On adventure upon the high seas, part 5

Sunday 30th September, Mar Cantábrico near A Coruna.
NE force 4, 1020 mbar.

The boat cuts through the quiet sea, as it has continuously for the last four nights. By 3am we’ve reached the Spanish coast at Cape Ortega, heading west on the last leg. To port lies the dark mass of Galician hills, black against a bright, moonlit sky, with lights picked along roads and great lighthouses semaphoring their unique messages out to those watching for them. Trawlermen rumble past along the coast, nets out in the waters. Ahead of us I can see the glow on the clouds from the lights of Ferrol – Franco’s birthplace – miles away, still hidden behind the headland. As our phone signal has reappeared on reaching inshore waters, I text Carmen, my friend from A Coruna who is celebrating her birthday back in London.
“I can see your house from here”, I say.

Light thickens as the clarity of night is discoloured by dawn, still hidden behind the mountains. We round the last cape at Covas, where the echoes of great gun emplacements lie quiet alongside the lighthouses. We pass within a few hundred yards of the rocks, close enough that I can see the white spray surging up the cliff.

The proximity alarm goes off as we pass the waypoint, our computerised chart plotting our route as we turn south towards A Coruna’s old town on the headland, and the harbour further into the bay. I wake up Michael, now that the journey involves decisions. And rocks.

Welcoming us is The Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse built by the Romans around 1900 years ago to protect their Mediterranean fleets as they passed up the coast towards Brittany and the vital tin ports of southwest England. It is the oldest continually-operating lighthouse in the world. Renovated sympathetically in 1791, it still even retains – mocked up in the masonry cladding around the original tower – the impression of the sloped external ramp on which barrels of lamp oil were wheeled to the top. As we arrive at around 7am, the moon, my companion these last few nights, slips quietly towards the Atlantic for the last time.

Sailing up the marina there are plenty of ribs rushing around, all carrying youngsters, it seems. Perhaps there is some kind of sea school, or competition taking place. The Guardia Civil eye us a they pass by on a launch, and a couple of middle-age fishermen. Towering over the marina is the strange modernist Port Authority building, two stark white pillars that trap two glass-jewelled office platforms surveying the harbour from above. It looks very odd, but I warm to it.

Mooring up to the wooden jetties that criss-cross the marina, Michael and the others disembark for the harbourmaster’s office. Technically I have arrived in Spain, but can’t get off until the others have wandered around a bit and no one will notice a surprise fourth crewman. After a while they return, freshly clean and glowing from the showers. I take a key to the gates and wander past racing yachts, fifty-footers like Salamander, power boats, and a couple of pretty impressive motor cruisers – though not quite in the megayacht range.

In a blissfully scalding shower, I close my eyes and my vision swims and sways as my legs struggle to adjust to surroundings that for once are not moving underneath me.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 4

Saturday 29th September, Bay of Biscay.
NNE force 4, 1009 mbar.

The rocking and rolling of the boat, the incessant creaking of the cabin walls, and being occasionally flung across my bunk do not make for a restful night’s sleep. The watch rota is three hours on, six hours off, so when given the opportunity to sleep at night it’s foolish to turn it down – even if actual sleep is harder to come by.

Back on deck for 9am to relieve Martin. A third day of waking up to nothing but the ocean on all sides. The sun is up already, it’s bright and warm, and the northerly-blown swell still rolls us around on its back, but we’re losing speed. In an effort to pick up more wind without changing direction, we all get ready to do some actual sailing under Michael’s guidance. Turning into the wind, we reef the mainsail down to just a duvet-sized sheet, and unfurl the genoa to it’s maximum extent. With the wind from behind us we hope that without the mainsail literally taking the wind out of it we will be pulled along faster. We’re not. The huge acreage of sail empties and fills as the wind gusts one way or another, whipping to and fro with a loud crack. We put everything back as it was, ropes flying around capstans and through our hands. While it was all for nothing in the end, it feels good to be playing a part in rigging the ship and trimming the sails – reminding us that it’s not all autopilot in these days of GPS and electronic terrain-following charts.

The race is on to get Charlotte to the airport in A Coruna in time for her 3pm flight on Sunday. Midway through the Bay of Biscay with just under 24 hours to go we’re looking good for distance but poor on speed. There’s nothing for it but to use the engine.

The day creeps by, the sun sweeps across the bow, and the crew graze their way through the provisions. Without a great deal of sailing to do – no tacking, no making ropes or mending sails or swabbing decks – I feel an tinge of cabin fever, the four of us in a cockpit perhaps 10 feet square. I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and eat cereal bars and sip whisky to pass the time.

