“Ok mate, I’m just going to compose myself up here before we do this!” He shouted back to me over a roaring wind, just as another kind offering of seawater from the Atlantic Ocean saturated us all. We were putting the third reef in the mainsail – that is, in layman’s terms, making the big sail go as small as it will go. But it was somewhat complicated by our being in the pitch dark, my step-dad throwing up off the stern, and the wind all of a sudden blowing a bloody hoolie.
During this debacle I knew that we’d all want to write about the first night of our Atlantic crossing. James would probably want to talk about sailing in heavy weather or unreliable forecasting, and Pat likely of the nightmare turned reality that was his first night at sea. But in that moment I knew I would write about sailing with James.
James and I met on the school bus to the Eden Project fourteen years ago and have been mates ever since. We shared school dormitories for six years, spent our weekends together drinking in rugby and playing pubs (or something like that), and more recently have found we share a passion for the sea too. All in all, we know each other well. Perhaps too well.
The first thing you need to know about James is that he had a dream to buy a boat and sail around the world. The second thing you need to know is that he’s made it happen. Occasionally he might ask me if something he’s wearing or something he’s posting on Instagram is cool (as if I know these things), and I just think to myself: I shouldn’t stress man, you’re a nautical nomad and you’ve got a massive beard. That’s all the cool you need as far as I’m concerned.
When I found out about James’s big plans, my heart was set on joining him. The round the world aspect of it, I mean… as much as I set my heart on growing a big beard it just doesn’t appear to work like that. Anyway, he graciously welcomed me to the Blue Eye project and two years on here we are, 5000 nautical miles from home.
It had always seemed to me that the hardest elements of our new lives would be big seas, missing family and friends, and the odd pirate (so far so good on the latter). What I hadn’t realised was that adapting to life on a small boat with one of my best mates would also be a challenge. After all, in the build up to the trip we spent a significant amount of time together preparing Blue Eye and everything that the adventure on her would entail. And when we weren’t in each other’s company we’d be pinging messages back and forth, forever calling one another up to make the whole thing happen. We even opened a joint bank account, much to the dismay of my girlfriend who still holds suspicions I’m actually entering into a civil partnership with James under the guise of a round the world trip. (The cake that my mum bought for our leaving party, with Tom and James delicately iced on the top, did nothing to alleviate her fears.)
Prior to this I had not fully appreciated how much more closely entwined still our lives would become. We would eat, sleep, work, wander, wash, drink, shop, cook… everything at the same time. Everything shared, nothing secret.
And as you can imagine, any annoying habit or flaw either of us might have is magnified living on a ten metre boat. For example, I’ve never known a man to be so often caught unawares by his seemingly perpetual flatulence. James finds this endlessly amusing, I – particularly given the size of our shared home – do not.
I will forgive him though, one because he has me to put up with as well, and two for never ceasing to impress me with his instincts when it comes to sailing in heavy seas.
Here we are then, back just off the coast of the Cape Verdes in the middle of the night, with James getting soaked up on the foredeck and Pat and I taking a fair drenching ourselves back in the cockpit. A few hours previous to this we had been in radio contact with a fellow sailboat, Seabean, who had left Mindelo in flat seas at the same time as us, and who were also set for English Harbour, Antigua. A little ahead of our position, they had radioed back to say they’d seen a pod of pilot whales that we should see on our portside any minute. There was not a whale in sight – let alone a pod – but we forgave them after they called an hour later to warn us that the becalmed conditions we were in would soon turn into the 25+ knots forward of the beam that they were currently enduring.
In response to this James had boldly informed them: “Wellll, that sounds pretty damn good to us…”
“Erm it’s pretty choppy too” they nervously replied.
“Great! We’ll see you guys in Antigua in no time! Blue Eye out.” He chirped.
Things weren’t so chirpy as we battled to reduce sail area and bring a bit more control to our vessel, but we laughed at the irony later on: wind we wanted and wind we certainly got.
Here’s the point though. When things do all of a sudden kick off, there’s no hesitation or stage fright in James as to what needs to be done. He becomes a quick decision-maker and clearly sets out a plan of action. Then, just before he executes it, he’ll do something like sit down next to the mast as waves crash over and collect himself. I love that.
As he goes through the motions of putting in the reef he yells back to me the stages he’s at, making it easier for me to know how and when to help him from the cockpit. Like I said, it was pitch dark and the conditions were more blowy than James is after a beef curry, so it was something of a challenge.
Later on he sheepishly apologises – no, still not for his personal effervescence – saying he must have sounded crazy, a possessed man gone wild. But the yelling worked a treat to get done what was required, and I could tell he got a kick from it. I’ve come to realise that I know a side of him that most would be surprised – not to mention impressed – by. Give James a storm and you’ll wonder where that quiet, shy guy went.
Once all the sail adjustments had been made: the reef is in, the main is dropped down the traveller, and both sails are sheeted in hard to flatten them as much as possible to null the force seven blowing on the bow, he observes our handiwork.
He reasons the following: this is the first night of many crossing an ocean, and we are facing unforecast and unlikely conditions for this part of the world. So we can expect it to be temporary, almost certainly a result of the wind whipping around the Cape Verde islands as we sail clear of them. Pat is at the back wondering what the hell he has gotten himself into, and both James and I are already tiring as the adrenaline of putting a reef in wears off.
“Right, what do you reckon to us bearing away from this?” He says to me. “We won’t be heading to the waypoint but we can still go west to an extent, and we’ll stay off this beat until it veers and drops as we know it should.”
This is another sailing quality altogether. In the past I’d feared he would always want to push a boat to it’s limits – mainly at times when we were over-canvassed and heeling so much I could wash my face in the sea – which can exhaust a crew even on a short passage. But now he’s speaking with the experience of a skipper who’s already crossed oceans, and I’m impressed by his thinking. Plus I hate nothing more than sailing into the wind, and so I very gladly bear us away as he suggests.
It’s an incredible fact of sailing that, depending on if you’re going into the weather or away from it, the same sea can feel like two different worlds. James’s decision allowed us all to get some rest that night, and it also took the strain away from a boat that had a long way to go still. Indeed, it became the mantra for the entire crossing: if the wind is looking for a fight, let’s choose flight. We’ll save our energy for the remaining hundreds of miles when it eases off again. This was particularly poignant two days later when we spent nearly five hours running from force nine winds (45mph+) that the forecasters had missed. Luckily we were able to run in roughly the right direction and very, very fast, but I can assure you that at the time we weren’t feeling like there could be any element of fortune to it at all.
Indeed, those first three days of our Atlantic crossing were just about the worst we could have hoped for, and certainly the worst reintroduction to sailing for Pat. Alas, I know that for all the good times ahead, there will inevitably be more bad weather too. But James and I haven’t half been through some tough conditions (not necessarily the words we use at the time) and, whilst I far from relish the storms, I have no doubts that we’ll see them off, pocketing them as tales for the pub someday.
I’m fortunate that the kid I met on the bus all those years ago really knows what he’s doing. Both in life, and in sailing. Good on you Haggy.