An extract from Chapter 4 of my first book, In Bed with the Atlantic.
Five hundred miles was something I could get a handle on, something I could picture. It was around the same distance as Falmouth to Spain’s La Coruna, less than the trip from Portugal to Porto Santo and only two more days than Madeira to the Canaries.
We were no longer impossibly and preposterously far from land and the tension and anxiety drained from my body in one huge whoosh. I practically danced my way around the boat, cleaned the bathroom in a frenzy of productivity and stood on the transom, watching the flying fish scatter under the bow.
I was considerably better company and Alex no longer had to entertain himself while his unnerved partner buried herself in a book to pretend there wasn’t a squall squatting heavily on the horizon.
Only a few days to go and the weather changed. The wind blew stronger and veered, becoming southerly. It brought rain and created a confused and deeply ruffled sea. We put the hatch boards in and watched out the windows as the surface of the ocean turned into a blur in the downpours. We took turns running outside to reef or let out more sail and eyed our new course distastefully. We were now going north, not west.
We’d already changed to main and genoa after a different wind shift and now we rode out this bizarre new weather, hoping it’d blow itself out and rumble on. The thing was, it didn’t appear to be going much faster than us and we were concerned we were just sailing along with it as it rolled its way north.
I studied Hal Roth’s Handling Storms at Sea and tried to work out if this was the edge of some huge depression and if so, where exactly in it were we. We scratched our heads and decided that we had probably been run over by the Intertropical Convergence Zone – something unpredictable and not to be easily dodged.
We hadn’t managed to pick up any SSB radio forecasts from the USA and instead sat out the depression, meandering about heavily reefed in whatever direction the wind was going.
It lasted for around 36 hours and then we were back on our way, decks nicely washed down by all the rain and several cloud-showers having been luxuriously taken. I could practically smell land.
We had, in general, been going as fast as was comfortably possible the entire passage but as we came within 80 miles of Grenada, it became obvious that we were going to have to slow the hell down.
We had picked up a 2-knot west-going current and were doing a hefty 7.5 knots over the ground. That would get us in around midnight and a night entry into a reefy, tropical island did not feature in our plans at all.
We reefed down and cruised along at 4 knots. By 2am I had slowed the boat right down to 2.5knots, the slowest we could go in the waves without the sails flapping and the motion being unbearable. Still, we would be lucky if we made it after sunrise.
A bird appeared on the guard wire where it met the push pit in the cockpit, rocking back and forth to keep its balance. In the dark it looked a lot like a crow and certainly didn’t look like a seabird. Seabirds have extraordinary ability to balance on moving objects and have always had a certain unflustered charm about them when they occasionally hitchhiked.
I didn’t want to turn the torch on this tired bird in case it took offence and flew off into the dangers of the sea and so I couldn’t get a particularly good look at what it was even though it was sat a metre away from me.
It was a black bird in a black night and we chatted idly as the boat lurched from side to side, wishing to go faster but halted by her blasted crew.
Having birds on board means not only not making any sudden movements, but moving glacially when you need to do something. This applies to most birds anyway; we had a Brown Noddy later who was perfectly happy with us sloshing buckets of water over the solar panel where he was stood, to get rid of his abundant leavings.
For over an hour I moved about the cockpit, very aware that if we were going to see ships on this 3500-mile crossing then now was the time we would see them. I studied the horizon, the AIS and the chart, all in slow motion to avoid startling the bird.
In the end it was a wave that caught us on the aft quarter that rocked the boat enough for the bird to lose its footing. It flew up and again, it didn’t fly like a seabird. It repeatedly tried to land again but the boat was rolling and lurching too much for it. It eventually got a hold on the solar panel but abruptly fell off and disappeared completely.
I always hated it when birds left the boat and wondered for hours what had become of them. Had they just needed a rest? We’d had a racing pigeon on board across Biscay and after 24 hours of snoozing in a shoe box he spied a fancier looking yacht and flown off looking much refreshed.
It was a short-lived concern this time however, because at 3am Alex came to relieve me and I feel into a deep sleep until dawn and Grenada loomed ahead.
