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Emotions Across the Atlantic

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I’ve experienced the merits of cruising both inshore and off, but for me, there is nothing quite like ocean sailing. And there is not a better way to convey the feeling of it – the ups and downs, the emotions – than by writing about it in real-time. The following was excerpted from my hand-written journal that I kept aboard Arcturus last summer when my wife Mia and I crossed the Atlantic from Annapolis to Ireland. Without further ado…

“It’s August 6, 2011, and day seven at sea. Ugh, awful night. It’s five in the morning, and I’ve got the morning watch. I know I will regret saying ‘awful night’ later on when we really do have one, but it was unpleasant nonetheless.

Arcturus in mid-Atlantic, sailing towards the sunrise. Photo by Maria Karlsson
Arcturus in mid-Atlantic, sailing towards the sunrise. Photo by Maria Karlsson

After the weather report last evening, I turned in for the night. It was blowing about 25 knots and we were just roiling along in big seas under the small jib and the mizzen. The boat was really moving, and happy. Every fourth or fifth wave exploded on the beam, covering the decks with green water and spray.

I found it nearly impossible to sleep on the high side. Until last night we’d either been becalmed or on port tack, so my starboard bunk was always on the low side, or at least level. To start the night last night I was about 30º higher on my side – until the wind died, again. After dark, the rain came, and the wind went with it. We had too little sail up, and the boat just started bobbing around uncomfortably. It’s too warm to crawl into the sleeping bag, but too uncomfortable and itchy to lie on the bare cushion, so I had mighty trouble getting any good rest.

The Donkey

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It is still very muggy, and the cabin is damp from the constant windward sailing and heavy rain. Now that it’s warmer in the air, nothing dries and all the surfaces are sticky and unpleasant to the touch. The wind never did come back, and I lay there half in a daze gritting my teeth.

I’m making coffee now. The brass kettle my parents got us for the wedding works wonders onboard with its wide base – it stays put in a pitching galley. It’s Swedish instant coffee, and it’s actually really good. I’m drinking it black. This particular instant coffee came in a small Ziploc bag, and was present #8 that we got from Mia’s swim girls (Vinnars, Ida, Sara and Anna – at the wedding in June, they changed out of their dresses and into their bathing suits, goggles and swim caps, and gave the most memorable speech of the evening, to the delight of many of the American lads in the room). Everyday we open a new one, and the event marks a highlight to each day, and something we truly look forward to. The girls gave us 30 presents – one for each day of the voyage, and a few extra to be sure we’d have enough.

For days now we’ve had a little black chirping bird fluttering around the boat during the nights. You can just make out his little silhouette against the night sky when he flutters near the tricolor. He sounds almost as if he’s chuckling to himself. I haven’t decided if it’s been the same one night after night or if he has friends that take up station near the stern as we continue east. If we were closer to shore, he could easily be mistaken for a bat (save for the chirping of course), as his flying motion is almost floppy, like he’s not sure how it’s done. I think I’ve seen him in daylight – he flaps his wings only occasionally, and between flaps his body appears to fall right out of the sky, as if he’s struggling just to stay airborne. He’s by far the smallest of the seabirds we’ve encountered, but he must be a good flyer, as we’re now over 300 miles from land.

Sailing with Charlie – Life’s Choices

There are a surprising number of birds about actually – the other day during one of the calms (which are beginning to be hard to keep track of) an enormous flock of brown and white guys seemed to be following the boat. We were motoring south, trying to get to 43º north, ahead of a coming weather system, and I think they mistook us for a Grand Banks fishing boat. They’d take off en masse, and land on the water just ahead of us, floating and looking for food. Humorously, they’ll dunk their heads right under the water to have a good look around. I nicknamed them ‘curious birds’ (They were actually red-footed boobies, I would later learn). Once the boat passed them by, they’d take to the air again, landing just ahead of us. This game went on for hours that day.

The sun is coming up now. This is one of the best times of the day, especially now that it’s clear. The nights are long and hard when you don’t sleep well, and the dawn is so friendly, invigorating. I just finished my coffee and with the coming daylight, I might actually feel reasonably awake. The last few stars are just now fading, and if I were a little more ambitious I’d get out my sextant. Maybe in another week or so.

I’m finally getting ‘into’ the voyage. There are times when my anxiety goes way up – two days ago I was literally on the verge of tears, wanting to snap my fingers and find myself at home on the couch with the dogs, or at the breakfast table at Mia’s family’s house in Sweden (The breakfast table usually consists of her mom’s home-baked bread, yogurt, muesli, crispbread and cheese, hard-cooked eggs, fruit, homemade jams and potfuls of coffee. These breakfasts, especially when Mia is home, can last for hours). The feeling was utterly irrational – we were sailing beautifully and the boat was performing great. But the sky was gray, and with it my mood. Last night was another instance, even after I felt I’d turned the corner. The building wind and seas raised my heart rate just enough that I found it hard to relax. I noticed my breathing was short again, thanks to stress, which had gone away since leaving Canada. The feeling faded into a battle with my consciousness to try and let me sleep, which I failed. Mia shared this butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, and we chatted about it before her watch. Clint, our friend who came along as crew, overheard and jokingly wondered if he should be concerned as well (Though it was obvious that he was not. On watch a few minutes earlier, Clint had stood outside in the drizzle and spray, hooting and hollering every time a big wave came up astern and sent Arcturus on a wild surfing run, or when another smashed into the beam, sending spray as high as the spreaders. He was in his element).

Jr Sailor Profiles: Brother & Sister Teddy and Mia Nicolosi

Out here, you’re so exposed. I think that’s the root of my anxiety. The comfort and security found in your bunk is literally only separated from the sea by – at most – an inch of plastic. I thought of other land-based adventures yesterday – mountain climbing, hiking, etc. – but comparatively, from my perspective on this boat, they seem so secure. Yes, a rock-climber is only one slip away from death, but I feel like he’s in control. Out here, it’s utter wilderness, and no matter how prepared you and the boat are, the sea is ultimately in control, and can simply overwhelm you if it really kicks off. It’s this feeling of exposure that literally has me holding my breath. On the really bad thoughts, I tell myself that this is the end of my seafaring career, that from now on I’ll stick to adventures on solid ground, but I know that’s not true. Those are just the bad days, and they’re complemented by good ones.”

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Andy Schell
Andy Schellhttp://59-north.com
Andy Schell is a professional sailor, writer and the event manager of the ARC Caribbean 1500. You can find him online at 59-north.com.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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