When I started to write this article I found that the beginning had a familiar ring to it, and after a while it dawned on me that I’d written it before. It’s called “Leaving” and it’s the first blog post on this site, dated June 2016. In it I describe leaving my home port to embark on my new life, a momentous moment if ever there was one. But to all appearances it was very ordinary. And so it was a few days ago when I untied the lines and left the Cape Verde islands, bound for the Caribbean. Setting sail to cross the Atlantic single-handed seems a huge thing to do and it’s been long planned for, anticipated and feared. But the leaving was ordinary, just hoisting sails and coiling lines, the same as usual.
The sailing, too, is the same as usual, except that it goes on for rather longer. Much longer, in fact. The whole voyage is likely to take about twenty days. The Atlantic, it’s beginning to dawn on me, is big.
It’s been windier than average. The pilot books put the mean at seventeen knots. My wind instruments have been measuring twenty or more and I’m going downwind at over five knots so the true wind speed is around twenty five, sometimes more, sometimes less. That’s enough to build up quite big waves and they make life awkward on board. The boat rolls, not massively but enough to make it difficult to do anything, and it’s wearisome.
When there’s a gentle breeze blowing me peacefully along on a placid sea I can be profoundly happy. Then I don’t want to sleep however tired I am. I just want to sit there for hours and hours, my mind blank, and, well, experience it. I want to hear the sea gurgle passed the hull, feel the boat gently rise and fall on the swell and just gaze at the magnificent ocean. Then I don’t want to do anything. Being is enough. Then I’m in love with the whole thing and can’t get enough of it. I could sail like that forever, which is just as well as that’s how long it takes to get anywhere in those conditions.
But this is different. This is purposeful sailing. They’re called the trade winds for a reason and following their path is the most efficient way to sail from Europe to America. But does my heart sing every morning? No, it doesn’t. Not yet, anyway. On previous trips I’ve found that it takes a few days, five maybe, for my mind fully to adjust to life at sea, to really get into the voyage. I’d looked forward to a much lengthier passage than my previous ones so I could enjoy that feeling for longer, really to get immersed in it. But I’ve been out here for nearly two weeks now and the feeling hasn’t come. I think it’s been slightly too windy and slightly too bumpy which is a little wearing on the nerves. When it’s like this it feels as though my whole subconscious is entirely used up on sailing. I don’t relax. I don’t read or write. I don’t listen to podcasts or music. I just don’t have the spare mental capacity so these things feel like a bothersome distraction. But if the wind drops by only a few knots then hey! I’m back, fully functioning, happy, and doing all the things I normally do once more.
I want to become the best seaman that I can be. I still have a long way to go but looking back I find that I’m a better sailor now than I was when I left England. Perhaps I’ll be better on arrival in the Caribbean than I was on departure from the Cape Verdes. Perhaps. Perhaps I’m simply not accustomed to sailing in these conditions for so long at a stretch and that once I am I’ll relax more. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day life of a voyager goes on. There’s no time to be bored. The wind and sea keep changing (damn them!) requiring commensurate changes to my sail plan. I need feeding and the boat needs maintaining. There are sun sights to take as I’m learning (or re-learning, I could do it once) to navigate by the sun with a sextant. I had a list of things to do on this voyage and I’ve barely made a dent in it. The business of sailing takes up almost all my time. Many on crewed boats say they find long passages boring. Single-handers don’t. They’re too busy.
I’m getting lots of flying fish on board. Every morning I throw half a dozen dead ones back into the sea. Last night as I sat in the main hatch that leads from the cockpit down to the cabin a big one leapt out of the darkness onto the boat and knocked over my cup of tea on its way down into the cabin where it flapped about manically on the floor making a wet, slapping sound. I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me. It’s really hard to pick up a flying fish while it’s alive. They’re slippery and wriggle a lot. But now I know the secret: if you wear a rubber glove you can pick them up easily and throw them back into the sea before they die. I think I threw the one on the cabin floor back quickly enough for him to survive. He probably had a bad day though.
STOP PRESS! I wrote the draft of this article yesterday. Today (23 Feb 2017) the wind has dropped a bit and the waves have subsided. What a difference! I’m relaxed again. I could have put up more sail to make use of the calmer conditions but instead I elected to leave them as they were and have a holiday, even if that meant sailing slowly for a day. I opened the hatches and swept out the cabin. I put some music on and baked some bread for lunch. I wrote pages and pages in my diary, maundering nonsense most of it but no matter, my head got unloaded. And I feel better. This is what I hoped it would be like. I’m getting into it at last.
So, about 800 miles left to go. I wonder how that’s going to be.