27 oct

We have arrived in the Canary Islands and I can’t quite believe it. We have travelled 1670 miles from little old Topsham, Devon and we are today tied up on the beautiful island of La Graciosa. Mind; blown.

We left Lagos, Portugal on Wednesday 22nd October. The forecast for the following 5 days was as good as it could be bearing in mind the tremendous low that had halted us in our tracks for the previous 3 weeks. We knew swell would lurk but accepted the forecast that it would be ever decreasing.

The first day was perfect. The conditions were mild. In fact there was hardly any wind but at least there was little to no swell. Also, the electric self steering worked and worked well. At last! The third crew member had arrived and we were both free to play with the kids and share the chores plus relax and have fun. Olive surprised and entertained us with some new choice expressions. Entirely unprompted she suddenly asked me ‘what’s our speed mummy?’ A question the helmsman is often asking of those down below from where the GPS can be seen. Later she decreed ‘engine on’, another command shouted down to whoever is near the ignition. Funny little sailor girl. The self steering also allowed us to begin once more, a watch system which saw me back in the cockpit stargazing and feeling like Boadicea.

However by 12 noon on the second day the wind got up to at least a force 5 and with it came a 2 metre plus swell. Conditions the self steering could not handle. This meant from 12 noon til 4am the following day, Ben had to hand steer us through whilst I again solo’d down below. The rolling was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. During those hours, we always retained control but that is not to say it was free from tension. The conditions did not pose an immediate danger but they create an atmosphere in which the propensity for something to break, or someone to slip, or some other unforeseen event increases. It is no understatement to say that those 16 hours were some of the hardest of my life. Physically and mentally, very demanding. The worry at such times is less what is actually happening and more, what might happen. That creates tenterhooks.

The conditions reminded me of our approach to Coruna (see 19 Aug) only worse. Interestingly, I did not have the fear of then which tells me I am toughening up as a sailor. I had faith in my Captain and faith in Dhanu. My ever expanding experience told me that at some point the conditions would cease. It was just a matter of when and to hold out until that time came. At least Coruna had taught me to lash down as much as possible. To stuff cushions in any space on any shelf or locker to deaden noisy crashing movement and disable potential missiles. But even with that knowledge and the benefits it brought, the cabin was still a crazy hell on earth which challenged me in every way, leaving my body saying ouch. There was no relaxing. No down time. We were on high alert for the duration. Whilst I had no fear, there was fury and disbelief and maddening scream inducing frustration. What the hell were we doing? Why were we in this situation again? The forecast had been good? Where was the crazy wind coming from? The low was 700 miles away! Of course all of this was directed at Ben – who else – was this not his fault? Haha…What made it worse was that the conditions hit during daylight hours. So the girls were awake for a good portion of the time. They handled it as well as any of us. Whilst they were fine, they were as pissed off as I. Olive was bored and playing up. She was frustrated that she could not move through the cabin independently. There was a lot of strong arming her to safe comfort. Of course these are not conditions anyone enjoys, but these children did not choose to be here. So my fury and frustration was tinged with sadness and regret. That is not even to mention the challenges posed by daily parenting chores.

Take nappy changing. This takes place in the foc’s’le as it is a soft space, wide enough to accommodate a rolling child so as to avoid a bumping child. But imagine, rolling boat, rolling child, child wriggling and resisting the nappy change…suffice to say child never stays on nappy mat. What lies beneath is our bed. I end up wrestling with whichever child to keep them flat, to keep them safe and to get the job done. It’s a battle of wills taking place in a giant washing machine. I think the point at which I decided I had had enough of this voyaging life was not for life and death reasons, but when Alfi rolled off the mat mid change and wee’d all over the bed. Immediately followed by Olive’s poorly placed nappy (on account of earlier impossible conditions which caused the poorly placed nappy), leaking all over the bed. A double wee shower. F***ing terrific I thought. So, new clothes to be found and put on, a bed to change and a bed mattress soaked with wee which could not be cleaned until we reached port no less than 4 days away! All of this in a moving vessel rolling from side to side unpredictably and relentlessly, involving children also rolling around of their own will. ARGHH!!!!

