Estamos in Espana! We arrived this morning 19 Aug around 9am having departed French shores on 15 Aug around 10am. Four days and nights at sea. We survived Biscay. There is much I want to say about the crossing. Whilst at the same time I am left speechless about it. These were four days of absolute extremes. It was intense and amazing and beautiful and calm and also at times, rather scary. This is a whopper of a post so I hope you are sitting comfortably?
We left France with an ideal forecast in our pocket and clear settled skies. All was well. It was a bit bumpy leaving but to be expected where land meets sea. We headed towards the infamous Ushant, suddenly we were doing 10 knots and there were big bouncy waves. At this point I felt my fear rise as I sized up the physics of wooden boat against the big swirling power of the sea. The what if thinking kicked in and I do confess a tear pricked my eye. I looked at my children strapped into their car seats and decided to take them below deck. To my amazement, they showed no signs of distress or concern whatsoever. But so as to encourage this and to lead by example (oh what a fraud), I introduced the ‘WEEEEEEEE’ game. With each big wave I squealed ‘WEEEEEEEEEE’ as the boat bounced up and down. Olive took a millisecond to see the fun in this and since then every time it is bouncy she too squeals ‘WEEEEEEEE’ with an enormous grin on her face. Whilst also herself bouncing up and down on her bed to increase the boing factor. As the passage unfolded with bounces here and there, she would look at the sea and say ‘bit bouncy mummy’ or ‘bit windy mummy’. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish to exaggerate the sea state. We are not taking hurricane winds or tsunamis. No. But the waves and swell combined made for at times a very uncomfortable ride and one that left me pondering why I was enduring such discomfort in an environment in which humans are not supposed to be. As the waves reared up so too did my fear – causing me to question our great grand voyaging endeavour. However even though I got the colly wobbles, my children did not. They saw everything as a game. I found this as bemusing as I did reassuring. At least they were happy.
As we put distance between Ushant and us…the first episode of big waves and swirling seas settled some. Then as if to dissuade me from my line of doom and gloom thinking…the sea gifted us with dolphins! Real live glossy dolphins! A whole pod of them…(I think that is the collective noun?) Playful beautiful communicative wonderful creatures. Swimming right beside us. We could almost touch them. Our air mingled. What a privilege. Olive was beside herself. These creatures she had only seen in her puzzles and story books were now wet and shiny in the flesh a metre or so away from her. To see her realise this was just part of the crazy trip that is parenthood. Watching her little brain join up the dots. I heard her say gingerly at first, almost at a whisper, ‘dolphins mummy’…then loud, ‘DOLPHINS MUMMY’, then screeching,’DOLPHINS SWIMMING MUMMEEEEEEE!’ Thus began her relationship with dolphins. She now expects whales…’Where are the whales mummy?’ So the spurt of fear that preoccupied my whole being shortly before was replaced with joy and wonder whilst leaving me perplexed as to how this sailing malarky works. It takes with one and gives back with another. It is the ultimate roller coaster ride both physically and emotionally.
The day progressed happily – more dolphins to all of our delight. The night however was not an easy one for Ben or I. More bouncing. When I say bouncy this is optimistic shorthand to describe the effect certain waves have on the boat. When they hit the boat, they cause it to lurch from side to side and/or from bow to stern causing crashing and banging and clicking and knocking within the cabin. One cannot sit still or with any ease. One cannot relax. Your body is in a permanent state of tension whilst it braces itself to remain in place. ‘Bouncy’ is an unrelenting motion that does not desist. It is infuriating and maddening and frustrating and you cant do anything about it. This is when I start asking questions like why am I here? Why did I choose this? When will this stop? Fortunately the girls were dead to the world. They slept throughout the night which amazed me as the bouncing continued all night.
In these conditions there was no way we could have started a watch system me knowing next to nothing about sailing. These were not the conditions for me to begin helming. Consequently, Ben helmed all night. I tried to sleep but could not. So every hour I did what I could to help. I took fixes (plotted our position) and relayed this to my captain whilst providing flapjacks and tea and whatever the sea state would allow me to do. I retired to the saloon and pretended to be comfortable whilst my brain reeled wondering how on earth I could cope with this for 21 days in the Atlantic? I knew I would have to talk about this with Ben as there can be no passengers on an adventure like this. It is either all for one and one for all or nothing at all and back to Devon we go.
