It’s a long one. Do you need a drink? Have you had a wee? Okay then, let’s begin.
The river crackles beneath us as we wake a little groggy after an evening of beers that I rowed triumphantly to Gwen against tide and wind. We’ve moved her back up the river now, and my plan for the day is to row a little way down the Guadilquivir to Donana and try to get a lift on one of the ferries over to the town. We check the weather forecast, as we do every morning, and notice that our planned departure for the Canaries on Thursday is looking difficult. Rich doesn’t want to tell me his thinking because he knows that I had my heart set on some relaxing time alone exploring the town. He lets me work it out for myself, then grins when I say “well, it looks like the best time to leave is today”. I grin back. It’s happening.
We relax (and I write a blog post) for a few hours, then set to stowing our crap and preparing the sails. The tide is with us and the wind gently against us as we motor out of the river between widely spaced marker buoys. They are well maintained, each with its own light, AIS beacon and defensive seagull. I am relieved that the speed of our decision to depart means I haven’t had time to worry. I’m excited. Fishing boats pass us on their return to the river, the men smiling and waving in the sunshine. Goodbye again, mainland Spain.
At the end of the channel we hoist sails. Our journey starts close hauled, straining to the wind to the point of luffing, and we don’t make a particularly good course but we don’t mind because we’ve got a week of sailing to come. We can’t change our minds now, just take what we’re given, so 25 degrees off course at a decent speed will have to do. Then as evening draws in the wind buggers off.
The annoying thing about being almost becalmed is not just that you don’t make progress. That’s crap enough. It’s not even that you lose steering ability, which we do just as I’m entering a shipping channel in the dark, oh joy of joys. It’s the knocking about: the staysail sheets scraping whatever they touch, the main sail jolting the boom against the mast, back and forth with every tiny gust or shove of the miniscule waves, even with a preventer rope holding it out. I get a headache and scowl. When a little wind appears I can just about get Wedge to hold our course which means I can finally let go of the tiller to admire stars that shine like bullet holes piercing a black tin roof.
On the sunrise watch I am giddy with emotion and lack of sleep. We are passing as close as we will to the entrance of the Gibraltar straits and I hear a warning on the VHF:
“Pan pan, pan pan, all ships, all ships, a small boat is reported at (location), 20 people on board”
You hear these every night in the entrance to the Mediterrenean. You can’t help but think of that small, cramped, unsafe boat. The waves are rising, but even here on the edge of an ocean the conditions are more favourable than back there in the straits where current and wind and huge tankers funnel through, sometimes against each other. What would it be like to be drifting in those violent seas in the dark, in a tiny boat with 19 other people? Where have they come from? How will they be treated once the spotter plane has gone and the authorities find them by boat? Do I want them to be found or not?
I pick up my camera and distract myself, grateful and ashamed in the tiny paradise of our cockpit. We are going more downwind now, at a good speed, and I admire how Gwen passes between the rolling waves. We balance to one side then the other in a motion that is irregular, gentler on the big waves than the short, sharp thudders. Inside the boat this motion feels multiplied – it is a challenge by day, and by night it is a painful, draining bore. I read my book, play some uke, photograph the double denim view and doodle in my sketchbook, pleasures that are small and easily stowed. By lunchtime we are further south than we have ever been.
Evening brings stronger winds. Even with two reefs in the main we are doing seven or eight knots, and don’t I know it, sliding on the cockpit seat and trying to brace myself against anything that’s bolted down. Looking out to sea is as hypnotic and calming as watching a camp fire, catching glassy peaks in the frothing tips of approaching waves that look otherwise solid. As Rich cooks the fish I caught in the afternoon (I am in charge of fishing on this trip for the first time, and I am nailing it: this is the third I’ve caught) I remember one of the great joys of high, noisy winds: singing your lungs out against them. I scream “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” to the sky and for those two minutes I am as happy as a human can be.
We decide to reduce sail again for the night, which involves Rich shuffling on to a foredeck that is tipping, soaring and crashing down with some force. I am not sent forward for jobs in these conditions because I am less experienced, and for once that’s a relief. He clips on, brings down the jib and sends the forestay back out bare. I am weirdly thrilled, like a spectator to a dangerous sport, as I watch his leaping sillhouette work against a red stripe of sunset while water splashes up on to the side decks. I wonder if it’s a good thing that I’m getting used to this shit. When it looks like he’s done and on his way back to safety I have a tiny joyful cry of relief.
