I write this at the close of my most recent voyage of discovery, crewing Soteria, a classic, wooden two-master, from Fowey in Cornwall to La Gomera in the Canaries, via the Bay of Biscay in storm season, with stops in mainland Spain, Portugal and Madeira.
The trip contained everything my adventurous pirate heart could wish for, except for copious quantities of rum – I guess that’s what you get for signing up to crew a dry boat. I knew there was a flaw in the plan. There’s always a flaw in the plan. Why do I keep trying to make a plan? Never have I felt more connected to my alter ego Captain Jack Sparrow in his mournful observation “Why is the rum always gone?” In this case, it’s particularly always gone when it never even existed in the first place. But, stepping away from the non-existent rum bottle, back to adventure.
It started with a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Any sailor knows about Biscay and what it can offer and I became particularly aware of this on discovering that you have to have special insurance to sail after September. A small detail that became increasingly more significant as our departure date slipped well into October. Biscay didn’t disappoint, with winds gusting at force 10, towering black waves, a helm with a mind of its own, a galley (muggins here was one of the two main cooks for 12 starving sailors) which seemed intent on bucking me off my feet or pitching me directly into the oven. The saloon had definite overtones of Hades in the wet season in it’s chaos as night watches changed over; wet weather gear hanging everywhere, damp sailors sleeping anywhere they could due to water-logged bunks, water running in rivulets through various cracks and crannies. You’re getting the generally soggy theme of it?
In fact, I loved sailing the storm, with some serious reservations about the wisdom of my two attempts to sever my connection with the boat and enter the watery and fairly terminal embrace of the Atlantic. My first effort left me hanging doggedly from a rope along the boom as my feet, which had been firmly planted on deck, suddenly dangled over nothing but churning, terrifying water as the boat heeled over. Shortly afterwards I found myself clinging onto something, quite possibly the beard of one of my crewmates, to resist the efforts of a wave that had broken over our bows to re-unite itself, and me with it, with the awfully big, drowny body of water it calls home. These events left me with very wobbly knees, a fine appreciation of my pirate-like, tenacious grip on life and a mental note to self to not be such a complete numpty in the future, and clip on.
Further adventures followed as they do at sea, interesting encounters in foreign ports, new foods, including some particularly grim combinations of cold cans when we ran out of gas and finally being becalmed and swimming above thousands of feet of water in the Atlantic. The swim was utterly magical, until someone idly wondered just how many miles of water there were under my careless toes, at which point, being back on deck suddenly seemed like the attractive option.
Not all of the adventurous possibilities of sailing come from physical action. One of sailing’s greatest gifts comes from its ability to bring you slap, bang up against yourself, and the opportunity to fully experience being cell-tinglingly alive in every moment. This aspect of sailing isn’t as good for toning as the physicality of hoisting, and pulling things, such as the aforementioned crewmates’ beards, but it is certainly food for my soul.
There is a quality to life at sea that makes it so easy to succumb to full appreciation and receptivity. From stunning sunsets and sunrises to the stately, wheeling progression of a ridiculously impossible array of stars at night, reflected by the magic of a phosphorescent universe below. Other beings that we meet inspire awe and gratitude, from muscular, racing dolphins to ponderously huffing pilot whales, even once a little sea bird that seemed to be very happy keeping it’s new, very big mate company, swimming companionably alongside us as we ambled along at 0.0 knots.
Being on the sea does something to the soul. You can’t help but be present in the moment, fully appreciative and alive to the beauty of what’s around you, and the reality of what might need attention. Maybe that’s why sailors are on the whole such a great bunch of people. There is a mixed quality of presence, of practicality and of romanticism in many sailors. Add a sense of humour and even just a dash of sexiness in a man, mix it together in a boat and I’m salivating and ready for dinner. You can see why my own dashing pirate remains somewhat elusive – a lolling tongue and drooling mouth isn’t a good look anywhere, even out of sight of land and civilisation.
When you decide to, it’s easy to take yourself on an adventure. You find something a tiny part of you would love to do, which the more vociferous aspect of your nature absolutely refuses to do on account of the fact that it’s clearly insane, and you go and do it. I re-found my own sense of adventure in my 40s. I think I might have dropped it down the back of the sofa that I spent too much time on in my 30s, and it took a bit of a full on spring clean to unearth it, along with a load of copper coins and a dusty ear plug. With a little practice, here I am now, 46 and living a life on the seas of the world, and on a voyage of infinite possibility discovering the unchartered realms of my heart and that.
As a regular adventurer, I am aware that it is also possible to disconnect from what is most important in life by taking yourself on journeys. The constant seeking of the new can become a way of avoiding the intimacy, depth of experience and connection that is such an important part of a life well lived. Sailing as an activity can take me very aloof from the world, yet by it’s very nature, receiving what is moment by moment, it also brings me into close connection with what I most value about life.
In this last voyage, my greatest treasure was in moments on night watch when I felt, in my missing of family and friends, a deep connection with them, and a dizzy sense of gratitude that I have this rich and bright thing at the centre of my crazily swinging compass. I want more of the vivid experience of physical adventures, the immediacy of a life lived with spirit. I choose this as part of a greater whole that is about being awake to the possibility for greater intimacy, openness and love in the moment. After all, we just don’t know where, or with whom, our greatest adventures start and it would be a shame to miss something beautiful that presents in the moment, because I have my telescope too firmly fixed on a distant horizon.