In a complete break from running earlier this year I travelled for six and a half hours by aeroplane south to the Cape Verde islands to join a tall ship for a sailing adventure on the Atlantic Ocean, a journey back home north (with a good few other directions thrown in – such is the nature of sailing! ) that would take about three weeks. This was something I had been wanting to do for years – out on the open ocean, hundreds of miles from land, all alone with nature….and the other 44 members of sailing crew!
The voyage was on the Lord Nelson, a square rigged barque of the Jubilee Sailing Trust. A ship designed to enable people with disabilities to sail along with able bodied ship mates, we were a total crew of 45, people of all ages and different levels of sailing experience including a permanant crew that we could put our faith in when things got tough.
This was my ride home. Exciting, right…adventurous?…intrepid?…….it turned out to be the toughest journey of my life.
To sound like a hard core salty sea dog type I’d like to say that the reason my experience was such a challenge was because we were fighting a perfect storm or wild seas, or I was struggling up the masts to do battle with stubborn sails despite a fear of heights ( well, I don’t really have a problem with heights, just of falling from a height, which seems fairly reasonable to me ) and all of this was, at least, a little true at times, but the basic reason I was miserable was simply because I was seasick!
I had done some sailing in the past and expected to feel a bit ill, but thought it would pass in twenty four hours, some people had told me it takes about three days which seemed harsh but I definitely thought it would, eventually at least, pass and then I could just enjoy this incredible journey. Things started well, I felt perfectly fine the first night as I squeezed into by bunk space with 15 other people below deck in the fo’c’sle (pointy bit at the front) – we were moored in a sheltered harbour mind you.
Life on the open ocean…piece of cake!
Next morning my watch team were on the early watch and we climbed to the bridge, bleary eyed before dawn and followed the instructions of Captain Darren very carefully to manoeuvre out of the harbour and into the Atlantic. As the day progressed the quesiness began to rise along with my breakfast and I had already succumbed to the dreaded seasickness by that first night at sea. The next morning we anchored close to another island to pick up provisions and it gave me some time to adjust in more sheltered waters. I kept my mind off my billowy stomach by keeping busy, hauling eggs aboard from the bobbing zodiac boat while trying not to break any or drop them in the ocean and basically volunteering for every job going.
Bit different to your average trip to Tesco!
But it was only a temporary reprieve and as our night watch duty saw the last of the land blink away on the horizon my stomach promptly rejected my longed for mug of tea and that was the last time I could face a hot drink or feel remotely normal for three weeks. My twenty four hour ‘adjustment period’ passed and I was still feeling sick, three days passed and I was still sick…..and so it continued for twelve long days…..then things got worse!
Calm seas to begin with…..not that my stomach cared!
I was in awe of the crew, particularly the cook, Ali, who prepared food for 45 people three times a day with finite provisions, limited space and the rolling conditions. All the equipment were on gimbals but occasionally met the limit of their swinging range and a crashing pan could be heard from the galley quickly followed by some choice language in Ali’s beautiful scottish accent. She even managed to magically appear at 10.30am every single day with delicious home baking. Absolute star!
For twelve days I had managed to function reasonably well despite feeling pretty terrible and on the verge of throwing up all the time. I kept to my watch shift schedule, a rotating 24 hour rota of 4 hours shifts on the bridge – helming the ship, keeping lookout, updating the log and checking over the ship. I endlessly hauled on ropes, even struggled though a day on mess duty below decks and only skipped a few meals, though I was losing quite a few of them again a short time after eating. By now I knew every location of the sick bags on board and was going through them at an alarming rate. I had used up all my strong anti sickness tablets that are only available over the counter in Spain, I had tried the medication on board, given anti nausea patches a go which did help temporarily but my body seemed to quickly become immune to them and I was soon hanging over the railings once again. We pitched and rolled relentlessy, often both at the same time, day and night. The trouble was the ship just never stopped lurching about, at all, never, ever…….ever.
The rest of the crew were wonderful and irritatingly most of them were feeling totally fine the whole voyage. They told me not to feel bad, “even Christopher Columbus suffered from seasickness” , as if that would help me feel better. I wasn’t feeling embarrassed or weak for being afflicted with it, just slowly more and more drained from the effects. I kept one watch crew busy on a particularly rough night when I think every one of them disposed of one of my sick bags at some point or another as I tried to crawl onto deck.
