The mists of the mind

Those inner voices inside our heads!

The photograph below is the yacht that I lived on for 5 years, from 1987 though to 1992. My base was Larnaca Marina in the Greek ‘sector’ of the Island of Cyprus although I cruised over much of the Mediterranean during the warm summer months. (Long-term readers, you poor souls, will realise that this isn’t the first time I have spoken of sailing and Tradewinds…)

Songbird of Kent
Tradewind 33 – Songbird of Kent

As I explain over on my ‘author’s’ blog:

During this period Paul became much more aware of the importance of marketing strategy, becoming a Chartered Member of the British Institute of Marketing, and the raft of competencies that deliver entrepreneurial success. In 1986, Paul accepted an offer to sell the Dataview group of companies. (Regrettably, this period also saw the failure of Paul’s marriage to Britta and their subsequent divorce.)

Again, chance intervened in that an Autumn vacation in 1986 to Larnaca in Cyprus resulted in Paul meeting a couple who wanted to sell their yacht, a Tradewind 33, and return to England. Thus very early in 1987, Paul left Essex and became a full-time ‘yachtie’ living on that Tradewind Songbird of Kent in Larnaca marina. Paul was then exposed to the life of an ocean-going sailor returning to Plymouth, Devon via The Azores onboard Songbird of Kent in 1992.

I purchased this Tradewind 33, designed by Englishman John Rock by the way, because somewhere in my soul was a dream to do some solo ocean sailing. Probably inspired by reading too many books written by famous British solo yacht-persons. Such as Robin Knox-Johnston, Chay Blyth, Naomi James, Ellen MacArthur, Pete Goss and the king of them all: Sir Francis Chichester who was the first person ever to sail around the world single-handed.

But it remained a dream for almost all those 5 years. Reason? Because at the start of the summer cruising period each year I slipped out of Larnaca and sailed along the southern coast of Cyprus, up the Western coast and then the open sea crossing to a nearby Turkish harbour, such as Anamur or Alanya. At the end of the summer I would repeat the solo trip in reverse. But I still haven’t said what the core reason was for not being braver and planning a solo ocean voyage.

Because that sailing voyage twice a year, that took me about four days to accomplish, and was undertaken alone, really scared me. I mean scared with a capital ‘S’! For it was impossible to accomplish without many hours of solo sailing at night!

Fast forward a number of years and one day, when I was living on Songbird at Larnaca Marina into the vacant berth next to me came a new visitor to Cyprus. His name was Les Powells and he very quickly explained that he was on his way back to England on his third solo circumnavigation of the world!

imagesInevitably Les and I got chatting over a couple of beers during our evenings together and Les asked me about my sailing ambitions noting that I lived on a yacht that most people purchased for ocean sailing purposes.

I explained my miserable experiences each year going to and fro between Cyprus and Turkey.

Les heard me out and then threw his head back and roared with laughter.

“Paul, what you are experiencing is the adjustment from a land-based life, as in living here in Larnaca, to a water-based life.

I suffer just the same adjustment stress as you have detailed.”

My face conveyed both my amazement and my yearning to learn more.

“Yes, Paul, every time I go to sea solo the first three or four days are hell! I hate them! I only stick with it because there is always a point, (Les really emphasised the word always) usually under a glorious night sky, when I truly become attuned to the life of a solo yachtsman far out from the nearest land and wouldn’t swap it for anything”

“You have to trust this and set out on a solo voyage of more than, preferably much more than, four days sailing.”

Thus in time that’s what happened.

In the Autumn of 1972 I returned to Plymouth in England, via the Azores, sailing solo on Songbird of Kent. Indeed, I was going to republish an article about lighthouses in Oregon but I’m changing tack in mid-stream; so to speak!

I am going to close today’s post by republishing an experience of being alone on the Atlantic Ocean that first graced these blog pages in October 2015. Lighthouses will have to wait.

ooOOoo

There is a place in my mind to which I can so easily travel; a memory of a dark night out in the Atlantic. But first let me set the scene from almost fifty years ago.

