In 1856 the Great Trigonometric Survey calculated the height of Everest to be 29,000 feet. An irritatingly round figure for all concerned. Fearing that their hard work to ascertain its dimensions precisely would be received as a mere estimate, Andrew Waugh resolved to add a little bit on to the measurement, all in bringing it to a more credible 29,002 feet. Nobody suspected a thing.
I mention this for two reasons, one of which I will tell you now.
On our crossing from Sri Lanka to the Red Sea – for which we set out in February 2019 to traverse the wide and windless Arabian Sea, before entering the Gulf of Aden where Somali pirates purportedly hide beyond each horizon – at times on this marathon voyage it felt as if we were staring up at an insurmountable mountain. It was a matter of daily practise that the little breeze that there was would ease off even further, consigning Blue Eye’s sails to flap hopelessly, and leave us pondering what was still left of the significant distance we had to climb.
But a mountain, as Waugh showed, can be as big as you make it out to be. By the old adage of slowly but surely, James and I cajoled Blue Eye into inhaling some of the wind that the fading north-east monsoon season offered, and day by day, week by week, we crept closer to the continent of Africa. It is often assumed that the worst weather for a long-distance sailor is… well, the worst weather. You know, storms and stuff. In fact it is often the nicest weather – cloudless days with but a balmy breeze – that provide the biggest challenges when crossing oceans, as each drop of diesel, not to mention each drop of water, becomes even more precious than the last.
Things did not begin so desperately. Rounding Sri Lanka from the east town of Trincomalee, we found ourselves whisked out into the Arabian Sea by a brisk wind and keen ocean current, conditions that conspired to help us set a personal best of 162 nautical miles in one day. We were as full of optimism as our cupboards were full of food, and we could be sure of the latter because with every fresh gust of wind that leaned Blue Eye over to a particular degree, an overstuffed locker door would slam open with terrible enthusiasm, and bottles of this and that would proceed to roll across the saloon.
As it so happened, however, these productive first few days were designed only to carry us to the point of no return, upon the reaching of which the wind and current would abandon us – at times even turning on us – to leave us bobbing in despair. Being March it was already at the tail end of the season, and the longer we were out there, we were all too keenly aware, the less wind we would get. We were, I confess, concerned.
During some stage of this not altogether successful week, at two o’clock one morning James came up into the moonlit cockpit to take over watch, and with him he brought bad news. We had a stowaway, he explained. It was just up there in the forecabin, he motioned. It was a cockroach, he sighed.
I admit I did not react well to the intelligence. The forecabin, you see, is where we sleep on passage, and cockroaches rank fairly low on my list of individuals to share time with, unconscious or not. As such, James received a swift, thorough and – in hindsight – somewhat unfair chastising, for the two crimes of which I deemed him guilty: one, of failing to catch the disgusting little fellow who continued to roam the boat with nothing less than gay abandon, I suspected; and two, of burdening me with information that I could have otherwise lived in blissful ignorance of, at least for the time being. Reluctant and indignant, I took down into the innards of the boat.
As I stood there weighing up the concept of sleeping in the company of this unwelcome guest, James unleashed an effluvium of hazardous toxicity, which had been burdening him – and by proximity me – for some days now. This sparked in me further outrage, which is ceaselessly entertaining to him. I threatened that should we ever get off this infernal ocean – where there was never any wind outside of the boat but always plenty inside it – I would be writing a book called ‘Between Farts and Cockroaches’. And with that, leaving James to chuckle to himself and the stars, I settled that that’s where I would be sleeping too: in the saloon, with cockroaches ahead of me, and farts astern of me. Just as I’d settled myself in and calmed myself down, a locker door slammed open and jars rolled about everywhere, leaving me lamenting the absence of a canon to tie to my feet, and throw myself overboard in the company of.
Moving the 8-tonne Blue Eye with only a mouse’s breath for a breeze felt like an impossible undertaking, but through a continuous changing of, swearing at, tweaking of, and praying to the sails, we managed to move through the hot days and dark nights of the Arabian Sea. Mentally it was exhausting, and with every fresh miserable forecast we had to work a little harder to keep our spirits alive.