Soon enough day broke and in stark contrast, delivered us a beautiful flat calm and sunny day. Enough breeze for us to make 3-4 knots. Flat enough sea to make daily living comfortable and more to the point, highly enjoyable. And so it was that we sailed along in our beautiful boat home. I cooked, we played in the cockpit, we saw MORE DOLPHINS, we laughed and felt extremely happy. Suddenly the mental and emotional self-interrogation of yesterday as to ‘why are we on this mad endurance test? What are we trying to prove and to whom? Why on earth did we bring our kids with us?’ was replaced by ‘oh man arent we so lucky! We have so done the right thing’. I concluded that my fears were worth enduring for these glorious unique moments which are beyond reach for most. I realised that this is what sailing is propelling you from one extreme to another and I found myself oddly grateful for it.
That night I began the first of what will be many night watches. Oh my. Words cannot really describe it. But I will try with these. The first watch of the night – moon not yet up but a gzillion stars were. Ipod on. Good breeze. Boat performing beautifully. Water whooshing beneath and around – a beautiful sound promising distance and strong, smooth sailing. Second watch – moon up – silvery light, still a strong breeze giving speed and stability. It became an intensely emotional experience. Inspirational. Satisfying. Mesmerising. I felt deeply contemplative. Grateful. Utterly content in every way. Happy. Proud. Proud of the boat. Most proud of my family and the brave decisions taken and hard work done to get us to this moment in time. I felt connected to every sailor who’d ever sailed. I imagined the explorers of the past going where the wind blew them. The experience connected them to me somehow, me a non sailing mother of two. Everything seemed possible. I felt blown away by it all. It was like the best possible high you could get but clean and free and better. The only price to pay being those hair raising moments that had been and were to come. Was that a fair trade? I reasoned yes it was absolutely.
Days 3 – 4
The next 36 hours continued to be calm and happy and fun and inspiring. We again cooked and played. Olive sat in her chair demanding dolphins whilst Alfi sat next to her kicking her chubby legs and squawking like a little bird. As for Ben and I, one would helm whilst the other sorted the kids or prepared food and grabbed sleep where we could. It is true to say there was not much sleep and Ben and I were totally knackered. But the tiredness came and went in waves and somehow the amazing abilities of our bodies and minds enabled us to crack on with what needed to be done. The tiredness sat beside the need for wakefulness and action. It was the same as the sleep/wake ratio that parenting a newborn commands. I kept thinking, if I can do that, I can do this. Anyway, I have no choice, I have to do this. We have to get this boat to land. We must keep going. We can’t stop for it is not actually possible! I was also reminded that this is how I felt when my children burst forth into this world. During labour, you are locked in. There is nowhere to go but forward. Again I thought, if I can do that I can definitely do this. And so we did and it looked something like this….
Here are some clips of life on board…these were all taken at sea between days 2 and 4…this is what it was like most of the time. So I hope you can see that it was all really rather nice.
At times, I find Alfi’s legs and feet more expressive (and more hilarious) than any other part of her – what do you think?
On the fourth day, (18 aug), we knew we were on our last leg. We started well. We were even more tired but upbeat and motivated by the prospect of arriving. It was also hot. The sun was out. We were most definitely heading south. The sea sparkled. There was not a cloud in the sky. It looked like a bit this…
Around 3pm I was helming, everyone else was asleep. Then I saw what I thought was land. It looked about where it should be given the relationship of the little cross on our chart plotting our position, to the land mass due south of it. But then I wasn’t sure thinking perhaps it could be clouds. After an hour those clouds hadn’t changed shape or position. I was convinced it was land. I wanted to shout ‘land ahoy’ or send Alfi up the mast dressed as a pirate to confirm matters but thought better of it. A while went by when suddenly the helming became hard. We were downwind sailing fast and then the wind unexpectedly picked up and there was swell that was lifting us up and about and around and down. As much as that sensation was becoming familiar it was not altogether welcome. In more or less an instant I could feel the power of the waves through the tiller was just too great for my little hands to control. Ben had another 30 minutes before his watch started. I was loathe to deprive him of much needed sleep but my sense and caution told me I had to get him up. So I rudely shouted down to him to wake him. He awoke startled (this is always the case) but without complaint (this is not always the case) and came and immediately took the helm. His sleepiness vanished in an instant and his focus and calm was restored to the cockpit. There Ben stayed for the next 16 hours during which time I again was left alone with my mind and fear and incessant questioning. What were we doing? What were we trying to prove?
