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Adventures, Pt. 1: All at Sea


So, I'm fresh off the boat after completing the first leg of this trip, and here is missive no.1 chronicling my transatlantic adventure. I'm brimming with excitement and enthusiasm, and as such I'm aware I might be prone to offering a somewhat lengthy and detailed account of what has, in all honesty, not been a very long trip so far. As such, for those under time pressure I offer a short version here:

I made it to the Canaries, on a sailing boat! Overcoming doubts and fears, the plan I put very little time into actually preparing (although managed to talk about a lot) somehow came good. I took a bus to Gibraltar, walked round the docks talking to a load of sailors, and eventually someone said I could come with them. It took us 6 days to make it to Las Palmas, and in three days m'crew and me leave for the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. It's over 2000 miles and takes between 20 - 30 days to get there, give or take. I'm a bit trepidatious, but ultimately SO excited. Woop!

And now, the long version:

Part 1 – Leaving Britain and Finding a Boat

Last January, struggling a little bit to find my feet in London and craving an adventure, I came up with the idea of sailing across the Atlantic. I imagined battling the elements with 360' of watery horizon, seeing the Americas, visiting Chiapas, jumping a freight train and generally going all Alexander Supertramp. The trouble was by the time I got round to planning the trip in May it turned out the hurricane season was descending and no boats were doing the crossing. Slightly shamefaced, I postponed. They all leave in November, I read. Great, so I'll go then.

Despite the autumn being roughly fixed for my departure, this in no way translated to me taking any affirmative action toward leaving. I took a location scouting job for the first weeks of November and on returning to London realised I was no clearer about what I was doing with my life, or this trip, than I had been 11 months before. But I had managed to tell a load of people I was going off to sea.

Suddenly feeling the time pressure and motivated 50% by embarrassment, 30% by confusion, and only 20% by wanderlust I booked a bus ticket to Gibraltar leaving 4 days later. Then I set about, admittedly with little obvious urgency, laying a paltry few bits of skirting board to try and placate my somewhat long suffering mum/landlady. And, finally, reading about the transatlantic crossing and finding out exactly how much organising I could, maybe should already have done.

The coach journey, at 39 hours is the longest I've ever done. Victoria, a grey dawn, drizzly and cold. The coach station contained all the waifs and strays of Europe; the homeless, the helpless, and belligerent staff shouting in English at confused, uncomprehending foreign faces. It really felt like the Tories are running the country, and not such a bad moment to be leaving. Then into that hazy half-life of coach travel; fitful sleep during the day, waking for stops at odd French service stations in the middle of the night, free toilets, paying toilets (go in a bush), a shared orange with the kind lady next to me, an early morning hurried bus change all bags and ticket-waving and laconic drivers pointing. Then the endless, dry flat Spain of rocky plains, crisscrossed with pylons and odd industrial architecture, mountains always, always shadowy in the distance. Finally as we approach Almeria there are hills, then mountains with olives everywhere, clinging to mountainsides, surely unpickable? and crags with impossibly balanced rocks, and finally the coast.

I was deposited in Algeciras, a modern port boasting huge stacks of containers and giant freighters docked by floodlit derricks. I took a bus round the bay to Gibraltar the next morning. Deposited a few hundred yards from the border I rummaged for my passport only to be waved through along with many local Spaniards crossing to take advantage of the duty free cigarettes. You have to walk across a broad runway to enter the colony which immediately creates the impression you're on a military base, and the squat, ugly barrack-like apartment blocks that flank the airport make for quite a grim introduction to this odd, unprepossessing flashback to an old empire. The expensive cars of tax exiles mingle with the Spanish lorries coming to fill up on duty free diesel, and fumes are everywhere. On Main St, the cruise liners have deposited thousands of pensioners to eat the 'Real Britsh Fish and Chips' offered by all the 'Traditional British Pubs' but it reminds me, most of all, of Bulwell High St – a run down pedestrianised shopping street full of jaded British chain stores. Outside this strip, further up the hill, I catch a glimpse of an older, quainter Gibraltar, but the huge Morrisons built amid towering apartment blocks on the land reclaimed from the sea pulls focus, especially as it's there I have to head to find the marinas.