This was helped considerably, paradoxically, by a day spent becalmed in a part of the ocean that was so still and so blue that it was as if we were inside a sapphire. Such stagnation held the potential to be soul-destroying, but as Blue Eye eased to a halt and took to languorously pirouetting across a flat blue floor, an enormous pod of dolphins dashed toward us. We watched with glee as dozens of shiny backs bounded all around, replacing the vast silence with loud splashes and the relentless rhythm of sharp blowhole noises. So numerous were they that the air became redolent of fishy breathe, which it is harder to romanticise about to be honest, but was a novelty nonetheless. With little hesitation James jumped in, and through his snorkel I heard him squeal with delight at what he saw beneath the ocean surface, leaving me with little choice but to follow suit.
Beneath our fin-bearing feet groups of dolphins whizzed and played, filling the wondrously clear blue abyss with the sound of clicks and squeaks in a manner utterly delightful. Occasionally some of the braver members would approach the boat, and the two strange creatures paddling alongside it, but they remained hesitant. It struck me, with land a thousand miles away whichever way you turned, that we might have been the first humans some of them had ever seen. We treaded those waters for a long time, marvelling at the creatures’ inexorable enthusiasm for having a good time, and enjoying equally as much the simple experience of hovering miles above the distant ocean bed. It was only when we finally climbed out that the dolphins also retreated, as if they had been as curious of us as we were of them.
We spent the rest of the day awaiting the wind, slowly being pushed back by an adverse current. We might have motored, but we did not have the freedom to run out of diesel on this voyage. You never want to run out of diesel of course, but were it to happen on an Atlantic or Pacific crossing, for example, one could be relatively sure of trade winds returning sooner or later. When crossing the Indian Ocean and bound for the Red Sea, however, one has to consider that it would not be prudent to be bobbing about in the Gulf of Aden awaiting a breeze. As you are probably aware, pirates bob about in those waters too.
This became a more prominent thought with every day we edged closer to the Gulf. And whenever we spotted a boat on the horizon, it became just about our only thought. This felt a great betrayal on the part of the horizon: no longer was it the keeper of all our hopes and dreams, but the harbinger of great dangers instead.
We had several scares of this nature. A shape would scar the skyline and we would eye it beadily to see if it would get closer or merely fade away. Mostly it was the latter, but there were heart-stopping occasions when the boat would speed in our direction, and we would scamper about in a fury of adrenaline to prepare for the worst. These events always happened mid-ocean, far away from the infamous coast of Somalia, but this almost served to worry us more. There would be nobody to hear our cries.
As these boats approached – invariably, fishing vessels with several men on board – our minds raced. Distress messages were but a touch away from being sent out irretrievably, and rocket flares only a quick movement from being fired as a warning shot. The first one, that is, the second one would be an aimed missile we had agreed. The men who approached cannot have known what they were doing to us or what we thought they might have been. Every time they got close enough, however, it became quickly apparent that they were South Asians, and that they simply hoped to trade a fish for the alcohol and cigarettes they felt we were sure to have. Each of them received a terse “No”, as we hastened away, cursing their damned fish and friendliness alike.
We continued to squeeze what we could out of the atmosphere, which for every few hours of stiff breeze it offered, it would then impolitely revoke, leaving us to lollop from side-to-side ineffectually in an excited seaway. Sometimes, as these frustrating days drew to a close, dolphins would greet us in the twilight with magnificent leaps out of the water that reached up to four metres high. We liked to think of these as their thoughtful version of a wind dance, which brought us much joy, but seldom any wind.
For all the vagaries of the weather, by night the cloudless Arabian Sea guaranteed us a dazzling starlit sky above, and the most astonishing phosphorescence amongst our hull below. Indeed those cool evenings were a theatre of light, with shooting stars drawing long lines across the Milky Way overhead, and beneath us great jellyfish hung suspended at the top of the ocean shining like giant, green orbs. I recall on one particular night I was alerted to a fray of activity behind me, and upon subjecting a head torch to the matter I saw that I had now further aroused a great school of small fish who – through an excitement only explicable to themselves – had stirred the sea up into a boiling frenzy. Unfortunately my light encouraged them to career through the air and into the side of Blue Eye with a dreadful zeal, so I switched it off and left them to their strange ways. And on another of these dark evenings, when the world is so mysterious, I was shocked to find that a sailing boat had crept up on me through the blackness. After a panicked few minutes, the moon and Venus rose a little further above the horizon, and I realised it was not a nearby boat at all, but rather these distant celestial bodies that had contrived to fool my tired eyes into thinking they were right next to us in the ocean.
