Crossing Atlantic Ocean
While crossing the Atlantic and steering at night, the wind suddenly became stronger and I felt the sailing speed reach at least 11 knots. At first, I was pretty euphoric about how fast I was sailing. But steering became more and more difficult as I tried to stay on course. Suddenly, my heart was racing and adrenaline ran through my body. The helm was difficult to control, and I could barely calm my stupid excitement. The sky had become darker and the visibility worsened.
With a jerk, a large wave surged from the starboard side into the cockpit. Before I realized what was happening, I was no longer standing at the helm. I was pushed by the sudden force of the wave onto the backboard side. Luckily, one of the carabiners of my harness was tied to one of the safety belts from the boat. If not, I would likely have drowned in the ocean.
Moments like these show you what your position in the food chain is when you are in the open water. I really felt like I was in one of those primitive Hollywood blockbusters where a boat gets sucked into a storm!
Let me start at the beginning. No, COVID-19 didn’t stop my world travels this year. I didn’t have internet for a very long time to write any posts. Now I am happy to sit down and sort my thoughts to write about what happened in the first half of this year.
In February I had my annual job in Antarctica. The trip was breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly impressive, as always. Meanwhile, being offline for at least two months a year makes me happy and I’m used to it. What with social media nowadays, it’s good—in my opinion—to practice living in the moment mindfully. Moreover, I enjoy not answering emails or messages.
Nobody on board would ever have thought that COVID-19 would affect us in such a disruptive way. Nevertheless, we must be clear about one thing: time and tide wait for no-one. COVID-19 was all in the news; war could break out, but I would still not have a clue.
I didn’t know how serious the issue was until I came back to Ushuaia, Argentina at the beginning of March. One by one, many countries around the world decided to close their borders. In mid-March I decided to fly to Taiwan on a last-minute plane. But that very evening, the Taiwanese government announced it would close the island’s borders.
I waited a long time. After Antarctica, I was supposed to have made a Cape Horn trip, even though from the outset it was obviously not going to happen. But at the same time, I just couldn’t leave the boat, my skipper and passengers. I felt extremely responsible for our next expedition.
On March 15, Argentina went into lockdown. Since I could stay with my skipper and his family in Ushuaia’s mountains, I could go hiking. For two weeks, that’s what I mostly did—cycled and hiked. In retrospect, if I hadn’t waited so long, I would never have ended up crossing the Atlantic on a 20-metre sailing yacht.
Then, after two weeks, my friend Oli (a crewmate from another boat) wrote to me asking if I would like to sail to Brazil on a Polish boat. I met the skipper and decided that I would. In the end, we changed our course to Europe, because Brazil had a two-week quarantine in place.
At that moment, I hadn’t really realized what I was getting into. Many sailing yachts coming back from Antarctica stayed in Ushuaia because they could not get out, among them many of my colleagues, and a family from Germany who had fulfilled their dream of circumnavigating the world on a sailing yacht (greetings to the Samais, if you’re reading this).
Sailing Into A New Adventure
I just thought “oh, a new adventure—I’ll definitely go for it!” I had never crossed the Atlantic by boat before, which would be an exciting endeavour. In addition, my personal CO2 emissions are pretty severe due to taking many flights in recent years. The biggest reason for me to cross the Atlantic on a boat was that it would be nice to sail with the wind, living practically from and out of nature.
Storms didn’t cross my mind even for a moment. I had told only my closest friends and mother about my plans. Although many know that I am adventurous, some of them would not have thought that I would actually dare to do it. And to be honest with you, I really doubted a lot right until the end.
Worries And Options
Mostly what I worried about was my psyche. How would I feel seeing only water for the next two or three months? Worse still, I’m a sports and exercise junkie. I would no longer be able to jog or ride a bike, and at most only swim in the Atlantic for the next few months. I was almost sure I was going to go insane because I wouldn’t get enough exercise like I normally do.
These thoughts worsened as the Argentinian authorities initially did not give the green light to leave the port. There was still the option of taking a bus to Buenos Aires to fly home from the capital. Still, I ended up choosing the sailboat.
Of course, sometimes I struggled with the thought of whether I would regret it. I mean, on all of my trips, I’ve always been free to choose where to go and how long to stay. It is normal for me to stay longer in places if I like them and leave some places if I feel uncomfortable.
Travelling on a sailing boat means you can’t just get off whenever you want. Once you are on it, you stay on it, especially when you are in the middle of the Atlantic. Then there is no going back. In Vietnam, we have the idiom “riding on the back of a lion”. It simply means that when you ride on a lion’s back, it is difficult to get down.
The first few weeks were really difficult for me. I totally forgot to mention that the boat had no autopilot—you always have to steer, even in unsteady winds, which can be very exhausting. But I quickly got used to it. I think like everything in life, you can get used to anything.
