A discovery of some writing from the past triggers memories.
Way back on the 15th November, 2009, I wrote a post about single-handed sailing and how it caused me much disquiet. Rather than just leave you with a link to that reflection, I’m going to include the post again, below. The reason is that a few days ago, in looking through some of my earlier writings in conjunction with a writing group that Jean and I belong to, I came across a piece that I wrote following a solo voyage from Larnaca in Cyprus, west along the Mediterranean Sea and then out over the Atlantic from Gibraltar to Horta on the island of Faial in the Azores. That last leg was a little over 1,100 nautical miles (1,300 land miles) and took me eight days.
So first here’s that earlier post from 2009.
A personal reflection on this rather strange way of travelling!
The recent Post about young Jessica Watson sailing alone around the world raised a few comments but also reminded me of my own experiences of solo sailing.
Some years ago, having successfully sold my own IT company, I warmed to the idea of being a full-time yachtie! A second-hand Tradewind 33 was discovered on the Island of Corfu. (Now here’s a surprise! I was just browsing the web looking for a picture of a Tradewind and came across my old yacht currently up for sale. Her name is Songbird of Kent! Picture below.)
Anyway, the deal was done and having sold my house in England I flew out to Corfu to collect Songbird of Kent. Inevitably it was a number of months before the boat was ready to head out into the Mediterranean but in early Spring 1988 it was time to explore the long coastlines of Greece and Turkey.
After a fantastic summer cruising from one idyllic anchorage to another mostly with friends or family on board, it was time to find a winter haven. Many recommended Larnaca Marina in Cyprus. Thus it was late in the summer of 1988 that I said goodbye to friends and set out on my own to cross from Antalya in Turkey to Cyprus and along the South coast of Cyprus to Larnaca, on the SE side of the island.
That sea crossing, a little over 200 nautical miles, was to become a regular solo experience at the start and end of each summer season. Impossible to do in a single day thus it always included a night at sea and rarely, if things didn’t go well with the weather, a couple of nights. I hated it! Maybe it was the sudden transition from coastal sailing to a deep water crossing, often going from having friends on board to being alone, but whatever it was I never enjoyed my time on my own and knew that long-distance solo sailing was never going to be my scene.
Anyway, I ended up spending several very happy winters in Larnaca.
One time, there was news of a Frenchman who had come into Larnaca on his way home to France having nearly completed a circumnavigation of the world. He was on his own!
I was astounded to hear how someone could do this and made a point of calling round to his berth. The boat was a beautiful, solid steel yacht, the very epitome of a craft that could challenge the oceans. The owner’s name was Pierre (it would be!). Pierre invited me aboard and we went down to his saloon to drink a hot coffee – real French coffee!
Inevitably the conversation turned to the challenges of sailing alone. Pierre said that the big cargo ships at sea moved quickly relative to the speed of a yacht so at night he set an alarm for every 15 minutes. That was the time that a ship could go from being hull down over the horizon to being close enough to be a hazard. Thus while at sea Pierre got up briefly every 15 minutes during the night to avoid being run down! It sounded totally exhausting.
Then Pierre asked me about the sailing I had done and whether I had sailed on my own. I declared my trivial journeys back and forth from Cyprus to Turkey and revealed that being on my own made me very, very unhappy. Pierre was surprised to hear that as he admitted that being at sea alone was one of the most tranquil and peaceful experiences ever. Pierre asked how long these solo journeys took. I replied, two or three days.
“Ah!”, he said, “That is the problem.” “I, too, hate the three days. It is always a period where you adjust and it is terrible.“
“My friend, you must find a way to be alone for more than three days. You will see that it is very different.“
It was some years before that opportunity came about but, in the end, I did undertake a solo journey of 8 days. Pierre was right. The first three days were hell, the rest were heaven!
Thank you, Songbird of Kent, you gave me some fabulous memories!
By Paul Handover
Now on to my writings about being out at sea alone on a small yacht.
Being at Sea
Going to sea in a small vessel is a profound experience.
In harbour we build up a reliance on things external. We have no need to worry if there is insufficient food on board, we can plug into the dockside power supply, sleep through the night undisturbed and we can wander off and enjoy the company of others if the boat feels a little claustrophobic.
Then slowly, imperceptibly, but with huge force, arrives the need to move on. The realisation that our cosy life connected to the busy, bustling and self-obsessed world of shoreside is not fulfilling our search for adventure and for the truths that lay over the horizon. It is time to leave.
The act of casting off is always exciting as it heralds a new adventure. But it also carries feelings of loss and apprehension as one lets go of the bonds of a previous certainty. The first few hours are filled with the workload of getting one’s craft shipshape and battened down for the unknown seas. Then gradually comes the realisation that the land is now less the dominating visual feature than the vastness of the seascape that is ahead. But with the land in sight, albeit a distant horizon behind one, you can still sense the life you are leaving.
Now all that surrounds you is the sea. You are now truly disconnected from the land. It is often at this point that despondency and uncertainty play with your mind; after all this new life is still very unfamiliar compared to the warmth of that island home that still resonates in your heart. Time to remind yourself of why you wanted to take this voyage.
A small boat is very fragile. Just a centimetre of hull separating you from the unimaginable depths of the ocean beneath your keel. Not until the end of your voyage, when you draw your boat up, metaphorically on to that beach, will you ever stop feeling how close fate is, how it rides on your shoulder night and day. That, of course, is why we go to sea. It is the place where we taste life, where we savour each moment of the present because the future seems too bound up in the mystery, the uncertainty of the ocean. You are in charge of your tiny craft. Your survival depends on how you manage your small ship, how you navigate these seas, how you read the weather ahead and avoid the storms.
Soon your life on the ocean becomes everything to you. You have time to reflect on so much that is left behind. The distance seems to dissolve all the nuisances, bring into focus all the things that are important to you. There is no certainty with the ocean apart from the knowledge that you are very small and very, very vulnerable and yet, in a sense, also so strong.
In the end, we have to break away from our insecurities and our emotional dependencies on external people and situations because, without that, we are never able to command our own life and the destiny that flows from that captaincy. There is a real strength in knowing ourselves as we would know our own boat. If we really know every spar, sail, rope and fitting, if we have real understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our small vessel then we are able to know when to breast the waves or when to turn and run before the storm. We are secure that our small craft will protect us day and night.
Thus self-knowledge gives us the same freedom to manage our lives, to know when to fight and when to turn away. And just as after every long voyage the boat will need hours of careful maintenance so our own souls need regular love and caring from our spiritual keeper.
Copyright © 2008 Paul Handover