On my first night watch a single, mountainous wave maliciously times itself to thunder down on the deck of the boat. It covers everything, including me. I am sat in the companionway, facing forward with my legs on the ladder beneath me, and am surprised not so much by the wetness as the weight of the water. I laugh and go inside where I have to change out of my soaking jeans in the dark, staggering around and bracing myself against cupboards and galley surfaces. I’m already wearing my waterproof coat but can’t find the rest of my wet weather gear by the weak night light that’s tinted red to preserve our night vision. I have been sailing commando, and the most unpleasant thing about the whole experience is having to sail the rest of the watch with my bare bottom inside Richard’s grim old salopettes.
Somehow every time Rich goes for a nap a new tanker appears on the AIS on a collision course with Gwen. There’s plenty of time to make adjustments to avoid it, but it’s not fun having to concentrate and keep returning to the computer to check our relative paths. The waves are at their largest now, probably two or three metres, more regular and predictable since they organised themselves into long deep lines. You don’t really get a chance to admire their height – as soon as they’re near you you’re already climbing up them – but their evenness reduces the jerking that was everywhere yesterday. Overnight I dreamed that we were out here, in the undulating blue, and there was a woman in a pink swimsuit and pale bathing cap doing a front crawl across a wave with a podgy kid in an inflatable ring bobbing nearby. They were on holiday, 100 miles west of Casablanca.
If I am a supportive sister to Gwen then I am an abusive mother to Geordi LaForge the wind vane, flitting between almost tearful pride when he’s behaving to “what the fuck, Geordi? Keep a course you stupid twat” when I have to rush to adjust him. His disobediences aside, it is a lovely day. Rich and I have settled in to our alternating pattern of watches though we are surprised how tired we still are and how many nap breaks we need. The afternoons are the only time we both feel awake, and then it is great to hug, listen to a podcast together, chat shit or make plans – little things that keep our joys united.
We continue to speed on into the night, and my first watch is spent in silent admiration of the elements. On my second I’m back in tanker avoidance mode, struggling to get us back on course, dealing along the way with noisy clanks that must be tidied quiet and tugging gusts that must be compensated in the steering. Once they’re dealt with I feel tense, my head groaning in the cacophonous wind. I remember my friend Chappa saying “I bet you see amazing skies out there at night”, and I think to look up, and everything’s alright again. The milky way is a broad stroke of white mist around which playful constellations are splattered. Occasional bursts of phosphorescence in the waves reply to their cosmic call.
I have thought of my friends often on this passage. I have spent whole watches fantasising about seeing or collaborating with some of them again, and others resolving to visit those whose weddings or parties we missed while we were too busy or broke during Gwen’s renovation. I am busy in the middle of some such reverie when I notice that Gwen is making music. The whistle through the rigging is usually too high pitched to be pleasant, but right now there is a discernible phrase, the beginning of a melody over a low drone repeating in different rhythms. I run inside to note it down. If Gwen sings then I want to know her song.
A fun, chilly shower on the wobbly foredeck elevates a mood that was already splendid from having had a little real sleep. Most off-watch rests consist of some half sleep and some “maybe I slept” sleep (you have to concede that you probably did, because look at the time that’s passed) but now I’ve actually had a couple of hours of solid zzzz and that makes all the difference. I note how wonderfully Rich and I are working together, and how pleased we always are to see each other. We have now sailed more than three thousand miles together in total. I wonder whether the key to a happy relationship is being awake at different times.
That night, to prove me wrong, we have a short shouty argument between night shifts. Fortunately this causes Rich to storm off to bed instead of poling out the staysail, which we’d planned to do and which would have buggered up my chances of steering in the side wind that rises and falls on my watch. The sky is coated in cloud which is illuminated by the unseen moon, and I can see everything on deck for a change. It’s not terribly interesting, so I put on a podcast and watch the waves. Rich likes to spend most of his night watches inside, popping out every ten or fifteen minutes for a good look around. I go the other way, staying outside with the wind and water, briefly checking inside every now and then. I feel great out there.
The wind is dropping but waves subside more slowly so we roll badly for most of the morning. With poor sleep and an argument hanging over us from last night we are pissy enough, and when Rich barks orders at me while putting up a bit more sail, seeming to dismiss my input, I bite back. We yell a bit then move to opposite ends of the boat. Our speed drops to one or two knots as the confused sails and clouded sky share our grumpy, deflated mood.
