‘We are the pilgrims, master; we shall go always a little further; it may be.
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.’
Our time in Lanzarote is enjoyable at first but soon starts to drag.
It’s Christmas and we’re able to talk to family and even join in on festivities – which, as nice as it is, makes me miss home. For the last few weeks, I’ve been preparing not to think of everyone enjoying the festivities and this makes things more difficult.
We get our boat – Rose - craned out of the water at the marina so we can inspect and work on her during the daytime. To have something to focus proves a welcome distraction rather than watch everyone having fun on social media.
Rose is suffering some serious damage. The carbon fibre rudder arm has somehow been worn through and no longer steers the boat. We have a spare in the skipper’s car in Portugal, but this will take at least 4 days to collect, so we’re not leaving the island anytime soon. The mental battle to keep my head in the expedition is only just beginning.
Whilst we set about repairing the boat, we stay in a rented apartment and eat more pizza than should be allowed. We’ve already lost a few kilos and
Then one day, whilst walking around the Marina – Duncan and I meet a fellow adventurer in the form of Alex Mason. We’ve been sharing our story on social media and by some twist of luck – Alex is visiting her parents in Lanzerote for Christmas. Whilst meeting another Brit on the islands is hardly noteworthy, Alex is no stranger to challenge as she has walked the length of the US on the Pacific Crest Trail. Twice.
We dutifully show Alex and her father Phil around ‘Rose’ and narrate with what life is like and what each of the instruments do. Alex is able to empathise with our expediton having spent many months in isolation also questioning her sanity as well. In a kind gesture of ‘paying it forward’, the family kindly offer their holiday annex for us to stay in a couple of nights. We reciprocate with wine and olives and talk long into the night about all kinds of interesting things. This feels – for a short while – like normality of sorts.
Here we go; again
We depart Lanzarote at 10am on the 30th December, hopeful that the repairs carried out on the boat will get us through to the end.
For the first few days, the ocean is calm and we make fast progress on a southerly bearing thanks to the trade winds. Motoring along at a punchy average of 4nm per hour, we start racking up 86nm days - something we’ve not yet experienced on this trip. Even the work and sleep routine feels easier when you know you’re making fast progress.
And then Neptune decides he’s had enough of our easy ride and ups the game. The calm ocean turns to big swell and huge waves turning the boat into a rollercoaster. We’re riding the 6-8 metre waves whilst keeping the speed up; but life on board Rose becomes more of a challenge.
Simple tasks like boiling water, using the bathroom (bucket) and eating breakfast now become a team effort - meaning less sleep and a little more stress into your day.
After 2 solid days of this - I feel like Rocky on the ropes after some serious digs from Apollo Creed. My head is bloody but unbowed.
As New Year Eve passes marked only with a ‘Happy new year’ tagged onto the end of a shift changeover, the team starts ‘clashing oars’ - both physically and emotionally. We’ve already come through so huge scrapes to get to where we are now; so misdirected conflict doesn’t impact for relatively long. We’re constantly reminded of the absurdity of what we’re trying to do and manage to find some fun in the most bizarre of circumstances.
This is truly a challenge for us all, and Neptune undoubtedly has more ‘see-offs’ (difficulties) up his long blue sleeves; but the Atlantic allies continue to pull forward.
Keep the earth below my feet
After a dramatic entrance in phase 2, the team is greeted with some not-so-great news; the dreaded charging issues are back again.
Despite changing the batteries and checking the cabling, somehow keeping charge has become a battle. We get several hours of sunlight each day, however it still means a return to power-rationing and hand pumping water - again meaning less time off and less chances to email and speak with loved ones at home. On top of this, the team has to spend another cramped night on the parachute-anchor to conserve energy for the hazard early warning systems.
On top of all this, Neptune has decided that each 2-hour rowing shift should be marked with a complete soaking in the last 5 minutes. Like an All-Blacks forward, these ‘Neptune kisses’ roll in completely unexpected and without warning - ensuring that our admin-game is kept on point.