Conditions did not improve. There was a 2 metre swell combined with wind and sails up that saw us over powered. Again, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t time to deploy the life raft, oh no, but it was enough to be highly uncomfortable and for me to play the ‘what if’ game. The rolling was ridiculous. The noise in the cabin absurd. There was an unconducted symphony of glass bottles and jars clinking and crashing into themselves, of things sliding and slapping around in lockers, of things having escaped lockers shhhhliding around the floor and hitting my feet or tripping me up. There was the sound of the water emanating through the planks. A gurgling and whooshing and pounding. By now night had fallen. We still had 10-12 hours to go. The girls had been put to bed a while before but were manic with excitement and wakefulness. I found this totally reassuring but mind blowingly perplexing. Whilst I was queitly crapping myself again they were loud with smiling faces and laughter. Olive bouncing around the cabin singing ‘bouncy bouncy’ and laughing hysterically. Alfi in her cot lying on her front laughing every time the motion of the boat rolled her over on to her back. Kicking her little legs and waving her funny arms and then eating her hands in excitement. Are you getting the picture? A world of extremes. Anyway eventually the girls fell asleep (how I still don’t know).
There was no way I could helm in these conditions. Ben said as much. He also made it very clear in a very calm manner that he could not leave the cockpit. We were sailing downwind fast, corkscrew rolling. With him glued to the tiller, it meant all other duties were down to me. I stayed below not wanting to see the ‘it’ outside. I was taking 20 minute fixes (plotting our position) and relaying all this back to Ben. Just standing in the cabin was a challenge due to the rolling – I am now covered in bruises – bloody sailing! Bah! Anyway as if all this wasn’t challenge enough, Ben needed me to do more. He needed bearings taking so we could work out our course around the coast. It was dark. We were in unfamiliar waters descending on a coastline we knew little about. Ben would have struggled to plot a course, or take a bearing from the cockpit simply as his hands could not leave the tiller. Literally. We had to keep the boat on course. Hands off the tiller would see the boat off course and out of our control. There was no way that from the cockpit Ben could have dealt with a chart flapping around or even seen it let alone hold a pencil, draw a line, hold the chart plotter (big ruler type thing). He needed a wingman and it could only be me. Of course I did not know how to take a bearing or lay a course. So Ben, from his position in the cockpit again calmly and patiently described this process. Not easy given that he could not physically show me how to do this, where to put the chart plotter, how to line things up. He had to describe this process using words whilst still helming. Thankfully I got it pretty quickly and was soon a pro. We proved a very successful team. Twice I had to take the helm. Once so that Ben could take down the jib as there was too much power everywhere. And just enough control. I really didn’t want to helm. The prospect terrified me! But I knew I had to. I told Ben ‘I dont like this’. He said he didn’t either but we both knew we had to take action. I knew that I was never not going to do what was needed but unusually for me, I had to tell him of my fear. In saying it out aloud I hoped to squash it or minimise it somehow. It was pitch black and cold and the boat was rolling from gunwhale to gunwhale. The bow was rising as the stern fell and then vice versa. The sight of this down the line of the boat and onward to the rising sea was a sight I shall never forget and one that brings goosebumps then and now in recalling it. It was f***ing intense. Ben clipped himself on and went to the bow to get the jib down. I couldn’t see him for a while. All I could see was the bow bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. Do the maths! Small man standing on that bow. Freaky. I knew he was there. But I could not see him. I kept shouting ‘are you there are you there?’. He kept shouting back to me calmly and firmly ‘yup yup’. My heart was racing. The ‘what ifs’ checked back in to the hotel in my mind. This was no time to panic. I just had to be physically and mentally brave. (Something I’ve always aspired to be but know I am really a bit too yellow – no time for that now!) So I gulped and did what was asked. I ‘held’ the tiller full over as far as it could go to keep the boat into the wind so Ben could get the jib down. I knew that if I didn’t keep her into the wind, the boat would turn which would result in the sails filling with wind (not what you want when someone is trying to take one down). Holding her steady was a complete body experience. Remarkably the boat did hold steady where I wanted her to but it felt like this was only just. The sea and the current and the wind and the swell had other ideas. Within a few minutes Ben was back in the cockpit to my complete and utter relief. I kissed him. The next time I had to helm was so we could jibe which involved Ben climbing out of the cockpit to untie the boom preventer (a rope which secured the boom so that it didnt crash around). I was still fearful about helming and the conditions had not abated but at least this time I only had to for a minute or so before Ben returned. Ben resumed helming and I resumed hiding downstairs taking yet more fixes. This scene continued for hours.