Wildlife comes to our rescue. I notice a dragonfly flit around the boat, pausing occasionally to rest on guard wires and ropes. Rich sees it too. It is green and yellow, but when we next spot it it’s bright red. We realise it is actually three different dragonflies making journeys around and across Gwen. We ask each other questions we can’t answer. How did they get here? Did we bring them with us? Have they hatched somewhere on board? Do dragonflies migrate? We are ninety miles from the nearest land. An hour later we stop counting at twenty dragonflies, all in greens, yellows and reds. They line up on the guard wires, wings fluttering in unison as the boat rises and drops, and cling to the foredeck and push pit. One unfortunate sod gets squished under our snubber rope. They seem less afraid of us than before and let us photograph them up close.
Then, hearing a quiet whooshing sound, we see the first of a pod of pilot whales following the boat. There are ten or more of them of different sizes coming to the surface quite regularly, showing a glimpse of their stubby heads only in the first break of the surface. They move sedately, their arcs like those of lazy dolphins in a slow motion replay, sometimes pausing for ten seconds in our view. Rich says they’re resting after fishing in the depths (we’re currently floating on 4km of water), and that they might be half asleep. We look at them for so long we don’t notice the dragonflies leave.
That evening I start reading Treasure Island to Rich while he sews us a quarantine flag from the fabric of a cheap and tacky yellow scarf we bought for this purpose. Neither of us has read it before despite its mythology being present all our lives: we’ve even watched three and a half seasons of Black Sails, and we live on the sea, so this needs to change. We have all our canvas up and only a little wind on this calm water, but things seem much better. Once Rich has gone to bed and the sun has set I listen to Gwen in the waveless water: the bow sploshing down, tinkles glancing her sides and the steady trickle behind me that says we’re actually moving. We’re doing four knots but you wouldn’t believe it if the computer didn’t say so.
The big wind is back and we reduce sail all day, wanting to slow down and reach Lanzarote in the safety of the morning, not the dark of the night. The big waves are back too, and they’re from directly behind us. It’s an awesome feeling to climb out of the companionway after writing in the log to find a wave as wide as you can see and much higher than both your head and the concealed horizon, with which you would normally be level, coming towards you. Somehow instead of crushing you beneath its weight it swoops beneath you, carries you a little and gives you a fantastic view of the next, which hurries forward in its place, before it is gone.
It feels good to be back in the huge, and I feel like I’ll miss it – the constant movement, the oxygen levels, the company of wind and wave and shearwaters. By nightfall we’re down to just one sail, the jib, and we’re still doing four knots, which in contrast to last night feel like seven. Having only one headsail up means you don’t have to worry about gybing accidentally, and you can do it deliberately very easily on your own, so I have little to worry about.
Inside, things are a little more difficult. We are going almost straight downwind and the boat is rolling like never before. The few loose possessions that hadn’t yet reached the floor are now making it their home. In bed in a roll like this your body slides no matter how you arrange yourself – usually helpful diagonal prostrations or sideways-on fetal poses make no difference to your ability to sleep. Sometimes your skin stays in place while your bones and organs bash about within it. Sometimes your whole head or torso gets jerked around. Maybe you headbutt a cupboard, but that only happens once. After two hours of noisy discontent on my first off-watch I go into the saloon, grab upholstery from the sofas and arrange it in the bed, leaving only a human shaped slot in the centre into which I squeeze myself. This cushioned coffin does me well for half an hour’s sleep, after which I pass it on to Rich as proudly as he passes me the brilliant near-full moon. “They’ve left the big lights on” he smiles. “I’ve made the bed amazing” I beam back. In my second rest of the night I sleep like a log right through.
The huge yellow moon plays peek-a-boo behind the clouds over Lanzarote, then sinks below it. All that can be seen of the island is a silhouette of mountains and strips of street and navigational lights – they produce their own golden glow. Then the sun rises and everything becomes visible: wind farms, shipyards, great volcanic mountains, a city by the sea, our first land since Wednesday. We approach quickly but we are prepared having woken and drunk coffee in plenty of time to ready Gwen, her anchors and her engine. By ten in the morning we are anchored in a windy corner off Arreceife, drinking the beer we had promised ourselves on arrival, before going to bed.
We’ve sailed over 600 miles, saluted six sunsets, taken four showers, spent £0, eaten all the fruit, caught three fish and had two arguments. I’ve banged my head three times, cried twice (okay, okay, probably more) and made a spectacular biryani. Rich has shaved his head, read up on (and got us much more excited about) the Gambia, and sown a flag that it turns out we don’t need yet. We’ve had very little sleep, all of it in bursts of less than 2.5 hours. My brain has burped up “well, a rest is as good as a rest” and “the waves are really coming in waves now”. Gwen has been incredible, and her rig has withstood everything we and the wind could throw at it, a testament to Richard’s skill and knowledge. We’ve been ludicrously happy most of the time, and we’ve got somewhere. Not bloody bad.