This was to be sharply followed by Ben calling me to helm as we needed to reef (make smaller the mainsail) to reduce the boat’s power in the strong conditions. I needed every ounce of patience to silence the screams gurgling up my windpipe. Despite the urge for a major tantrum, I knew losing it now would of course not be very unhelpful. So I secured the children in islands of cushions, bumpering them from every angle. Dropping in to their laps the ipad, puzzles, books, toys, a big smile and a fistful of hope. Meanwhile in my head I machine gunned into oblivion the Atlantic plan. No way were we crossing that ocean if there was any chance of this ridiculous maddening rolling. I then took the helm so we could reef Whilst firing off reasons in my head as to why we should not continue with this absurd life, I realised that the last time I took the helm in such conditions I was crapping my pants. This time, whilst furious, I was not scared at all. Hmm. I knew what to do. I used the stars to keep me into the wind and kept checking that Ben’s silhouette was behaving as it should. And so it did. By the time he was back in the cockpit, despite my sense of growth as a sailor, my suppressed screams had percolated into an angry and accusatory assault on Ben in which I declared that there was no way on this earth we were taking the children across the Atlantic if there was to be anything like these conditions! NO NO NO!!! This was said as the sea hissed and foamed and bubbled all around us as if to dare us to beat it. Like a rabid old witch whose spell saw the phosphorescence shoot like sparks around and ricochet off Dhanu’s hull. Despite the furious power of the sea and the tenterhooks it created, it did make for a majestic spectacle of nature that was in a strange kind of a way, a privilege to witness. Ben as usual remained calm and sympathetic. He agreed that this was not fun giving little more away.

Then something strange happened. A switch flicked. I decided that there was no point in being furious and impatient. An utterly pointless waste of energy. If the going was to be tough, we just had to be tougher. It would end at some point. What’s more we were all going to be as comfortable as possible and as well fed as possible. Hot food was in order. I told Ben I was going to cook. He tried to dissuade me saying we would eat biscuits or beans or bread and jam, whatever was simple. No I insisted. We were to have a steaming hot meal as it would be good for our energy not to mention morale! I actually said out loud ‘it will be good for morale’ whilst pulling out the chopping board. I then immediately laughed at myself and the situation thinking blimey what is this, the 21st century blitz?

And so to cooking. No easy task on a moving boat. Just to give you an idea of how much we were rolling; it is not often that Ben has ever seen Dhanu’s rigging screws go beneath the water when sailing downwind. These are located just above deck level at the bottom of the shrouds. (The shrouds are the wires that hold the mast up and they are attached to the hull at deck level). But this day and night they did. So think about that movement and its impact on the galley beneath. Yes we could eat biscuits and cuppa soups but I don’t want to sail like that. We compromise enough. Not to mention the fact we have young kids who need nutrition! Even if this means a lot of effort and at times, painful hard work. Cooking on a moving boat cannot compare to cooking on land. To make any kind of fair comparison, you must imagine your kitchen tilting up and down through 90 degrees, the contents of your sideboards and cupboards rolling around whilst you try to remain upright and physically able to do all that is required. Cooking on a boat is an experience that employs your whole body. It is an act that is less about food and more about the physicality required to prepare it.What ingredients will you need? Where are they stored? How will you reach for the garam masala at the back of the cupboard leaning over a gimbaled stove whilst rocking backwards and forwards? How will you peel an onion whilst swaying around knife in hand trying to stop peelings and onion chunks from flying everywhere? How will you boil the kettle to make the stock needed which involves finding it in the cupboard, getting a jug, pouring water etc etc…all whilst trying to remain upright when the sea has other ideas. What to do with the prepared items which await potting – how to ensure they won’t slip slide away? Will you be able to commit one hand to holding the pot on the stove so that it doesn’t slide off and empty itself somewhere else? (Yes, we do have a gimbaled stove which usually is fine at keeping pans level but in those conditions, gravity will always win.) In my wee opinion, the act of successful cooking is a complicated task that demands the calculation and forethought of a chess master. Foolish is the cook who pulls out the chopping board and starts chopping away hoping it will all come together by the time the onion and garlic is sautéed. I know that cook as I was she when on land. Sadly this type of ad lib cooking is destined for frustrated, not to mention, hungry,disappointment in a rolling boat. Cooking is (for me at least), an exercise in precision planning. And despite best laid plans, you will not avoid the likelihood of being ejected from the galley without notice nor explanation, by forces greater than you, that will not apologise, acknowledge your brusies, your missing onion chunks or promise never to do it again. Such lurches will invariably happen when you are pouring hot water into a jug or cutting something with a sharp knife only to find yourself mid air with your senses in slow motion as you hope upon hope that the water stays in the jug or that the knife stays in your hand. I have learnt that if you are wedged in somewhere or leant in tightly to the boat, in an effort to become part of the boat, you have a chance. Boat bounces, you bounce with it. It jars suddenly,  so do you, but at least in the same direction; you synchronise. But even then, there are no guarantees as the brusies on my body confirm. So with all this in mind, if you end up producing a meal in your topsy turvy kitchen, then well done you. Of course I was thrilled with the vegetable-curry-spuds-on-the-side a la studentville which emerged out of the marathon that was cooking on that second day. It tasted wonderful! It tasted of success! How could it not? Just a shame Ben could not eat the damn thing as this required the two hands he had glued to the tiller…hmm…had I known, I’d have put a bib on him and fed him too just as I did the girls. What difference would one more feed make? And so at least the girls were fed, bathed, milked, changed and tucked up in their bunks where they did eventually conk out as the conditions slowly but surely eased to our great relief.