The land grew closer. We knew once we were in the lee of the land things would settle down and they did. Ben had been spelling this out to me and that all would be well. But still 30 miles or so to go. We were doing no less than 5 knots throughout this period. We had spent the last two days going slowly – averaging 3-4 knots an hour. Now we found ourselves rocketing by, 3 miles in 30 minutes! The hours passed by and once we were around Cabo Prior things settled. I knew tomorrow all we would want to do would be to sleep like the dead. I also knew that would not be possible. Our ETA in La Coruna was around 9am. The girls would be awake by 8am and at least one of us would have to be up with them. Given Ben’s HEROIC efforts at the helm, his already tired self would need sleep. As the conditions had calmed down I told him I was going to get 2 hours sleep now so I could at least function once we hit land. I did sleep. I woke at 7.30am to the sound of noises on the deck. Ben was still at it. By now we were 3 – 4 miles off shore. He was preparing lines and putting out fenders. Soon I thought we will be tied up. Soon.
The pitch black wildness of before we had thankfully put behind us. Feelings of achievement and awe rushed in it’s place. Feelings of complete and utter respect and admiration for Ben were overwhelming. The man just stands up and delivers in conditions that would see most people crumble. (The fact that he puts marmite in the fridge, butter in the plate cupboard, can never find his toothbrush and gets lost every time we go to the supermarket are now facts of complete irrelevance). He never wavers. He is brave and strong and all of this is done quietly yet firmly without drama. I am in total awe of him.
Anyway we approached La Coruna. It was clear that Ben was utterly exhausted, understandably. He was frayed around the edges and totally spent. We still had a few miles to go so I had to keep him going for just these last few hours. Of course he didn’t let us down. Just as we were approaching port I heard the infamous morning Olive alarm call ‘MULK MULK MUMMY MULK’. This brought everything back to reality. And thankfully just in time. Them getting to bed late due to their manic excitement over the bouncy ride they were on meant they overslept by two hours. A godsend. So to prepare milk I went. I took it into Olive and asked her to look out the window to see what she could see. Her little red sleepy face amidst a beehive of hair announced ‘wocks mummy!’ as she spied the rocks on the breakwater. ‘Lighthouse mummy!’ as she saw the beacon marking out the edge of the breakwater. I told her we were in Spain. She said ‘Can we go swimming now?’ I left her with her milk and went to check the other one – there Alfi was, on her front propped up on her little squidgy arms with twist on wrists, smiling her pretty little head off. Laughing and squawking. I got her milk stuck it in her hungry paws and went back on deck. We passed the breakwater and entered the marina. I was stood on the bow. A line in my hand. Eager. The pontoon was winking at me and I was winking right back. We idled up to the first bit of pontoon we could see. We both jumped off to tie on our lines. We pulled Dhanu in and tied her on to the cleats. Oh lovely land. Solid under foot. It was like entering heaven to be on a surface that was not moving! We had ‘reached our destination’.
Later during the post mortem, I asked Ben about the conditions, what he thought of them and how a proper sailor viewed them. My perception needed anchoring within the experience of those that know. I needed a relative view. To understand my own experience and response so as to help me assess our situation, our future plans and to be able to independently gauge what was risk and what was not. Ben agreed that the conditions around Ushant and particularly those around La Coruna had not been great or desireable from any sailors point of view. He explained that no sailor wanted to be or would choose to be out in such conditions. He described these conditions as ‘big boy sailing’ which to experience as a complete novice was bound to be a startling experience. He was sweet to go on to say how impressed he was with how I had handled myself. He said that I delivered the support that was needed that was absolutely vital. He said I was amazing to have done what he would have expected from seasoned crew. He said that you can tell a lot about a person in those conditions as there is nowhere to hide. He was proud and grateful that I hadn’t hidden. All of which I took as high praise indeed. I hope you can forgive my trumpet blowing…
When I asked him what had been his concerns about our approach to La Coruna, he explained that he was less worried about the facts (2 metre swell, wind, cockscrew rolling, boat performance etc), he thought he could cope with that. Rather on his mind was the potential for something more basic going wrong like something breaking or someone breaking or losing their nerve or becoming unreliable crew. In our situation the extenuating circumstances were that beyond him he had only one crew member (capable but inexperienced), children on board, tiredness etc all of which were less than ideal. I believed him when he said that despite all this he never felt out of control or concerned that we would come a cropper whilst accepting that he was in no hurry to repeat the experience!
