There is a huff off the back of the boat. This is always how it starts. A huff.
That is what has defined this adventure, this voyage of discovery. The ones who huff.
I’ve arrived in England almost exactly three years after leaving. Conceptually, it always seems stranger than it is in the moment. I always thought returning would be next to impossible.
But that’s not how it happens. It happens in stages in a boat – literally. I sailed from England to Spain to Portugal to Madeira to the CanariestotheCaribbeantoPanamatoColombiatotheBahamastototototototo.
Two years in, by the time I was floating in the Bahamas I was ready for Europe. I needed Europe again. The return Atlantic crossing was hard but there was always the underlying current whispered through the night. Europe. Home.
And then the Azores. The magical island chain that is anchored in the ocean but really lives in the clouds. A fine misting, a vivid green. The Land of Green Ginger. A floating archipelago of rumbling volcanoes and tumbling hills.
And then an interlude. A 9 month-long sojourn by plane to England briefly, and then Austria. So long away from the boat that I had become pragmatic about the return voyage. I would go to the Azores and bring the boat home. Simple.
But sailing doesn’t work like that, it never has. We have our colonies and our spices and our history because of the weather, not because of our sailing skills. The wind blows and we go.
So sailing to England was not straightforward.
So I sailed from the Azores to Spain – buffeted and swamped by a deeply ruffled ocean. And again, the weather blocked us in, keeping us in Galicia for almost a month.
And then to England. But still not. A stubborn northerly sent us to Brittany, France’s rugged shoulder. It started to feel as though not only were we dragging our heels, but the weather was reluctant to return us home as well.
It should be easy to go home, but sometimes home is that hardest place to be.
And so yesterday we set sail from Brittany to England. A tiny hop in comparison to the 17 thousand mile voyage that preceded it. But the wind died 15 miles off.
‘Shall we turn back?’
‘How many tea bags do we have left?’
‘…Let’s carry on.’
And so I found myself embraced in fog at 4am in the world’s busiest shipping lane with a dying AIS and no way of spotting the huge container ships bearing down.
And then came a huff from behind the boat.
‘What time do you call this?’
I have needed dolphins on the first day of any voyage since we left Portugal for Madeira in 2014. Maybe I read somewhere it was good luck, maybe I just created it. But it stuck, and I needed them now.
As the merry troop arrived alongside, the fog began to lift and the ships petered out.
That’s dolphins for you.
And so it was with dolphins huffing alongside that I encountered English shores this morning. The hazy outline of Cornish cliffs looming out from under the heavy wet clouds.
I was delirious with exhaustion. And yet all I had sailed was a single night. Nothing compared to the previous weeks 4 nights, or the previous month’s 9 nights or the previous years 28 consecutive nights and on and on.
But perhaps it was everything, the waiting, the dragging, the expectation, the worry, the confusion, the cold, the ships and the sight of my land again. Because arriving by sea is different. Especially if, at some point during the night, you’ve readied a grab bag and known that you may die at the plowing foot of a monstrous ship.
There’s nothing like thinking you might die to exhaust you later on.
And now we’re here, on a buoy up the river Dart. Arguably, you can’t get much more nautical than Dartmouth.
And then, just as I started to think – right…well this is it then.
There’s a huff from the back of the boat.
And a seal begins a lengthy and messy meal of a surprisingly large fish just a few metres away.
And that’s sailing for you. It doesn’t matter where you are, which country you’re in, whether you’ve sailed 8000 miles or 8. There is always life nearby, always the heartbeat of another and, more often than not, they announce themselves with a hearty huff.