One dream, one ripped sail, three near collisions, one faulty engine, zero dry clothes, prevailing winds and sea, ten days, the final chapter.
Why did it end … I went back to London to undertake a contract position which led to a job, there was however one remaining hurdle, getting my boat back to Europe.
I had a week to get my boat back and start my new role, so left with haste to La Gomera where Maria (my boat) was parked with a lovely German traveler living on board. He suffered from hayfever and diabetes so I was sure to greet him with flowers and chocolate to thank him (he was boat sitting). He was rather annoyed given the 2 day notice that I would be sailing his home away, his parents were coming to visit him and were planning on staying onboard.
In his fashion he met me from the ferry with a flute, bohohemian raphsody will never sound the same. Maria was floating and it took little time getting her ready to sail to colder climates.
All the sailors seeing my frantic frenzy of prepping to head back couldn’t believe I was daft enough to sail against the Canary current and prevailing winds which were at their strongest. I clawed north on the NNE’s waiting for the winds to shift north, then it was time to fly havoc literally…!
Food and rum onboard I left turning straight into the acceleration zone between the islands, 50 knot winds were a great start to my journey home and it took me the best part of a day fully reefed to travel a mere 20 miles.
As the sun set I sailed NNW, the wind throughout the journey was coming directly from the destination I was heading NNE. I was sailing 30 degrees to the wind throughout and heeled a good 40 degress. As I was racing to get back home and start my job I was pushing as hard as one could, a mistake I was soon to pay the price for.
After 48 hours I finally lost sight of land, I slept solidly during the day, it took me those two days to get adjusted to being back at sea. The first day in the acceleration zone despite my initial euphoria at being back at sea was very hard going and progress non existent, I was looking at the bucket wondering if my constitution would hold…. bucket has never won!
I met my first tanker of many, on the second night, what could have been my last night. I should mention that my preparation at this point had not been as thorough as it should have,the starboard light was not working which I was to discover at my peril after three near collisions…. It was an HMS supply ship heading to the Carrib, rolled up in bed I heard the AIS sound, this is an alarm that tells me if boat over 300 tonnes is within 15 miles … you don’t ignore that alarm, a noise that still haunts me in my nightmares. I donned my damp waterproofs, grabbed my flares and binoculars, turned on the engine and headed out into the cockpit that was being belted by the crashing waves. I never wore shoes, unless out for prolonged periods… nothing grips like a toe. I saw a long strip of lights that changed to a narrow strip, the worst possible imaginable situation, it was heading straight for me. I ran downstairs looked at the AIS radar, turned on all my running lights (which illumated my sails), ran back up and wondered what was going on. The strip of light became an advancing mountain, the bow wave an unmistakable sign of it’s unstoppable determined approach. I pulled the tiller tacking while throwing the throttle into full power, sails aback I headed straight for the unforgiving hulk. It couldn’t have been more menacing if it was green, wearing a thong and had a face like Jai McDowal.
The siren on the vessel was going off, there were people crowding the rail and I passed within 50 meters down the lee side. I sat there in a state of shock, before I reset my windvane, ran downstairs, turned on my radio (which I should always have had on, fishermen were annoying me), and in a voice very unbecoming my current emotions hailed the vessel. Very cordially they answered saying they changed course to pass to what they thought was by starboard as they were under the impression that I was running with the wind, only my stern light was visible to them. It wasn’t until they saw my sails that they realised what was happening and sounded the collision alarm. I couldn’t reply, and remember staring at the radio for what felt like hours, shaking.
Over the rest of journey I had one tanker turn off all of it’s lights in protest, another created day light with a source that could only have hailed from Boris Johnson’s backside. I was on edge, nights became my days. Why did I only have these encounters at night ………
My savior was a sat phone which I used every day to keep my parents informed of my location, their help was invaluable. They were able to overlay my location with grib files and tell me what the wind would do in the next 24 hours, allowing me to chose the best tack.
I called up the company where I was supposed to start in 4 days to explain that I wouldn’t be able to make it, the lady didn’t believe me when I said I was in the middle of the Atlantic. Best excuse, and when I did start everyone thought it was a prank.
The sailing conditions for eight days were frantic to say the least, I was ploughing into 2 to 4 meter waves continuesly, sleeping against the side of the hull which was horizontal. I loved it, was cosey the motion repetitive, the undulating motion like a mother rocking you to sleep. It wasn’t all warm and peachy, frequently the water would simply dissapear from under the hull, the boat would crest a steep wave and then like the elixir of life remove the chalice leaving three tonnes to plumage to the water leaving me hovering over the bed and jarring my teeth as we landed.
I spent 2 days without wind and decided to motor, realising that I had a crack in my fuel filter I spent 6 hours replacing it and bleeding the engine. I felt a little low at this point, at which karma played it’s card and dolphins came to cheer me up.
As I tacked of the west coast of Portugal I entered the shipping lanes, at this point nothing was dry onboard, the temperature had dropped remarkably and the only way I could keep warm was by sleeping naked (dry), my most precious possession was my sleeping bag. This was the roughest part with the sea in turmoil from what I can only imagine was the med and Straight of Gibraltar.
I had 35 knots of apparent wind, way too much canvas and paid the price. When sleeping you are fully aware of your surroundings, I would wake up if the wind shifted and changed. That said I did sleep through a 180 shift of the wind losing 6 hours of distance. On my last 100 miles while sleeping the boat fell into a trough, as we fell I woke and heard a loud crack followed by a rip and the boat righted, a blown out sail. Donning my soaking waterproofs, by this point I was naked all the time, clothing always absorbing moisture.
Riding a bucking horse and clipped in I went to the mast, feet numb with cold knocked flat by waves I put in my third reef. I stayed there marveling at life. How the hell, why the hell is someone doing this, a cork on the ocean, white horses charging at you unforgiving and relentless, wind and sea determined to undermine and here you are obnoxiously rebelling against the forces of nature. I went downstairs shivering opened the rum and saluted the forces of nature … not yet!
I crossed the busiest shipping lane, shared a salute with a Chinese engineer, these lanes are so congested you have a vessel every 500 meters, then there is me trying to cross them doing 2 knots into the waves. Took me a day to cross the lanes, no sleep, outside with my flares wishing they would all sink, at least they pay attention in the lanes, on the open sea they sleep. On the radio every 10 minutes “To all vessels yacht passing with no starboard light at coordinates XXXX, course North” with a silent prayer …. “move”!
The last 20 miles were the hardest, I didn’t have the patience to tack, 20 miles you can smell land, I was wet cold and tired. It was the longest part of my journey, I turned on the motor and at full power was doing 1knot straight up the waves. How long can these waves carry on for, they are coming from land, how can they have so much reach. The waves abated, the wind dropped, I recognised land marks, finally I arrived into port with no wind flat seas. Did I imagine the rest?
Parents met me with the opening remark “you realise your starboard light isn’t working!”
Maria is now for sale, never will you meet someone more faithful and reliable.
I made mistakes during my trip, most notably, not using the radio to communicate my intentions which stemmed from never trusting those on watch. The experience with the near collision I have gone over frequently and even though I believe they should have maintained their course, they made the right call (one I would have made)… they went upwind of me … they assumed seeing a stern light that I would be heading in a direction away from the wind. Never leave port without checking your running lights!