Without much of a plan for how to go about finding a boat, and still lugging my pack, I get dispirited pretty fast. Finding anyone to talk to is hard, and I'm pretty uncertain just where to look. The few people I do speak to are moored for the winter, and all tell the same story: “I don't know anyone making the trip. You're two weeks too late. Everyone going has left already. Maybe if you fly down the Canaries you'll pick up some stragglers there.” Frustrated by the place, my bag, my aching feet and lack of response I head for the one hostel Gibraltar boasts.

Not much of a boast. 17 quid, no communal area, no cooking, dorm room for 6 and when I enter the curtains are drawn so it's nearly dark. The only inhabitant about is a young Czech guy who doesn't look up or answer my greeting. He's sat on his bunk with his laptop. As I unpack, I realise he is watching porn.

I head to an internet cafe and make a little resume for myself. '28 year old guy looking to crew on a boat across the Atlantic for free. Completely inexperienced. Can cook, but not meat. I might have some relevant skills, but not sure what.'

Suddenly, I wonder if I'm going to be back in the UK sooner than I thought.

Without my heavy bag and armed with the prop of a CV, I get into gear and start putting myself about. I walk the quays hailing people on board their boats with more conviction; visit the marina receptions and ask about what boats are coming and going; poke my nose round the door of chandlers to see if they can advise me of where to find a boat. But, unfortunately, no-one can help. Everywhere the story is the same – most people have left. There might be a few late departures, but few and far between and there's no guarantee they're looking for crew. Plus, people have been paying 25 euros a day for the privilege of crossing. It's been competitive. Old hands delight in telling me 'It ain't how it used to be.' One gleefully tells me 'You've missed the boat.' And all the noticeboards are full of resumes of other hopefuls that say things like 'Have 5000 miles sailing experience' and 'Spent two years aboard a …. circumnavigating the globe.' When I can, I cover those over with mine, and wish I'd printed a4 not a5.

Late on, I do get one steer. There's another marina over in La Linea on the Spanish side of the border and it would be worth trying there. But it's getting dark, so I leave that for the morning and head back to join the wanky Czech, the quiet, sweet Japanese guy and moody American in the dorm. When I ask when people want to turn the light out, no-one answers but I persist until I'm curtly told 'whenever you want'. I take this at face value and read, belligerently, until midnight.

I get up before 8 and head back across the border to this other marina. A lovely Spanish woman at the reception is just shaking her head and saying sorry when she remembers a boat came in the night before and they were asking about crew. She points it out to me, but councils me to be quick as they've been delayed so are looking to leave shortly. A flutter of hope. Getting onto the jetty is another problem though. The receptionist isn't allowed to let me through the gate, and it's only by befriending a tall local who manages to precariously reach round to the handle that I make it to the boat at all. They invite me on board for an interview. I'm nervous, and just chatting about my travel plans and interests, not selling myself (after all, what have I got to sell?). They don't seem overly impressed, but have to get going and need an extra hand so things are looking really good.

Then disaster strikes. I'd left the gate open! Literally. Some other chancer, but older, weathered looking and wearing a lycra top and sunglasses (could be special sailing gear? Much more appropriate than my jeans and hoody) has wandered in, is suddenly there. And he's asking if they need crew. And they're shaking my hand, saying thanks, come back in an hour for their answer, they'll just quickly chat to this guy too. SHIT! He is blatantly the real deal. Fucked it. Why didn't I talk about when I sailed dinghies? Or knock on about the high calibre of veggie cooking? Should I have bigged up my toilet cleaning work while doing locations?

