The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hopefully it won't take 31 days to read this...

I have just had my first shower that isn't sea or rainwater for 34 days (water black), Nick's spent a good 15 minutes hacking his beard off with a lady bic (he now looks 14) and we are basking in a full size bed contemplating how to prepare for 24 hours on a banana boat tomorrow. Now that we are on our way to a full recovery from sea dogdom it feels like a good time to look back on the last 4 weeks in which sea, sky, a block of wood and 4 friends became our world. When we weren't catching monsters of the deep, befriending whales and tearing the boat apart life at sea was surprisingly simple. We wiled away the days reading, eating freshly baked bread and cakes, sipping on tea, spotting tropic birds, dolphins and whales and debating the future and discussing the past of our planet. But it wasn't all so jolly civilized...

We got on board Lista Light ready to set sail across the Atlantic in late October. We ended up leaving on the 21st December. It therefore wasn't surprising that our planned departure time was slipped from morning to midday to sunset. Indeed it wasn't until we had cycled through Las Palmas laden with twice my weight in vegetables, slathered beef fat on the masts, stowed any moving object in sight and eaten £7 worth of Haagen Daz ice cream that we were finally ready to let slip the stern lines and head into the open Ocean. Despite bracing ourselves for the worst, the ice cream stayed down and the fresh veg lasted us until week 3. The beef dripping, however, would later prove futile and stowing was hardly a necessary concern as after only 3 days progress the winds refused to blow and we entered the era of The Great Becalming.

On the morning of the 24th December I woke up to find that the world had literally stopped moving to celebrate my birthday. By far my most attention seeking triumph yet. The swooshing wind and raging sea had vanished and we were left with a cloudless blue sky and glassy sea. This was just as well because the boat had a birthday feast of pizza, crisps, puddings, cakes and joy planned for me and any ripples might have interrupted the cooking. So it was in this silent sea that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2008 rolled around and took on one of the most surreal I have yet to experience. A becalming has a very strange effect on people's behavior. Lista Light took on characteristics more akin to an asylum than transatlantic vessel. A 'normal' scene would be Dan and Nick in full length Moroccan jalabas waving fishing rods vacantly back and forth at our stern, Dave tinkering with some tools in a red boiler suit and goggles, and Kat attempting aerobics in half a meter square of space at the bow.

Nothing feels less natural than bobbing about in the same spot, sails down, in a little wooden boat in a big flat still pond of an empty sea . And, during The Great Becalming the sea only conspired to add to the crazy vibes. On Boxing day evening Dave and Kat called us all to deck after hearing bizarre blowing and puffing noises in the sea. Stumbling onto the deck we try to decipher what is out there, but all we can do is hear the spluttering noises and every now and then see a flash of phosphorescence as something creeps its way around the boat. Fearful imagination runs riot as sight fails us. Suddenly we are trespassers in a world we don't begin to understand and all we can do is sit in it and guess what might be out there. The stories we had heard of whales sinking boats come rapidly to the fore. One evening though, we could make out dolphins diving down and torpedoing their way back up out of the water with a blow. Suddenly the sea monsters slipped to the back of our minds and we could enjoy the firework display of the ocean. Even the micro fauna got a look in. After spotting patches of orange on the water from afar we (slowly) drifted over towards it, nervously creeping towards what looked more and more unnatural floating in the water (to a War of the Worlds theme tune to heighten expense). When we finally hit the orange sludge (some kind of flagellate apparently) the movement of our boat through it made it vividly glow bright green, blue and purple. Like radioactive waste there was a moment we feared this red algae might corrode us, but then we realized it was just another ocean spectacle.

By the 30th December Nick and I were ready for some wind. Ten days in and most people would be half way across by now. We hadn't even started heading West. Thankfully on the 31st we had drifted far enough South to pick up the trade winds. Desperate for something to do we all scrambled for sails and sheets and got as much up as possible. Before we knew it we were heading 260 degrees at 5 knots. On the morning of the 1st we even had a pod of 20 or so dolphins leaping, flipping, diving and playing around the boat and 3 petrels diving in amongst the waves to celebrate the end of the becalming. It felt good to be on the road again!

