It's settled. I'm leaving tomorrow for the Azores, at 10 am, alone on board Canopus. Bermuda is very beautiful, but I've been here for a week, and once again I feel the call of the open sea. And it is indeed a matter of open sea: 1800 miles due east as the crow flies, between two and three weeks of sailing.
The motor repair was finished yesterday, and my friend John is helping me to bring Canopus back from the technical pier to the customs pier to be on site tomorrow. We circle the waters of St. George Bay a few times to be sure that the motor is cooling properly. Everything seems to work. A very light breeze whispers that the calm of the last few days is beginning to lift and that our choice of tomorrow is the right one.
We will leave together tomorrow, I alone on Canopus and John, his wife and their two children on Matina. For the Maguires, this passage represents the last stage of a seven-year cruise which has led them more or less all over the world, and they are returning to England by way of the Azores. Olga, their twelve- year- old daughter, has never been to school! I had met them several days earlier, when a mutual friend had invited us for drinks on his boat.
How did all this begin? My name is Jean-Michel. I am French. I have been living in the USA for eight years, during which I worked for the American subsidiary of a French company. My apprenticeship in sailing goes back to my adolescence in the South of France. I've also had the opportunity to charter sailing boats on the Mediterranean, in the Chesapeake Bay, and in Australia, and to take some pleasant week-long cruises with my family, but I've always dreamed of leaving on a long journey, across the oceans.
In 1996, I get my chance. Dissatisfied with my professional situation, I had established contacts with some other US companies. Certain of these were promising, but I came to the realization that as soon as an opportunity solidified, I would once again be trapped in a busy schedule. This professional transition was a chance I shouldn't miss. I decided to take a sabbatical!
I had just purchased Canopus , a Hans Christian 33, in Annapolis, after having rented a couple of yachts in the Chesapeake Bay, and I made use of my final weekends as an executive to finish fitting her out, with the aid of my father, who had come from France for the occasion. I had been attracted to Canopus, a 15 year old, but very sea-worthy boat that was already quite well equipped for an ocean crossing: SSB radio, weatherfax, radar, water purifier, autopilot. I added a Monitor self-steering windvane (installed in two days), provisions for several months, and quantities of books.
My initial plan was to sail from Annapolis toward the Bahamas, then to turn toward Panama and the Pacific Ocean. I had already loaded all the maps and guides to French Polynesia on board. However, a telephone conversation which took place in the central post office of a small Bahamian island, Green Turtle Cay, was about to change the course of my adventure. I can still see that little street with its multicolored walls, and the dozen cats surrounding the telephone booth, as well as the large black woman seated right beside it: was she waiting her turn, or was she there to see that I didn't make off with the telephone?
That particular day I received an offer from another French company, that I could not decently refuse: they were proposing that I work once again in the US, which was what I was ardently seeking. In addition, they didn't need me until September for a training session in France, which gave me more than two months' grace.
What was I going to do with those two months? The Pacific being now beyond my reach, and my father having been obliged to return to France due to back trouble, I briefly contemplated drifting slowly down toward the Caribbean, and hopping lazily from island to island. That is the subject of a very well-documented book popular among the yachtsmen of this region, The Gentlemen's Guide to Passages South. But the oppressive heat and the advent of hurricane season made me change my mind.
Actually, it took several days for the idea of an Atlantic crossing to occur to me as the obvious thing to do. I did need to be in France at the beginning of September, didn't I?
First I sailed back up to San Salvador, the island of the Bahamas where Christopher Columbus had originally landed. There, I called on some American friends to help me find a partner for the passage to Bermuda. Bermuda is an almost obligatory stop for travel to Europe, or would serve me equally well as a stopping point on the way to the New England coast, should I decide not to venture the transatlantic voyage. Heather, a young but experienced American sailor, and myself made the Bahamas-Bermuda crossing without incident in one week. Things could have gone badly, as hurricane Bertha ravaged San Salvador four days after our departure. But all that we saw of Bertha was a huge swell, around three waves per minute (!), very impressive despite a moderate wind, which bore witness to a hurricane several hundred miles away.
Here I am, then, in Bermuda, having finally made up my mind in favor of the great crossing which is the subject of this account.
At the time of my arrival in Bermuda a week ago, I had placed an ad seeking a partner at each of the island's two yacht clubs, but the two candidates that I had seen had failed to inspire me. In fact, this will be both the only solo leg of my four-month-long cruise, and at the same time the longest (two and a half weeks). Few people are ready to respond to such an invitation spontaneously. It is already late in the season. West-to-east crossings usually take place closer to May-June, and a good number of the volunteers who had left their names on the various bulletin boards of the Captain's Club had already departed.
It was thanks to Jean-Yves, a Frenchman encountered at the customs office of the port, that the idea of a solitary passage made the transition from dream to reality. Jean-Yves, arms loaded with newly -filled bottles of water, let out a surprising "Merci" in this English-speaking environment when I held the door for him. That very evening I was eating a choucroute on board his boat, where I met his wife, Isabelle. They were ending a sabbatical year in the Caribbean. Jean-Yves had crossed the Atlantic several times as part of a crew or alone, as well as racing.
In the course of a meal with them on board Canopus I venture, without much conviction:
- "I'm almost tempted to leave on my own. If I listened to myself..."
- "Oh, cuts in Isabelle, Jean-Yves will tell you that it's nothing at all!"
- "Of course, says Jean-Yves. You have your boat well in hand, and it's much better to do it all alone than with some unknown partner who will be bickering with you in two days. You just have to make yourself keep a regular watch and sleep in snatches."
This rings true. Despite my relative lack of experience, I have been navigating the open waters off the eastern seaboard of the United States for two months. The diversity of technical problems that I have experienced has made me intimately familiar with the boat's equipment. I have all the spare parts possible and imaginable, and a lot of duplicates. I have also navigated alone for two weeks in the Bahamas, from one island to another, including three nights on the ocean in some difficult areas, full of shoals and currents.
- "Really, to cross the Atlantic, the navigation is simple, Jean-Yves tells me. You point your bow toward the east. If there is too much wind, you turn toward the south, and if there's too little, you go up toward the north."
Simple indeed! It's settled, the big departure is set for tomorrow!
I still have to announce my decision to my family. Mixed reviews. My father is worried to see me leaving by myself, and regrets being unable to accompany me, but he can relate to my desire to do it alone, as can my wife, who has encouraged me from the start. On the other hand, she passes along a vehement message from my brother asserting that this crossing is sheer folly. To make matters worse, he was referring to the idea of crossing with a partner. I prefer not to tell him I'll be going alone. My daughter, whom I manage to call in California, thinks my plan is great!
It would not be honest to say that these last three days before the departure have been full of enthusiasm. I am constantly assailed by doubt and a permanent case of the jitters.
I even decide, in order to combat this anxiety, to leave the boat and rent a hotel room on the heights of the island for two nights. The food is so-so, (it is not for nothing that Bermuda belongs to the English), but the song of the birds and a good hot shower do me good. My trepidation will not dissipate until the day of my departure, at the precise moment when Canopus clears St. George's channel and heads seaward.
We follow the weather reports daily, my friend John and I, and for the moment there is a flat calm. John had made a false start a few days earlier, and after spending a night becalmed two miles from port, he had decided to come back. The weather forecaster announces a return of wind for the following day, and already we feel a small breeze this evening.