Boat Hitchhiking Part 4: The Reality of Sailing Across the Atlantic

Boat Hitchhiking Part 4: The Reality of Sailing Across the Atlantic

The Dream

The sound of water whooshing past the hull. A gentle breeze across a relaxed ocean. Flying fish shooting out from the sea. Dolphins chatting and playing under the bow.

You imagine it clearly – you’ve read the posts online on travel sites. It’s easy and such a great way to travel the world. You’ll turn up in the Canaries, hang out on some friendly pontoons where everyone is sat round their cockpits drinking G&Ts and eagerly discussing the crossing and will welcome you with open arms. You’ll find a boat within a day or two and settle in before the big journey.

It’ll be bright and sunny the whole way across, you’ll get your guitar out in the cockpit and strum to the stars. You’ll catch fish and cook them up for dinner and read books by head torch or eReader while the skipper sleeps at night.

It’ll be a peaceful, restful crossing that will open your eyes up to a world without Facebook, Twitter and iPhones. You’ll finally read War and Peace and you’ll have learnt French from your mp3 player by the time you make landfall in Guadeloupe.

You’ll have incredible photographs to show your friends and family back home and will have something pretty awesome to put in the ‘Achievement’ section of your CV.

All in all, it’ll be like a fun van-trip except the ocean is your road.

It’s an awesome idea. It’s the dream. Is that the reality? Well…yes and no.

The Reality

You arrive in the Canaries and excitedly get to the marina. It’s gated. You need a security card to get onto the pontoons and you can’t get one without a boat. In fact, you can’t even access the marina toilets.

You take a look at the marina bars and shops and see dozens, no, hundreds of posters and postcards with gleeful faces and ‘Looking for Crew?’ written on them in bubble writing.

You are not the first one to arrive.

Everywhere you look there are travellers with backpacks in cafes and hanging around the marina trying to chat to sailors or use the free wi-fi in the bars.

You stick your poster and business cards up dutifully with the rest and wish you were a better artist – why didn’t you draw cute palm trees and pencil sketched yachts on your stuff? Does that help?

You read the other adverts – a lot of these people speak two or more languages. You only speak one. That guy can cook, should you have said you can cook too? That girl says she’s a qualified first aider, should you mention that you took a first aid course in school?

You smuggle yourself onto some pontoons behind a group of sailors and start knocking on hulls. You ask them if they’re looking for crew – some don’t speak any English and you don’t speak their language. Most say no. Some eye you up warily before answering.

You spend a lot of time in marina bars. At least the beer is cheap. After a week, you’ve got some potentials who will ‘let you know’. After ten days you’ve got a bed on a boat in the marina until you can find a boat for the crossing. Two weeks and you’ve made a ton of friends – most also looking for boats. Three weeks and you’ve secured a passage, finally!

You get to grips with the layout of your new home, a 36ft sloop. You get used to boat toilets. You’re travelling with just the skipper, a retired account who’s been living on his boat for a year and is finally ready to make the crossing. He’s friendly, knows his stuff and wants some company and an extra pair of hands and eyes. He’s got a cat who only sometimes lets you stroke it.

After a week of provisioning, checking weather forecasts and winching him up the mast (phew, that was tough, wouldn’t want to do that at sea!) – you’re ready to go. He’s gone through all the safety stuff and has taught you how to use the radio and the emergency beacon. He’ll teach you how to sail as you go.

As you leave the waves are big and choppy. Atlantic swell bumping around the islands makes for an uncomfortable day. The wind acceleration zones around the islands are pretty fearsome but you hold onto your breakfast like a pro. As the first night arrives, you’re getting tired. You both choose a three hour watch system and these first few nights will be tough because there’s still lots of shipping around.

At 4am, you’re awoken for your second watch. It’s dark, the red lights of the switch panel make you feel as though you’re in a submarine film. You’re shattered, you can barely keep your eyes open. The boat lurches off the waves and you fall over several times as you forget to always hold onto something.

It’s chilly, colder than you thought it would be as you clip into the cockpit. Your skipper gives you the run down of the weather and any shipping and tells you to wake him at the slightest thing. He doesn’t mind, he would rather you wake him than something goes wrong. With a newbie on watch, he won’t really sleep anyway.

Ten minutes into your night watch and you yawn. You’ve got a strange empty feeling in your stomach and wonder if it’s hunger. The boat lurches again. Nausea creeps up. This is the routine for the next five days and nights. You don’t eat much, you’re not even particularly able to go below unless to sleep.

The sixth night and the nausea isn’t there anymore. Instead of something black looming inside you, there’s something black looming on the grey horizon. The colour difference is almost invisible but it’s definitely there. Maybe it will rain. The skipper appears ten minutes later to check if you’re okay and he sees the cloud. You’re confused at his urgency but between you, the sails get reefed. Five minutes later a 35 knot squalls slams the boat. Welcome to squalls.

Over the ensuing weeks, you have many blissful nights under the billions of stars. You see pods of dolphins race each other around the boat and exchange more stories than you ever thought possible with your sailing companion. You learn how to sail in these conditions, how to read the clouds and how to gut a fish.

You have many nights of ‘oh god why have I done this’ when the wind gets unpleasantly strong and the motion has stopped you sleeping well, if at all. You only get two pages into War and Peace before starting on a battered copy of A World of My Own. You don’t learn French. You often get bored.

When you’re only four days from the Caribbean, you start feeling the pull of land. You’re so close now you’re getting impatient. You dream of a shower. Of eating without fear of nausea. When you eventually spot land, you’re still an entire day and night from it. You’re restless, you can’t focus, can’t read, can’t think. You just want to be there. It’s not that you don’t like this trip anymore, but the pull of land is unbelievably strong.

As you drop anchor it’s dusk. As the engine goes astern to dig it in, you’re in shock. The skipper switches off the engine and you look at each other in mutual amazement. You made it.

Part Five up next week….!

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