After years of talking about it, months of preparing for it, and weeks of sailing to it; it was a strange relief to finally enter the Gulf of Aden, otherwise known as ‘pirate alley’. It was a relief because the time for thinking about it was over, the time for doing it had finally arrived. And there at the entrance of the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor – the twelve-mile wide shipping lane piercing between civil war torn Yemen and the pirate breeding ground of Somalia – was a warship. It was waiting to greet us, we said to ourselves. Indeed we had heard the corridor was well patrolled, and this was encouraging evidence in favour of that. And as we delved ever deeper into the belly of the Gulf over the following days we would see several more warships, and hear them broadcasting their presence over the radio continually. If this wasn’t reassuring enough, then the military plane that flew spectacularly low over our mast on the second day of our transit certainly was. We felt strangely safer in these waters than we had out in the wilderness of the Arabian Sea.
We understood, however, that feeling safe and being safe were quite separate matters. We remained on helplessly high-alert for anything remotely suspicious, and were grateful to a degree that run-ins with smiling fishermen had allowed us to practice our emergency response. But any residual concern that something untoward might occur was quelled by the emergence of 25 knots of wind and the large seas that followed. These large seas, we decided, endowed us with a distinct advantage over any potential approaching skiff, as Blue Eye charged down big waves amongst a cavalry of white horses, bequeathing us with an undeniable invincibility by our reckoning. If by day this was rousing, by night it was sensational; owing to the tendency of the frothing sea to bubble as bright and as green as a witches cauldron when the phosphorescence was at work, and at work it was.
There were two problems, though, with this weather. One was that surging through such illuminated waters meant Blue Eye became a magnet for an untold number of flying fish at night, who consequently suffered devastating losses to their population. They would hound the watchman in the cockpit, attack the man who put a head torch on to go forward and change the sails, and they would somehow work themselves down into the forecabin to spread their scales and die a quiet, dry death next to us as we slept. And one evening a half-metre long needlefish met its fate on Blue Eye’s deck, for which we felt apologetic, but also grateful that this flying spear hadn’t taken one of us with him.
The second problem with the fresh winds was staying out of the way of the shipping, of which there was a prodigious quantity. We made efforts to remain in the middle of the two channels, the two-mile wide no-man’s-land area, but would frequently find ourselves edging over into the wrong lane and, seeing a ship bearing down on us from the horizon, we’d quickly gybe and make haste out of its way. But then we’d slip over into the westbound lane and, looking over our shoulders, see several more of these inordinately large things destined to mow us down, and so we’d have to gybe back again. One evening we’d had enough of making way for them, and James simply radioed up an oncoming ship and phlegmatically informed them we’d not be changing course or speed. An affable Asian fellow came back over the airwaves and responded cheerily, “Yes sir, I see you and we shall keep clear.” They shined a torch at us as they tore by ten minutes later, as big and bright as a floating city, which we took to be a kind gesture and responded with several arbitrary flashes of our own.
Eventually we reached the corridors end, safe but relieved, and we turned north to be shot through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the narrow gap between Africa and the Middle East where the wind inevitably funnels fervently. Feeling it unwise to be amongst the shipping lanes in those boisterous conditions, we stole out of them, and continued the rest of our way north to Eritrea in the safety of open waters once more.
We pulled into Massawa of Eritrea on the 19th March 2019, 28 days after our departure from Sri Lanka. It was the longest time Blue Eye had ever been at sea, and by far the longest passage James and I had undertaken with just the two of us. We had reached the top of the insurmountable mountain.
That second reason I introduced you to Andrew Waugh and his Everest of 29,002 feet? Well if I told you that as we came alongside the Massawan dock the mileage for the trip ticked over to exactly 3000 nautical miles, you’d be permitted the same suspicion that Waugh would have inevitably faced. As it so happens, it didn’t tick over, but in fact our journey from Sri Lanka to Eritrea amounted to 2,999 nautical miles instead, and I don’t mind if you believe that or not.