My thoughts flowed back and forth like water in the ocean. Our beautiful oceans are full of secrets. I consider myself very lucky to have swum three or four times in the Atlantic.
Close your eyes now.
Imagine you are in the middle of the ocean, thousands of metres in the infinite depth, swimming and floating in zero gravity. What kind of creatures live down there?
Very impressive, but also very depressing at the same time. On land, we may be at the top of the food chain, but who are we if we just float in the ocean? Does nature really need us or are we more dependent on nature?
The feeling of letting go of all the world’s problems and people, the feeling of weightlessness. At night you see the Milky Way, so clear like in dreams. Everything feels like a dream, far from reality, far from everything you can imagine. Who needs to go to India and pay for Vipassana meditation in an ashram when you can sail the Atlantic? This, I tell you, this, I promise, is true mindful meditation at its best!
I was so far from everything in the world, I didn’t even have a radio with me to listen to the news. It was only the huge ocean, full of beauty but also terrible forces of nature, that I saw in front of me for ten weeks.
As I feared at the beginning, the real challenge was not the storms or the sailing itself, but staying mentally healthy. The eternal swinging and heeling of the boat (besides the fact that it was windless for a few days), was intensified by an unbalanced diet after long weeks on the ocean, with not much fresh to eat on board after a few weeks of sailing.
In the beginning we really had a lot of fresh food with us. The good thing was all of us were more or less vegetarian and environmentally conscious, so we ate a lot of vegetables. But after a few weeks there was not much fresh food left, except onions (good for scurvy) and garlic, a few old apples, potatoes and pumpkins (oh my god, these Argentine pumpkins would even survive an apocalypse, they still looked fresh after ten weeks).
But the last few weeks I ate lots of canned food, so I lost the desire to eat because the taste was always the same. I dreamed of good food, fresh vegetables, dark chocolate, fresh gluten-free bread and so on.
Luxury On Atlantic Crossing?
Those who love luxury will have a hard time crossing the Atlantic or even Pacific! You can only dream of showers… The first two or three weeks, I showered maybe four times. There was only 2,000 litres of water on board, which had to be used for cooking and washing.
In order to save water, I used it very sparingly. Near the equator I could hardly bear the constant sweating, clothes literally sticking to my body all the time. Before going to bed, I poured three or four cups of water over my body so that I could sleep reasonably. That did not help much; I’d wake up in my berth sweating like hell.
The worst for me was that I couldn’t do any sports. It all made me frustrated. As beautiful as the ocean and sailing is, there will always be days when you question your sanity and ask yourself why you’re doing it. But that’s the way it is, even in normal life. Nothing is perfect, otherwise life would be super boring—at least in my opinion.
Throughout the ten weeks I had a lot of time to read. It’s a great opportunity when you are offline for such a long time (I only used my cell phone to listen to music). So I was finally able to read Marquez’s famous novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in one go.
Sometimes it scared me when thunderstorms suddenly occurred at night and we had to lower the sails. During the day, when the weather was beautiful, I enjoyed the salt breeze running through my hair while I steered under the sun. But the goddamn heat and humidity near the equator was unbearable.
On May 10, 2020, I passed the equator on my Atlantic crossing. I will never forget how excited I was, as if I were celebrating my birthday and Christmas at the same time. Now and then I missed my friends, family, bed and a normal shower so much that I wanted to curse everything. But being at the helm that evening and seeing the Milky Way, I felt that my wishes for a normal shower were nothing compared to the fortune of being on this sailing trip.
Sailing is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the beauty of our blue planet. I feel more in balance with nature, myself and the vast ocean, which feels at the same time like the vast universe. This post will never do justice to the feelings and thoughts I had on my crossing. I can only try to give you a little insight of how it feels.
Because I didn’t have internet access, I quickly learned to live in the moment and enjoy it more and more—like I said, it’s better than an ashram in India. Nevertheless, I often had thoughts circling in my little head, especially at night. Philosophical questions, like why we are the way we are, or why most people prefer enduring an unfortunate habitual state over chasing their own unpredictable bliss (okay, I know I kind of answered it for myself—because it is unpredictable).
Details Of The Boat
I digress. If you want more details about the boat, she (boats are always female) is a steel ketch designed by an engineer called Georg Azueppe-Brenner and built in Brittany, France. She is a real beauty and very well-known for her speed. It’s a hell of a lot of fun when she reaches 13 knots and it feels like riding a roller coaster.
Believe me, it is not for the faint-hearted… Just imagine being out there in the vast blue ocean! Where did my sanity go when I decided to sail more than 12,000km to Europe?? I really don’t know. Okay, okay, back to some more facts.
