The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

How to meet sailors online

Young couple, WLTM open minded sailors for 3 month voyage of discovery. It could have all gone horribly... horribly wrong.

After getting in touch with friends of friends, contacting 3rd cousins of people at work and speaking to just about anyone we knew who has ever set foot on so much as a pedalo we eventually met Dave and Katherine online. Despite the unnerving nature of the online game, Crewseekers.net turned up trumps.

Answering a call for crew to Scotland and across to the Caribbean we got in touch with Dave and got a fantastic response straightaway. It was a classic boat that we would have to sail the old fashioned way through 'sweat and determination', they were young, they had a clear sense of adventure and, most encouragingly, didn't seem to be perturbed by the fact that we listed tandeming as one of our hobbies. We had a few photos to go on as well, and when my mum saw them she pronounced: 'Oh good, he looks nice'. It all seemed pretty positive.

A couple of emails and a quick chat on the phone later and we were arranging to meet up. It really did feel like a first date. What should i wear? He sounded pretty laid back. Would novelty sailor suit in Clapham Junction send out the wrong message? Maybe something subtler like a pipe and stick on Captain Haddock beard. As it was we met, drank Guinness and compared notes on plans, routes, chatted about the boat and ended up arranging a trial sail in a couple of weeks. It seemed to go well and before we knew it we were on our way to Devon on the train to take our first steps on Lista Light.

Before stepping foot on Lista Light Nick and I had had quite different experiences of planning our passage across the Atlantic. Nick had done the ground work; searching everywhere for a boat, contacting too many people, panicking at the thought of not finding one and creating check lists filled with boaty jargon. I on the other hand stayed out of the way, mostly encouraging Nick that if we didn't find a boat it would be fate telling us to head down the West coast of Africa for slightly dustier adventures. I was getting quite excited about 4 months of a whole new continent when one day an email was forwarded my way that revived my interest in crossing an ocean.
Dave and Kat, fellow adventurers, eco-warriors, savers of rainforests and birds, fans of our plans, didn't just sound like great travelling companions, but came with a 1935 Norweigen ketch as beautiful as it is practical for big seas. I was instantly swept away with their offer of sailing with them across the Atlantic. Big old soulful boat, young adventurous couple, not a deck shoe or tucked in polo shirt in sight. The set up was perfect.

Our excitement and anticipation was such that an anxious silence filled the car as we approached Topsham lock, where we would meet our new sailing buddies and vessel. Like the first day at a new school the waiting was both frustrating and exciting. I told myself that the butterflies in my stomach were due to being up since 6am, not from nerves. Nerves or not, we were both itching to get out on the familiar Devon seas where we would decide on our home for a very significant 2 - 3 month leg of the trip.

We could not have seen Lista Light for the first time in a more beautiful and tranquil setting. As we followed her down to her mooring neither of us could take our eyes away as she glided through the mirror like river. We soon hopped on board to join Kat and Dave and friends as they prepared the boat for sea. This was the first day of their big trip and suddenly ours felt like a frustratingly long way away. Fragmented and stilted introductions took place during the hauling of sacks of organic vegetables on board, filling up the diesel and eating toast and marmalade. Finally we were off on a slow and cautious crawl out of Exmouth harbour into the sea. This gave Nick and I the chance to explore the boat whilst contemplating crossing an ocean on it. We scanned the boat with our new skipper attuned eyes for the VHS, GPS, engine, life raft, gas set up, kitchen, living space, sheets, sails, warps, winches, helm, instruments and other things that I wasn't really sure what they were but felt should be checked. Dave proved to be a good skipper, fully in control of his crew and boat and Kat's care for everyone and commitment to the voyage was equally reassuring. Everything looked good. Secretly I had really been sold by the fact the boat had been built 70 years ago to withstand the untamed winds of the North Sea; its big faded red sails, dark weathered masks, beamy deck and homely cabin. Lista Light has all the wisdom, age, depth, strength, stability and wonder one could ask for in a boat. Nick and I exchanged smiles that told us we knew this was it and the trip became that much closer and realer.

After a good 3 hours sail over a calm sea we brought Lista into Dartmouth where we would get taken to our train back to the big smoke. Stepping off the boat felt hard and I had a sudden pang of envy over the crew that would stay on her for the next couple of weeks up to Scotland. I really can't complain though. Over crab sandwiches on Dartmouth's harbour wall, the initial exhilaration that we had found our boat and we were actually going to sail across the Atlantic soon gave way to fears of whether we had made the right impression. Like a first date, the more excited you are about the person you have just met, the greater the fear that they don't feel the same way. What if they didn't like us? What if we didn't help out enough? What if we didn't seem enthusiastic? What if they want to do it alone? What if they think Nick's face is too big? What if they thought I was 16?

Once we had got back to London we put in a call to Dave and left a message expressing our enthusiasm to join them for the Atlantic leg. We didn't hear anything back for a couple of days, but after all they were sailing and probably wouldn't have reception. Wouldn't they? In the meantime we were busy spreading the good news to everyone that we had found our boat, what an adventure we were going to have, how lucky we were to find great people with a great boat and how some things are just meant to be. Five days went by... Panic set in. We chanced a text, not too keen. Just checking in, but definitely breaking the contact after the first date rules. I started to research the West coast of Africa again, but not as enthusiastically, and couldn't stop myself reading all the online logged adventures Lista has had.

Finally last Saturday we heard from Dave. Our panic had been a tad dramatic. Plans for us to crew Lista from Lisbon to the Canaries to the Cape Verde Islands to the Caribbean were confirmed. The anxiety created by the possibility of not getting a place on the boat proved that it was exactly what we wanted. The first leg of our trip has gone from uncertain to certain to overwhelmingly exciting. At Christmas I couldn't sail a dinghy. In 2 months time the sea will happily be our home.

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