I woke up and was on my hands and knees in a split second. The sound of the rain hitting my bedroom window had sparked something. For the briefest of moments, I thought only of reefing the sails.
Except my flat doesn’t have sails. It’s not bobbing about in the middle of the Atlantic and this squall won’t threaten my life.
It’s been over two years since I was last out there on the ocean. Over two years since my last night watch, since the last time my body was poised for anything that resembled danger from above. From below. From anywhere.
Trans-ocean sailing stays with you it would seem.
Wild nights and unhappy seas
No matter how deeply I slept on the boat, there was a tether between my ears and the outside world. The sound of the rising wind, the clank of a loose halyard against the mast, the rush of increasing waves, all would draw me out in a second.
There was never grogginess, as though my brain knew that if something was going to wake me from exhaustion, it would need my full attention.
I’d forgotten, almost, what it felt like to go from deep sleep to wide awake in the snap of a shackle. Until the wind hurled the rain against my bedroom window.
Sailing across an ocean is an odd experience. Both utterly relaxing and simmering trepidation. There is no real off-switch. You never feel completely safe. I would relish the trade wind clouds, puffy and friendly. They were a sign that there next few hours, at least, would be easy.
But it wouldn’t last. Something would come. Aggressive clouds, squalls, wind that would rush along the ocean’s surface and give the boat an extra, sudden shove.
She didn’t mind. She never minded. That’s what you get when you sail a Nicholson 32. A dogged, lumbering creature who can cope with almost anything. She was rarely fast, but she was reliable.
There were nights of chaos and terror. Nights where I prayed to every god of the ocean. Nights where I swore I would never take anything for granted ever again, just please let us survive this one. In the cockpit on watch, I could see the white of breaking waves churning along beside us. Cross-swell would slam into our aft quarter, covering me with North Atlantic seawater.
I would wait, wide-eyed for dawn. Everything was more manageable at dawn. You can deal with what you can see. In the night, the ocean was a vast monster. The clouds betrayed us in the dark. Flashing lightning and making me sick to my stomach.
Dawn allowed me to breathe again. It didn’t matter if the waves were still large, if the wind still fierce. The sun would crash over the horizon after its pink entrance song. And I would take a deep breath. One more night over, one more day on Earth possible.
In these moments I felt the sheer triumph of sailing.
Perhaps it was never about distances crossed but time achieved. How long could we stay out there and stay afloat? How many days could we face the ocean and persuade it to carry us carefully across to the next island, the next nation and eventually, home?
And now I lie in bed and listen to the rain pummel the windows. The wind pushing through worn sealant. And I’m safe. This building won’t fall, it won’t capsize. I have no need of an SOS beacon here.
I don’t miss the nights of clinging to the cockpit, noting each breath in fear of them ending. But I miss experiencing time in that way. I miss seeing every new dawn as a triumph so strong I could cry. I miss living in the utter wild and not being safe.
At some point as a sailor, you realise that you’re a visitor in a different world. You’re not prepared like the seabirds or the dolphins. You’re just clinging on for dear life and seeing dawn is your daily reward.