For Christmas in 2010, my wife, Alexandra, gave me a book written by a man called Jimmy Cornell entitled World Cruising Routes. She wrote inside: ‘Here’s to our dream.’ She challenged me to fulfil the ambition I had shared with my late father to sail across an ocean and said she wanted to come too. We were both 29, and had been married for one year.
A year later, we woke up on Christmas Day at anchor in a palm-fringed bay in St Lucia. We had quit our jobs, bought a boat, put our London lives on hold and set sail for the Canary Islands to join the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers to the Caribbean. On December 13, 2011, after 23 days and two hours at sea, we sailed our Hallberg-Rassy 42 Halo over the finish line in Rodney Bay, St Lucia. It was tremendously dramatic, with Halo leaning under full sail, close-hauled in 20 knots of wind, doing 6.5 knots. We were welcomed by the friends we’d made in Gran Canaria who had arrived before us cheering over the VHF radio and from dinghies racing along beside us in blazing sunshine.
We had sailed 3,000 miles, harnessing the warm trade winds that blow steadily from Africa to the Caribbean. We had weathered tropical squalls and baking calms, getting by on broken sleep due to sail changes in the night as we traded four-hour watches. But the sail itself was the culmination of months of planning and preparation. We had become unlikely experts in teak decking, hull anodes, anti-fouling, stern glands, SSB radio, linear drives, water makers, calorifiers, diesel engines and much more.
The sweet reward was five glorious months in the Caribbean, exploring the West Indies from the Grenadines in the south to the US Virgin Islands in the north. It’s a fantastically varied chain, offering the raw, authentic Caribbean experience in the Grenadines, St Lucia and St Kitts & Nevis, the Continental Europe feel of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint- Martin, and the super-yacht glamour of Antigua, St Barts and the Virgin Islands. We enjoyed visits from friends and family and were able to offer them the forward berth as free accommodation to entice them out to share in our newfound lifestyle.
Every week, we put into a marina to provision, fill the water tanks, use the WiFi to attend to admin at home and perhaps eat out as a break from the boat. Then, we would disappear for the rest of the week to islands of our choosing, dropping anchor for free in secluded bays to swim with turtles and rays and to dine in the cockpit under the stars. We took the dinghy ashore for picnics and walks, and on empty beaches, we read the books we’d been wanting to read. Our path frequently crossed with boats we’d met on the circuit, leading to rum-fuelled beach-bar nights where we’d share tips on where to go next. We met several couples who’d made this lifestyle permanent, funding their cruising by offering professional charters. They would work for one week and then play for three. The beauty of this was not lost on us, but we missed our friends and our home. As hurricane season approached, we felt ready to bid farewell to paradise and prepared to return to the UK.
Only about a fifth of boats that sail the Atlantic westbound attempt the eastbound home, most opting for their boat to be professionally skippered back or to put it on a cargo ship bound for Southampton. The eastbound leg involves flirting with the relentless depressions that peel off North America and track across to the UK, with the changeable winds, fog and gales deterring most people. Shorts and T-shirts are also packed away within days of heading north from the Caribbean. Over six weeks, we sailed from the British Virgin Isles to Bermuda, onto the Azores and then home to Falmouth.
The trip threw everything at us- winds at Force 10, lightning overhead, calms-but some memorable sailing, too. That rich variety is the essence of our memories from an incredible year, including the highs and lows we experienced from eating up the miles under spinnaker and the sea becoming alive with dolphins at sunset off Portugal to the equipment failures and sleepless nights on passage. Sailing west, crossing an ocean for the first time, I felt as if I found closure on the past-I lost both my parents to cancer when I was young. In the Caribbean, we were fortunate enough to be able to remind ourselves what it is to truly live in the present. And sailing east, and home, we have sailed into our future.
The trip raised money for Marie Curie Cancer Care
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers takes place each November (www.worldcruising.com/arc)
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