The call of the open ocean

Those first few hours were utterly absorbing as I went through the whole business of clearing the yacht harbour at Gibraltar and heading out to the South-West hugging this unfamiliar coastline of Southern Spain. It was tempting to move out to deeper waters but the almost constant flow of large ships through the Straights of Gibraltar soon quashed that idea. Thankfully, the coastal winds were favourable for me and my single-masted sailing yacht.

After such a long time sailing in the relatively confined waters of the Mediterranean, it was difficult for me to imagine that in a few hours time the southern-most point of Spain would pass me by and the vastness of the Atlantic ocean would be my home for the next few weeks.

Soon the city of Tarifa was past my starboard beam and the Spanish coastline was rapidly disappearing away to the North-West. The horizon ahead of me was already approaching 180 degrees of raw, open ocean.  There was just a flicker of a thought that whispered across my mind: “Oh Paul, what have you gone and done” as slowly but persistently the coastlines of Spain to the North and of Africa to the South became more and more distant and fuzzy.  It was at 15:30 that I made an entry in my yacht’s log: “No land in sight in any direction!

Now was the time to make sure that my bunk was made up, flashlights to hand, and my alarm clock ready and set. Alarm clock? Set to go off every twenty minutes during the night! For this was the only way to protect me and my yacht from being hit by one of those gigantic container ships that seemed to be everywhere. It took at least twenty minutes from the moment a ship’s steaming lights appeared above the horizon to crossing one’s path!

It was in the early hours of my first morning alone at sea, when once again the alarm clock had woken me and I was looking around an ocean without a single ship’s light to be seen that more of Les’ words came to me. I remembered asking Les: “What’s the ­appeal of sailing?” Les replied without a moment’s hesitation: “It’s the solitude. When you’re out at sea on your own, there’s no government or bankers to worry about. You’re not ­responsible to anyone but yourself.

Yes, I could sense the solitude that was all around me but it was an intellectual sense not an emotional one. That would come later. Inside, I was still afraid of what I had let myself in for.

Remarkably quickly however, the pattern of solo life aboard a thirty-three-foot yacht became my world. Frankly, it staggered me as to how busy were my days. Feeding myself, navigating, trying to forecast the winds, staying in touch with other yachties via the short-wave radio, keeping the boat tidy and a zillion other tasks meant the first few days and nights just slipped by.

But it was a sight on my fourth night at sea that created the memory that would turn out to remain with me for all my life. The memory that I can go to anytime in my mind.

That fourth night I was already well into the routine of waking to the alarm clock, clipping on my harness as I climbed up the three steps that took me from my cabin into the cockpit, scanning the horizon with my eyes, checking that the self-steering had the boat at the correct angle to the wind and then, if no ships’ lights had been seen, slipping back down into my bunk and sleeping for another twenty minutes. Remarkably, I was not suffering from any long-term tiredness during the day.

It was a little after 3am that fourth night when the alarm clock had me back up in the cockpit once again. Then it struck me.

Songbird was sailing beautifully. There was a steady wind of around ten knots from the south-east, almost a swell-free ocean, and everything set perfectly.  Not a sign of any ship in any direction.

Then I lifted my eyes upwards. There was not a cloud in the night sky, not a single wisp of mist to dim a single one of the million or more stars that were above my head. For on this dark, moonless night, so far removed from any shore-based light pollution, the vastness, yet closeness of the heavens above was simply breath-taking. I was transfixed. Utterly unable to make any rational sense of this night splendour that glittered in every direction in which I gazed. This dome that represented a vastness beyond any meaning other than a reminder of the magic of the universe.

This magic of the heavens above me that came down to touch the horizon in all directions. Such a rare sight to see the twinkling of stars almost touching the starkness of the ocean’s horizon at night. A total marriage of this one planet with the vastness of outer space.

