For £500, I bought a sailing boat that took me to the Caribbean and back.
22 feet, with 4’6 of headroom and enough space for a surfboard. My first rung on the ladder of boat ownership – I find her at 19. She’s 51, and I show her my most mature self.
Not only is she older, she’s exotic too. Her hull is beautifully crafted from mahogany planks, with a deck that points up ever so slightly at the bow and the stern, giving me butterflies every time I see her from a distance. She’s in a bad way, and she needs my help.
I put in a year of work and discover the intricacies of old wooden boats; cultivating traditional skills passed down in the frail braid of memory of those who still know. I explore every part of my little vessel and find a confidence that I can solve any problem that presents itself to me. I’m also naïve; and it’s the combination of the two that inspires me to sail away with no intentions of returning.
My motivations are simple; to find waves, excitement and romance. I’m afraid to go alone and ask my best friend to come with me. Harry can’t tell a fair lead from a fender, but he’s funny. He makes up for his lack of sailing knowledge by making me cry with laughter most days.
Passion fuels the idea. It’s so powerful that it compels me to do completely irrational things. I work excessively long hours, sacrificing my entire well being for the greater cause. My friends savor long summer days while I crawl around on the gravel beneath Flying Cloud; cursing as I struggle to remove corroded bronze screws.
We graduate from Uni in 2016, and by mid-June Flying Cloud is on the water in a vaguely seaworthy condition. Our worried mothers stand on the pontoon – clearly troubled at the size of the vessel that’s about to take their sons to France. They don’t know about the engine that barely works. The worrying stream of seawater leaking through the hull. The little ball of hash that we hope the customs won’t find.
Despite all these issues, we leave. Me, Harry and Flying Cloud. And that simple act of untying the lines and motoring out of Falmouth harbour, was both the hardest and most important part of the trip. For me, it’s the fist time that I’ve made a conscious decision to actively change my life. The first time I’ve really dealt with fear, and doubt and risk and everything else that comes with stepping outside your comfort zone.
The engine knocks as we motor through the crowds of moored yachts. It’s a calm, overcast afternoon, and the sails of nearby yachts hang limp like drying bed sheets. There’s 120 miles between us and the French coastline. Darkness creeps as we slip out of the mouth of Falmouth harbour and past the Manacles. The lizard lighthouse blinks to starboard as the wind fills in from the west, encouraging us to switch the engine off and finally hear the calming trickle of water moving past the hull.
I feel free and liberated; with all my possessions contained in this tiny floating home. For the first time, we have no commitments to education or work, and the sense of freedom is intoxicating.
Crossing the English Channel
We toil through the night in 2-hour watches. At 2 AM the wind increases, and I panic whilst struggling to remove the large flapping headsail and swap it for a smaller one. Sunrise brings a few more slip-ups. We realise the only food on board is a cold pasty. Harry drops his iPod, our only source of music, into the bilge. A handful of cargo ships pass alarmingly close by as we zig-zag through the busy shipping lanes.
Early in the afternoon, we see the French coastline. It lies on the horizon like a thin film of black oil. The wind begins to die, and soon we’re becalmed. One final obstacle lies between us and our destination, The Chenal du Four. A ferocious tidal race found between mainland France and a group of offshore islands. The currents are so strong, that its only possible to pass through the Chenal du Four with a following tide.
I turn the key on the engine control panel, and my little Yanmar engine splutters into life. It gives the little push we need to reach the race before the tide turns. We feel like a helpless piece of debris being pulled into a plughole. Like tankers, the sinister rocks either side of us leave large trails of wake as the seawater surges past. We’re terrified – and both vent out girlish screams as a rouge wave crashes over the deck, soaking both of us. Water isn’t supposed to move like this; we’re surrounded in every direction by chaos. The situation reaches a peak level of fear, before we gracefully slip into deep water again. I’m amazed by both the shear power of the tides, and my somehow unsoiled underwear.
We sail across the panoramic bay Rade du Brest, and into the small fishing village of Cameret. Darkness falls as we tie up alongside the pontoon inside the breakwater. We step ashore starving, soaking and still shaken from the traumatic tidal race. We feel like forgotten survivors of the sea, and the channel crossing is nothing compared to what’s to come. I realise how much more I must learn about sailing. We had left home, and that was fantastic. There was no looking back now, only south.
We curl up in our soaking wet beds to sleep off the trauma. Everything is peaceful again, and I’m on the cusp of falling into the deepest of sleep, appreciating the gentle creak of mooring lines. The serenity is suddenly broken as harry rolls into his back, filling the tiny cabin with one of his thunderous snores.