She has two steering positions, one in the cockpit, the second in the pilot house. Steering from the cockpit is much easier than from the pilot house, so most of the time, regardless of the weather, I steered in the cockpit. Inside, she has six cabins with double bunks (12 beds in total), a well-equipped little galley and two toilets. The fore peak, engine room and stern compartment have water-tight bulkheads. She is very solid and built to sail in extreme and difficult conditions like Antarctica. Her breadth is 4,95 metres and length approximately 20 metres. She has lots of sails on board like a genoa, jib, gennaker, mainsail, mizzen and storm sails.
It was not always easy to sail her. All in all, you learn more and more with time, and to be honest, I had no other choice. But after such a long crossing, you really become a meteorologist, accurately forecasting the weather by observing clouds and feeling the wind.
Finally Back To Europe
After ten weeks and more than 12,000 km of sailing, I finally arrived in Cherbourg, France and disembarked the sailing yacht. I could hardly take in my surroundings, the previous events and how much this trip had shaped me until I was on the train to Paris.
The feeling of having only the ocean around you for ten weeks can be daunting. I felt like I partly forgot how green trees look, and the moment you see grass again, the smells are so intense, I won’t forget.
How much we harm nature. I would like to use this trip to signal the importance of protecting the environment, highlighting climate change and the current and future problems related to it.
As soon as I disembarked I got a fever. I couldn’t wait to buy fresh vegetables and some ice at the nearest supermarket. I have never truly noticed how many products are on the shelves. Who needs ten different brands of oatmeal? Do they differ from each other at all or do they all belong to the stupidly large Nestle food corporation? We live in a big paradox. I have never seen so many vegan and gluten-free products on supermarket shelves (or I never noticed it before). But at the same time, I am shocked how many obese people live in our society today.
As I write this, I have to laugh at myself because it reads like an alien who just landed on Earth and is writing its first impression of the planet for a magazine. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change that we have a lot of consumer goods, and everywhere I go I feel like I am encouraged to consume promoted products and services.
Why does the economy always have to grow? And who actually suffers the most from it? When I imagine more deforestation over the next few decades for cattle breeding or whatever, I can only say this: good luck to the next generations who have to fix our mistakes.
Who am I kidding, I’m probably still far from making a difference. But isn’t awareness the beginning of every revolution? I just want to make it clear that this Atlantic crossing reinvigorated me and has become one of the best lessons I’ve learned from life.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
My motto remains the same: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Fight for your dreams, chase after them. You have nothing to lose; if you are still in this game called Life, you are a lottery winner. As long as you are not out of the game, you have the chance to make the world a better place every day and make your dreams become reality. We are only halfway through the year 2020; you can still make the second half of the year even better. It starts with a positive attitude and taking responsibility for your own bliss.
Postscript and Acknowledgements
They say you never forget your first Atlantic crossing, and it’s true in my case. I will especially never forget the two people who were by my side, Pedro and Maria*. They weren’t just crew mates, but family. Since we didn’t have an autopilot, one of us always had to be at the helm, while another slept and another cooked. This gave me more time to read than just steering all the time. I either slept, cooked, read or steered. That was mostly the daily rhythm for the three of us.
At the same time, of course, the biggest psychological challenge is travelling with two people you have never met before. And as is common in a family, we could all annoy each other, being three very different characters living side by side. But the vastness of the ocean and its tranquility made us a perfect team, and without them I would have never got that far. They are incredible people who are part of a life path that shaped me a lot.
Since the three of us are all very strong and different characters, we knew how to respect each other’s space and freedom. So I often had time for myself to think and enjoy, even though I am usually a very extrovert person. I took the time to meditate and practice Vipassana a la Atlantique. That has always been one of the biggest challenges. Whether travelling to Antarctica or long trips on a sailing yacht: the people, the cohabitation and the dynamics of being in a group or just by yourself. It’s more educational than any college psychology course.
Crossing the Atlantic Is A Challenge
I once had a sailing trip or two as a toddler, but I hated it so much that I thought I would never board a boat again. But in order to fulfill my dream four years ago of travelling to Antarctica and encountering its wildlife, I more or less had to learn sailing. Luckily I don’t get seasick, and can cook even in the Drake Passage, as much as I don’t like it. Thanks to my Australian captain, I learned the technical maintenance of a boat, and with my Dutch captain I was able to learn how to sail his 16-metre steel sailing yacht. But nothing is better than crossing the Atlantic without stops and autopilots.
When I looked at the stars at night, sometimes it really felt like the old days navigating with their help. Today I am very good at recognizing the north polar star. And even determining the cardinal points in the open sea based on my gut feeling. Even with the weather, wind and boat speed, I can navigate well without measuring instruments. I could learn more about trimming sails, although that comes with experience. If you ever consider crossing the Atlantic. I think you should have some sailing experience, but even more that, know your psyche.
I’m proud to say that I have sailed more than 10,000 miles in my entire life, but I still have a lot to learn. This is definitely just the beginning.
*I changed the names