When I said I could practically smell land, I hadn’t actually realised that you could. Previously I’d never really been far enough from it to notice the difference, or at least not for long enough.
After weeks at sea though, the smell of Grenada hit me full in the face. It was like going from the cool English clarity of winter straight into the rainforest biome of Cornwall’s Eden project. The smell was tangible, thick and alive. It turns out that you can literally smell land.
A squall came and obscured our view, dowsing us in torrential rain as soon as we began motoring up to the entrance of Prickly Bay in the early morning light.
I was at the helm and almost blind in the furious rain while Alex put on a snorkelling mask and took photos of us making landfall in the Caribbean. There’s a GoPro video of me shouting over the wind and rain, ‘we have arrived! And it’s awesome!’ I’m yelling, sticking my thumb up and getting a face full of water.
Prickly Bay was full of boats and as the squall sauntered off west we wove our way through them right up close to the marina and the small beach. We anchored and turned off the engine, enthralled by our new reality. We had crossed the ocean.
After arriving on the tropical shores of a Caribbean island, you get the distinct impression that you’ve entered via the back door. It scarcely seems possible that you could’ve made your own way, by the power of wind alone, to such a distant place.
The Caribbean of my childhood was played out in the pages of holiday brochures furtively acquired from the local travel agency. The places within seemed unattainable, once in a lifetime destinations requiring long flights, excess baggage and the sort of money that few people I knew could reasonably possess.
It never occurred to me that you could just go there yourself in a boat, a lengthier version of, say, walking to Wales from Southampton. The idea you could visit the Caribbean without inflating the wallets of luxury hotels, airlines and Thomson Holidays was non-existent.
But now I knew you could because I had. I kept meeting similarly bemused sailors, wandering around in the sort of eerie tranquillity of someone not quite sure if what they’re experiencing is real.
We’d all set out on this borderline mythic voyage of 3500 miles with the intention of making landfall in the Caribbean; but now we had made it, it became clear that many hadn’t actually expected to.
Despite the hundreds of yachts crossing the ocean from east to west each year, it’s still a pretty marginal method of arrival. There may be endless flocks of charter yachts exercising their motors and occasionally stretching their wings but trans-Atlantic cruisers are still countable on one hand in most anchorages.
Once into the routine of life in Grenada, the twenty-eight days at sea began to seem unreal. While the days had stretched out under sail, they condensed at anchor; that month was a strange stasis, we were frozen in time and re-entered the world exactly a month later.
It almost felt like a tiny psychological experiment; relinquishing the internet, all forms of communication and becoming entirely self-sufficient. All for one month.
Imagine stocking your house with food but shutting off the freezer, filling your bath to the brim before turning off the mains, cutting the phone, TV and internet and setting up an 160W solar panel on the roof. Now imagine not being able to leave the house for a month.
Admittedly this thought experiment doesn’t work particularly well because your house is (hopefully) impervious to the fickle attitudes of the weather, springing a leak won’t send you to your grave and you can get a full night’s sleep instead of waking up every three hours for your watch.
But still, you get the gist.
When you re-enter the world one month after you withdrew from it, when you turn on the internet and buy fresh milk and fruit; the most disconcerting thing will be this – nothing changed.
The news is the same with some names changed; the social media train forgets itself as soon as it posts anyway; nobody died; your emails are all companies you once bought something from and your friends have just had another month working and weekending.
You expect the world to have changed because you have. Every day a triumph of mileage, survival and dolphin spotting. Each three-hour nap a restorative achievement. Each meal a battle won against the continuous motion. You’ve experienced joy, fear, adrenaline, serenity, fresh fish, curious cetacean, brutal exhaustion and furious winds. The ocean has played with you across a vast football pitch, eventually called time and lobbed you to the safety of land.
You re-emerge into the world dusting yourself off, smoothing down your hair and saying, ‘gosh, that was pretty wild,’ and the world glances up and says, ‘whatever.’ Unimpressed, it didn’t even notice a tiny boat forging its way across the sea.
And then you realise something wonderful. You stepped out of the world and into the sea for a whole month and nothing changed. You could do this all the time.