Walking back to Gibraltar, I swear a lot. Blown it! Just should have pushed the gate shut. That guy would never have climbed over. No chance now. Might as well get a ticket home. And on my return an hour later Jake spots me from the boat and walks down the quay towards me. It's less awkward to tell me I'm not coming with them if I don't actually come aboard. But then what he actually says is "If you're coming with us, you definitely need foul weather gear. That's a deal breaker." And my heart leaps!

Part 2 – Life on board

The boat is a 46 foot catamaran called... Casanova. And once they're named, it sticks, sadly. It's two years old and is kitted out as a charter vessel, currently 'on delivery' to its new owners in the Caribbean. This means we've got to be super careful not to fuck anything up, and there is p-lenty of expensive trim and chrome to take care of. But it also means this trip is, for me, all expenses paid, though I don't earn anything for helping out. I just landed on my feet!

The boat is very plush. There are four separate cabins with loads of storage space, double beds and each cabin with its own shower and head (which is what seagoing types call a toilet). Linen, towels etc are matching and provided. The galley has a well equipped kitchen and seats 8, all white leather upholstery. There's a great sound system, widescreen TV, chart table and on deck are more tables and seating, too. The cockpit is raised giving a good view all round and it's from here much of the sailing actually happens, with all the winches for controlling the two sails and lines fed back via cars, pulleys and cleats. I wouldn't say this boat is primarily designed to be efficient through the water though. Comfort definitely comes before utility. It can be yours for $6000 a week, apparently.

We slipped anchor at 6am on Saturday 26th Nov and left Gibraltar behind us, dodging through tankers in the harbour until at dawn we came out into the Straights. Each day is divided into different watches, and we take one 4 hour day watch and two 2 hour night watches each. Despite my lack of experience we went straight into this system. I felt daunted at first but while nothing is going wrong, there isn't too much to it. The autopilot is pretty sophisticated so most of the time I'm just childminding a computer, and watching out for ships. I get to trim the sails, tweak our heading as needs be and if anything goes wrong, I wake up the skipper, Chris. I can steer manually using an override button, so I sometimes do this secretly when no-one is looking. I'm still a bit heavy on the wheel meaning our GPS snail trail gets a certain wobbly look if I'm at it for too long.

My day watch, 1400-1800, is wonderful. Blue skies every day so far, a warm breeze, sun. As we sail south, the days are getting longer. It's as though the year has gone into reverse. With the extra light and warmer weather I and my body feel almost surprised, and I've realised I'd just started to hunker down for winter.

The night watches are harder, and getting used to disjointed sleep was a battle at first. I'm on 2200-0000 and 0400-0600. The sliver of a moon has been setting just after the sun this week, and over 100 miles off shore there is almost no light pollution. It's black as black, horizon hard to pick out, and the stars have been beautiful. I've enjoyed picking out the constellations I know, and coming on for my second watch I can see how they've all spun, rotating round the North Star, and the Big Dipper has risen.

I have been worried about getting sea sick but have, somehow, managed to avoid it. The seas were calmer when we started out, and I think I've now acclimatised so the choppy last few days have been fine. Sitting in the cockpit yesterday, I realised the side to side motion reminded me of cantering, but on a really shit horse; one with different sized legs, moving arhythmically, all trying to go in different directions.

On the third day over 80 miles from the Moroccan coast we were suddenly surrounded by dolphins. A pod of maybe twenty came all round the boat, playing in the bow waves, zooming up and around us and each other, curving right out of the water. It was absolutely magical, and I rushed forward and watched them until ten minutes later they slipped off as quickly as they arrived. Then, the day after we spotted Orcas off the starboard beam. Puffs of spray in the air and dorsal fins protruding shark-like and the humps of their backs breaking through the waves. Then a whole shoal of a small fish skittering across the surface, leaping as one, again and again, perhaps trying to escape some lurking predator. There have been larger fish jumping clean out of the water in front of the boat too. Maybe scared of the noise of our hull cutting through or slapping the waves? The odd sea bird comes past, sometimes circling to check out our sail, other times passing straight by low over the waves. They must spend so much of their lives out of sight of land, cruising just above the swell. One was a Gannet, but the others I've not recognised and it's been frustrating not to have a bird book. I find it amazing that on the ocean, so far from land, there is so much life.