The ocean starts to pick up a bit…
Conditions had become admittedly very rough. One evening I was sitting on the wooden floor in the communal bar area and was just sliding from one side of the lounge to the other as if I was on some kind of playground ride. In our beds we rolled from the hull wall of our bunk to the lee -cloth or board designed to stop you from falling out of bed constantly, back and forth all night. Weather depression after depression was bearing down on us and in the end we had to abandon plans to make land in the Azores, turn east and ride the edge of Storm Emma towards the Canary Islands some 700 miles away. This now meant I had four full days to endure before landfall. By this point the medical officer, Susie, was injecting me with the hard stuff to try to stop the vomiting….but it wasn’t working. My urine was also now the at the disturbing end of those colour charts you see at ultra marathon events…’Shades of Newcastle Brown Ale’
It was all such a shame as I really wanted to enjoy the experience to the full. In the early days dolphins often rushed over to play in the bow wave, skimming just below the surface so clearly visible in the clear tropical waters, gliding with an incredibly smooth speed, seemingly close enough to just reach out and touch. We were constantly on ‘whale watch’ and every day brought uninterrupted views of spectacular sunsets and sunrises. On watch through the night under the pristine dark, starry skies, sparkles and lights also illuminated below in the water from phosphorescent planktons. It was all breathtakingly precious.
Night watches spent identifying constellations
By day 14 I stopped making my watch shift, requested an absence from duties and crawled into my bunk for the majority of the time. This felt pretty pathetic and like I was letting down my watch companions but I was totally done in and exhausted. I couldnt even look out of the port holes any more to see the roiling grey streaked swell that had grown so huge without being sick. The horizon no longer existed anyway, it was all gnarly and chopped up and hidden from view half the time by each giant wave. All I could do at this point was lie in my bunk concentrating hard on keeping some water and electrolytes down and listen to the loud pounding on the hull as we climbed the waves and were slammed into the troughs counting the hours and days til we would reach land again.
The streaky ocean waves
Finally, on day 18 we reached the island of La Palma and my spirits raised at the thought of collapsing onto land that didn’t buck and roll beneath me , but the wind was too strong for us to safely make harbour so we hove to and got thrown around for hour after hour all day long waiting for the wind to die down…which of course meant it just got worse. We were so close to land…if I could have mustered some energy I would have been tempted to swim for it. By early evening down drafts were coming off the island gusting up to 80 knots (that’s really windy by the way – every time I mention that to someone who sails their jaw usually hits the floor and they give me a look of disbelief. When the winds were recorded at 69 knots on our anenometer even Captain Darren admitted he had never experienced such strong winds. The result of this battering was that the ship was forced over at a 42 degree angle ( also an impressive statistic to people who know what they are talking about) and it ripped out both topsails. We braced ourselves below decks hanging onto our slanted bunks and trying not to get sent flying into a hard or sharp part of the ship as belongings, harnesses, deck boots and oilskins, previously stowed and clipped away were now being hurled around our sleeping quarters. In the end it was decided that the ship should take no more and we would turn our back to the wind and run with it back out into the ocean…away from dry land! Another night groaning in my bunk as my stomach curses me for not delivering on my promise of solid ground. Conditions were so rough that night that crew were now confined below deck for safety.
I would have actually loved this weather if I had not been so debilitated
Arriving in Tenerife we once again weren’t able to enter the harbour. An incident during the previous day’s weather had resulted in an investigation meaning no one could leave or enter…honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up! They did offer a berth in the marina, but sadly it was only big enough for a small rowing boat!
So once again we sailed away from land and there was no room on any of the other islands. I was beginning to think I might never set foot on land again. But it turned out that our original berth on La Palma was still available and conditions were improving so this could be it, hopefully just one more night on the ocean.
Land, once again…my stomach rejoices!
Finally, late the following morning we made it into harbour and I staggered ashore, lay down right there on the quayside hugging the ground – I was so happy. I decided right there I would find somewhere to live on La Palma, get a job and never leave land again! However, after weeks of feeling so terrible for almost every waking minute, in just a few hours I was feeling remarkably recovered and was already questioning my decision to spend the rest of my life on La Palma. I had made the decision, however, not to go back out in the ocean, instead arranging a flight back to the UK. Once I felt better though I even regretted that decision and would have happily gone back out with the ship, forgetting so soon how it had been, the miserable hours rolling and lurching and feeling on the verge of being sick 24 hours a day for weeks! It made no sense. I had had the most uncomfortable time of my life, even worse than the time I was flown to hospital with acute appendicitis!, and yet I was ready to try it again. The unforgiving ocean had truly captured my heart.
An emotional goodbye to Lord Nelson and my ship mates…ironically the ocean was flat clam for the next four days!
Like all good ‘type 2′ adventures my pain and suffering were quickly forgotten and I was totally heart broken in the end to leave the ship. This was in the most part because it meant leaving the rest of the crew who were phenomenal and whether due to having like minded souls or the intensity of a shared adventure I had grown very close to.
This was my first ‘DNF’ (did not finish) , but there really is a lot to be learnt from adversity. Pain is never a gift in the moment but you do gain strength and grow from it. The experience has really taught me that we need challenge and adventure in our lives – not only to push our limits and grow as individuals but to learn compassion and become closer to each other. In my heart I will always love the ocean but sadly my stomach clearly does not!