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.