By 4am the following day (day 3), after some kind of sleep, Ben woke me to ask me to take the helm. After 16 hours of helming the conditions had lessened and it was time for him to sleep. I would not say that I jumped to it, far from it, I did not want to helm especially as he said I would have to hand steer. I was exhausted, highly irritable and wanted only to get back to sleep. But I had to do my bit, he had more than done his. Why can’t we use the autohelm (recently purchased electric self steering system), I asked grumpily whilst brewing some coffee? In his tired state he said OK we will try it though he did not think it would work. Thankfully and to our surprise, it did. What followed was an amazing caffeine fuelled few hours. What a difference! Were we in the same sea? Oh fickle universe…the wind had dropped to a force 3-4 as had the swell. We were on a broad reach (sails 135 degrees to the boat as measured from the bow). Dhanu was sailing beautifully through phosphorescent seas which seemed to mirror the sky above, full of stars. I lost count of those that shot across the night sky to disintegrate into dust. I started recognising the constellations and planets; Orion, Jupiter, Polaris, Usar Major…beautiful awesome signposts. I found myself exhaling optimism, pride and relief. We had again successful endured another challenge. OK we never sought to prove ourselves in this way. Nor did we need to. Of course we would never have willingly chosen to sail in those conditions. But in an adventure like this which is so dependent on the natural world, we must accept that it will throw us curve balls in the form of wind and swell and waves. We are in a strong boat. Captained by an experienced sailor. Yes at times it is impossibly hard but then we are rewarded with wonderful family time in new ports, which bring to us all individually and as a family, new experiences, new people, new understanding of what we can and can’t, should and should not do and how we want to live.

The following day gave us time to reflect and talk about our plans. We agreed that we can never again endure sailing of day 2. We know that. We asked whether this voyage is really fair on the kids? In the round we think yes as the time in port, in new places is always amazing. The constraints on them caused by the difficult times at sea, are these any worse than those of a long haul flight or a long car journey? Do the physical risks compare? Who can say. At least in the boat they have their beds, their toys, their home. Plus this voyage sees them at our side all the time. Our children are thriving and this life enables us to be with them all the time. To be the ones who influence them, teach them, laugh with them and love them even more. We could not have a quarter of such opportunities were we at home in our normal lives. This would not be possible on land in our working lives, fighting to beat the clock to get through the day to squeeze in an hour or two before bedtime. Surely this makes it all worthwhile? One can only measure these things when considering the passage as a whole.

