It’s hard to believe that one whole year has passed by since Martin and I, together with collie dogs Bonny and Buzz, sailed away from England in pursuit of our dream to live aboard our new yacht, Dawn Chorus, cross the Atlantic and explore the Caribbean and America. Plans seem to be designed to remind us that you cannot always direct the course of life, and just like a boat at the mercy of the weather and the sea, we have been blown in many directions we weren’t expecting, including our recent return home to the UK. I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on our journey, so here’s some of what I’ve been thinking…
Anchored in a picturesque creek, in calm, sunny weather, it would be easy to forget that on the way to it we were hit by squalls of thirty-five knots of wind on the nose, were forced to plough through choppy, seething water (even though we were in the supposedly protected Chesapeake) and endured being soaked to the skin by wave after wave of torrential rain. Before that, on the Delaware, there was a mass attack of killer flies – well, biting flies, actually – that look just like domestic flies but pack a nasty, painful bite and leave an agonizingly itchy lump behind. A few of those still lurked on board on our arrival, always ready to sneak out and nip our ankles. In the evenings mosquitos visited and unless you’re sprayed with a noxious combination of chemicals and oils, they too will dine on your blood and cause an altogether itchier reaction, in me anyway. During the day, unless there’s a cooling breeze, temperatures can hit 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity, so you won’t be doing anything too energetic. So while a photograph shows a truly ‘golden moment’, the picture hides the fact that “living the dream” comes with a price.
The same can be said of the whole Dawn Chorus adventure – I believe we have paid a high price, in so many ways, for the privilege of sailing away from our everyday lives, even though I know how lucky we are to have been able to go. I’ve discovered that there can be a fine line between pursuing a dream and getting caught in a nightmare. Yes, we have had the pleasure of owning a truly beautiful boat, meeting some wonderful people and visiting some spectacular places, but on the other side of the balance, we have had to sell our lovely home in Clifton Wood to buy the boat, I almost lost my lower leg in a terrifying accident in Portugal that has left me disfigured, and my mother died while we were mid Atlantic, which meant it was impossible for me to go to her wake and funeral in Ireland. My relationship has suffered too. Tensions that would dissipate naturally if we were at home were instead magnified on the boat. Martin and I have always had a sparky relationship at the best of times, but in the close confines of a yacht, and so far away from the support of family and friends (and with no referees), the fights can be, and have been, downright nasty.
The marvelous thing about memory is that it can be so selective. Even though I have grievances about certain aspects of the trip, my memories are still largely positive. I can recall the jittery excitement of sailing out of Plymouth with Martin and the two dogs, knowing that we were leaving our familiar, everyday lives behind us indefinitely, and embarking on an adventure where we would have to rely on our own skills and abilities entirely. The individual places that we stopped off at all down through France, Spain and Portugal have become blurred in my mind, but stand out moments were: watching fireworks in Camaret, France, our first stop across the Channel; having my first tattoo in beautiful La Coruna, Spain, and admiring the lovely city of Lagos, Portugal, from the vantage point of a romantic riverboat cruise. The Atlantic crossing was made so much more bearable and enjoyable by the presence of our crew members Debbie and Stephen. Debs flew from Colorado to join us in the Canaries and brought a host of skills from seamanship to surgery (even on sails!) and she played bass and sang! Stephen had just passed his yachtmaster exam in the UK, and apart from being great company, proved invaluable in helping us set up the poling-out rig for downwind sailing. He was also the hero of the hour when we got a line tangled around one of the rudders, tying himself securely to the boat and then swimming down to free the line. Some of my happiest memories of the trip were when all four of us were patiently crossing that great ocean together and knocking up an inventive shared meal every evening. Arriving to find my daughter, Eve, waiting for us in St Lucia, was the best surprise imaginable.
I’ve been promising an update on the bizarre leg accident in Portugal, so, for those who find it hard to picture what happened, I’ve made a mock-up of my trapped leg, with a backdrop of the actual marina were the accident happened. The boat we got pushed onto is marked by a red arrow, as is the anchor that cut into my leg. The other pictures show the damage – if you’re squeamish, don’t look!
We were reversing our boat out of a tight spot in a busy marina in Lisbon when disaster struck. A strong current pushed Dawn Chorus sideways and, hoping to avert a crash, I sprang into action with a large fender. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized how big the motor yacht was that we were about to get pushed onto, so when I took a large, round fender and tried to wedge it between the boats, it was pushed aside. The anchor at the front of the other boat hit me on the leg, knocking me over, but because I’d been standing just in front of the winch on our own boat, I got pinned between two metal objects with the full force of several tons of Dawn Chorus and a strong current pushing me onto the anchor. It began to cut into my leg. Thankfully, despite my piercing screams, or maybe because of them, Martin kept his wits about him and gave the boat a quick thrust in reverse to release me and then hauled me free. Good job for me it worked first time, because when he tried to help separate the boats afterwards, the throttle handle was broken and hanging limp and useless. A second attempt at freeing me would have been impossible. It took a team of helpers, including some of the crew of a huge Challenge boat nearby, to winch Dawn Chorus off the motorboat, meanwhile I was ferried off to hospital.
Because we were on a fairly tight timetable, and I was probably in shock, we ignored the advice of the hospital doctors who told me that in order to keep the swelling down I had to keep my leg elevated for a few weeks, and instead, sailed on another hundred miles to Lagos the very next day. I soon realized I’d have to rest if I was going to get better so I flew home for a few weeks and rejoined the trip in Las Palmas in the Canaries. My leg has gradually improved and although it is still a little misshapen, I’m very glad to have it!
Looking back over our trip, which took about a year in total, I realise I have accumulated a kaleidoscope of fond memories: the mesmerizing Atlantic crossing and the paper birds we made and launched into the sea to remember our lost ones; parking our boat among the giant cruise ships in lively St John’s in Antigua; the pristine beaches and powerful surf on secluded Barbuda; the carnival atmosphere of St Patrick’s Day in Monserrat; our first glimpse of the iconic buildings of New York city and then sailing under the towering Statue Of Liberty and mooring Dawn Chorus right in the Hudson River, a stone’s throw from Central Park. And what of Martin and I, and the strains and tensions of being together all the time in the confines of a boat? We live to fight another day!