Within a couple of days of 2009, after the driest Birthday, Christmas and New Year I will hopefully ever experience, we were up to 6 knots and making great progress West. Speed was on our side and so we got stuck into one of the most anticipated activities of the crossing: Fishing. To begin with our fishing triumph was entirely passive as flying fish simply hurled themselves onto our deck throughout the night. The first to make this fatal error hit Kat smack in the face whilst she was on night watch. Once the scales had been scraped from her face and calm restored we realised that we could eat these strange little invaders. Night watches became considerably more entertaining when armed with winch handle and listening out for a flipping noises on the deck it was easy enough to race around the deck smashing heads off and bucketing fish ready for tomorrow's lunch. We probably got through a good 30 of them before the novelty wore off; not only do they look like aliens but they also have more bones, scales and wing than anything really edible.

After this episode we moved onto bigger and better things. Our squid lure, a good 40 m out the back managed to bag us a Dolphin Fish one day and a horrendously mutilated Barracuda another. The Dolphin Fish was happily gorged on for 2 hours over an unusually silent lunch but the Barracuda was chewed down more reluctantly. Not only did it look like something not of this earth with its guts hanging out its savagely tooth filled mouth, but we also read that Barracudas are sometimes toxic and will cause the central nervous system to shut down. Not the greatest catch.

The real winner was the last catch. One evening the boys shout that they've caught something and they think its big. Here we go again catching some ghastly monster I'll be made to eat. Shouts grow more excitable and so I race up and watch on whilst the boys struggle pulling in a line that is racing around from left to right, up and down. Despite some nasty plunges down and wire nearly taking off Dan's hands we finally see the beast below and the boys fight him up with cries of 'wow' 'oh my god' and plenty of worse obscenities. Nick, being the manly sea hero that he now is, grappled the gaff (long thing with big hook on the end) and speared the beast in the neck and flings him up onto deck where Dave gets him under foot and Nick pushed the gaff in further. Excitement and adrenaline is high as the boys feel their masculinity sore and the girls look on in admiration. There's now a fish about the same size as me flapping around under Dave's feet and there is blood everywhere. I squeal because I'm a girl and I thought it would make the men feel more heroic. I hand over the mega chopper from the kitchen and the boys proceed to hack away the head. Thankfully the fish is dead pretty quickly. The deck is red with blood. We sit back and contemplate the fact that we Lista Light of notoriously bad fishing skills caught a 1.5 m Wahoo and are going to eat like Kings for days to follow. And we did. This fish was all meat. Fish steak, fish goujons, fish pie, fish cakes, fish pate, fish sandwiches, fish pasta, fish stir-fry, fish coming out of our ears 24 hours a day. The line remained firmly on board for the next couple of weeks.

As we came to the end of the Wahoo feasting at 1600 miles from land, slap bang in the middle of the Atlantic tragedy struck Lista. At 6am Nick grabs me out of bed for my watch and I commence the routine that I know only too well. Head torch, clothes, life jacket, deck, darkness, quick chat, alone and contemplate life for two hours. However this time I only got as far as the life jacket and I hear a snap. It doesn't sound good. Nick shouts for me to get Dave NOW but Dave's already heard and has flung himself out of bed donning nothing but a lime green blanket that he frantically clutches around his bits as he shouts in a panic, 'What was that?'. 'The running back stay has snapped', Nick's voice sounded serious and Dave leaps to the deck. The next 15 seconds Nick helplessly looks on as our main mast throws itself from side to side in the swell. Then the worst sound you could hear on a boat – crunching, cracking and snapping wood. It sounded like we had been hit by lightening. Dave got on deck just in time to see it 'f****************k, f***********************k'. I will never forget the sound of his anguish and panic. I race on deck and its hard to make much out in the darkness. The moon just sinks behind the horizon and all you can see is the outlines of shrouds, sails, mast, wire, rope hanging off the sides of the boat dragging down into the ocean. We are still traveling at 5 knots and so first thing is to head into the wind and slow the boat. I get to the helm, Dave and Nick start hauling anything back in that can, but mostly just grabbing knives and the angle grinder to start cutting it all away. Now the sparks of the angle grinder reveal the loss. The boat is empty and bare at its bow and vulnerability is high. There is splintered and broken wood everywhere. Kat starts getting the life raft ready and Dan mans extra pumps as the remains of the mast knock hard against the hull. The moment you fear whenever at sea, especially half way across an ocean.