So what of the next few days? The following 3 days gave us beautiful awe inspiring family sailing. Aside from the steady warm breeze, the blue sky and shinning sun and the sparkling sea, we had for the entire time self steering that worked. Predominantly the electric autohelm did the job. But for the last day Ben’s wind vane self steering worked not perfectly, but pretty well. Giving us confidence that the adjustments made in Lagos, had put us on the right track to perfection…at last we could see it working which made the Atlantic prospect all the more possible. And indeed any future ocean going passages as a family. The self steering transformed life on board. Just as Ben said it would. Suddenly we were not fire fighting just to get through the day. Ben was not doing major chunks of hand steering and going without sleep. I was doing more than looking after the kids and cooking. We were all getting a much better experience. Together. We played together. The kids got both parents. The parents even got some time to themselves. A routine started to evolve on board that really gave me confidence about living and voyaging as a family on this boat. Suddenly, a world opened up that made me really believe that we could go on happily and safely. I withdrew the machine gunned Atlantic idea from the rubbish bin in my mind and started to reconsider it. Maybe, just maybe…

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We picked up a hitch hiker – a tiny little bird. God knows from where he came or to where he flew. But he arrived. We looked up and saw him gripped on to the guardrails near the bow. He clung on for hours. He was very tame. He did not mind us being close or the jib flapping or me dunking nappies in the bucket a metre away from him. He was a funny chap that made me wonder all about him and his life…how many miles had he flown? Where was he headed? Was it accident or design that he was here???

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We also started a proper watch system. 4 hours on, 4 hours off. This is a work in progress but another long passage and we will be close to finding an ideal system made possible by the self steering. Chores can be shared. As can childcare and importantly, family time – what we had from day 3 onward was special and amazing and idyllic and I have experienced nothing like it until that point. It finally felt like we were on a dream holiday. Olive climbing up the companionway steps demanding to see the stars. Alfi watching a sunset from Daddy’s lap, where she became physically overcome. She kicked and flapped and smiled as she saw the golden orb disappear below the horizon.

The last evening we were all in the cockpit, the sun setting on us when suddenly Olive screamed ‘Dolphins! Dolphins!’ Sure enough a pod of them had popped up right before her. She saw them before anyone else did. Olive started screaming with excitement such as I’ve never seen her. Ben and I were squealing watching her watching dolpins. Alfi was squealing watching Olive screaming and so the cycle of happiness and joy and oh-my-god-how-lucky-are-we, circulated. Happy times in the cockpit. Physical visible happiness, sunlight beaming off our faces. Times that were hard won and so deserved.

This passage also returned me to night sailing. Night time in the cockpit has given me some of the happiest most awe inspiring moments of my life. Apart from the sheer wonder of the physical universe writ very large in the night sky, 4 hour night watch gives me time to think. To contemplate. To create. Without distraction. Without any demands being made on me. All working parents will know what a gift this is. Yes of course every 15 minutes or so the binoculars must scan the horizon, but even this act is not a chore. I love scanning the dark horizon for the lights of other vessels. Being on night watch makes me feel responsible, strong, adventurous and privileged. I always feel full of optimism. It also gives me time to learn about the universe, the stars, the importance of our teeny tiny significance. For years, I have always looked at the night sky and waned to understand it. Yet all I ever saw were arrangements of stars which reminded me of saucepans. Then I came across a smartphone app – the night sky. Incredible app! I’ve had it for ages and never really used it but when on passage, I use it every night watch. Now I see that whilst the constellations still remind me of saucepans, at least I can recognise them as distinct from one another. Using this app against an open sky offering a 180 degree horizon to horizon view, free of light pollution makes stargazing an easy and utterly gobsmackingly all consuming exercise. You can forget the task in hand – eyes front of course…can’t crash the boat. Damn stars…too beautiful for words. I can now easily recognise Leo, Jupiter, Canis Major, Sirius, Orion, Taurus, Cassiopeia, Polaris, Usar Minor, Usar Major. And I am actually using these stars to judge our course to steer without having to refer to the compass. Again making me feel connected to every sailor that ever was. These are the ways by which for centuries sailors sailed. The sea, the stars, the wind; unchanging constants. I know all of this sounds too corny and wretch worthy for words, but is is all entirely true. And if that is not corny enough – listen to this; on our last night ,I had a total revelation. Orion is an archer. Orion sits next to Taurus. I am a Taurean. This boat is called Dhauu. Dhanu is the Hindu archer god. Oh my what circularity! This union I have with Ben, this boat and this voyage – is written in the stars. Cosmic validation. Ha!

