It’s 9:30 at night and I’ve got my back to the setting sun. I sit in the corner of the cockpit and watch the ocean roll and swarm downwind.
I’m listening to a creepy podcast. I downloaded tens of hours worth before setting sail on this 1000 mile voyage. There’s nothing that passes a night watch like an addictive podcast.
I spent the first night listening to Serial and then Someone Knows Something on the second. I often see Shearwaters circling the boat at night like flitting wraiths around the boat. Spirits. They’re comically loud at night on land but they’re silent at sea. [Read more…] about Video Blog: Sailing with Cetaceans
There’s a perpetual cloud over the mountain nearby.
It’s more than a cloud. It’s an immense white-grey pillow of damp.
It gives the vibrant green to this island, the innumerable dairy cows their grass, the people their food. [Read more…] about Cloud Islands: Volcanoes in the Ocean
I feel like I haven’t been away. The painted shutters on windows, the low stone walls, the dairy cows, the sparrows.
She stands where I left her. I left her.
I left her here.
I touch her hull the moment I reach her. Solid. Smooth. Not neglected or damaged or weary, just her usual solid self, facing the wind, standing on concrete.
I wonder if she misses the water or is relieved to be out of it. She grew up dry every winter. She’s younger for it, no doubt about that.
Sand has gathered around her stands. The winter storms she’s seen. The sand is mixed with paint flecks. Blue. Not hers, although she is blue too. Someone else has been poisoning this ground.
We’re all guilty of it. There’s a reason why nothing grows on her hull while she’s in the water.
A motorboat is being lifted out as I arrive. Soon they start pressure washing the little boat’s hull, dislodging stubborn creatures. Barnacles, weed.
The blue anti-foul washes off in torrents of toxins. It washes over the concrete and I have to leap over it as I visit the bathrooms. Don’t want that stuff on your shoes. Or your skin.
The motorboat has blue anti-foul but my boat has red. When we washed her off she let a river of blood. It flowed across the ground and wept into drains. Like I said, poison.
She looks pale on deck. We took everything off and stored it inside when we left. Boom, covers, lines, outboard, wheel, everything. So there’s nothing to break up the paleness. It doesn’t take long to get it all back out though and underneath spots of mould have been growing.
I clean every surface, finding the debris of spiders’ meals. Tiny crumpled flies litter the forepeak having got in but never gotten out. I find the remains of an onion in the rack. How could I have left an onion here? That must’ve smelt for a while. Now it’s just ashes, time having done its work.
There’s one metre squared of floor space. Two when the bags have been moved. That’s it. How have I lived here for three years? Every inch of space is taken and I haven’t even unpacked. There’s no room, not for anything.
The next few weeks will be work on top of work. Except that to even get into the tool cupboards I’ll have to move about 80 things. It’s a strange way of life. So free in that I can, and have, sailed anywhere – but also so wantonly limiting.
I look around and I don’t know where to start. The captain will tackle the huge jobs, the sanding, the painting, the epoxy work. And me? I’ll start on the thousand tiny things.
Leaving Social Media on the Shore and Setting Sail
Checking your email, whizzing through your Instagram feed and clicking on your Facebook notifications might be an established part of our daily lives but it has no place at sea. During an Atlantic crossing, most sailors would never even see the word ‘Facebook.
More than that, it simply doesn’t exist at sea.
Looking at any form of social media while I spent a month crossing the Atlantic was as impossible as strolling to the local shop and buying a pint of milk.
But, as I’ve discovered with other things, going cold-turkey is a whole lot easier when you physically cannot have the thing.
Is willpower getting weaker?
My good friend and writer Sophie Deal wrote an article last year on giving up Facebook for Lent and how she struggled with it. It wasn’t necessarily the content of the site that she missed, it was an internalised habit that kept prompting her to ‘type ‘Fa…’ into my URL bar and scroll brainlessly through a void of superfluous information.’
So habitual is my use of social media these days that often I’ll be in the middle of a piece of work and then, suddenly, I’ll be looking at Facebook/Twitter/Instagram and have absolutely no idea how it came to be on my screen.
I use the meditation app Headspace and one of the techniques it uses is noting when you change major body position; for instance, go from standing up to sitting down.
The idea is to try to acknowledge when you do this as many times a day as you can. My record? Once.
‘That’s easy,’ you might think, but is it really?
Because right now I’m sat down but five minutes ago I was standing up and making a cup of tea. It’s not that I don’t remember sitting down per se, but I didn’t pay any attention to it whatsoever.
It was a completely automatic reaction.
Living on automatic
My first realisation of how much I went through life on Auto was when I was around 12 years old. I walked to school over a mile every day by myself but sometimes I’d arrive and have no memory of the walk.
It would shock me, after all, I’d had to cross several major roads, how was it possible that I could arrive and no remember paying any attention?
Whole days can go by without us paying attention though, time flies and we cannot work out where it went. How is it that Facebook is suddenly open on my screen? Or worse, open on my phone when I’m using my computer?
But the thing is, this never happened at sea.
An Atlantic Crossing – focusing for a whole month
I may not have had access to any social media while on my first (or second) Atlantic crossing, but that wasn’t the only thing that no longer popped up in my life of automation.
Rolling down three metre waves meant the motion of the boat was treacherous and tiring. Every movement I made had to be hand over hand, carefully placed footing, constantly adjusting my weight to cope with the movement and always, always being aware of what I was doing.
At sea, it’s not just a case of sitting down or standing up; if you put your hand in the wrong place you might lose a finger. Or stand a little too high and you might be hit by the boom, misjudge where a shroud is and fall overboard.
Everything is mindful on a boat because mindlessness can quickly lead to disaster. Especially when you have swirling waves beneath you.