I heard the alarm clock go off again and again next to my bunk down below. But I remained transfixed until there was a very soft lightening of the skyline to the east that announced that another dawn was on its way.

I would never again look up at the stars in a night sky without being transported back to that wonderful night and the memory of a lonely sea and sky.

ooOOoo

Dear, dear Les is still alive and still living on his yacht Solitaire in an English marina. A very close mutual friend, Bob Derham, arranges to visit Les on a very regular basis and take him out for shopping trips and a leisurely pub lunch.

Bob follows this blog and I hope will have the chance to read out today’s post to Les. For my closing sentence is directed to Les, and Les alone: “Dear Les, thank you from the bottom of my heart for the gift you gave me. For it is a rare night when here in rural Oregon when I go outside at the end of the evening and above my head is a clear, black night sky, full of stars, that I am not transported back to that night alone in the Atlantic ocean. I am still rendered speechless in awe of such night skies.”

The deep, dark, wonderful mists of the mind!

31 thoughts on “The mists of the mind

  1. I enjoyed reading about that experience, Paul. For years, I have dreamed about having a boat & sailing places, never having a home.
    Being on the sea, surrounded by the stars, the salt air would be amazing.

    1. Susan, thank you! As you can undoubtedly imagine it wasn’t all plain sailing, either literally or metaphorically, and not long after that incredible nighttime experience a gale came through that convinced me that if I made it to Plymouth then dear Songbird would be sold.

      Perhaps another post? About that gale.

      1. Yes, I saw that and thought, we also learn by that. Lovely view that night with the stars.
        I have lived at places here in Spain, where there were no lights in the night and was able to view the star heaven, it was so amazing beautiful, that I did follow your thought about seeing the same at the ocean.

      2. The magic for me that night was the atmospheric circumstance that caused one to see stars shining just a few degrees above the ocean’s horizon. I think that’s rare even over the land, would you say?

  2. A lovely boat and lovely memories Paul. Being an extreme night owl, I often go out on to our deck in the middle of the night. Living in lowly populated Tasmania, the island state south of mainland Australia, we often have an amazing night sky. It’s uplifting indeed to gaze at “the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars” (Henry Lawson).

    1. Margaret, you clearly share what it feels like to experience seeing starlight that touches one’s retina after travelling for thousands or millions of years. Tasmania is a beautiful island. Never visited Tasmania but frequently seen it from the air and always heard good accounts of life there.

    1. 😀 Frequently wondered what it must truly feel like to be in space. John, can you recall any astronauts writing about their experiences in space? I am sure some must have done so.

      1. My good man, there’s an ENTIRE organisation dedicated to just that: The Overview Institute

        I won’t link to their site (easy to find), because they have this video which is simply wonderful, explaining it all, with the astronauts themselves.

      2. John, thank you! I have just finished watching the video and in a few minutes will be turning out the bedside light. I can’t wait to drift into sleep with those words and images in my inner consciousness! Thank you, again!

  3. I love this Paul. Thank you again for sharing your experience watching the night sky!
    Perhaps …. on the fourth day of solitude and silence, the wonder of it all transform us.💛

    1. Well, I took this away from the lesson given to me by Les. That change of any significance must be allowed to settle before one can reliably form an accurate judgment of the wake left by that change! And, Val, that period out in the Atlantic did transform this humble writer!

  4. … where was I? I got distracted. Curse this Internet thing! I meant to say “Paul, that was an awesome account of how you overcame your fears and went for it. Once again, you’ve proved that you’re a braver man than I!”

  5. Thank you, Paul, for this wonderful description of your experience of solo sailing! I’ve had experiences that provide glimpses of parts of that, but I have not experienced that.

  6. What a wonderful gift he gave you Paul, And yes our Mind is a remarkable tool, learning to navigate them is often a lonely challenge but when one can go within, we can overcome all..
    Take care Paul and give my love to Jean and I hope you are both well and sending my thoughts to both of you. xxx

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