28 September 2016
Light airs were forecast for the foreseeable future but I felt the urge to be on my way so decided to leave nonetheless. I was expecting a slow and gentle passage but as I emerged from the land’s shelter I found the wind to be blowing at over twenty knots. I took in a reef and set off across the waves at full speed, swiftly leaving mainland Europe far behind as I listened to the familiar sounds of Moonrise underway that I’d not heard for too long.
Just outside Lisbon there’s a shipping lane. Well, it’s not a real one, but there is a real one just to the north, and another just to the south, and the big ships go directly from one to the other along a de facto lane. And there were lots of ships, and so lots of adjustments to course and speed to avoid them. The wind died and returned, and died and returned again. In such congested waters I motored through the calms to get away from the shipping but sailed as much as prudence would allow.
As usual in inshore waters there was no chance to sleep but I don’t mind that. I descend into a sort of reverie, not fully awake but not completely shutdown either. Like putting on an old leather jacket, the feeling is familiar and comfortable. For hour after hour I sit and gaze at the scene around me, not reading or playing music or even thinking much, just staring vacantly about. The sun goes down into the ocean and it becomes dark but the wind and the waves and the boat continue on, the sails a ghostly white in the darkness, the stars slowly rotating around Polaris. I’m in a daze but aware. If something changes, a ship’s light appears on the horizon, perhaps, or the wind shifts, I notice. Do I need to act? No? The daze continues. Yes? I stir myself, the kettle goes on and as I drink I slowly ascend to consciousness before reefing or tacking or whatever is required, every maneuver so utterly familiar I could do it with my eyes closed. There’s little conscious thought but I’m somehow more aware than normal of everything around me. I don’t just haul on the lines, I notice the droplets of water on the winch with the moonlight refracting through them. I taste the salt from the spray. I feel the roughness of the sheets in my hands, the deck under my bare feet, the wind on my face, all with more intensity than usual and not as separate sensations but together, forming one homogenous sensory experience. The maneuver complete, I descend back into my reverie, and more hours pass.
Sailing like this at the start of a passage serves to shake off the land and all that’s there. It can be a profound experience. Proper sleep is required eventually so I can’t do it forever. But after that first long night with the sea, the wind and the boat, I emerge at dawn on closer terms with all of them, as though we become estranged while I’m in port and need to be reacquainted.
With the first light of dawn the wind faded to a whisper, leaving the boat to roll in the big Atlantic swell. Progress slowed to a crawl as the mast swayed to and fro, tipping what wind there was from the sails. But I had the ocean to myself by then, with land and shipping left far behind, so there was no more need to hurry. And eventually, as the morning sun became warm, the swell subsided enough to allow slow but steady sailing.
The chart shows the water to be about 4,000m deep. Four kilometers. It takes about an hour to walk that far.
And Four and Five.
I settled in to the rhythm of the passage, and the hours and the days passed by. The wind remained light and I was kept busy eeking-out two or three knots of progress. That’s about half my normal walking pace, but progress nonetheless.
If the wind blew then my boat and I would move from one bit of water with waves on it to another bit of water with waves on it. If it didn’t, we didn’t. The sun beat down. I felt its heat on my back as I worked the winches and I tipped buckets of seawater over the decks to cool the boat down. So that the oven did not make the cabin uncomfortably hot I baked my bread in the cool of the evening, the homely smell filling the boat as I prepared for the long night ahead.
On the fifth day it rained. I heard it coming. There was a hissing noise as it hit the ocean that grew louder as it approached. The temperature dropped as the rain arrived and then it was all around me, splashing on the decks, in the sea, and on me, washing away days of accumulated salt, running in rivulets down my arms and legs, and gushing out of the scuppers. Then it was gone, retreating over the horizon, leaving the boat steaming in the sun.
When I went to sleep just before dawn all was as it had been for days: five knots of wind from astern with the boat moving at around two knots, broadly speaking in the right direction. But I awoke a short time later to find that the wind had backed to the northwest and increased. After a pause to rouse myself with coffee I hoisted the yankee and staysail and came up from a run to a broad reach, bowling along at a respectable five knots, bang on course.
Shortly after breakfast I spotted land and immediately reached for the camera though I realized as I snapped away that what I’d had a great urge to capture was the moment and no photograph can do that. Yes, there’s an island on the horizon, rising up out of the sea, and that’s a romantic image. But what the photographs don’t show is the context, the days that led up to that point, or what the sight meant at the time.
I wanted to finish writing my blog post ready to send off when I arrived but I couldn’t concentrate. I was too distracted, though I didn’t know what by. I gazed and I gazed, at the islands, at the big ocean, at the waves and the swell and the sails. None of these things had changed markedly for hours but I couldn’t tear myself away.
In due course I got through to Porto Santo on the radio, my voice croaky from disuse. They allocated me a berth and I sailed the last few miles before motoring in to the tiny marina. And that was it. Back on land again.