The lack of social media – you know – that racing orgy of twitter updates, Instagram stories and reply after reply to some Facebook post you commented on without thinking earlier – the lack of it was breathtaking.
I had never realised how much anxiety it caused; all that information and no way of ever reaching the bottom of it.
Into the present
My focus had shifted from online to the present moment as cleanly as black from white. There was no middle period like my friend Sophie’s, no temptation, no stress or wondering. The focus was just on what I was doing in each moment.
There was a distance from that endless buzzing world created by literal distance. The remoteness of an Atlantic crossing utterly disconnected me from one world and utterly connected me to another. Many long-distance sailors have Sat phones and can receive messages but I didn’t; for me the disconnect was absolute.
But now, while I’m enjoying a ski run with one half of my mind, the other half of my mind is wondering if that buzz in my chest pocket is an important email or just a retweet.
I miss the ocean and the forced disconnect. We all need to remember what that’s like, or, for the younger of us, to experience it at all.
People have been doing Atlantic Circuits since the time of Columbus and there’s a very good reason. It’s easier to sail with the wind than it is to sail against it.
Sailing where the wind blows
From northern Europe, there’s a very clear squashed circle of favourable winds that will blow you south from the UK to the Canary Islands, across to the West Indian islands of the Caribbean and then northeast all the way home.
For sailors, cruisers and liveaboards living somewhere on the perimeter of the Atlantic ocean, the Atlantic Circuit is a perfect route for true exploration.
If you leave from the UK, you can sail south to Spain and Portugal before going offshore to the Madeira Islands and the Canary Islands. From there you head west with the tradewinds all the way to the tropical shores of the Caribbean!
If you’re leaving from North America, it’s only around three weeks to the Portuguese islands of the Azores. Many American sailors then head south to the Madeira group and Canaries before returning to the Americas.
For all sailors though, the Madeira group and Canary islands are also gateways to the Mediterranean.
The Classic Route Around the Atlantic
East to West
The classic route begins from Falmouth in the UK. From there you head south to Spain. From Spain you sail to Madeira (or its tiny sister island and one of my favourites, Porto Santo).
From Madeira you go south again to the Canary islands where you can collect yourself, provision in huge hypermarkets and get any last minute spares, parts and deliveries.
Now it’s time to cross the Atlantic!
From the Canary islands, the most common place to sail to is the West Indies. Depending on how long you want to spend on your Atlantic Circuit will depend on which island you aim to make landfall on.
Many sailors then work their way up the Windward and Leeward islands of the Caribbean with just daysail between them and dependable winds.
The return Atlantic crossing from west to east often begins from Antigua or the French/Dutch island of Saint Martin. This is because the winds are usually very favourable from these islands and the provisioning is excellent.
Most sailors leave the Caribbean and head to the Azores, a mid-Atlantic island chain belonging to Portugal. From there they return home to the UK, France or other European countries.
West to East
North American sailors often head to the European islands on the way to the Caribbean. This somewhat lengthy route is ideal as it gives them time to explore these off-lying parts of Europe without leaving them trapped in the midst of EU countries and nearing the end of their Schengen Visas.
As the Schengen Visas last 3 months, North American sailors have time to sail to the Azores, Madeira Group and the Canary Islands before jumping off again to the Caribbean.
This route entails leaving from the eastern coast of North America and sailing around three weeks to the Azores. After island hopping their way down to the Canary Islands, they re-provision and set sail for the Caribbean.
Island hopping up the Caribbean and Bahamas, North American sailors can return home via the coast or the inland waterways in the USA.
Why do the Atlantic Circuit?
Sailors of all ages do the Atlantic Circuit because it is easily achievable in one or two years, depending on how much time you have. Of course, you can also do it over many years and explore the many surrounding countries.
For many cruisers, they can only take a one year sabbatical from work and so fit in their circuit there.
Others sail with children and only want to homeschool at sea for one year.
Many sailors are retired but only want to leave their friends, family or homes for one or two years and of course, there’s always a question of money.
The Atlantic Circuit is the perfect compromise between time, money and adventure. Easily doable in one year, you get to explore so many islands that are extremely hard to visit any other way, let alone in the number you can by boat.
Time Frame – One Year
In order to complete the circuit in 12 months, you’d typically leave the UK around August or September. This gives you good weather to cross the Bay of Biscay off western France and get below incoming autumn storms.
Then you must be in the Canary Islands by mid-November in order to cross the Atlantic as early as the weather allows. This means you get plenty of time exploring the Caribbean.
You will need to leave the Caribbean for Europe again by around June. There is a short crossing season between late Spring storms and early hurricanes.
If it takes you 3 weeks to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries and you leave on December the 1st, you’ll have around 6 months to explore the Caribbean!
Time Frame – Two Years
Two years means much more time to explore all the islands you come across and sail further afield than the one year circuit.
However, you will be in the Caribbean Sea during a hurricane season and must take this into consideration as you will need to be somewhere outside of the hurricane area for the season.
The beginning of the Circuit is the same and you leave the Canaries in December or January. Because you have two years, you can start at the bottom of the West Indies and arrive in Grenada, or even Trinidad and work your way north island by island.
As Grenada is out of the path of hurricanes, some two year sailors start at the top of the West Indies and work their way down. This way they can reach Grenada by the start of hurricane season. From there they can even head to Colombia or Venezuela.
However, sailing from the Canaries to the top of the West Indies is a longer passage and often sailors, including the ARC, choose an island midway such as St Lucia or Martinique.
After or during the hurricane season, sailors can explore Central America, the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) or go north to Cuba and Hispaniola (after the hurricane season).
When the hurricanes end in November, you have another full 8 months with which to explore more Caribbean countries including the Bahamas or head up to the USA.
When your second June comes around, it’s time to head east to the Azores and home.
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