But it’s not all bad - we’ve made a friend in the form of a sea bird that has been following us for a little while: ‘Jeffrey’ (named for no other reason than he looks like a Jeffrey) has flown almost
400 hundred miles with us - probably hoping to grab some fish that our wake attracts (as it disturbs the krill).
It’s early in the morning - around 3am on the 10th January.
The night around us is black, save for the stars studding the sky like diamonds. I’m looking at Danny’s back and the stern (rear) of the boat. Above him, I can see the Big Dipper constellation positioned like a question mark above the navigation light. It’s pure coincidence that our bearing - 226 degrees, has placed it here in this way. Its like the universe is trying to make me question what will go wrong next on the boat. As weary as I am, the irony isn’t lost on me.
We’ve been rowing for an hour by this point and completely soaked from the sideways waves. But it’s relatively quiet now.
Suddenly, rising out of the sea like a giant scorpion’s tail is a huge wave. It’s growing up behind the stern and getting closer and closer. It’s must be 6 feet above the nav light now and white water is appearing at the top like it’s alive; frothing at the mouth.
And then, without warning - it drops.
‘Brace!!’ We both shout (along with a few added swear words)
Everything turns white.
All the water we’ve just watched building comes crashing down onto Danny and I - like a blow to the chest. The sheer force punches us both of our seats and sends the oars everywhere.
Dazed, we look around to assess the damage. We’re both bruised but nothing is broken and the boat is still upright. It’s some kind of miracle. Danny shouts to the Skipper “The rigger is broken!”.
But it’s just come undone. In his haste he misdiagnoses the issue however sets about getting the oar back in the rigger and re-tightened. We’ve been lucky this time. But it’s not the last time this happens. This round has been a war of attrition.
Between two points
With our route taking us within 100nm of Cape Verde, we start discussing the need to stop on one of the islands to remedy the charging issues that have plagued the expedition. We could carry on, but to do so would be cavalier and foolish given how much time we’ve spent on para-anchor and hand pumping water.
And now with an increase in tension and some open hostility on the boat – some members on the team anticipate they may want to fly back from the islands. Understandable given the state of Rose and the daily uncertainty of what is going to break next.
It’s around this time that I start to notice how I’m adapting to the expedition. All of a sudden, I don’t feel the need to keep myself occupied all the time with podcasts and music. In fact, I don’t bother listening to anything except for the ocean and any conversation from teammates. My mind feels freer to explore memories – some from many decades ago that ‘d not thought of in as many years. The freedom from social media and technology finally changes from a strange anxiety to a feeling of calm. And with it, inspiration to write about experiences from different times.
Before we’d set off from Portugal, I’d read an article about how boredom was useful to your brain, in that it was then that your brain ‘downloaded’ your short term memory and added context to create long-term memories. It struck me that maybe that was what I’d needed for a long while – a chance to ‘download’ my short-term memory to long-term storage. Either way, it felt good and something I’d aim to weave into my life in the future – as much as I hate boredom.
Whilst my mind becomes used to the routine of the challenge, my body takes a different turn. The relentless soakings in the first few weeks have undoubtedly kept my immune system busy, this has meant that nothing has been healing. All the small cuts and wounds stay open and in a perennial state of recovery. It only adds to the admin time between shifts to ensure they’re kept bacteria free and covered in well-placed bandages.
The end of round 2
After 15 days on the Atlantic, we arrive into Cape Verde. We’ve had yet another scrap with Neptune to get to the port in one piece. With waves directing us towards the rocky outcrops of Mindelo, it’s been close and has required everyone on the oars – rotating every hour to resist the current’s pull.
We step off the boat and on to the floating pontoon to a small crowd of onlookers, eager to see the little blip that’s been on their radar as ‘Rose’ yet always remained out of sight. The waves have made us almost invisible to passing yachts due to the size of the waves limiting visibility down to a few hundred metres – which can easily hide a boat were it not for the early warning systems.
As with our stop on Lanzerote, our first priority is the Marina restaurant for a cooked breakfast and a large beer. Whilst it’s very welcome, we all know the expedition is far from over…
‘I’m a little wounded but I’m not slain. I will lay down to bleed a while, but then I’ll rise and fight again.’
Sir Andrew Barton.