Sailing Single-handed across the Atlantic

The exposure is exhilarating, but it also brings fear.

The dynamic environment that surrounds me forces my attention to the present. I left Cape Verde a fortnight ago, and since then I’ve neither seen land nor felt the reassurance of human interaction. I’m alone with Flying Cloud, somewhere along the trade wind route between Africa and the Caribbean. A desire for adventure and a lust for the ocean brought me here.

Six months ago, age 20, I sailed out of my hometown with vague intentions of travel. I ventured south through Europe; constantly relocating my 22’ home. The freedom became addictive, and when Europe came to an end I set sights on a transatlantic.

Changing Headsails

Atlantic Rollercoaster

The sailing is easy. The trade winds push me steadily westwards. I’ve become so in tune with Flying Cloud, that even the slightest change in conditions alert me. Society has become an obscure memory. The artificial stresses that exist on land have disappeared, allowing authentic human nature to come forward. It’s a blessing to be granted such a simple existence; where nature’s drum dictates the rhythm of life. The beating of the sun and moon; cadenced with breaching whales and passing storms. Away from the hustle of civilization, it’s humbling to be reminded of our place in the true order of things.

As I approach the Caribbean I’m faced with trauma. A fire in the galley douses me in flames, and some primitive instinct propels me to dive over the side. I don’t want to die yet, but as I trail in the water behind Flying Cloud with one flaming hand clasping a guardrail, the prospect seems very real. A rush of adrenaline quickens my senses, and I manage to clamber back into the cockpit. It’s terrifying how close I had come to watching Flying Cloud slip away over the horizon without me. I’m also shocked by my charred body, never have I been this injured before. There are still two days between me and the Caribbean, and I need help. But help isn’t an option. I began this journey alone, accepting full responsibility for anything that came my way.

After two more days of misery, I reach Grenada. First visible as a subtle dash of colour — the island grows out of the horizon like an apparition. My delirious state makes the experience even more surreal. My body is in shock and I’m dehydrated. I drop my anchor as close to the shore as I can, attaching myself to the foreign land.

I explain my situation in the hospital, but nobody believes me. They’re sure that I’ve created some elaborate lie. Three days ago, I had been on top of the world — now I’m faced with disaster. I spend five days in the hospital, and a further ten in the home of some hospitable locals. My Caribbean adventure is over, and I’m forced to fly back to the UK. It’s the only way I can protect my damaged skin from the West-Indian sun.

Hurricane Hole, Grenada

A Break from Adventure

It’s hard to accept that something close to my heart could bring me so much pain. I battle with depression and almost decide to give up on sailing entirely. A year passes before I can summon the courage to return to the Caribbean. I fly back to Grenada, to find Flying Cloud floating exactly where I left her. I’m mentally and physically scarred but soon will discover the healing power of the ocean.

Now I’m surrounded by tropical paradises, and everything falls into place. I’m spoiled for choice as to where I sail next — I choose the Grenadines. I’m able to free myself of the stress and anxiety that has plagued me for the last year. The storm is over now, and I realise that I have emerged from it stronger.

I bounce from island to island, completely intoxicated with freedom. My desire to surf takes over, and I anchor in the lee of exposed reef breaks, leaping over the side with my surfboard. The waves are mellow; crumbling above a bed of vibrant coral. Evidence of relentless hurricanes is everywhere. As I sail north through the islands, I’m moved by the contrast between paradise and destruction.

It’s June now, the start of the hurricane season. The first named storm of the year is tearing its way through the Eastern Caribbean. This is my cue to leave. Any adventure must have a defined end, and for me, it’s the same place it started — Falmouth. I make the decision to sail home.

Leaving The Caribbean

Coming Home

I leave St Martin with a 500-euro shopping receipt — mentally preparing myself for a month of solitude. I make a lunge for higher latitudes. For a week I sail north before the trade winds dwindle and I ghost into the Azores high. Each day I scan the horizon for signs of wind, whilst struggling to keep the boat moving. The calmness gives me a more intimate relationship with the creatures around me. Pilot fish cling to the hull for hundreds of miles. Dolphin pods numbering hundreds change their course to ride the bow wave. Huge whales pass, twice the size of Flying Cloud. Turtles bump along the waterline. Birds land on the deck. Each strange event of nature becomes the defining point of any day.

Becalmed, Mid-Atlantic

After ten days of solitude my perception changes. By leaving behind the complications of society, I find a straightforward way of living. The absence of these mental pressures brings a prolonged feeling of joy. I still struggle occasionally. A sleepless night as I grapple to guide Flying Cloud through a passing weather front. The periods of calms are more torturous than the storms. I’m almost driven to insanity by the limp, flapping sails, as Flying Cloud wallows in the groundswells like a drunken dinosaur. To ease the passing of time, I tie a rope around my waist and dive into the serenity. I swim for a moment and then turn to get a view of my empty boat. It’s surreal, to see her fully rigged and rocking gently in the glassy expanse.

The Azores high has been behaving strangely this summer. The UK basks in sunshine, whilst the westerlies that I hope to bring me home are non-existent. 34 days after leaving the Caribbean, I motor past the blinding artificial lights of Faial airport and into the sleeping harbour of Horta.

Arriving in the Azores after 33 days of solitude

Of all the islands I have been so far, the Azores are the closest to my definition of paradise. The silhouette of Pico is a constant feature — looming in the distance like some vague illusion. Dramatic cliffs tower over cobblestone pointbreaks, the waves are long and un-crowded. Home is close now; I can feel it. For three weeks I embrace the luxuries of land, before setting off on the last leg of the journey.

The temperature drops as I continue to sail north. A fortnight after leaving the Azores, I make my first familiar landfall of the trip. The Cove, St Agnes, Ilse of Scilly. I tighten the sheets as I pass the southern tip of the island and lazily tack into the bay. My family wait for me on their converted fishing boat. After tying up alongside, I climb aboard and embrace them with salty tears of joy. I know it’s been hard for my mum, haunted by the thought of losing her son to the sea. Despite her fear, she’s always encouraged me to follow my dreams, and for that I’m grateful. Another short hop and I’m home again — Falmouth.

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