But by 8 am we were all sat at the helm with the engine running and the darkness was beginning to lift. No one really knew what to say but we were alive, on the boat and hadn't been holed, which was good news. Lista however looked completely broken, the stump of the mast would have looked more at home in a torn down rainforest. All that sail, wood, and shrouds that had got us this far were somewhere floating thousands of metres towards the bottom of the sea. However, over the next few days we all had little choice other than getting on with what had to be done. Dave spent an ambitious few hours over the next couple of days hanging on up the remaining mast fixing some temporary rigging. We re-rigged the mizzen sail onto the stump of the main and put up whatever sail we could manage.

Now more than ever we were keen to get there as quickly and safely as possible. For a moment, whilst Dave was up the broken mast this aim was dashed by our biggest visitor of the crossing. The whole crew was on deck on afternoon in silence concentrating on not letting Dave plunge to the deck when Nick and I spotted the huge face and bulge of a whale surfing down a wave heading directly for our stern. It was almost a comical sight because it looks so huge its ridiculous, but we really didn't need to be ploughed into by a whale right now. Luckily though the visitor was just curious and repeated this action over and over again that afternoon and remained there for the next four days, surfing in the waves up to the boat, plunging under it and surfacing to blow just 10 m or so from us. We were being stalked by a Minke Whale. We spent 4 days watching our new friend and became quite attached, worried even that he was trying to flirt with us and we weren't responding probably or that he thought we were its mother. We never will know why we befriended by a whale.

Once Minke the Moocher left us we were into the final week of the crossing. It was inevitably a slow one and though you tell yourself not to count down the days for worry that the wind might stop, the temptation is too great. Especially because it was the wettest part of the trip and some days we would all be huddled up damp and muggy downstairs eating everything and anything. That is apart from whoever is on watch who strips off and temporarily enjoys showering in the fresh water of the squall before getting a bit cold and miserable when realising that you now have another hour and a half of being naked, cold and damp alone on deck. Gradually though evidence of land popped up in the form of floating buoys, different birds, more dolphins, a few more boats and some crackling noises on our radio. At one point a small fishing boat came within 50m or so of us and suddenly seeing other humans was alarming enough for us all to worry about pirates. Firearms turned out to be the least of our worries though when 2 days later we came within 20m of colliding with a fishing boat anchored at sea and not under watch. It would be rubbish to go under when this close and so watches became more vigilant.

Yet slowly but surely the numbers on the GPS counted down. 3 sleeps to go, 2 sleeps to go... becalmed again so still 2 more to go, and then finally it is the final night watch. The dim lights of land begin to show in the night sky and then sure enough through the binoculars we could see St. Maarten. I came to take over from Nick and the horizon was littered with stars. Turns out it was land. I spent the next 2 hours excitably racing around the deck making out land marks and checking the chart for unseen rocks. This time tomorrow we were going to be on land! At 7 30 am we were all called to deck by Dave for breakfast and just to our starboard is the rocky outline of a Caribbean island. We had made it. We had crossed 3,100 miles in just under 31 days. We had come almost totally under the power of the wind across one of the world's oceans and were about to set foot on land. The feeling was euphoric but when we got in and anchored it suddenly felt surreal. We didn't leap into the surf and eat the sand, but instead had to clean the whole boat in a daze in the stinking heat and then only after a few hours of looking at land were we in the dinghy. Still the beers had to wait as we staggered through a world full of so much stimulus it was hard to take in towards immigration.

I am afraid to say that all the clich├ęs of shore leave and sailors are true. We ran to immigration and 2 minutes later we were downing the first beer in 32 days. One cold Carib followed another, followed another, followed by rum, followed by more beer and having been on the island for only an hour we were merry. Within 3 hours we were heading back to the boat.... hammered. Being a cruise ship destination there was a long line of 100 or so American bum bag clad punters lined up for their water taxi to go 100 yards down the path and Dan thought this would be the ideal time to get totally naked and cannonball off the pier. Only one person kept his mouth from hanging open in astonishment long enough to simply say 'Jeez you guys, we work for Disney'. Naked jumping from the boat in the middle of the harbour was further fuelled by champagne and the next thing we woke up with sore heads and sand between our toes on deck. An amazing feeling. We had made it to Continent number 3.

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