Early in 2007 I dropped my anchor on to the sandy bottom of Carlisle Bay, Barbados, and reflected on the previous 24 days spent travelling from La Gomera on my first ocean crossing.
Sailing alone on my 1975 24ft sloop, Aluffe, it had proved to be a journey of ebbs and flows, particularly on a personal level.
Oceans have been transited for many years, and technically the passage I had just completed proved straightforward enough. I’d headed south-west from the Canary Islands until I found the trade winds around 200 North which then largely stayed with me all the way to landfall in the West.
The challenges faced were more on an emotional level as I grappled intermittently with the solitude and awe of being so independent in such a vast watery space. Arguably a life-changing experience, I cherish the achievement for the personal boundaries crossed if nothing else.
7 years later I reached Barbados once more by a sea. This time I am part of a delivery crew of 5 bringing a luxury catamaran, Kings Ransom, to the Caribbean for its busy charter season.
At least on the surface, much of what has passed in the last 16 days bears little resemblance to how I remember my first outing over the same 2800miles.
I look around the vast deck space that spans the 2 hulls and spot numerous places my boat Aluffe could be stowed. Already there is a 16ft Hobie, a jet-ski and a double kayak lashed to starboard. There is plenty of space between the bows, although I can see certain complications with sail operations. After a little preparation I think the davits for the tender would cope admirably with my old steed weighing in at a trifling 1.5tonnes. Hell, the master-cabin is large enough to accommodate Aluffe in its entirety, albeit with the mast un-stepped. I concede that access would be an issue, but think my point that Aluffe and Kings Ransom are dissimilar in scale is fairly clear.
Aluffe was basic, deliberately so. Designed back in the day as a family cruiser, she was undeniably smaller and pokier than the original marketing brochure asserted.
The hull, however, was easily driven by the modest but well-proportioned rig. It was a short step to the mast for reefing and a half step further forward for bow operations. Otherwise the few lines required to manage the sails were easily reached within the cockpit. If I recall correctly there was a winch handle on the boat, in a forward port locker I think, but I never had the need for its use.
Engine power was an ancient 6hp Petter with a meagre 80litres of fuel available. It charged both the starter battery and a single deep cycle 80Ah domestic battery. A small solar panel on the coach-roof gamely tried to keep these batteries topped up. The electrical demand was limited to the hand-held GPS, VHF radio, a single interior light and navigation lights, with no option for a fridge or sound system.
Cooking arrangements revolved around the gimballed single-ring stove and my favourite meal on board was one that needed only a single pot for preparation and could be eaten with a fork. I packed in enough bottled water to cover the anticipated demand of 3litres/day for drinking, cooking and washing. In the event I averaged half that daily ration.
For accommodation, lying on the short cabin floor was the best place mainly because it was in the centre of the boat close to the water-line. This meant the uncomfortable motion of the boat was greatly reduced to a gentle rocking and sleep came easily. This was despite the need to have my legs raised and placed either side of the engine and steps leading to the cockpit as if in preparation for a gynaecological inspection. There was a double forepeak cabin but this became merely a useful stowage compartment.
Before departing I removed the heads jammed in under the mattresses in a drive for simplicity and implemented a ‘bucket and chuck-it’ policy. Such a set-up had its trials which I felt keenly at times but it is difficult to describe to most how the cramped conditions and limited comforts faced in solitude were quite so invigorating and rewarding. Whilst experiencing the grandness of the open ocean, I was as close to it as I could have been. I was involved and challenged. It was awesome.
A cursory glance at Kings Ransom resting nonchalantly at anchor is barely needed to demonstrate the different worlds the two boats occupy.
A scan of the headline stats highlights this further. At 76ft x 40ft, the elegant cat is voluminous beyond that of a small city apartment. She is designed to cater for the luxury charter market and she does not miss the mark with her cabinet sized fridge and freezer, air-con, water-maker, washing machine, drier, and dish-washer. TV/DVD systems are fitted in each of the 5 sumptuous ensuite guest rooms. Hollywood showers, cordon-bleu food, and the full range of water sport toys are on tap.
Aluffe had a small amount of varnished maple panelling around the ‘galley’ and ‘nav station’. Kings Ransom has the same wall-to-wall throughout. The ceilings? Brushed suede. Come on! She oozes comfort and style and the guests can expect the holiday of their demands in the hands of the 4 professional crew.
Such luxury is power-hungry, however, and to ensure there is no let-up in standards she runs 2x 250hp engines, 2x 20kW generators, and 2x sizeable banks of batteries for 12 and 24V requirements. Even on this delivery passage without guests on board, the mission to manage and balance all the demands of the various appliances and systems required to ensure the boat functioned efficiently was much of the crew’s focus. Sailing was important, but really only when the conditions were good or better. With a deadline to make on the other side, big engines and 2600litres of fuel on board, playing with sails in marginal conditions was never going to be part of the game.
I would make a point of steering Aluffe for a few hours of each day, taking over from my oft-wayward windvane self-steering system. It gave me something to do as well as incrementally reduce the amount of time I would spend crossing. The small improvements in speed achieved in those periods added up in the grander scheme.
It was important for me to feel part of the trip in this way, hand on tiller, guiding my little boat to our goal. When the winds picked up I relished positioning the boat in the sweet spot of waves, catching gusts where I could. Aluffe was a lightweight and sailing her pretty much like a dinghy was often the best way.
Such an option was limited on the 50 tonne Kings Ransom which relied almost entirely on its powerful auto-helm for steerage. It lacked the feel afforded by mono-hulls and the agility of Aluffe. It is well known the motion of a catamaran is different to that of a mono-hull. The latter rolls and yaws while running with a building sea. A big cat like Kings Ransom pitches and sways in a manner that demonstrates the constant conflict of interests between the two hulls.