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Lastly this passage proved to me that I am beginning to know how to sail. I have been changing headsails (sails at the front of the boat; either genoa or jibs) since we left the UK. But the mainsail, aside from hoisting it up a few times, I had not reefed it or jibed. During this passage I did reef in the main, under instruction of course. During a night watch, if something needs doing or if I don’t know what to do or how to judge a vessel behind or ahead, I wake Ben. That is the non-negotiable rule that enables him to sleep. He can’t sleep unless he knows and trusts that I will wake him if I am in any doubt of what needs to be done. I always do this despite not wanting to deny him sleep. However during this passage, I jibed once on my own, at night. Whilst this was not entirely successful as I still had to wake Ben after the event as the sail setting did not seem optimal, nonetheless it confirmed that my judgement was correct. Woohoo! I can now see when something needs to be done. I know when the sails are luffing, when the sail position needs to change, when we need to reef down. All obvious points to those of you who can sail, but remember I could not before setting out on this voyage. My first night passage was the English Channel and my second was Biscay. So to employ my brother’s phraseology; I have moved from the unconsciously incompetent state of being, to consciously incompetent and at times, unconsciously competent…again this gives me huge confidence for onward passages.

As for these beautiful islands, our approach here was another sight to behold. Ben woke me around 8am to say, he had sighted land. I stuck my head out the hatch to see a flat sea and almost purple volcanic peaks of the Canary Islands. Sitting fixed in the water. Dried lava sculptures. The closer we got the more dramatic they became. All I could think of was Planet of the Apes. And of course that I was sharing this view with every sailor that had ever passed this way. From the Phoenician traders of 2000 years ago though history to modern pleasure sailors like us. After days at sea, we all shared this moment of sighting these islands. Whether rich, poor or other, we all had this same view. Thoughts like that, makes your head explode, well, at least my head. Anyway, we finished giving the girls breakfast and tried to enthuse Olive about the lava lumps she was seeing. It did not work she just wanted to go back to bed. Meanwhile, we headed for La Graciosa, a small island north of Lanzarote. As we approached Ben shouted ‘Dorado!’ Ever since I have known him he has always talked of Dorado with a misty look in his eye. For me, all a Dorado represented was another fish on a menu whose meat needed to be explained to me. Now I understand what all the fuss is about. If you have ever seen a Dorado you will know the bizarre bright blue flash that they create. There beside the boat, swimming centimetres from the hull was a fish, about 5 foot in length, bright azure blue, sleek, sinewy. If aliens created a fish, this was it. It was swimming just below the surface, showing off it seemed. Taunting us that it would never be supper. This did not matter, especially as we did not even have a line out. It was just another reminder that we were getting further away from home and from all that we knew. Away from the dark waters of the north. Away from the rain and the cold and the nursery bills and the daily marathon endured by any working parent. As I looked up to see this crazy purple moonscape of dried lava I felt I wanted more. More different. More time with my family. More stars. More sea. More challenge. More more more. (Apart from Ben’s beard. That my friends, has to go).

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3 Responses to 27 oct

  1. Niki says:

    Oh my goodness, Philippa! Another epic. Thank goodness you’re all ok (and the self steering worked). Your post made me laugh (brilliant description of cooking) and brought a lump to my throat (dolphin/family euphoria bit). What an excellent distraction as I eat my sandwiches by my microscope. Your life is a million miles away from mine right now!) x

  2. hazel n dave says:

    Well done on your first big passage! Day 2 sounds horrendous but no mention of seasickness at least, I hope you are all spared that. Took us both 2 days to find our appetites on a big trip. Bananas always good 🙂 Glad you had lots of magical moments – dolphins and starry skies… and many more to come. Enjoy solid ground!

  3. Claire Davenport says:

    Beautifully written. I remember well trying to chop onions, little buggers roll all over the place! xx

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