Sailing The Atlantic
Matt was a sailing friend. He’d met an American with a 13-metre Bowman who needed a couple of hands to make up a transatlantic crew of five. ‘Bluejacket’ would start from St John’s, Newfoundland, and finish the voyage in County Kerry, Ireland.
The flight to St John’s took a long time. It dawned on me that it would take a very long time getting back. In fact, it took longer than any of us had expected.
The owner was a sailing addict who was exploring the world. He seemed to have organised a perfect life. He earnt his living as a market researcher, spending two or three months conducting interviews in the USA then catching a plane to wherever his boat happened to be. On the next leg of his global journey he wrote up his reports and sent them off to his clients. Then another round of interviews, then another month of sailing.
We had just got ‘Bluejacket’ shipshape when a wild apparition barged on-board speaking a language no-one could understand. He turned out to be a radio broadcaster for CBC. Could he come with us? The owner asked ‘What’s in it for us?’ ‘A series of programmes telling the story of the voyage.’ ‘Oh… OK, then. Find a berth.’ In this way, Jim Winter joined us on Bluejacket.
The crew was motley. The bosun, an old friend of the owner, was a US diplomat in North Africa. He turned out to be a Cordon Bleu chef. This mild-mannered American became our hero, setting a standard in the galley that we all failed to match. The boat operated a normal three-watch system, with a tweak: whoever cooked dinner was excused night-watches for the next 24-hour period. Cooking was a sought-after role.
The deck-hands were Brits. Matt, John and myself.
Newfoundland, his home, is an odd place. Peopled 500 years ago by fisher-folk of Irish extraction, it bears some resemblance to Ireland, some to Scotland, some to Norway and none at all to the rest of Canada. Jim was a ‘Newf’ incarnate. Merry, chatty, full of fun, he turned every waking hour into a party and slept hardly at all. He had been sailing in arctic waters since he was six and had forgotten more than the rest of us knew about handling a boat.
We sailed out of St John’s harbour with a sense of adventure. Ahead of us, we thought, lay two weeks of following winds aided by the flow of the Gulf Stream. Fast, direct, plenty of spinnaker. Our main concern was keeping a sharp look-out for large vessels: they don’t usually see yachts, and even when they do they expect them to get out of the way.
For four days it was plain sailing. Then the forecast worsened and the wind picked up; the sea had been calm but now the waves grew higher. Bluejacket began to pitch and roll. Within twelve hours we were in a Force 8 gale, occasionally Force 9, and the seas were mountainous. We could barely hear one another shout. The deck was lashed by wave after wave. With just a storm-jib we were racing along at nine or ten knots and the steering was tricky: the helmsman had to climb each wave at just the right angle, turn slightly at the crest and keep the boat moving as it rushed down into the trough, losing the wind. Then again, and again. This went on for three days.
In theory, it was frightening. A single mistake could have turned us over. In fact, it was the most exciting experience of our lives. The wind and waves were awe-inspiring. The nights were tense; people scrambling to get on deck when the watch changed, impossible to stand upright, howling wind and rain driving horizontally into our faces. We were soaked through and the cabin was awash, but we were so exhausted after our turns on deck that we slept like logs with seawater swirling around our bunks. Meals were basic: wet bread and jam. We lived on coffee.
At last the storm blew itself out. The seas remained high but the wind died down, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We hung our sodden bedding on the rigging, glad that no-one could see us. The owner took some sights with his sextant, consulted the charts and called us all into the cockpit. ‘Guys – we are nowhere near where we should be.’ The storm had blown us a long way off course. Ireland suddenly seemed very far away.
We spotted a Russian warship in the distance and called them up to get a fix on our position. No answer. Then we saw a British warship and made the same request. It was politely denied. What we wanted most of all was to tell our families that we would be a week late reaching port. At last a friendly fishing-boat agreed to send our message.
The sheer size of the North Atlantic stretched our imagination. Apart from two warships and a fishing vessel, we saw no-one in three weeks. But we did see a whale, spouting majestically in the distance, and we saw seabirds throughout the whole journey. Then, half-way across, nature put on a spectacular display which none of us have ever forgotten.
It was the middle of the night and I was alone at the helm. There was no moon, no stars; the boat was sailing along easily on a calm sea in the pitch darkness. Suddenly I spotted a light way out on the port beam. I grabbed the binoculars: to my astonishment, the light seemed to be underwater, and it seemed to be getting closer. Was it Captain Nemo? I really thought it might be, so I called the others up on deck.
Three minutes later the mystery was solved: it was a pod of dolphins, ten or twelve of them, whose bodies were phosphorescing. They surrounded the boat and gave us an extraordinary show: formation aerobatics, under and around the hull, changing places, changing speed, all the time brightly illuminated in the clear, dark waters of the North Atlantic. They seemed to be having fun and stayed with us for hours.
Most days were pleasantly monotonous. We cruised along with a following wind, so there was little sense of movement. We changed the sails more often than necessary; it was something to do. We read and re-read the boat’s small library: I now know more about the crabs of the Chesapeake Bay than anyone needs to. We played Trivial Pursuit (invented on a boat) but soon everyone knew the answers to all the questions. We cleaned Bluejacket inside and out until she was spotless. When we thought we were above the North Atlantic Trough we jumped overboard, just to say that we’d been swimming in 4,000 metres. But mostly we thought of food; as soon as we’d finished one meal we started looking forward to the next.
With Ireland a week away our supplies and water ran low. Rationing began: someone found a box of rusks, tainted with diesel. We eagerly devoured this treat. By the time the coast was in sight, Bluejacket’s galley was bare. We dreamed, day and night, of Guinness, steak and chips.
Which is exactly what awaited us in Kenmare Bay. We moored and leapt onto the jetty. Everyone promptly fell over: after three weeks we had lost the art of walking on dry land. But there had never been anything like that first pint of Guinness, and to this day there never has been.