throughout its development, it has been enthusiastically supported and had information provided to it by countless sailors and harbour masters. The site would not be fractionally as informative and enjoyable without the keen eye for the beauty of the coastline that has been generously shared by thousands of individuals who provide their imagery under the Creative Commons licence. With particular respect to Ireland, the site is deeply indebted to the images provided by Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI who has helped us to show the world just how beautiful the Irish coastline is.
It is impossible to single any one individual out, but equally impossible not to mention the deeply experienced Wexford sailor and aviator Burke Corbett. The first local sailor contacted when Wexford’s havens were being set down, Burke went on to be a major knowledge contributor, evangelist and mentor who has shaped and guided the project through its fledgling years like no other.
This is not to lessen all who have contributed to eOceanic.com, and we specifically celebrate all our contributors on the appropriate pages. We would like to wholeheartedly thank all those who have left something of their experience on eOceanic.com for their gift to those who follow in your footsteps.