For those that want to know, as to why the conditions ended up as they did; firstly it is important to point out an obvious fact that where land meets sea you will always have potential for bounciness or unpredictability as mass is meeting mass. Secondly, regarding Ushant; this is an island about 15 miles off mainland France. So we were between two land masses. Additionally we had spring tides in a narrow channel. Spring tides are the biggest tide. As it happened the tide on that day was the highest spring tide of the year. So we had a lot of water rushing about plus wind which resulted in great speed and a lot of bounciness. As for the approach to La Coruna; we had a north easterly force 5 gusting 6. We were heading south so we were fast downwind sailing which can be very testing sailing. Additionally there were 2 metre north west swells all of which combined to create what is known as cockscrew rolling – so chuck that in with fast downwind sailing – it could only have been a challenge. In either case the steeply shelving sea bed played it’s part. The depth falls from several hundred metres to several thousand. The junction of these depths having the potential to cause upset at sea level.
In describing our passage I am conscious that I do not want to paint a picture that causes those nearest and dearest to us to to be concerned about the Great Pea Green Boat Adventure. Or to cause a rehearsal in anyone’s minds of the pros and cons of our decision to sail off given our handicaps (me an inexperienced sailor and mother of two taking two wee bairns across an ocean). That said, this adventure is so unique for precisely those reasons (and many others) that I feel compelled to write it down as I see it.
The upshot of this experience is we now know what is what. We have been tested. The boat and her systems have been tested. Ben knows what the boat can do and what I can do. He has faith in me and trusts me as crew. I know he is proud of his beautiful boat – she is a strong arrow spearing us through the sea. Incredible. Equally I know what the boat can do, what Ben can do. I now have even more faith in him to steer us well. A wonderful equality has deepened between us – it is hard to explain and perhaps too intimate a feeling to try to describe here. As for our beautiful girls, well we know that as long as they are growing and laughing and learning…Having had this experience we are totally alive to the issues, we know what we are capable of, we know what the boat is capable of and we know how to care for our children in such circumstances. We are primed. We are ready.
So what do I do with all those questions I asked myself during the passage? How do I answer them? Would I do it all again?
To these questions, there are no easy answers. We choose to do this for many reasons. To be free. To be wholly in control of our days. To be independent and self sufficient. To escape the comfortable and enjoyable monotony of daily life at home. But also and importantly for me, to take me beyond my comfort zone. To face my fears. To take risks. To dare to be different. To shake things up from their foundation. To shake me up from my foundation. To see what and who comes out the other end. Everything I have experienced so far ticks all these boxes. I am learning more about myself, my husband and my children than I could have at home. It is reminding me how great a team Ben and I are and how better we can become. Ben is seeing a side of me that was never visible on land, as am I of him. Perhaps it is only in extremis that such learning can be so easy and obvious. Is that not reason to carry on? We wanted adventure. We are getting adventure. That adventure is not measured by how sunny it is or how easy it is or how brown a tan we get. No. It is about advancing into the unknown. Being scared but doing it anyway. As for the children. Yes they are my stumbling block in this analysis. It’s fine to put me into the unknown but to take them too? I understand that query. It is an easy one to raise. In reply I say that as long as they are happy (they are) and as safe as we can make them (they still are) and healthy, there is no reason not to continue. Day by day we are watching them grow. Watching them adapt. It is hard work and there is no respite but it continues to feel worth it.
As for the Atlantic? It still causes me to draw breath. But that is a long way off. Between now and early November, there will be lots of short passages here and there and two, week long passages. Every passage gives me more confidence and understanding in myself, my family, my captain and the boat. The time in between gives us wonderful holiday type experiences tied up in port exploring new places, eating new food, teaching Olive foreign words, giving her funny food, watching Alfi become bigger and stronger and more alive – all of which I would not want to give up. If the price for that is possibly some bounciness in between, well, I am still prepared to pay it.
As for sailing – oh my I can think of no other event like it. It gives and it takes and there is very little you can do about it. There were times in the last few days that made me question everything we were doing which were then followed by times that made me absolutely convinced we are doing the right thing. Moreover that we are in a position of deep privilege to be able to do what we are doing. It is in the balance of these extremes that I feel overwheling pride as to how we have handled things. Further, an intense satisfaction that I am living a life that I love and a life that I have chosen. As Ben says, those sailing days that we have had, those experiences put hairs on your chest. So whilst my belly still is a shade of yellow – my chest gets hairier.