I also make a discovery – I’ve forgotten my passport, which means I will be illegally immigrating into Spain – sounds like fun. It’s impossible for every port to rigorously check every boat, so all borders are porous to a degree. But Michael and Salamander are heading south for Lisbon, Morocco, the Canaries and then St Lucia, so it’s getting back home that presents a more pressing problem.

I cook a final curry – Indian and brown rather than Thai and green this time – and we settle in for the final night at sea. On watch at 3am, the night is once again clear and the moon is finally full and wears a halo behind each passing cloud. It’s certainly a humbling experience to be out at sea, in more than 4,000 metres of the North Atlantic, on a little boat tossed around by the wind and waves. There’s plenty of time and space to think, listen to the waves. Too much, even.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 3

Friday 28th September, Bay of Biscay.
SW force 3, 1050 mbar.

I sleep uneasily. The ship rattles, the wooden partitions of the cabin creaking with the pressure of the waves on the hull. Everything creaks and groans. The ship rolls and pitches strongly, and I am tossed from one side of the bunk to the other, and resort to trying to brace myself against each wall with my feet. But the motion is not because the weather is rough outside. In fact, sometime around 3am I awake to almost total stillness, only the gurgle of water under the keel. It feels like we’ve slowed almost to a stop. I can hear Michael and Martin talking on deck, and a barking sound as the engine is started, sending reverberations through the ship. The wind has dropped and changed direction, and we need the engines to keep our speed up in order to get to A Coruna in time for Charlotte’s flight back for work in London on Monday.

 

Around 6am I climb up to the cockpit to take watch. It’s dawn, and the sun still lurks behind the horizon, although its light has set low clouds on fire with pinks and oranges, announcing its arrival. After a few minutes on deck, I see the first of them – incredibly quick, incredibly close, just a metre or two from the boat, grey, glistening, smooth, and streamlined: dolphins. Three or four of them ride alongside our bow-wave in the near darkness, leaping clear of the water in pairs, in perfect unison. After a while they drop behind us, perhaps put off by the sound of the engine.

 

The sun rises behind the clouds, and the rest of the crew join us. Rigging the genoa and letting out the full sail, we pick up speed to reach an impressive 7.5 knots and kill the engine. Realising the game is back on and with no diesel engine to distract them, the dolphins return – the full pod of perhaps 20 or more. They dance about, dodging in and out under the boat, leaping up in pairs and threes, racing each other through the bow-wave. Just them and us in the empty ocean.

To see them is to smile. They’re enchanting, effortless. And very hard to photograph.

A lot of gulls appear around us too, assuming if there’s dolphins then there might be fish to spare. The bay turns out to be quite different from its reputation – and very different from my experience of the Channel. It’s calm outside, sunny, with sparse clouds. Time passes.

That evening, another Thai curry, another long night watch under a near-full moon on a glassy sea. The wind turns around to the north, blowing from behind us. My efforts to let out the genoa to pick up more of the changing wind do not go according to plan when I fail to notice that the hank of the rope was left on the winch; the ropes are tangled. I admit defeat and wake up the captain to sort out the sails. It turns out I did the right thing but badly, and with genoa and mainsail trimmed, we pick up speed on our way due south.

The tailwind causes the boat to pitch and roll as the waves overtake us, blown from behind. It makes the simplest of tasks difficult: do not attempt to piss standing up, while pouring tea successfully requires synchronising kettle and cup, as both are now moving. By the time I head below at 4am, the warm front has arrived and swamped us in cloud. The air is suddenly damp, chilled. The bright moonlight has gone and the glassy sea is darker, more menacing, the white caps of the waves now a snarl of teeth in the darkness.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 2

Thursday 27th September, Western English Channel.
SW force 4, 1020 mbar.

I emerge groggily from below decks to find the dark clouds have dispersed, the sun is shining and the wind has dropped. After last night’s experience I had secretly hoped we were nearly there, so I am pretty disappointed to discover that I can still see the English coast. My god, sailing is slow. Having had to tack a bit through the night because the wind was against us, we’ve not even reached as far as Plymouth in 18 hours of sailing. However, my stomach is relieved to find it is a calmer sea through which Salamander cuts a brisk pace, and when cups of tea and oatcakes go down and stay down, it seems I have found my sealegs and am declared fit for duty.

We pass by several tankers, big enough to still loom large even from half a mile away. Otherwise the horizon is empty. The sun’s reflections give the sea a strange, glassy appearance. It could almost be ice – like a glacier, but moving in fast-forward instead of at a eponymously glacial pace.

