Early on a cold winter’s morning in March, the mobile rang from a number I didn’t recognise. It was from a sailing school with an invitation to crew on a boat from Antigua, West Indies to Dartmouth England setting sail in only 4 weeks. Prior to this, I was a landlubber having only sailed small boats in local waters and would never have contemplated a dangerous 4000 mile open-sea journey in a 40 foot yacht the size of my living room with people I didn’t know! People drown sailing the Atlantic Ocean and worse still, it was sailing the wrong way – the most difficult way, a feat usually undertaken by professionals! Worryingly, I discovered that there are more folk who have climbed Mount Everest than tackled this challenge so understandably, the family were not amused when I accepted, and rose to the challenge.
The 4 weeks prior to departure were frenetic, jumping on any yacht for experience, raiding the library and talking to anyone in my network who could help and prepare me for this daunting adventure. I was beginning to understand that those on such a rite of passage depend on each other for their lives, safety, sanity and crucially, trust in their Skipper’s decisions. Once you say goodbye to land, you really are on your own.
Leaving Antigua early, full of excitement, with a crew of 6 was daunting enough but even more so when the mast came loose after 12 hours and we had to return to port for emergency repairs. One crew member made the decision to leave there and then as she simply felt unable to trust the Skipper’s decisions. All set, we departed for the second time basking in the warm glow of the evening sunshine but, within 24 hours we were back in port for more major repairs. A second crew member followed the first and left the boat as he considered the yacht was not fit for purpose. There were now 4 crew; what a dilemma. Of the remaining 4, there was a computer technician who had never been on a boat before, an arrogant 20 year old with limited experience, a Skipper who was a Naval Commander (only weapons, I later found out) and me. I couldn’t cook, tie a knot and didn’t know what all the ropes did; seemingly hopeless BUT, I did trust the Skipper, who was a quietly confident person who had made, in my view, the right decisions so far. The 20 year old had big muscles and was strong and the computer technician had an Irish mother and could cook. I decided to take my chances on this unusual line-up and set sail.
Every night you would be on deck alone, commanding and sailing the yacht in atrocious weather whilst others rested and slept; it was a massive responsibility. Each helped and trusted the other; paramount during a ferocious mid-Atlantic storm – lost for 3 days at sea and on deck for half hour shifts as it was too cold and tiring to do more with wet gloves and clothes. It did not amount to an easy experience but it is something that I will never regret nor forget. The motley crew of 4 made the crossing in three weeks limping back in a broken boat with ripped sails, no engine and flooded bilges; the RNLI lifeboat actually towed us into harbour.
There is no better example of TRUST that I know of. When you are in extreme conditions with your few vital personal possessions bagged by your side, zero chance of survival on your own, working together as a team is non-negotiable; trusting and having confidence in each other’s decisions is the only chance you have moreover, the Skipper that I trusted at the outset pulled us though. Having now covered more than 20,000 sea miles I have gone on to Skipper the Atlantic two more times and I have no regrets for staying put on deck, trusting my own endurance and ability alongside that of my crew. Human endurance and trust really are remarkable and in the process I think it’s safe to say I’ve truly found my sea legs!