It was just before midnight in the eastern fringes of the Atlantic Ocean, about 130 miles south-west of Cape Finisterre. To my right I could see an ominous wall of dense black cloud, switching off the stars as it advanced at sea level towards me.
The waiting game was filling me with dread. “What’s in that thing?” I thought as I furled the genoa, set the Solent staysail and put two reefs in the main. I was on the wind in 20 knots of true wind, but expecting the breeze to veer as a front came through. First, the breeze clocked up to 23, then 25 knots and the sea state turned surprisingly violent. A few minutes later the cockpit display was showing 27 knots and Albertine was charging ahead as I wrestled the third reef into place.
Then the shift came through as if God himself had flicked a switch and the wind increased again. At this point I completely lost my bearings – my windward from my leeward, my port from my starboard – as Albertine’s bow ploughed towards the Portuguese coast. Cue a Chinese gybe, headsail flogging, sheets thrashing. I shouted aloud at my incompetence and took a couple of deep breaths before finally setting her up on a starboard-hand reach.
“I am exhausted, bewildered and very unimpressed with my response. What would I do in 37 knots?” I noted in my journal as we powered south towards Madeira.
The idea of going solo on the ocean had always been a dream for me. As a boy growing up in the 1960s in landlocked Warwickshire I devoured stories about Francis Chichester, Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth. Then as a journalist with The Times, I covered Ellen MacArthur’s spectacular sailing career and the equally extensive exploits of men like Mike Golding and Francis Joyon.
Looking back, I used to think I understood the challenges and difficulties those people faced. But I was wrong. Only by doing it, even on relatively small scale (and not even racing) can you understand the psychological pressures that solo ocean sailing can bring.
At heart it is a romantic notion: the idea of one person on a sailing boat, completely free on the vast expanse of the ocean, looking after oneself and the boat 24 hours a day, travelling alone for hundreds or thousands of miles and dealing with whatever the weather throws at you. There’s a purity to it, not unlike solo mountaineering. To me, it always felt like the ultimate test.
For years I sailed mainly solo around the coasts of Britain, Ireland, north-west Spain and Greece in a succession of cruising boats, always dropping anchor at night or finding a harbour to settle down in.
Long passages were completed with at least one other crew on board. The notion of going offshore day after day, and doing it alone, remained a distant prospect.
Then I happened upon the website of an east coast cruiser named James Tomlinson. An experienced coastal sailor in his early 60s, like me, he had always wondered what it would be like to go solo properly. So last year he did it. At the helm of his Westerly Typhoon, Talisker 1, he sailed from Suffolk to Madeira and back via the Azores.
I read his blogs and watched his videos of an ambitious 4,000-mile round trip. He seemed to love every minute of it and what’s more he looked completely calm and in control at all times. I found myself thinking: “If he can do it…”
Having made up my mind in an instant I ran into the kitchen to inform my bewildered wife: I was finally going to sail solo on the Atlantic.
To make it a reality, the first thing I did was book her a flight to Madeira on a date in early June. From that moment on the flight became the anchor point of the whole adventure.
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