For John Neal, a lifetime of voyaging started at the Seattle Boat Show

John Neal and Amanda Swan Neal of Mahina Expeditions

John Neal and Amanda Swan Neal of Mahina Expeditions

Sailing to Patagonia, Sweden, Svalbard, Antarctica, the Caribbean, Alaska, Cape Horn, and all points in-between; numerous voyages through the South Pacific; hundreds of thousands of miles offshore; and teaching countless students in the art of seamanship, for John Neal of Friday Harbor-based Mahina Expeditions, it all started at the Seattle Boat Show.

I’ve known John for some years, but it wasn’t until we sat down for lunch and a chat in Friday Harbor on a rainy fall afternoon that his full, interesting story and love of voyaging and the San Juan Islands came to light.

John was born on the banks of the Blue Nile River in Sudan to an American father who trucked medical supplies throughout the country and an American mother who was a nurse from the University of Washington working in Sudan.

The family eventually found their way back to Seattle and in the mid-50s, John and his dad ventured to the Seattle Boat Show to take a class for new boaters. The boating seed was planted and from there they bought a small speedboat that proved them well on area lakes and provided a stepping stone for a young John into a life on the water. He would sleep on the boat while on summers trips and during this time he also began reading stories in National Geographic by a similarly aged Robin Lee Graham, who was recounting his solo sailing adventures around the world on his small sailboat, Dove.

A few years after buying that boat, John and his dad went on a camping trip with friends on San Juan Island, and it was this trip where John promptly fell in love with the islands. With that affection still in mind, John bought a 20-foot sailboat in Seattle and sailed it up to Friday Harbor and Victoria. On this boat, John continued to harvest his passion for the islands and sailing in the Pacific Northwest, but it also got him dreaming of far off places and tropical landfalls.

A young John Neal casting off from Shilshole Bay Marina aboard Mahina

A young John Neal casting off from Shilshole Bay Marina aboard Mahina

Fueled by his of love of sailing and adventure, John then bought an Albin Vega 27 and sailed it from Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle to Hawaii in 1974. After landing in Hawaii, he met a cruising couple who urged him to keep going south towards the Marquesas. He did, and after sailing through the South Pacific John wrote “Log of Mahina”, which sold 33,000 copies.

John navigating by sextant

John navigating by sextant

Upon his return to the States, John saw the need for seminars on the topic of cruising, passagemaking and boat buying and preparation, and, using his trip as a launching point, he started what would be a long career of conducting Offshore Cruising Seminars at the Seattle Boat Show and elsewhere. His first, in 1976, amounted to slide shows about his voyage from Seattle aboard Mahina, and to this day John has conducted over 180 seminars on a range of cruising related topics.

In the meantime, his passion for the San Juan Islands remained and he bought and sold land and homes on Mitchell Bay, San Juan Island and Stuart Island, where he lived off the grid for many years while commuting to work in Friday Harbor.

After selling his property in the islands, John bought a Hallberg-Rassy 31 that he named Mahina Tiare and sailed throughout the South Pacific for 11 years on three different voyages. He then sold it to a couple in New Caledonia and helped them deliver it to Australia, teaching them along the way. This experience was the spark that really created his offshore sail-training business and with the money from the HR 31, he bought an Hallberg-Rassy 42 that he christened Mahina Tiare II.

While in New Zealand preparing for an expedition to Antartica in 1994, John met former Whitbread Around the World racer (now Volvo Ocean Race) Amanda Swan who was working as a rigger, and she joined him for his adventures through Antartica and Patagonia. She has been a co-captain with John ever since.

Amanda Swan Neal

Amanda Swan Neal

During this training expedition to Patagonia, John and Amanda saw the need for a larger boat to accommodate a few more students and while there in 1995, they completed a contract to build Mahina Tiare III, a Hallberg-Rassy 46.

By 1997, MT3 was ready and John was keen to have the boat make its debut at the Seattle Boat Show. It did and from that point, John and Amanda’s sail-training, seminar and boat-buying consultation business took off.

Mahina Tiare III under sail in the South Pacific. Photo courtesy of Mahina Expeditions, credit to Tor Johnson.

Mahina Tiare III under sail in the South Pacific. Photo courtesy of Mahina Expeditions, credit to Tor Johnson.

Since that time, John and Amanda have been giving seminars and leading students on voyages throughout the world. When they’re not out exploring, they’re happy at home on San Juan Island.

And all that started at the Seattle Boat Show.

Now entering his 28th year (he missed two years while in Antarctica and Patagonia) of presenting seminars at the Seattle Boat Show, John and Amanda’s lineup for the 2016 show includes a number of informative seminars:

Friday, January 29: North Hall, Stage 2

3:00 Diesel Engine Essentials with Amanda
Amanda Swan Neal will guide you through the six essential components of diesel engines giving you a good understanding of how engines work and how to troubleshoot and care for them based on her 38 years of going to sea. A free handout highlights the essential points and resources of this seminar.

5:00 Ocean Cruising Boat Selection
John Neal and Pete McGonagle detail latest market trends and 22 key points to consider when purchasing a boat for extended coastal or offshore passage making, based on their combined 1,430,000 sea miles and 72 years of experience. Drawing on their extensive and objective knowledge of boats and builders worldwide, they can help you quickly narrow your search. A free handout is included and a 37 page booklet is available for purchase.

Saturday, January 30: Club Level, Stage 4

1:00 Ocean Voyaging Preparation
20 steps to prepare for sailing to Mexico, the South Pacific, Alaska or the Med. Topics covered include: selecting and outfitting your boat, electrical systems, navigation, cost of cruising, insurance, seamanship and communication options. Based on John & Amanda Neal’s combined 644,000 miles and 79 years’ experience. A free handout details this seminar.

3:00 Surviving Storm Conditions
When storm avoidance is no longer an option survival becomes critical. John & Amanda Neal show you the safest survival tactics including some radical new techniques based on their combined 644,000 miles and decades of experience in the high latitudes of the Pacific and Atlantic, six Cape Horn roundings and the Queen’s Birthday Storm. A concise 25 page text is available illustrating and detailing this seminar.

Sunday, January 31: Club Level, Stage 4

1:00 South Pacific: Sailing from Seattle to New Zealand
Latest information on how to safely sail through Paradise – uncrowded South Seas isles where friendly islanders welcome you. Includes updates on El Nino, passage timing, safe & secluded anchorages plus new services available to cruisers detailed in images and a free handout based on John & Amanda Neal’s combined 408,000 miles and 60 years of South Pacific experience.

3:00 Seasickness: Conquering and Eliminating It!
What really works; based on John Neal’s systematic research conducted over 40 years while sailing 343,000 miles with 1200 sailors from Cape Horn to the Arctic. A detailed free handout is included.

Monday, February 1: North Hall, Stage 2

1:00 Secrets of Successful Cruising
John & Amanda will share how-to tips and knowledge to help you prepare for your own successful cruising adventures, whether to Mexico, the South Pacific, Caribbean or Europe. They will also share highlight and disasters from their favorite cruising destinations around the world, based on their combined 644,000 miles and 79 years of experience.

3:00 Galley Essentials with Amanda
48 North’s monthly culinary columnist shares her recent offshore galley adventures, showing you how to excel in provisioning, organizing, cooking and entertaining aboard.

For more information about sail-training, seminars and boat buying consultation with John and Amanda, visit

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