Like an ill-matched pair of dancers Kings Ransom rarely reaches its potential as one hull feels the surge of the following sea only to be hindered by the other dragging its heels. It is mostly awkward and hardly uncomfortable but this frustrating movement is dictated by the variables of swell and wind. It is rare that they conspire to provide the perfect playing field.
Oh, but when they do (and they did) it is then that Kings Ransom hits a groove, painting grins on faces that are both broad and wary in equal measure. The billowing blue spinnaker the size of a small Caribbean island lifts the bows, drawing Kings Ransom forward on smooth runners tilted at the perfect angle by a well-spaced sea. Gone are the abrupt shudders, the burying of the bows, replaced by a lightness and ease that belies the huge loads at play.
It is the power of the catamaran that accounts for the ever present wariness as the wind and speeds pick up. For sure the boat is mostly sure-footed but she must be set-up correctly for fear of losing control with a sudden change in the wind angle or increase in its strength.
I recall an occasion on Aluffe in the middle of a night when I had to move sharply from my bed on to the bows still naked in order to pull down a sail in the teeth of an enthusiastic gust. It proved quite comical and so too when four of us (we weren’t naked) on Kings Ransom hung grimly to the end of the snuffer line as we temporarily lost the fight to get the kite down under similar circumstances. Comical in its own way, but potentially catastrophic should any of us have got the line wrapped around a limb, the sail shredded, or a line parted altogether.
The bigger the boat, the bigger problems can be and this provided the excitement and interest in sailing Kings Ransom that was otherwise largely missing. On our last day at sea, when a tiny fraction of the spinnaker foot eventually found a way to hook itself over a bow cleat as we hoisted, the gut-wrenching sound of tearing sailcloth that went on for all too long told us our sailing game was over. Hugely disappointing but, hey, we pulled out the iron rag and our progress continued unhindered towards the promised land of reggae, rum and coke.
Solo sailing is unquestionably a more personal and involved experience. It cannot fail to be so where the distractions of other crewmembers are absent.
On Kings Ransom our international crew of 5 spent hours talking, laughing, and playing a heap of Scrabble to the point of daily obsession. When we weren’t in the company of each other we could sleep, read, or watch any number of DVD’s available to us. We could exercise with relative ease on our stable platform or fish from the stern.
We didn’t stress ourselves out but it was rare not to have some maintenance or cleaning project that required attention. The sheer scale of Kings Ransom, the company and options open to those of us on board meant that time simply watching and feeling the ocean was greatly reduced.
Not so in 2007 when I spent hours gazing over the rippled expanse, reading its motion, absorbing the changeable colours and otherwise lost in my own unrestricted thoughts. The movement of the small and light boat was all too often unpleasant and curbed my interest for clambering about. There was scarcely space to do that anyway. Aluffe was sound but in far worse shape than Kings Ransom and so I could always apply myself to one task or another. But inevitably, perhaps, I slipped into periods of deeper introspection that challenged my emotions, for better and for worse, as they could run unchecked. It was better, however, to have that rare experience in our busy world today. I missed that opportunity on Kings Ransom and there lies a small regret.
The splendour of Kings Ransom and the limitations of Aluffe could never be matched and the passages I made in them leave different impressions. But there exist some cross-overs. For example, all the winches on the former are electric. Kings Ransom doesn’t ‘do’ handles either. But it is the ocean that provides the link between the diverse vessels. For both it is just as big and beguiling, as peaceful or powerful. I spotted more marine life on this trip, courtesy of having such a good look-out post, but on Aluffe I could hear the dolphins swimming with me at night, their excitable clicking audible through the hull as I lay on the cabin floor.
This ocean may be the path that must be trod in order to reach the destination, but the journey is rich in all that it has to offer between blazing sunrises, wistful sunsets, and blazing sunrises again. From the experience of traveling this path in very different ways I think there is a risk in surrounding ourselves with the accoutrements of our modern lives.
The ocean is still a natural environment untamed and this surely is where its raw appeal and value lies. It is a different place altogether to that where we live now, a place therefore where we should be permitted to think and be different, at least for a while. Standing within the cocoon of opulence that was Kings Ransom I wondered too often if I was missing out on this opportunity by inadvertently hiding behind an unnecessary barrier of distraction. The deprivations of my previous trip made for me it seemed a richer journey.
I should never have doubted the capacity of the ocean to break down any resistance and impose its lasting impression. On the penultimate night of this latest crossing, I sat alone on one of the trampolines at the front of the boat, lulled into calm. With a settled wind over a relaxed sea Kings Ransom had found a seductive rhythm, her bows rising and falling evenly without tension. The red and green of the navigation lights mingled with the thin smile of a waxing moon. To the north a falling star slashed through the star studded sky without the usual hurry, fragmenting like a playful firework. Without a hint of a lie, 2 dolphins criss-crossed paths ahead, their small exhalations sounding more like quiet exaltations to this wonderful scene.
I bore witness to a similar moment in 2007 and it was just as much a privilege then as it has been these years later. It matters not how I came to see them, but simply that I did.
After half a lifetime of amateur cruising and racing ,William recently took the decision to turn his back on a career in the corporate world in the UK and concentrate on beating a track over the high seas. After a season in the Mediterranean skippering a private sailboat he is currently going with the Caribbean flow as a delivery and charter skipper. He is author of ‘Big Bloke, Small Boat’ a description of his earlier solo circuit of the Atlantic.