To cross an ocean you will need: a boat with sails; approximately 84 breakfasts, lunches and dinners for your three crew; sufficient bottled water to allow for the contamination or loss of the water tank; and an unrelenting desire to be tossed around for three weeks. You will suffer from fatigue, the heat of the doldrums, and, at times, severe boredom. But you will have crossed an ocean.
There are some optional extras too: a way of knowing vaguely where you are and where you’re going (GPS is recommended but there is the alternative of heading west and hoping for the best); a fully functioning toilet (it is not advised to use it – or allow your crewmate to use it – until it is fully functioning… failure to comply is assuredly nasty); and some means of filling said three weeks that you have opted to bob about in the vast ocean for.
First, let it be noted that any task on a boat takes at least twice as long to complete as it might do on the steadiness of land. This can be both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand it passes the day, on the other it is tiring and tedious. There is no clearer example of this than in making dinner, in which one of life’s simple pleasures becomes a shoddy, culinary re-enactment of the Cirque du Soleil, with balancing acts complemented with fire, knives and hot oil. Chop your vegetables sitting down and boil your water with heavy weather trousers on: lessons I’ve learnt the hard way.
Obviously the main order of any day is the maintaining of a lookout, which requires a watch system. It might seem something of a non-necessity, maintaining a 24 hour watch in an ocean of such magnitude that the odds of seeing another ship – let alone bumping into one – are miniscule. But it only needs to be necessary once to make getting up in the middle of the night, every night for three weeks, worthwhile. At one point during my transatlantic last year we had gone over a week without seeing anything other than large waves and flying fish, but when I begrudgingly rose for another 2am shift I found a fellow crewmember nervously trying to manoeuvre us away from a sailing boat that was inconceivably close… we could have passed them our leftovers from dinner.
As such, a watchkeeper is not optional. But nor is it too taxing a job: with two excellent options for self-steering – an Aries windvane and a Simrad autopilot (big thanks to Riversmeet Leisure Centre of Gillingham, Dorset for their generous contribution to that piece of equipment) – all that is required of he on duty is to ensure we are going the right way, there’s nothing to bump into, and that there is still no fish on the fishing line.
At least, so we thought. Up until the Canaries we had only caught six fish, and we’d probably lost the equal amount of not-inexpensive lures in our efforts. Not much optimism, then, was held for ocean fishing in which our only remaining lure was homemade, consisting of a small rubber squid and a rust-prone hook that a street seller in the Cape Verdes had parted with for a total of 250 escudos (roughly €2.00). And yet, miraculously, this was the winning formula. It seemed everyday Barry – as he would become known for reasons unknown – was hooking a fish, and everyday they would get bigger. I was awoken at 7am on James’s birthday to his jubilant cries of “Birthday fiiiiiiish!” as he reeled in a two foot Mahi Mahi. It overfed all three of us for lunch and dinner, so much so that we didn’t put the line out for a few days after that, for fear that we’d catch something so huge we wouldn’t eat anything but fish until we got to Antigua.
Not every bit of wildlife found its way on board via Barry though. One of my night watch distractions would be scurrying around the deck collecting the flying fish that had landed on Blue Eye so as to have them for lunch the next day. (I’m a vegetarian but I have no strife in eating an animal that either I have caught and killed, or that is stupid enough to fly into one of the very few solid objects in an immense ocean.) Occasionally, though, the little critters would do something unexpected like missile straight into Pat’s throat – in a “viscous attack in the dead of night” as he put it – or even end up down in the cabin. I would have been impressed that the little guy was lying limplessly next to the oven in an admission of his own fate, had I not stepped barefoot on the slimy stowaway.
And this wasn’t the only animal that managed to get into Blue Eye under cover of dark. Upon picking up his socks off the floor before his night watch, James learnt they had grown feathers and wings and were not as submissive to being handled as they had been previously. Of course – the hardened sailor that he is – James dealt with it bravely by running through the boat flapping and screaming something about a bird in his cabin. Good on you lad, I thought to myself, and went back to sleep to leave him with the bird’s removal.
Besides lookout, cooking, fishing and stowaway duties? In the blissful absence of television and the internet, it’s back to basics: reading, writing, music and just admiring the view. Indeed, I conquered War and Peace, a book that, had I attempted at home amongst the distractions of Facebook scrolling and background telly, would have only gathered dust and tea mugs on my bedside table, and James got through a book almost daily.
A more active time-filler of our ocean crossing was volunteering to help Indigo V Expeditions in their Citizen Oceanography project, whereby they send out water sampling kits to cruisers who then do the voluntary work that would normally cost research vessels serious money. Whilst it was a challenge to collect the samples and process them on a small boat in the middle of the rolling Atlantic, it’s something we were proud to help with in what we see as a shared quest to learn more about the world’s oceans. I implore you to visit their website at: www.indigovexpeditions.org.
I could go on and on about how we filled our time out there: route and weather planning, changing the sails, boat maintenance… there was rarely nothing to do. And whilst I could have spent over half my day sleeping, I relished being awake. Life became fuller and more attractive, which I can only put down to a proximity to nature that – despite a proximity to two other unshowered men – was impossible not to absorb and extract pleasure from. We gazed at the stars, stared at the horizon and swam in the bluest water there can be. And, not wanting you to think we were idle out there, we actively engaged with our surroundings too: we studied it through sextant navigation and meteorological observations; we tried to help it through the aforementioned voluntary research; and made efforts to live off of it through the aforementioned fishing.
After 19 days, 2179 miles, one gale, three lightning storms, ten boat sightings, one whale sighting, one ocean dip, hundreds of cups of tea, several fish, and many good memories made, we arrived in English Harbour, Antigua. As we entered calm waters by moonlight, the wind died off and the sweet smell of the warm Caribbean earth hit us. A party in the hills rang out across the bay, but we were done. A celebratory swig of rum and we crashed onto our bunks for the flattest and longest sleep in a long time.
In short then, time on an ocean is divided between duties and finding ways to spend your hours most richly and happily. But I should like to make the case that the latter is really an example of the former: that is, the enrichment of ones life is a duty in itself. Putting hundreds of miles of water between oneself and the distractions of daily life brings this into very clear focus. Sure, ocean dwelling is hardly a practical way for everyone to go about life, but I would suggest the way in which I spoke of nature above is just as easily – if not more easily – achieved at home. Sure there may not be an ocean view, but nature is everywhere we look and we should appreciate, understand and support it. It might just make you happier.