We trim the genoa, and soon clear eight knots. I doze off on the cockpit bench, the creaking of the sails, gurgle of water under the bow, gentle rocking and lack of sleep is too much not to. A bit like a London night bus, in that respect. By the afternoon the English coast has disappeared and we are sailing down the channel midway between England and France. The occasional yacht passes by, signature triangles of white sail in the distance.

 

As the light falls, I go below to make myself useful by cooking a meal, the first substantial thing that’s passed my lips since I got onboard. Green chillies, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, more chillies and green curry paste – the provisions aboard leave little room for manoeuvre for those that can’t take the heat. Thai green curry all round, and we dine washed down with two bottles of white under a rising moon. As darkness smothers the boat, the lights of Roscoff and Portsall appear in the distance. We have left England behind, and Brittany lies ahead of us.

 

On night watch at midnight under the light from a nearly full moon that sears through thin clouds, I follow the French mainland as we pass the headlands beyond Brest, tucked out of sight at the end of the estuary, while the many lighthouses and beacons of the Breton coast score through the night. From the control panel in the cabin, I can monitor our progress on the computerised navigation map as we pass the Isle d’Ouessant, and a proximity alarm sounds as we pass the programmed waypoint. I head upstairs and adjust the autopilot’s heading for our new course south. We have entered the Bay of Biscay.

On adventure upon the high seas

Wednesday 26th September, Poole Marina.
S force 5, 990 mbar.

The plan was to leave last night, but there were still too many unticked items on the list of things to do, the wind was against us and Michael, the captain, was happy to have a vegan shepherd’s pie and a final sleep on (or at least docked beside) British soil before we left. He had waited 12 years for this, after all, so another night would cost nothing.

And so we’re up at 7am for breakfast and final preparations – filling water tanks, stowing everything for getting underway. Every square foot of cabin floorboard seems to hide endless cavities, and each is packed with tools and spares – hardly surprising for a boat that is about to embark on a journey around the world.

Soon enough we let slip the lines and the 47ft yacht Salamander coasts out of the marina under power. First stop is at Poole town quay for diesel, and to the chandlers for navigation charts of our route: across the Channel, around the coast of Brittany, across the Bay of Biscay to A Coruna on Spain’s northwestern tip.

At midday, despite ominous clouds in the distance, the going is good. Cruising out into the channel we cross the chain-link ferry that runs the three hundred yards between the Isle of Purbeck and Sandbanks, and pass Brownsea Island and its tourist boats adorned with images of England’s last surviving red squirrels. As we approach the Jurassic Coast’s immediately recognisable Old Harry Rocks I take the helm and turn her into the wind, deadening the breeze enough that Michael and Martin can untie the bands holding the mainsail in place. Unbound, we haul out the sail to second reef, unfurl the genoa, and, tacking back into the wind, find ourselves under sail at six knots – enough to kill the engine.

 

Out in the Channel, the swell rises with the wind and the boat surges up and down. I have often travelled on the large, cross-channel ferries to France or Holland, and on smaller hydroplane ferries linking the islands of the Adriatic. But being chucked about at sea on a considerably smaller craft is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a very different boat. The sky darkens to a grim slate, a squall of rain comes and I can feel bile rising in my throat.

Between retching over the side, I can pause long enough to consider how peculiar seasickness is. The nausea, caused by the disorientation of differently moving horizon and boat, brings with it a woozy, druggy feeling that pulls upon the eyelids and urges you to unconsciousness. Even taking the helm for a while to force me to focus on my surroundings isn’t enough. My eyes are closing as I stand. Struggling down to my cabin, I barely make it to the loo (or ‘head’ in mariner’s terminology) in time – somewhere I will be spending much of the next 12 hours.

Later that afternoon I try eating a bit of ham, which reappears in seconds – surely a world record. With night falling, I head to my bunk. Slipping in and out of consciousness I am plagued by weird, hallucinogenic thoughts and dreams. Sometimes hot flushed, sometimes shivering cold, it’s like a psychological fever. Outside the wind and waves grow steadily more fierce – the logbook shows force 5, force 6, rough seas. I am thrown around and frequently woken by the ship’s pitching and rolling, the fleeting feeling of weightlessness as she teeters on the peak of a wave before plunging with a crash into the trough behind. Through the hatch from the main cabin I can see the others illuminated by the red glow of the gyrocompasses, against a backdrop that alternates between the grey night sky and a black wall of water as the ship pitches on the waves. Feeling terrible and conspicuously useless, I head back to my bunk, try and brace myself in such a way as I won’t be chucked about, and wait for morning.