Chris and Jake have a fishing line that we trawl behind us, and yesterday as we neared the Canaries we caught and murdered a number of Spanish mackerel. They have a beautiful blue iridescence when they're just out of the water that fades quickly after death, and sharp spikes just above their tail. It turns out you can dispatch them by opening their gills and pouring alcohol onto them which takes the oxygen quickly from their brains. It seems quite a fast kill. For this we have a cheap Greek Ouzo everyone is fed up of drinking. I wasn't certain of this method though so when I landed and killed one I opted to break its neck too, as I hate to see them flopping around, suffocating in the bucket. The crunch was pretty final, and I felt quite ambiguous about it, in some ways unmoved, practical, but also a real disquiet. I gutted it straight away. I hadn't done this in years, slitting the belly and pulling out all the insides. It reminded me of my Dad coming home after a days fishing when I was little and watching, fascinated, as the entrails were pulled out and fish turned from creature to food. The line went a few more times when it was my watch and Chris and Jake were below. I unhooked them and, unobserved, slipped those lucky two back into the water. Hopefully they'll live on happily although I don't actually know how well they cope with having been hauled out of the sea with a hook through their faces. Is that a trauma bad enough to give up or are they hardier than that? Or is it a disadvantage enough to be picked off easily by something bigger and less mangled?

Free time on the boat passes fast. I've been really enjoying cooking, and writing (can you tell?) and I've just started to read now I'm confident of my sea-tummy. I've been studying charts and learning about weather, currents and the like. And we have to do cleaning. About an hour a day, more before we arrive in a port. This is basically a pristine floating house constantly being messed up by spray, sea salt, us, fish viscera etc, so scrubbing decks, polishing fixings and cleaning bilges is now part of my skillset.

The crew, Chris and Jake, are both Americans who live in the U.S Virgin Islands tucked away on a little place called St. John which has a population of just 600. Chris, the skipper, is an architect turned sea wanderer in his early 50s. He is funny, quite vague and with a potential for crabbiness if things aren't quite how he wants them. He is a bit reluctant to say just how he does want them, so I've had to do a bit of second guessing to try and keep on the right side of him. Basically, more cleaning seems to make him happier.

Jake is my age, very relaxed and good fun, and we've been getting on really well. I'm confident that in the 25 or so days more I'm on what is on one level is a beautiful sailing boat, and another level a 15 metre long offshore prison, we will all just manage to keep from killing each other. It is quite strange to be living so intensively with two almost complete strangers, but has so far been pretty stress free. Let's hope it stays that way. They're liberal, escaping-society types, smokers and talkers, and rub along well.

We leave on Monday morning. And then, up to a month on the Atlantic! It looks likely Christmas will be on the sea.

So, lots of watery Christmas love to everyone. I'm sad to be missing festive parties and family cheer. I hope everyone gets good stockings. I´m suddenly aware I´ll be out of contact for almost a month, not hearing anything from anyone or being able to communicate, and not being able to follow the news or hear what´s happening around the world. I will be so excited to check emails when I land, so please do reply! Also, thinking of this, I wish solidarity and strength to those courageous activists and revolutionaries in the middle east; what good news it would be to read that Syria's government has collapsed and been replaced by a people's democracy, and that the Egyptians have risen up again when I step off the boat into a Caribbean sun.

And congratulations if you've made it to the end here! I don't quite know where all this came from. Doubtless more, and hopefully pithier updates to follow in the next months, but for now,


Matt xxxxxx

Posted by matthinc 21:14 Archived in Spain

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